Mysterious Island (1961)

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Why don’t we turn this island into a democracy and elect a leader? During the Civil War, a group of soldiers led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) escape a Confederate prison siege using an observation balloon, and due to a storm that lasts four days and pitches them off course, are forced to land on a strange island that is full of tropical jungles and volcanoes. They are confronted by giant mutated animals, find two Englishwomen, Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece Elena (Beth Rogan) washed up from a shipwreck, fight marauding pirates and are then confronted by the infamous Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) whose submarine the Nautilus was feared lost off Mexico eight years previously. They need to escape and that volcano is rumbling but will Nemo assist them using his engineering genius? … We lived like primitive men using primitive implements. The followup to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea doesn’t start particularly promisingly – the escape from the Confederate prison isn’t very well handled by director Cy Endfield, not the first name you’d come up with for an effects-laden juvenile fantasy flick taken from Jules Verne’s two-part novel. However when the action kicks in on the island and the Ray Harryhausen effects interplay with the threat of a volcano about to blow and those sheer painted backdrops hint at disaster, well, it finally gets interesting. Everything is punctuated by regular run-ins with those giant creatures who are the result of Nemo’s horticultural physics experiments. The laughs come courtesy of war journo Gideon Spilitt (Gary Merrill) who has an ongoing run of food jokes: I wonder how long this will take to cook in a slow oven, he deadpans about the giant chicken they believe they’ve killed; turns out Nemo shot it. The cast is excellent although Craig doesn’t set the screen alight and it’s great to see Lom doing his Nemo:  he’s a misunderstood guy who just wants to stop the causes of war. Rogan and Michael Callan get to do a bit of romancing before being sealed into a giant honeycomb; while Percy Herbert and Dan Jackson bring up the rear. The whole shebang is carried by Bernard Herrmann’s sonorous score, booming from the screen as surely as those explosives. From a screenplay by Crane Wilbur, Daniel B. Ullman and John Prebble. Shot at Shepperton Studios and on location in Catalonia. A man could write an inspired novel in a place like this

Joker (2019)

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Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?  Former psych hospital inmate, children’s party clown and wannabe standup Arthur ‘Happy’ Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his sick mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of appearing on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) cheesy nightly TV show which they watch together. Gotham City is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished with billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in the running for Mayor. Penny was a former employee in the Wayne household and repeatedly writes him letters asking for money. Arthur suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and depends on social services for medication and weekly meetings with a social worker. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun for self-defence. Arthur invites his neighbour, cynical single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz), to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating. When he witnesses three Wall Street guys harassing a woman on the subway train he opens fire and kills them and the city is suddenly awash in a movement of men in clown masks that threatens violent disorder in copycat clown costumes  … I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it’s a comedy. A perverse DC origins story written by director Todd Phillips with Scott Silver, this owes much to its setting – 1981, a city on its haunches, with human filth and institutional grime, and cinematic influences: Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and of course Taxi Driver (Paul Schrader’s real-life inspiration was Arthur Bremer) which is interesting in the light of the maestro’s recent (highly derogatory) comments on superhero movies. And there’s Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin himself, De Niro, as the Jerry Lewis-type prism for Arthur’s fantasies of celebrity. And it’s modelled on classic psychodrama, up to a point. It hedges its bets by flailing determinedly in all directions ticking the usual boxes – sociological, pathological, neurological, daddy issues, a mad mother, illegitimacy, until its second hour descends into predictable ultraviolence (after that first exhibition at 30 minutes) albeit with this raft of reasons the wind at his back, you can’t blame Arthur, which is of course the whole point of this graphic novel brought to life. He’s a product of everything around him as well as the noises in his head so there’s no mystery left unturned. That neurological condition that makes him laugh long and loud and inappropriately turns into an unwelcome noise in the audience’s collective head too because we can see as he cannot that his talent lies not in comedy but in killing. Gotham City is no longer a pretend New York because the first three victims of Arthur’s vigilanteism are Wall Street employees of his all-powerful putative father, which is how the Wayne story is woven into this tapestry of excuses as if someone had written an elaborate series of backstories and decided to use every single one of them:  Oedipus writ large in a realist portrait of Bernhard Goetz-era NYC. There is literally nothing left to chance or ponder about this ugly individual and as we all know, bastards always blame other people and seek revenge for their no-name status. In this amorality tale he murders his mother to attempt to get close to his alleged father. And we all know what happens to Thomas Wayne because the Batman universe is ours.  It’s difficult to fault Phoenix’s bravura performance but much hinges on his harelip and innate ugliness which he just accentuates into unpleasant anorectic thinness to manufacture an urban monster. This Joker isn’t funny any more. How bizarre that the wonderful River Phoenix died 26 years ago today and it’s his brother Leaf who’s making the headlines. I feel like I know you – I’ve been watching you forever

