Elephant (2003)

Elephant

Get the fuck out of here, shit is going to happen. John (John McFarland) is being driven through the suburbs to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms). Alex (Alex Frost) is a talented pianist being bullied at Watt High School, Oregon. He and his best friend slacker Eric (Eric Deulen) play video games, watch a documentary about Nazis, have sex in the shower and load up on guns. On their way into the building wearing camo gear and carrying black bags, Alex warns John not to go in. Elias (Elias McConnell) goes round the hallways photographing other students before going to the school newspaper office to develop his pictures. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field with girlfriend Carrie. Bespectacled outcast Michelle (Kristen Hicks) runs through the corridors and escapes to the library to avoid sports. Three bulimic girls gossip and end up in the Ladies’ Room. When the boys fail to explode propane bombs and prowl the corridors and library shooting everyone on sight, Acadia (Alicia Miles) freezes and Benny (Bennie Dixon) helps her escape through a window … Damn, they shot him. Gus Van Sant’s meditative exploration of the moments leading up to a Columbine high school-like massacre looks and feels less assured than it did upon release. Perhaps because unlike its source material (Alan Clarke’s BBC film Elephant, which was about sectarian politics in Northern Ireland) it is politically rootless unless you regard teenage alienation as justification for genocide and the inclusion of a TV documentary about Nazism adequate as rationale for unleashing senseless violence upon your contemporaries. Perhaps that is the point – that children and guns are just not a good mix, teenagers are unknowable and basically ungovernable, allowing them too much time on their own is a really bad idea because literally anything could happen in those burgeoning adults. The over the shoulder tracking shots down the school corridors and their repetitive nature bring us back to the same moments again and again giving the narrative a poetic rhythm and spatial familiarity, as does the auditory track which occasionally lapses into silence and then white noise, particularly when Alex is sitting in the cafeteria and we get a hint of the killings to come. There is no doubt that the very boring nature of the scenario and the real-time pacing lends an incremental tension to the situation. The biggest problem here is that the affectlessness of the protagonists means a conventional drama cannot be constructed and a moral is hard to discern while the filmmaker is attempting to get into these boys’ brains. That is the core of the story: there are things that people simply cannot get to grips with. The moment when a teacher approaches a student who’s just been shot dead at a classroom door and treats it as if it’s normal is simply staggering. Screenplay by Van Sant with controversial ‘memoirist’ JT LeRoy and Diane Keaton credited as producers on a project that started life as a documentary. Most importantly, have fun

What Men Want (2019)

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That’s just Jasmine tea. If you don’t count the weed, and the peyote, and the crack. Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson) doesn’t get promoted at her sports agency because she doesn’t connect well with men. She immediately goes out and has a one night stand with bartender Will (Aldis Hodge) and turns up dishevelled at a photoshoot the next day and screws up signing the next basketball star Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie) whose dad Joe ‘Dolla’ (Tracy Morgan) makes her life very difficult. She is read by a psychic called Sister (Erykah Badu) at her friend’s bachelorette party and is given a foul-smelling tea to drink. When the gang goes to a nightclub she falls over and hits her head and awakens in hospital to find she can read her doctor’s thoughts and en route to the office she realises she can hear what every man is thinking. Jamal doesn’t want to sign with a woman who doesn’t have a family so she passes off Will and his son as her own … I thought all black people stopped drinking tea after Get Out.  A film that must have been dreamed off in a moment of heightened wokeness, this remake of Nancy Meyers’ 2000 hit supplants wit with crassness, ingenuity with cliché, Mel Gibson with Henson. The original screenplay credited here to Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith and Diane Drake (and adapted for this production by Tina Gordon, Alex Gregory, Peter Huyck and Jas Waters) was actually wholly rewritten by Meyers who was uncredited for her page one rewrite in exchange for her taking over the reins on the project that starred the wonderfully charismatic Gibson.  You can read about all that in my book https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=pathways+of+desire+elaine+lennon&qid=1577703336&s=books&sr=1-1. This however replaces the point of view and flips gender in what was originally a clever battle of the sexes-mind swap comedy and is now an exercise lacking almost entirely in insights either into advertising, sport psychology or anything else. In this iteration, Henson tries too hard. Ali jumps out of her box and winds up being put back in it quite conclusively. At least Richard Roundtree graces us with his presence as Ali’s dad. Quite mystifying. I doubt Meyers would want to be associated with it after all. Directed by Adam Shankman. The only voices I heard were Joan Rivers and Tupac. And they did not get along

