The Shack (2017)

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If anything matters then everything matters. After suffering the loss of his younger daughter Missy (Amélie Eve) to a kidnapper following the carelessness of his older daughter Kate (Megan Charpentier) while on a camping trip Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) spirals into a deep depression that causes him to question his innermost beliefs and threatens his  relationship with his remaining family including his wife Nan (Radha Mitchell) and son Josh (Gage Munroe). Facing a crisis of faith, he receives a mysterious letter urging him to an abandoned shack in the Oregon wilderness. Despite his doubts, Mack journeys to the shack which he recognises as the location where his daughter’s bloodied dress was found and as he prepares to wreak his revenge he encounters an enigmatic trio of strangers led by a woman named Papa (Octavia Spencer), her son Jesus (Aviv Alush)  and a woman called Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara). Through this meeting, which reveals his problems and past through visions and journeys, Mack finds important truths that will transform his understanding of his tragedy and change his life forever… Being a Sunday it seems appropriate to visit that little genre of Christian movies – oh, give me some old time religion already.  William P. Young’s underground bestseller was taken up by Octavia Spencer as a production project and joins a group of films that have flourished in the last few years tackling thorny issues under the rubric of acceptance and forgiveness and all that jazz. Mack’s background as the witness to his father’s abuse of his mother will hit a lot of targets about the origins of emasculation but Worthington’s somewhat strangulated performance doesn’t really assist the character’s trajectory from Doubting Thomas to True Believer. It may not be your bag and this has a whiff of TV movie about it but the cast is attractive and in a world where Spencer is God I’ll take my chances.  You’ll believe you can walk on water. Adapted by John Fusco and Andrew Lanham & Destin Cretton and directed by Stuart Hazeldine. Paradise is shot by Declan Quinn. Amen to that.

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Boy on a Dolphin (1957)

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You’re talking to me as if I were a man of honour – I’m not! Phaedra (Sophia Loren) is a sponge diver on the island of Hydra who finds a valuable statue underwater. She and her idle Albanian boyfriend Rhif (Jorge Mistral) try to figure out how to sell the treasure so that they can leave their life of poverty behind. She goes to Athens, where she meets Dr. James Calder (Alan Ladd) an American archaeologist working in Greece to restore national treasures. He can only pay them a small finder’s fee for the piece. Then  a millionaire treasure hunter Victor Parmalee (Clifton Webb) wants the treasure for himself and organises to help Phaedra raise the treasure and smuggle it out of the country. He is happy to pay her for it – and for other things. Meanwhile, Calder joins in the chase for the statue and Phaedra lies to him about its whereabouts, hoping that he will give up or run out of money. Finally her little brother Niko (Piero Giagnoni) persuades her to do the right thing by giving the statue to her homeland, thus opening up the possibility of a relationship with Calder. Ivan Moffat and Dwight Taylor adapted David Divine’s novel and it was given the full Techincolor widescreen treatment in an attempt to emulate the success of Three Coins in the Fountain with that film’s director, Jean Negulesco. Cary Grant was supposed to co-star with his latest cinematic squeeze Loren (after The Pride and the Passion) but Ladd eventually replaced him because Grant’s wife the actress Betsy Drake narrowly escaped with her life when the liner Andrea Doria sank and he rushed home to be at her bedside. Ladd hated flying and while travelling to the set he and his wife were robbed on the Orient Express and arrived to less than adequate facilities on Hydra. He didn’t get on with Loren at all and insisted she be placed to meet him at eye level despite her being much taller. She looks spectacular and even if the film wasn’t the anticipated hit for the studio, that cling-on swimsuit made her a huge star. While interiors were done in Cinecitta, the locations are simply spectacular:  Hydra, the Acropolis, Rhodes, the Saronic Gulf, Meteora, Corinth, Mykonos, Delphi and the Aegean Islands:  this is why colour film was invented. The title song is performed uncredited by the wonderful Julie London and Loren sings it in the story – as well as dancing and enchanting both Ladd and Webb, not the easiest of tasks, when you think about it.

Hue & Cry (1947)

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Harry Fowler is the kid who reads the adventures of Selwyn Pike in the pages of the Trump comic to his gang of Blood and Thunder Kids and becomes convinced that the strip is used as code by black marketeers. The police won’t believe him and he takes on the criminals himself, first visiting the sinister writer Alastair Sim and then working for grocer Nightingale (Jack Warner) who turns out to be central to the smuggling ring. After some false attempts to capture the criminals and stave off a department store robbery, and tying up Rhona (Valerie White) from the magazine, the scene is set for a standoff using Sim to engineer it in his story … Tremendous entertainment from writer TEB Clarke, with vivid performances from the kids running amok in the rubble-strewn bombed-out East End right after WW2. Ealing Comedy was really up and running in a film whose Expressionist leanings (courtesy of DoP Douglas Slocombe) remind one of Emil and the Detectives. Directed by Charles Crichton.

