The Panic in Needle Park (1971)

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It’s Election year that’s why there’s no shit. Following an illegal abortion Helen (Kitty Wynn) returns to the loft she shares with Mexican artist boyfriend Marco (Raúl Juliá) where she encounters hustler and occasional drug user Bobby (Al Pacino) with whom she becomes involved. She tries his heroin one night when he’s nodded out and immediately becomes addicted and turns tricks to pay for their $50 a day habit. Bobby proposes marriage and his brother Hank (Richard Bright) gets him involved in a burglary that goes wrong and while Bobby’s in prison, Helen turns to Hank for money and sex. Bobby persuades big dealer Santo to allow him handle distribution in Needle Park and narcotics cop Hotch (Alan Vint) approaches Helen to help him nail Santo when she’s caught selling pills to kids … I’m a sex-crazed dope fiend. Husband and wife team Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne do a superb job of adapting James Mills’ 1966 novel, a romantic drama about two people whose heroin addiction does for them. Pacino was already in his thirties and had made a brief appearance in Me, Natalie but it was probably his Tony for a role as a junkie in Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? that won him this part in Dominick Dunne’s production. He’s utterly captivating – streetwise, intense, antiheroic, outrageous, sympathetic, deliriously real and charismatic, and it would make him much sought after. The injecting scenes are horrifying, harrowing and graphic. This does not glamourise the addict’s life – quite the opposite. The rarely seen Wynn is superb as the somewhat innocent girl who finally succumbs to her curiosity about how her boyfriend is feeling and the scene where he recognises what she has done is very understated. Her descent into prostitution is matter of fact, part of the narrative’s realist drive. When Bobby and Helen travel by ferry to the countryside to pick out a dog to bring back to live in their Sherman Park room you just know it’s going to end dreadfully. Directed by Jerry Schatzberg who handles the gritty material and the convincing performances so sensitively. Watch for Paul Sorvino and Joe Santos’s scene in the police station. One thing you always gotta remember about a junkie, they always rat

 

 

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The Natural (1984)

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I came here to play baseball.  In 1910s Nebraska Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) plays catch with his father who is killed by a tree hit by lightning. Roy makes a bat from the split tree and in 1923 tries out for the Chicago Cubs with girlfriend Iris (Glenn Close) in tow, meeting legendary Whammer (Joe Don Baker) and sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall). He impresses the mysterious beauty Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) who had been fawning over Whammer. She is actually a celebrity stalker who turns up in Roy’s hotel room where she shoots him, apparently dead. Sixteen years later he has a chance as a rookie with bottom of the league New York Knights where he immediately becomes a star to the surprise of manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley).  He falls into the clutches of Pop’s niece Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) who is handmaiden to Gus Sands (Darren McGavin, unbilled) a ruthless bookie who loves betting against him. His form turns until a woman in white stands in the crowd and it’s Iris – who is unmarried but has a son. Mercy finally remembers where he first saw Roy who gets a chance as outfielder following the tragic death of colleague Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen) but the illness resulting from the shooting catches up with Roy and he’s on borrowed time … I used to look for you in crowds. Adapted by Roger Towne (brother of Robert) and Phil Dusenberry from Bernard Malamud’s novel, this is a play on myth and honour, with nods to mediaeval chivalry in its story of a long and arduous journey where Roy encounters the death of his father, bad and good women, resurrection, mentors and villains and lost opportunities and the chance at redemption. It’s a glorious tale, told beautifully and surprisingly economically with stunning imagery from Caleb Deschanel and a sympathetic score from Randy Newman. Redford seems too old at first but you forget about that because he inhabits Hobbs so totally and it’s so finely tuned. This allegorical take on the price you pay for success in America is expertly handled by director Barry Levinson, even if the novel’s ending is altered. I didn’t see it coming

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400

Night School (2018)

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What’s happening?/Pubes and racism. High school dropout Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart) is a successful BBQ salesman whose life takes an unexpected turn when he accidentally blows up the store where he works just when he’s on the verge of inheriting it and marrying his sweetheart Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Forced to attend night school to get his GED so that he can become an investment adviser alongside his friend Marvin (Ben Schwartz), Teddy soon finds himself dealing with a group of misfit adult students of losers and flakes, his former high school nemesis (Taran Killam) who is the school principal and feisty teacher Carrie (Tiffany Haddish) who doesn’t think he’s all that bright and has no time for troublemakers in a classroom. Teddy starts working behind the counter at fast food Christian Chicken outlet and everyone is flunking. There’s nothing for it but to steal the practice test. … This is a minor setback for a major comeback. Little Kevin Hart’s efforts to emulate Eddie Murphy’s loudmouth hustler shtick continue apace while tumbleweed blows across the screen every time someone opens their mouth. There’s a good prison fight on Skype, though. Written by Hart, Nicholas Stoller, J’Dub (is that a name?), Harry Ratchford, John Hamburg and Matthew Kellard, clearly a group for whom attendance ranks above excellence. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. There’s no cure for what you have

