The Leisure Seeker (2017)

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It’s just something I really need to do with your father.  Retired English teacher John Spencer (Donald Sutherland) and wife Ella (Helen Mirren) take off in their RV without telling anyone in order to escape a probable nursing home (him, with Alzheimer’s) and a punishing chemo regime (her, for cancer). They abandon grown up son Will (Christian McKay) who cares for them each day, despite knowing it’s his sister Jane (Janel Moloney) who’s the favoured offspring and college professor a comfortable couple of hours away. The siblings are up the walls about the disappearance. Even neighbour Lillian (Dana Ivey) is out of the loop. The couple negotiate the Seventies vehicle down the east coast via camp sites, diners, the world’s slowest police chase, historical re-enactments, a stint in a home and occasional beaches, to their eventual destination, the home of John’s hero, Ernest Hemingway, in Key West.  En route their journey has revelations, massive doses of forgetfulness, a holdup, a posh hotel, a terrible (unconscious) admission, illness and phonecalls home… Michael Zadoorian’s novel is adapted by Italian director Paolo Virzi, making his English language feature debut, with Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi and Francesco Piccolo, and it bears up considerably better than you might think. This isn’t just down to the playing of the leads, who are brilliant, although Mirren’s Savannah accent slips a lot.  There are lovely moments particularly when Sutherland is regaling waitresses with lines from his favourite books and when one confesses she’s done her thesis on it he’s in hog heaven. Ella prefers the movie adaptations. They are a joy to watch, sparking off one another and falling into old habits and new ideas.  Their life together is recalled in tranquil bouts of watching slides on a sheet outside the RV at night when they’re camping. Their days are about coping and how exhausting it is to be a carer and to be ill but also how genuinely in love they have been and how that materialises in their concern for one another. Sutherland’s recurring obsession with Mirren’s first boyfriend from fifty years earlier has a funny payoff.  How she deals with his husbandly failing is hilarious.  His physical response to one medication is … unexpected! But its success is also to do with the deep understanding of Alzheimer’s which causes bouts of memory loss and bullying all too familiar to anyone with a relative suffering its predations – I laughed aloud with recognition far too many times.  While this is concerned with ageing in a semi-comic context it’s a very pointed narrative about the ways in which older people are made feel lousy about their right to exist, how they are treated when they are beginning to become infirm and the radical element here is how one couple choose how to live and exit gracefully when they take the opportunity (even if one of them doesn’t really know what in hell is going on). Immensely enjoyable.

 

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The Florida Project (2017)

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I need a light. I need a life. And I need to get laid. Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in the Magic Castle, a motel in Kissimmee near Walt Disney World (the title derives from the original name of the theme park). She plays unsupervised with her motel-resident friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik), engaging in mischief, mooching from tourists, stealing, and other bad behaviour. She meets Jancey (Valeria Cotto) a child living at the Futureland motel next door, and invites her to hang out with them. Bobby (Willem Dafoe) the manager of Magic Castle, is protective of the children despite their misdeeds. Halley can’t make the rent so hawks perfume to tourists in hotel parking lots and asks Scooty’s mother, Ashley (Mela Murder) to steal food for them from the diner where she works. However, Ashley cuts contact after discovering Moonee, Scooty, and Jancey set an abandoned condo on fire. Halley begins offering her services online as a prostitute, locking Moonee in the bathroom when she has a client. Bobby notices and applies restrictions on unregistered guests in her room. When she steals a client’s Disney park passes to sell them, the man returns to demand them back; Bobby sees him off but warns Halley that he will evict her if the prostitution continues.  Halley approaches Ashley to apologise and ask for money. When Ashley mocks her for her sex work, Halley beats her in front of Scooty. Then Child Protection show up … How you respond to this artless blend of social realism and off-kilter comic narrative about children in poverty probably stems from your politics. This is a tragicomic portrait of the underclass against a backdrop of dayglo pastels which doesn’t make it any prettier despite the charming playing of Prince, a little girl who has oodles of charisma. For much of the time it seems Dafoe is in another film altogether – he is a professional actor after all. This is basically a sobering warning to teenage girls not to get pregnant in a massively overpopulated world where decent people demand that children have normal lives. Sorry, but that’s what it meant to me, fantasy ending or not. Written by director Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch.

