The House (2017)

 

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One of us has to be the adult here. Scott Johansen (Will Ferrell) and his wife Kate (Amy Poehler) must figure out a way to earn some money after their daughter’s (Ryan Simpkins) scholarship falls through unaware that the local councillor (Nick Kroll) has squandered it on his unwilling office mistress. When all else fails, the desperate couple join forces with their neighbor Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) to start an underground casino in his home. He’s miserable since his wife Raina (Michaela Watkins) issued divorce proceedings due to his gambling and porn addiction. As the cash rolls in and the good times fly, Scott and Kate soon learn that they may have bitten off more than they can chew and the casino attracts the attention of the locals who are concerned nobody turns up at the Town Hall meetings any more …  This starts out as (potentially) a social satire and swiftly mutates into an execrable waste of time in such inconsequentially lazy plotting, production and performance you will wonder that anyone even remembered to record it. Its sole merit is the opportunity to see some truly horrible things done to Jeremy Renner. Someone however decided to release it. A disgraceful defecation upon the public. Un film de Andrew Jay Cohen, may he die in agony.

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Chariots of Fire (1981)

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Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder.  In the early 1920s, two determined young English runners train for the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Christian born to Scottish missionaries in China, sees running as part of his worship of God’s glory and refuses to train or compete on the Sabbath. Cambridge student Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) overcomes anti-Semitism and class bias, but neglects his beloved sweetheart Sybil (Alice Krige) in his single-minded quest and then there is the opportunity to prove themselves at Olympics where they will encounter the world’s fastest runners, a pair of Americans … Lauded at the time of release, and prompting screenwriter Colin Welland’s famous but empty threat, The British are coming! this now plays like a very staid exercise frozen in aspic despite the lively intellectual drive – reconciling notions of religion, duty, patriotism, obsession, love – and the wonderful cast. This mostly true story has its moments but they are heavily signposted. The title sequence on the beach of the athletes training in slow motion to Vangelis’ outstanding electronic score is justly famous and it’s repeated at the conclusion. In between are conflicts played out both on the track and off it and there’s a Greek chorus of sorts by John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson (of all people!) whereby a streak of prejudice and elitism in the echelons of academia is revealed. The issue of race – both kinds – is repeated in Abrahams’ choice of coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) who is half Arab and brings the taint of professionalism into play. Produced by David Puttnam, executive produced by Dodi Fayed and directed (in his feature debut) by adman Hugh Hudson who does his best to dress up a low budget epic. The tragic coda to the film if not the story is that two of its stars, Charleson, and Brad Davis (who plays Jackson Scholz), died of AIDS within 18 months of each other a decade later.

The Greatest Showman (2017)

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Any other critic might call it a celebration of humanity. A young Phineas Barnum and his tailor father Philo are mocked at the home of the wealthy Hallett family but he falls in love with their lovely daughter Charity and they keep in touch by letter when she is sent to school. When he grows up the adult Phineas (Hugh Jackman) marries Charity (Michelle Williams) and moves from job to job while rearing two little girls in poverty until he hits on the idea of a show with nature’s oddities, creating a community of people who are shunned – Tom Thumb, the Bearded Lady, the Irish Giant, et al. He persuades high society playwright Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to join forces to give him respectability and their success brings them fame – even Queen Victoria wants an audience with them. Phineas meets Swedish songbird Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and mortgages everything to bring her all over the USA but she wants him as well – and betrays him, lying to the press, prompting Charity to leave him. When he returns to NYC protesters burn down the circus and Philip runs into the burning building to try to rescue his beloved Anne (Zendaya) an acrobat of colour whom he must battle society to spend his life with …  This moves quickly and expeditiously, daring you to see the cracks – in fact it’s really a stage musical with few concessions to anything you don’t know outside the business of show. It’s got a very inclusive message which is right-on for the current climate. Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and directed by first-timer Michael Gracey, there were reshoots apparently supervised by James Mangold who receives an executive producer credit – he had worked closely with Jackman on Logan.  It all adds up to a very nice night out at the musical theatre – even if it bears little relationship to the reality behind the real-life subject or even the musical Barnum by Cy Coleman, Paul Stewart and Mark Bramble. The songs are by Benj Pasek and Michael Paul and bear no relationship with any music produced in the nineteenth century:  to call the music ersatz would be misleading, it’s very contemporary and could come from any new musical you’ve seen or heard lately. However it’s a great showcase for some heartfelt, showstopping numbers  – particularly Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) leading on This Is Me and Efron and Zendaya’s Rewrite the Stars. There are few dramatic segues so this won’t trouble your brain overly much:  it’s a swaggering, confident piece of work which has little faith in the audience – a criticism constantly made of Barnum himself by the resident journo critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) who chronicles his highs and his lows but eventually comes round.  He says it there, it comes out here. Praise is due cinematographer Seamus McGarvey for keeping everything looking absolutely splendid.