Lucky (2017)

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The one thing worse than awkward silence is small talk. Every day in the desert town of Piru, California, 90-year old Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) does 21 reps of his 5 yoga exercises, drinks some milk, shouts Cunts! at the botanic garden that barred him for smoking and enters a diner owned by Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley) where he has a large milky coffee and does the crossword. Then he buys some smokes in Bibi’s (Bertila Damas) shop on his way back home, where he settles down to his TV quiz shows before heading to Elaine’s (Beth Grant), the local bar, where he chews the fat with a group of friends:  Howard (David Lynch) gets depressed about President Roosevelt, who, it transpires, is his tortoise,who outlasted Howard’s two wives and who’s disappeared; Paulie (James Darren) misses his late wife and Lucky reckons he is fortunate never to have married. Lucky falls over when he’s home alone (he’s always home alone) and winds up in hospital where the doctor Christian Kneedley (Ed Begley Jr) tells him he’s a medical wonder. The diner waitress Loretta (Yvonne Huff) calls to his house and they watch Liberace on TV and smoke grass and Lucky insinuates that he is homosexual and asks Loretta not to talk about it. At Elaine’s Howard is treated ingratiatingly by a lawyer Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston) he hired for end of life bequests who Lucky thinks is gaming his friend. Back at the diner he chats with Fred (Tom Skerritt) a tourist and fellow WW2 veteran and they share stories about the Philippines. At the birthday party of Bibi’s son, Lucky sings in Spanish and that evening finds his friends once again … All I can think is it’s a combination of genetic good luck and you’re one tough son of a bitch. Harry Dean Stanton was always old, or so it seemed. The first time we see Lucky outside it’s a conscious re-staging of that famous low angle medium close up from Paris, Texas. But now he’s thirty-five years older and it’s a different hat and he’s not on the move any longer, save for those few exercises on the floor of his house, and the furthest he walks is shuffling down the street of his small town for his unvarying daily routine. He’s an atheist looking at death and trying to figure out what matters. Every scene is detailed and deals with an aspect of philosophy, a preparedness for the next phase, set in motion by the definition of realism which Lucky finds in a dictionary when doing the crossword. It’s funny and humane and brought to life by effervescent performances from a range of actors you never dreamed of putting together, but here they are. Written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, this feels very elegiac but never depressing, more of a coming to terms with the inevitable, featuring some comic interludes which never intrude on the tone of the deep felt emotionality. Lynch has an extraordinary monologue about his tortoise that ends with the line: There are some thing in this universe that are bigger than all of us and that tortoise is one of them.  It’s a wonderfully humble moment and it crystallises the film’s central idea as well as reminding us what a lucky charm Stanton was for Lynch’s career. Those sunlit desert scenes are beautifully shot by Tim Suhrstedt while the songs are mostly by Elvis Kuehn but you’ll get a lump in your throat when you hear Johnny Cash singing Will Oldham’s I See a Darkness. Directed by veteran actor John Carroll Lynch, it ends on a shot of Lucky walking into the desert, sort of like President Roosevelt (the tortoise). A perfect conclusion to an incomparable career, this was the cherishable Stanton’s final film and he’s the leading man at last. I always thought that what we all agreed was what we were looking at

Bande a Part (1964)

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Aka Band of OutsidersA Who-Dunit, Who’s Got-It, Where-Is-It-Now Wild One From That “Breathless” director Jean-Luc Godard!  Smalltime crooks and cinéphile slackers Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) spend their days mimicking the antiheroes of Hollywood noirs and Westerns while pursuing the lovely Odile (Anna Karina) whom they meet at English class. The misfit trio upends convention at every turn, through choreographed dances in cafés or frolicsome romps through the Louvre trying to set a record for fastest circumnavigation. Eventually, their romantic view of outlaws pushes them to plan their own heist, but their inexperience may send them out in a blaze of glory – just like their B-movie heroes … Isn’t it strange how people never form a whole?Ostensibly an adaptation of a novel called Fool’s Gold by Dorothy Hitchens, that’s just a skeleton on which the mischievous Jean-Luc Godard drapes his love and admiration of Hollywood genres (and Karina) over a series of apparently improvised riffs in this lightly constructed charmer. A few clues for latecomers: Several weeks ago… A pile of money… An English class… A house by the river… A romantic young girl... It’s a splendidly rackety affair, with several standout scenes providing the postmodern matrix for much of pop culture (and a name for Quentin Tarantino’s production company). It’s Godard at his most playful, joyous and audience-pleasing, exploring what it’s like to not want to grow up and how it’s always possible to have fun with like-minded people. Then, you go a little too far and someone goes and spoils it all for everyone. Maybe. Sheer pleasure. Godard said of the dance scene: “Alice in Wonderland as re-choreographed by Kafka”. A minute of silence can last a long time… a whole eternity

