Little Nikita (1988)

I was crossing into the west before you could spell bolshevik. Jeffrey Nicolas Grant (River Phoenix) is a cocky hyperactive teen living in a suburb of San Diego with his parents Richard (Richard Jenkins) and Elisabeth (Caroline Kava) who run a garden centre. Ambitious and keen to fly, Jeff has applied for entry to the Air Force Academy. During a routine background check on Jeff, FBI agent Roy Parmenter (Sidney Poitier) finds contradictory information on his parents, who have adopted identities of people dead a hundred years, making him suspect that all is not as it should be especially given the present whereabouts of a Soviet agent Konstantin Karpov (Richard Bradford) on the trail of a rogue agent Scuba (Richard Lynch) apparently killing off all the Soviet sleepers in the US. Further investigations reveal that the Grants may be sleeper agents too. Unable to arrest them as they have not done anything illegal, Roy continues his investigation, moves into the house across the street from the Grant family, and worms his way into Jeff’s confidence, eventually confronting Jeff with his suspicions and seeking his cooperation to learn more about his parents. Jeff is soon forced to accept the facts and discovers that his real name is Nikita. Meanwhile Karpov is moving closer to home and Scuba is heading straight for the Grants … Straight As. Tells his friends he gets Cs. A coming of age tale with a difference. Written by Bo Goldman and John Hill the intriguing premise is let down somewhat by the uneven directing from actor Richard Benjamin and the conclusion. Phoenix impresses as the brash teen who isn’t remotely what he thinks he is while Jenkins and Kava perfectly capture the fear implied by the big reveal. It all ends predictably enough with respect between Poitier and Bradford winning out over the presumed quarry. For Phoenix fans this is of course the perfect companion piece to the comparable but superior Running On Empty, released 6 months later, another story about a teenager on the cusp of adulthood whose parents’ politics are dangerously problematic. Shot by the legendary Laszlo Kovacs with an occasionally discordant score from Marvin Hamlisch, there’s a fabulous sequence of the Sleeping Beauty ballet choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan. You’re not my father. You’re not even my friend

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Everything is flat and empty here. There’s nothing to do. In 1951 Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) are high-school seniors and friends inAnarene, North Texas. Duane is dating Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), who Sonny considers the prettiest girl in town. Sonny breaks up with his girlfriend Charlene Duggs. Over the Christmas holiday Sonny begins an affair with lonely Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) the depressed wife of high-school “Coach” Popper (Bill Thurman) who is secretly gay. At the Christmas dance Jacy is invited by Lester Marlow (Randy Quaid) to a naked indoor pool party at the home of Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette) a wealthy young man who seems a better romantic prospect than Duane. Bobby tells Jacy that he isn’t interested in virgins and to come back after she’s had sex. Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) bans the boys from his cafe, pool hall and cinema when they mistreat their retarded friend Billy (Sam Bottoms) taking him to a prostitute who beats him for making a mess. Sam dies while the boys are on a road trip to Mexico and leaves his property to different people, including Sonny. Jacy invites Duane for sex in a motel and eventually breaks up with him by phone, eventually losing her viriginity on a pool table to her mother’s lover Abilene (Clu Gulager). Sonny fights with Duane over Jacy  and Duane leaves town to work on the rigs out of town. Jacy sets her sight on Sonny and they elope to her parents’ fury. The war in Korea provides an escape route for Duane but there’s one last picture show on before the cinema closes down forever … Nothing’s ever the way it’s supposed to be at all. They say the third time’s the charm and so it was for neophyte director Peter Bogdanovich in this adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel about kids growing up in small town North Texas which he co-wrote with the author as well as wife Polly Platt, who was the production designer and collaborator with Bogdanovich on all his films. (Then he fell in love with his young leading lady Shepherd, but that’s another story). The film was shot in black and white following advice from Orson Welles, Bogdanovich’s house guest at the time (and the best book on Welles derives from this era of their wide-ranging conversations, This Is Orson Welles, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum).  The cinematography rendered by Robert Surtees is simply exquisite, the attention to detail extraordinary but this is no nostalgic trip down memory lane. The universally pitch-perfect performances exist in this very specific texture as a kind of miracle, duly rewarding Johnson and Leachman at the Academy Awards. But Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mom Lois has some of the best lines and delivers them with power. She and Shepherd have one amazing scene together. This is a coming of age movie but it’s also about ageing and loneliness and deception and disappointment and it’s the acknowledging of the sliding scale of desperation where the emotions hit gold. And there are juxtapositions which still manage to shock – like when Sonny looks out the window to see one horse mount another while a great romantic poem is being read in class. The realisation that Sam’s great love was Lois and vice versa. The callous way sexual manipulation is used as a casual transaction for the bored. There were controversies over scenes of sex and nudity which didn’t make it into the initial release but those parts were restored in 1992 by Bogdanovich so that the full potential of the story could be contextualised. A poignant Fordian masterpiece now firmly imprinted as an American classic.  You couldn’t believe how this country’s changed

