Here and Now (2018)

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Aka Blue Night. I’m not done yet. Jazz singer/songwriter Vivienne (Sarah Jessica Parker) has just received a cancer diagnosis. She spends the day walking around New York City, meeting up with her manager Ben (Common) to discuss her upcoming tour, rehearsing with her backing band, telling her ex-husband Nick (Simon Baker) who has custody of their daughter Lucie (Gus Birney), dealing with her overbearing French-speaking mother Jeanne (Jacqueline Bisset), arguing with a taxi driver (Waleed Zuaiter), having an assignation with her drummer and romantic interest Jordan (Taylor Kinney) and reflecting on her life as she comes to terms with her mortality … First a tragedy, then a miracle. An homage to (if not a direct remake of) the late Agnès Varda’s 1962 nouvelle vague classic Cléo from  5 to 7, this is written by Laura Eason and capitalises on Parker’s association with NYC, that city which became so important televisually with Sex and the City in the same way that it has always been for cinema. Reconciling this star’s iconicity with latterday roles is proving problematic. Essentially this is about a woman in a state of perpetual avoidance (even in the course of just one day) and for a character and public persona notable for costume it will be a vast disappointment that until the very last scene she wears the same outfit throughout – save for a session in a boutique in a metaphorical attempt to alter her situation then she presents the dress as a gift to her truculent teenage daughter. This is an indication of a script that’s not altogether in tune with its somewhat dithering protagonist: Parker is not given enough to do and that is quite literally fatal considering this is a film concerning something going on in her head but despite the internalising of the dramatic performance at its centre there are some pithy lines. Vivienne (the irony extends to her name) is about to perform an anniversary gig at Birdland where 25 years earlier great things were forecast but a broken engagement last year somehow triggered a retreat. All of my albums have been triggered by all of my broken engagements, she deadpans to a noxious journalist who has never heard of Donald O’Connor. Renée Zellwegger as her friend Tessa brings a sharpness to a character which makes it more interesting than the scene that perhaps was written, while the scenes between Parker and Bisset are horribly convincing. The feature debut of commercials director Fabien Constant, this is notable for Parker’s quite odd performance of Rufus Wainwright’s marvellous song Unfollow the Rules, indicating that she’s not a jazz singer at all but a different animal entirely, a thread the narrative might have pursued (she still loves Belgian pop singer Lio), just like she should have kicked off her heels and got real, delving deeper into that fascinating hinterland where several interesting signposts are left dangling. I’d like to change the destination

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The 15.17 to Paris (2018)

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You Americans can’t take credit every time evil is defeated. In the early evening of August 21, 2015, a terrorist attack on Thalys train #9364 bound for Paris is thwarted by three young Americans on holiday in Europe. Their lives are followed from childhood at school together in Sacramento through finding their footing in life, to the series of unlikely events leading up to the attack when Anthony Sadler suggests they go backpacking together after military training in Portugal.  Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos wants to visit his penpal in Berlin and U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone joins them from the US and they are confronted by a gunman with 300 rounds of ammunition intending to carry out an atrocity on the 500 passengers … My God is bigger than your statistics. A unique project from Clint Eastwood, who has form in extolling the heroism of American servicemen (pace American Sniper, Flags of Our Fathers).  Dorothy Blyskal’s screenplay is based on the book by Sadler, Skarlatos, Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern. What’s extraordinary is that it stars the very men who saved lives on the Amsterdam-Paris Express. Structurally, this posed problems because the incident to which everything leads only took a couple of minutes in real time. So, interspersed with a few scenes on the train as the attack unfolds, the bulk of the story is flashbacks and backstory – Anthony (Paul-Mikél Williams) and Alek (Bryce Gheisar) grow up with single moms in California until Alek is sent to live with his father in Oregon on the advice of the head teacher (Thomas Lennon) who believes the kids should be medicated for attention deficit disorder. Teamed up with misfit black kid Spencer (William Jennings) they love nothing better than playing war games and checking out WW2 battle plans. The teachers at their school (apparently with the exception of their history teacher) are male bullies which leads to unanswered questions about how these boys derived their special brand of bravery later on:  Anthony ends up working at Jamba Juice and enters his beloved military the hard way;  Alek joins the National Guard;  Spencer is in the Air Force. Spencer tells us with a smile when the boys first becomes friends, Black people don’t hunt. Their communication through their different paths is primarily via Skype. Anthony’s training is tough – he doesn’t get into his preferred area of service due to depth perception issues;  he has headphones clamped to him when the attack begins.  This is one of the ironic issues in the narrative, none highlighted because no theme beyond heroism is explored.  Since the real action is not until the film’s final sequences, the men’s friendship through adulthood is traced against their differing choices, with Alek winding up in Afghanistan, bored out of his brains doing the equivalent of mall security because as he relates, It’s all about ISIS now and they’re not here. The big irony of course is that it’s in their downtime that these soldiers encounter an Arab terrorist, on their European trip;  the moment of grace occurs when his machine gun jams as Anthony rugby tackles the assailant- a one in a million chance, Alek says.  There is only one serious casualty, Frenchman Mark Moogalian, while the terrorist has a concealed knife which he uses to slice Anthony’s neck, thankfully not fatally. Englishman Chris Norman was not hurt. The story concludes at the Elysée Palace, with real coverage of President François Hollande commending the men for their bravery. How amazing is that? The most exciting thing to happen to me on that train was meeting the son of a famous German writer who was reading the handwritten manuscript of a friend’s first novel. Who knows what anyone would do if something serious were to happen? This tells us and in precise detail. There is another issue at stake:  since he was a young boy Sadler was clearly preparing himself for greatness. That it occurred on a civilian trans-European train in the tourist season is immaterial. Islamic violence is now an everyday occurrence in the real world outside of battlegrounds;  it’s preparedness that matters. This is practically an experimental film and it walks a very difficult line between authenticity and dramatic tension but it is probably far too real to succeed as an entertainment.  These guys may not be actors and the narrative may cleave to actuality (even the scenic shots of Rome, Venice and Berlin) and the banality of real life (including poor line delivery) but when you think about it, they rock. Since you asked, the shooter, Ayoub El Khazzani, did not play himself.  There is a message in this film and if you didn’t get it, Hollande quotes Sadler: In a moment of crisis I would like people to understand that you need to do something

