Elephant (2003)

Elephant

Get the fuck out of here, shit is going to happen. John (John McFarland) is being driven through the suburbs to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms). Alex (Alex Frost) is a talented pianist being bullied at Watt High School, Oregon. He and his best friend slacker Eric (Eric Deulen) play video games, watch a documentary about Nazis, have sex in the shower and load up on guns. On their way into the building wearing camo gear and carrying black bags, Alex warns John not to go in. Elias (Elias McConnell) goes round the hallways photographing other students before going to the school newspaper office to develop his pictures. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field with girlfriend Carrie. Bespectacled outcast Michelle (Kristen Hicks) runs through the corridors and escapes to the library to avoid sports. Three bulimic girls gossip and end up in the Ladies’ Room. When the boys fail to explode propane bombs and prowl the corridors and library shooting everyone on sight, Acadia (Alicia Miles) freezes and Benny (Bennie Dixon) helps her escape through a window … Damn, they shot him. Gus Van Sant’s meditative exploration of the moments leading up to a Columbine high school-like massacre looks and feels less assured than it did upon release. Perhaps because unlike its source material (Alan Clarke’s BBC film Elephant, which was about sectarian politics in Northern Ireland) it is politically rootless unless you regard teenage alienation as justification for genocide and the inclusion of a TV documentary about Nazism adequate as rationale for unleashing senseless violence upon your contemporaries. Perhaps that is the point – that children and guns are just not a good mix, teenagers are unknowable and basically ungovernable, allowing them too much time on their own is a really bad idea because literally anything could happen in those burgeoning adults. The over the shoulder tracking shots down the school corridors and their repetitive nature bring us back to the same moments again and again giving the narrative a poetic rhythm and spatial familiarity, as does the auditory track which occasionally lapses into silence and then white noise, particularly when Alex is sitting in the cafeteria and we get a hint of the killings to come. There is no doubt that the very boring nature of the scenario and the real-time pacing lends an incremental tension to the situation. The biggest problem here is that the affectlessness of the protagonists means a conventional drama cannot be constructed and a moral is hard to discern while the filmmaker is attempting to get into these boys’ brains. That is the core of the story: there are things that people simply cannot get to grips with. The moment when a teacher approaches a student who’s just been shot dead at a classroom door and treats it as if it’s normal is simply staggering. Screenplay by Van Sant with controversial ‘memoirist’ JT LeRoy and Diane Keaton credited as producers on a project that started life as a documentary. Most importantly, have fun

How Awful About Allan (1970) (TVM)

How Awful About Allan

It’s not your ordinary family reunion. Years after being blamed for the fire that killed their father Raymond (Kent Smith) and suffering from psychosomatic blindness, Allan Colleigh (Anthony Perkins) is released from a mental hospital to stay with his disfigured sister Katherine (Julie Harris) and begins to hear voices when mysterious boarder Harold who has throat problems moves in. Meanwhile his ex-fiancée Olive (Joan Hackett) resumes contact and reports that Katherine’s ex-boyfriend Eric (Trent Dolan) is in town, something Katherine denies.  Allan believes Eric and Harold are one and the same …  The home and the property are both valuable and they’re half mine. We’re in true cult territory here with a collaboration between novelist Henry Farrell (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? etc) and director Curtis Harrington with Farrell adapting his 1963 novel which was complimented by none other than Dorothy B. Hughes in The Washington Post. Both men can be considered auteurs in their own right while Perkins of course gave one of the greatest performances in cinema under the direction of Hitchcock but arguably never escaped the shade of Psycho and in truth is replaying some of its more emotive notes here. The cinematography has not aged well but the individual elements and Perkins’ presence compensate in this rather sub-par suburban Gothic with his tape recording of his suspicions the inner voice that drives the narrative. Perkins and Hackett would be reunited three years laster for The Last of Sheila, an intricate shipboard parlour game mystery which he co-wrote with Stephen Sondheim. An ABC Movie of the Week from Aaron Spelling Productions.  We’ll have our afflictions in common, won’t we

