Flatliners (2017)

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I didn’t know the side effects would show up and start hunting us down.  Five medical students embark on a dangerous experiment to gain insight into the mystery of what lies beyond the confines of life, initiated by super-smart Courtney (Ellen Page) who attempts to regain contact with the younger sister she killed in a car crash when she drove off a bridge. They trigger near-death experiences by stopping their hearts for short periods of time. As their trials become more perilous, each must confront the sins from their past while facing the paranormal consequences of journeying to the other side … Directed by Niels Arden Oplev, this remake of the fabulously trashy 1990 original takes itself a little more seriously – and who wouldn’t, with little Ms Page to be dispatched. Once One Takes The Anatomy Final Very Good Vacations Are Heavenly, she declares to her dumb classmate Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) and she has to explain that it’s a mnemonic. Except she pronounces it pneumonic. What a great idea for a movie, exploring the concept of the afterlife. Except that this turns it into quasi-horror with the ghosts of people’s guilty past coming back to get revenge, thus avoiding any more complex explorations of life beyond biology. When Courtney flatlines she is plunged into the past and her medical knowledge ratchets up several notches impressing their senior doctor Barry Wolfson (Kiefer Sutherland, making us hanker for the original and very good looking cast). Rich kid Jamie (James Norton) lives on a boat and after he flatlines he is haunted by the ghost of his still-living ex, a waitress at his father’s country club whom he impregnated and abandoned the day of her abortion. He becomes more intuitive. Marlo (Nina Dobrev) however is haunted by the ghost of a man whom she killed in the ER. Sophia figures she’ll gain academic advantage but she just becomes a sexpot and then wants to get the forgiveness of a more gifted student she screwed over in high school. Former firefighter Ray (Diego Luna) is the conscience of the group who just doesn’t go under and urges Marlo to come clean over the death she caused. Then things get murky and murderous…  Adapted by Ben Ripley from the 1990 screenplay by Peter Filardi this self-absorbed millennial mindlessness avoids profundity at every opportunity and is satisfied with the minutiae of dull people in darkened apartments which would be a lot less creepy if someone just switched on a light occasionally. Personally when I awoke from my own brief death on the operating table all I could think about was Guinness.  I didn’t even drink it. No insights there! Or here. So it goes.  It’s an awakening. See you later Jesus!

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A Quiet Place (2018)

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Who are we if we can’t protect them? We have to protect them.  Over three months in 2020, most of the Earth’s human population has been wiped out by sightless creatures with hypersensitive hearing and a seemingly impenetrable armored shell that attack anything that makes noise. The Abbott family — engineer husband Lee (John Krasinski), wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), congenitally deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simonds), and sons Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward) — silently scavenge for supplies in a deserted town. Though skilled in sign language the family must nonetheless be vigilant in case they make accidental noise. Four-year-old Beau is drawn to a battery-operated space shuttle toy, but his father takes it away. Regan returns the toy to Beau, who unbeknownst to her takes the batteries their father removed. Beau activates the shuttle when the family is walking home through the woods, near a bridge. Its noise makes him an instant target for a nearby creature, and he is swiftly killed. A year later Evelyn is pregnant, Regan is plagued with guilt and convinced her father doesn’t love her (despite working on a cochlear implant for her) and he takes Marcus out on survival training just as the creatures are circling the farm and weeks before Evelyn is due to give birth … A canny blend of horror, sci fi and maternal melodrama, the fact that this has a somewhat unclear endpoint doesn’t necessarily ruin its affect. Third-time director and star John Krasinski contributed to the rewriting of the screenplay by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (which had just one line of dialogue) and it’s a testament to the construction that the hook gets a great payoff but still sacrifices a major character. The thrills mount as the tension grinds on, the family treading barefoot everywhere as the slightest noise could bring these aliens swooping down on them.  The elements – air, water, fire – are put to deft use in this clever narrative which tests the audience and not just because a lot of the diegetic atmosphere consists of … silence.  Mercifully short (at 90 minutes) this has all the best elements of 70s horror and a cliffhanger of an ending which means you just know there will be a sequel.