Birdy (1984)

I wish I could die and be born again as a bird. 1960s. Following reconstructive surgery on his face when he’s home from Vietnam Al Columbato (Nicolas Cage) is visiting his eccentric bird-loving friend Birdy (Matthew Modine), incarcerated in a mental ward after going missing in action for a month during the conflict. He thinks he’s a bird. Al recalls their friendship back in Philadelphia, restoring a car, going to prom, dog catching, and tries to persuade his friend to communicate, while engaging in his own war of wills with the medical authorities …You ever wondered what our lives down here must look like to a bird? Sandy Kroopf & Jack Behr adapted William Wharton’s 1978 novel, a very significant read when you’re a young person, almost like when you discover Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and Amory Blaine. It’s updated from WW2 to Vietnam so the cultural touchstones and speech patterns land closer to home. Alan Parker brings his customary tendresse to this depiction of youth with some exhilarating passages to contrast with the melancholy affect of Modine’s birdlike crouch in the psych ward. A different kind of buddy movie, with social awkwardness, difference and male friendship framed by the devastating experience of war. The performances by Modine and Cage reach places you thought could never be touched. So emotional you’ll believe you can fly. There’s a notable score composed by Peter Gabriel.  Flying is much more than flapping wings

Dangerous Minds (1995)

Dangerous Minds theatircal

Who are these kids – rejects from Hell? Divorced former US Marine LouAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) wants to resume her teacher training and her ex-husband’s friend Hal Griffith (George Dzundza) lands her an interview at his inner city high school. To her surprise she is hired on the spot and soon finds out why. In this ‘academy’ class of black and Latino teens from impoverished backgrounds, involved in gangs and drugs she is met with a wall of sullen indifference. She dresses in leather and teaches them karate and then ditches traditional class and tries to teach them poetry using Bob Dylan’s work. She goes to the home of Raoul Sanchero (Renoly Santiago) to tell his family they should be proud of him. She tries to stop pregnant Callie (Bruklin Harris) from dropping out. She attempts to save the life of Emilio (Wade Dominquez) from a revenge shooting but the headmaster (Courtney B. Vance) and his rules about knocking on doors costs the boy his life… All you gotta do is get their attention – or quit.  Adapted from the autobiography My Posse Don’t Do Homework by retired US Marine LouAnne Johnson, this is an upbeat update of material familiar from The Blackboard Jungle and To Sir With Love but with a rap soundtrack and a boyz in the ‘hood feel. If Pfeiffer never has to unpack her military training and really engage physically at the level of tough love promised with that background (she’s got training in marketing and PR, too, natch), there are sufficient moments of danger in the smooth screenplay by Ronald Bass but nothing too worrisome in a narrative that manages to inflict as many stereotypes as it is presuming to unpick. Sentimental, good-natured and resolved rather well even if you think the songs on the soundtrack are the poetry that would really appeal to this particular audience who roll over far too easily at the prospect of a rollercoaster ride and a free meal. Directed by John N. Smith. So you start out all wrong and just keep going

Luce (2019)

Luce

Keep in mind that for her this knowledge is incidental but for you it could be a matter of life and death. A liberal-minded couple, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter Edgar (Tim Roth), are forced to reconsider their image of the black son Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr ) they adopted from war-torn Eritrea after they discover he has written a disturbing essay for his class at school.  A star athlete and debater and the envy of the other black kids who appear to be failing themselves by  becoming stereotypes, he is being challenged by his history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) in this project in which he has adopted the voice of revolutionary Frantz Fanon, appearing to endorse ‘necessary violence’. At the same time Wilson has found illegal fireworks in his locker and she brings it up with the Edgars who decide not to mention it to Luce. They start to doubt their son and look at him as though he is manipulating them and everyone else and reverting to his origins in order to stay on top of the class … I feel like you are all waiting for me to confirm this thing you are afraid to say aloud. Adapted by director Julius Onah from J.C. Lee’s titular stage play, this is a morally-driven effort to interrogate race, tokenism and politics using the higher expectations applied to black kids to raise them up. However the message is confused with the subplot involving Spencer’s mentally ill sister and the framing of a thriller throwing a spanner in the works:  you expect her to turn into Ma again. Watts and Roth end up questioning the choice to adopt when what he really wants is a baby of their own. They called their son ‘Luce’ because she couldn’t pronounce his African name. Then the issue of teenage sex arises with a girl that their son allegedly protected from sexual assault but whom he happens to be dating. There is a raft of possible duplicities which he appears to have practised and carried off with a winning smile. The ending is unsettling and inconclusive and dramatically false. This smug pointless provocation about Great White Saviours and guilt is just annoying and the last shot will just confirm anti-black prejudice whether in America or anywhere else. I wanted something simple and normal. Our lives didn’t have to be a political statement