Ice Bound (2003) (TVM)

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In twelve months there is just one sunrise and one sunset. It’s the end of 1999 and Dr Jerri Nielsen (Susan Sarandon) moves to a new job – working at the Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole: she makes a poor impression on new colleagues when she expresses her shock at the number of people there – far more than she’d been warned. Then there’s the business of their nicknames. And being pushed to sort her recycling trash.  Winter is coming and all flights are cancelled – for eight months. Conditions can reach as low as 100 below zero.  Nielsen is herself responsible for the well-being of all the staff there and slowly comes to a kind of collegial relationship with others despite being pranked. She carries out a biopsy on herself and finds out via satellite link to doctors back home that she has an aggressive form of cancer and requires chemotherapy.   Risking death, rescuers heroically air-drop the necessary supplies to the station and, along with the help of fellow Polies, including close friends Big John Penny (Aidan Devine) and Claire ‘Fingers’ Furinski (Cynthia Mace), Nielsen begins her debilitating chemotherapy treatments… This true story is a resonant piece of work with a standout performance in the lead by Sarandon who narrates. As her condition develops, her uptight character thaws out, helped by her growing appreciation of the landscape – she never knew that there were three kinds of twilight.  Of course what she is really discovering is herself. Adapted by Peter Pruce and Maria Nation from Nielsen’s autobiography co-written with Maryanne Vollers, Ice Bound:  A Woman’s Survival at the South Pole. Distinguished by the use of Sarah McLachlan’s Angel on the soundtrack. Efficiently handled by Roger Spottiswoode even if the location shoot on Lake Ontario might betray a low-ish budget.

Through the Repellent Fence (2017)

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A metaphor that acts as a suture.  Three Native American artists known as the collective Post-commodity create a 28-balloon installation across 2 miles of US/Mexico border land in a tribal context. Sam Wainwright Douglas’ film takes a political issue and turns it into a fascinating entertainment in this tract about land art which takes no prisoners.  It follows the evolution of the project interspersing some very pointed discussions about race and borders and featuring interviews with authors Lucy Lippard and Chris Taylor, who escorts students on his Texas Tech Land Arts of the American West course on an annual two-month pilgrimage around 6,000 miles of desert. The beautiful photography by David Layton emphasises the historical aspect of the late 60s/early 70s Land Art movement with coverage of Spiral Jetty and Double Negative – phenomenal works of monumentality which Post-commodity nonetheless term destructive acts similar to the actions of the Department of the Interior. The wound of geography is straddled with a line of indigenous predator eyes emblazoned on ephemeral inflatable spheres originally intended for pest control in a searing statement about society, politics, race and community. It’s quite a sight.

 

Panic in the Streets (1950)

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Methuselah is younger than I am tonight.  A US Health Service physician Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) is called to supervise the autopsy of an unknown man and realises the John Doe (actually Kochak and played by Lewis Charles) died of pneumonic plague, the pulmonary iteration of bubonic plague. We have already seen the man chased and shot by the flunkies of gangster Blackie (Walter Jack Palance), Poldi (Guy Thomajan) and Fitch (Zero Mostel) on the dockside. Revealing his discovery to the mayor and city officials, Reed is informed that he has 48 hours before the public will be told about a potential outbreak. Joined by Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), Reed must race against time to find out where the unknown man came from and stop journalists from printing the story so that they can prevent an epidemic. They begin their search among Slav and Armenian immigrants as the man’s body is cremated … From the low level and unwittingly infected crims racing to find the booty they believe the dead man Kochak was protecting, to the warehouses unloading produce on the New Orleans wharves, this paints a great portrait of a city that no longer resembles what we see in this post-war crime thriller. The lurid title only tells you part of the story which director Elia Kazan insisted be shot entirely on location, using the smarts he picked up on Boomerang to create episodes of masterly tension from Bourbon Street in the French Quarter (spot Brennans!) to the banks of the Mississippi, with Reed’s marital and parenting issues nicely etched – there are bills to pay and he should spend more time with his son instead of trying to be more ambitious, according to his wife Nancy, played by Barbara Bel Geddes – providing the day to day humdrum issues against which the bigger melodrama takes place in a race against time. The contrast in performing styles is gripping – from Widmark’s Method-like approach to Palance’s conventional and scary villain, Mostel’s semi-comic goon and Douglas’ usual rambunctious affect to Bel Geddes classical mode, this is a terrific demonstration of American theatre and film acting styles bumping up against each other. It’s beautifully shot by Joseph MacDonald and edited by Harmon Jones. Edna and Edward Anhalt’s story was adapted by Daniel Fuchs and the screenplay is by Richard Murphy but Kazan stated that it was rewritten every day while they were shooting. He would use what he learned of The Big Easy for his next (studio-bound) film, A Streetcar Named Desire. He believed this was the only perfect film he made “because it’s essentially a piece of mechanism and it doesn’t deal in any ambivalences at all, really. It just fits together in the sequence of storytelling rather perfectly. But that’s really why I did it, and I got a hell of a lot out of it for future films.”  Very impressive, cher!

