Split (2017)

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We are what we believe we are. Mental patient Kevin (James McAvoy) knocks out the abusive uncle of Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and kidnaps her and her two friends, taking them to a basement where he holds them captive. Various of his 23 personalities materialise and the girls try to play the kinder ones to make their escape. However his complex psychiatric issues are revealed in various visits to his analyst Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley) who realises too late there is a 24th personality that her cack-handed empowering therapy has inadvertently caused to be released and just when the girls were about to get away … This feels a lot like M. Night Shyamalan, that late 90s auteurist who fell foul of his own concepts since approximately The Lady in the Water, decided to use a medical scenario to give that profitable Noughties rape/torture porn trope a workout with a psycho(logical) horror bent, filtered through our collective memories of the great Manhunter. Or something like that. Being the filmmaker he is, he structures it very well, using the backstory of Kevin’s various personalities as they materialise in front of Fletcher to give us a break from what we fear he is doing to the girls in captivity. And there are flashbacks to some very nasty experiences in Casey’s childhood. It has a grimy look which is probably what it should have, given its mostly underground setting. There’s a twist to the end which finally brings us back to the Universe the auteur created, oh, years ago, if you care that much. Not my bag, actually. I don’t like seeing girls raped or eaten even if you’re blaming it on paranoid schizophrenia or whatever you’ve chosen from the medical dictionary as a rationale to get your career back on track. Bald baby-faced McAvoy is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. Call me picky. Go on, I dare you. And step away from the therapist!

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Esther Waters (1948)

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Esther Waters (Kathleen Ryan) is the maid at a big house where she is seduced by handsome footman William Latch (Dirk Bogarde) – but when he disappears with another woman Esther finds herself pregnant. She leaves for home but her mother is dead and she gives birth alone in a workhouse in Lambeth. Returning to service her childminder offers to kill her baby boy Jackie for a fiver. A kindly policeman helps her and then she meets a nice vicar, Fred (Cyril Cusack) who romances her. When William spots her on a tram however she allows him see her now six-year old son.  He’s a bookmaker with his ex long gone after his forays in Europe. Fred wants to marry her but she protests I’m a woman too and we know her sexual desire for William is overwhelming. It’s quite a moment in a British film of the era. She and William marry and she has to get over her disdain for his profession of gambling – until he falls mortally ill and she must enter the world of risk. The first section of the story is quite visually inventive with a particularly nice moment happening in silhouette. Bogarde is an excellent and louche romantic lead in his first such role. Then it descends into a social problem tract as Esther gets the Dickensian treatment in the city after her abandonment. Their reunion is as a fairly average married couple when he purveys his business – until medical issues twist everything … So the film both in terms of content and style works naturalism and melodrama into the fashion of the post-war period.  Ryan is very good in a complex role, never turning on the tears despite her desperation but it really works best when that attractive man Bogarde is front and centre. There’s a terrific climax at the Derby.  Adapted from George Moore’s novel by Michael Gordon and William Rose with additional dialogue by Gerard Tyrrell. Directed by Ian Dalyrymple and Peter Proud.

Why Him? (2016)

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Her spine meets the arch of her tailbone and I want to pitch a tent and live in there. Tech millionaire Laird Mayhew (James Franco) introduces himself to the print-business owner father Ned (Bryan Cranston) of his Stanford student girlfriend Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) by flashing him over Skype on the older man’s 55th birthday. Invited to celebrate Christmas in California Stephanie takes her family to her boyfriend’s modernist mansion where the tattooed ignoramous bro hugs everyone, says everything that is inappropriate (likes Mom Megan Mullally rather overtly, charms little brother Griffin Gluck) and introduces Ned to a newly constructed bowling alley decorated with his image. He is just too much. And as for his assistant Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) who does a Cato/Clouseau act with Laird which neither recognises when Ned understands the obvious reference… But when Laird asks Ned for his blessing in marriage to Stephanie he oversteps horrifically and it doesn’t end there … From a story by Jonah Hill, this was co-written by Ian Helfer and director John Hamburg and works both as (actual) lavatory humour (a huge plot point) and Silicon Valley satire (listen to what the poor intern says) while overtly reworking the story of Father of the Bride as it negotiates the problems a dad might have with a boor screwing his daughter on a table while he’s hiding underneath Get past the foul-mouthed quasi-autistic socially awkward techno savant fatherless antagonist and enjoy Cranston’s facial expressions which were made for just such a hellish but amusing meeting of bizarrely attuned minds in this generational bromance clash where it would appear both men are hiding problems with the state of their very different businesses. Mullally gets a chance to do what she does best too while you might recognise Zack Pearlman, Adam Devine and Andrew Rannells from The Intern which makes this rather meta. Definitely for fans of the band Kiss! (And Elon Musk…) A Christmas movie with a difference.

