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

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

 

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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I know what I like and don’t like.  When I like something, I like it enormously. When I don’t like something, I can’t abide it.  An avalanche stops the famous train the Orient Express in its tracks and one of the occupants, the very unlikable Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered in his compartment. As the acclaimed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) interrogates the passengers, his little grey cells working overtime to find the culprit, he discovers that each of them has a link with the victim … Agatha Christie’s classic novel gets another interpretation, this time adapted by Michael Green and directed by star Branagh who goes overboard with his facial decoration.  You can dream up your own cliché:  the plot runs out of steam or goes off the rails, as a remake it’s clueless (in consideration of the 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet) and so on, but the real crime is by Branagh because he makes directing and staging choices which do not work. There are overhead shots depriving us of the detail and nuance of some performances (Hitchcock only did this when a deception was being carried out) while the 1974 version gave each of its superstarry cast a real opportunity to chew the sumptuous scenery in well thought out one-on-one scenes. Here, the interviews are cursory and underplayed with Branagh playing Poirot for laughs. The film opens on a scene in Jerusalem in which Poirot proves his detecting mettle. It’s unnecessary. It also gives him a romantic backstory. As if. Michelle Pfeiffer is a wonderfully vampy character, Judi Dench is a Princess, Penelope Cruz is a religious nut, while Daisy Ridley, Willem Defoe, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman and Josh Gad round out the ensemble. This feels as under-nourished as its cast. I once stood on a station platform waiting for the Reading train into London and the real Orient Express pulled up:  there was more drama peering in the windows at that glorious vehicle and its travellers in those five minutes than there is in this entire film’s running time.

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.

The Magus (1968)

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We have all been cast as the traitor for one simple reason:  we have all failed to love.  Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine) takes up a position as schoolteacher on the Greek island of Phraxos where his predecessor has committed suicide. He wants to write and to escape the pressures of his relationship with Anne (Anna Karina) an emotionally complex air hostess.  He becomes obsessed with a rich old man Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn) living in a big complex on the other side of the island who draws him into his odd domestic arrangements which include beautiful American actress Lily (Candice Bergen).  As Maurice starts to play mind games with Nicholas and tells him of his alleged involvement in the deaths of more than 80 villagers during the Nazi occupation, Nicholas loses his grip on reality – he doesn’t know if Maurice is a filmmaker, a psychiatrist, a Nazi collaborator or a demonic magician. They play a dice game which inevitably signals more than its elements. He is put on trial, with everyone from Maurice’s stories and films attending… The once fiendishly famous John Fowles adapted his own novel which no self-respecting student could be seen without.  He may have fallen out of fashion but his work is entrancing and important and if this doesn’t live up to its billing that can be laid at the door of Fowles himself and director Guy Green (Caine and Bergen certainly did). However, it’s a beguiling production, one of the best looking you will ever see courtesy of DoP Billy Williams (Green himself was of course an Academy Award-winning cinematographer) and in its narrative creases you might detect a kind of text much more acknowledged these days – psychogeography, the T.S. Eliot references hint at this of course although even entry level kids can rhyme off the line, No man is an island. Of course the Magus himself is a reference to the diabolical Aleister Crowley (whose home had been in Sicily) but Quinn’s character creates a backstory based in real-life horror and a mass execution, all the while taking on the physical qualities of a latterday Picasso. Fowles himself appears as a boat captain who speaks to Nicholas.  There’s a tremendous cast – including Julian Glover, Takis Emmanuel and Paul Stassino – telling a complex story of identity, responsibility, punishment and redemption that is streamlined to its essential parts and it adds up to something utterly beautiful.  We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time

The Happy Prince (2018)

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Intimacy in the sewers followed by fantasy in the gods, and then, total silence.  As he flees England to France in the wake of his release from prison, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) tries to reestablish his life, finish his writing work and disdain his lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Colin Morgan) whose father the Marquis of Queensberry had him gaoled for his homosexuality following a libel suit.  All the while he is hounded by the press who have made his life a misery in a society  whose denizens once enjoyed being sent up by him but which are now all too happy to shun him. He is assisted in exile by his literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and loyal friend, journalist Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). But when his identity is revealed to a hotel proprietor following a fracas with bullying English tourists, he is obliged to take up residence in Paris where he slides into dissolution, corresponds with Bosie and is cut off by his wife Constance (Emily Watson) on the advice of her solicitors… There is no question that Everett achieves something rather special here:  he inhabits Wilde with the kind of comfort that can only come from someone who has long shepherded this project as well as playing him a number of times on stage;  the acknowledging that Bosie was truly Wilde’s Achilles heel – he simply cannot resist the nasty little bugger, a beauty, a nauseating irresponsible temptress in male clothing, a sop to Wilde’s vanity.  He is his downfall and he is simply irresistible. Everett doesn’t spare Wilde physically either – bloated, drugging and drinking, wearing rouge, he’s a braggart whose survival depends on his wit yet he says he found God in gaol:  in that cell there was only himself and Christ. He has lost his strength yet he musters a violent thug within to confront holidaying yobs who recognise him in France:  that their showdown occurs in a church is a nicely Wildean touch. He finishes De Profundis;  he tells the story of The Happy Prince both to his sons in flashback and to the two street boys he befriends in the Parisian underworld. The multi-faceted backwards and forwards in time structure should confuse but doesn’t because the focus is all on Oscar:  and Everett is savage as appropriate.  This is a self-inflicted theatrical exit, fuelled by lust and blind obsession, invariably leading to terrible pain which he seems unable to stop. We are watching a great writer decompose, in all the senses that that term might conjure. There are all kinds of second-tier attractions:  the mood of melancholy offset with famous bons mots and rueful self-examination;  the locations;  the portrayal of male friendship and loyalty;  the hypocrisy writ large even within Oscar’s own worldview because he tells people what they need to hear even when everyone concerned knows it’s not true (Ross truly loves him and Wilde loves him back, just not in the same way);  his thoroughly wistful longing to see his small children again which grieves him terribly;  Everett’s old pal Béatrice Dalle (from Betty Blue) turning up as the proprietress of a risqué bar;  the interweaving of onstage characters from Wilde’s plays with his real-life associates; the wondrous score by Gabriel Yared. Frisky, fruity and just a little salty – rather like the man himself. It’s a heartbreaking  and profoundly literary valentine, wise and witty and immensely good. What a debut for Rupert Everett, film writer and director.  Surely Love is a wonderful thing

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.