 

Old Boys (2018)

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Model yourself on me and you won’t go wrong. Awkward but imaginative scholarship boy (Alex Lawther) helps the handsome but spectacularly dim school head boy and hero of their boarding school Henry Winchester aka The Mighty Winch (Jonah Hauer-King) pursue the fiery French Agnès (Pauline Étienne), daughter of a visiting teacher Babinot (Denis Ménochet) who is struggling for the past 18 years to produce his second novel … I’ll blast her with my charm bazooka! This Eighties-set comic drama starts with a very witty titles sequence, the typically upper class British schoolboys on a supposedly unique sports tradition which is really an outward bound torture session tramping through the mud, an experience likened to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in a low angle shot of the institution (resembling my own frightening alma mater), a piece of stripey uniform caught on the barbed wire demarcating it from the rest of civilisation (which appears to be Norfolk). I’m just not good at all this word shit, declares The Mighty Winch, a nice but thick joker who can do no wrong in the eyes of the school or indeed himself, so the truly smitten Amberson gets him to pose as a romantic à la Cyrano de Bergerac in a film which wears its French influences very happily with several songs dispersed on the soundtrack. This is about proving you are more than a labrador in trousers. That’s a line that could come from the mouth of comedian/actor Jack Whitehall which is interesting given that this is co-written by Freddy Syborn, his co-writer on TV show Bounty Hunters following their collaboration on Bad Education:  this guy has a recognisable writing voice combining tender observation with sleight of hand comments on the class system as well as a fondness for slapstick. The story gets emotional heft not just from Amberson’s helpless infatuation and his desire to make Agnès happy; but also from the to-and-fro of the French father-daughter as the novelist manqué depends on her to approve of his narrative choices (something that culminates in a bad romantic scene with Papa’s non-French speaking romantic interest). Let me show you what Planet Earth looks like. As for Agnès, she’s not just a romantic but a pragmatic wannabe set designer and knows that Berlin is where it’s happening (another amusing European narrative strand nodding to WW2, juxtaposed with a school screening of The Dambusters) which gives rise to a series of beautiful mini-theatres and greeting cards being unfolded to push the story further as the romantic correspondence and deception is pursued. So if this is as lightweight as those delicate messages’ construction it gains trenchancy from the ideas of multi-lingual co-operation. Someone, somewhere, behind these theatrical scenes is trying to tell us something. The screenplay is by Syborn and Luke Ponte; while it’s well directed by Toby MacDonald. They teach you all the ways you can die but only you can learn how to live

Steel Country (2018)

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Aka A Dark Place. With a dead kid there’s almost always abuse first. In smalltown rural Pennsylvania garbage truck driver Donny Devlin (Andrew Scott) becomes obsessed with the death of local boy Tyler Ziegler when the police don’t want to investigate how he is found in a river and he is buried without an autopsy. Donny takes it upon himself to investigate, irritating his initially sympathetic co-worker Donna (Bronagh Waugh), getting an admission of suspicion of abuse from Mrs Ziegler (Kate Forbes), confronting a local police officer Max Himmler (Griff Furst), tackling the sheriff (Michael Rose), the paediatrician Dr Pomorowski (Andrew Masset) whose office has taken a lot of calls from Tyler’s mom and finally suspecting the boy’s father Jerry (Jason Davies). His own disordered personality almost puts him in the frame, until he digs up Tyler’s corpse and brings it to a coroner to prove his suspicions … Nothing ever happens around here. Brendan Higgins’ screenplay is equal parts character study and mystery. The noises in Donny’s head and his frankly unusual disposition are never truly explained, the grounds for his obsession left untapped other than a presumed autistic problem hence a rather narrow field of enquiry. The circumstances of how he conceived his beloved 11-year old daughter Wendy (Christa Beth Campbell) with Linda (Denise Gough) are rather seedy;  his living situation with his disabled mother (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) kindly depicted. Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography peers into the American darklands but other than corruption, the kind of easy institutional conspiracy that seems ten-a-penny in child abuse cases and the interesting positing of a paediatrician as a paedophile (one is reminded of a case in the UK when subliterate vigilantes targetted a doctor’s office, presumably believing that child abusers advertise their predilections on their doors), it doesn’t really ring the narrative cause-effect that is required. However it is tonally interesting and Scott delivers a committed if distracting performance in this ironically titled story where industry has long departed leaving predators free to exploit their working class targets. The ending is jaw-dropping – just not necessarily in a good way. Directed by Simon Fellows. What are you trying to do? You trying to give your shitty life some meaning?

