Into the Abyss (2011)

Into the Abyss theatrical

He looked just like a little boy lying on the gurney. Werner Herzog goes to Conroe, Texas to examine the case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, both convicted of a triple murder in 2001. He interviews the men, both of whom blame the other and proclaim their innocence from behind bars. Perry is 14 days from execution and appears to have made his peace with God. Burkett can look forward to eventually getting out. Hence the film’s subtitle:  A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death.  Burkett has married a prison groupie who somehow became inseminated despite there being no situation in which they could have had intercourse.  Herzog is walked around the crime scene by an investigating police officer and part of the film contains the police video of the aftermath. Widowed nurse Sandra Stolter was shot in her house in an expensive gated community as she baked cookies at Halloween. She was dumped in a lake.  Her 17-year old son (actually her older daughter’s illegitimate son, therefore her grandson) was hunted down and killed along with his friend. All of this was because Perry and Burkett wanted the woman’s red Camaro. They were chased for three days until they were caught. The car is in a pound, having been moved from its previous location where a tree grew through the floor. Herzog remains behind the camera and there is minimal voiceover but his solemn, methodical approach and his choice of interviewees buttresses his view that the death penalty is wrong although the film is so carefully constructed there is no real attempt to figure out what happened and who did what. The film is divided into a prologue and six sections. It begins with the prison chaplain whose job it is to comfort men about to be put to death. We see the cemetery where they are buried in their hundreds without their names, just their prison numbers. The former captain of death row Fred Allen finally gave up his job when he had to put a woman to death (Karla Faye Tucker in 1998) and sacrificed his pension:  he talks about living ‘in the dash’ ie the time between life and death as signified on the grave markers. Burkett’s father is himself serving 40 years and is interviewed behind bars, his fifth time inside. He blames his almost permanent absence from home for his son’s actions:  his testimony at sentencing saved Jason from lethal injection. Stolter’s daughter Lisa attended the execution and lets us know that Perry ‘forgave me.’ She laughs through her tears. On the one hand this is a careful indictment of a system of criminal justice which results in capital punishment. On the other, it’s a terrifying examination of broken families and dysfunction and the effects of drink and drugs. The big question here is why anyone kills in the first place – the individual or the State. But it’s still a small story. It’s an utterly tragic account of many lives destroyed in a small Texas town – all because two nasty teenagers coveted a car.

Advertisements

Return of the Gunfighter (1967) (TVM)

Return of the Gunfighter.jpg

The odds were 6 to 1 against him! Ben Wyatt (Robert Taylor) is an ageing gunfighter who has grown weary of his lifestyle and is looking for a quiet time after being released from a five-year prison sentence. But when an old friend, Luis Domingo (Rodolfo Hoyos Jr.), asks for help defending his land, Ben can’t say no. Unfortunately, he arrives too late, finding Luis and his entire family except daughter Anisa (Ana Martín) murdered. Ben is determined to get revenge against the killers, and in pursuing them reluctantly enlists  a younger wounded gunfighter, Lee Sutton (Chad Everett). Anisa is recognised in Lordsburg  by the killers – even while wearing men’s clothes – and Ben needs to step up to save her from the men who destroyed her family but they turn out to be Sutton’s brothers … With a screenplay by Burt Kennedy and Robert Buckner this has pretty impeccable credentials. There’s a clarity (even simplicity) about the gunslingers versus hombres setup that is reflected in the glossy cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks on location in Arizona. However Taylor’s star was on the wane and it serves as a footnote to his long career, released on ABC TV with cinema distribution only outside the US. It’s interesting as an introduction to Butch Cassidy (John Crawford) and the Sundance Kid (John Davis Chandler) but there are no real surprises although it’s nice to observe the byplay between Taylor and Everett as the older man confronts his mortality.  It took me a while to even recognise him:  this is the ageing process in living colour but he would die of lung cancer within two years of filming. This was his final western and third last film and he gives a fascinating performance.  He hosted the TV anthology series Death Valley Days from 1966-69.  Directed by James Neilson.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Planet of the Apes 1968.jpg