Couple in a Hole (2015)

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A title that does what it says on the box?! That’s just what this is. A Scots couple live in a hole in the Midi-Pyrenees.  He goes out and forages, she mostly stays in. Very feral and even primal. But … why? When she gets stung by a spider he has to find a pharmacy and he becomes frenemies with a local who ironically caused their cave-dwelling but we find that out incrementally, when the man’s wife starts to lose it big time. Paul Higgins and Kate Dickie are the couple, and their performances are marvellous in their complementary polarities:  she’s a traumatised agoraphobe wife, he’s a sociable supporter hunter gatherer who likes to eat sausage. Jerome Kircher is the farmer who killed their son and Corinne Masiero is the wife who finally can’t take the guilt. There is an unexpected ending and yet for a film that rests entirely on metaphor (we’ve all been in one…) it’s not unacceptable. Extraordinary in many ways with an exceptional soundtrack by Geoff Barrow. Written and directed by Tom Geens. One of the year’s best films.

Krampus (2015)

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Ever dreamed of spending Christmas without your family when everything seems like it’s going to Hell in a handcart? Well young Max (Emjay Anthony) swaps one kind of home invasion (aunt, uncle, cousins and great-aunt) for another (a German folkloric nightmare) when he wishes exactly that. Grandma Omi (Krista Stadler) knows it’s all down to what she did as a kid back in Austria but that doesn’t stop the demons being unleashed, starting with an ominous looking snowman in the yard, a power cut and a big sister kidnapped on the way to see her boyfriend in a snowstorm. There are noises in the attic and suddenly there are psychotic gingerbread men, Teddy bears and porcelain dolls on the prowl and that’s before the elves get started. Way to see your obnoxious cousin disappear up the chimney! NRA supporting uncle Howard (David Koechner) figures there’s only one way to deal with the invaders, since you can’t placate a crazy cookie.  I know how you feel about family at Christmas too (aw! really?!)  but even I find this veering on the violent end of the spectrum – tho hey, what about that staple gun! Starring Toni Collette and Adam Scott as the put-upon PC hosts who become really quite ingenious with their home cleaning solutions. Written by Todd Casey, Zach Shields and director Michael Dougherty, responsible for Trick ‘r Treat. Only if  Gremlins really doesn’t do it for you. I must start looking for those baubles …

Frankenweenie (2012)

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A real return to form for Tim Burton with another stop-motion animation, this time a remake/expanded version of a decades-old short, the story of Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) who is devastated by the death of his dog Sparky but through science class and an experiment on a dead frog, he learns how he might bring him back to life. A glorious spin on the Frankenstein story with a genius character by the name of Edgar, a creepy bug-eyed buck-toothed little hunchback frenemy who rats out Victor’s secret and soon all the animals in the pet cemetery are making a return … Written by Leonard Ripps (in 1984) from Burton’s original idea, with a screenplay by John August and apologies to the source, Mary Shelley who probably never saw this one coming! A great pastiche of monster movies. Brilliant, moving and funny as hell. Love it.

A Touch of Love (1969)

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Aka Thank You All Very Much. Margaret Drabble adapted her 1965 novel The Millstone and it gets excellent treatment by director Waris Hussein. Sandy Dennis is Rosamund, the product of a liberal progressive home run by two elderly parents who barely know she’s alive. She finds herself living alone at their ever-so London flat doing a doctorate at the British Museum and pursuing her social interests in the company of good friend and fellow intellectual Lydia (Eleanor Bron), fending off the advances of upper class Roger (John Standing) and sex fiend Joe (Michael Coles). Neither realises she’s a virgin. She’s introduced to gay TV presenter George (Ian McKellen – no, really) and has a one-night fumble which results in a pregnancy which she manages to mess up aborting and goes ahead with it, much to Lydia’s astonishment and perhaps even her own. Lydia needs a place to live so they end up sharing digs. We learn more about Rosamund’s situation through constantly unfolding flashbacks, revealing a complex identity which is never simplified rather amplified, especially as her behaviour when her daughter is born is more mature than that of anyone around her. While her baby is sick and requires life-saving surgery she still has a PhD to complete and horrible nurses to fight on every hospital visit. Then she runs into Roger again and wonders should she reveal the existence of his child, since nobody actually knows yet who fathered this object of her affection. This is classy, well-told drama, with a tremendous performance by Sandy Dennis in a very demanding role and a great ensemble in support. Superb, with lovely cinematography by Peter Suchitzky and the surprise of seeing horror-trash producer Milton Subotsky’s name on the credits.

