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.

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Did You Hear About The Morgans? (2009)

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Those two are worse then Pete the Butcher. Recently separated NYC couple realtor Meryl (Sarah Jessica Parker) and lawyer Paul (Hugh Grant) have a civilised dinner and on the way home witness a murder. They have to leave their busy lives and go in the Witness Protection Programme, winding up in rural Ray, Wyoming with wily sheriff Clay (Sam Elliott) and his gun-toting wife Emma (Mary Steenburgen). Not only do they have to sleep under the one roof with just Clint Eastwood and John Wayne dvds, they get to experience life without traffic noise, cashmere and learn about each other, all over again, in between getting to shoot and ride. Because there isn’t a lot else to do.  She’s going nuts. And Paul finds out that he wasn’t the only one to be unfaithful after they had fertility issues. But they look up at the sky and see the stars – a view you can only get in the Planetarium! And then they win at the local Bingo game. What’s not to like?! Back in NYC their assistants (Elisabeth Moss and Michael Kelly) argue about whether they should call them and the hitman who saw them do his day job has the line bugged … Comic auteur Marc Lawrence reunites with his favourite leading man and mines the heck out of this fish out of water scenario with Grant giving an enjoyably droll performance even when he’s getting bear-sprayed in the eye. Very amusing indeed with some hilarious lines.

The Accountant (2016)

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I have no idea how to interpret why people do what they do. That makes two of us, bub. Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is the autistic number cruncher working out of a strip mall south of Chicago. But he’s being hunted down by a T-man (JK Simmons) whose pursuit has some personal impetus. Is it possible that Wolff – who likes target practice – is laundering money for the Mob? And is a decent hitman to boot? There are flashbacks to a troubled child whose mom walks out and whose military dad takes him and his brother all over the world to learn fight techniques. When Christian is hired to look at the books of a robotics technology firm run by Lamar Blackburn  (John Lithgow) his mathematical genius uncovers a plot nobody thought he would uncover and the eccentric accountant Dana (Anna Kendrick) at the firm could wind up as collateral damage as a string of hits is carried out. There’s a hard man Brax (Jon Bernthal) who is being deployed to off awkward embezzlers – and is currently including Christian in his sights. … What a weird idea. An autistic assassin-accountant. And yet the DNA of this is so tightly wound around parallel plots – the psychodrama of a mentally ill child genius combined with a government hunt for money launderers and it gets tighter as  it progresses. Bonkers, with an astutely cast Affleck (line readings were never his thing) in a thriller like no other. Adding up, with more bodies. That’s mental illness for ya. If you can see the end coming you are a better man than I. You might even BE a man. Written by Bill Dubuque and directed by Gavin O’Connor.

The Wizard of Lies (2017)(TVM)

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Do you think I’m a sociopath? I’m not a psychiatrist, Bernie Madoff, but I do know you’re a thief who committed larceny on a grand scale that specifically targeted Jewish retirees, most of whom ended up living hand to mouth in trailer parks as a result of your actions – if they were lucky.  You can understand the attraction of this project – looking at the man behind the biggest Ponzi scheme in history – and the family structure behind him. This after all is the guy whose own sons turned him in. When it happened it was at the height of the financial ‘mismanagement’ that caused the world’s economy to crash.  When Madoff pleaded guilty nobody  – certainly not the POTUS – wanted to see his friends in the major institutions jailed. Diana Henriques is the New York Times journalist who had access to Madoff and interviewed him in prison and her book provides the basis for a screenplay by Sam Levinson, Sam Baum and John Burnham Schwartz, with Henriques playing herself, opposite Robert De Niro. This is a despicable man with absolutely no redeeming features. There is no explanation as to what drove him. His behaviour to everybody is horrendous, rude, arrogant and nasty, even to waiters. The narrative chooses to focus not on the bigger context – or the horrors inflicted on his victims – but on the humiliation meted out to his sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andy (Nathan Darrow) who apparently didn’t know what went on on the 17th floor – a destination that has almost horror-story significance. In reality it was a crowded office populated by undereducated sleazes who kept the accounts of all the little people whom they sandbagged and robbed blind, led by Frank DiPascali (Hank Azaria) an utterly reprehensible character. Wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer, looking a little different again, as is her wont…) is another supposed innocent, whose relationships with her sons suffer because she keeps visiting one-dimensional Bernie in jail. Bernie simply refuses to offer any explanation for any of his actions and Mark trawls the web to find offensive comments (the one called ‘Weekend at Bernie’s was blackly ironic) while Andy’s wife urges distance between the brothers. Nobody sees Mark’s suicide coming. Then Andy succumbs to lymphoma. Ruth simply changes her phone number. Confining the drama to a dysfunctional family dynamic may have seemed like clever writing – even an attempt to make it some sort of Shakespearean allegory – but in doing so it totally misses the bigger picture:  not on the scale of fiscal destruction purveyed by the Madoff Advisory of course but it seems irresponsible and kind of pointless storytelling with nothing new that we all don’t know.  Look at The Big Short for a really stylish and shocking interrogation of this scenario;  or The Wolf of Wall Street:  this can be tour de force filmmaking in the right hands.  What a shame. Directed by Barry Levinson.

