Queen of the Desert (2015)

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Who knows best about tribes? In 1902 Gertrude Bell Nicole Kidman the daughter of wealthy British parents and a recent Oxford graduate. has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions, and a life of privilege bring her only boredom. At one dance a potential suitor actually suggests fornication and alludes to her similarity to his prize herd. Aspiring to some usefulness in her life, Gertrude decides to join her uncle who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. There the young lady not only encounters the Near East but also falls in love with an embassy employee, Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who adores her for her perspicacity and teaches her Farsi. However, their romance does not last long as her parents consider the young man a poor matrimonial choice for their daughter and forbid the marriage. Desperate, Henry commits suicide, failing to reconcile himself to the enforced separation. Gertrude finds out in a letter home following her mother’s death. For the remainder of her long life Gertrude Bell completely devotes herself to exploring and writing about the Near East in the wake of his death. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) on an archaeological expedition and turns down a request to become a spy for the British Government. She visits her beloved Bedouin tribes over the Arab lands and earns their trust. Upon going to Damascus she encounters Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and he confesses his passion for her but he’s married. She is kidnapped by an emir who wants to marry her – she could be his mother.  And when she returns to Syria, she finds World War One has spread … I would give my life for a woman like you.  This extraordinary story, of a pioneering woman traveller, writer, archaeologist and (eventually) a politician whose views shaped the delineation of the borders in the Middle East, following the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, gets a romantic biographical treatment. Kidman brings tremendous feeling to a woman of singular self-possession whose life nonetheless is shaped by the contours of love and death. It’s a rather conventional form for Werner Herzog who wrote and directed it, but there are scenes which communicate seemingly directly with nature, music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yeager which feeds from desert song.  It’s not the mad epic you think you might get – it’s from Bell’s own writings and from history and it’s a swooning and beautiful interpretation of a woman alone among military men who seem to suffer intolerable repression. For the first time in my life I know who I am.  My heart belongs to the desert

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You Were Never Really Here (2018)

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Close your eyes. Traumatised war veteran Joe Rogers (Joaquin Phoenix) tracks down child traffickers for a living. He lives a small life with his mom (Judith Roberts) in between assignments. When he’s hired to find Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) the kidnapped thirteen-year old daughter of a senator he finds himself engulfed in a violent conspiracy and he vows to get the child back after she’s snatched from their hideout. But can he hold it together long enough to find her?… I want you to hurt them. No synopsis can capture or justify the sonorous strangeness of this film.  Lynne Ramsay’s gimlet eye for observation and composition was present in her first short films twenty years ago. Now her images remind one of Bresson, Kubrick, Melville. But scuzzy Phoenix is not the beautiful Delon – he’s a former soldier traumatised by PTSD and  haunted by the abuse he and his mother suffered at the hands of his father. (It’s not everyone whose safe place is in the closet with a polythene garment bag around their head.)  Nina’s numbed silence matches his flashbacks to terror – as more unspools in front of him. This is a chance for a kind of redemption, especially when the unknown thugs hurt his beloved mother who happens to have been watching Psycho when we first meet her. Some of the action is just avoided – we see Joe exit rooms via close circuit camera. We see what is absolutely necessary to understand his perspective – including snapshots of his life in the war zone which blurt into the action when he’s driving, struggling to stay conscious. It denies us the usual thrill of the chase. Who is Sandy, whose name chain figures largely at the beginning? Where were those other dead girls? His point of view is everything:  it simply propels us forward as the superfluous is jettisoned. We are left to imagine the sexual violence perpetrated:  it’s a refined approach to action which has its own reasoning, contrasting deeply with the beautifully drawn domesticity of Joe’s life with his mom. There are no explanations as to the sex slavery ring run at the higher echelons of public office.  If this doesn’t quite attain the levels of poetic one expects it packs a hell of a wallop. Ramsay adapted the book by Jonathan Ames and it’s shot by Thomas Townend with a score by Jonny Greenwood and despite the many ironic songs used in an inspired auditory experience courtesy of Paul Davies, nobody thought of If I Had a Hammer, Joe’s weapon of choice.  Sparse and sinewy, this tightly wound paean to suffering inhabits the mind. Hey Joe, wake up. Let’s go. It’s a beautiful day

The Heat (2013)

