Paper Tiger (1975)

 

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There’s always a sense of satisfaction when you finally see a film of which you’ve been somewhat – if tangentially – aware for the longest time. And for reasons I could never have explained I associated this with Candleshoe, the mid-70s Disney film also starring David Niven, and weirdly there’s ample reason for this bizarre linkage here. He plays a Walter Mitty-type who is employed by the Japanese ambassador (Toshiro Mifune) in a fictional Asian country to tutor his young son (Kazuhito Ando, a wonderful kid) prior to their moving to England. He fills up the kid with stories of his WW2 derring-do which are quickly unravelled by sceptical Mifune and German journalist Hardy Kruger. But when he is kidnapped with the kid by political terrorists the kid’s faith in him – and the kid’s own ingenuity – help them make their escape and the ‘Major’ is obliged to step up to save them both from certain murder.  There are plenty of reasons why Jack Davies’ script shouldn’t work but the sheer antic chaos of Asia, Niven’s excited performance versus Mifune’s unwilling stoicism in the face of local political indifference, the welcome appearance of Ronald Fraser and good staging of decidedly un-Disney action sequences (interesting in terms of director Ken Annakin’s associations with the studio) make this a worthwhile trip down false memory lane (mine as well as Niven’s character’s). And there’s a notable easy listening score by the venerable Roy Budd.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

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You would never know that this was an Ealing comedy – it is totally unsentimental. Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) is in prison awaiting his execution when he puts pen to paper and recounts the reason for this turn of events. Born to a beautiful if rash aristocratic mother who ran off with an Italian opera singer, this orphaned young man is now working in a draper’s when his lady love Sibella (Joan Greenwood) marries a love rival. He sets out to dispatch the eight remaining members of the D’Ascoyne line to recuperate the title he feels is rightfully his. All of them – including the venerable Lady Agatha – are played by Alec Guinness. (He also played a ninth!). Louis marries the virtuous wife Edith (Valerie Hobson) of one of them. The range of their respective deaths is stunning. A sublime work of British cinema, adapted from Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank:  The Autobiography of a Criminal by John Dighton and the woefully underrated director Robert Hamer, whose masterpiece this is. Transgressive, ironic and subversive, and the ending is simply genius. Breathtaking black comedy for the ages. Perfection.

A Good Year (2006)

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Ridley Scott wanted to make something light and local near his home in the South of France and someone suggested he adapt a Peter Mayle book. Instead they met up and had a chat and developed a story which became a different sort of film for Scott (and a somewhat altered version of the story in the subsequent novel by Mayle) with Russell Crowe as Max Skinner the uptight London City broker inheriting his uncle’s estate which he hasn’t been back to in ten years – despite having been brought up there. He falls for a local restaurateur (Marion Cotillard) and tries to sell up with the incursion of his uncle’s illegitimate daughter (Abbie Cornish) throwing an ownership spanner in the works, especially since she’s an oenologist. There’s mischief afoot back at work, a subplot about the vines and wine appellation with local Francois (Didier Bourdon), and flashbacks to Max’s childhood (he’s played by Freddie Highmore) with Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) and none of the stories really work in tandem with odd shifts in tone, but it looks beautiful and the women are great. Crowe would be much better served with a humorous role in The Nice Guys. Written by Marc Klein.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

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Sofia Coppola knows what it feels like for a girl. When the officials at Versailles gave her the very big keys to open up the palace and reimagine a little Austrian girl lost in the vicious and foreign French royal court working from Antonia Fraser’s biography, they probably didn’t picture this — a portrait of teenage decadence in the pastel palette of macaroons (magenta, citron, mint) scored to a New Romantic soundtrack as if she were making an Adam and the Ants video.  Kirsten Dunst is the kid sold to the gormless dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) in a strategic alliance organised by her mother the Empress (Marianne Faithfull). Her father in law the King Louis XV (Rip Torn) is like a Texan cowboy carrying on with Madame du Barry (Asia Argento). Her husband has no idea what to do in bed and she’s a giggly kid who spends her nights drinking and gambling with her girly friends and it takes a visit from her brother Emperor Josef (Danny Huston) to explain to the mechanically-minded prospective king about locks and holes, and a year later, finally, the marriage is consummated and a baby girl is born.  Seven years of foreplay!  The life of conspicuous consumption of colourful costumes and cookies and candy is swopped for something almost rural and natural at Le Petit Trianon where the young mother holds a different kind of court and succumbs to an affair with the Swedish Count Fersel (Jamie Dornan) and frolics with her little girl in the meadows. The mood alters and the cinematography (by Lance Acord) attains the backlit flared quality of a nature documentary:  this is impressionistic and expressionistic all at once, reliant on Dunst’s face and the overall vision of a writer/director in sympathetic tune with her tragic protagonist whose perception of the vicious society over which she holds sway dominates the narrative. The final quarter hour is the nightmare:  people are starving because the peasants are bearing the cost of the war in America, and propaganda and lies, dead children and the baying mob are at the door. This is a fabulist film about fashion and feeling and food and it gets into your head and your heart. If you don’t like it, you know what you can go eat.

