Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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I’m not home. I never will be. I first encountered a Nam vet on Central Park West. He chased me despite being on crutches that were well past their sell-by date. I guess maybe it was because I had more legs than he did. I was waiting tables in a township on Long Island called Massapequa at a ghastly restaurant where a deranged and thankfully distant relative worked. Massapequa is the hometown of the Baldwin brothers and Ron Kovic, the subject of this impassioned film by Oliver Stone, a man whose own combat experiences had informed his previous film, Platoon, that astonishingly immersive journey of a naif to manhood in a horrifying exposition of American soldiers’ experiences. Ron Kovic’s book is the basis of another coming of age tale, this time of a Catholic boy whose parents’ devotion to JFK unwittingly unleashes their sports-mad son’s inner patriot.  I hadn’t seen this since its release and my fresh impression of its first sequences was of overwrought melodrama, underlined by John Williams’ overheated score. But this is all of a piece with the film’s intentions:  starting with a heightened picture of America’s hearth and home;  the futility and horror of war; the brutality of veterans’ experiences in epically gruesome, filthy underfunded hospitals (Kovic’s God-loving mother never even paid him a visit); the utter loneliness of being a castrated, paralysed man with a beating heart and functioning brain who is ridiculed by the anti-war protesters; the recognition that the only people with whom he now has anything in common are the other vets who are even more fucked up than he is. And so it moves into its more austere final sections. Politicisation. Separation from a family who refuse to accept he could have killed women and children and for whom he is a mere embarassment in a block where the other soldiers at least died. Is there a better correlative image in Stone’s entire oeuvre than the crane shot over the Wilson family home, where Ron has confessed to killing new recruit, their nineteen year old son William, in the dunes of Nam as the sun flared during an ambush, then he is wheeled away by a helper amid the scraps and detritus dumped in their yard and the leafy branches fade into a fluttering stars and stripes – and we are plunged into more police brutality at the 1972 Republican convention where he has joined the protest movement? This is elegant filmmaking. It is not without its humour or self-awareness. Ron has finally had his cherry broken by a Mexican whore in a sequence of T&A that reunites Stone with Willem Defoe who welcomes him to this sick paradise and he thinks it’s love – but hides his gift for her when he realises sex with a cripple is just a job for her. These vets’ wheelchair-off is a salve for those of us who might have liked to see one between Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, who beat him to an Academy Award that year (DDL gurned more). I’ve never been back to Massapequa or that cruddy restaurant but Stephen Baldwin has a small role as a schoolfriend, Tom Berenger gets him to join up, Frank Whaley is the other surviving vet who helps Ron out of his doomladen hole and Kyra Sedgwick is the gorgeous girl he loved so much he ran through the rain to dance with her at the Prom and she turns him on to the anti-war crusade. Cruise is simply great, giving a complete performance from boy to man in a narrative which exemplifies the art of juxtaposition and emotional arcs. This is cinema, utterly moving and indignant and humane. Watch it and weep.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

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It was a counter-intuitive move to cast Tom Cruise as Lee Child’s protagonist:  built like a brick shithouse, the Reacher on the page and Cruise clearly bear little resemblance to each other. However much you might like to read about a guy committing GBH against every baddie he meets, it wouldn’t really work on film. So casting a wirier, less obvious action man was a good thing to do and the first film was a fast-moving surprise. This however cannot hold a candle to it in terms of a genre workout. It gets off to a good start – with a scene that was used in every EPK package used for the PR – and Reacher then meets up with army major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) after a cute phonecall but she’s banged up on faked espionage charges when he arrives for a face to face. When he breaks her out he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy with origins in Afghanistan, nailed for a murder he didn’t commit and protecting a teenage girl called Samantha Dutton (Danika Yarosh) who just might be his daughter. With a setting in and around N’Oleans this has at least the virtue of a great backdrop and those ladies run as much as Cruise does – with equal if not more screen time. That said, the adaptation by Richard Wenk, Marshall Herskowitz and director Ed Zwick lacks verve and the entire production feels identitkit, lessening the sense of jeopardy.  The idea of a glum Cruise coming to terms with unintentional fatherhood never really gets the treatment it should in this flourish-free thriller. Oh well! Child himself has a nice little cameo at the airport.