If you’re not in trouble you’re not doing your job.  Ambitious NYC-based FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is a methodical investigator with a long-standing reputation for excellence and arrogance. She’s better at finding drugs than sniffer dogs and is far superior to her male colleagues so they don’t like her, putting her desired promotion in jeopardy. She can’t even keep a relationship going with a cat so she borrows her neighbour’s.  In contrast, foul-mouthed, hot-tempered Boston Irish detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) goes with her gut instincts and street smarts to remove criminals from the locale, including her brother Jason (Michael Rapaport) which has alienated her family. Her own mother (Jane Curtin) gives her the finger in a drive by.  Sparks fly when these mismatched polar opposites are forced to work together to capture a drug lord, the unseen Larkin, but in the process, they become the last thing anyone expected – buddies. When they discover there’s a mole in the investigation everything is put into jeopardy … My fear is that I’m gonna put you in a bikini and you’ll still look like a fucking bank teller. Screenwriter Katie Dippold has put so many zingers into this you’ll have to watch it twice because you’re laughing so much you miss half of them. This subversion of the odd couple cop/buddy actioner is screamingly funny as it works through the genre’s tropes with zest and two fingers. Bullock’s buttoned-up uptight PC perfectionist priss Ashburn is wonderfully set off against McCarthy’s unkempt foul-mouthed vicious bully Mullins. Ashburn can’t get a date, Mullins has a mystifying physical allure. Thrown together, they are mutually united in their disgust for the albino inflicted on them from the Drug Enforcement Agency – a wonderfully offensive running joke in homage to the film with a film, Goldie Hawn’s brilliant Foul Play (a regular spin here at Mondo Towers). The anticipated painful seam of piss-taking at Boston accents is disposed of in one neat exchange over the Mullins family dinner when Ashburn tells them they’ve dropped the ‘r’ in Narc. Mullins’ realisation her brother is in a coma because of her actions leads to the only transient episode of sentiment as Ashburn’s attitude is transformed hearing the sexist comments made by their male colleagues – she turns into a gibbering expletive-laden mini-Mullins – and triggers the final act when the women’s solidarity becomes ninja-strong. God, you guys are just – what is the matter with you? You’re such… you’re just such jerks! You’re just such… shit jerk! You’re just a shit jerk dick… fucker! You’re a shit jerk dick fucker assholer. And you can all just go fuck yourselves!  With Marlon Wayans as a thick drug dealer and Demian Bechir as the boss who can’t help laughing,  this is lightning fast, hilarious, rude and brilliantly directed by Paul Feig. Truly funny. The cat got one look at your shitty life and said “no fucking thanks, man. I am outta here.”

The Chase (1966)

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He never stole that $50.  I did.  When “Bubber” Reeves (Robert Redford) escapes from prison, it upsets the folks in the nearby town of Tarl, Texas. A man has been killed because Bubber’s companion is dangerous and Bubber is being blamed for the death.  While he’s on the run, Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) wants to capture Bubber alive, which puts him in opposition to many of the townspeople who have resorted to mob justice. Businessman Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall) wants Calder to apprehend Bubber quickly since he fears the criminal will come after Val’s son, Jake (James Fox) who is sleeping with Reeves’ wife (Jane Fonda).  The townspeople believe that Calder is Rogers’ puppet but Calder is his own man who wants to put things right for Bubber, framed for something he didn’t do … Famously problematic production because of on-set conflicts between powerhouse producer Sam Spiegel, director Arthur Penn and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, this adaptation of Horton Foote’s play and novel remains a lesson in star power even if the overall look of the film (grey-green) disappoints. Miriam Hopkins plays Bubber’s mother as a guilt-ridden paragon;  Marshall has the town’s power but knows it is corrupting and he’s surrounded by vicious thugs, including Richard Bradford;  Angie Dickinson is the soft maternal wife to Brando’s canny sheriff but she wants children they can’t have;  Fonda is unfaithful but Bubber can’t really blame his friend Jake:  Jake is basically a good guy, the son of the terrible father. Brando has a range that extends beyond many of his roles:  good husband, put-upon lawmaker, victim of a senseless and bloody assault.  He is the film’s conscience.  Bubber’s friend Lester (Joel Fluellen) is black and that plays into the margin notes of the film’s text as a political work. The straightforward depiction of smalltown corruption, mob rule and violence is constructed against a miasma of soap operatics:  Shoot a man for sleeping with someone’s wife?  That’s silly. Half the town would be wiped out! Janice Rule has a ball as the good time girl cheating on deceitful Robert Duvall;  Martha Hyer is partied out.  Redford is a relatively minor character, imprisoned for something he didn’t do, the pivot of most people’s actions, the litmus test for their humanity. His journey through the countryside as he marvels at nature provides the thread of possibility that the rest of the narrative denies. He plays Bubber with decency and clarity;  the scene sequence of terrible violence culminating in a Jack Rubyesque conclusion still has the power to shock.  It’s a confounding work:  a terrible indictment of the United States, the Deep South and complacency, eventually a rumination on the Kennedy assassination.  I was coming to the end of me.  I don’t  know how I knew. But I knew.

