Detroit (2017)

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I’m still so 1997 I thought Kathryn Bigelow was making a film about Kent State, which I at least knew about. Instead, it appears she and writer Mark Boal teamed up again to make another political film, this time about the race riots in Detroit in July 1967 and an incident of astonishing police brutality in the Algiers Motel during which three innocent black men were murdered and a handful more were beaten to a pulp. Adapted from witness testimony, this isn’t quite biographical but attempts to be factual and realistic. When the police break up a party for returning Nam vets in an illegal after-hours venue the black community responds by firing at them, looting stores and rioting leading to a city-wide curfew. You gotta agree with the councillor who asks an assembled crowd why they feel compelled to burn down their own property. And therein lieth the problem, at least at the beginning. This is a most unreasonable riot. Out of context. Then a bunch of cracker cops led by Krauss (Will Poulter) open fire on looters and he chases one, shooting him in the back. Back at the PD, they can’t decide to prefer murder charges against him so he and his compadres Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor, looking particularly gormless, like Dougal in Father Ted) are let back on the streets where the Army and the National Guard are swarming, taking potshots at perceived sniper fire. Dismukes (John Boyega) is security at a grocery store and when he saves a black kid from the Army he earns the title Uncle Tom.  A new band in town The Dramatics are about to go onstage when their showcase is shut down and one of them, Larry (Algee Smith) takes refuge at the Algiers with Fred (Jacob Latimore) where they befriend two white girls hanging out at the pool. One of the girls’ black friends Carl (Jason Mitchell) is also holed up at the motel’s annex and he fires a starter pistol.  It brings the cracker cops down on them with Dismukes attending the scene to try to prevent any violence but Krauss has already shot Carl in the back . Their interrogation technique involves pretending to shoot the men one by one as they separate them from the group in an attempt to get them to reveal the whereabouts of the non-existent rifle and a soldier Dismukes brought coffee joins in the party … This is more impressive the longer it goes on, but it does go on. And on.  It starts problematically and the characterisation is in many ways too on-the-nose if not stereotypical but the revelation of systemic corruption, the decision of the eventual trial jury (it all seems like a preview of coming OJ attractions in reverse) and the racism inherent in society so overwhelming that even without knowing the conclusion (included in a text over real-life photographs) we figure it out for ourselves,  is finally wearying. The persona of Dismukes seems deployed to present a good – if stupid – black man:  he’s predictably identified as a perpetrator for the police in a lineup despite having protected the white girl in question. Maybe it’s true but it doesn’t ring right for this dramatic purpose. The overlength (and underwritten) sequence of mind-numbing violence in the annex doesn’t help. It feels like it’s straight out of a seventies exploitationer, particularly in the shots of Flynn, sweating out his hatred before applying the butt of his gun to another black man’s head. Perhaps it’s a story that needed to be told but it’s unbalanced. There simply isn’t enough drama to portray a story of innocent people caught up in something that – as presented here – was woefully avoidable in a context that is under-explained. This is a failure of screenwriting, with a suspicion that a true depiction of a police conspiracy, social destruction and legal corruption was literally beyond the pale. What a pity.

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The Blue Lamp (1950)

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An inordinately popular crime drama that begat Dixon of Dock Green, the long-running TV show – despite the fact that Dixon (Jack Warner) is killed by ambitious thug Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) while he tries to reason with him during the robbery of a cinema.  Basil Dearden was directing from a sharp screenplay by T.E.B Clarke, who adapted a treatment by Jan Read and Ted Willis (of TV fame). There was additional dialogue by Alexander MacKendrick. This was the rather parochial but BAFTA-winning production that earned the ire of critic Gavin Lambert writing (pseudonymously) in Sight & Sound of its “specious brand of mediocrity.”  And it’s certainly true that it cannot hold a candle to the noirs coming out of Hollywood at the time. Nonetheless, its value lies precisely in the cosy post-war vision of England being promoted by Ealing Studios, the documentary approach, the narrative style of interlinking stories, Bogarde’s startling impact as the glamorous crim and the lush photography of London by night shot by Gordon Dines. How wonderful to see Little Venice, the White City dog track, Paddington and the dazzling lights of the West End. Mmmm… Look out for Anthony Steel as a constable.

