The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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In the face of the fabulous new your thought is to kill it?  Los Angeles 2049. K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner for Wallace, the new incarnation of the Tyrell Corporation led by blind Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) whose right hand woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is enchanted by K’s story that a replicant may have had a child. He is ordered by LAPD (in the guise of Robin Wright) to get rid of any evidence that a replicant could have given birth in order to see off a war between replicants and humans. He returns to the site of a dead tree and finds something that makes him think he can remember something from his own childhood and it leads him into a spiral of discovery that involves tracking down his predecessor before Prohibition and the Blackout, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who appears to have something to do with the rebel replicants underground …. Where to start? This hybridised metafictive spawn of one of the greatest achievements in cinema is no easy ride. The way it looks for one. It’s horrible. Mostly greys with occasional harking back to the navy and neon and a sour yellow, a nod to the burnished autumnal shadings of the original. The Orientalised appearances are now more subtly rendered but are even more prevalent as though mixed into a Caucasian blender. Then there are the women. Luv is clearly meant to remind us of Rachael (Sean Young) while the reference to Nabokov’s Pale Fire is intended to tell us that there are two fictional characters sparring with one another here – but the question is, which two, and of them, who’s real and who’s a replicant? The quasi-Oedipal story steers right into a quagmire of identities and dreams and purported flashbacks. Other quotes – Kafka, Treasure Island, and even the songs that play as holograms in a burned-out Vegas – also serve to get us to look one way, instead of another. The idea of relationships as a figment of your imagination – literally, a hologram – is conceptually brilliant and well executed (in every sense) but takes too long as a narrative device to be told and then unravel. The ending is enormously clever and draws on facets of Philip K. Dick’s own backstory: it’s literally a tidal wash of action and memories. But are they real? Are they implants? Hampton Fancher is back but with co-writer Michael Green this time instead of David Webb Peoples. You can see the spliced DNA with Harlan Ellison (an insistence on procreation) as well as PKD  (what is humanity? what is reality?) and the literary turns which have some good jokes. There are some nice lines too and even if they’re on the nose they actually future proof it somewhat:  You’ve never seen a miracle.  Or, I know it’s real. Or, Dying for the right cause is the most human thing you can do. They actually conceal what is paid off by misdirecting us.  It gets away with its visual tributes to the original cast with the prostitute who looks like Darryl Hannah and Hoeks who clearly resembles Sean Young even in ill-fitting costume.  Directed by Denis Villeneuve who is one of the most audacious mainstream directors at the present time with Ridley Scott producing,  I appreciate what they’re doing here but it’s a pale twenty-first century facsimile, more replicant than human.  Ford enters the fray so late and Gosling is not my favourite actor albeit he acquits himself well as someone who starts to feel things he shouldn’t given his somewhat obscure origins as a police functionary. But I have feelings too. Nothing can compare with the sensory overload that is Blade Runner, the daddy of the species. Notwithstanding the foregoing, as all the best legal minds argue, the ending is brilliant. Oh! The humanity.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

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Whoever heard of a cowardly ghost. It’s 1900 and widowed Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is finally breaking away from the oppression of the awful in-laws, renting a sea cottage with her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and maid Martha (Edna Best). That’s despite the estate agent’s advice to take another property because … it’s haunted by its former owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), a presumed suicide. When he appears to her on a regular basis he insists it was an accident when he fell asleep in front of the gas fire. They have a frosty relationship but it becomes something more than mutual tolerance and he calls her Lucia because she’s more Amazonian than she believes. He insists on keeping his portrait – in her bedrooom. He is incensed when she cuts down the monkey puzzle he planted himself. He teaches her salty language and by dictating a sensational book – Blood and Swash! – he saves her from penury and a dread return to her late husband’s home. He appears at the most inopportune moments, for a year anyhow. One day at the publisher’s she encounters Uncle Neddy (George Sanders) a most unlikely children’s author. She is romanced, to the grievous jealousy of Daniel. She is the only person who likes the suave one, and the joke’s on her as she finds out one day in London.  The years pass … The paradox at the centre of the story is perfectly encapsulated by Tierney whose very blankness elicited criticism:  for it is the dead seadog who brings her back to life. There’s a very funny scene when he’s seated beside her on the train and the clever writing actually conveys the joke. Philip Dunne adapted the novel The Ghost of Captain Gregg and Mrs Muir by R.A. Dick, a pseudonym for Josephine Leslie. This is utterly beguiling, a sheer delight and an enchantment from another time. Directed rather beautifully by Joseph Mankiewicz.

