Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing

Boy Erased (2018)

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I wish this had never happened but I thank God that it did. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the only son of a car dealer and small-town Baptist pastor Marshall (Russell Crowe), must overcome the fallout after being outed as gay to his parents following a violent sexual encounter at college, the truth of which he doesn’t wish to reveal. His father and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) struggle to reconcile their love for their son with their beliefs and Marshall approaches fellow pastors for advice. Fearing a loss of family, friends and community as Marshall is attempting to becoming a full-time preacher at his church, Jared is pressured into attending a conversion therapy programme called The Source. He comes into conflict with its leader Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) and begins his journey to finding his own voice and accepting his true self but not before a session of abject bullying perpetrated against fellow inmate Cameron (Britton Sear) has a devastating outcome …  Our family is so normal. The note of dreariness inbuilt from the first shot in actor Joel Edgerton’s sophomore directing outing after the superb home invasion horror The Gift is misleading and thankfully almost immediately dispatched.  Earnestness swiftly and happily becomes a victim of a suspenseful writing and directing style, Garrard Conley’s tangled memoir of evangelism and gay conversion camps transformed into something like a psychological thriller.  The performances, the hot-button topic and the treatment conspire to elevate this into a work pervaded by fear – from the militaristic therapy style (by Flea!); the horrible gay rape by student Henry (Joe Alwyn) immediately followed by its perpetrator’s desire to confess; and the prospect of a life under the guidance of a subliterate evangelical programme leader who replaces great literature like Lolita and teens’ diaries with misspelled handbooks (Almighty Dog) and gene-o-grams that seek to out family members (A for Alcohol, Ab for Abortion … etc) in an atmosphere where the word ‘intellectual’ is rhymed with ‘sexual’.  And it becomes a battle of the sexes with an angry mother finally strong enough to put a halt to the misguided form of masculinity threatened by difference. Enough said. But it’s never often enough, in this depiction of a perverted  and sinister take on Christianity which has its coda in the end credits with tension dissipated and history overtaking the story. Edgerton is proving a highly interesting filmmaker, isn’t he? I’m gay, and I’m your son. And neither of those things are going to change. Okay? So let’s deal with that!

Getting Straight (1970)

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A man who can’t believe in a cause can never believe in himself.  Graduate student Harry Bailey (Elliott Gould) was once one of the most visible undergraduate activists on campus, but now that he’s back studying for his master’s for a teaching qualification after a bruising experience with the real world while serving in Vietnam he’s trying to fly right. Trouble is, the campus is exploding with various student movements, and girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen), is caught up in most of them yet betrays her deeply traditional desire to be a suburban wife. As Harry gets closer to finishing his degree, he finds his iconoclastic attitude increasingly aligned with the students rather than the faculty and believes he can be a great high school teacher dedicated to finding the next Salinger, but what of the majority of kids he’ll teach? His beliefs are challenged by his professors and he gets in deep trouble when his draft-dodging friend Nick (Robert F. Lyons) sits one of his exams Good scientist. Lousy lay. The genial performance of Gould (sporting a moustache fit for Groucho Marx) is one of the reasons that this campus revolution movie survives slightly better reputationally than the other ones released that year, The Strawberry Statement and RPM (and supporting actress Jeannie Berlin is also in the latter). It’s also because it’s fair – a smart and savvy takedown of the student politics that always remain within the safe space of the campus and not the real world of Vietnam where Harry realised that reality bites the big one. The marines want guys who are crazy about killing, they don’t want guys who are just crazy, he deadpans when Nick shows signs of insanity – the Army rejects this doofus so he volunteers for their soul brothers and becomes a gung-ho fighter. It’s also about the vocation of teaching and how to communicate effectively and kindly to the majority, as Harry must be reminded when he expresses a desire to uncover and tutor only the gifted. Both Jeff Corey and Cecil Kellaway are a steadfast presence on faculty, proving that not all the Establishment is a washout.  The goose-cooking is complete in a viva where Harry finds himself confronted by a professor determined to make him believe The Great Gatsby is the work of a closet homosexual and Harry just gets mad as hell and can’t take it any more. A sharply observed portrait of a time and place teasing out the contradictory sexual and political strands of the period’s self-justifying rationale that is oddly resonant in today’s self-satisfied sociocultural echo chamber. Bergen is a great romantic other half, a fresh-faced and naively optimistic girl who would really like the happy suburban life away from all of this, yet she still gets stuck into protests. Harrison Ford makes a terrific impression in a well written supporting role. Adapted by Robert Kaufman from the novel by Ken Kolb and sympathetically directed by Richard Rush, lensed by his favourite DoP, László Kovács (Hell’s Angels on Wheels, Psych-Out, The Savage 7, Freebie and the Bean). It’s always just great with you