 

 

Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976) (TVM)

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This is the VHS cover of a TVM sequel that scares the bejesus out of me – and with good reason. I’ve never been good with diabolism and the actor Stephen McHattie (who I loved since he played James Dean in the 1976 TVM) seems like he really could be the son of John Cassavetes from the Polanski masterpiece. And this was made the same year, so I guess it was kind of a moment for him, as they say.  Little Andrew as his mom Patty Duke Astin calls him is needed for a ritual but she smuggles him out of NYC and then a madam (Tina Louise) does a deal with the coven to take him herself and Patty gets taken away screaming on a driverless bus… Suddenly Andrew’s all grown up and in constant trouble with Sheriff Broderick Crawford and startled by memories of his parents and Uncle Roman and Aunt Minnie are not too thrilled with his behaviour either:  Ray Milland and particularly Ruth Gordon chew the scenery wonderfully as the devilish old pair who chide him over his lack of responsibility to his pop. Their bickering is the best thing about this. His human pop Guy Woodhouse (George Maharis) has carved out a Hollywood career which now looks like it might slide into oblivion thanks to his ingrate son. Andrew’s new female friend, Ellen (Donna Mills) gets him out of a psych ward – well, isn’t that where you end up if you claim you’re the Son of Satan – and strikes a deal with the Castevets … The devil is in the detail, isn’t he.  Sigh. This is not a worthy follow up to a classic. It was adapted from Ira Levin’s characters by Anthony Wilson who worked on Planet of the Apes and The Night That Panicked America (with Nicholas Meyer) He died two years after this was made. Another point of interest for buffs: this was directed by editor Sam O. Steen, who edited Rosemary’s Baby and he is reunited here with cinematographer John A. Alonzo from their teaming on Chinatown, another great Polanski film. Ah, cinema. Not your average TVM then – at least in terms of the talent!

Black Mountain Poets (2016)

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A shambolic exercise in shaggy dog poetry, or something. Writer/director Jamie Adams had an idea, got an ensemble together and they semi-improvised the scenes over five days in the Black Mountains of Wales. This, by the way, has nothing to do with the actual Black Mountain poets in the US, in case you thought you had stumbled onto an artistic exploration of experimental writers. Two con artist sisters, Alice Lowe and Dolly Wells, narrowly escape the clutches of the law trying to steal a JCB and make off in a stolen car which runs out of petrol. Lost in the middle of Wales they steal a car belonging to the Wilding Sisters, a pair of poets on their way to a poetry retreat – and pretend to be them. Lisa (Lowe) falls for earnest Richard (Tom Cullen) whose ex Louisa (Rosa Robson) shows up unimpressed. Things take a turn when they’re obliged to do outdoor pursuits and go camping and Richard falls for Claire (Wells). (And if you think that’s unbelievable, I narrowly avoided one such writing retreat which forced participants to climb up a waterfall and then dive in – and yes, someone fractured their skull and neck on the rocks below …) Then there’s a pretty funny poem-off with the police dropping by. All the while the real Wildings are wondering why nobody has come to rescue them … Pretty silly and misses its supposed targets and sometimes feels as long as the five days it took to make this 82-minute effort. Mostly daft fun and it’s almost refreshing to see nature take a hold of these neurotic loser thirtysomethings who miss their late dad to the point where Lisa wants to put pen to paper and read out more than a Tesco receipt or the card her dead father wrote her twenty years ago. Harmless, just as long as nobody got hurt putting up those tents.

Wild (2014)

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Cheryl Strayed. That is not only a sentence, it is a name. The author of a highly troubled memoir, she undertook a gruelling hike along the Pacific Crest Trail to avenge her demons and find her true self after years of self-destructive behaviour, death and divorce.  The film is a tour de force for star and producer, Reese Witherspoon and Nick Hornby’s kaleidoscopic collage of a screenplay is a thing of wonder. For those of us who came up through the Nineties it is also a peculiar kind of valentine with its reminders of Riot Grrls and the grunge scene. Director Jean-Marc Vallee is true to the stream of consciousness that dictates Strayed’s thoughts and the film is at once gritty and delicate, examining the very mind of a woman.  From that perspective it is utterly radical and unique particularly in the Academy Awards season which is dominated by stories of men. Talk about diversity? Why not talk about women? Fifty per cent of the population and we still can’t get a break. This should have been a contender.