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

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I fight against fascism. That is my trade. Jack Warner acquired Lillian Hellman’s hit play for an enormous sum and her lover Dashiell Hammett adapted it for the screen. Bette Davis gets top billing but she’s just one in an ensemble and therefore a supporting player in this tale of anti-fascist activists in Washington in wartime. She plays Sara, the wife of German anti-Nazi Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) who travel with their three children from Europe via Mexico back to her hometown to stay with her widowed mother (Lucile Watson) and brother David (Donald Woods) in a very upscale home. They have other houseguests: Teck De Brankovis (George Colouris) a smooth but desperate Romanian who lives off his wealthy wife Martha (Geraldine Fitzgerald, Davis’s Dark Victory co-star), a woman who is falling for David. Teck soon makes it clear he is a collaborator of the Nazis in Washington and rifles through Kurt’s briefcase threatening blackmail over his true identity.  As Chekhov once proved, if there’s a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third … This talky melodrama is a political tract that works in fits and starts. FDR fan Davis clashed with theatre director Herman Shumlin (who had staged it on Broadway) and argued against the casting of Watson, a Republican, who had established the role on stage. However Watson dominates every scene she’s in with an arresting presence. When she declares, Well we’ve been shaken out of the magnolias, you want to cheer. Very much of its time and terribly stagebound but it demonstrates a consciousness about goings-on in Europe and the wheeling and dealing of so-called diplomats on foreign soils at a time when it really mattered. To demonstrate their commitment to the project Warners refused to bow to pressure from the Hays Office and retained the original ending. They dropped most of the location backgrounds because they contained shots of Government buildings. Shumlin was a prolific stage director and also did Hellman’s The Little Foxes on Broadway. He made just one further film, Confidential Agent (1945). It is not noble. It is only the way I must live.

It (2017)

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Aka It:  Chapter One. Go blow your dad you mullet-wearing asshole. Stephen King’s 1986 novel gets the big screen treatment here after a 1990 TV two-parter that has a fond place in many people’s memories.  It sticks with the first part of the novel – the kids’ experiences, and moves them forward, to the late Eighties. In 1988 Derry, Maine, little Georgie sails his  paper boat and it floats down a drain in a rainstorm and he is pulled in by Pennywise the Clown, becoming one of the town’s many missing kids. When school’s out next summer his older brother Bill sets out to find him with a bunch of other kids who all have their issues:  big mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, germophobe Stan, overweight newbie Ben, pretty Bev (the subject of false sex rumours) and black home-schooled Mike.  They are the Losers Club and have various problems with the parental figures in their lives. Ben’s research in the library proves that Derry has a very high mortality rate particularly when it comes to kids and every 27 years this demonic shapeshifting character manifests through their fears when he reappears to feed. But in the midst of their search they have to avoid the Bowers Gang, horrible greasers who violently terrorise them as they search the area’s sewers to find the centre of Pennywise’s hellish underground activities … Part of why this works so well is that the kids are taken seriously and their problems in the world are immense:  we’re talking child abuse and Munchausen by proxy, to name but two. We feel for them because they are fully rounded characters who have legitimate reason to fear grown ups. A clown in the sewers is as nothing compared to Dad waiting in the hallway to feel you up. It’s a perfectly judged drama. Another reason this works is because it inhabits familiar territory for many of us who recall Spielberg films of the era – the sight of a squad of boys on bikes recalls ET – and the King drama Stand By Me which was so iconic and one that also treats its protagonists respectfully. We also think about The Goonies:  the spirit of adventure is overwhelmingly attractive despite the dangers to this bunch of nerds and scaredy cats.  The Netflix show Stranger Things is an overt homage to all of these, mixing up the paranormal, horror and nostalgia for thirty years ago and the presence of cool girl Winona Ryder is such a plus.  Adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman;  directed by Andy Muschietti who gives the scenes equal weight and doesn’t give into the massive temptation to exaggerate the horror element, allowing each character to fully blossom. This is a coming of age story with panache and clowns and a wonderful ensemble of wholly believable kids and Bill Skarsgard donning the whiteface. Personally I can’t wait for part two set 27 years from 1989 when It reappears: wouldn’t it be really meta to cast Molly Ringwald as the adult incarnation of the Molly Ringwald lookalike? Awesome idea!