Conflict of Wings (1954)

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Aka Fuss Over Feathers and The Norfolk Story.  That great expanse of sky and never a ripple to disturb that ancient garden. A Norfolk bird sanctuary that was the burial ground for children in Roman times is threatened by the Royal Air Force’s plan to use it as a target range for testing their new DeHavilland Vampires with a rocket system. Led by Muriel Pavlow, whose boyfriend John Gregson is an RAF corporal, the community discovers that the land was gifted to the Church by Henry VIII in thanks for assisting quell a rebellion and finds grounds for defending the sanctuary from the rocket tests. The local eel catcher starts squatting on the land, protesting his fishing rights, and everyone forms a human shield around the island to stop a test but they accidentally damage the RAF’s temporary telephone line and the base can’t be told in time to stop a launch just as clouds begin massing and impeding the pilots’ sightlines …  With its story of a community fighting to preserve their historical rights, this has echoes of Passport to Pimlico and can thus be viewed as part of a wider sense of post-war anti-establishment feeling. Nonetheless with the revelation that the squadron will be moving on to Malaya, there’s something of a triumphalist conclusion. Shot in a variety of Norfolk locations – Hickling Broad, Cley-next-the-Sea, Ludham, Wells and West Raynham, which used to have an airfield. Adapted from actor turned screenwriter and director Don Sharp’s debut novel by John Pudney and directed by John Eldridge, there are plenty of familiar faces from the era – Kieron Moore, Niall MacGinnis, Harry Fowler, Guy Middleton – in this small but satisfying drama with its wonderful setting. Planespotters will have a field day. And there’s a charming gull too! Lovely score by Philip Green who was longtime musical director at the Rank Organisation and whose stock music has been used in everything from Ren and Stimpy to Night of the Living Dead. Now that’s versatile. Made under the Group 3 scheme to encourage independent films under the umbrella of the National Film Finance Corporation.

The Omega Man (1971)

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Richard Matheson’s vampire-zombie classic I Am Legend got the germ warfare-futureshock treatment in this coolest of cool sci fis. Army doctor Charlton Heston is the last man on earth, saved by a serum, roaming a deserted Los Angeles in daylight two years after the Sino-Russian War has wiped out everyone and he spends his days robbing cars and watching old movies on a loop. Except he’s not alone, he’s trying not to get caught and killed by albino mutants known as The Family, led by former TV host Anthony Zerbe. Then he encounters Lisa (Rosalind Cash) who is in fact part of a group of survivors untouched by the plague. Let battle commence …. This extraordinarily potent thriller still works. Los Angeles looks so strange and empty (they shot on Sunday mornings) and the culture (the Manson-like Zerbe, the Black Power issues) in which it takes place make it very much of the time but somehow it occupies a place of utter plausibility. Screenwriter Joyce H. Corrington was a doctor and insisted on some of the changes to make it more modern. There’s a kiss between Heston and Cash which is pretty historic. When Heston was interviewed years later by Whoopi Goldberg she got emotional mentioning its place as one of the the first interracial kisses in cinema. Heston surprised her by kissing her then and there! The ending is a killer. As a kid I saw this and loved it and seeing it again makes me pat myself on the shoulder. I love Heston. He made such consistently interesting films when he really got his mojo going.  His memoir The Actor’s Life was the first book I ever read by a film star. When I met him at a book signing many years ago for the launch of In the Arena, its follow up, I commented to him that it was the best book on screen acting ever written. He looked at me and in that inimitable Mount Rushmore growl stated categorically:  “This one’s better.” Heston is marvellous but he’s matched every step of the way by the wonderful, interesting cast. This is just super cool, directed brilliantly by Boris Sagal (father of Katey) who died horrifically on a film set a half-dozen years later.

