Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters

You’re flushing your career down the toilet for a cowhand. Corporate defence lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is approached by his grandmother’s farmer neighbour Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) to investigate the deaths of hundreds of his cattle in Parkersburg, West Virginia, probably due to a poisoning incident by manufacturer DuPont. The company’s lawyer Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) promises to help Robert but stalls so Robert files suit to get discovery and with nothing useful in an Environmental Protection Agency report he finds information about an unregulated chemical called PFOA which turns out to be Teflon – and it’s on and in everything including the water supply, poisoning with a substance the body cannot tolerate or absorb and causing six cancers and facial deformities. It transpires that DuPont carried out tests and did not make the findings public. The case drives Robert’s behaviour to cause his former lawyer wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) to worry for him and he eventually collapses from ill-health as the years wind on, with Wilbur and his wife Sandra (Denise Dal Vera) getting cancer from the infected water they’ve been consuming. They refuse DuPont’s offer of settlement – they want justice. Robert finds that Medical Monitoring is permitted in West Virginia and undertakes a class action lawsuit with the biggest sample of epidemiological data in history but after seven years there are still no results, his marriage is in difficulty and he’s taking yet another paycut  … Better living through chemistry. Adapted by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael  Carnahan from three articles in The New York Times and The Intercept, this is a grimy looking drama about corporate malfeasance that’s paced as slowly and deliberately as Bilott’s lawsuits, with some touches of conventional genre paranoia in one thriller sequence (in a car park, surprise surprise).  It unfurls chronologically, a decade-and-a-half-long story of terrible, destructive deceit – a toxic pollution arrangement covertly blessed by Government agencies, yet another searing indictment of structural inequality and the impunity with which big companies abuse power and kill people, no questions asked. It’s a David and Goliath procedural tale that has global ramifications and despite its desperately dull appearance and some flawed and oddly impersonal directing choices there are some great moments especially for Tim Robbins as Ruffalo’s boss; and Bill Camp, who exudes his usual authenticity beneath some truly eccentric eyebrows. Hathaway’s stay-at-home wife gradually gets a better arc than at first appears; while Ruffalo is shuffling and in pain, dressed in too-big clothes in a whistleblowing role that clearly is a labour of love, a wannabe Hulk gravitationally pulled to earth, feeling the hurt of all his sick, suffering and dying clients as he does his due diligence with dignity and perseverance. Stick with it. Like the Teflon on your frying pan that’s killing you every day. Directed by Todd Haynes. The system is rigged

Dolittle (2020)

Dolittle

The doctor is back. Eccentric Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) lives in self-imposed solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. Devastated by the death of his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak), his only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when little Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), accompanied by young orphan Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), asks him to assist young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) who has become gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark with Stubbins, now his new apprentice, on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure. He is pursued by Dr Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), a jealous medical school rival who is conspiring with evil courtier Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent) to kill the monarch. However he must don a disguise to fool his former father-in-law, the wild brigand King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) who still resents Dolittle for taking away his beloved late daughter. And to obtain the cure for the Queen of England, Dolittle must do battle with the mythical dragons that lie in his way but Müdfly gets there before himI’m too beautiful to die. A remake of the legendary 1967 musical flop (and Eddie Murphy’s 1998 dissociative iteration) based on Hugh Lofting’s Victorian friend of the animal world, from a screen story by Thomas Shepherd, this is written by director Stephen Gaghan & Dan Gregor & Dan Mand & Chris McKay. From squid and stick inset spies, to a parrot narrator (Emma Thompson), a gorilla answering the door and Downey essaying every accent in the British Isles while attempting to alight occasionally in Wales, this is a creature feature of a different variety. Unfairly maligned, this is mild entertainment determinedly pitched at a kiddie audience. It skips through a vaguely sketched plot that even has an Innermost Cave taken from the Hero’s Journey story model, giving Sheen mugging opportunities in another Blair-ite role; while Frances de la Tour has her impacted CGI dragon colon relieved in a leek-induced surgery clearly meant for bottom-obsessed children. This is wonky but it has a good heart and some inappropriately contemporary linguistic efforts to befriend an ethnic audience using a big-name voice cast for the CGI animals (including Ralph Fiennes as a troubled tiger called Barry, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Selena Gomez, Kumail Nanjiani), plus some of that toilet humour to ruffle the feathers. It’s far from a masterpiece but you know that already and Downey is, well, Downey. For some of us that’s plenty, even when his charm is severely tested talking down to the youngsters. Team work is dream work

