Miss Bala (2019)

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They’re all dirty. And they’re coming after me. Los Angeles makeup artist and Mexican emigrée Gloria Fuentes (Gina Rodriguez) asks the police for help when cartel hit men kidnap her friend Suzu Ramos (Cristina Rodio) from a nightclub in Tijuana, Mexico. She soon finds herself in big trouble when a corrupt cop hands her over to the same goons who shot up the place in an attempted hit on Police Chief Saucedo (Damian Alcazar). Gang leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) decides to use Gloria for his dirty work to avoid detection from the Drug Enforcement Administration one of whom Brian Reich (Matt Lauria) puts a tracking device on her to entrap the gang who get her to transport drugs across the border to San Diego where she’s met by gangster Jimmy (Anthony Mackie) who is actually an undercover CIA agent. Determined to get away, Gloria must now play a dangerous game to outwit not only the cartel but the DEA agents who now suspect her of complicity and she winds up finding out the hard way that she’s been sold out – in the middle of a shootout – and has to choose sides …  You thought I was a bad guy?  I’m just playing their game. This action thriller remake of a 2011 Spanish-language film from director Catherine Hardwicke has everything going for it except characterisation:  sometime, someone, somewhere will remember that character is also action, it’s not enough in the #MeToo era to just put a woman in the protagonist’s role and have her run from bullets (and that’s what ‘bala’ means, not that you’d know it) and sell it as a female-oriented film. And, in yet another ad for Mexico’s tourism industry – drugs, guns, cross-border crime, female intimidation, endless non-stop murders – the best thing you could possibly do on that front is to keep well away. And what on earth has that poster got to do with anything? Oh, when the plot finally kicks in after 70 minutes our heroine has to take part in a beauty pageant (Miss Baja) which leads to a rather good twist ending but it’s all too little, rather late. There is some interesting architecture however. Yawn. Written by Garrett Dunnet-Alcocer. Everyone works for us now. Play your part

Gunfighters (1947)

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We’ve either got to run this country with our guns or without ’em. We can’t go on with this halfway thing. In Texas, gunfighter Brazos Kane (Randolph Scott) decides to lay down his guns and rides out to visit his best friend only to come across the aftermath of his murder. When Brazos takes the body to the nearby ranch of the powerful Banner (Griff Barnett), the rancher accuses him of the murder and he is saved from hanging by diner proprietor Uncle Joe/Jose (Steven Geray) who remembers him from way back. He passes the murderer’s bullet to a beautiful ranching woman Jane Banner (Dorothy Hart). Banner’s other daughter, Bess (Barbara Britton), takes the vital piece of evidence, leaving Brazos to evade Banner and a crooked Sheriff Kiscaden (Charles Kemper) as he reluctantly takes up arms to prove his innocence discovering that Bess’ real love interest Banner ranch foreman Bard Macky (Bruce Cabot) is the likely culprit … I believe I’m more interested in you than anything that ever wore boots. This fine adaptation of Zane Grey’s 1941 novel Twin Sombreros has a zesty approach and a liveliness that reverberates through a cast well served with sharp writing from the pen of Alan Le May, the writer of The Searchers. Scott is dependable as the decent guy wrongly identified as a killer and then facing corruption and he has some excellent setpieces in a screenplay that’s filled with smart lines (including a running joke about food) and good character roles. Charley Grapewin is fun as Rancher Inskip and Geray as Uncle Joe/Jose is particularly well used to fill in the backstory on Brazos. The tension arises from Brazos’ refusal to wear guns but we know it’s only a matter of time and when it happens, gosh darn it, if he doesn’t go and say, Any time you feel lucky! like a prototype for Dirty Harry. He has a nice ruminative voiceover to top and tail the movie.  It’s beautiful to look at too, with CineColor cinematography by Fred Jackman Jr. It was shot in Andy Jauregui Ranch and Monogram Ranch in Newhall, California, Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park in Agua Dulce, California, and Sedona, Arizona. One can only pray the horses were well treated because they are worked hard in this story. Hart and Britton are delectable as lookalike sisters:  Wonder what she wants?/Depends on which one it is! It’s an interesting narrative development to have Scott’s affections apparently transfer from one to the other, although Hart is utterly luminous like a fashion plate come to life in her feature debut, Britton served as the love interest in a lot of westerns of the period and the tussle between them is highly entertaining and more inventive than good twin/bad twin. Now you’d even ride off with a different man if you thought that would helpIt’s produced by Harry Joe Brown with whom Scott would make a cycle of great films in the Fifties but this era is intrinsic to understanding how that one came about. Directed by George Waggner . I sure rode the heck out of that wild bunch

Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)

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Information is everything  – the currency, the power. Young United Nations employee Michael Soussan (Theo James) has left his lucrative job at a bank because he wants to follow in his late diplomat father’s footsteps and travels to Iraq with his mentor Under-Secretary-General Costa ‘Pasha’ Passaris (Ben Kingsley), who is going to show him how successful the UN’s Oil-for-Food Programme has been. When Michael gets a deeper look at the organisation on the ground he listens to the concerns of local UN diplomat Christina Dupre (Jacqueline Bisset) and unveils a corruption conspiracy in which officials both inside and outside of the UN are skimming billions off the top of the aid meant for the Iraqi people. When he meets UN worker (and secret Kurdish activist) Nashim (Bilçim Bilgin) and she informs him his predecessor was murdered, he finds his head being turned yet he wants to do the right thing … There was nobody left who knew how to run the countryPitched as a political thriller, this reeks of the great Seventies paranoid conspiracy stories that Pakula and Pollack made so much their own – and even concludes in a visit to the Wall Street Journal, conjuring images of Robert Redford in his own cat and mouse chase. However this whistleblower drama is a bigger story with the bad guys less easy to identify simply because there are so many of them – thousands of global companies, some household brands, bribing Saddam Hussein, and, as we might recall from the news of 15 years ago, revolved around the United Nations. So basically everything we know is right – they’re all at it, as the overly truthful title indicates. Graft is good. Our shoulder-shrugging dismay is sealed by intermittent montages of newsreel, reminding us that we are watching, as it were, a true story, while some of the ensemble get killed in car bombs as Iraq is carved up by vested interests. Kingsley, unsurprisingly, gets all the best lines and this performance is meat and drink to him. James is more diffuse as the good guy constantly stunned into submission by the realisation that corruption is a way of life and he still scrabbles to do whatever is right, whatever that might be, at any given time as the tables are constantly turned on him in this story of a naïf’s progress.  Adapted from Soussan’s memoir by director Per Fly (isn’t that the best name ever?!) and Daniel Pyne. Admirable but not wholly effective.  What you call corruption is simply the growing pains of a new democracy

 

White Boy Rick (2018)

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When I first saw you I knew you were going to be bigger than me. Rick Wershe (Matthew McConaughey) is a single father who dreams of opening a video store and is struggling to raise teenagers Rick Jr. (newcomer Richie Merritt) and Dawn (Bel Powley) during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in 1980s Detroit. Wershe makes gun parts and sells guns illegally to make ends meet but soon attracts attention from the FBI and tips them off with information now and then. Federal agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane) convince Rick Jr. to become an undercover drug informant in exchange for keeping his father out of prison. When young Rick gets in too deep, he finds himself seduced by the lure of easy money and aligns himself with local black drug dealer Johnny Curry (Jonathan Majors) becoming a dealer himself with his father taking decisive action to remedy the situation… At least you never lost your looks – cos you never had ’em!  Remember the Eighties, when your local tabloid was reporting that kids taking crack for the first time just threw themselves off buildings, presumably to counter the highs they were experiencing?! Maybe they thought they could fly. Ah, sweet mysteries of life. Based on Wershe Jr’s memoir, this is adapted by Andy Weiss, Noah Miller and Logan Miller and it’s a lively if dispiriting take on family and true crime, with striking scenes and juxtapositions, well directed by Yann Demange, who made the best film about the Northern Ireland Troubles to date, ’71. This has all the accoutrements of the times, looking and feeling right but the scuzzy criminality and tone-perfect characterisation with vivid performances (notably by Powley, Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as the grandparents and McConaughey’s star turn, especially towards the end) don’t mean you want to be in the company of these people another minute or enter this perfectly grim urban milieu even if McConaughey and Cochrane are back together 25 years after Dazed and Confused. Gritty realism is all very well but sometimes too much is enough. They haul in our ass we do black time so you don’t be reckless around here

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?

