Tolkien (2019)

Tolkien

You’ll get your happy ending. Following the death of first his father then his mother, young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien finds love, friendship and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at boarding school who play sports and go to a tearoom each week and regale each other with their interests prior to going to University. Their brotherhood soon strengthens as Tolkien (Harry Gilby/Nicholas Hoult) weathers the storm of a tumultuous courtship with fellow orphan Edith Bratt (Mimi Keen/Lily Collins). From this impoverished childhood and a reliance on the kindness of strangers – Catholic Father Francis (Colm Meaney) who himself was a protegé of Cardinal Newman; and sponsor Mrs Faulkner (Pam Ferris) who takes him in; through the need for a scholarship to Oxford where after being sent down he meets a philologist Professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) who saves his linguistic bacon:  Languages never steal;  and the outbreak of World War I – he finds both his intellectual calling and his writing voice as he tries to find out what has happened to his closest friend, Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle) while the explosions and gunfire rage and play into his hallucinatory thoughts and childhood memories of the stories his mother told him. These early life experiences later inspire the budding author to write the classic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the RingsWe are your brothers through everything. We are an alliance – an invisible alliance.  The early life and influences of the legendary fantasy novelist are explored in this beautiful production which is engagingly staged and beguilingly played by a very sympathetic cast. The trench warfare scenes on the Somme in 1916 which frame the story are well done and transition extremely affectingly back and forth to Tolkien’s upbringing, the links with his novels well established without being laid on with a trowel (Ronald’s batman is called Sam). Rarer still is the fact that the younger incarnations of the protagonists are easily the match for their older namesakes in performing skill. If not now – when? Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford and directed by Dome Karukoski, this was made without the approval of Tolkien’s family yet it has a sensitivity to war and youth and writing that are heartfelt and extremely winning. Things aren’t beautiful because of how they sound. They’re beautiful because of what they mean

Threesome (1994)

Threesome

No matter what happens somebody’s gonna get screwed. Shy Eddy (Josh Charles) finds he’s rooming with brash Stuart (Stephen Baldwin) when he arrives on a new campus. They learn to tolerate and even like each other despite being diametric opposites. When Alex (Lara Flynn Boyle) is accidentally billeted to the single room in their dorm suite she has to stay put because she can’t prove she’s female. She wants to have sex with Eddy but he’s inexperienced, while Stuart comes on to her too strong. The guys gang up on her when she brings home another guy. Then Eddy confesses he’s not exactly heterosexual but has never slept with either a guy or a girl and things get complicated when he realises he likes Stuart. A car trip and a naked swim bring out feelings between the three that they finally act upon  … You were just about ready to tap into something savage and emotional and you ruined it by trying to be something you’re not. Filmmaker Andrew Fleming occupies a peculiar space in cinema – an auteur in mid-range movies, mostly writing sympathetically from the point of view of young people finding their way in the world. This 90s production has a personal dimension, as it’s apparently based partly on his own college experiences. It’s beautifully shot (by Alexander Gruszynski) and filled with contemporary songs that land thematically. Alex’s attempts to seduce Eddy are initially played for comedy, as are Stuart’s attempts to sleep with Alex. They then agree to disagree and form a mysterious triangle that elicits comment on campus including from the Lobby Lizards (Martha Gehman and Alexis Arquette) but are still trying to figure out how they can sustain a friendship while dealing with the lustful feelings they are failing to manage. I love Freud, unfashionable though he may be. It’s shrewd and funny, with some great character detail and never swerves the issues even if they’re delivered in comic bits rather than serious exchanges – they’re soulful and heartfelt. I understood the moral of the story. Two’s company. Three’s pathetic

UFO (2019)

