The Front Runner (2018)

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Now they know who we are.  It’s 1987. Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) former senator of Colorado and one-time campaign manager for McGovern, becomes the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hart’s intelligence, alleged charisma and idealism make him popular with young voters, leaving a seemingly clear path to the White House with a strong team led by Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons). All that comes crashing down when allegations of an extramarital affair with a woman called Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) surface in the media after he’s goaded journalists to follow him in an interview with Washington Post reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), forcing the candidate to address a scandal that threatens to derail his campaign and personal life: his guarded wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) has stood by him but when the TV cameras fetch up at their house and their daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) is followed there’s some hard talking in public and in private ... I did all the things I was supposed to do to make that men wouldn’t look at me the way you’re looking at me right now. It was a great story and it ran for three weeks way back then. The good looking Democrat with great hair taunted journos to come looking for trouble and they did and they found it and the philandering politico was found on a boat called Monkey Business with a young woman who was then hung out to dry by the very people who said they’d protect her. Sound familiar? The coarsening of politics began right there, in the pages of the tabloids who found the idea of a Presidential contender openly carrying on an adulterous affair irresistible:  these are the kind of guys who sniggered about JFK’s women and let him away with everything – until he was murdered and it was open season on his legacy. Jason Reitman’s film is a serious look at an issue that has just got worse over the years (with rather paradoxical outcomes, considering the state of state surveillance and paparazzi and the interweb as we know) but it’s loud and busy for the first 45 minutes and hard to hear and hard to follow.  Only then does it settle, away from the hubbub of campaign offices and the rustle of burger lunches to focus on the man at the centre of the story who disproves his team’s views about what he should be doing – turns out he’s darn good at ax throwing. Trouble is, he’s not that interesting. Why on earth would he be a good President? He could win it – he’s got the hair. The superficial elements of campaigning are all over this (one advisor suggests that if Dukakis added a K to his name he’d take the South). The philosophical argument here which Hart is given in dialogue is that the public don’t care and he should have his privacy – and the public wouldn’t care if the journalists didn’t and Hart had never thrown down the gauntlet to them. That’s the point. So the story isn’t about a man carrying on behind the back of his wife or how Democrats are always found out in the same tedious way, it’s about grubby low journalistic standards and the free press and the dangers that poses to true political expression:  this in itself is a very conflicted narrative stance (not to Vladimir Putin, of course). Jackman does a very low-key characteristation and that compounds the narrative problems. He is a charm vacuum. We are left asking at the end of this, as Walter Mondale asked Hart (and the clip is included), Where’s the beef? Adapted from Matt Bai’s book All the Truth is Out:  The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Bai, (former Hilary Clinton press secretary) Jay Carson and Reitman, who has left his satirical knives in the drawer on this occasion. Pity.

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Red Dawn (1984)

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My father turned me in. Oh God, they do things you can’t imagine. When Soviet soldiers invade Calumet, a small Colorado town, sending Nicaraguan and Cuban paratroopers into the local high school football field, brothers Jed (Patrick Swayze) and Matt Eckert (Charlie Sheen) escape with friends (C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton) to the forest where they call themselves Wolverines after their school mascot. With their father Tom (Harry Dean Stanton) a prisoner of the invading army, the children decide to fight against the Soviets. As the country comes under increasing attack and bitter winter closes in, the group teams up with Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe) to take back their town but how long can they hold out as they discover they are behind battle lines in occupied America? … West Coast. East Coast. Down here is Mexico. First wave of the attack came in disguised as commercial charter flights same way they did in Afghanistan in ’80. Only they were crack Airborne outfits. Now they took these passes in the Rockies. What a film to watch in the week that Vladimir Putin declared liberalism dead. From a story by Kevin Reynolds, auteur John Milius bootkicks the US into surreality positing a Soviet landgrab when we all know they’d nuke the country to high heaven before that would happen. So far, so ridick, as what was supposed to be a small arty antiwar outing becomes a teenage Rambo with Milius toying with the original material assisted by General Alexander Haig, on MGM’s board of directors at the time, dreaming up a what-if scenario evolving from Mexico’s left wing sympathy splitting the US in half as Hitler’s plan for invasion is reworked.  It starts with a history class in Genghis Khan’s warring tactics and within 5 minutes of explaining his stratagems the Russian helicopters are on the ground.  Soon Alexander Nevsky is playing for free at the local cinema and William Smith is in town marshalling the Russkies (in reality he’d been a Russian Intercept interrogator for the CIA). When the drive-in becomes a re-education centre, it’s a nod to the potential for camp classic status as an ‘ironic’ acknowledgement of its own silliness but also reminds us a lot of WW2. Given that this was the first film to receive a PG-13 rating for its violence, it occupies a certain stratum of cultdom and not merely for an alt history:  here are some of the era’s top teen icons (half of The Outsiders!) shooting the hell out of everything in sight. What joy there is in seeing Lea Thompson manning a sub-machine gun and Swayze romancing Jennifer Grey long before Dirty Dancing. With astounding cinematography by Ric Waite and Frederick Elmes and an operatic score from the great Basil Poledouris, this is a salutary lesson in survivalism and resistance. Milius would describe it as “a Close Encounters with Cold War Russians”. Children did this