Last Cab to Darwin (2015)

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Rex (Michael Caton) is dying and his days are spent with his friends down the local boozer and his nights with his dog (Dog). Polly (Ningali Lawford) his Aboriginal neighbour across the street is the woman in his life and they enjoy some banter about his difficult ways. His pain has led him to pursue euthanasia, not legal in New South Wales. He sets off in his taxi to the Northern Territory to the one doctor who is prepared to assist his death. En route he picks up Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), an Aboriginal drifter who’s also a talented footballer;  and British nurse Julie (Emma Hamilton) who’s keen to experience life Down Under.  The three develop a very particular kind of friendship on the 2,000 mile road trip. The mordantly witty tone ensures that this never descends to bathos and when Doc Farmer turns out to be the splendid Jacki Weaver you are assured that Reg Cribb’s adaptation of his 2003 play (based on a true story) gets the treatment that it deserves:  a terrifically game cast performing this considered, humane, very contemporary subject of self-determination with great dignity. It even has a twist ending. Engaging and compelling. Directed by Jeremy Sims.

Alien: Covenant (2017)

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Updates, eh? Sometimes they work, sometimes they get you in the … Well between computer glitches and Shelley, the Prometheus behemoth is regenerating with this Alien retread and despite my misgivings including the dislikeable casting, I didn’t even look at my watch until ten minutes before the end. Some kind of record. Particularly given the charisma gap here. The Covenant is en route to an intergalactic colony with a coupla thousand peeps and foetuses in pods but a random electrical event causes the death of the Captain (James Franco, gone in sixty seconds) and he’s replaced by deputy Billy ‘Skeletor’ Crudup a religious zealot who sees another planet and decides to stop there instead. Bad move. Because this ain’t paradise and there is not just the pathogen ‘accidentally’ released by Prometheus to contend with, but David 8 (Michael Fassbender) the lone survivor of that ship. And his ‘brother’ Walter (Fassbender) a staple of the Covenant crew meets one of his own kind – family! – for the first time. We’re into mad scientist territory and moreso. It’s only a matter of time before the team including second in command Daniels (beady eyed Katherine Waterston, Franco’s widow) are in all kinds of danger. This can happen when you literally have to recharge your batteries:  so much for technology. This is so fast and furious you never stop to think about the fact that Danny McBride is the guy who’s left to rescue them. Wow. This is more than a human origins/Adam and Eve story:  it’s a proper riposte to the gyno-politics of the series, especially the last one when Dr Elizabeth Shaw (the great Noomi Rapace) carried out her own abortion/Caesarian – and you should see what’s left of her. This is what happens when men decide they want to take charge of reproduction, with obvious debts to more than one Shelley. Written by John Logan and Dante Harper from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green. I have one major issue with this. Please stop shooting all sci fis and superheroes on grayscale. I can deal with all the colour spectrum. Really. And I’m not the only one. Put on some lights, use the rainbow. This has been going on for years and I’m sick of it. I will need a coalminer’s lamp next time I go to the movies if this continues. And next time an insect flies into one of your orifices, be very scared indeed … Outer space, innerspace, vive la difference! Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Jaws (1975)

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Ibsen by way of a Peter Benchley bestseller and an adventurous and gifted director called Steven Spielberg. I got caught up in this again late last night and was gripped, as ever, by this visceral tale of beachside terror which hasn’t aged a day and in many respects remains my favourite Spielberg movie. There is so much to relish. The atmosphere, aided immeasurably by John Williams’ stunningly suggestive score – which was the soundtrack in the bathroom of the late lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London – utterly terrifying!. The performances:  who doesn’t love Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist? Roy Scheider as the seaside town police chief who’s scarified of water? Robert Shaw as the drunken shark hunting Captain Quint? And those hellishly cute kids. And what about the titles sequence? There’s the politics of the summer season and the mayor who doesn’t want word to get out. The anger of the bereaved mother. The bloodied water and beach toys. The track-zoom of realisation. The clear storytelling. White sharks got a bad press out of this epic battle but there has rarely been a better exploration of the ecology of man and beast. Quite literally sensational. Classic, brilliant, the original of the species. Written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with a little assist from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, and John Milius.