The Wrong Box (1966)

The Wrong Box

He who Fate sees fit to favour. The Finsbury brothers, Masterman (John Mills) and Joseph (Ralph Richardson), are the last two surviving members of a sixty-two year old tontine [a pool of money/investment scheme] that will pay a huge sum to whomever lives longest. Hoping to bankroll his perpetually bewildered grandson Michael (Michael Caine), Masterman asks Joseph to visit with the intention of killing him. However Joseph’s two scheming nephews John (Dudley Moore) and Morris (Peter Cook) also want the money. and mean to keep Joseph alive long enough to stake their claim. When they think Joseph has died en route to seeing his brother, they attempt to cover it up but they reckon without the complicating factor of Masterman’s apparent death, the intervention of Michael when he realises that Masterman has killed Joseph and the arrival of the Salvation Army led by Mrs Hackett (Irene Handl) who assume Masterman has attempted suicide in the Thames and return him to his home. Then there are questions about the whereabouts of the notorious Bournemouth Strangler …  One should always broaden one’s horizons. Adapted from the 1889 novel by Robert Louis Stevenson co-written with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, the screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove is a frequently hysterical and witty black comedy filled with incredible lines and boasting great performances – Peter Sellers has a marvellous couple of scenes as an aiurophile doctor, concluding with him blotting his signature using the bottom of a cute kitten called Mervyn. I specialise in rare marine diseases of the spleen. Mills and Richardson play the brothers to the hilt – an eccentric and a drag – Shut up, you pedantic boring old poop! It’s dotted with hilarious incidents including a chase involving horse-drawn hearses but the butler Peacock (Wilfrid Lawson, brilliant) has the best bits and Nanette Newman’s (Julia) romance with handsome Caine is choreographed to a gorgeous romantic theme composed by John Barry. Extremely funny with a superlative titles sequence – just watch what happens when Queen Victoria (Avis Bunnage) knights someone. Look out for Nicholas Parsons and Valentine Dyall among the first victims in a cast that represents most of the best comic performers of the era including Tony Hancock who turns up as a detective and that’s Juliet Mills as the cross-dressing Lesbian on a train. Directed by Bryan Forbes (in the third of his four films with Caine) and shot at Pinewood and in Bath with some very funny camera setups from cinematographer Gerry Turpin. Lawson sadly died aged 66 five months after this was released. He’s just extraordinary here and steals every scene he’s in. There are in certain parts of this city men – unscrupulous men! – who will perform unsavoury tasks

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

Venetian Bird (1952)

Venetian Bird

Aka The Assassin. A thousand lira should take care of your ethics. English private detective Charles Mercer (Richard Todd) is deployed by a French insurance company to find a brave Italian war hero who is to be rewarded for his assisting of the Allies in WW2. But from the moment Mercer arrives in Venice his first contact is murdered in a shop and he finds himself on the wrong side of the law – he’s the prime suspect. After enquiring about the mysterious Boldesca (Sydney Tafler) at a museum where the art department  is run by the lovely Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok) the trail leads to a glassblowing factory at Murano where he discovers he has wandered into the plot of a coup d’état run by Count Boria (Wolf Rilla) and Lieutenant Longo (John Bailey) and it turns out that the supposedly dead mystery man Uccello (John Gregson) is very much alive and well and ready for action with an important figure visiting the city the following day … There is nothing for you in Venice. Adapted by Victor Canning from his novel, this has the impression of a Third Man-lite and if it doesn’t have that film’s canted chiaroscuro angles or shooting expertise it has an interesting location and an engrossing if initially confusing scenario. Todd (who was Ian Fleming’s preferred choice to play James Bond) acquits himself well in a narrative which involves a lot of running and jumping and standing still behind statues;  Bartok is suitably enigmatic as the woman with a secret;  and Margot Grahame gets some fantastically dry lines in her role as Rosa, a woman of a certain age:  I have never kept a man under my bed in my life. There are sly laughs to be had at the wholly incongruous casting of Gregson and Sid James, of all people, as native Italians. Directed by Ralph Thomas, but one is left wondering how a film of this ambition would have turned out if a master stylist like Carol Reed had taken hold of such promising material:  instead of a nighttime chase in the sewers of Vienna, we have a daytime chase across the rooftops of Venice; and there is another political theme that was groundbreaking. The score is by Nino Rota. Produced by Betty Box. Out of weakness and confusion we shall create division and strength