Extremely Wicked (2019)

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I’m not a bad guy. Law student Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) is in prison receiving a visit from long time girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) but she leaves upset. We flash back to how they met, set up home together with her baby daughter Molly and how news reports of the assaults and murders of young women across swathes of the United States result in his being apprehended as his photo fit is widely published. But Liz appears not to believe that Ted is capable of such evil.  Police Detective Mike Fisher (Terry Kinney) crosses state lines to leave an envelope of horrifying information at their house to try to persuade her that they have the right guy but she doesn’t open it for years. In the meantime, Ted starts to defend himself before Judge Edward Cowart (John Malkovich) in Florida, the first such trial to be televised … You know this didn’t start with a Stop sign. This biographical drama could have gone badly wrong but it’s far from a hagiography and a lot is left to the grisly imagination. Joe Berlinger’s feature follows from his documentary series on the subject, adapted from the book The Phantom Prince:  My Life With Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall.  It’s cannily structured, starting with that flashback meeting cute with Liz so that the entire narrative feels like a seduction of sorts, giving Efron an opportunity to create a complete personality. We feel the impact of that fatal charisma and because he establishes a home life including as stepfather to Liz’s young daughter Molly, the disconnect is all the more alarming, especially interspersed with reports of serial murders from those locations where we know him to have been and shots of him with girls in bars. When we see Ted and Liz together we are imagining how he would kill her – those hands around her little neck suggest so much of what is not shown about his murderous spree. Collins doesn’t have a lot to do but the final scene between them has a big reveal – they both have something to confess. How much did she know? What did he do, exactly? Efron is utterly compelling as this beacon of toxic masculinity:  it’s all about him, as with all narcissistic serial killers. We don’t know any more, even the extent of his slaughter. You know the rest. When I feel his love I feel on top of the world, when I don’t I feel nothing

 

 

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

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We are living in an era marked by the spread of integration and miscegenation. In the early 1970 Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself and serve in the tradition of his ex-military father, Stallworth wants to progress from the Records Room where he is daily dealt racist remarks by a colleague.  He sets out on a dangerous mission: an undercover sting operation to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. Together with a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organisation aims to sanitise its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream and they befriend the head of the local chapter, the charismatic Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) with Jewish Flip posing as Stallworth who has befriended David Duke (Topher Grace) on the telephone. Then Stallworth is assigned to Duke’s protection detail when he comes to town to officiate at the initiation of new recruits to The Organisation …  If I would have known this was a Klan meeting, I wouldn’t have taken this motherfucking gig. Goddamn. That stylish loudmouth Spike Lee has never been backward about coming forward so this confrontational true story about the KKK and more widespread issues of racism in America is as broad as it’s long, making links from the opening Gone With the Wind excerpt to the ghastly leg-spreading exams carried out by the Colorado cops on black college students who’ve been to a Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) event. The 1950s public service announcement in the prologue featuring Dr Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) lamenting the spread of integration and miscegenation is about as subtle as this comedy-drama gets with a Scooby Doo plot that is so silly you couldn’t make it up if it hadn’t actually happened – you cannot remotely sympathise with the KKK, especially as they are planning violence against the students whose union is led by the lovely Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) – and it concludes with footage of the 2017 Charlottesville race riots including footage of the real David Duke, inherently negating all that has passed before it dramatically. Washington has an amazing hairdo and Driver is fine but this is a sledgehammer polemic intended for an already ‘woke’ audience. Written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Lee.  That detective is Ron Stallworth, you racist, peckerwood, redneck, inch worm, needle-dick motherfucker!