Fences (2016)

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Some people build fences to keep people out and some people build fences to keep people in. Troy (Denzel Washington) is a trash collector married to Rose (Viola Davis) for eighteen years in 1950s Pittsburgh. His life is filled with regrets, particularly when it comes to his chance of playing baseball twenty years ago before the game had mixed leagues. He believes he has cheated The Grim Reaper in the past. His son Cory (Jovan Adepo) is promising at football but he squashes his ambitions. For fear of racial discrimination? Jealousy?  This is the kind of film I dread seeing never mind commenting about for fear of the thought police. It’s a draggy theatre adaptation of a famously acclaimed work which is worthy and conscious and PC and all that kinda annoying stuff. It’s all talk. Troy left an abusive home, killed a man in a robbery, went to prison, found a talent for baseball. Until one hour in, it’s hard to watch, even with Washington and Davis reprising their Broadway roles and some good sidebars with the supporting actors: Stephen Henderson as his friend, Mykelti Williamson as his ‘touched’ younger brother, his illegitimate son Russell Hornsby who arrives to collect money. They are physically placed as though everyone were still behind a proscenium. Then – when Troy confesses to Rose his mistress is about to have his bastard and it’s all about him – she lights up and grips the screen by the throat and it finally gains a life of its own – legitimate cinema, as it were. This is all about family and responsibility and the weight you attach to your experiences even at the cost to your relationships. What Troy does next – and how Rose responds – is the whole show. The original play by August Wilson (whose alterations to the proposed screenplay shortened it over the long period of development prior to his death) takes place in a yard, like a lot of American plays. Part of the reason it took so long to reach the screen was Wilson’s insistence upon a black director. Washington’s direction of the adaptation reinstates the text and once that first difficult act is done, he gets more courage and inserts a song and a montage of how life has gone. And then … So it’s not great cinema but it gives concrete proof of Davis’ brilliant stage performance. Personally I found Washington harder to take not just for his personification but his enunciation. This is a tough watch for all the above reasons. Three strikes …

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)

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I’ve never made any secret of the fact that basically I’m on my way to Australia. Calendar Colorado is lawless town rich on the proceeds of a gold find during a funeral and it needs someone to pull it into shape. A sharpshooting chancer Jason McCullough (James Garner) claiming to be on his way to Oz takes a well-paid job to clean up as sheriff, hired by mayor Olly Perkins (Harry Morgan). That involves putting the Danby family in line so he imprisons idiot son Joe (Bruce Dern) in a jail without bars by dint of a chalk line and some red paint … This sendup of western tropes gets by on its good nature and pure charm with Garner backed up by a hilarious Joan Hackett as the accident-prone Prudy Perkins whose attractions are still visible even when she sets her own bustle alight. Jack Elam parodies his earlier roles as the tough guy seconded as deputy while Walter Brennan leads the dastardly Danbys, hellbent on making money from the guys mining the gold before it can be shipped out. Written and produced by William Bowers and directed by Burt Kennedy, that expert at a comic take on the genre whose serious side he had exploited in collaboration with Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott the previous decade. Bright and funny entertainment.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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

Wind River (2017)

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How do you gauge someone’s will to live? I once knew a film producer who said the two rules of moviemaking were, Never make a western and Never make a film in the snow. Well thank goodness nobody told screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who makes his directing debut here following the screenplays for the extraordinary Sicario and Hell or High Water, two of the best films in the past decade. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is an agent (read:  animal catcher) for the US Fish and Wildlife Service working in the vast titular Native American reservation in Wyoming when he happens upon the body of a young woman Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) who was his own late daughter’s best friend. He’s seconded by a neophyte FBI officer Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to help her as she has no expertise in tracking or this mountainous terrain the size of Rhode Island with just 6 police officers led by Graham Greene. While Cory is still dealing with the fallout of a divorce, having to forego caring for his young son when his ex is out of town for a couple of days in order to look for the killers, we unspool through family photos and start to understand some of his motivation for helping this officer who doesn’t even have the right clothing for minus 20: Cory’s mother in law loans her her late granddaughter’s clothing with the warning, These are not a gift.  His young son is startled at the sight of this white girl in his dead sister’s clothes. Together Cory and Jane embark on a hunt when the coroner finds the girl has been likely multiply raped but drowned in her own blood because the alveoli in her lungs filled with freezing air as she ran barefoot from her assailants. She ran six miles. So it can’t officially be listed as murder. Then Cory finds a second body …  With all Sheridan’s films now we see a certain pattern:  the idea of borders, which also extend to different races and traditions and values transmuted through marriage, and of course singular acts of transgression which here comprise murder but obviously incorporate other acts of violation arising from untrammelled self-justification. It culminates in a chase and a shootout but concludes in an act of individual revenge on Wyoming’s highest mountain peak which calls to mind the work of James Stewart and Anthony Mann in their western collaborations.  Most debut writer/directors make the mistake of filing every hole with overwritten dialogue:  Sheridan is too shrewd for that.  He allows the pictures to speak for themselves, human nature to assert itself as it usually does and the dead bodies are permitted testimony to their brutal demise. He chooses to end on a frame that expresses friendship and acceptance.  (Followed by a piece of text which states that the only portion of the demographic not featured in Missing Person figures is Native American women.) It’s a very satisfying film – tense, character-driven, fast-moving and deeply felt – and it’s adorned with excellent performances and some beautifully mournful songs composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.