A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas (2011)

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You have a good job, you make good money, and you don’t beat your wife. What more could a Latino father-in-law ask for? Wall Street broker Harold (John Cho) is asked to look after a Christmas tree by his father-in-law (Danny Trejo) who objects to the faux monstrosity in his suburban villa,  but he and his ex-roommate Kumar (Kal Penn) end up destroying it with a giant spliff from a mysterious benefactor.  The two then set out to find a replacement for the damaged tree and embark on a chaotic journey around New York City with their BFFs Todd  (Thomas Lennon plus his infant daughter) and Adrian (Amir Blumenfeld) while scoring drugs, having sex, trying to avoid being murdered by a Ukrainian ganglord and making babies … The tree is a cancer, Harold. We have to get rid of it before it kills Christmas. The stoner dudes are back apparently unscathed after a sojourn in Gitmo, rampaging and raunching about NYC in as tasteless a fashion as humanly possible. With a toddler off her trolley, a claymation sequence, a song and dance feature starring Neil Patrick Harris who isn’t really gay, every ethnicity and creed mocked and a penile homage to A Christmas Story, this is the very opposite of woke. A laugh riot intended to be seen in 3D but we’ll take an egg in the face whatever way it falls. Almost heartwarming! Screenplay by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson. Oh, great. Now we’re getting tinkled on

Knives Out (2019)

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I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects.  When crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies just after his 85th birthday, inquisitive Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives at his estate to investigate despite the presence of police officers (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan). He sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind the writer’s untimely demise as each of the family members and the immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who cared for Harlan is questioned in turn. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a successful businesswoman with a an unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson) and a layabout son Ransom (Chris Evans). Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing company his father founded for his writing output, but they’ve been fighting. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is an advocate of self-help and has been helping herself to the old man’s money. His ancient mother (K Callan) never seems to die. Harlan’s devoted nurse Marta then becomes Harlan’s most trusted confidante but who hired him in the first place? … This is a twisted web, and we are not finished untangling it, not yet. The closed-room murder mystery is a staple of crime fiction and it’s not necessarily where you’d expect writer/director Rian Johnson to turn after a Star Wars episode (The Last Jedi) although it harks back to his debut, Brick, a take on Chandler/Hammett with teenagers. The touchstones are pretty clear:  Agatha Christie; the game (and film) of Clue(do); Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark; and some of the grasping familial mendacity we recognise from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If truth be told, it’s not very mysterious and barely suspenseful with two big twists a regular filmgoer or mystery reader will see through easily which means that they of course are not the point. It’s the dismantling of those hoary old tropes that provides the narrative motor. Much of the entertainment value derives from game comic playing by an established cast with a soupçon of political commentary provided by the nurse’s immigrant status which leads to a good line featuring Broadway hit Hamilton and everyone gets her native country wrong, one of the running jokes. Another is her need to vomit when telling a lie. The other one is stretching out the syllables in Benoit’s name so it sounds like Ben wa although personally I find Craig more prophylactic than sex toy and his ‘tec is Poirot X Columbo with an affected drawl. It looks quite sober and already feels like Sunday evening TV. For the undemanding viewer. CSI KFC!

Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing

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

Quadrophenia (1979)