 

The Railway Children (1970)

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Daddy my daddy! When Charles Waterbury (Iain Cuthbertson) is imprisoned on false charges of selling state secrets from his place of work at the Foreign Office, his wife (Dinah Sheridan) must move from London to a small house near a railway station in rural Yorkshire. The Waterbury children – Bobbie (Jenny Agutter), Phyllis (Sally Thomsett) and Peter (Gary Warren) – occupy themselves watching the trains,  making friends with the porter Albert Perks (Bernard Cribbins) and even befriending a gentleman (William Mervyn) who frequents the station. When the children discover what has happened to their father, their new friend provides key assistance. In the meantime they act kindly towards all those they know – even taking in a Russian dissident writer (Gordon Whiting), save the train from crashing and rescuing a boy (Christopher Witty) who gets hit in the railway tunnel while running on a paper chase … Actor Lionel Jeffries adapted and directed this and cast Jenny Agutter a year after the BBC had dramatised the E. Nesbit novel. It’s beautifully shot on locations that include the Brontë parsonage at Haworth. It’s sheerly delightful from beginning to end, a thoroughly charming story which nonetheless is grounded in the harsh reality of some adult experiences. Wonderful.

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)

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I’m going to make you wish you were deadComposure magazine advice columnist Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) really wants to write about important things like politics but she’s under editorial pressure. She tries pushing the boundaries of what she can do in her new piece about how to get a man to leave you in 10 days after best friend Michelle (Kathryn Hahn) has yet another breakup. Her editor Lana (Bebe Neuwirth), loves it. Advertising executive Ben Berry (Matthew McConaughey) is so confident in his romantic prowess that he thinks he can make any woman fall in love with him and makes a bet with his boss in time for the company ball in 10 days. If he manages it he’ll get the contract for a new diamond company.  His in-house rivals Judy and Judy (Michael Michele and Shalom Harlow) set Ben up to meet Andie after they learn of Andie’s project at a magazine conference. When Andie and Ben wind up meeting their plans backfire and they do everything they can to meet their targets …  You think you know what you’re getting with a battle of the sexes comedy – after all we’ve been here before with some of the screwball greats. However where this falls down in between some very bright comedic action is ironically in the dialogue which has a vicious undertow but isn’t the consistently witty banter we want. Then there’s the meet the family stuff which underscores the sentimental base. Nonetheless Hudson is good as the smart as hell writer with her wicked conniving schemes and that glint in her eye. There’s excellent support including from her Le Divorce co-stars Neuwirth and Thomas Lennon, who’s one of Ben’s entourage. The ending is too sappy by half! This is an adaptation of Michele Alexander and Jeanie Long’s self-help book by Burr Steers, Kristen Buckley and Brian Regan. Directed by Donald Petrie who’s been around the romcom block.

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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The truth does not make it easier to understand, you know. I mean, you think that you find out the truth about me, and then you’ll understand me. And then you would forgive me for all those… for all my lies. Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young writer, moves to Brooklyn (or The Sodom of the North as his father calls it) in the hot summer of 1947 to begin work on his first novel. As he becomes friendly with his upstairs neighbour Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her biologist lover Nathan (Kevin Kline), a Jew, he learns that Sophie is a Holocaust survivor. Flashbacks reveal her harrowing story, from pre-war prosperity to Auschwitz. In the present, Sophie and Nathan’s relationship increasingly unravels as Stingo grows closer to Sophie and Nathan’s fragile mental state becomes ever more apparent just as Sophie’s past haunts her … Alan J. Pakula abandoned his customary 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller style to adapt William Styron’s novel – and yet one wonders if the Nazi takeover and atrocities aren’t the perfect subject for such an approach? As it is this too-faithful work exercises a Gothic hold despite the dayglo colours of Nestor Alemendros’ cinematography.  Death is in the narrative cracks. MacNicol is strange enough to withstand the attention as the rather naif narrator, Kline epitomises the term kinetic in a tremendously physical interpretation of the disturbed Nathan as he literally envelops Streep, whose luminous moony pallor dominates every scene. The structure – revealing the tragic titular decision – is painstaking but it somehow works against the dramatic tension in a film that is too long and paradoxically fears taking a risk. It’s Streep who makes this work in a jaw-dropping performance which created her legend.

Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

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Every time he goes out of this house he shakes my hand and he kisses you.  Advertising executive Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) discovers his wife Muriel’s (Myrna Loy) plan to redecorate their cramped New York apartment which they share with their two young daughters. He proposes instead that they move to rural Connecticut. She agrees, and the two are soon conned into buying a 200-year old farmhouse that turns out to be a complete nightmare. Construction and repair bills accumulate quickly as the house has to be torn down and completely rebuilt, and Jim worries that their future hangs in the balance unless he can come up with a catchy new jingle that will sell ham while Jim’s friend and lawyer Bill (Melvyn Douglas) steps in to help and spends the night with Muriel during a thunderstorm … Written and produced by comic experts Norman Panama and Melvin Frank adapting Eric Hodgins’ 1946 bestseller, this is a terrific example of Grant and fellow screwball player Loy in their prime. They have marvellous chemistry. Director H.C. Potter handles the action and slapstick beautifully while the marital woes are worked out architecturally. Loy’s paint scheme scene is a classic and Douglas is a hoot as the friend. Watch for Lex Barker as a carpenter. With a score by Leigh Harline and crisp photography by James Wong Howe this is prime post-war RKO fluff. Anyone who’s made the mistake of buying and remodelling a fixer-upper will relate! Hint:  don’t do that, watch this instead. It’s a lot cheaper.

Convoy (1978)

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Boy, these lonely long highways sure grind the souls of us cowboys. Trucker Martin ‘Rubber Duck’ Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) and his buddies Pig Pen (Burt Young), Widow Woman (Madge Sinclair) and Spider Mike (Franklin Ajaye) use their CB radios to warn one another of the presence of cops. But conniving Arizona Sheriff Lyle ‘Cottonmouth’ Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) is hip to the truckers’ tactics, and begins tracking them via CB because of a longstanding issue with Rubber Duck. Facing constant harassment, Rubber Duck and his pals use their radios to coordinate a vast convoy and rule the road. En route Rubber Duck teams up with a photographer Melissa (Ali McGraw) driving to a job in her Jaguar XKE and she winds up hitching a ride ostensibly to the airport after a brouhaha in a diner which sees Wallace chained to a stool where Duck’s girlfriend Violet (Cassie Yates) sets him free after the truckers have left. The trucks set off to the state line heading into New Mexico but Wallace has an idea to use their one black driver as bait and more and more drivers join the convoy … Writer Bill (B.W.L.) Norton took his lead from the lyrics of the (literally) radio-friendly novelty country-pop song by C.W. McCall and Chip Davis to write this, which starred his Cisco Pike protagonist Kristofferson, with Sam Peckinpah (who had variously directed Kristofferson, McGraw and Borgnine) drafted in to helm. It seems an unlikely setup for Peckinpah but when you understand its anti-authoritarian drive, the idea that these guys are like modern cowboys pitted against the vile sheriff antagonist, and pair that with the director’s customary robust style (tongue firmly planted slo-mo in cheek) then this isn’t just another one of those late Seventies comic road movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Every Which Way But Loose which I’ve always thought it must have been – it has a strangely operatic confidence and cadence embodied in Kristofferson’s fiercely independent trucker. That’s perhaps another way of saying you shouldn’t look at this too seriously for deep character or narrative sense but it has fantastically sensuous pleasures to enjoy – especially if you’re a fan of Mack Trucks and getting one over on The Man. Thing is, Peckinpah brought in his friend James Coburn (Pat Garrett to Kristofferson’s Billy the Kid) to take care of the second unit and due to Peckinpah’s various addictions Coburn wound up doing much of the movie. The director’s cut was four hours long and the studio took it away from him and put in a bunch of new music.  I have vague memories of this being trailed (inappropriately) before a Disney movie when I was knee high to a proverbial grasshopper and it’s quite bizarre to have finally seen it tonight, with McGraw’s horribly unflattering perm and unsuitable travel clothes ‘n’ all. The landscape of the American Southwest is stunningly captured by Harry Stradling Jr. and there’s a handful of country and western classics on the soundtrack. It’s populist politics put together by a rebel heart with an explosive conclusion and a happily twisted ending. Yee haw!