The Tenant (1976)

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Aka Le locataire. If you cut off my head, what would I say… Me and my head, or me and my body? What right has my head to call itself me? Shy bureaucrat Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is a Polish-born French citizen who moves into an apartment whose previous female tenant an Egyptologist called Simone Choule threw herself out a window and is dying in hospital, never to return. As his neighbours view him suspiciously, he becomes obsessed with the idea of the beautiful young woman and believes that her friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani) is planning to kill him … These days, relationships with neighbors can be… quite complicated. You know, little things that get blown up out of all proportion? You know what I mean? We know how claustrophobic apartments can be from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. This apartment is in Paris and it is the centre of the neighbours’ gossip and pass-remarkery, those objects of fear for someone who doesn’t wish to be found out, Gérard Brach and Polanski’s adaptation of Roland Topor’s novel Le Locataire Chimérique, turning a suggestive thriller into a paranoid fantasy with a sort of macabre chalky undertaste. Trelkovsky’s introduction to the apartment and view of the lavatory opposite is brilliant and the meet-cute with Stella over the gaping Munchian maw of a moaning mummified Simone is unforgettable. It may not be as beautiful as his other apartment movies but Polanski’s intent is quite clear with the regular reminders of toilet functions and the running gag about cigarettes.The casting is superb: Melvyn Douglas is great as Monsieur Zy, Lila Kedrova as Madame Gaderian with her crippled daughter are spooky while Shelley Winters excels as the concierge. On the one hand, it’s a dance of death bristling with atmosphere and Polanski is its fulcrum, revealing Trevolsky’s gender slippage as surely as he sheds his masculine outerwear while simultaneously descending into the brutal, funny depths of psychological disintegration.  On the other, it’s a perfect film about how lonely it can be a foreigner in the big city and how easy it is to lose oneself while others are watching you. For total trivia fans, the continuity here is done by Sylvette Baudrot who did that job for that other master of apartment movies Alfred Hitchcock on To Catch a Thief.  It’s a wonderful, scary funny Kafkaesque nightmare portrait of Paris and the ending is awesome:  talk about an identity crisis. I am not Simone Choule! 

The Sentinel (1977)