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You’ll be getting like them bloody beatniks before you know it. Ban the bomb and do fuck all for a living poncing about all day. In 1964 angst-ridden London teenager Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels) escapes the drudgery of his mailroom job at an ad agency as a member of the Mods, a sharply dressed drugged-up scooter-riding tribe of post-war teens constantly at odds with their conformist parents and their rivals, the bike-riding Rockers.  Jimmy  parties with Dave (Mark Wingett), Chalky (Phil Davis) and Spider (Gary Shail), fellow Mods. When the Mods and Rockers clash in the coastal town of Brighton, England, it leads to both trouble and an encounter with his crush, the lovely Steph (Leslie Ash). Returning to London, Jimmy, who aspires to be like Mod leader Ace Face (Sting), becomes even more disillusioned when his scooter is destroyed by a collision with a lorry, he’s thrown out of home and he returns off his head to Brighton where he discovers the kind of reality he has long sought to escape … If you don’t work, you don’t get paid no money. And I like money. Forty years since its original release, this is a landmark film about working class culture, growing up and finding your place in the world. The Who must have already seemed out of step with the times when this was made at the height of punk (Johnny Rotten was screen tested for Jimmy but nobody would insure him) – it’s an adaptation of their 1973 opera, an expression of the band’s situation (each band member’s face is reflected in the four mirrors on Jimmy’s Lambretta on the album cover) which would be splintered completely a mere two weeks before production with Keith Moon’s shocking death. Their first manager Peter Meaden had died the previous year. So the meta story becomes about the band’s own reinvention. It’s the story of all youthful quests, different songs reflecting the various band members while Pete Townshend tries to sum up the culture that drove the formation of The Who in the first place. There’s real pleasure to be had seeing well-known actors and musicians as teenagers, albeit Trevor Laird and Toyah Wilcox were 20 and Sting, who was topping the charts with The Police by the time this was released, was in his late twenties. Ray Winstone is Kevin, Jimmy’s childhood friend who has left the Army and is beaten up in an act of revenge and Jimmy rides off when he can’t stop the attack. For true cultists, there’s a brief (uncredited) appearance by Simon Gipps-Kent, a gifted actor who died young in mysterious circumstances (he opens the door to the guys at the posh party 15 minutes in).  The critics weren’t too kind to a film that’s rough around the edges and could have been better directed for much of its running time, but its blend of kitchen sink realism, rites of passage narrative, theme of rebellion and astonishing music gives it real heart and meant the audience lapped it up and it led to a revival of Mod culture and probably helped launch ska, prompting a whole new era in music. The Who’s John Entwistle was responsible for supervising the soundtrack and those of the album’s songs that are featured are in a different order from the album and are mixed up with The Kinks and The Crystals, among others, and the score doesn’t drive the story, it serves it. It starts with The Real Me and the most poignant inclusion from the original album is Love Reign O’er Me. Why do people love it so, this teenage symphony to Mod? It’s about searching for something to believe, somewhere to belong:  meanwhile, life as tragicomedy. Written by director Franc Roddam, Martin Stellman, Dave Humphries and Pete Townshend. We are the Mods! We are the Mods! We are, we are, we are the Mods!

Welcome to Marwen (2018)

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Sorry, I don’t speak Nazi. No one expects Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) to recover from a devastating assault by Neo-Nazis that has wiped away all of his memories. In his free time from the diner where he works he creates art installations using photographs of dolls enacting a story. Putting together pieces from the past and present, Mark meticulously creates a Belgian town called Marwen and becomes Captain Hogie, a heroic World War II fighter pilot. His installation soon comes to life with breathtakingly realistic dolls – a testament to the most powerful women he knows including Nicol (Leslie Mann) the woman who moved in across the street to get away from abusive ex Kurt (Neil Jackson) who becomes his fantasy nemesis, Major Meyer. Through this fantasy world, which becomes a kind of therapy, Hogancamp finds the strength to face his attackers who are due to be sentenced …   Like the wise man said, “Our pain is our rocket fuel.” It reminds us of our strength. Written by Caroline Thompson and director Robert Zemeckis, this man-child fantasy drama treads schmaltzy territory to rather indifferent effect despite its roots in the attack perpetrated on the real-life subject and Catskills resident in 2000 who admitted to his penchant for wearing women’s shoes and was almost killed by his assailants. The strength he obtains here derives not just from the fantasy but from his real-world friendships with the women who surround him (played by Janelle Monae, Merritt Weaver, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Stefanie von Pfetten, Leslie Zemeckis and Diane Kruger). Part of its lax storytelling arises from the lack of engagement with the five violent hoodlums who brutally assaulted Mark in the first place and how he has displaced his fears onto this animated iteration making his Neo-Nazis into the ‘real’ thing seventy years earlier enacting retribution in his own back garden. Perhaps less fantasy and more reality could have balanced this difficult narrative ploy. A flawed but interesting work about healing from devastation, high heels intact. I was beaten up because I was different, so I’ve built a place where I can heal

The Front Runner (2018)