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 …

 

The Real Glory (1939)

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I can start a fire by rubbing two boy scouts together. This loose reworking of Lives of a Bengal Lancer reunites that film’s director Henry Hathaway with star Gary Cooper, transposing the action to the Philippines mid-uprising by the Moro (Moslem) guerillas. Colonel Hatch (Roy Gordon) is ordered to withdraw his troops from their island station.  There’s an insurgent army threatening the Filipinos so he lines up some of his best men to train the locals – military doctor Bill Canavan (Cooper),  along with McCool (David Niven) and Larson (Broderick Crawford), who make a lively pair of heroes.  When Linda (Andrea Leeds) the daughter of Captain Steve Hartley (Reginald Owen) enters the fray there are the usual romantic complications but these are second to the action which is at times horribly violent but excellently handled by Hathaway who was by now an expert at the genre and made a total of seven films with Cooper. (He had also previously made another Philippines-set film, Come On Marines!). When Hatch is killed by the guerillas Manning (Russell Hicks) takes over and after the local river is dammed there’s a cholera outbreak. Canavan befriends ‘Mike’ and infiltrates a Moro camp. Lines get crossed and a rescue attempt turns into an ambush …  Hartley meanwhile is going blind and doesn’t want to admit it. Who will blow up the dam? Jo Swerling and Robert Presnell Sr. adapted the novel by Charles L. Clifford which dealt with the real rebellion during US occupation at the beginning of the last century. Niven isn’t used remotely often enough in this Samuel Goldwyn Production but Leeds makes a very good impression as an atypical romantic lead. This was her third last film before her marriage into the Howard family who bred racehorses – including that little fella that could, Seabiscuit.

Death on the Nile (1978)

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La grande ambition des femmes est d’inspirer l’amour. Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot gets to flex his little grey cells on a luxury cruise through Egypt that is filled with eccentrics, madwomen and murderers.  Peter Ustinov plays the beloved Belgian for the first time in this plush, epic adaptation by Anthony Shaffer which is as much black comedy as murder mystery. Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) is the heiress who steals Simon Doyle (Simon McCorkindale) from her best friend Jackie (Mia Farrow) and the jilted one turns up on their honeymoon everywhere they stop – including Egypt. Poirot meets up with Colonel Race (David Niven) and a right motley crew of passengers on a paddle steamer tour, including a drunken romance writer Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) with her long-suffering daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey); kleptomaniac socialite Marie von Schuyloer  (Bette Davis, in Baby Jane eyeliner) and her decidedly masculine assistant and travelling companion Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith); Linnet’s greedy lawyer Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy); Linnet’s decidedly frisky French maid Louise Bourget (Jane Birkin). Turns out everyone on board had a good reason for killing Linnet. There’s also Jon Finch, Jack Warden and Sam Wanamaker for good measure. While we see Aswan, the Pyramids, Karnak and the Sphinx, we enjoy the trials and tribulations as these people knock up against each other and what unspools when Linnet is eventually murdered. Seeing Lansbury strongarm Niven into a dance is a particular delight. This is a great cast playing with evident relish. Gorgeously costumed by Anthony Powell, beautifully lit and shot by Jack Cardiff,  typically well scored by Nino Rota and handled with pace and humour by director John Guillermin, this is a leisurely and colourful Sunday afternoon treat.

Lost in Translation (2003)