Submission (2017)

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I hope they crucify you. Married one-hit wonder novelist Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) is a creative writing professor at a college in Houston having difficulty producing his followup. His talented student Angela Argo (Addison Timlin) asks him to read the first chapter of her novel Eggs and when he reads poetry about a phone-sex worker she wrote for another professor, Magda Moynahan (Janeane Garofalo), he begins to fantasise about the sex acts she describes and gradually becomes obsessed with her while she manipulates him into doing things for her including bringing her to a town where she can buy a computer. Then she seduces him in her room but their coitus is interrupted when he breaks a tooth. When she finally presents her work to the class the other students repay her bullying by telling her what they really think of her writing and she becomes tearful.  She guilt trips Ted into bringing her pages to his New York editor Len (Peter Gallagher) and then files charges against him when she thinks he hasn’t done what he’s been asked … My father set himself on fire. Adapted from Francine Prose’s novel Blue Angel (and using that film and novel as its template), this is really an obvious story about how a young pricktease can stupefy a man into losing everything by dint of sexual suggestion and wearing thigh-high boots and black underwear. The problem for the viewer is that Angela’s act is so transparent – if I heard her say My pages one more time … that the outcome is inevitable if not quite depressingly tedious.  She is no Dietrich. (And anyone who’s ever had an irritatingly ambitious student in their class will find their teeth grinding in recognition.) That it concludes in the usual safe space of a hearing with an allegation backed up with a neat recording, the vixen dressed down in dungarees, says more about the state of things than any review could explain.  There are clever elements: how the narration of Angela’s work becomes the movie’s own unreliable narrator as well as Ted’s masturbation material; an excruciating dinner party (is there any other kind?) which exposes the hidebound nature of academia where moronic millennialist paranoia about sexual harassment actually operates as a duplicitous form of Salem-style censorship and has the adults on the run; Ted’s novel is based on his own life and his agent suggests he rewrite it as a memoir – forcing him to confront his own limitations and not just on the page. His life with delightful wife nurse Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick) has an edge because of his difficulties with their adult daughter Ruby (Colby Minifie, who literally bears no resemblance to either biological parent!) – cue another awkward dinner, mirroring his inability to read the tricky women around him and deal with the everlasting fallout from that father who was a celebrity for the 15 minutes it took him to burn himself to death in an act of political outrage in the Sixties. Ah, sweet mysteries of life! Tucci is fine, or at least I hope he is. Written and directed by Richard Levine. He read her story. Then he became part of it

The Affair (1973) (TVM)

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I’m not going to hurt you. Courtney Patterson (Natalie Wood) is a beautiful thirty-two songwriter physically disabled due to polio. Her condition has made her emotionally guarded and she’s never been in a relationship, but when she meets Marcus Simon (Robert Wagner), a handsome older attorney from the law firm employed by her father (Kent Smith), she cautiously moves towards romance. Although Courtney remains wary of intimacy, Marcus slowly wins her over. Unfortunately, her family is not supportive of their relationship, providing yet another obstacle that the couple must overcome.  When they move in together the divorced Marcus is walking on eggshells and despite their deep love for one another they find they are actually worlds apart… I don’t want anyone calling my kid Sport. Especially if he’s living in my house. The fabled love affair of Wood and Wagner had recently been sealed in marriage for the second time around and the couple play wonderfully together. Wood is magnificent in a complex role and Wagner responds to her with admiration and not a little awe:  we see her through his eyes. It’s marvellously written by the late great Barbara Turner, with just enough action, some ripe dialogue and is sensitively achieved, permitting Wood to convey an array of emotions in a reaction, her face as ever an open wound. She sings a song a number of times in the story – I Can’t See You Any More, small solace perhaps a decade after being unhappily dubbed for West Side Story. Watching this performance it’s astonishing to think of her finely tuned style being so little deployed in the years that followed – and it’s impossible not to mention her terrible death eight years later, presumably at Wagner’s hands. Ironically it’s the girlfriend (Jamie Smith Jackson) of her brother Jamie (Bruce Davison) whose belly she pats when she sees the girl is expecting – Wood was herself pregnant with the daughter she named for this character, Courtney. It’s a bittersweet valentine to first love. Directed by Gilbert Cates.  I touched someone. Someone touched me. We knew each other