One Deadly Summer (1983)

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Aka L’Été meurtrier. They call her Eva Braun. Shortly after Eliane or Elle Wieck (Isabelle Adjani) moves to a small southern French town, she begins dating Fiorimonto Montecciari aka Pin-Pon (Alain Souchon), a quiet young mechanic who has grown obsessed with the beautiful newcomer and they get married. But Elle has her own reason for the relationship: Pin-Pon’s late father was one of the trio of Italian immigrants who brutally gang-raped her German mother Paula Wieck Devigne (Maria Machado) two decades before, and she’s out to get her own form of revenge. However, Pin-Pon’s deaf aunt Nine aka Cognata (Suzanne Flon) suspects Elle’s true motivation when the young woman insists on knowing the origins of a barrel organ in the barn … He used to say, You can beat anyone on earth, no matter who.  Adapted by Sébastien Japrisot from his own novel with director Jean Becker, this is the kind of film that the French seem to make better than anyone else – an erotic drama that simply oozes sensuality, suffused with the sultry air of rural France in summer and boasting a stunning performance by Adjani who has a whale of the time as the nutty myopic sexpot seducing everyone in her path except her prospective mother-in-law (Jenny Clève).  Her occasional stillness is brilliantly deployed to ultimately devastating effect. Singer Souchon is a match for her with his very different screen presence essaying an easily gulled guy, in a story which remains quite novelistic with its story passing from narrator to narrator, a strategy which deepens the mystery and ratchets up the tension as it proceeds – starting as a kind of bucolic comedy and turning into a very different animal, a kind of anti-pastoral. A film whose twists are so complex you may need a second viewing, it seems to slowly exhale the very air of Provence leaving a disturbing memory wafting in its tragic wake. With François Cluzet, Michel Galabru and Édith Scob, this is scored immensely inventively by Georges Delerue. If this were the cinema not an eye would be dry

Motherhood (2018)

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Aka Egg. A woman gives up her rights as an adult when she gets pregnant. When NYC artist Tina (Alysia Reinder) and her layabout husband Wayne (Gbenga Akinnabe) are visited by her eight-months pregnant art school rival Karen (Christina Hendricks), now a trophy wife to property-dealer husband Don (David Alan Bache), the politics of pregnancy are discussed to a disturbing degree. Wayne demonstrates an extraordinary sympathy with Karen’s condition. Tina is doing an exhibit on pregnancy and motherhood (it’s going to be a lifetime’s work) instead of actually bearing a child herself, considering it a worthy topic for an art installation. She and Wayne reveal they are having a child by surrogate Kiki (Anna Camp), a secretary at an agency where Wayne was temping.  When the men go out, Tina and Karen have a heart to heart and Tina reveals she has had an abortion following an accidental pregnancy, while Karen reveals she got pregnant on purpose despite Don’s wishes and now she thinks he’s sleeping around. The very lovely and apparently ditsy young Kiki comes back to the loft with the men and while distressed with her married lover running out on her now she’s pregnant, expounds on her philosophy of the stages of a woman’s life during which some hard truths are exchanged … Having a baby the old way is a total fetish at this stage. Risa Mickenberg’s satirical chamberpiece treads a minefield of preconceptions (!), truisms, old wive’s tales (daughters steal your beauty when you’re pregnant), gender politics, jealousy, marriage, money, misunderstandings, the right to choose, sexism and contemporary mores with great wit and empathy in a film which might remind one of Carnage before the kids are actually born. Art appreciates even if I don’t appreciate art. Kiki’s four phases of women – girlhood, boobs, 20s to early 30s running after men and then mother, when nobody wants to look directly at you, is so discomfiting because it carries home the final indisputable truth about gender and loss of desire and elicits very different responses from everyone concerned, changing the dynamics of the group and exploding the future of three of them.  Talk about setting it off. These are relationships which are based on socially accepted lies. Sometimes only long-term friends can say such terrible things to one another and sometimes these conversations are life-changing, and not in a good way with a third act shift that totally alters the mood but boasting a happy coda. You’re like this giant beach ball of bliss. You’re like a living monument of sexism. A devastating exposition of male and female behaviour and a smart showcase for the talents of the actors (particularly Hendricks), very well handled by director Marianna Palka. If she’s the mother what are you?