A Kind of Loving (1962)

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It’s a funny thing. Some days I really fancy her. And the next day I can’t stand the sight of her.  Manchester Draughtsman Vic Brown (Alan Bates) starts going out with secretary Ingrid Rothwell (June Ritchie), who works at his firm. They enjoy regular dates but he likes to keep up his life with the lads, drinking and going to football matches. After he has sex with Ingrid, she gets pregnant. Vic feels a sense of responsibility – although he’s not in love with her – and proposes marriage. The couple is forced to live with Ingrid’s bullying mother (Thora Hird), who treats Vic with contempt because of his working-class background. When Ingrid falls down the stairs and loses the baby (accidentally or not?!) Vic must decide what his new wife means to him … Stan Barstow’s novel gets an adaptation by Willis Hall & Keith Waterhouse, who specialise in this Northern kitchen sink realism, where this truly belongs. It’s a cautionary tale about the utter tedium of marriage and the perils of small mindedness.  A warning to all prospective relationships, it lacks the dazzling style of some of the films of this era but has terrific performances with Ritchie’s brain dead drudge making a convincing case for divorce. There’s a good score by Ron Grainer and nice support from James Bolam who celebrated his 83rd birthday yesterday! Directed by John Schlesinger and produced by Joseph Janni.

The Founder (2016)

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It’s the name. That glorious name, McDonald’s. It could be, anything you want it to be… it’s limitless, it’s wide open… it sounds, uh… it sounds like… it sounds like America. In 1954 struggling Illinois salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) beefs up his pitch by listening to recordings of self-help books to help him on the road selling milkshake makers to drive-in restaurant proprietors. Then he meets Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), who are running a very speedy burger operation in 1950s Southern California. Kroc is knocked out by the brothers’ hyperefficient system of making the food and sees franchise potential. With the help of a financial expert Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) who directs him to look at the property side of the business nationwide, Kroc leverages his position to pull the company from the brothers and create a multi-billion dollar empire… This tale of venality and daylight robbery is shot in presumably ironic glossy light by the estimable John Schwartzman, crowning a dazzling performance by Keaton who is really on top form here.  His phonecalls to the brothers are the underpinning of the narrative structure and how he splits them from their joint decision-making process is a masterclass. It operates like a thriller, showing Kroc go down by mortgaging the home he shares with his unhappy hangdog wife Ethel (Laura Dern) and then rising to the top by deceiving the brothers horribly – Mac is susceptible to his sales patter, Dick regrets the day they bought his milkshake machine – and, as we suspect he will, marrying franchise operator Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini) who is as grasping as himself:  when they look in each other’s eyes they see dollar signs (they duet on Pennies From Heaven in front of her husband, played by Patrick Wilson). Then they conquered the world with their disgusting fake food and counted their money in Beverly Hills. How depressing. Greed is not good. Produced by Jeremy Renner, written by Robert Siegel, directed by John Lee Hancock. To be filed under True Crime.

Silkwood (1983)

 

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You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?  Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) works at a plutonium processing plant, along with her boyfriend, Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell), and their roommate, Dolly Pelliker (Cher). When Karen becomes concerned about safety practices at the plant, she begins raising awareness of violations that could put workers at risk. Intent on continuing her investigation, Karen discovers a suspicious development: She has been exposed to high levels of radiation, probably intentionally because of her union activism. Her decision to follow up on the cause jeopardises her life … Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen’s screenplay is a dramatisation of what actually happened to the real Karen Silkwood and there is much to cherish about this film, not least the brilliant performances. What may have happened in November 1974 after Silkwood went to meet with a reporter from The New York Times has been well documented but this is a very human portrayal of friendships, romance and labour relations, a rare combination in cinema and never done so sympathetically. Mike Nichols does an impeccable job of finding the right tone in what is basically a noir-ish conspiracy thriller but laced into the narrative are hints of a Lesbian relationship between Karen and Dolly, complicating their home life with Drew and deepening the surrounding texture which is political and social, growing out of the problems around unions and workers and the knotty issues in the nuclear industry. Streep’s most likeable performance to date.