You know what they say – human see, human do.  Three astronauts (Charlton Heston, Robert Gunner and Jeff Burton) come out of hibernation to find themselves marooned on a futuristic planet following a crash landing. Apes rule and humans are slaves, two thousand and thirty-one years away from Earth. The stunned trio discovers that these highly intellectual simians can both walk upright and talk. They have even established a class system and a political structure. The astronauts suddenly find themselves part of a devalued species, trapped and imprisoned by the apes, enslaved and treated like objects of derision and work value. However they become subjects of medical interest for archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) but Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) finds out and wants Taylor (Heston) castrated. When Taylor tries to escape he doesn’t  reckon on what he finds … Landmark science fiction, this was probably the first of the genre I ever saw (on TV) as a small child and it certainly was a great introduction to a kind of storytelling that is weirdly current and prescient, good on race relations and inhumanity as well as future shock. Pierre Boulle’s novel was originally adapted by Rod Serling but got a rewrite from formerly blacklisted Michael Wilson, who had done uncredited work on the screenplay for Boulle’s Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s a wildly exciting and unexpected story that retains its powerful examination of human behaviour. The final shot is jaw-dropping:  is it the greatest movie ending of them all? The original of the species. Directed by Franklin Schaffner, who was recommended by Heston, who himself would make a couple more terrific sci fis. Get your damn paws off me, you stinking apes!

Se7en (1995)

Seven theatrical.jpg

Just because he’s got a library card doesn’t make him Yoda.  Police Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has a week left on the job when he is set the task of tackling a final case with the aid of newly transferred David Mills (Brad Pitt), they discover a number of elaborate and grizzly murders. They soon realize they are dealing with a serial killer calling himself John Doe who is targeting people he thinks represent one of the seven deadly sins. Somerset befriends Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is pregnant and afraid to raise her child in the crime-riddled city. By using an illegal FBI trick of tracking certain public library book titles they find a likely suspect and enter an apartment building where they’re attacked by a gunman who just might be their target but there are two more sins to go …  Andrew Kevin Walker’s dense and sharply written script is given an astonishingly immersive workout by director David Fincher and it’s one of the key films of the Nineties. Into those rain-slicked NYC streets run two great movie policemen, the grizzled Freeman and the ambitious impatient young Pitt who take such a long time to get into each other’s working rhythm. And when they do, they’re chasing the man who’s really chasing them.  This is a brutal, violent work which raises torture to a kind of poetic, along the lines of John Doe’s literary inspirations, Dante and Thomas Aquinas. As he works through the various sins the sheer horror of the scenes still shocks. This wouldn’t be the last of Walker’s dark screenplays but in some ways he has never written anything as truly horrifying as the last scene shot in the bright outdoors in stark contrast to the claustrophobic interiors that characterise the sadism at the center of the narrative. There’s a subliminal cut which will make you think you’ve seen something you haven’t. Oh my gosh this is absolutely compelling. Even if his brain weren’t mush which it is he chewed off his tongue long ago.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.jpg