Westbound (1959)

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Well, they tell me they got a good man runnin’ this place.  In 1864 former Union officer, John Hayes (Randolph Scott) manages the Overland stagecoach company which transports gold to the North from California. Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), a businessman who’s quit working for Overland and is secretly loyal to the South, is intent on robbing the coaches. Hoping to heist the treasure as a way to revive the Confederacy, Putnam also has a grudge against Hayes, since his wife, Norma (Virginia Mayo), was once involved with Hayes. It seems everyone in this small Colorado town is now out to help the South …  You walk out of this house and you go out the way you came in… with nothing but the clothes on your back! The sixth in the western partnership between Scott and producer/director Budd Boetticher this does not belong to the official Ranown cycle and is written by Bern Giler (as opposed to Burt Kennedy) from a story with Albert S. Le Vino. It’s not the typically taut film you’d expect from that team but it’s notable for the killing of a small child and two striking female performances by Mayo and Karen Steele (as Jeanie Miller). Scott is solid as ever. That’s a lot of woman!

Downhill Racer (1969)

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In seven years I’ve never had a hot dog like you.  Smug, arrogant and overly self-assured downhill skier, David Chappellet (Robert Redford), joins the American ski team after their star has an accident and quickly makes waves with his contemptuous behavior and his actions on the slopes, falling into conflict with the team’s coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman). He won’t ski at Wengen because he’s seeded too low. Then when he comes fourth he thinks he’s won. But he has a good face and attracts the attention of a ski manufacturer Machet (Karl Michael Vogler). A rivalry also develops between David and Johnny Creech (Jim McMullan), the man who is now considered the team’s best skier, firstly romantically as Chappelet immediately hits on Machet’s assistant Carole Stahl (Camilla Sparv) when he sees Creech with her.  The relationship lasts a season when Chappelet wins at Kitzbühel and alienates the rest of the team. Then the men find common ground when they are both in the running for the Olympic team and Chappelet realises Carole is even more driven and capricious than he is He’s not for the team, and he never will be. Written by the great James Salter (from the uncredited novel The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall), this is a classic character study told in terms of competitive skiing. The limitations of Chappelet’s smalltown origins paradoxically make him want to conquer the world – which in skiing terms means Europe. While Redford would make another kind of mountain movie in a few years (Jeremiah Johnson) this is about another paradox which team coach Hackman addresses in a press conference – why America has such fantastic mountains but lacks champion skiers (money). Chappelet wins the attentions of the glamorous Carole but he loves her money as much as the sex – when he snorts with laughter at the sight of her yellow Porsche you understand. His sketchy relationship with his farmer dad demonstrates the issue and why his tunnel vision exists. Claire is tolerant of his talent but antagonistic to Chappelet’s single-minded drive: All you ever had was your skis and it’s not enough. Chappelet may not be a nice guy, but Claire needs him and the team needs him. When a happy accident occurs, replaying a race held in jest, you know Chappelet’s glad. The almost-twist ending is just perfect. It’s amazing to realise that this was Michael Ritchie’s debut as director. He is often described as a master ironist and while the material is undoubtedly on the page, the staging is meticulously judged:  there is acute observation and colour (look at the difference a white turtleneck makes to Chappelet and how he dons blue jeans to talk to his uninterested father);  the production design in flawless in terms of contrast; there are also reverse shots that make you laugh out loud. (Look at how Claire laughs in a restaurant when Chappelet is cornered by a dumb journalist). This world is established leanly, using few reaction shots.The part is Redford’s. He had picked up on the property when Roman Polanski was working on it at Paramount prior to getting involved with Rosemary’s Baby and Salter developed the story outline from Polanski’s idea of a High Noon on the slopes, ignoring Hall’s novel. Redford and Salter travelled with the US ski team to the 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble and Hall picked up on an aloof quality in Billy Kidd but was also influenced by Spider Sabich and Buddy Werner who had died a few years earlier in an avalanche while fooling with a film crew. Sparv was married to Paramount Studio head Robert Evans for a few years and she has precisely the glacial attraction required for such a nonchalant self-absorbed woman. Superior, in fact. Chappelet’s need of money and fame needs that kind of woman in tow. When she doesn’t need him he is brought down to earth – literally. Claire is the warm team manager whose methods the cool Chappelet despises. There is a plot but it’s the anonymity of the slopes, the hotel rooms, the lifestyle, the effort, the brutality, that highlight the characterisations. The technical side of the film is superlative – rarely has the experience of skiing been so accurately shot and Ritchie hired cameraman Brian Probyn and sound man Kevin Sutton after seeing their work on Ken Loach’s Poor Cow. The images of Chappelet and Carole skirting the high line of the glistening white slopes under a bright blue sky are awesome. Some years ago an acquaintance regaled me with a little story about Redford at one of the Sundance Institute workshops. He kept a low profile, he said. Didn’t want to draw attention to himself. And then one morning he was out on the slopes. You could spot him without any effort:  he was the one in a hot pink suit. Somehow you just know he is channeling his inner Chappelet. Not just for ski bunnies and Jean-Claude Killy fans. Outstanding.