The Return of Count Yorga (1971)

The Return of Count Yorga

Aka The Abominable Count Yorga. The most fragile emotion ever known has entered my life. Those brutal supernatural Santa Ana winds revive Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) and faithful manservant Brudah (Edward Walsh) and they follow little boy Tommy (Philip Frame) to his San Francisco orphanage home where Cynthia Nelson (Mariette Hartley) is helping run a costume party fundraiser. Lonely Yorga bites one of the guests Mitzi (Jesse Welles) and then becomes infatuated with Cynthia, whose family his female vampires feed upon, bringing the object of his affection to his ramshackle lair intending to make her his bride against the advice of his in-house witch. Cynthia’s mute maid Jennifer (Yvonne Wilder) and her fiance David (Roger Perry) become suspicious about her whereabouts…  Where are your fangs?/ Where are your  manners? The title (and the poster) say it all, really. That debonair bloodsucker sticks his hand up from the grassy knoll and enters the vicinity of entirely vulnerable people, tongue subtly planted in cheek even while his teeth are in their necks. It’s fun again, with the Count losing out in the Best Costume stakes in the opening party scenes to a pretend vampire. This is of course just another story of an arranged marriage with an army of vampiress enforcers with teased hair and tacky dresses enhancing their startling impact. Hartley is lovely, Quarry is lovelorn and the entire shebang looks and moves smoothly with writer/director Bob Kelljan at the helm (the screenplay is also credited to Yvonne Wilder) in a decent sequel concluding in the mandatory twisted ending to a tragic romance which openly pays tribute to Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers.  Perry is also back from the dead but in a different role and it’s good to see a young Craig T. Nelson as one of the sceptical investigating police officers. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that vampires do exist?

Widows (2018)

Widows

The best thing we have going for us is being who we are… no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.  When Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew of criminals are engulfed in flames during a botched job in Chicago, Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself owing hustler-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a couple of million dollars. Armed only with a notebook in which Harry detailed his past and future plans, Veronica teams up with the gang’s other widows – Linda (Michelle Rodriquez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and single mom Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to mount a robbery her husband was planning that could clear their debt and give them a new start. Meanwhile, an increasingly brutal election battle featuring Irish-American career politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his father Tom (Robert Duvall) emphasises the social problems of Chicago, raising the stakes for this ramshackle group’s first foray into crime…  I’m the only thing standing between you and a bullet in the head. Steve McQueen won the Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave, a relentlessly gruesome account of black American history, an astonishing achievement for a British visual artist never mind a black director. His genre impetus has hardly been on anyone’s radar but he was a fan of Lynda La Plante’s feisty women from the 1983 British TV series (set in London) and brings a lot of artistry to this slick feminist outing concerning itself as much with issues of poverty, domestic abuse and childcare as the unlikeliness of a heist led by women trying to pay back their criminal husbands’ debts following the conflagration that killed the men in a botched heist.  The backdrop which exists in the narrative courtesy of Farrell’s role is given huge expressivity through Sean Bobbitt’s widescreen camerawork, the issues of money and race and class and the sewer of Chicago politicking right there for all to see but of course that deflects from the main story even as it serves to amplify a theme of difficult intergenerational relationships.  This detailed texture is an expansive approach in an established genre which usually has a narrow focus but if ultimately it doesn’t fully engage in the manner which you’d wish, it’s probably due to the underwhelming adaptation by McQueen and Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn which doesn’t give the principals a lot to work with – a shame in the case of Davis, who works at it and has some great scenes with Neeson. Debicki comes off best because she has a character who goes through real development and lots of emotions as the narrative progresses – from abuse by mother and husband, through sugar baby, to independence. Good, but should have been a lot better, especially with that twist 75 minutes in. Criminals and cops are the same. They never bring their shit home