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

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John Wick, Excommunicado. In effect, 6:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. After gunning down Santino d’Antonio, a member of the shadowy international assassins’ guild the High Table, hit man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself stripped of the organisation’s protective services. There’s a $14 million bounty on his head and he is on the run in New York City, the target of the world’s most ruthless killers and he tries to locate the Elder (Said Taghmaoui) the only person above the High Table empowered to take the price tag off his head … He shot my dog/I get it. Starting quite literally from the last shot of the second film in the trilogy about the world’s calmest hitman, this is breathless action fare that starts in New York Public Library of all places setting things in motion with a crucifix necklace and a medallion. What better storage facility for your jewels? Then things get seriously international and move to Morocco and the desert as this violent quest for a kind of redemption gets underway while John reconciles with his origins: he is actually Jardani Jovonovich of Belarus, which we learn courtesy of a drop in at Anjelica Huston’s ballet school. Reeves is as Zen-like as ever even when offing everyone in sight and his dog is the dog’s, as they say, although he mostly keeps out of trouble by residing at the Hotel Continental. A sinuous exercise in ultraviolence, this is actually very beautiful to watch. With Ian McShane back as John’s dubious caretaker Winston, Halle Berry sharing his love canines and Laurence Fishburne giving this a Matrix-y feeling, this has a lot of good moments bookended by two extraordinary sequences of skillfully choreographed action with – what else – a cliffhanging ending. Written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams, based on a story by Kolstad. Directed by Chad Stahelski. It wasn’t just a puppy

IT Chapter Two (2019)

It Chapter Two

I can smell the stink of fear on you.  Defeated by members of the Losers’ Club, the evil clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) returns 27 years later to terrorise the town of Derry, Maine, once again and children start disappearing. Now adults, the childhood friends have long since gone their separate ways and are scattered over the US. Town librarian Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) calls the others home for one final stand. Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a successful mystery novelist in Los Angeles married to successful actress Audra Phillips (Jess Weixler). Like the others he is haunted by what happened but mostly because he has forgotten or blocked things from his mind – he sought revenge for the loss of his little brother Georgie. His on-set issues with the director (Peter Bogdanovich) of and adaptation of one of his novels arise from the ending which nobody likes, not even his wife, who’s been lying to him for years. Bespectacled and foul-mouthed Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) has become a successful stand-up comic in Los Angeles.  The overweight little boy Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) is now a handsome successful architect living in Nebraska. Hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) is a risk assessor in NYC and his marriage to Myra seems to mirror his relationship with his mother. Georgia accountant Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) cannot bear the idea of a return to the town because he is simply too afraid. The group’s only girl Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is a successful fashion designer whose violent marriage replicates the bullying she endured as a child. Damaged by scars from the past, the united Losers must conquer their deepest fears to destroy the shape-shifting Pennywise – now more powerful than ever… You know what they say about Derry. No one who dies here ever really dies. The second half of Stephen King’s IT has a lot to overcome 2 years after the first instalment and 29 years after it was brought to the TV screen in a mini series. Burdened by over-expectation, hype, and a (mis)cast lacking chemistry, this sequel to the beloved and hugely successful first film aspires to the condition of Guillermo Del Toro movies for some percentage of its incredibly extended running time and wastes a lot of it delving into the past in several rather unnecessary flashback sequences in which some transitions work brilliantly, others not so much. However the mosaic of personal history and occasional flashes of insight accompanied by some black humour restore the narrative equilibrium somewhat even if we all know this is not really about some clown-spider hybrid living in the sewer beneath a small town in Maine. Bill’s arc with his writing is a metaphor for the need to find an ending to a lifetime of latent fear for all the protagonists (it hasn’t stopped him being a bestseller). Grappling with the psychological impact of trauma, child abuse and guilt, this movie is all about burying their root cause:  way to avoid therapy, dude. Surely Pennywise is the ultimate recidivist in a movie where home is a word not just to strike fear but actually has to be carved into someone’s chest rather than being uttered aloud. This is a group of adults who notably have not reproduced.  In the attempt to join up all their experiences coherently there is a ragged logic but it tests the viewer’s patience getting there and after a protracted standoff with Pennywise there is a partly satisfying conclusion where the past has to be physically revisited and replayed, even if the film never reaches the emotional depths or charm one would expect, perhaps because the reality of Pennywise is not more artfully probed:  those character threads are left fraying at the edges. A delight lies in seeing author King playing the pawnbroker selling Bill his old bike and refusing Bill’s offer to sign his novel  – because he doesn’t like Bill’s endings. It could be King’s comment on half the films he’s seen adapted from his own books, especially relevant in a movie that quotes The ShiningAdapted by Gary Dauberman and directed by Andy Muschietti.  You haven’t changed anything yet. You haven’t changed their futures. You-you haven’t saved any of them

Death Defying Acts (2007)

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We had a real double act, my mam and me.  It’s 1926. Upon arriving in Edinburgh, Scotland for a series of mind-boggling performances, master illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) offers an impressive cash reward of $10,000 to any supposed psychic who can accurately tell him his beloved late mother’s exact last words. Gorgeous local swindler Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) rises to the challenge and together with her streetwise daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) leads Houdini on in a dangerous flirtation that blurs the line between reality and paranoia –  but she has reckoned without the machinations of his canny manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) who knows a con when he sees it but has his own reasons to let this Oedipal obsession play out in the world of spiritualists, fake or not … Nothing in this world’s free. It’s an engaging premise and well staged but this drama of who’s-fooling-who sadly won’t hoodwink the audience. Pearce is hardly Houdini although he’s a charmer whether tied up underwater or on the surface, and Jones’ and Ronan’s lively performances as grifters are marvellous but can’t conceal the dramatic deficit at the centre of the narrative. It looks wonderful and is beautifully staged but never really takes off, the mystery of Houdini’s personality is never convincingly exposed and of course as we know it ends in tragedy. Written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, directed by Gillian Armstrong. I used to be a nice man you know. Do you believe me?

