Captain Fantastic (2016)

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I’m writing down everything you say – in my mind. Disillusioned anti-capitalist intellectual Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his absent wife Leslie (she’s in a psychiatric facility) and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society,  their kids are being educated them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie commits suicide, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time to attend her funeral in New Mexico where her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) fear for what is happening to their grandchildren and Ben is forced to confront the fact that the survivalist politics he has imbued in his offspring may not prepare them for real life… This starts with the killing of an animal in a ritual you might find in the less enlightened tribes. (Why did killing a deer become a thing a year ago?) Ben is teaching his eldest son Bodevan (George McKay) to be a man. But this is a twenty-first century tribe who are doing their own atavistic thing – just not in the name of Jesus (and there’s a funny scene in which they alienate a policeman by pretending to do just that) but that of Noam Chomsky. “I’ve never even heard of him!” protests their worried grandfather. Hearing the words “Stick it to the man!” coming out of a five year old is pretty funny in this alt-socialist community but the younger son in the family Rellian (Nicholas Rellian) believes Ben is crazy and has caused Leslie’s death and wants out.  Ironically and as Ben explains at an excruciating dinner with the brother in law (Steve Zahn) it was having children that caused her post-partum psychosis from which this brilliant lawyer never recovered. This stressor between father and younger son drives much of the conflict – that and Leslie’s Buddhist beliefs which are written in her Will and direct the family to have her cremated even though her parents inter her in a cemetery which the kids call a golf course. And Bodevan conceals the fact that he and Mom have been plotting his escape to one of the half dozen Ivy League colleges to which he’s been accepted. The irony that Ben is protecting his highly politicised kids from reality by having them celebrate Chomsky’s birthday when they don’t even know what a pair of Nikes are and have never heard of Star Trek is smart writing. Everything comes asunder when there are accidents as a result of the dangers to which he exposes them. This is a funny and moving portrait of life off the grid, with Mortensen giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as the man constantly at odds with the quotidian whilst simultaneously being a pretty great dad. McKay is terrific as the elder son who’s utterly unprepared for a romantic encounter in a trailer park. It really is tough to find your bliss. As delightful as it is unexpected, this is a lovely character study. Written and directed by Matt Ross.

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Prevenge (2016)

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Children these days are so spoiled, like, Mummy get me the new Playstation, Mummy kill that man. Screenwriter and actress Alice Lowe makes her directing debut in this low-budget horror thriller about a widowed seven-month pregnant woman who takes directions from her highly vocal foetus and goes on a killing spree avenging her late husband whose climbing buddies (male and female) cut the cord to save their lives on an expedition gone wrong. Interspersed with her horribly awkward midwifery appointments there are gory murders, some funny sight gags (getting stuck in a dog flap) and the big joke is about the invisibility of a pregnant woman in the world, even when murdering all before her. Her job interview with yet another guilty party exposes the prejudice towards pregnant workers.  Shot in a sporadically inventive way by Ryan Eddleston (underpass = birth canal, etc.), there are problems in the writing and exposition and in some ways this doesn’t really hit the extremes you might expect despite the violence. The twist ending materialises when the eventual arrival of the totalitarian newborn doesn’t exactly quell the maternal rage. For fans of the genre, there is the bonus of a Seventies-style score by Toydrum.   I’m not grieving I’m gestating! The expectant mother of all slashers.

The Passionate Friends (1949)

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In which David Lean commences his passionate affair with le cinema du tourisme. This adaptation of HG Wells’ novel of adultery (of which he knew a little) is full of fabulous awkwardness between banker hubby Claude Rains and perpetually cross wife Ann Todd, who relives her early affair with pre-WW2 lover research scientist Trevor Howard – who turns up unexpectedly in their destination Alpine hotel one fine day after the war, where she awaits her husband’s arrival. His unfounded suspicions drive the old lovers back together and social homicide awaits them all in London… Adapted by Eric Ambler, Stanley Haynes and Lean himself, who did like a bit of Freud, this is a fine exploration of marital issues, decency and class, with an exceptional score by Richard Addinsell underlining the wracking feelings bedevilling the lovers and the betrayed. Rains is brilliant, undercutting the relegation of this to ‘woman’s picture’ and entering into something closer to finely tuned emotion. His upstaging of Todd after a romantic evening she has covered up by a supposed theatre trip is outstandingly tense;  his speech about German romanticism a chilling reminder of the times in which it was made. Todd isn’t up to communicating anything of real value despite the flashbacks she narrates but Howard reminds us of Brief Encounter and all those things that remain unsaid. The ending is quite shocking in many respects and brings it close to those Russian classics we love and admire but don’t really want to experience.

White Cradle Inn (1947)

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Aka High Fury. This is one of the more unusual post-WW2 films, about a couple whose marriage unravels when mountain innkeeper Madeleine Carroll wants to adopt Roger (Michael McKeag) the orphaned French boy who was billeted with them throughout the war, and adulterous husband Michael Rennie objects. Ian Hunter is the doctor who tries to broker a truce. This being a mountain film, nature has the final say. There are some marvellous scenic sequences and the climbing shots are well achieved despite the obvious budgetary limitations. The poised Carroll was of course best known for her appearance for Hitchcock in The 39 Steps and despite the Swiss setting she is noticeably less blonde here. Her performance is well modulated and Rennie does well in an essentially unsympathetic role. This is fairly slow moving but the dramatic ending is worth it. Written by Basil Mason and Lesley Storm:  Storm would become the better known of the screenwriting duo, with credits for The Heart of the Matter and The Spanish Gardener.  Directed by Harold French. Alpine madness ahoy.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

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If you don’t like this, there’s a high probability that you’re either dead or German (preferably both) and you definitely hate Top Gear. So stop reading now. This, like The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone, is the only litmus test for a common humanity amongst right-thinking viewers. The story of Allied agents trying to break into a castle (Schloss Adler) held by the Nazis to break out a British colonel, it has Eastwood and Burton and Mary Ure working their way into the fortress to stop losing headway on the planned D-Day landings.  Or … something else???? Twisty Twister McTwisted! Fabulous stunts, great scenery, terrifying cable-car scenes, amazing tension, wonderful action. Just what you want, really, from a film. Another reminder that the prolific Alistair MacLean wrote brilliant books. Happy New Year.