It (2017)

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Aka It:  Chapter One. Go blow your dad you mullet-wearing asshole. Stephen King’s 1986 novel gets the big screen treatment here after a 1990 TV two-parter that has a fond place in many people’s memories.  It sticks with the first part of the novel – the kids’ experiences, and moves them forward, to the late Eighties. In 1988 Derry, Maine, little Georgie sails his  paper boat and it floats down a drain in a rainstorm and he is pulled in by Pennywise the Clown, becoming one of the town’s many missing kids. When school’s out next summer his older brother Bill sets out to find him with a bunch of other kids who all have their issues:  big mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, germophobe Stan, overweight newbie Ben, pretty Bev (the subject of false sex rumours) and black home-schooled Mike.  They are the Losers Club and have various problems with the parental figures in their lives. Ben’s research in the library proves that Derry has a very high mortality rate particularly when it comes to kids and every 27 years this demonic shapeshifting character manifests through their fears when he reappears to feed. But in the midst of their search they have to avoid the Bowers Gang, horrible greasers who violently terrorise them as they search the area’s sewers to find the centre of Pennywise’s hellish underground activities … Part of why this works so well is that the kids are taken seriously and their problems in the world are immense:  we’re talking child abuse and Munchausen by proxy, to name but two. We feel for them because they are fully rounded characters who have legitimate reason to fear grown ups. A clown in the sewers is as nothing compared to Dad waiting in the hallway to feel you up. It’s a perfectly judged drama. Another reason this works is because it inhabits familiar territory for many of us who recall Spielberg films of the era – the sight of a squad of boys on bikes recalls ET – and the King drama Stand By Me which was so iconic and one that also treats its protagonists respectfully. We also think about The Goonies:  the spirit of adventure is overwhelmingly attractive despite the dangers to this bunch of nerds and scaredy cats.  The Netflix show Stranger Things is an overt homage to all of these, mixing up the paranormal, horror and nostalgia for thirty years ago and the presence of cool girl Winona Ryder is such a plus.  Adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman;  directed by Andy Muschietti who gives the scenes equal weight and doesn’t give into the massive temptation to exaggerate the horror element, allowing each character to fully blossom. This is a coming of age story with panache and clowns and a wonderful ensemble of wholly believable kids and Bill Skarsgard donning the whiteface. Personally I can’t wait for part two set 27 years from 1989 when It reappears: wouldn’t it be really meta to cast Molly Ringwald as the adult incarnation of the Molly Ringwald lookalike? Awesome idea!

A Boy and his Dog (1975)

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It’s 2024. World War Four lasted five days and devastated the world as we know it. Vic (Don Johnson) and his clever telepathic dog Blood (Tiger, voiced by Tim McIntire) are foraging in the dangerous and doomy post-apocalyptic landscape of the southwest US when they happen upon Topeka, an underground pastiche of real middle class life as it used to be. He’s taken in by Quilla June (Susanne Benton) who’s a sexy ruse to get him to help father a new generation for a community led by Lou Craddock (Jason Robards) – all those guys living underground don’t have Vitamin D so can’t reproduce any more.  He leaves Blood overground, much to the dog’s annoyance:  he knows something is up …  Actor L.Q. Jones directed and co-wrote (with producer Alvy Moore) the adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s 1969 novella when the author got writer’s block. Reportedly Ellison liked it pretty much until the final line – which is glib and misogynistic even for a black comedy.  Ellison’s work is focused on procreation rather than alien invasion which makes him rather unusual for the sci-fi fraternity. Johnson makes for an attractive lead – until he gets down and dirty and Tim McIntire is a wonder as Blood.  He composed the score with Ray Manzarek of The Doors (and Jaime Mendoza-Nava). Although it was a commercial failure it turned out to be hugely influential if you’ve seen the Mad Max series. Jones had hoped to make a sequel starring a girl, but once the fabulous Tiger died, the plans evaporated. Maybe …

 

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 doo-wop 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 and it’s 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 the lingering suspicion that a true depiction of a police conspiracy, social destruction and legal corruption was literally beyond the pale. What a pity.

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.