Witness (1985)

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We’re all happy that you’re going to live, John Book.  After witnessing a brutal murder, young Amish boy Samuel (Lukas Haas) and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) seek protection from police officer John Book (Harrison Ford). When Book uncovers evidence of police corruption involving narcotics lieutenant James McFee (Danny Glover), Book must take Rachel and Samuel, and flee to the Amish countryside where Rachel grew up. There, immersed in Amish culture and tradition, Book and Rachel begin a cautious romance while he tries to fit in and the enemy closes in …  I just don’t like the idea of my son spending all this time with a man who carries a gun and goes around whacking people! Great films tend to create a narrative fulcrum based on juxtaposition and opposites:  here we have simplicity and purity versus corruption and violence, delicacy versus roughness, city versus country, child versus man. Written by Pamela Wallace and Earl Wallace and William Kelley, this was director Peter Weir’s entree to the American mainstream after a decade of extraordinary work in his native Australia. It also marked Harrison Ford’s acceptance into the acting world proper after a decade as action superstar courtesy of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. His relationships with Rachel and Samuel and his willingness to look silly – that sheepish grin when he’s in Amish clothing! – signalled a new level of sensitive and complex personification.  With a barn-building sequence out of the Dutch masters,  a romantic dance scene that is one of the sexiest ever made, and a conclusion that ratchets like a vise-like grip closing on the protagonists with an astonishing climax in a grain silo out of silent horror cinema, this is made by a master craftsman at his most cinematic and beautiful. Maurice Jarre’s score is legendary. An American classic. No. Try not. Do or do not

Raising Arizona (1987)

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Ed felt that having a critter was the next logical step.  When incompetent convenience store robber  H.I. ‘Hi’ McDonough (Nicolas Cage) marries policewoman Edwina ‘Ed’ (Holly Hunter) after she takes his mugshots, they discover that she is infertile. In order to appease Ed’s obsessive desire for a child,  Hi steals one of a set of quintuplets born to Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), mega rich owner of a chain of furniture stores. Mayhem ensues when his former cellmates, brothers Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and  William Forsythe) break out and turn up on their doorstep and the child’s rich father sends a rabbit-shooting bounty hunter biker – the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse – after the kidnappers…  Everything’s chAAAnged! With hysterical overacting turns, a set piece chase to rival the best of them – all over a packet of diapers – an incredible prison break, and a winning set of adorable blond babies, this sophomore outing by the Coen Brothers divided critics after their dark-hearted debut, Blood Simple. It fizzes with photographic flourishes, nonsensical action and witty lines, with hyper-exaggerated enunciation (take a bow, Ms Hunter!) and dog-tired impersonation (by Cage) of a desperate father belatedly realising when there’s a new baby in the house that life will truly never be the same again. The meal-time pelting by his in-laws’ children crystallises his hapless sorrow.  With bravura cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld, a yodel-along score by Carter Burwell and sparky performances by the entire cast, this is highly charged, effervescent and exuberant, practically exhorting the audience to dislike it as it races over the top and into the fantastical abyss in order to emerge with glee. Y’all without sin can cast the first stone

Knight of Cups (2015)