Central Intelligence (2016)

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Bob (Dwayne Johnson) is the fat kid bullied at high school and Calvin(Kevin Hart) is the kid who saves what’s left of his dignity in the gym by giving him his jacket:  years later gym bunny Bob Facebooks him on the eve of their reunion and insinuates his way into Calvin’s accounting firm and gets him to look up some numbers. They’re bids on US satellites.  A knock on the door by the CIA reveals Bob is a rogue agent selling satellite codes to terrorists – allegedly. A cat and mouse chase in Massachusetts ensues with Calvin unwillingly involved as a pawn. There are a lot of bright moments mostly concerning Bob’s winning personality – he’s obsessed with Molly Ringwald and unicorns.  The big joke is all that:  the difference in size between him and the diminutive Calvin as the predictable intra-agency high jinks ensue and a dangerous transaction ultimately sorts out the real baddies. There’s buckets of charm between a few ill-chosen jokes and predictable action sequences and it’s no surprise at all to see Jason Bateman turning up as the adult bully. There’s a sweet kicker though when we meet Bob’s high school crush. You’ll have to watch it to find out! Undemanding fun. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber from a screenplay by Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen.

Moonlight (2016)

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What’s a faggot? This sensuous journey through three chapters of a black man’s life won the Academy Award for Best Picture and its experimental nature, its subject and its lack of narrative sense all make that a problematic and strange choice. It’s a fairytale without a happy ending – a story about gay sex that avoids showing it directly. Director Barry Jenkins, a Florida SU film graduate, adapted it from an unproduced and very visual play written for a  drama programme, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney which used several voices back and forth to tell a story of a gay boy in Liberty City, one of Miami’s projects. It wasn’t dramatised because it didn’t really work for the stage, structured with three different guys of different ages playing the same character in the course of a day. It was apparently very unclear. When Jenkins found it, he changed it and it now tells the story of Chiron, the son of a junkie single mom Paula (Naomie Harris, who is superb) at three different stages of his life in three separate stories. The first 37-minute chapter (Little) is about him as a young boy (played by the very striking Alex R. Hibbert) getting solace from visits with Juan (Mahershala Ali) a drugs dealer, and his girlfriend (Janelle Monae). Their father-son friendship is sundered when he realises Juan is selling his mom crack. As a teenager (Chiron) he’s a sullen withdrawn kid (now played by a very different looking Ashton Sanders) terrorised in high school, bullied daily for being gay and he takes a public beating directed by the nattily dreadlocked Terrel (Patrick Decile) but carried out by Kevin (Jaden Piner) who’s had sex with him on the beach.  He’s taken away by police. In the final forty-minute episode (Black) we’re introduced in Atlanta to a garish grill-wearing earring-bedecked drug dealer – and it’s him, now played by Trevante Rhodes. He looks like a powerful guy with a bodacious workout ethic but when he takes a call of apology from Kevin (Andre Holland), a decade after the violence, it starts him on a different path. He visits Paula in a drug rehab centre where she’s become institutionalized and she finally seems to comprehend what her lifestyle drove him to do. We follow him back to Miami to the restaurant where Kevin works as a short order cook following a spell in prison. It’s shot superbly but with the art-house touches of a student film – and the shots singling out the adult Kevin lead us to believe we are in black Warhol territory and something major is going to happen. (Do you really think that’s smoke?! Someone remembered Blow Job!)  He doesn’t know why Black is here – but the camera tells us as it sensually caresses Black’s face:  Black practically has an orgasm watching Kevin and the cinematography has us primed for mano-a-mano action. (The shots are separated by several minutes but the intent is clear.) But Kevin has a kid with a girl they knew at high school and he’s on probation after a spell in prison: Kevin is not gay. Their reunion over a few bottles of wine (Chiron doesn’t drink) makes us realise that Black is a hollowed-out man and his confession to Kevin, who introduced him to the phenomenon of physical love, is – eventually – deeply touching.”This is not you,” Kevin tells Black.  So nothing happens. With all those pretty boys! Talk about leading a person on! Naomie Harris is the acting heart of the film primarily because aside from a fine performance as the strung out mom, she appears in all three chapters which are otherwise quite disconnected and Little/Chiron/Black is basically mute. So much of the story’s emotion depends on the heightened expressivity of the actors in the final section and Rhodes and Holland are just breathtaking in their physicality. James Laxton’s camera just loves Rhodes (and Holland too, to be entirely fair…) Black actors often suffer visually because of the lighting issues with skin tone but here they used an Arri Alexa digital camera and worked on the colorising with great attention to detail to achieve a different kind of texture in each chapter. There is however a narrative disconnect between the three sections not helped by the totally different actors with Harris the only source of continuity. (Jenkins and McCraney grew up in neighbouring projects with junkie mothers so there is a hint of autobiography in the story.) And yet despite its major shortcomings it’s oddly memorable. Some readings of this suggest that it’s a story of a boy who finds support from his community. Golly. The community bullied him senseless for being gay and he became a sexy virginal shell of a man who puts people in fear for not buying his supply. This is all foreplay and no … well I told you already. All mouth and no trousers, as it were. Talk about a p***ktease.  Next year:  #OscarsNotRemotelyGayEnough. Watch this space!