I’ve studied you all these years – a little girl in a cage waiting for someone to let her out. In 1928 young Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) inadvertently causes the death of her cruel, authoritarian and extremely wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha lies to the police and Walter (Kirk Douglas), who saw the crime, corroborates the girl’s story. Eventually, they grow up and wed out of convenience; the meek and alcoholic Walter is genuinely in love, and Martha thinks that her secret is safe since she has married the one witness to her aunt’s death. As District Attorney he saw her lie on the stand and put an innocent man to death for the crime. However now Martha is trying to get Walter elected Governor and her childhood pal Sam (Van Heflin) shows up.  Martha knows her dark past may not stay a secret for long and Sam’s romance with Toni (Lizabeth Scott) – an ex-con just out of jail – threatens to come between them …  The film noir as hothouse melodrama, this has Stanwyck at her most manipulative since Double Indemnity but the surrounding performances are impressive as satellites to her cunning. Adapted by Robert Rossen (and an uncredited Robert Riskin)  from playwright John Patrick’s short story Love Lies Bleeding, this plays fast and loose with love and death, desire and obsession, betrayal and murder, marriage and entrapment. The pickup between Heflin and Scott is really something and the dialogue is really striking – just look at the way the Bible crops up at crucial plot points. Stanwyck’s string of extra-marital affairs reveals a longing for sex not often portrayed in Hollywood films of the era. Douglas makes an impressive debut as the weak husband just as capable of lying. The twisting DNA spiral of guilt and secrecy plays out brilliantly as these conflicted personalities bump up against one another in a deadly game. And what a twist(ed) ending! Listen to how the rain hits the windows of that fabulous house during some of the toughest conversations – talk about atmospheric! The cinematography by Victor Miler and score by Miklós Rósza are quite splendid. Directed by Lewis Milestone.

6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain (2017)

6 Below.jpg

Following a drug-related fall from grace and a car crash, former professional hockey player Eric LeMarque (Josh Hartnett) finds himself stranded on a mountain in the High Sierras during a fierce snowstorm and misses his crucial court date which his worried mother (Mira Sorvino) is hounding him to attend. Coming to terms with his personal demons, he soon rediscovers the power of faith while fighting for survival, suffering excruciating injuries and frostbite and it takes six days for anyone to even notice he’s gone from the cabin in the mountain, snowboard in hand … LeMarque’s book (co-written with Davin Seay) is adapted by Madison Turner in what is no doubt a well-intentioned cautionary tale about drugs and not getting caught on the side of a mountain during a storm. However the structure and the constant badly shot flashbacks don’t assist the dark night of the soul that LeMarque endures while he fights for his life. Mainly because we just don’t see him in action on the rink, just beating people up. It’s nice to see Sorvino back even in the absolutely thankless role of his mother which for the most part she (necessarily) phones in. Zzzzz….. Was that a bear? Nope. Too bad. Just say no, kids! Directed by Scott Waugh.

Cape Fear (1962)

Cape Fear 1962.jpg

From my limited knowledge of human nature, Max Cady isn’t a man who makes idle threats. After an eight-year prison sentence for rape, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) targets Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), one of the lawyers who sent him away. When Max finds Sam and his family, he begins a terrifying stalking spree, intending to ruin Sam’s life. Desperate to protect his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin), Sam makes every effort to send Max back to jail. But when his attempts fail, Sam realizes that he must take matters into his own hands if he wants to rid his life of Max for good after he targets his family and makes the lewdest of provocative suggestions to the Councillor …  The great John D. MacDonald’s novel The Executioners was adapted by James R. Webb and director J. Lee Thompson turns the whole kit and caboodle into something absolutely sensational:  a crime thriller that has an extraordinary pair of performances at its helm and a great sense of place. Peck (reunited with his Guns of Navarone helmer) is the relentlessly decent family man driven to violence and Mitchum is extraordinary as the horrifically lascivious crim who says and does everything imaginable to torture him, playing the system to its limits for all it’s worth while Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas are on both their tails. Brilliantly shot, paced and designed and totally enervating. Fabulous.

Miss Sloane (2017)