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Now they know who we are.  It’s 1987. Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) former senator of Colorado and one-time campaign manager for McGovern, becomes the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hart’s intelligence, alleged charisma and idealism make him popular with young voters, leaving a seemingly clear path to the White House with a strong team led by Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons). All that comes crashing down when allegations of an extramarital affair with a woman called Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) surface in the media after he’s goaded journalists to follow him in an interview with Washington Post reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), forcing the candidate to address a scandal that threatens to derail his campaign and personal life: his guarded wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) has stood by him but when the TV cameras fetch up at their house and their daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) is followed there’s some hard talking in public and in private ... I did all the things I was supposed to do to make that men wouldn’t look at me the way you’re looking at me right now. It was a great story and it ran for three weeks way back then. The good looking Democrat with great hair taunted journos to come looking for trouble and they did and they found it and the philandering politico was found on a boat called Monkey Business with a young woman who was then hung out to dry by the very people who said they’d protect her. Sound familiar? The coarsening of politics began right there, in the pages of the tabloids who found the idea of a Presidential contender openly carrying on an adulterous affair irresistible:  these are the kind of guys who sniggered about JFK’s women and let him away with everything – until he was murdered and it was open season on his legacy. Jason Reitman’s film is a serious look at an issue that has just got worse over the years (with rather paradoxical outcomes, considering the state of state surveillance and paparazzi and the interweb as we know) but it’s loud and busy for the first 45 minutes and hard to hear and hard to follow.  Only then does it settle, away from the hubbub of campaign offices and the rustle of burger lunches to focus on the man at the centre of the story who disproves his team’s views about what he should be doing – turns out he’s darn good at ax throwing. Trouble is, he’s not that interesting. Why on earth would he be a good President? He could win it – he’s got the hair. The superficial elements of campaigning are all over this (one advisor suggests that if Dukakis added a K to his name he’d take the South). The philosophical argument here which Hart is given in dialogue is that the public don’t care and he should have his privacy – and the public wouldn’t care if the journalists didn’t and Hart had never thrown down the gauntlet to them. That’s the point. So the story isn’t about a man carrying on behind the back of his wife or how Democrats are always found out in the same tedious way, it’s about grubby low journalistic standards and the free press and the dangers that poses to true political expression:  this in itself is a very conflicted narrative stance (not to Vladimir Putin, of course). Jackman does a very low-key characteristation and that compounds the narrative problems. He is a charm vacuum. We are left asking at the end of this, as Walter Mondale asked Hart (and the clip is included), Where’s the beef? Adapted from Matt Bai’s book All the Truth is Out:  The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Bai, (former Hilary Clinton press secretary) Jay Carson and Reitman, who has left his satirical knives in the drawer on this occasion. Pity.

The Hate U Give (2018)

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Reasons to live give reasons to die.  Teenager Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is constantly switching between two worlds – the poor, mostly black neighborhood of Garden Heights where she lives with her parents and brothers and the wealthy, mostly white private school Williamson Prep that she attends with her half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson). They are in an extreme minority and she has a white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa) and a white best friend, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter). The uneasy balance between these worlds is soon shattered when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil (Algee Smith) at the hands of a police officer despite his having done nothing except driving while black. Facing pressure from all sides of the community, Starr must find her own voice and decide to stand up for what’s right while her father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) fears that speaking out will bring down the wrath of local drug dealer King (Anthony Mackie) his former gang leader; and mom Lisa (Regina Hall) tries to keep everyone on the right path ... If you don’t see my blackness you don’t see me. Sadly that terrific screenwriter Audrey Wells succumbed to cancer on the eve of this film’s release, an adaptation of a Young Adult novel (by Angie Thomas) which despite some structural flaws and a somewhat aphoristic and preachy line in virtue-signalling dialogue is a triumph of performance and to a lesser extent, presentation. Stenberg is very good as the protagonist, a girl who struggles with her identity living between two communities but who cannot leave her past behind because she can’t forget that’s her family, her race, her true self. You can see in this the traces of Boyz in the Hood and the legacy of that film lies in a story twist here: a father who actually sticks with his family following a spell in jail for the drug lord but who tries to change the course of his children’s experience by quoting from the Black Power handbook while the kids relate to Tupac (hence the title, from THUG LIFE).  It’s also about hypocrisy, peer pressure, racism and (dread the term) cultural appropriation. More than anything, it’s about doing the right thing. There are some very good narrative bumps – when Starr’s policeman uncle Carlos (Common) tells her precisely what goes through a cop’s head when he is alone on a traffic stop;  when Starr shows Hailey what happens when a hairbrush is mistaken for a gun; and when Tupac’s lyrical prediction comes true. The location is not specified but it’s stunningly shot by Mihai Mâlaimare Jr and well directed by George Tillman Jr.  Violence. Brutality. It’s the same story, just a different name

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

 

 

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