Manchester By The Sea (2016)

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I can’t beat it. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a janitor in Boston, permanently hunched and haunted and beset by half-dressed female tenants who want to have sex with him and complain to his boss when he evinces no interest whatsoever and just fixes their toilets. He barely speaks. When he gets a call that older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died suddenly he is forced back to his titular hometown where people refer to him as ‘the Lee Chandler’ and he finds out from his brother’s lawyer he’s been named guardian to his irritating, underage, sexually voracious nephew Patrick (goofy ginger Lucas Hedges). It takes us a long time and a lot of repetitive scenes to get to the reason for his devastation:  the death of his young family for which he feels incalculable guilt. Patrick has no reaction to his father’s demise and just gets on with getting it on with whatever nasty teenage girls have sex with him, plays hockey and generally acts like dumb teenagers do when confronted with intimations of mortality (I was recently at a funeral when the teenage son of the woman whose death was being commemorated left midway to smoke cigarettes with several girls. This shit happens.) So much  of this is low-key and true that when these guys eventually drop their protective masks it is both surprising and shocking and explosive in terms of the situations  in which they finally let loose as much as anything else. Michelle Williams has one wonderful scene as Lee’s ex-wife (pictured in the poster) and it is of such delicacy that it elicits pure emotions not just from Affleck but the audience, otherwise her role is mainly confined to flashbacks of their marriage and its unfortunate and tragicomic ending (that ambulance scene is literally killer). So paradoxically despite its overlength the unsentimental narrative focus is somewhat diverted to the wrong situations and some scenes are consigned to montage underscored by rather obvious and ill-chosen music when we would prefer to hear the dialogue.  The flashback structure works brilliantly however. The rarely seen Gretchen Mol (the Next Big Thing, according to Vanity Fair circa 1998  when she co-starred with this film’s producer and intended star Matt Damon in Rounders) shows up as Patrick’s alkie mom, long estranged from the family. Affleck is simply masterful as this man who desires punishment but nobody wants him to suffer any more, except for a few women who believe he killed his kids. However it’s a long time getting to the point about how people deal differently with bereavement and even if we agree, such is real life, a playwright, screenwriter (and director) as smart as Kenneth Lonergan should and could have got there quicker.

Cruel Intentions (1999)

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Back in the day this contemporary uptown teen reworking of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (of course made into the great Dangerous Liaisons after Christopher Hampton’s acclaimed English-language stage adaptation) seemed pretty rad. Turning Sarah Michelle Gellar into a high school version of Madame Merteuil in a quasi-incestuous relationship with stepbrother Ryan Phillippe as Sebastian Valmont was, uh, even creepy. What happened to us? bleats the coke-addled one when she sees he’s fallen for the virtuous Annette (Reese Witherspoon) and their bet has gone hopelessly wrong. A Lesbo kiss between Gellar and the horny Cecile (Selma Blair), interracial sex they both have with Sean Patrick Thomas, and a great backup adult cast of Swoosie Kurtz, Christine Baranski and Louise Fletcher, with some more gay antics between Joshua Jackson and Eric Mabius, make this a viciously corrupt and sexy walk on the wild side of Central Park West, paving the way for the much-missed Gossip Girl. XOXO! Written and directed by Roger Kumble.