The Company You Keep (2012)

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We all died. Some of us came back. Decades after an ill-fated robbery in which an innocent man was killed, a former member of the Weather Underground Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is on her way to turn herself in to authorities when the FBI arrest her at a gas station after her phone is tapped. While covering the story and digging around, reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) discovers that recently widowed human rights lawyer Jim Grant (Robert Redford) was also a member of that particular group and is really a man called Nick Sloan since the real Jim Grant died in 1979. Sloan slips by the FBI led by Cornelius (Terrence Howard) who are following him when he goes on the run, from Albany through the Midwest and beyond, hoping to track down his former lover, Mimi (Julie Christie), who’s still underground and fighting for the cause. He leaves his young daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho) with his doctor brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) and his wife. Meanwhile, Ben encounters a police officer Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson) who knew Nick back in the day and meets his his adult daughter Rebecca (Britt Marling) who is a lot older than she initially seems and Ben figures she is somehow connected to Mimi and Nick ... Everybody knew somebody who was going over or somebody who wasn’t coming back.  Adapted by Lem Dobbs from the titular 2003 novel by Neil Gordon, Robert Redford directed and produced this film which of course nods to that period in his own life when he was politically attuned and making films which spoke to the zeitgeist. Partly it’s about the state of journalism and Ben’s role of the ambitious journo who isn’t looking beyond the headlines, as Nick/Jim declares to him, Well that pretty much sums up why journalism is dead. It’s a pivotal statement because this is all about ethics – Sharon’s self-justifying, his hiding away, the times in which people live and endure their families being destroyed by violence, homegrown or otherwise (and millennial corruption is everywhere evident as Ben gets information with the passing of greenbacks to everyone he encounters). LaBeouf is good as the questing young writer – and looking at his screen career perhaps it’s the company he keeps that improves his impact because he’s surrounded by a great ensemble doing very fine work, including Nick Nolte who shows up as another member of the group. This is a serious work about a complex time which clarifies why historical crimes demand more than cursory payback and jail time. It’s well-paced, a drama of conscience, guilt and retribution. Now that’s context. They did unforgivable things but you’ve got to admire the commitment.

 

 

Deadline USA (1952)

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A journalist makes himself the hero of the story. A reporter is only a witness. New York City newspaper The Day is in money trouble. Even though editor Ed Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart) has worked hard running the paper, its circulation has been steadily declining. Now the widow (Ethel Barrymore) of the paper’s publisher wants to sell the paper to a commercial rival, which will most likely mean its end. Hutcheson also worries that his estranged ex-wife Nora (Kim Hunter) is about to remarry. His only hope of saving the paper is to increase the numbers by finishing his exposé on a dangerous racketeer Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel) before the sale is made final after a reporter is badly beaten up investigating the murder of a girl called Bessie Schmidt who may have been Rienzi’s mistress while her brother Herman (Joe De Santis) had dealings with him... Stupidity isn’t hereditary, you acquire it by yourself. Twentieth Century-Fox and writer/director Richard Brooks were a good fit:  a studio that liked pacy stories paired with a filmmaker whose toughness had a literary quality and a fast-moving narrative style.  Both parties wanted message movies and the message here is A free press, like a free life, sir, is always in danger. The newspaper is broadly based on New York Sun which closed in 1950 (and it was edited by Benjamin Day) although according to Brooks’ biography it was more or less based on New York World which closed in 1931. The casting is great with Bogart excellent as the relentlessly crusading editor who acts on his principles while all about him tumble to influence and threats, trying to peddle the truth rather than the expeditious. Barrymore towers in her supporting role as the publisher and their conflict with her daughters is the ballast to the crime story, with the marital scenario giving it emotional heft. Jim Backus does some nice work as reporter Jim Cleary:  For this a fellow could catch a hole in the head. A cool piece of work, in every sense of the term. Watch for an uncredited James Dean as a copyboy in a busy montage. That’s the press, baby. The press! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!