The Old Man & The Gun (2018)

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You’re never exactly where you’re supposed to be, are you? I mean, ’cause if you are, you’re dead. In 1981 at the age of 70, Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) makes an audacious escape from San Quentin, conducting an unprecedented string of bank heists across the south with his friends Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) that confound authorities and enchant the public because he comports himself so politely and makes friends of the tellers. He’s the classic gentleman thief who never resorts to violence. Embroiled in the pursuit are detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), who becomes captivated with Forrest’s commitment to his craft, and widowed retiree Jewel (Sissy Spacek) who loves him in spite of his chosen profession.  But Dorothy (Elisabeth Moss) the daughter he never knew thinks she can assist the police with their enquiries Ten years from now, where will you be, what’ll you be doing? Now, whenever I close the door, I think: “Oh, is this the last time I’ll ever have a chance to do whatever that thing was?”  Supposedly the last film by Seventies superstar Redford, it sees him reunited with his impressive Pete’s Dragon writer/director David Lowery in a slight but engaging tale of true crime adapted from a story in The New Yorker by David Grann. The pleasures are mostly small ones, with the sense that the parallel police story interwoven with the main narrative is subtracting from the whole rather than enhancing it, particularly with a relatively short running time, even if the relationship between Tucker and Hunt is one of mutually grudging respect. It’s fun to see three old guys on a seemingly harmless crime spree:  the money doesn’t even seem to be the point, it’s more like taking on The Man and there are some witty lines (particularly one diatribe from Waits) in this lightly written piece. It’s shot nicely on grainy 16mm, reminiscent of films made in the era being depicted, a florid landscape contributing to the relaxed tone. Spacek is fine in a rare appearance, amused by this playfully persuasive career criminal but not so much that she will agree to stealing jewellery at a mall.  Redford’s cryptic persona, once described as ‘there’s no there there’ (like LA), is effortlessly distracting and self-satisfied, the film concluding on his enigmatic smile, glinting like that of the Cheshire Cat. As a film wrapping up a star text that includes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting it’s a fitting finale but it’s more a footnote than a lap of honour (that may have been All Is Lost). Redford is a true movie star and the last of a dying breed if the most recent show at the pitiful affirmative action Oscars is anything to go by. Charisma – there’s nothing like it, is there? He’s a guy… who is old… but used to be young… and he just really loves robbing banks

The L-Shaped Room (1962)

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Everybody tells me how to get rid of it. Nobody tells me how to have it. 27-year old French woman Jane Fosset (Leslie Caron) moves into a seedy Ladbroke Grove boarding house and gets to know the other residents who are a motley crew of waifs and strays.  Toby (Tom Bell) is a lovelorn wannabe author;  Johnny (Brock Peters) is a black jazz musician  who hears everything in her living quarters through a paper-thin dividing wall; Mavis (Cicely Courtneidge) is an old unemployed actress who has hidden her Lesbian tendencies;  Sonia (Patricia Phoenix) is an ageing prostitute who runs her business from her basement room. When Jane starts a relationship with Toby, Johnny tells him she’s pregnant – she’s been in two minds about whether to keep the result of her sexual initiation with an actor from whom she’s split and she realises she loves Toby as she didn’t love the father of this baby and his departure prompts a crisis … As a child I was always in mourning. The novels of Lynne Reid Banks were something of a talisman for me and I would imagine for many other adolescent girls – and this adaptation of her key work does it justice, rooted in the kitchen sink realist style of the era. Bryan Forbes adapts and directs with some startling compositions (courtesy of Douglas Slocombe). Caron is wonderfully touching as the French woman (originally English) impregnated by her first ever lover; and while Bell wasn’t entirely my image of the Jewish writer created by Banks, he is nonetheless impressive. You believe their tentative friendship that blossoms into something else while their dealings with third parties hover at their shoulders. The whole ensemble embody their roles with real feeling. How fascinating to see the legendary Phoenix (Coronation Street‘s Elsie Tanner) while her long-time legendary love Tony Booth has a bit part (‘Youth in the street’). Nanette Newman aka Mrs Forbes plays the new girl in the L-shaped room at the end. There’s a credible jazz score by John Barry as well as some nicely chosen Brahms to enliven a sensitively told story, so very nicely played and staged in a ghastly London run by slum landlords, a few years before certain of its ‘burbs began to swing and before either legal abortion or the Pill were available. If you haven’t read the author, then for goodness’ sake do. She’s great – a proper Angry Young Woman capable of utterly unsentimental sentences about profoundly moving experiences. Don’t fall in love with me. You don’t know me