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

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Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel about a family of five sisters who kill themselves was original, nuanced and heartfelt. Sofia Coppola chose it for her writing and directing debut and on the face of it, and what she’s done since, she makes us know what it feels like for a girl. The portrait of the middle class neighbourhood is nicely satirical and hints at her interest in making the later milieu film, The Bling Ring;  the woozy Seventies summertime impressions are just right; that eye for detail (all the stuff on their dressing tables!) totally accurate. In retrospect, this is slighter than it appeared at the time, with a certain vacuum at the centre where emotional rationale might have been, a large question mark regarding the parenting skills of James Woods and Kathleen Turner, a chip missing where we try to gauge the sisters’ motivations. Perhaps that’s the point. The romance between the most beautiful and elusive of the sisters, Lux (Kirsten Dunst) and high school heart throb Trip (Josh Hartnett) is well done and it’s his narration in rehab 25 years later that anchors this in something resembling real life, even if it’s a tangle of memories seen through a narcotic haze. Meanwhile, a bunch of teenage boys gaze in awe at this beauteous timebomb about to implode across the street. There’s (obv) an amazing soundtrack, with a score by Air.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016)

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The Chicago Greeks are back in a gentle tale of a family that’s way too close and not even in an interesting Godfather-type fashion. They just work in the same family restaurant and live next door to each other along one street and now Oma (Lainie Kazan) and Opa (Michael Constantine) find out they never got legally married and their daughter Toula (Nia Vardalos) realises her own marriage to high school principal Chris-In-The-Morning (John Corbett) is under strain as she attempts to be everything to everyone. And their daughter Paris (Elena Kampouris) wants to go to college far away and there’s her parents’ wedding to arrange and …. zzz  …. Sorry I nodded off there. Very mild, inoffensive stuff, well performed by an entertaining cast, written once again by star Vardalos and directed by Kirk Jones. There are so many family members I lost track of who was who but I think they even dropped in a gay brother? cousin? somewhere towards the end. Covering all the diversity bases I guess in case the Greeks make a protest at the Academy Awards. Fine for a post-prandial snooze at this undemanding point of the holidays.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

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Why? It’s my favourite film. I have adored James Dean and Natalie Wood since I first saw this aged 11. I’ve been to the LA locations and stepped around the High School motto. I’ve read everything there is on the production and I have always admired the cinema of Nicholas Ray and the screenplays of Stewart Stern. This moves me like few films could. It is staggering to watch in so many ways. It is a film about feeling. And because it’s my 1,000th post on Mondo Movies. Scuse me while I kiss the sky.

In & Out (1997)

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I miss Premiere magazine so much. Once a month,that cellophane-wrapped thud on the hall floor, after the postman had been by, struck joy in my heart. Specifically, I miss Paul Rudnick, that grade-A satirist whose campy sendups made me whoop with laughter. He was Libby Gelman-Waxner! But lo! Hollywood really did come calling to him hence his spot-on insider comments and this exquisitely rendered smalltown gayfest is true to classical tradition yet ever so sweetly rubs the generic nose in contemporary mores. Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) is the inspirational smalltown Indiana high school English teacher who’s outed at the Academy Awards by his dimwit former student Hollywood actor Cameron Drake  (Matt Dillon) despite being three days from his very straight wedding to formerly fat colleague Emily Montgomery  (Joan Cusack). His wrist literally becomes limp when he’s called gay in front of billions of people. Mom Debbie Reynolds and dad Wilford Brimley want the wedding to go ahead and he’s sure he does too until showbiz correspondent Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck) waltzes into town with the other paparazzi  – and stays. Just wait for the Selleck-Kline clinch! Howard’s Barbra Streisand-themed stag night is all for naught as he recognises his true nature and battles with the authorities to keep his job while his students eventually do an ‘I Am Spartacus’ act at graduation and Cameron rides back into town in his white sports car to save the day. Great fun, hilarious jibes and Kline gives an extraordinarily precise comic performance in a beautifully rendered upside-down satire of American family movies. Reynolds is especially good as the mother who will just die without a day in church. This was of course inspired by Tom Hanks’ unwitting outing of his former high school teacher when he was collecting the Oscar for Philadelphia. Adeptly directed by comedy expert Frank Oz.