The Two Jakes (1990)

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We’re approaching Jack Nicholson’s landmark 80th birthday and he’s not very far from our minds anyhow, is he? Nobody dislikes this guy, a Seventies superstar whose offscreen life never threatened his essential abilities to act better than most anyone else. Two Jakes is the continuing story of Jake Gittes whom Nicholson inhabited so memorably in the classic Chinatown, a mythos of Los Angeles created by Robert Towne as part homage, part interrogation of that great city and its wobbly foundations. Now it’s post-WW2 and Gittes is hired by another Jake, Berman (Harvey Keitel) to do a routine matrimonial job. Gittes leads Berman to his wife’s lover, whom he murders. He’s Berman’s business partner. We return to the world of deceit and conspiracy that characterises film noir, albeit we are in living colour with a fabulously feline Madeleine Stowe as a very fatale femme.  It isn’t always a success and while the voiceover narration is true to the style it’s not always satisfying in a plot which might have been tightened a tad had screenwriter Robert Towne been around to finish it, an issue that caused trouble for Nicholson, who directed this outing. However there’s a lot to savour – it looks amazing and there’s a flavoursome soundtrack by Van Dyke Parks. It makes me wish we could finally have the last part of Towne’s projected LA trilogy. For more on this see my book about Robert Towne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1492610518&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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How can you tell what’s a glitch and what’s me? In the near future Major (Scarlett Johansson) is a human enhanced with a cybernetic physique who’s been engineered to take on violent criminals. Rescued from a sinking boat that drowned her parents, she’s experiencing strange thoughts she cannot decipher. Meanwhile a terror group is attacking what appears to be the science project (2571) that created her in the first place – and she suspects her true origins are not what she’s been told. Partnered with a proper human, Pilou Asbaek from TV’s Borgen (aka Boring chez moi), she’s working for legendary Takeshi Kitano and appealing to the better instincts of the scientist (Juliette Binoche) who created her when things get rough. Then she meets the guy behind all the attacks and those memories or glitches remind her of something else than the past she’s been programmed with. Now she has to choose what side she belongs on. This is a perfectly judged adaptation (and remake) of an iconic manga/anime by Shirow Masamune, adapted by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger (haven’t heard from him in a while – welcome back). It’s reminiscent of a lot of other films – principally (and happily) Blade Runner – yet it’s done with a lightness of touch that escapes a lot of other future-genre cyborg outings. ScarJo is tremendous in the lead as the woman whose humanity overpowers the machine and seeks her origins. It plays perfectly into her star text, from her casting (we all know she’s Natasha in that comic book franchise) to that telling shot of her lying on her side in her panties in a Japanese skyscraper (remember the star-making shot in Lost in Translation?); while her pulchritude is aggressively put out there not just in her movement – barreling about, arms akimbo – but in that genital-free nudie action outfit as she powers through the air. It’s great to see Michael Pitt (billed as Michael Carmen Pitt) as her male Other or predecessor and the weirdly romantic way in which they look at each other and themselves as different evolutionary iterations of their selves in a world overwhelmed by technology companies, scientists interfering in conception (three parents, anyone?!) and where privacy is a thing of the past (sound familiar?). Whose memories does she experience? Rupert Sanders knows just how to stage this – there’s no excess, it’s just enough of everything and the science even works.  There are a lot of small things to appreciate in addition to the sweeping concept – the wonderfully 90s costuming by Kurt and Bart (I think I own one of those coats), the sweet way the animals are treated that’s so typical of anime and the mournful score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe. It’s also a great exercise in existential dread and marvellously free of the built-in snark that has come to distinguish most American live action comix of late. If it reminds me of anything else it’s Total Recall with Der Arnold’s line, If I’m not me den who de hell am I?! And what’s better than that? Great stuff.

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!