The Firm (1993)

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Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) is the hotshot Harvard grad hired by Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an established law firm run by Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) but he soon discovers that beneath the outward trappings of success there’s a very dark side and a price to be paid for that nice car and condo (well, they’re lawyers, whatcha expect but corruption?). When Mitch travels to the Caymans to hide client funds, he’s seduced by a woman on the beach – and the resulting photos compromise his marriage (to Jeanne Tripplehorn) and he’s now under the cosh to do as he’s told because as he finds out previous associates were murdered when they uncovered the firm’s mafia tax fraud. He’s approached by the FBI to wear a wire … There are tremendous performances here in this super-efficiently told thriller, especially by Holly Hunter who has a whale of a time as Gary Busey’s secretary/ lover – he’s the private eye who shared a prison cell with Mitch’s brother, whose existence made Mitch vulnerable to exploitation. The John Grisham thriller was originally adapted by David Rayfiel who had been working with director Sydney Pollack since the mid-Sixties however a major rewrite and restructuring (and removal of some) of the book’s elements by Robert Towne made it a far pacier piece of work.  (There was a draft by David Rabe but Towne supposedly never saw it.) It’s a fantastically suspenseful entertainment, with a great performance by Cruise and he is matched by the peerless Hackman. You can read more about all of this in my book ChinaTowne in the chapter detailing Towne’s collaborations with superstar Cruise:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1489868389&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

Imperium (2016)

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Daniel Radcliffe plays Nate Foster, an FBI agent seconded to infiltrate a white supremacist group planning an Event when senior agent Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) wants to find stolen caesium-137. And therein lieth the problem. He’s tiny in comparison with the skinhead mobsters rallying around Vince Sargent (Pawel Szajda) who’s a follower of Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts) a conservative hate-speech spouting talk show host. Nate has to prove himself and launches an attack on an interracial couple then stops it by rationalising that the CCTV and a local shopkeeper could ID them as he drives off at high speed. Things get tricky when Nate’s introduced to Andrew Blackwell (Chris Sullivan from TV’s This Is Us), the leader of a militia who isn’t as taken with Nate as his friends but when Nate saves him from anti-fascists at a rally he relents and lets Nate in on a plan to attack Washington. The drama ups a notch when Nate befriends Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell), a family man, classical music lover and all-round good guy racist so the plot literally thickens … Until Nate figures who the real bad guy is and pretends that he will supply TATP for a dirty bomb. This works pretty well if you can get beyond the stunt casting but the ending is pretty predictable and not as tense as it should have been. Timely, if nothing else. But it makes me want to watch Arlington Road again, or even American History X, to see these themes more adeptly handled. Adapted by director Daniel Ragussis from Michael German’s story.

Arlington Road (1999)

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You know you’re watching a terrific thriller when Joan Cusack’s sudden appearance at a phone booth makes you jump out of your seat in fright. The screenplay by the gifted Ehren Kruger is concerned with homegrown terrorism, a notion that has never gone away but had particular currency in the era of Timothy McVeigh. Jeff Bridges is the recently widowed history lecturer who discovers that his new neighbours might be plotting something very nasty indeed and realises too late that his young son is spending way too much time in their company. This is a brilliantly sustained tense piece of work which never drops the ball and is tonally pretty perfect. An underrated achievement. Directed by Mark Pellington.