 

Bad Education (2019)

Bad Education

You were always the guy in the suits. Long Island, New York, 2002. Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is the superintendent of Roslyn School District which oversees Roslyn High School. Frank, along with his assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) have overseen major improvements in the district, with Roslyn becoming the 4th ranked public school in the country under their watch. This in turn stimulates the local economy, reaping rewards for school board head and real estate broker Bob Spicer (Ray Romano). Frank is beloved by students and parents alike, and sought after by women; Frank claims to have lost his wife several years ago, but is in fact gay, living with Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella) in NYC. While attending a conference in Las Vegas, Frank begins an affair with former student Kyle Contreras (Rafeal Casal) who has given up his dream of writing sci fi for waiting tables and dancing. While writing an article for the Roslyn school paper about an $8m sky bridge the school is planning to construct, student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) begins to discover discrepancies in the district’s finances. Unbeknownst to anyone at the school, Frank and Pam are co-conspirators in a massive embezzlement scheme that has cost millions of taxpayer dollars and her steady research leads all the way to the top and when Frank gives up Pam there will be hell to pay ... We come in here at the crack of dawn because we’re good people.  We want you to have a good life. Adapted from Bad Superintendent, a story by Robert Kolker in New York magazine by Mike Makowsky, who was a middle school student in that school district when Tassone was arrested for grand larceny.  Viswanathan isn’t a particularly interesting performer but she does what all journalists have done since watching All the President’s Men – she follows the money. It’s dogged old-school reporting stuff, looking at purchase orders, not finding receipts and then questioning everyone concerned.  It’s fun to see those moments with her doubtful student paper editor Nick Fleischman (Alex Wolff) doing a junior Ben Bradlee. The moment one hour in where she finds the so-called offices of the school’s pamphlet producer and realises it’s Tassone’s plush apartment where he’s co-habiting with a man is brilliantly done – capped when Tassone arrives and sees her desperate to leave the building. Jackman is superb as a charismatic man with many secrets, utilising his ability to psychoanalyse everyone around him to get the better of them since he seems to care so much about them. For the longest time we don’t even know the extent of his involvement as information is drip fed slowly through the narrative. His vanity is reflected in the scenes with him attending to his cosmetic routine, culminating in surgery. Jackman finds ways to plumb the breadth of the character and elicit empathy, stealing our hearts as easily as expensing first class flights to London with his boyfriend and deflecting come-ons from women in the parents’ association book club. Janney is superb in a chewy role – able to talk her way out of trouble, trying to buy her children’s affections even when her son is a total loser and ultimately choosing the path of revenge. Erring more on the dramatic rather than the comedic side of genre, this gives a rare insight into white collar crime – the quotidian corruption that afflicts cosy cartels running public bodies leading to those occasional stupefying headlines when you see something has gone bust yet all the admin people are living high on the hog while their workplaces are falling apart with damp. The sidebars about food intake, digestive issues, cosmetics, clothes, jewellery, pushy parenting and spoiling wrong ‘uns are well judged subplots amplifying the drudgery of the teaching environment and the desire to rise above the mere plebs. It’s wordy, it’s smart, it’s filled with people covering their asses and it’s called the ring of truth. Directed by Cory Finley. I am not the sociopath here

Mask (1985)