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I find that New Yorkers have no sense for anything but sex and money. Troubled New York City model Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) decides to make some changes in her life. She breaks up with her boyfriend Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) and after being advised by realtor Miss Logan (Ava Gardner) of an apartment in Brooklyn Heights moves into a brownstone with a great view of the city where the only other tenant is a withdrawn blind priest Father Halliran (John Carradine). Then she meets another neighbour Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) who invites her to his delightfully devilish cat’s birthday party and encounters there a lot of other neighbours not supposed to be in residence. After experiencing several strange occurrences she informs the slippery Michael who works with NYC police detectives Gatz (Eli Wallach) and Rizzo (Christopher Walken) to uncover the origins of these people.  Alison begins to realise why the holy man is there – the building has an evil presence that must be kept in check at all costs and it’s somebody else’s turn to keep the devils out ... It’s all right. Listen, listen. I know everything now. The Latin you saw in that book was an ancient warning from the angel Gabriel to the angel Uriel. Personally I always thought my old apartment was the gateway to Hell but that’s another story. All I can say is I wasn’t expecting Gerde’s (Sylvia Miles) galpal Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo) to masturbate fully clothed in front of her houseguest while awaiting afternoon tea. Not exactly good etiquette. Some Lesbians do ‘ave ’em, eh?! There’s a birthday party for a cat (hip hip hooray!), crazed Catholics,  demons, induced suicides – just your usual sociocultural cross-section in a city apartment block, all helpfully revealed by creepy Perry (William Hickey) who says, I just open doors. This is filled with those lovely women that seemed to be everywhere at a certain point in the late Seventies/early Eighties – Raffin, Raines, Miles and the stunning Gardner and it effectively rips off all the Satanic horrors to date, from Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist under the guise of property porn. And there’s Arthur Kennedy as Monsignor Franchino, an unholy priest and Jerry Orbach as a horrible director. And look out for Jeff Goldblum while even Richard Dreyfuss shows up on the sidewalk. SighNutty, derivative, terrible and horrible, a travesty, an insult to the God-fearing, a twist ending you could see coming – I couldn’t take my eyes off it. And no matter what, I am never asking Ava Gardner to be my realtor. Peak Seventies cult. Fabulous. Adapted from his novel by Jeffrey Konvitz with director Michael Winner. All killers, all dead. She went to a party with eight dead murderers

Final Analysis (1992)

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She chooses he who must choose her. San Francisco psychologist Isaac Barr (Richard Gere) is treating Diana Baylor (Uma Thurman) for OCD and she tells him of her particularly vivid dreams and difficult childhood. When he talks with her sister, Heather (Kim Basinger), about their troubled upbringing, he finds his attentions shifting away from his patient. Heather comes on to him, and he falls head over heels, leading to a secret affair complicated by Heather’s violently jealous Greek gangster husband, Jimmy (Eric Roberts). But the complications don’t end there, as Heather may or may not need some serious psychological help herself when she kills her husband while under the influence of alcohol ... Did any of these eighty-seven patients beat their spouses to death? You could make the case for this as an elaborate play on Hitchcockiana, particularly Vertigo, with actresses called Kim getting frisky in San Francisco; or it’s a discourse on the narrative aspects of Freud;  or it’s about the impact of child abuse; and the condition of pathological intoxication discussed here and occasionally induced when some of us watch Gere, never mind when Heather imbibes just one sip of alcohol. And it’s all of these things, together with another nod to Hitch with some great hairdos, numbering a brilliant frightwig for Paul Guilfoyle as District Attorney Mike O’Brien which he doesn’t sport in court, just in shadowy offices. And what about that fabulously phallic lighthouse!  Or you could just say that this is what it is – outrageously fun entertainment with Basinger showing us a huge range in a really great role from cowering terrified wife to deranged gun-wielding murderess. Screenwriter Wesley Strick (remember him?) based his premise on an idea by forensic psychiatrist Robert H. Berger (there were rewrites by TV comedy writer Susan Harris) and it’s directed by Phil Joanou who has made a brilliantly overwrought thriller with a stunningly multi-referential finale. Crazy good with atmospheric photography by Jordan Cronenweth whose final film this was. Sometimes a violet is just a violet

Steel Country (2018)