The Missouri Breaks (1976)

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Nicholson and Brando. A legendary pairing. Nicholson is cattle rustler Tom Logan, whose friend has been hanged by David Braxton (John McLiam) so he decides to avenge his death by buying land next to Braxton and he and his gang start stealing his horses. Braxton hires bounty hunter Robert E. Lee Clayton (Brando) to deal with them. Clayton is, to say the least, an eccentric but an efficient and ruthless killer too … Nicholson arrived on the $8 million set to discover that his role had been minimized in his absence, due to Brando’s influencing of director Arthur Penn.  ‘Poor Nicholson was stuck in the center of it all,  cranking the damned thing out,’ Brando said, ‘while I whipped in and out of scenes like greased lightning.’ He also kills while wearing a dress. He dreamed up a handmade weapon for his character, a cross between a harpoon and a mace. It should have been great but it’s disjointed and thematically incoherent. Nicholson thought it could have been saved in the editing, but his opinion was disregarded.  He didn’t like the film, and he told director Penn so.  Penn was offended and stopped speaking to him. Written by Thomas McGuane, Robert Towne was brought in to try and fix the script (like he’d done for Penn and Beatty on Bonnie and Clyde) but it is unclear as to what his contribution might have been. A Seventies oddity with an affecting performance from Brando which in hindsight we might see as an expression of a dying genre.

 

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

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The one with the chicken salad scene. Jack Nicholson was on the verge of becoming one of the most famous actors in the world with this portrait of alienation which just floored contemporary audiences. There had simply never been a character like Bobby ‘Eroica’ Dupea. He was the creature of writer Carole Eastman, writing under the nom de plume Adrien Joyce, albeit co-star Susan Anspach claimed that Nicholson made up stuff on the hoof and deserved credit. Bob Rafelson the director and co-writer was already a name from The Monkees but this was really a high point of New Hollywood – a departure and an arrival, with behavioural observation the strong point of a narrative that sees wildcatter Bobby shacked up with Tammy Wynette devotee waitress Rayette (Karen Black) and screwing around with his friend Elton (Billy ‘Green’ Bush). When he expresses his contempt for Elton (a ‘cracker asshole’) we get the first intimation that Bobby may not be like him: in fact he’s the estranged son of a family of gifted musicians and he himself is a former musical prodigy who has literally abandoned his talent. When Elton tells him Rayette is pregnant then Elton is arrested for robbing a gas station, Bobby takes off to LA to see his sister Partita (Lois Smith) a pianist who’s recording an album. She tells him their father is gravely ill. He takes off – regretfully – with a suicidal Rayette and leaves her at a motel while he broaches a difficult family reunion at Puget Sound including  violinist brother Carl Fidelio (Ralph Waite) whose pianist fiancee Catherine (Anspach) he beds. The final scene with his unresponsive father is hopelessly moving and the movie’s final shot when he hitches a ride on a truck away from a gas station and his car and his jacket and Rayette (who has turned up and embarrassed him en famille) … seems endless. Nicholson is allowed show all his colours here and it’s a transcendentally emotional and funny performance in a complex character study – the restaurant scene with the awful hitch hikers is a highlight, the wild sex with a pick-up another, and Nicholson’s tears are terrible to witness. He doesn’t know himself at all. This is a standout film from an era devoid of hope and this seems to encapsulate its anomie and capture it entirely. Luminously shot by Laszlo Kovacs, those burnished skies feel like the aspirations of a generation. Nicholson was officially a superstar.

Maggie’s Plan (2015)

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Admittedly I am no fan of Greta Gerwig whose kooky shtick has been replayed ad nauseam since she graduated from nudie mumblecore. She’s a college administrator who wants a child without marriage and goes after Guy (Travis Fimmel) a mathematically inclined pickle man (Joan Micklin Silver territory …) for a donation.  At the crucial moment of sperm insertion she is interrupted by the ‘bad boy of ficto-critical anthropology’ and wannabe novelist John (no Wesley) Harding (Ethan Hawke) who professes his love for her and leaves his speech-impeded Danish lecturer wife (Julianne Moore) and their children. A couple of years later in the chaotic tedium of their marriage, plus one (toddler Lily) Maggie tries to reunite the narcissistic pair so she can bring up her daughter in peace. Then John finds out what the women are planning. This is supposedly a subversive screwball comedy replete with the Nora Ephron-type friends who serve as confessors (Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph). Because the ‘meet cute’ happens over missed paycheques?!  Rebecca Miller’s film looks terrible and if you need to know how awful family planning and marriage can be …  but a lot of critics liked it. It’s badly staged, awkwardly written and adorned with performances that belong in a better production.What gives?! This epitomises the term ‘meh.’ From a story by Karen Rinaldi.