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I would love to get some sleep. What an arresting film this is. It starts with a closeup of a woman’s behind, clad in pink panties. She’s lying in her room at the Tokyo Hyatt while her photographer husband is off doing his thing. They’re a very young married couple. She is bored. She is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), he is John (Giovanni Ribisi). When she calls home for support her mother misunderstands so she pretends she’s having a good time. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a huge film star, in the city to shoot some ads for Suntory whisky. He notices Charlotte in the elevator but later it turns out she doesn’t remember seeing him. He endures ridiculous directions on the set of his commercial and doesn’t believe the translator is telling him everything the director wants (she’s not). He encounters Charlotte at the hotel bar where a band called Sausalito performs cover versions. They sympathise with each other and then wind up spending time together. She can’t bear her husband’s acquaintances, especially the nutty movie star Kelly (Anna Faris) who masquerades under the pseudonym Evelyn Waugh: he thinks his wife is a condescending snob when she points out Evelyn Waugh was a man. Charlotte and Bob hang out, explore this alien city, so brilliantly shot by Lance Acord, who used no additional lighting in that neon landscape and a lot of the stuff in railway stations was shot minus permits so it’s loose and documentary-like.  Murray is so specific and yet relaxed and it’s one of the great film performances, awarded with a BAFTA. Johansson is no less good with her very different style, duly noted by BAFTA voters too. Coppola had spent time in Japan and the character of Bob is supposedly based on family friend Harrison Ford with Charlotte a riff (perhaps) on herself. There are some great sequences with the limpid photography sensing something – let’s call it empathy – between the two in various iconic locations:  the karaoke bar; the strip club; escaping Kelly’s terrible singing in the hotel; the hospital; lying on a bed together with Bob holding Charlotte’s injured foot (how very fitting in a country famous for the foot fetish) and finally falling asleep. His inevitable sexual encounter with the lounge singer doesn’t surprise us because when he tells his wife on the phone I feel lost she doesn’t understand. It’s a twenty-five year old marriage and Charlotte is so young and yet they both come to an understanding about their private situations with this mutual experience of incomprehension and loneliness. When he tries to explain to Charlotte how he feels about his life he says having a family is hard. She gets it but deflects it by asking him has he bought a Porsche. So much of life is lost in translation even in funny scenes such as when Bob is at the TV station with the Japanese equivalent of a lunatic Johnny Carson.  People are lost inside of marriage. An undertow of sorrow tugs at everything and threatens to unravel the subtle construction which concludes in the final shots with the famously unscripted whispered exchange, inaudible to anyone except the performers. I first saw this 24 hours after landing in LA in 2003 and was utterly jet-lagged – so a propos for a film equal parts startling and narcotic:  seeing a stripper perform to Peaches certainly wakes a person up from airline slumber. The songs are especially well chosen in an atmospheric soundtrack with a score by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. Sofia Coppola won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay and was nominated for Best Director too. This was her second film and it’s pretty awesome with a lot of the tropes now so familiar from her body of work – hotels, alienation, the unknowability of women. You can read my review of a book about her films here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood. Right after I saw this I was scared witless by the re-released Alien at the Cinerama Dome and then nearly got arrested for jaywalking on Hollywood Boulevard. But that’s another story.

Panic Room (2002)

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Divorced mom Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) are no sooner moved into their new four-storey NYC brownstone than the previous owner’s grandson Junior (Jared Leto), caretaker Burnham (Forest Whitaker) and psychotic Raoul (singer Dwight Yoakam) have broken in to steal millions in bearer’s bonds belonging to Junior’s grandpa – now the Altman money (much more) happens to be in the eponymous space where the ladies have decamped. Trouble is, these guys really want that money and are arguing amongst themselves and in the panic room little Sarah is going into diabetic shock … This was part of Foster’s reinvention as a paranoid action woman – triggered only when Nicole Kidman had to withdraw from the role due to injury.  Screenwriter David Koepp wastes absolutely no time in putting the ladies in jeopardy and it’s a face-off between their ingenuity and the desperate men’s resorting to violence that fuels the narrative which is disrupted again by the arrival of Altman pere (Patrick Bauchau). After a taut mid-section it descends into a rather predictable shootout at the conclusion but not before there are some genuinely thrilling moments including a visit by the local police force following Meg’s phonecall which she has to disavow because the thieves are watching on the extensive CCTV system. A good example of the home invasion thriller and nice to see a blonde Kristen Stewart pre-nose job! And a nicely ironic physical example of what the snowflakes would call a safe space …. (ha!) Directed with his usual flair by David Fincher.

Frail Women (1932)

 

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You made one big mistake. You never killed your conscience. This British equivalent of a Pre-Code Hollywood melodrama tells the tough story of  Lilian Hamilton (Mary Newcomb) who gave birth to an illegitimate daughter following a brief liaison during WW1 and had her adopted:  now that daughter Mary (Margaret Vines) is part of a wealthy family and ready to get married but her origins remain clouded and marriage might not occur now. Lilian is shacked up with a bookmaker (Edmund Gwenn) and is finally introduced to her adult daughter. The various inter-relationships that occur when everyone’s paths cross to try and render Mary legitimate  and ready for a society marriage are traced until the inevitably tragic outcome occurs. Fascinating, literate and well performed by an impressive cast.  Written by Michael Barringer and directed by that workhorse, Maurice Elvey.

American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.