Mask

I look weird but I’m real normal. Azusa, California. It’s 1978. Roy ‘Rocky’ Dennis (Eric Stoltz) is an intelligent, outgoing and humorous teenager who suffers from a disfiguring facial deformity called “lionitis” and has now outlived his life expectancy:  he’s always being told he’s got 6 to 8 months. He’s happy go lucky and indulges his passion for baseball card collecting. His single mother Florence ‘Rusty’ Dennis (Cher) struggles to fight for his acceptance in the mainstream public school system, where he proves himself to be a highly accomplished student at junior high and wins friends by tutoring them. Though Rocky endures ridicule and awkwardness for his appearance, and the classmate he’s sweet on has a boyfriend, he dreams of travelling to Europe with his best friend Ben (Lawrence Monoson). He finds love and respect from his mother’s biker gang family the Turks and particularly likes Gar (Sam Elliott) who eventually reconciles with Rusty and moves in, frequently acting as peacemaker between mother and son. He even experiences his first love when he is persuaded to volunteer at a summer camp for blind kids where he meets Diana (Laura Dern) but then her parents try to keep them separated and Ben lets him down when he says he’s got to move to Chicago ... I want to go to every place I ever read about. Absurdly moving, this wonderfully sympathetic evocation of real-life Rocky Dennis and his mom benefits immensely from being simply told, allowing the characters and the performances to do the heavy lifting. Stoltz has such a tough role but carries it with dignity and aplomb; while Cher is a revelation as the mom whose tough love and wild lifestyle add up to a complex emotional picture. Beautifully written by Anna Hamilton Phelan and sensitively directed by Peter Bogdanovich, this is a life-affirming story of real courage and love. When something bad happens to you you’ve gotta remember the good things that happened to you

November Criminals (2017)

November Criminals

I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at pretending to be okay. High school student Addison Schach (Ansel Elgort) is the only guy in class trusted by his friend Phoebe Zeleny (Chloë Grace Moretz) to take her virginity before they leave high school. While they’re engaging in sex for the first time classmate Kevin Broadus (Jared Kemp) is shot dead in the bakery where they’ve just left him.  Addison is still dealing with the trauma of his mother’s sudden death six months earlier but his father Theo (David Strathairn) doesn’t grasp the extent of his emotional problems. When the police treat the boy’s death as part of gang activity Addison can’t accept it and undertakes his own investigation with Phoebe reluctantly tagging along, knowing that her well-connected mother Fiona (Catherine Keener) is already wary of the association with Addison. They soon discover that there is more to the case than meets the eye…  I don’t want you to get involved with something that will most definitely hurt you. Adapted by Steven Knight and director Sacha Gervasi from the novel by Sam Munson this is a strangely restrained piece of work, clearly bursting with a fast-extinguished passion that doesn’t actually go anywhere, rather like the thwarted protagonist. Elgort and Moretz are sympathetic and engaging (and were previously paired in the remake of Carrie) but are not given enough with the script which already has a short running time at 85 minutes. It’s a combination of family drama and crime thriller but its generic ambitions don’t fully mesh in a story which is essentially about a naive approach to bereavement:  this boy is no private eye. There are nice scenes with the respective parents, Strathairn and Keener, and the lo-fi approach to technology (pagers, colour VHS recording) makes a nice alternative to the social media used in most contemporary teen movies, but it’s an unfulfilled premise. That’s how life is: it provides these accidental answers. Or it seems to. You have to judge by results

Manhattan (1979)

 

Manhattan.jpg

Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. Oh, I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be. 42-year old TV comedy writer Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is involved with high school student Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and freaking out about his Lesbian ex-wife Jill’s (Meryl Streep) forthcoming memoir of their marriage breakup; while his best friend, University professor Yale Pollack (Michael Murphy) is cheating on his wonderful wife Emily (Anne Byrne) with cerebral egotist book editor Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton). Isaac quits his job in a fit of pique which he instantly regrets and has to downsize in order to finance a year when he will try to write a book. Yale breaks up with Mary so when Tracy says she wants to go to London to study acting Isaac and Mary get together … I’m dating a girl who does homework. Elaine’s, the Empire Diner, The Russian Tea Room, Central Park, the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, Bloomingdale’s, Dean and Deluca, the Lincoln Center, Rizzoli’s bookstore, Zabar’s, the now-demolished Cinema Studio, this is the one where Allen fully expresses his love of his native city and it’s more than a Valentine as the story inspired by George Gershwin’s music, starting with Rhapsody in Blue, transports us into the inner workings of the characters and their preposterous lifestyle problems. The script by Allen and Marshall Brickman gives Keaton absurdly self-aggrandising dialogue protesting the burden of her beauty, Allen jokes about his castrating Zionist mother and jibes about Lesbian fathers, and everyone bar 17-year old Tracy is fairly ridiculous but even she is a serious sexpot who wants to go to London to train as an actor (supposedly based on Allen’s relationship with Stacy Nelkin). A gorgeous, funny, satirical film about silly people whose therapists call them, weeping, and they carry on doing stupid things, risking their relationships and their careers on a romantic whim in a disposable culture. (That’s Mia Farrow’s sister Tisa talking about the wrong kind of orgasm, BTW.)  It’s all told with love and humour and shot in ridiculously beautiful widescreen monochrome by Gordon Willis because of course the real unadulterated love spoken of here is for New York City and it gives the writer his voice.  Of the two of us I wasn’t the amoral psychotic promiscuous one  MM #2,600