Stars in My Crown (1950)

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– Good story. – Don’t rush me. A prime example of Americana, based on Joe David Brown’s novel, Joel McCrea is the preacher determined to bring God to the settlement of Walesburg after the Civil War. He has to take the villagers seriously – at gunpoint, to bring them round. In this episodic narrative told by his adopted nephew Dean Stockwell as an adult (voiced by Marshall Thompson) there is a low key romance with church organist Ellen Drew; the arrival of typhoid fever which threatens not just lives but the respect between him and  young doctor James Mitchell;  McCrea’s struggle when he refuses to accept the school well is the cause of the outbreak; and the repeated threats to black farmer Famous (Juano Hernandez) prove this is far from twee.  Indeed when the KKK bring a burning cross to the patch that he has made home you realise this is a lot more than a story of tough love. McCrea is a solid leading man and he is excellent here as a man whose faith is truly tested.There’s really good work from Alan Hale as the Swedish father of five who never goes to church but is always ready to lend a helping hand and James Arness and Amanda Blake feature years before Gunsmoke. This is far from your average western, a keen mix of humour, commentary and drama. Brown adapted his novel but it was the work of the screenwriter Margaret Fitts that’s interesting. She did several screen adaptations and is one of those women who did such good writing for the western genre, including adapting her own novel, The King and Four Queens, which became the Clark Gable movie. This was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a man many consider in the realm of auteur.

High-Rise (2016)

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How do you adapt and replicate JG Ballard’s dyspeptic dystopian worldview when it’s so site- and time-specific? Screenwriter Amy Jump took his 1975 novel, a cautionary tale of the collective unconscious in a tower block for posh people, and left it there – in 1975, when the shock of the future was immanent.  Sick building syndrome wasn’t a thing then but anyone who’s ever lived in an apartment knows how much further consensus must reach in order not to descend quickly into chaos with fellow inhabitants – overflowing dustbins, thin walls, the smell of cooking, that neighbour who conducts noisy sex sesssions on their balcony, the drug dealer who calls the wrong door number at six in the morning with the come-down heroin for speeders. Yes, we’ve all sadly been there. Here the sickness is apparently part of the deep-seated anti-social need for anarchy rooted in the perfect design of the building itself, whose architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives on the top floor, apparently dictating things not so benignly, his wife riding around on a horse like a latterday Marie Antoinette. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is the physiologist (specialty:  peeling faces from skulls) who moves in and his neighbour documentary maker Wilder (Luke Evans) unravels and seems to contaminate everyone else. Laing has guilt about his treatment of a colleague (he jumps off the building, no diving board required) and the non-stop erotic parties turn into something mad and dark and murderous.  The descent into atavism is slick and fast and people are screwing each other, torturing rivals and giving into all sorts of debased derangement. There are so many cars in the huge carpark nobody can find their own. The trash isn’t collected. The electricity’s off. There are bodies in the swimming pool. We go back to where we entered this horror story,  eating a dog on the balcony. The names have a lot of meaning – Laing clearly harkens to that scourge of psychiatric voodoo RD Laing, Wilder says it all (this is a battle between id and superego) and Royal is the out of touch monarch whose plans for society are rampantly expunged as people become convinced that the higher the floor the happier they’ll be.  The plebs are closing in. A design for life. Capitalism rocks! Un film de Ben Wheatley.

Paint Your Wagon (1969)

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As a small child I loved hearing a single my dad had called Wand’rin’ Star with no clue that it came from a musical comedy western starring Lee Marvin. This tale of gold claims in northern California back in the day was destroyed by critics – see a bandwagon, jump on it, seems to me. Yet it’s a wildly enjoyable story of Ben Rumson (Marvin) rescuing Pardner (Clint Eastwood) and they end up setting up home together with Mormon refugee Jean Seberg in No-Name City:  population male. After escorting French prostitutes and setting up a whorehouse to establish the place as a boom town, they realise they could get rich from the gold dust falling through the cracks of the town’s buildings so they set about digging a tunnel …Paddy Chayefsky adapted the 1951 Lerner and Loewe stage hit and it had several new songs written by Andre Previn to augment the score. It was directed – surprisingly – by Josh Logan. The only real singer in the cast is Harve Presnell as Rotten Luck Willie but that’s not to say that Eastwood’s I Talk to the Trees isn’t memorable! Seberg fell hard for Eastwood on the location shoot and ended her marriage in the belief that they were a serious couple. When they moved to LA for the studio scenes he acted like he didn’t know her. But as far as this is concerned, Marvin is the whole show.