 

Submission (2017)

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I hope they crucify you. Married one-hit wonder novelist Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) is a creative writing professor at a college in Houston having difficulty producing his followup. His talented student Angela Argo (Addison Timlin) asks him to read the first chapter of her novel Eggs and when he reads poetry about a phone-sex worker she wrote for another professor, Magda Moynahan (Janeane Garofalo), he begins to fantasise about the sex acts she describes and gradually becomes obsessed with her while she manipulates him into doing things for her including bringing her to a town where she can buy a computer. Then she seduces him in her room but their coitus is interrupted when he breaks a tooth. When she finally presents her work to the class the other students repay her bullying by telling her what they really think of her writing and she becomes tearful.  She guilt trips Ted into bringing her pages to his New York editor Len (Peter Gallagher) and then files charges against him when she thinks he hasn’t done what he’s been asked … My father set himself on fire. Adapted from Francine Prose’s novel Blue Angel (and using that film and novel as its template), this is really an obvious story about how a young pricktease can stupefy a man into losing everything by dint of sexual suggestion and wearing thigh-high boots and black underwear. The problem for the viewer is that Angela’s act is so transparent – if I heard her say My pages one more time … that the outcome is inevitable if not quite depressingly tedious.  She is no Dietrich. (And anyone who’s ever had an irritatingly ambitious student in their class will find their teeth grinding in recognition.) That it concludes in the usual safe space of a hearing with an allegation backed up with a neat recording, the vixen dressed down in dungarees, says more about the state of things than any review could explain.  There are clever elements: how the narration of Angela’s work becomes the movie’s own unreliable narrator as well as Ted’s masturbation material; an excruciating dinner party (is there any other kind?) which exposes the hidebound nature of academia where moronic millennialist paranoia about sexual harassment actually operates as a duplicitous form of Salem-style censorship and has the adults on the run; Ted’s novel is based on his own life and his agent suggests he rewrite it as a memoir – forcing him to confront his own limitations and not just on the page. His life with delightful wife nurse Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick) has an edge because of his difficulties with their adult daughter Ruby (Colby Minifie, who literally bears no resemblance to either biological parent!) – cue another awkward dinner, mirroring his inability to read the tricky women around him and deal with the everlasting fallout from that father who was a celebrity for the 15 minutes it took him to burn himself to death in an act of political outrage in the Sixties. Ah, sweet mysteries of life! Tucci is fine, or at least I hope he is. Written and directed by Richard Levine. He read her story. Then he became part of it

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

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I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400

American Animals (2018)

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You’re taught your entire life that what you do matters and that you’re special. In 2003 Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) are four friends who live an ordinary existence in Kentucky. Spencer is a budding artist and following his visit to the Special Collections room at Transylvania University in Lexington, he informs Lipka of the contents. Lipka comes up with the idea to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the school’s library:  it involves tying up the librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) and making off with the Audubon book, Birds of America, the most valuable one there. They lose their nerve at the first attempt which they prepare for by dressing up as old men. They plot a different approach for the second attempt. As one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history starts to unfold, the men question whether their attempts to inject excitement and purpose into their lives are simply misguided attempts at achieving the American dream and Spencer gave an auction house in NYC his real-life cell phone number with his dumb message on it … How can I tell you if I’m in or I’m out without telling me the first thing about what I might be in or out of.  Writer/director Bart Layton takes a true crime and spins it into something stylish but problematic, a treatise on all-American stupidity. Interviews with the real-life perpetrators, rather humbled after the fact, are interspersed with the narrative drama, which gives it a melancholy quality but the consequent issues in pacing don’t always lead to a pleasing viewing experience. It’s not set up correctly, working against any possibility of suspense. The second attempt at the heist is permitted to progress unimpeded by anything other than the protagonists’ staggering ineptitude. The outcome is inevitable and famous. The film does however blend fact and fiction and the interviews form a kind of Greek chorus, baiting us with the various points of view, Rashomon-like, and at one point even inserts Spencer into the action, albeit briefly. And it does boast Udo Kier in the cast. One day you’ll die

 

Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952)