The Driver (1978)

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You know I don’t like guns. The laconic and enigmatic Driver (Ryan O’Neal) excels at manoeuvering getaway vehicles through the tightest of spots following robberies, making him quite in demand in the criminal underworld. His skill and notoriety, however, infuriate the corrupt Detective (Bruce Dern), who becomes obsessed with taking the Driver down and has issues convincing his cohorts (Matt Clark and Felice Orlandi) on the best way to entrap him. He decides to use Teeth (Joseph Walsh) and his trigger-happy gang, and offers them a deal in a set up robbery. Luckily for the speed-loving anti-hero, the Player (Isabelle Adjani), a gorgeous and resourceful woman, is around to help him elude the Detective… I’ll tell you something, I’m very good at what I do. Who says American cinema doesn’t do existential? Channeling Melville (Jean-Pierre) and Camus this boils the film noir down to essentials and provides a sustained picture of Los Angeles at night often challenged, rarely equalled. From the country and western music played on his Craig electronic notebook (I want one) to his moniker of Cowboy, the western allusions play out with an unexpected shootout involving a man who doesn’t usually carry a gun. The irony of course is in the casting:  Dern once killed John Wayne on screen, so brings that genre baggage to this tapestry of tropes. Writer Walter Hill was making his sophomore directing outing following Hard Times and you can tell he watched a lot of Raoul Walsh movies.  The generic character names are proper archetypes that take flight in this most meticulously conceived actioner, the car chases reminding us of his work as AD on Bullitt (he wrote this for Steve McQueen). There’s astonishing camerawork and shot design by Philip H. Lathrop, who did Shadow of a Doubt and Saboteur with Hitchcock and the opening tracking shot on Touch of Evil, as well as doing a great job on Blake Edwards’ astonishing LA movie Experiment in Terror and The Pink Panther. There are other titles on his resumé, but those are impressive enough credentials for one DoP. The limpid lighting and great cutting make this muscular thriller a visually haunting experience. The scene when the Driver teaches Teeth and his gang how to really drive a Merc in an underground car park is stunning and you know, when you think about it, they’re just driving around a car park.  That’s all. But it’s how they do it that matters. There is a winning simplicity and modernity that bespeaks careful construction to achieve this finessed cinematic affect. And there’s the significance of the cars in the culture and what this is about symbolically, a western scenario unfolding in a lawless town where Dern fancies his chances as omnipotent sheriff irritated by his constantly questioning sidekicks. There’s the usual hilariously inexpressive performing by Adjani, a great supporting role for Ronee Blakley as the Connection and a very satisfying ending. This is why Walter Hill is one of the geniuses of cinema and why O’Neal was a major star, perfect for the era. He looks great, he says little and he does it with surgical exactitude. He and Dern have utterly asymmetrical acting styles and make remarkably memorable complementary foes. One of the great Seventies movies.  How do we know you’re that good?