 

 

In The Cut (2003)

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I wanna get married once… just for my mom. Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan), a middle-class lecturer in New York City, witnesses a sexual incident that could have been the prelude to a murder by a killer roaming the city. Detective Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) arrives to interview her following the murder of a young woman in her neighbourhood which he’s investigating with his partner Ritchie Rodriguez (Nick Damici) but their relationship soon moves from personal to passionate.  Soon she comes to suspect that he is the serial killer he claims to be hunting down so who can she really trust? …  You know what your problem is? You’re fucking exhausting. Fuck this, you know, I was doing just fine before I met you, just fine. Susanna Moore’s novel was a new take on the subject matter of that controversial exercise in female masochism Looking for Mr Goodbar and Nicole Kidman spent five years shepherding the adaptation by Moore and director Jane Campion (with co-writer Stavros Kazantzidis) only to bail on the lead role when her marriage to Tom Cruise ended abruptly. Thus it was that America’s romcom sweetheart Ryan stepped into the dark heart of this voyeuristic thriller in a performance that seemed to frighten critics even after her impressive turn in the earlier Courage Under Fire. This is a formally beautiful, graphic and stunningly shot (by Dion Beebe) analysis of female sexual desire and as such twists the usual misogynistic genre tropes even as the body count mounts. Some of Ruffalo’s scenes may grate but Jennifer Jason Leigh has a fantastic role as Ryan’s tragic, romantically obsessed sister and Kevin Bacon has a terrific (unbilled) part as a man with whom Ryan has had relations and he is now stalking her. Ryan is superb, not just technically, but emotionally, and this is intense on every level, an intelligent slasher film with things to say about what women really want and how dangerous that can prove. The final sequence, when she contemplates the scene of her intended death, is outstanding, a masterpiece of empathy. I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees

Widows (2018)

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The best thing we have going for us is being who we are… no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.  When Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew of criminals are engulfed in flames during a botched job in Chicago, Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself owing hustler-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a couple of million dollars. Armed only with a notebook in which Harry detailed his past and future plans, Veronica teams up with the gang’s other widows – Linda (Michelle Rodriquez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and single mom Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to mount a robbery her husband was planning that could clear their debt and give them a new start. Meanwhile, an increasingly brutal election battle featuring Irish-American career politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his father Tom (Robert Duvall) emphasises the social problems of Chicago, raising the stakes for this ramshackle group’s first foray into crime…  I’m the only thing standing between you and a bullet in the head. Steve McQueen won the Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave, a relentlessly gruesome account of black American history, an astonishing achievement for a British visual artist never mind a black director. His genre impetus has hardly been on anyone’s radar but he was a fan of Lynda La Plante’s feisty women from the 1983 British TV series (set in London) and brings a lot of artistry to this slick feminist outing concerning itself as much with issues of poverty, domestic abuse and childcare as the unlikeliness of a heist led by women trying to pay back their criminal husbands’ debts following the conflagration that killed the men in a botched heist.  The backdrop which exists in the narrative courtesy of Farrell’s role is given huge expressivity through Sean Bobbitt’s widescreen camerawork, the issues of money and race and class and the sewer of Chicago politicking right there for all to see but of course that deflects from the main story even as it serves to amplify a theme of difficult intergenerational relationships.  This detailed texture is an expansive approach in an established genre which usually has a narrow focus but if ultimately it doesn’t fully engage in the manner which you’d wish, it’s probably due to the underwhelming adaptation by McQueen and Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn which doesn’t give the principals a lot to work with – a shame in the case of Davis, who works at it and has some great scenes with Neeson. Debicki comes off best because she has a character who goes through real development and lots of emotions as the narrative progresses – from abuse by mother and husband, through sugar baby, to independence. Good, but should have been a lot better, especially with that twist 75 minutes in. Criminals and cops are the same. They never bring their shit home