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Aka A Dark Place. With a dead kid there’s almost always abuse first. In smalltown rural Pennsylvania garbage truck driver Donny Devlin (Andrew Scott) becomes obsessed with the death of local boy Tyler Ziegler when the police don’t want to investigate how he is found in a river and he is buried without an autopsy. Donny takes it upon himself to investigate, irritating his initially sympathetic co-worker Donna (Bronagh Waugh), getting an admission of suspicion of abuse from Mrs Ziegler (Kate Forbes), confronting a local police officer Max Himmler (Griff Furst), tackling the sheriff (Michael Rose), the paediatrician Dr Pomorowski (Andrew Masset) whose office has taken a lot of calls from Tyler’s mom and finally suspecting the boy’s father Jerry (Jason Davies). His own disordered personality almost puts him in the frame, until he digs up Tyler’s corpse and brings it to a coroner to prove his suspicions … Nothing ever happens around here. Brendan Higgins’ screenplay is equal parts character study and mystery. The noises in Donny’s head and his frankly unusual disposition are never truly explained, the grounds for his obsession left untapped other than a presumed autistic problem hence a rather narrow field of enquiry. The circumstances of how he conceived his beloved 11-year old daughter Wendy (Christa Beth Campbell) with Linda (Denise Gough) are rather seedy;  his living situation with his disabled mother (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) kindly depicted. Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography peers into the American darklands but other than corruption, the kind of easy institutional conspiracy that seems ten-a-penny in child abuse cases and the interesting positing of a paediatrician as a paedophile (one is reminded of a case in the UK when subliterate vigilantes targetted a doctor’s office, presumably believing that child abusers advertise their predilections on their doors), it doesn’t really ring the narrative cause-effect that is required. However it is tonally interesting and Scott delivers a committed if distracting performance in this ironically titled story where industry has long departed leaving predators free to exploit their working class targets. The ending is jaw-dropping – just not necessarily in a good way. Directed by Simon Fellows. What are you trying to do? You trying to give your shitty life some meaning?

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

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Everything you ever hoped for, everything you ever dreamed of being a part of, is a fabrication. Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a disenchanted 33-year-old who discovers a mysterious woman, Sarah (Riley Keough) frolicking in his apartment’s swimming pool.  He befriends her little bichon frisé dog Coca Cola. She has a drink with him and they watch How to Marry a Millionaire in the apartment she shares with two other women.  Her disappearance coincides with that of billionaire Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann) whose body is eventually found with Sarah’s. Sam embarks on a surreal quest across Los Angeles to decode the secret behind her disappearance, leading him into the murkiest depths of mystery, scandal, and conspiracy as he descends to a labyrinth beneath the City of Angels while engaging with Comic Fan (Patrick Fischler) author of Under the Silver Lake a comic book about urban legends who he believes knows what’s behind a series of dog killings and other conspiracy theories who himself is murdered …Something really big is going on. I know it. Written, produced and directed by David Robert Mitchell who made the modern horror masterpiece It Follows, this is another metatext in which strange portents and signs abound. Revelling in Hollywoodiana – Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Gaynor – and noir and death and the afterlife and the songs that dominate your life and who may or may not have written them, this seems to be an exploration of the obsessions of Gen X. It’s an interesting film to have come out in the same year as Tarantino’s Hollywood mythic valentine Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and it covers some of the same tropes that have decorated that auteur’s past narratives with a postmodern approach that is summed up in one line: An entire generation of men obsessed with codes and video games and space aliens. The messages in the fetishised songs and cereal box toys and movies are all pointing to a massive conspiracy in communication diverting people from their own meaninglessness, symbolised in the disappearance of the billionaire which has to do with a different idea of the afterlife available only to the very rich. Sam’s quest (and it is a quest – he’s literally led by an Arthurian type of homeless guy – David Yow from the band The Jesus Lizard – straight out of The Fisher King) is a choose your own adventure affair where he gets led down some blind alleys including prostitution and chess games and even gets sprayed by a skunk which lends his character a very special aroma. The postmodern approach even extends to the sex he has – with Millicent Sevence’s (Callie Hernandez) death being a grotesque parody of the magazine cover that initiated him to masturbation. Sigh. Garfield holds the unfolding cartography together but that’s what actors do – they fill in the missing scenes:  it may not be everyone’s idea of fun to watch Spider Man having graphic sex scenes and doing things to himself but the audience is also being played.  If the objects are diffuse and the message too broad, well, you can make of it what you will. It means whatever you want it to mean (it’s not about burial, it’s about ascension), a spectral fever dream that at the end of the day is a highly sexual story about a guy who wants to make it with the woman across the court yard in his apartment building, no matter how many secret messages or subliminal warnings are in your breakfast or how many Monroe scenes are re-enacted, filmed, photographed or otherwise stored in the minutiae of our obsessive compulsive Nineties brains. So what do you think it all means?