All About Nina (2018)

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Let me take care of you. Thirtysomething Nina Geld’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) passion and talent have made her a rising star in the NYC comedy scene, but she’s an emotional mess offstage. Her married policeman lover Joe (Chace Crawford) resorts to violence when she goes back to her apartment with a one-night stand where she finds that he’s let himself in. She takes a cab to Joe’s house  to show his wife what’s going on and gets told to leave the city. When a new professional opportunity arises in Los Angeles, she moves west and house-shares with spiritual author Lake (Kate del Castillo) who tries to get her out of her comfort zone when she sees her pain.  Nina is forced to confront her own deeply troubled past just as an unexpected romance with Rafe (Common) begins to thrive… Let’s take things one step at a time. The debut film of writer/director Eva Vives, this demands and gets a barnstorming performance from Winstead who has to go on an emotional rollercoaster – from horrific stories about her father to the unexpected delight of having a potentially successful relationship rather than a familiar series of sexual hit and runs, which just triggers more self-destructive behaviour. From its truisms about showbusiness and a possible opportunity to appear on an SNL clone whose top dog Larry Michaels (Beau Bridges) pits all contemporary female standups against each other in an audition;  dealing with the fallout of trust issues from child abuse; to what it takes to go viral and whether that makes you popular or untouchable; this treads with a sureness all the way until the very end when it ultimately fails to deliver an answer but has Nina back onstage, where she really lives. As unpredictable as watching a standup having a meltdown – which is what this is all about, and quite as thrilling. Winstead is brilliant in a frank, raw and revelatory performance.

Quadrophenia (1979)

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You’ll be getting like them bloody beatniks before you know it. Ban the bomb and do fuck all for a living poncing about all day. In 1964 angst-ridden London teenager Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels) escapes the drudgery of his mailroom job at an ad agency as a member of the Mods, a sharply dressed drugged-up scooter-riding tribe of post-war teens constantly at odds with their conformist parents and their rivals, the bike-riding Rockers.  Jimmy  parties with Dave (Mark Wingett), Chalky (Phil Davis) and Spider (Gary Shail), fellow Mods. When the Mods and Rockers clash in the coastal town of Brighton, England, it leads to both trouble and an encounter with his crush, the lovely Steph (Leslie Ash). Returning to London, Jimmy, who aspires to be like Mod leader Ace Face (Sting), becomes even more disillusioned when his scooter is destroyed by a collision with a lorry, he’s thrown out of home and he returns off his head to Brighton where he discovers the kind of reality he has long sought to escape … If you don’t work, you don’t get paid no money. And I like money. Forty years since its original release, this is a landmark film about working class culture, growing up and finding your place in the world. The Who must have already seemed out of step with the times when this was made at the height of punk (Johnny Rotten was screen tested for Jimmy but nobody would insure him) – it’s an adaptation of their 1973 opera, an expression of the band’s situation (each band member’s face is reflected in the four mirrors on Jimmy’s Lambretta on the album cover) which would be splintered completely a mere two weeks before production with Keith Moon’s shocking death. Their first manager Peter Meaden had died the previous year. So the meta story becomes about the band’s own reinvention. It’s the story of all youthful quests, different songs reflecting the various band members while Pete Townshend tries to sum up the culture that drove the formation of The Who in the first place. There’s real pleasure to be had seeing well-known actors and musicians as teenagers, albeit Trevor Laird and Toyah Wilcox were 20 and Sting, who was topping the charts with The Police by the time this was released, was in his late twenties. Ray Winstone is Kevin, Jimmy’s childhood friend who has left the Army and is beaten up in an act of revenge and Jimmy rides off when he can’t stop the attack. For true cultists, there’s a brief (uncredited) appearance by Simon Gipps-Kent, a gifted actor who died young in mysterious circumstances (he opens the door to the guys at the posh party 15 minutes in).  The critics weren’t too kind to a film that’s rough around the edges and could have been better directed for much of its running time, but its blend of kitchen sink realism, rites of passage narrative, theme of rebellion and astonishing music gives it real heart and meant the audience lapped it up and it led to a revival of Mod culture and probably helped launch ska, prompting a whole new era in music. The Who’s John Entwistle was responsible for supervising the soundtrack and those of the album’s songs that are featured are in a different order from the album and are mixed up with The Kinks and The Crystals, among others, and the score doesn’t drive the story, it serves it. It starts with The Real Me and the most poignant inclusion from the original album is Love Reign O’er Me. Why do people love it so, this teenage symphony to Mod? It’s about searching for something to believe, somewhere to belong:  meanwhile, life as tragicomedy. Written by director Franc Roddam, Martin Stellman, Dave Humphries and Pete Townshend. We are the Mods! We are the Mods! We are, we are, we are the Mods!