The Dark Tower (2017)

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Darkness is your weapon, guns are mine.  Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last Gunslinger, is locked in an eternal battle with evil sorcerer Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), aka the Man in Black. The Gunslinger must prevent the Man in Black from toppling the Dark Tower, the key that holds the universe together. With the fate of worlds at stake, two men collide in the ultimate battle between good and evil. with the Man in Black using the powers of clairvoyant children to target the Tower with their minds. This takes place in Mid-World, a parallel universe to present day New York where teenaged Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is being sent to therapists because of his inability to deal with his father’s death, his new stepfather and these mythical characters from his dreams that he draws … I’m not invested in the later works of Stephen King the way I am in the classic era of his 70s and 80s output so the poor reception for this adaptation of his bestselling saga didn’t bother me. As a viewer, no matter the origins, it does bother me however. A mythical exercise, it boasts King’s usually passionate and symbolic argument this time set in a wasteland but the short running time (91 minutes) gives you a clue that they knew this was a dog with whole sub-plots reduced to shards of suggestion. Reducing an eight-volume 3,000 word story of graphic violence nodding to Tolkien, the Arthur legends and spaghetti westerns to this length for a young audience may be one explanation. Apparently Akiva Goldsman took the central section as the principal material but that doesn’t excuse the shonky CGI and silly fights.  Elba does his serious spittle-enhanced enunciating act waving guns around while McConaughey skirts the edges of camp as the evil sorcerer/disco dancer whose very words can cause instant death. An oddity that had real promise but if you ever saw The Neverending Story you’ll have seen this, pretty much and if you recall The Shining you’ll know that calling Jake’s talent The Shine really reminds us of something far better in the meta-universe.  Directed by Nikolaj Arcel with a screenplay by him, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinker and Anders Thomas Jensen.

20th Century Women (2016)

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Wondering if you’re happy is a shortcut to being depressed. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.  Architect Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling 1905 fixer-upper boarding house at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion.  William (Billy Crudup) the contractor renting a room doesn’t seem like an appropriate father figure so Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the house and neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning) a savvy and provocative teenage neighbour who often spends the night sleeping there – to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like what’s happening to him and finds it difficult to reconcile the female-centric education with the man she wants him to be … Mike Mills’ autobiographical film has something of an arm’s length feel which you can surmise from the title. In creating this portrait of his mother he is keen to contextualise her in terms of her time and the opportunities open to her. Jamie often excuses the attitudes of this quasi-androgynous high-achieving divorcee with the line, Don’t worry about Mom, she’s from the Depression. Framing his semi-biographical comic drama in the terms of feminist and punk politics sometimes seems like a microscope powered by sociology is being applied in a film essay style instead of a dramatic eye when you want these lives to intersect more. However the drama is triggered by the opening scene when the family car spontaneously combusts in a parking lot.  It’s a good catalyst for the series of events to follow as Jamie’s adolescence progresses and Dorothea says in a moment of truth to Abbie, You get to see him out in the world and I never will. It’s a startling admission and something in these lines fuels a powerful drama that’s concealed between the smarts and upfront sex talk. Look at Bening’s face when her son tells her he thinks it’s good for him to be informed about clitoral stimulation. She’s the one who wanted him to learn how to be a man after all – she just didn’t know how it would make her feel when he goes out of his way to learn how to be a good man. There’s a lot to like here in an ironic mode and in a sense it’s crystallised by the cultural references – culminating in the clips from Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech when he says the country is at a turning point:  they serve to illuminate the theme of the personal as political.  We are all living in the fallout from what was going on in northern Cali in the late 70s and Mills captures this in an uncanny fashion, fixing on a time that has birthed where we are now (albeit now it’s monetised). The production design is just right – the mix of the early 70s vogue for Art Nouveau with the well-placed mushroom lamp, the battle between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans which has a visual result on the doors of Dorothea’s Bug. There are a lot of good aesthetic and narrative choices here coupled with some very sympathetic performances amid a raft of generational and gendered experiences, Abbie and Julie’s mother issues being succinctly handled in parallel stories within medical and therapeutic settings. There is of course a nostalgic air but it’s cut through with intellectual argument bathed in California sun. Sensitive, seductive, suprising and satisfying.