 

 

The Good Companions (1957)

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What originally attracted me was the magnificent way you were all so loyal. Miss Trant (Celia Johnson), a philanthropic, adventure-seeking spinster, joins forces with songwriter Inigo Jollifant (John Fraser) and the newly unemployed Jess Oakroyd (Eric Portman) to re-energize a faltering musical theater troupe, the Dinky Doos who purvey their ramshackle show throughout the English provinces much in the way they did twenty-five years earlier. Although rock ‘n’ roll, striptease and television are about to capture the world’s attention, the troupe revels in its sense of community, and Jollifant falls for the star, Susie Dean (Janette Scott), who ultimately gets her chance on the West End…. The romance between the leads provides much of the subplotting in this second (musical) adaptation of J. B. Priestley’s popular 1930s classic but Scott plays her part a little too low key compared with Hollywood style and it’s really the backstage situations which arouse interest here and the occasionally showy cameos by personalities – Anthony Newley shows up and advises Fraser, Anybody can write a concerto, it takes a composer to write a pop! Joyce Grenfell does her bit with aplomb (providing another somewhat unexpected romance subplot) and when a fight breaks out in a theatre it’s rather fun to watch Thora Hird (who’s Portman’s missing wife) bash people with an umbrella. Hugh Griffith as the twitchy old trouper Morton Mitcham is always worth watching. The score and songs by Laurie Johnson aren’t particularly memorable but the final musical scene-sequence is quite well achieved and Gilbert Taylor’s colour cinematography is very warm. Rather charming, in its own way if not always appropriately staged (how ironic). Adapted by J. L. Morrison and T. J. Hodson and directed by J. Lee Thompson, if you can credit it!

The Return of Frank James (1940)

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I can’t talk without thinking, not being a lawyer. When Jesse James’s murderers the Ford Brothers are set free, his brother Frank (Henry Fonda) who’s been lying low farming, vows revenge and, accompanied by his gang, sets out to track them down. To fund his manhunt, he robs an express office and is subsequently wrongly accused of the clerk’s murder, but an aspiring newspaper reporter Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney) is determined to find out the truth… Sam Hellman wrote a sequel to the earlier Henry King film and it was directed by renowned German director Fritz Lang, his first colour film and his first western. Notable for also being Tierney’s acting debut, she was appalled at her voice and thought she sounded like an angry Mickey Mouse:  she remedied the problem by developing a lifelong smoking habit. She plays nicely opposite Fonda who returns from the earlier film and has several great scenes, including the theatre episode when he’s watching a dramatic ‘re-enactment’ portray his brother’s murder by the Fords while he runs away – the Fords play themselves – and registers his disgust, drawing their attention to him and commencing a chase with Bob Ford (John Carradine). There’s a very funny scene when he and young brother Clem (wonderfully characterised by Jackie Cooper) imprison a nosy Pinkerton detective who’s alerted Stone to their true identities. When justice is finally seen to be done after a trial, Clem steps in to help and the final scene between them is very touching. Wonderfully staged and played, this is a consummate, straightforward revenge western, well told.