Spinning Man (2018)

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One’s experience of guilt is a conditioned response which objective reasoning can  overcome… Evan Birch (Guy Pearce) is a family man and published professor of the philosophy of language at a distinguished university, where his charm and reputation have made his class very popular. When a female student named Joyce (Odeya Rush) goes missing, Evan’s previous extra-marital liaisons make his wife Ellen (Minnie Driver) question his alibi. Gruff but meticulous police Detective Malloy (Pierce Brosnan) has even more reason to be suspicious when crucial evidence makes Evan the prime suspect in the girl’s disappearance… Does his behaviour makes his arguments any less valid? George Harrar’s tricksy novel gets a taut adaptation by Matthew Aldrich but it’s oddly directed by Simon Kaijser who’s chosen to shoot everything through a ghastly and offputting green filter as though every shot were there to prove Pearce is a serial killer with several shots at hip-high angle which makes it even odder. However there are enough red herrings and details in the performances to make this a diverting mystery. The protagonist even spends time laying mousetraps which is a nice metaphor for his own predicament. And ours, in point of fact. We are being played with. Truth is relative, as Birch tells his students. You’ll probably figure this out before the conclusion but it’s a bit of fun getting there. Pearce is good as a highly suspect individual – a practised liar with memory issues who is catnip to female students and lusts after the girl in the hardware store.  It’s a role that has clear reminders of his breakout film Memento.  Brosnan meanwhile plays it close to his chest as the man on his tail who tells him they’re both in the business of proof.  I can’t move again:  Driver’s eyes betray a recent makeover. Sigh. Prove this chair exists/ What chair? 

Cocktail (1988)

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You get the women, you get the bucks. Ex-soldier Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise) desperately wants to be a success and after working at his uncle’s bar takes an evening job at a New York City tavern run by Doug Coughlin (Bryan Brown) while studying business at City College by day so that he can get a marketing job. Flanagan is mentored by the cynical Coughlin who tells him to watch out for rich chicks and together their showy tricks and charisma command large crowds and tips at a nightclub where they plan to set up a business together. When they have a falling out over the affections of photographer Coral (Gina Gershon), Flanagan moves to Jamaica to raise enough money to open his own bar and he falls in love with vacationing waitress and wannabe artist Jordan Mooney (Elisabeth Shue) but he takes the bait from honeymooning Coughlin, himself married to a Rich Chick (Kelly Lynch) and gets involved with wealthy Manhattan executive Bonnie (Lisa Banes) ... Coughlins’s Law:  Anything else is always something better. It’s only taken me thirty years to get around to seeing a film I was too snobby to watch when it was trailed in my local cinema. Kids, eh!  Yet it’s one of those that was tailored to confirm Cruise’s superstardom – another tale of a daredevil on the make, this time on the ground (albeit after he’s served his country, perhaps as a Navy flyer). And we’re in materialistic NYC in the Eighties where everyone was promiscuous because nobody ever heard of AIDS. As if.  Yet there is a Faustian story going on which was watered down before being served. There were a lot of re-shoots to make the material more upbeat and incorporate improbable bartending tricks while Maurice Jarre’s original score was replaced. Shue is rather ill-served by a misogynistic narrative, Brown moreso since his worldview permeates the theme albeit it informs the conclusion, but it’s great to see Ellen Foley, Lynch and Gershon in the ensemble. Does it complete me? I’ll get back to ya in another three decades! Adapted by Heywood Gould from his dark semi-autobiographical novel and directed by Roger Donaldson.  I am the last barman poet / I see America drinking the fabulous cocktails I make / Americans getting stinky on something I stir or shake / The sex on the beach / The schnapps made from peach / The velvet hammer / The Alabama slammer. / I make things with juice and froth / The pink squirrel / The three-toed sloth. / I make drinks so sweet and snazzy / The iced tea / The kamakazi / The orgasm / The death spasm / The Singapore sling / The dingaling. / America you’ve just been devoted to every flavor I got / But if you want to got loaded / Why don’t you just order a shot? / Bar is open.