Se7en (1995)

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Just because he’s got a library card doesn’t make him Yoda.  Police Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has a week left on the job when he is set the task of tackling a final case with the aid of newly transferred David Mills (Brad Pitt), they discover a number of elaborate and grizzly murders. They soon realize they are dealing with a serial killer calling himself John Doe who is targeting people he thinks represent one of the seven deadly sins. Somerset befriends Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is pregnant and afraid to raise her child in the crime-riddled city. By using an illegal FBI trick of tracking certain public library book titles they find a likely suspect and enter an apartment building where they’re attacked by a gunman who just might be their target but there are two more sins to go …  Andrew Kevin Walker’s dense and sharply written script is given an astonishingly immersive workout by director David Fincher and it’s one of the key films of the Nineties. Into those rain-slicked NYC streets run two great movie policemen, the grizzled Freeman and the ambitious impatient young Pitt who take such a long time to get into each other’s working rhythm. And when they do, they’re chasing the man who’s really chasing them.  This is a brutal, violent work which raises torture to a kind of poetic, along the lines of John Doe’s literary inspirations, Dante and Thomas Aquinas. As he works through the various sins the sheer horror of the scenes still shocks. This wouldn’t be the last of Walker’s dark screenplays but in some ways he has never written anything as truly horrifying as the last scene shot in the bright outdoors in stark contrast to the claustrophobic interiors that characterise the sadism at the center of the narrative. There’s a subliminal cut which will make you think you’ve seen something you haven’t. Oh my gosh this is absolutely compelling. Even if his brain weren’t mush which it is he chewed off his tongue long ago.

Psycho 3 (1986)

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She can’t help it. She can’t help the things she does. She’s just an old lady. A nun commits suicide at a convent. Her disturbed colleague Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid) runs away and hitches a ride through the desert with Duane Duke (Jeff Fahey) but after he makes a move on her during a rainstorm she runs off.  When she arrives at a small town diner she asks where she might stay.  Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is once again operating his infamous motel. Assisted by the shifty Duke, an excessively tan Norman keeps up the semblance of being sane and ordinary, but he still holds on to some macabre habits. Eventually, Norman becomes interested in Maureen when she turns up at the motel and reminds him of Marion Crane. As Norman and Maureen begin a relationship, can he keep his demons in check? And now there’s a reporter Tracy Venable (Roberta Maxwell) on the prowl keen for a scoop on the legendary mother killer with a revelation about the identity of Emma Spool (from Psycho II) … This was Anthony Perkins’ directing debut, revisiting very familiar territory with plenty of Hitchcock’s signature tropes albeit none of his style and an excess of grisly if blackly comic violence.  The rarefied Scarwid is a good choice for the Marion lookalike and the film is filled with ideas of Hitchcock’s trumpeted Catholicism as well as opening with an homage to Vertigo and incorporating a scene out of Psycho. It’s quite amusing to have Norman portrayed as the Mother of God saving the troubled nun who’s as with it as her romantic interest but this is as subtle as a sledgehammer and won’t make you forget the original any time soon. There’s even something of a happy ending – relatively speaking. Written by Charles Edward Pogue, this is not connected with Robert Bloch’s third novel in the series, Psycho House.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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I’ve studied you all these years – a little girl in a cage waiting for someone to let her out. In 1928 young Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) inadvertently causes the death of her cruel, authoritarian and extremely wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha lies to the police and Walter (Kirk Douglas), who saw the crime, corroborates the girl’s story. Eventually, they grow up and wed out of convenience; the meek and alcoholic Walter is genuinely in love, and Martha thinks that her secret is safe since she has married the one witness to her aunt’s death. As District Attorney he saw her lie on the stand and put an innocent man to death for the crime. However now Martha is trying to get Walter elected Governor and her childhood pal Sam (Van Heflin) shows up.  Martha knows her dark past may not stay a secret for long and Sam’s romance with Toni (Lizabeth Scott) – an ex-con just out of jail – threatens to come between them …  The film noir as hothouse melodrama, this has Stanwyck at her most manipulative since Double Indemnity but the surrounding performances are impressive as satellites to her cunning. Adapted by Robert Rossen (and an uncredited Robert Riskin)  from playwright John Patrick’s short story Love Lies Bleeding, this plays fast and loose with love and death, desire and obsession, betrayal and murder, marriage and entrapment. The pickup between Heflin and Scott is really something and the dialogue is really striking – just look at the way the Bible crops up at crucial plot points. Stanwyck’s string of extra-marital affairs reveals a longing for sex not often portrayed in Hollywood films of the era. Douglas makes an impressive debut as the weak husband just as capable of lying. The twisting DNA spiral of guilt and secrecy plays out brilliantly as these conflicted personalities bump up against one another in a deadly game. And what a twist(ed) ending! Listen to how the rain hits the windows of that fabulous house during some of the toughest conversations – talk about atmospheric! The cinematography by Victor Miler and score by Miklós Rósza are quite splendid. Directed by Lewis Milestone.