Ad Astra (2019)

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Most of us spend our entire lives in hiding. Sometime in the future. Following a mysterious global power surge, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a cool guy with a blissfully low pulse rate, travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his father, heroic scientist Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who’s been missing for 29 years following the disappearance of the Lima Project.  Now apparently there are signs that he’s alive, out on Neptune. The purpose of the trip is to unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of humans on Earth and to uncover whether Clifford is somehow responsible for the weird imbalances that are killing tens of thousands back on Earth. Roy travels to the Moon in the company of Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) and they are set upon by violent assailants in a buggy chase across craters that endangers them both and kills a crew member. He suspects from his psychiatric evaluations that he’s being used as a stooge and hears from a woman called Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) whose parents travelled with Clifford all those years ago that his father probably murdered them and others in the team. He determines to carry on with the trip to Neptune to locate his father and has to deceive Space Comm in order to do so … I don’t know whether to find him or to finally be free of him. What are the chances of Brad Pitt giving his finest two performances in back to back films? If the first, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, ponders the very contemporary question of whether movie stars serve a function in the new cinematic universe, this film, the second, is the proof that they do. And how. To the stars is a wonderfully ironic title in these circumstances. And what about the usually moribund director James Gray finally breaking out of the chains of realism (with his excursion to the jungle in The Lost City of Z he came close to greatness) and unsympathetic characters by shooting out of the earth’s atmosphere to infinity and beyond? It has set him free as a filmmaker. This has a lyricism and a beauty arising from the script by Gray and Ethan Gross, yet the resolutely familiar shooting style (by Hoyte van Hoytema and Caleb Deschanel (credited with ‘additional photography’) maintains a sober palette that permits the performances and the intrinsic ideas to shine, rather like when Godard did sci fi in Alphaville. We know this world.  We even believe that the Moon (‘the Earth’s Moon’, as one character puts it) could look like a shopping mall once humans colonise it. The brief sequence between Pitt and Lee Jones has more humanity in it than the entirety of the auteur’s preceding body of work: Roy’s lack of emotionality turns into something else when the reality of his father’s existence hits him:  this is a Conradian truth and this might be Apocalypse Now in space. We’re all we’ve got. In between we have a fabulously Freudian take on fathers and sons and space with some mileage gained from the diadic homonym son/sun and the movie’s existential philosophising pondering the father’s quest for alien intelligence; while the son’s ruminations take a decidedly more paternalistic twist despite his own lack of family, visions of an ignored wife Eve (Liv Tyler) chiefly accessible through old videophone messages notwithstanding. There are cute and clever references to other films but so intelligently do they unfold you won’t remotely care. It’s tremendous. It’s just what the cinema needs: a thrilling exploration of metaphor that oozes humanity, awe, wonder and acceptance as space becomes the past and the future, all at once. In the end the son suffers the sins of the father

 

Chasing Bullitt (2019)

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Without my career there’s nothing else. Movie star Steve McQueen (Andre Brooks) is at a crossroads in his career after he’s had his pet project European racing film Le Mans taken from him by the studio. He owes money, his marriage is in trouble, he doesn’t know if he will hit big with the public again. He appeals to Freddie (Dennis W. Hall) his agent to help him locate the iconic Ford Mustang GT 390 he drove in Bullitt after the studio gifted him with a fake and goes on a road trip where he reflects on his life and the mistakes and relationships that have led him to this point … You’re a movie star. Surely that comes with its own set of burdens. It’s not just a road trip. It never is. It’s a psychological journey. And in the case of McQueen that means traversing the rocky road of his marriage to Neile (Augie), an encounter with Batista (Anthony Dilio) in Cuba back in 1956 and in sessions with his therapist (Ed Zajac) ponders his good fortune at not being slaughtered on Cielo Drive August 8, 1969. (And in this cultural echo chamber of movies we of course think of Damian Lewis’ McQueen unrequited longing for Sharon Tate in Tarantino’s recent Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood). Brooks has occasionally eerie moments embodying the star such is their resemblance, his chats with hitch hiker Sula (Alysha Young) clearly designed to trigger emotional insights; there’s a very amusing exchange with Dustin Hoffman (Jason Slavkin) about the prospects of working together on Papillon; and it all concludes with a final ironic gesture regarding the car he wants to find so badly. It’s not a perfect biopic but it’s better structured than most with an incredible look courtesy of cinematographer Daniel Stilling that harks back to precisely the era it’s set – 1971. It’s a mood piece about a yearning for control. And it’s about the filmmaker’s own nostalgia. I know just how he feels. Is it the truth? Hardly. It takes dramatic licence and still skims the surface. But I’ll take McQueen however I can get him. Written and directed by Joe Eddy. They took the film away from me