How To Murder Your Wife (1965)

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Follow the adventures of America’s favorite hen-pecked boob! Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) is a successful cartoonist with his syndicated Bash Brannigan strip and happily single, cosseted by his disdainful valet Charles (Terry-Thomas) who maintains the status quo which includes his weight. That’s until Stanley gets drunk at a friend’s bachelor party and impulsively proposes to the beautiful woman who pops out of the cake (Virna Lisi). Once sober and back home the next morning with a total stranger, he regrets the decision, but she won’t agree to a divorce – she’s Italian! And doesn’t speak a word of English until she stays up all night watching TV. During the day she cooks him delicious fattening meals and he can barely jog around the gym any longer. Stanley jokingly vents his frustrations in his comic strip by having the main character kill his wife with Charles  returning to the fold in his usual role of photographer in chief. But when his actual wife goes missing and Stanley is arrested for her murder, he has a change of heart – then there’s a trial and he has to find a way to demonstrate that he doesn’t always draw cartoons from pre-photographed scenarios … Written and produced by George Axelrod and directed by Lemmon’s regular collaborator, Richard Quine, this is as good-looking as we’ve come to expect of the team and is a lot of fun. Part of the charm is in the casting which has some fantastic supporting characters, especially Eddie Mayehoff as Harold Lampson, Stanley’s lawyer, who himself harbours fantasies about murdering his own wife, Edna (Claire Trevor) an Italophile who suspects Stanley of foul deeds. Lisi is a delight as Mrs Ford (we never learn her real name) and this was the first of her Hollywood films in which she was clearly being groomed to emulate Marilyn Monroe, whose death pose (itself widely acknowledged to have been carefully staged) she unfortunately emulates in one of Stanley’s fantasies while she is asleep. And what about that white gown! Fabulous. Nonetheless, despite the misogynistic aspects, this is great fun and … the women have the last (gap-toothed!) word. As it should be.

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

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I once asked an extremely famous screenwriter why he thought it might be that I have certain films (including one he wrote) on constant rotation chez moi, even if my head is telling me that some of them (not the ones he wrote) weren’t really for an intelligent woman. He said very simply – Because it makes you feel good. And that’s it, isn’t it, no matter how we might elect to rationalise our film choices. On the face of it, this seems like a film that no sensible female should like much less love. (Such as: Trainwreck, which was loathsome, is the least feminist movie you could imagine even with its foulmouthed female writer/star and if Kate Hudson had made it ten years ago with Owen Wilson/Matthew McConaughey she would have been hung out to dry. A woman who knows zip about sport and gives up her job to make her boyfriend feel better?? Really?! Reader, I wanted to vomit.) Here, Meg Ryan’s fabulous children’s bookstore (oh how I covet it) is ruined by a large book conglomerate which is shutting down independents everywhere (just go to Charing Cross Road in London and see if you recognise it from, oh, twenty years ago. The godless Hitlerites are everywhere). She gets some hope from the romance conjured up online (how clever was Ephron in ways to tell stories? She really uses the internet brilliantly here) and then finds out who her Romeo is … She’s Meg Ryan (Nora Ephron’s avatar – and a brilliant, underrated actress), he’s Tom Hanks. The emails that they communicate through may fall as they will. And of course because it’s an adaptation of the warmly remembered The Shop Around the Corner it’s readymade for criticism. Critic Hannah McGill wrote a superb essay on the issue of Ephron’s contradictory, inconsistent output which goes a way to explain the paradox of her treatment of love/mystifying cliches, in January’s Sight & Sound (a journal becoming bigger and more auteurist by the year!). So – despite everything, I love it. Because it makes me feel good. Sigh.