Miss Sloane.png

Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.  Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) remains one of the most sought-after lobbyists in Washington, D.C. She will do or say anything to get ahead of the competition. When asked to help oppose a bill that imposes regulations on firearms, she instead joins a scrappy boutique firm led by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) that represents the backers of the law. Her defiant stance and determination to win now makes her the target of powerful new enemies who threaten her career. We find her facing a congressional hearing headed up by Senator Ronald Sperling (John Lithgow) where the needling gets to her and she breaks legal advice to plead the Fifth to respond to a petty point about Indonesia and opens the door to an onslaught of past crimes in the name of getting ahead on Capitol Hill … This wordy worthy drama is hard to take:  Chastain is as we have come to expect – technically adept, capable of delivering very prolix speeches but essentially unsympathetic (not that she cares) in spite of this being about a very current hot button topic – gun control and the powerful lobby that comes out to vote no matter what. Written by Jonathan Perera and directed by John Madden, this is literate, middle of the road social consciousness drama only rendered tolerable by performance and ultimately some finessed construction and screw-tightening towards the conclusion. But like Chastain’s other film this year, Molly’s Game, the stakes aren’t high enough to make us do anything more than yawn at these horrible people.

I, Tonya (2017)

I Tonya.png

There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants! In 1991, talented figure skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) becomes the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. We first see her as a three year old in 1970s Portland Oregon where her monstrous multiply-married mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) insists that she be mentored by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) at the local rink.  In 1994, her world comes crashing down when her violent ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) conspires with her moronic and delusional bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to injure Harding’s friend  and fellow Olympic hopeful and biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in a poorly conceived attack that forces the young woman to withdraw from the national championship. Harding’s life and legacy instantly become tarnished as she’s forever associated with one of the most infamous scandals in sports history…  When producer and star Robbie read Steven Rogers’s pitch black comedy she didn’t realise it was based on a true story (sort of). Her determination to bring this radical post-modern interpretation of one of the most notorious sporting crimes in the last quarter of a century to the big screen is testament to both her good taste and her chutzpah – this after all is her first starring role and she produced the film. She gives a powerhouse performance in a difficult role, delineating Harding’s evolution from white trash teen to triple axel-crushing rink monster routinely routed by snobby judges who want someone more ‘family’-friendly as their poster child and create the conditions for unconscious revenge against the powers that be. You were as graceless as a bull dyke. It was embarrassing! Janney’s performance has won all the awards (never forget she was everyone’s fave woman in the world in The West Wing) however she plays this crushing creature for a couple too many laughs.  It’s Robbie who has the tough job here – convincing us in this self-reflexive narrative that she really did deserve plaudits and not the horrifying level of domestic abuse which she came to expect after being reared by a veritable dragon in human form. Having each of the characters variously interviewed and breaking the fourth wall occasionally to ask why their contribution isn’t being featured at different points in the story reminds you that there are competing testimonies here.  The end credits, complete with real-life cringe-inducing footage of the ghastly individuals (this is really a documentary!) interspersed with Harding’s uplifting, magical performances makes you wonder how the poor girl ever survived the rank and file awfulness of her dreary Pacific north-west background. The interview with Hard Copy journalist Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) and the juxtaposition with the breaking news of OJ Simpson as the drama concludes in 1994 reinforces the underlying story of newsmaking in the 90s and how these two stories changed TV journalism forever. Brilliantly constructed and performed and well executed by Craig Gillespie. 6.0! Go Tonya!

Where There’s a Will (1936)

Where Theres a Will 1936 Will Hay.jpg

A merry Christmas, girls and boys / I’ve brought you jewels, instead of toys / In spite of what you think / it seems to me I’ve earned a drink. A bumbling incompetent solicitor Benjamin Stubbins (Will Hay) is tricked by some American gangsters into helping them pull off a robbery …  Hardly the jewel in old school Brit comic (and pilot and astronomer…!) Hay’s crown (that’s Oh, Mr Porter!), this saw him team up with a good team but it’s a blink and you’ll miss it affair, aside from a few edits to produce visual payoffs on lines.  There’s fun with the office repartee between him and the truculent youth he employs (Graham Moffatt) and it’s an opportunity to see former Ziegfeld girl Gina Malo as a wisecracking moll. She spent the better part of her film career in operatic musicals in Britain.  It all ends as you think it might at a Christmas party and guess who’s Father Christmas? The screenplay is by Sidney Gilliat and Leslie Arliss with additions by Hay, director William Beaudine and Robert Edmunds.