A Simple Favour (2018)

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Are you going to Diabolique me?  Perky smalltown single mom and vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is swept away by her new friendship with the glorious Emily (Blake Lively) PR director to obnoxious NYC fashion maven Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend), too busy in her professional life to do anything but show up occasionally to collect her little son from school. While fellow moms inform Stephanie that she’s just a free babysitter she’s convinced she and Emily are best friends because they bond over a daily martini at Emily’s fabulous glass modernist house until one day she gets a call from Emily to look after her kid and Emily doesn’t return. Stephanie’s daily vlogs get increasingly desperate as the days wear on. After five days she can’t take it any more. She gets embroiled in a search along with Emily’s husband, the blocked author Sean Townsend (Henry Golding) for whom she has a bit of a thing until she decides to dress up and play Nancy Drew when she discovers Emily had a very good life insurance policy… She’s an enigma my wife. You can get close to her, but you never quite reach her. She’s like a beautiful ghost.  While the world gets its knickers in a twist about female representation along comes Paul Feig once again with an astonishing showcase for two of the least understood actresses in American cinema and lets them rip in complex roles that are wildly funny, smart and pretty damned vicious.  This adaptation by Jessica Sharzer of Darcey Bell’s novel has more twists and turns than a corkscrew and from the incredible jangly French pop soundtrack – which includes everyone from Bardot & Gainsbourg and Dutronc to Zaz – to the cataclysmic meeting between these two pathological liars this is bound to end up in … murder! Deceit! Treachery! Nutty betrayals! Incredible clothes! Lady parts! Revelations of incest! Everything works here – from jibes about competitive parenting and volunteering, to the fashion business, family, film noir, Gone Girl (a variant of which is tucked in as a sub-plot), heavy drinking, wonderful food, electric cars.  And again, the clothes! Kudos to designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus who understands how to convey personality and story. Never wear a vintage Hermès scarf with a Gap T-shirt. If you were truly Emily’s friend, you would know that It’s wonderfully lensed by John Schwartzman, one of my favourite cinematographers and the production design and juxtapositions sing. This is an amazing tour of genres which comes together in two performances that are totally persuasive – in another kind of film Kendrick and Lively might have to tell each other You complete me:  the shocking flashbacks to their pasts (which are both truthful and deceitful) illuminate their true characters. This is that utter rarity – a brilliantly complicated, nasty and humorous tale of female friendship that doesn’t fear to tread where few films venture. It’s an epic battle of the moms. Film of the year? I’ll say! I am so glad that this is the basis of my 2,000th post. Brotherfucker!  MM#2000

 

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

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Are you normal?  What is normal?  Harvard psychologist and inventor Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) has the good fortune of having two women in his life – his eventual wife and colleague Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) who is denied her PhD because of her gender and their mutual lover, student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) the niece of the birth control activist, Margaret Sanger, whose feminist mother Ethel, Sanger’s sister, abandoned her to the care of nuns. Marston creates the DISC theory of Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance which he lectures on to besotted female students.  In addition to helping him perfect the lie detector test, they form a ménage à trois which leads to the academics being fired from their University jobs and moving to the burbs where the two women inspire him to create one of the greatest female superheroes of all time, beloved comic book character Wonder Woman as their unconventional lifestyle and penchant for S&M causes problems for the legitimate and illegitimate children they raise together…  This sly old dissertation on American values is told in a series of flashbacks as Marston is forced to defend his comic book’s content to Josette Frank (Connie Britton) inquisitor in chief at the Child Study Association of America in the post-war era as comic books were literally burned, Hitler style, in the streets. No fool she as she knows all the moves, BDSM or no.  It’s amusing to see the trio’s relationship revealed first with the lie detector machine and then in the den of iniquity lorded over by Charles Guyette, the G-string king (JJ Feild) while outwardly life in the burbs goes on as per usual. This is an origins story with a difference and if it plays rather fast and loose (or restrained, whichever you’d prefer) with the lasso of truth, then it’s fun and imaginative and very well performed – interpreted, written and directed by Angela Robinson. Produced by Amy Redford.

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!