UFO

The guy on TV was lying.  College student Derek (Alex Sharp) tries to use his exceptional mathematical skills to interpret messages that appear to have been sent around a UFO sighting at a local airport, suggesting extra-terrestrial attempts at contact. Accompanied by his room mate Lee (Benjamin Beatty) and girlfriend Natalie (Ella Purnell) he is rebuffed by the airport staff and Government officials including FBI Agent Franklin Ahls (David Strathairn) and suspects a cover up. He requests the assistance of his professor Dr. Hendricks (Gillian Anderson) who thinks he is brilliant along the lines of a Thomas Edison but doesn’t really want anything to do with a gifted guy prepared to risk his scholarship by flunking her class. But he is haunted by memories of a childhood sighting which his mother refused to acknowledge … Do you know how many threats the airport gets every day? It’s not quite correct to describe this as suspenseful because it doesn’t conform to the usual tenets of dramatic pitch:  rather it settles for a flat realist line mirroring the landscape, leaving the maths to do the talking.  What’s marvellous is the lo-fi approach of paper, pencils and calculators to try and decrypt the probability and navigate the universe. Anderson is cannily cast, linking her meta-fashion to The X-Files, a shortcut to the idea dominating the story: We Are Not Alone. An intriguing exercise of singular focus utilising real-life information and TV newscasts about a 2006 incident at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Written and directed by Ryan Eslinger with a smart score by West Dylan Thordson. They put the Fine Structure Constant in their message. The mathematical equations and graphs are a thing of beauty, no matter how impenetrable. Practically a Hipster PDA exercise in astrophysics. That’s Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s son as Lee. The wavelength is the unit of the measurement – it IS co-ordinates

Out of Blue (2019)

Out of Blue

Can you explain your place in the universe? When well-connected black hole expert and astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) is found shot at a New Orleans Observatory, police detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) is put in charge of the investigation and questions her co-worker, observatory manager Professor Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) and her teaching colleague boyfriend Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors). When she encounters Jennifer’s father Colonel Tom Rockwell (James Caan) she finds an intimidating figure, a well-known local businessman, famous soldier and POW who walks on a cane. His wife Miriam (Jacki Weaver) is a fidgeting fusspot, the twin sons Walt and Bray (Brad and Todd Mann) argumentative and odd. Their office is dominated by a family portrait. Similarities are noted by her colleague Aaron Tevit (Tony Silvero) and reporter Stella Honey (Devyn A. Tyler) with the unsolved murders of other blonde thirtysomething women from decades earlier where items were exchanged with the victims. Mike pursues the idea that Tom might have been responsible but then it becomes clear that Jennifer killed herself. When Mike finds a familiar brooch among Jennifer’s collection of vintage clothes and costume jewellery questions of the cosmos start to inform the solution … The catastrophic death of a star brings new life to the universe. We are all stardust.  This adaptation of Martin Amis’ 1997 genre novel Night Train has some changes but mostly it bears the marks of writer/director Carol Morley, a singular talent who likes to compose a flat frame with just enough textural detail to suggest complexity, a taste that lends itself perfectly to this atmospheric thriller which shows a less travelled side of New Orleans. Mike is a troubled former alcoholic with a spare lifestyle; while Jennifer’s home is filled with nick nacks and her recorded talks anchor the narrative:  We spend our lives trying to get to the heart of this dark energy. It’s other people who point to the clues in the past – a TV journalist and another police officer. The similarities to the .38 caliber gun murders are inescapable – the victims are all blonde and of a certain age and the killings stopped when Jennifer was born. The intriguing use of imagery – not just fetish objects like blue marbles, a pot of handcream, but the confusion as to whether Mike is fantasising, dreaming or even remembering – is conjoined with the theme of the stars and their influence. And with a hint of Chinatown hanging over a story about family and power, there’s a cute reference when Miriam leaps into Mike’s police car and pulls her nose: You know what happens to very nosy people?  They lose their noses! We are reminded of Polanski. The narrative raises questions about how society deals with war – just what kind of man walks out of three years’ imprisonment a hero? Clarkson is great as this unconventional woman who lets loose in a strip club:  There’s many ways to be a woman. There are black holes in the story itself with a wry running joke about cats in boxes (and not just Schrödinger’s). In my experience usually what’s in a sealed box is dead. In the end, this is not just about the murder mystery, it’s about where we come from, who we are, what formed us and what happened to us. In that sense, the final sequence is truly a revelation of personal history in a unique procedural narrative which grapples with a bigger cosmic picture. Produced by Luc Roeg with a score by Clint Mansell. The past is messy

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)

Spinning Man

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?