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

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They told me I’d have control over it but they lied. Fired from the National Security Agency, Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) recruits infamous computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) to steal FireWall, a computer programme he has created that can access codes for nuclear weapons worldwide and he wants to disable it before it falls into the wrong hands. The download soon draws attention from an NSA agent Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) who traces the activity to Stockholm where he’s warned off interfering on arrival by Gabriella Grane (Synnove Macody Lund) deputy director of the Swedish Security Service. Further problems arise when Russian thugs take Lisbeth’s laptop and kidnap a math whiz who can make FireWall work. When Frans is murdered and his young autistic son August (Christopher Convery) is kidnapped Lisbeth must race against time to save the boy and recover the codes to avert disaster but a series of violent obstacles lead her to ask journalist ally Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) for help and he understands that the roots of her problem lie within her own family and the sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks) whom she says is dead I think you are scared of what would become of Mikael Blomkvist if there was no Lisabeth Salander. It’s not really about Mikael, actually, because it’s about family and the violence within and what Lisbeth left behind. Adapted by director Fede Álvarez, Steven Knight and Jay Basu from the eponymous novel by David Lagercrantz, a sequel to the Millennium Trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson, this forms a sequel of sorts to David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo whose audience reception apparently caused him to lose interest in continuing the series and there’s a total change in casting and emphasis. It starts with a flashback to sex abuse in Lisbeth’s family, with a pervert father and an abused sister who cannot reconcile Lisbeth’s crusade against men who harm women:  Lisbeth left her behind and Camilla has pursued her father’s career with Russian gangsters. The jeopardy with the kidnapping of August produces emotional resonance but everything else is rather by the numbers considering the depth of backstory and Foy’s performance, supplanting earrings and bodily markings with characterisation in what is a kind of origin story. The sisters’ face off (literally – involving S&M and stopping Lisbeth breathe) is one of the film’s highlights, another is a motorcycle escape across an icy Swedish lake and there’s a nice turnaround featuring techie expert Plague (Cameron Britton) working in cahoots with Edwin, but otherwise it’s quite a muted and unenergetic thriller with a rather silly plot, seemingly shot in Stockholm’s yellowy grey mornings at dawn, and not exactly an advert for the tourism business.  I bet you can’t wait to write a story about all this

Little Pink House (2017)

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This land is everything I have.  In New London, Connecticut at the end of the 1990s twice-divorced paramedic Susette Kelo (Catherine Keener) renovates a little waterfront cottage overlooking the River Thames with the help of new boyfriend, antiques dealer Tim Leblanc (Callum Keith Rennie).  She finds out it’s designated for demolition in a deal the city has done with the Pfizer Corporation who want to turn the beautiful location into expensive real estate suitable for their needs. She reluctantly becomes the spokeswoman for the working class neighbourhood and endures horrendous intimidation led by Walthrop College academic Charlotte Wells (Jeanne Tripplehorn) forcing a legal battle with assistance from a free legal institution that goes all the way to the Supreme Court as her friends’ homes are bulldozed to make way for a factory manufacturing Viagra… We are only here to make this city you live in a better place.  This is an eye-opening true account of a battle about eminent domain – the compulsory acquisition of private property for development by third parties whether or not the home owners approve. That sounds dull as ditchwater but thanks to a legal decision it affects everybody. It’s truly awful to hear firefighters beating off the flames in the next door house muttering in earshot, That’s one way to get rid of her. You can only feel the wonderful Catherine Keener’s terrible fear. This biographical drama is low key but good on the law – slow moving, unfair and you have to be very quick off the mark in a society that is essentially corrupt to its core with a constant eye on the bottom line, the verbal version of that being, it’s for their own good! Rennie is terrific as the unfortunate boyfriend who endures horrific injuries in a car crash leaving him mentally and physically disabled. As if enough hadn’t gone wrong already. There is nice support from Tripplehorn as the almost caricatured double dealer who wears makeup to bed, compounding the moral chasm between her and the unshowy Keener;  and Giacomo Baessato as lawyer Scott  Bullock. The Supreme Court decision of 2005 (supported by one Donald Trump) to permit the enforced possession of people’s homes for the profit of private companies is in the same domain as the swamp occupied by that bastion of civil liberties Mark Zuckerberg – it may not be ethical but it’s sure as hell legal. Preserve us all from such fine minds. The fight continues. Written and directed by Courtney Moorehead Balaker, adapting the 2009 book by Jeff Benedict, this conveys complex information in a very accessible style.  There’s a lovely set of songs by Robin Rapsys. If you even try to take my home away from me the whole world is going to hear about it