 

Molly’s Game (2017)

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The United States versus Molly Bloom. The true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) a beautiful, young, Olympic-class freestyle skier trained by her father (Kevin Costner) who had a terrible accident that stopped her in her tracks aged 22 and she turned to running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade in LA then NYC before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and … the Russian mob which she didn’t know about but she’s indicted all the same. She’s broke, her money’s on the street, she has no friends. Her only ally is her criminal defence lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who learns there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led people to believe… This should be a screwball comedy but the stakes aren’t really high enough and most of the time Molly isn’t the protagonist, she’s more of a stooge to several men whose power she threatens.  Aaron Sorkin turns his own poker hand to directing with this adaptation of the well-publicised book by Bloom. What it has aside from a woman with daddy issues and an incredible brain are some insights into one vastly overrated charming pillow-lipped actor (I’m lying, obvs) who isn’t named here but everyone knows his poker habit and that he married the studio boss’ daughter (they’re now divorced, he’s not been onscreen for ages) and what he does to Molly is … what you’d expect. So this devolves into sexist power-playing and cheating. The difference between sport, playing poker, gambling and cheating is the axis on which the narrative rests, and those slim timings between winning and losing and trusting what you know rather than letting the other fellow game you with a duff hand. I’m agnostic about Chastain although as critic Tom Shone has it, she doesn’t care whether we like her. In real life, Bloom is a very interesting woman. Here, despite her smarts, it takes her psychologist/nemesis father to give her the dimestore truths about what’s screwed her up (and it’s very obvious, just not to her). It’s just a shame it takes 125 minutes to get the three-year diagnosis in the three minutes it actually takes. However it’s structurally relevant because she has undercut him as a kid by issuing her high school teacher’s critique of Freud in an attempt to undermine his profession over family dinner. There is a good supporting cast:  Michael Cera is the Movie Star, Chris O’Dowd is the Irish American schmuck who turns informer for the FBI, Brian d’Arcy James is the idiot loser who turns out to be something else entirely, Bill Camp is the serious player who loses everything. The voiceover narration (somewhat unreliable, given that it’s from an addict suppressing her memories) is both irritating and enlightening. The exchanges with Elba are problematic – as ever he has diction issues so he’s not as fluid as Chastain and you take cover for fear of his spittle reaching beyond the screen. However as long-winded and prolix as this is (and thank goodness there’s very little time spent in court and none walking/talking) it’s almost a relief to see a film that doesn’t require the female to have sex with the leading man, even if he’s permitted to win a verbal battle concerning The Crucible and she has to take a horrible beating courtesy of some very nasty Joisey mooks. What this probably needed is the conclusion that the real (literary) Molly Bloom has courtesy of James Joyce, referenced here several times: a final, stinging monologue that takes everyone down. But even Sorkin knows he can’t outplay the master and Molly has learned what she knew all along – trust nobody. The only problem is after 140 minutes it really doesn’t amount to a hill of poker chips.  Adapted by Sorkin from Bloom’s memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)

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I’ve never made any secret of the fact that basically I’m on my way to Australia. Calendar Colorado is a lawless town rich on the proceeds of a gold find during a funeral and it needs someone to pull it into shape. A sharpshooting chancer Jason McCullough (James Garner) claiming to be on his way to Oz takes a well-paid job to clean up as sheriff, hired by mayor Olly Perkins (Harry Morgan). That involves putting the Danby family in line so he imprisons idiot son Joe (Bruce Dern) in a jail without bars by dint of a chalk line and some red paint … This sendup of western tropes gets by on its good nature and pure charm with Garner backed up by a hilarious Joan Hackett as the accident-prone Prudy Perkins whose attractions are still visible even when she sets her own bustle alight. Jack Elam parodies his earlier roles as the tough guy seconded as deputy while Walter Brennan leads the dastardly Danbys, hellbent on making money from the guys mining the gold before it can be shipped out. Written and produced by William Bowers and directed by Burt Kennedy, that expert at a comic take on the genre whose serious side he had exploited in collaboration with Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott the previous decade. Bright and funny entertainment from Garner’s own production company, Cherokee.