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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Bryce Dallas Howard ran around Jurassic World in high heels so donning the garb of forest ranger Grace should come pretty easy, dontcha think? Her stepdaughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) finds little Pete (Oakes Fegley) deep in the woods her uncle Gavin (Karl Urban) is busy upending. Pete’s folks died in a car crash 6 years earlier and he’s been living there with his best friend Elliott. Who happens to be a dragon, the kind that Grace’s dad (Robert Redford) has been telling her about for years, since her mother died when she was five. Grace’s boyfriend (Wes Bentley, welcome back) reads Pete the storybook that is his only remaining possession and Natalie has a copy – his own is the giveaway to Elliott’s cave, which Gavin quickly exploits … I don’t know about you but the last time I cried at a movie was … The Passion of Joan of Arc. And  Running On Empty. And ET, of course. (More than once but decades apart.) Amazingly, this out-Spielbergs Spielberg in Disney’s own remake of its 1977 musical which I have never been able to get through, despite – or maybe because of – Helen Reddy. This is straight drama and the casting is spot-on, the tone is perfectly managed and the overall effect is funny, smart, touching, witty, scary and magical. Absolutely wonderful. Now how often can you say that? And during the worst summer in living movie memory. There is a message of course – about conservation, family, decency, hunting … You can figure that out yourself. Get your tissues ready. Written and directed by David Lowery, with Tony Halbrooks also credited for writing, based on the original screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein.

Every Secret Thing (2014)

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We’re never too happy to learn about kids committing serious crimes – say, kidnap and murder. When a three and a half year old half caste girl disappears in a small town attention falls on two teenaged girls recently released from juvenile detention for a startlingly similar crime involving a baby seven years earlier. Elizabeth Banks is the detective tasked with deja vu:  she found the first baby’s body and the child’s mother alerts her to the recent return of morbidly obese Alice (Danielle McDonald) and pretty Ronnie (Dakota Fanning) who she’s convinced must be involved. The story unfolds in repeated flashbacks showing that Alice’s mom Helen (Diane Lane), a schoolteacher ambitious for her charges, clearly prefers working class Ronnie to her own chubby daughter with kinky blonde hair. They were thrown out of a birthday party Helen forced Alice to attend with Ronnie, precipitating the original crime. Both teenagers, never friends and now avoiding each other, are now under questioning but not arrest, offer different versions of events. Alice claims innocence and blames Ronnie for the new disappearance. She says everyone wants to hate the fat girl and she was wrongly implicated in the first crime (and we see just how and by who). Laura Lippman’s novel was adapted by Nicole Holofcener at the request of Frances McDormand, who wanted her to direct. It’s a puzzling film in many ways – the obsession with half caste children is never fully revealed albeit something that happened to reality-TV obsessed Alice  gives us only minor insight yet it’s a major clue to the psychopathology of this girl and the mother who seems like the nicest woman in the world and what she might have reared. There’s a lot of good stuff here but it never wholly convinces despite the canny casting and writing. Directed by Amy Berg.

War Dogs (2016)

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Comic auteur Todd (Hangover) Phillips doing a serious analysis of arms dealing in the Iraq conflict? Well … not so much. Arms and the Dudes was a Rolling Stone story about two supposedly clueless twentysomethings out of Miami who vacuumed up the crumbs of the US Army’s defence contracts and made a mint until their attempts to cover up ammo from China (literally – by rebagging them) caught them out when their Albanian contractor called the State Dept after their infighting left him without a payroll. Miles Teller is David, a college dropout with a pregnant girlfriend under pressure to earn more money than his private massages yield. Jonah Hill is his old friend and aspiring wheeler-dealer Efraim who needs help exploiting a gap in the defence market by the expedient of watching an Army provisions website. The story is set up like a comedy but with Scarface references (it’s the poster over Efraim’s desk and his drug intake is Montana-prodigious). There is a very funny sequence when they have to go to the Triangle of Death in Iraq to get their first delivery to its intended destination. This is expertly done with the amount of threat, humour and action you know Phillips delivers well. When they want to land a life-changing contract they head to Vegas (where else would arms dealers meet?) and encounter a very familiar figure (I was surprised, not having read any spoiler reviews) who can give them everything they need but he’s on a watchlist and they have to go to Albania to carry it through. The story is fatally wounded by David’s narration which is done as a serious commentary instead of a self-deprecating series of enlightening witticisms. (Teller was presumably cast to appeal to the youth market. Bad move. He’s about as funny as a funeral and his naif act is not a patch on Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.) His girlfriend is a wuss. The baby sentimentalises things too. So although this is a satisfying exercise in many ways we needed more fun, less moralising: when Efraim fires a machinegun in Albania like a gangster, that’s the real deal. And with this much money around and Efraim involved, you know there’s a stitch up on the cards. Jonah Hill is really good.  If this had had the courage of its convictions and weaponised the facts, it might have been great.