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For optimal sound reproduction the producers of this film recommend that you play it loud. Screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) tries to make sense of life in Hollywood. We follow him on an odyssey through Los Angeles and Las Vegas as he undertakes a series of adventures with colorful figures, identified by eight tarot cards, with Rick as the Knight of Cups who sleeps with a half dozen women, leaves his own wife and impregnates another man’s…  Or as I like to call it, another episode in an occasional series known as When Good Auteurs Go Bad. See also:  Phantom Thread. Terrence Malick disappeared up his own fundament a while back:  if anyone thought To the Wonder was anything other than nonsense then they never saw real art house films.  This latest version of Hollywood Eats Itself functions as allegory:  of what, we don’t know, because it’s unnecessary.  All those years of living the life of someone I didn’t even know These movies have been around almost as long as Hollywood itself – but this is the experimental version. Cate Blanchett is Judgment, Natalie Portman is Death, Antonio Banderas is the Hermit, Brian Dennehy is the Hanged Man, and oh, for goodness’ sake, it looks wonderful. There are situations that almost approach coherence, particularly in the (only developed?) scenes with Portman;  an excursion to that simulacrum of plasticity in the desert, Vegas, in the company of a stripper; and the apartment burglary when the thieves bemoan Rick’s lack of possessions. Rick is haunted by the death of his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) who brings him on a tour of LA’s homeless. There are some insights amid the dissociative witterings and fragmentary musings and overheard bites of conversation inspired by The Pilgrim’s Progess but for the most part you won’t believe your ears as Christian’s character thinks he’s Christ wandering through his midlife crisis. Pity the actors, who had no script. Peter Mathiessen tells Rick that a man living in a cave eating nettles doesn’t concern himself with this sort of thing. Those desert monks had a point. This was in an edit suite for two years. After a cold compress go watch Sunset Blvd. Or 8 1/2. Whatever happened to visionary filmmaker Terrence Malick? We are too media-savvy not to understand the metaphors. We know that not all narratives are ordered or complete. But it’s a filmmaker’s job to get us at least some of the way there. And why squander the talents of these marvellous actors?  Presumably their best work wound up on the cutting room floor, as is Malick’s wont. Just to, you know, show them. As Forster would counsel, Only connect.  Woulda coulda shoulda. Begin

 

Red Sparrow (2018)

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The Cold War did not end, it merely shattered into a thousand pieces.  Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) faces a bleak and uncertain future after she suffers an injury to her leg that ends her performing career. Her uncle Vanya(!) (Matthias Schoenaerts) is deputy director of the SVR and has photos which incriminate her dance partner and rival at the Bolshoi and she inflicts terrible injuries on the pair of them, as he predicted.  He then makes her a deal and she becomes a witness to a state-sponsored killing and either has to die or do what he says.  She needs her sick mother (Joely Richardson) to be cared for. She is sent to Sparrow School, a secret intelligence service set up by Khrushchev, that trains exceptional young people to use their minds and bodies as weapons under the watchful eye of Matron (Charlotte Rampling). Egorova emerges as the most dangerous Sparrow after completing the sadistic training process which turns her into a prostitute for the State, with killer abilities. As she comes to terms with her new job, she encounters CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in Budapest and he tries to convince her that he is the only person she can trust as her mission threatens to undo the security of the US and Russian alike and she agrees to become an agent for the US – or does she? … As the world moves back to Cold War positions, this throwback to that era aims to be a tough sexy thriller but Jason Matthews’ novel adapted by Justin Haythe abounds with clichés which no amount of nudity (gratuitous or otherwise) convince us that this belongs with the great espionage films we all know and love. Long and violent, there are some amusing exchanges, particularly with Putin lookalike Schoenaerts such as when his niece hisses  You sent me to whore school! I thought all Russian women went, but there you go. There are twists upon twists and ultimately they play well, with Lawrence very good in a role which is truly abject and horrible in parts. This is a fast-moving travelogue with a conclusion that is planted well in advance and you don’t need to be a master in spycraft to figure it out. It’s not Graham Greene, but what are you going to do? Lawrence is reunited with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for this walk on the wild side and it looks splendid:  even the torture is shot prettily.

Cujo (1983)