Midnight Run (1988)

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Robert De Niro is the taciturn bounty hunter called in on one last job by Joe Pantoliano, to bring in an accountant for the mob (Charles Grodin) who’s stolen millions of his employer’s money and given it to charity in a fit of pique on finding out they guy’s true identity. His faked fear of flying means a cross-country journey from NYC to LA – with the FBI, the mob and rival bounty hunter John Ashton on their tails. This handcuffed odd couple are like chalk and cheese, the phobic money man and the smartass no-nonsense ex-cop in this near-definitive buddy movie: their byplay is priceless, with both De Niro and Grodin turning in brilliant performances. This action comedy written by George Gallo is one of the great screenplays of the Eighties. Directed with verve by Martin Brest in what is his best film to date. Simply sublime.

Jackie (2016)

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Did I really see this film?! That’s an appropriate afterthought given its hallucinatory quality, a narcotised morphine fever dream about a woman with a flip haircut, boiled wool suits and a voice from the Marilyn playbook. Natalie Portman doesn’t remotely resemble the upperclass journalist who married into the crass Kennedy family and wound up First Lady with her husband’s brains spattered into her lap on an ill-judged trip to Texas, home to LBJ. Yet that doesn’t matter because after a half hour of her narration you are sucked into this Warholesque meditation on fame and public approval. She lies constantly to journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) interviewing her for Life after the assassination and then tells him things she insists cannot possibly go to print. She will edit the image and control the myth – which she calls Camelot. That record spins as she cascades into a vortex of desperation and disbelief. This will be her version of events. She crashes around the White House, drunk; argues with Bobby and Jack Valenti about the funeral and changes her mind back and forth about how much of Lincoln’s leavetaking should be imitated, while the clodhopping Kennedy sisters try to manipulate the situation;  when her husband’s casket is put on public view she sympathises with LBJ that this should be the terrible beginning of his Presidency. One suspects it is precisely the beginning he desired. Real footage of her White House restoration tour for TV is intercut with a grainy impressionistic copy where she is coached and cheered from the sidelines by Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). Suddenly Portman’s embodiment doesn’t seem as mad. She retracts all the truthful statements from her account to White – what she did with her husband’s skull, the sound of the bullet – but it is to Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt) that she speaks about her loveless marriage, her insecurities, her need to have her dead children interred with their father. Their burial in the rainy hillside at Arlington feels like the ultimate cruelty. Archive footage is impeccably interwoven with this recreation of events in which we all have an investment, even those of us born long after they occurred. As she leaves the White House for the final time she passes Hamiltons department store and sees rows of window mannequins wearing her wigs and two-piece Chanel imitations. What is real? What is performance? she muses. One gets the distinct impression she knew more than most. And off she goes, homeless, to an unknowable, husbandless future. Written by Noah Oppenheim with a visceral arrest of a soundtrack created by Mica Levi, undercutting the sense of camp that this sad and crazy brilliance otherwise imparts. Andy Warhol is alive and well and still making movies. There is just one word for this: astonishing. Directed by Pablo Larrain. Oh!

GoodFellas (1990)

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As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. Martin Scorsese’s astonishing portrait of Sicilian-Irish Henry Hill’s 25 year rise through the ranks of Italian-American hoodlums – and his eventual fall – is re-released this month and it still exerts a visceral thrill. Between Coppola and Scorsese we have a reference book on this topic and so many of the tropes and lingo of this subculture are common parlance thanks to them. Nicholas  Pileggi adapted his book Wiseguy (with Scorsese) and with an exegesis on true crime and punishment, violence,  family, honour and dishonour, cooking, drugs and horrible taste,  it has a panoramic sweep we pretty much take for granted. Not for nothing did some of the cast become mainstays of The Sopranos, which wouldn’t exist without this. However it is not the sociological examination we think it was:  it’s a film of no particular depth or self-knowledge, not if we’re depending on Henry’s voiceover. Instead it’s a stylish compendium of cinematic vocabulary, with flourishes influenced by everyone from Anger to Visconti, boasting a particularly nice tribute to The Great Train Robbery in the closing moments. And there are a lot of great, queasy moments here, with gore to spare:  Joe Pesci has the lion’s share as the psychopath Tommy DeVito; Paul Sorvino as the main guy, Paulie Cicero;  and Catherine Scorsese has some nice bits as Tommy’s mom, a keen amateur painter; De Niro is good as Jimmy Conway, the other Sicilian-Irish guy who can never be truly Mafia; Lorraine Bracco is superb as the whining Jewish wife who develops a taste for cocaine; and Ray Liotta could never be better than here, even if he’ll never be a made man. A funny and scarifying tour de force of surfaces, textures and moviemaking.