Cat People (1982)

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You think it’s love but it’s blood.  Irena Gallier (Nastassia Kinski) has a dark family secret, one that resurfaces dramatically when she reconnects with her estranged brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). She moves into his home in New Orleans but when he disappears for a few days during which a vicious murder occurs, Irena finds herself enamored with zoologist Oliver Yates (John Heard) whom she meets in the city zoo. As her brother makes his own advances toward her she begins to experience feelings which she knows make her different to other humans. Oliver’s colleague Alice (Annette O’Toole) is suspicious of this beautiful naive woman whose eyes betray her.  It’s not long before the dangerous curse of the Gallier clan rears its feline head and Irena finds out her parents were brother and sister, descended from leopards who mated with humans and who transform back to their original species after coitus… I was prepared to dislike this as much as I did the first time I saw it, which was a long time ago. Paul Schrader’s adaptation or remake (with Alan Ormsby) of DeWitt Bodeen’s supremely gripping horror fantasy for producer Val Lewton forty years earlier seemed to have been trashed to make an exploitative wild sex fantasy with the undertow of nastiness which I always found to be Schrader’s troubling trademark. This time around however I found it compelling, daring and even – yes – moving. This fantastical mix of zoology, myth and desire is audaciously put together with some very telling references – a scene in a river straight out of Italian rice movies; a setup to remind us of Richard Avedon’s portrait of Kinski with a python the previous year; and the overriding idea of sex’s transformative power. The occasional forays into fantasy land are utterly beguiling. With that cast and their contrasting performing styles it’s hard to pick out a favourite because it’s so well written and their roles so well determined that they do completely different things. If it were left to my cat Gilbert, he’d point out McDowell’s because of the utterly arresting incarnation of half-man half-cat on the bathroom floor (a scene that disgusted me when I first saw it…) which made him sit right up, presumably recognising kin. Kinski has a terrific time in her difficult role which is literally a sex kitten who becomes a cat woman; while Heard is the man obsessed who has to do things most men wouldn’t mind in order to set her free. Meet the parents would have been quite the feat in this case. It’s a remarkable achievement and I’m thrilled to have seen it again to revise my smart ass opinion from years ago. A nightmarish portrayal of a sexual awakening that has touches of greatness, adorned by a magnificent score by Giorgio Moroder and that song by David Bowie. Wow!

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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You sit here and you spin your little web and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Up in Heaven Clarence (Henry Travers) is awaiting his angel’s wings when a case is made to him about George Bailey (James Stewart) who’s thinking about jumping off a bridge and into a wintry river at Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve 1945. Clarence is told George’s story: as a young boy rescuing his brother Harry from an icy pond, to his father’s death just when his own life should have been taking off and he winds up staying in this loathsome little town running the bank and having his honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) ruined when there’s a run on the bank’s funds … and losing himself amid other people’s accidents, deaths and rank stupidity while the town runs afoul of greedy financier Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George is such a great guy with dreams of travel and adventure and the truth is he never leaves home and becomes a martyr to other people. I’ve always found this immensely depressing. What happens to him – the sheer passive aggression directed at him and the loss of all of his ambitions in order to satisfy other people’s banal wishes at the expense of his own life’s desires  – is a complete downer. Reworking A Christmas Carol with added danger it feels like a post-war attempt to make people feel happy with their very limited lot. Which is why I watch this very rarely and with complete reluctance precisely because its petty moralising is achieved so beautifully and rationally … So sue me! Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling and directed by Frank Capra.

Union Pacific (1939)

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First time I’ve discarded aces for a queen! President Lincoln signed off on the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act to authorise pushing the Union Pacific Railroad west across the wilderness toward California. However now that Lincoln is dead financial opportunist Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) hopes to profit from obstructing it. Chief troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) has his hands full fighting Barrows’ agent the gambler Sid Campeau (the wonderfully devilish Brian Donlevy). Campeau’s partner veteran Dick Allen (Robert Preston) is Jeff’s war buddy and rival suitor for Irish rail engineer’s daughter Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck). Who will survive the effort to push the railroad through at any cost? And who will win Molly? Cecil B. DeMille’s rousing, sprawling western was in the vanguard of historical tales bringing together the rival attempts at forming a national history – and this all culminates at Promontory Point Utah when Leland Stanford drove a ceremonial spike to unite this with the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. Filled with great starry performances this is history on a human scale. Despite Stanwyck’s typical luminosity and McCrea’s decency and likeability,  it’s probably Preston who comes off best, even photographically, in his showy role. Filled with fighting, shooting, murder, building and dismantling, Indian attacks, drinking, gambling, love and death, with one killing from the window of a train that is shocking to this day, this is truly a film for the ages. A splendid, zesty example of the power of classical Hollywood. Written by Walter DeLeon, Jack Cunningham and C. Gardner Sullivan, adapting Ernest Haycox’ novel Troubleshooter. This is the first ever winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes – awarded in 2002 due to the debut Festival’s cancellation following the outbreak of WW2!