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There’s no such thing as a real monster. Only in stories. On the outskirts of Castle Rock, Maine, sweet family dog, the St. Bernard known as Cujo (Moe) is bitten by a bat when he’s out rabbiting.  He starts behaving oddly and becomes very aggressive in front of his owner, little Brett Camber (Billy Jacoby). As Cujo morphs into a dangerous beast, he goes on a rampage at the Camber family home and kills abusive mechanic dad Joe (Ed Lauter) after Brett and his mom Charity (Kaiulani Lee) make a run for it. Meanwhile, stay-at-home mom Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) has been carrying on with the town stud, her ex-high school boyfriend Steve (Christopher Stone) while her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) is working on advertising campaigns in the city. She swears to him that the adulterous relationship is over. When her car needs repairs she and young asthmatic son Tad (Danny Pintauro) get caught in Cujo’s crosshairs at the Camber garage where Cujo has now killed a visitor, Gary Pervier (Mills Watson). Stuck in their tiny car with a dead battery Donna and Tad have a frightening showdown with the crazed animal hoping he will be distracted every time the telephone rings but he’s tasted blood and wants fresh meat … Adapted by Don Carlos Dunaway and Barbara Turner (writing as Lauren Currier) from Stephen King’s novel, this is a rare horror – one that has to do entirely with the everyday and is completely plausible. As someone who was mauled by a dog when I was three years old and am still scarred physically and mentally from that incident, I find this film all too relatable. Sympathy for Donna and Tad is established in the carefully staged domestic scenes:  the distance from the light switch to his bed makes us empathise with this small boy and his fear of night monsters;  while Donna is a good woman bored in a big house all day long. And when she finally rejects Steve and she’s gone on her errand, he does what a scorned woman might – he takes a knife and tears up all the pillows so that the house is filled with downy feathers. We’re on her side. By the time the day’s pressures have built up, Donna and Tad’s imprisonment in the car when the battery runs down is positively sweat-inducing. As they suffer the effects of dehydration and the child becomes ill, the dog bounces off the car, bloodied from his kills. And when he finally gets a chunk of Donna, it’s truly terrifying. Her dismay when she sees the dog tackle the body of the policeman he’s savaged is completely convincing. Wallace is a marvel as the woman in jeopardy and this is fantastically efficient genre storytelling. Me? Been there, done that. I particularly enjoyed the cop’s death. So sue me. Directed by Lewis Teague.

On Chesil Beach (2017)

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We’re not two old queers living in secret on Beaumont Street. We’re man and wife!  It’s 1962.  New graduates historian Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and musician Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are nervously about to consummate their marriage in a seaside hotel in Dorset.  The waiters bring a roast dinner to their suite and make fun of them, practically sniffing the virginity in the ether. As the couple prepare to disrobe and attempt foreplay they recall the moments that brought them to this situation:  his chaotic home where his headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) has to deal with a brain injured wife (Ann Marie Duff) and two twin girls;  her engineering company owner father (Samuel West) and academic mother (Emily Watson) who are on the one hand consumed with matters of class and on the other distracted, the wife looking down on her husband rather! Edward and Florence recall their first meeting at Oxford, when he had nobody to tell about his first in History from UCL and she’s the stranger at the CND gathering who lets him know she got a First too, but in music;  when she walked seven miles from the train to meet him at the cricket club where he works; when she got his mother to paint a ‘forgery’ of her favourite painter, Uccello. The memories come rushing in as she lies on the bed issuing instructions and he fumbles and then she rejects him and rushes to the beach … Ian McEwan’s novella was never going to be simple to adapt.  Part of its bittersweet sting lies in the acute choice of words which cannot be replicated on screen.  It’s a romance lacking in passion and the flashback structure literally interrupts the non-coitus. The suggestion that Florence has endured abuse at the hands of her nasty father on a boating trip is skilfully and subtly worked into the story but still doesn’t fully explain her frigidity. (The tennis match she observes between Edward and her father clues us in a little more.)  Her disgust at the contents of a sex manual suggests that of a child not a grown woman and isn’t sufficiently elaborated considering the company she and her family keep (her mother is a friend of Iris Murdoch) and her deep emotionality performing music in a quartet is surely not that of someone who doesn’t understand desire. The book does something extraordinary in demonstrating in just a few pages how Edward’s life pans out and it is utterly devastating, elaborating directly how this single night has sabotaged his life. This melancholy adaptation works on some levels:  for one,  the production design whose attention to period detail gives us an innate sense of the era’s propriety and indicators of class and behaviour.  There are brave performances too:  Ann Marie Duff spends half of hers topless, brain damaged from being hit by a train door on the local platform;  Ronan and Howle do very well in suggesting the naivete that seemingly plagued newlyweds of the era. In essence the relationship fails because of Edward’s pride and Florence’s prejudice and it’s hard to dramatise although his taste in music (jazz, rock and roll) versus hers (strictly classical) sums it up – together however they lack erotic obsession or straightforward lust and this tentative attempt flounders for the same reason as their wedding night:  nobody just goes for it and Florence just won’t shut up. But unsatisfying as this is there’s a porno shot you won’t forget in a hurry. Adapted by McEwan and directed by Dominic Cooke.