Straw Dogs (1971)

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If you can’t catch ’em … shoot ’em.  David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mild-mannered American mathematician married to Amy (Susan George), an Englishwoman. They have relocated to the small town in rural Cornwall where Amy was raised, to a house filled with her father’s belongings. David is writing a book because he has a research grant to do a project on astrophysics.  He is ostracized by the brutish men of the village who are renovating the garage beside the cottage, including Amy’s old boyfriend Charlie (Del Henney). Eventually the taunts and lewdness escalate, their cat is strangled and hanged and two of the locals rape Amy while they distract David by taking him out hunting and leave him alone for the day on the moor. When the village idiot Henry Niles (an uncredited David Warner) winds up at their house after accidentally killing the local slut Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett) following a church social, the locals come a looking and lay siege to his house and the passive aggressive David finally takes revenge …  David Zelag Goodman loosely adapted the 1969 Gordon M. Williams novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm with director Sam Peckinpah and its sustained atmosphere of unbearable tension and brutality shocks to this day. The campaign of harassment is inscribed in the titles sequence in which we open on a gravestone and children torturing a dog:  we are quickly introduced to the casual viciousness of the village, the acceptance of violence – mentally retarded Henry is bitch slapped by his brother John (Peter Arne) for playing ball with schoolchildren;  Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) breaks a glass into the publican’s hand when time is called despite the presence of the local magistrate (T.P. McKenna);  Hedden’s trampy daughter Janice (Thomsett) and son Bobby (Len Jones) watch David and Amy in bed together. The goons played by Ken Hutchison and Donald Webster are uncomplicated thugs who nonetheless question David about his familiarity with guns (the anti-Vietnam war poster and the animal trap indicate where the film is going textually). He makes it obvious that he is anti-violence. The gang rape is anything but simple:  Amy tries to pacify the first assailant because like most rape victims, she knows him and that’s what makes this so convincing, never mind that it’s brilliantly shot and constructed.  She has gone around the place without a bra – even David tells her to start dressing appropriately and stop complaining that the locals are making horrible remarks. The marital strains are echoed when the vicar (Colin Welland) gives his wife a condescending look because she doesn’t know who Montesquieu is;  Amy doesn’t understand binary numbers. The drama is then structured about the outsider intellectual amid backward yokels, of whom his wife still appears to be one;  the awful Hedden’s concern for his daughter reminds us that Amy’s father dominates her domestic surroundings and she resents David’s retreat to his study. This is where I live. This is me.  I will not allow violence against this house. This was much misunderstood upon release but it’s a genre mashup whose antecedents – the western, the horror film (isn’t this a Hammeresque village with a Frankenstein’s monster?), the home invasion movie – are delineated clearly. The crosscutting (Nic Roeg’s collaborator Tony Lawson is one of three editors, including future director Roger Spottiswoode) also clarifies the complex and ironic psychology. You simply cannot say, as many did at the time of this film’s initial release, that this celebrates violence:  the technique just does not permit it.  David’s shit-eating grin at the film’s conclusion is perhaps what bothers people but as someone who has suffered outrageous violence at the hands of my thick neighbours I can relate to his turnaround and wish I were in a position to emulate it. When I asked the local plumber what was behind it he told me an apocryphal tale which ended in the deathless words, Y’see, nobody wants someone with too much education in their neighbourhood. So when anyone asks me what it’s like to live in the countryside, I tell them, Watch Straw Dogs. As far as I’m concerned, it might be a documentary.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

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If they move… kill ’em! In 1913, ageing outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) prepares to retire after one final botched robbery on the Mexican border. Joined by his gang, including Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) and brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), Bishop discovers the heist is a setup orchestrated in part by his old partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) now a ruthless mercenary. They’ve wound up with washers, not silver. As the remaining gang cross the Rio Grande and take refuge in Mexican territory, Thornton trails them, resulting in their taking on a suicide mission if ever there were one – as they are engaged by double-crossing Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to hijack a stash of guns from a train while he fights Pancho Villa under the military guidance of a German Commander (Fernando Wagner) on the eve of WW1 … This was going to be my last.  Sublime filmmaking from one of the iconoclasts of American cinema, Sam Peckinpah, who wrote the screenplay with Walon Green, the writer of the original story with Roy N. Sickner.  The titles sequence with scorpions tells us that this will be so much more than your regular western:  it’s a meditation on masculinity, ageing, violence, warfare and revenge.  Like all of Peckinpah’s genre work its focus is on the male in a hostile environment and it abounds in visual style with Peckinpah and cinematographer Lucien Ballard using multiple camera setups and different film speeds to accentuate the conflict between the old and the new, mythology and modernity. They demonstrate that there can be honour among thieves, if it is of a singularly macho variety. There is also friendship, pragmatism, humour and resignation.  The final shootout is glorious. This is one of the crowning achievements in cinema. Walk softly, boys