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This is a story about money … remember it! Ageing heir-less millionaire Samuel Fulton (Charles Coburn) wants to leave his fortune to the unsuspecting family of his first love Millicent Blaisdell but not before testing his prospective heirs by living with them under the guise of a poor boarder under the alias John Smith.  He finds history repeating itself when he leaves them an anonymous bequest and observes Millicent’s daughter Harriet (Lynn Bari) losing the run of herself keeping up with the town’s richies and urging her own daughter Millie (Piper Laurie) to wed the son (Skip Homeier) of a wealthy family instead of Dan (Rock Hudson) who works in her dad’s (Larry Gates) pharmacy while studying at night …  Five minutes with him and a girl has a past!  Set in Tarrytown, New York at the end of the Twenties, this nostalgia-fest was one of several smalltown films made by Douglas Sirk and his first in glorious Technicolor.  Not quite a musical, it takes its song and dance cues from diegetic sources so we have singalongs courtesy of the wireless and a windup travelling pianola.  This has a sharp moral lesson under the fun and it’s the kids who are smarter than the parents – little Roberta (Gigi Perreau) is the one who knows the value of friendship and paints alongside ‘John Smith’ while he starts working as a soda jerk in the store.  Twenty-one year old James Dean makes his infamous debut as the kid ordering a super-complicated malt to which Coburn makes the disarming retort, Would you like to come in Wednesday for a fitting? Handsome William Reynolds as Howard, the son who gets a gambling habit, would make another notable appearance for Sirk in All That Heaven Allows (a film which serves as a syncopated commentary on this regarding Sirk’s Fifties suburban satires) along with There’s Always Tomorrow, while Hudson and Dean would both make another film together – the legendary Giant. Hudson of course became a star under Sirk’s direction in a handful of productions for Universal. Here he’s comfortable in a funny ensemble piece that charms in a colourful sendup of flappers, speakeasies and ludicrous clothes as well as having a dig at pretentious moderne stylings.  Adapted from a story by Eleanor H. (Pollyanna) Porter by Joseph Hoffman, this is an utter delight, camouflaging its social comment with an abundance of witty lines and smart playing. What else can you expect from the nouveau riche?

Palo Alto (2013)

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Live a dangerous life. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), are California teens who like to drive around and get stoned. Shy virginal April (Emma Roberts) is at soccer practice when her friends laugh about their coach Mr. B (James Franco) having a crush on her. Mr. B asks April if she can babysit his son and he then offers her the position of striker on the school team. Fred and Teddy walk back to their car talking about what they would do if they got in a drunk driving accident. Teddy says he would drive away even if it was his crush, April. He crashes into a woman and drives off, with Fred demanding he be dropped off. When Teddy reaches home he’s arrested and winds up doing community service in a library where Fred gets him into trouble by drawing a penis on a children’s book. Fred has sex with Emily (Zoe Levin) who is infamous for giving blowjobs to boys. Mr B. confesses to April that he loves her. After a soccer game he asks her to his house but his son is at his ex-wife’s and they have sex… I wish I didn’t care about anything. But I do care. I care about everything too much.  Gia Coppola’s writing and directing debut, adapting a set of short stories by James Franco, is disturbing in terms of its content but not its presentation. It’s as though these teens’ experiences were being told through a fuzz of weed and alcohol to which they all have easy access, presumably courtesy of the extraordinarily lax parents and step-parents at arm’s length from them (Val Kilmer plays Roberts’ stepfather as a wacked out stoner. Her mother isn’t much better). When Fred’s father (Chris Messina) almost comes on to Teddy, sharing a joint with this troubled kid, we know we’re in melodramatic territory, even if it’s slowed down. That leads to Fred’s own questioning of his homosexuality when he reasons that getting a blow job from a boy isn’t any different. Roberts as the girl who is fooled by the high school sports coach is terribly good, registering every shift in her circumstance with precision. The sex scene with Franco is very sensitively shot:  this is basically a rape after all. Wolff is fine as the boy as spinning top, unsure of who he is but convinced he needs to set everything fizzing, a hormone wrapped up in dangerous levels of immaturity and sociopathy. Young Kilmer (son of Val and Joanne Whalley) is as unsure of his character as his character is of his purpose, constantly being led astray. The film has its most impressionistic performance as this boy struggles to do the right thing. His single mom just gives him love if hardly any guidance never mind issuing deterrents – this we learn is his second rap and adults are keen to keep giving him chances, just like he allows Fred to get him into jams. These kids are testing everyone’e limits with no indication of what might be permissible beyond their marijuana fume-filled homes.  It’s no surprise when the film ends on the road to nowhere:  this is not a narrative of punctuation. Peer pressure is an eternal problem, but amoral parenting sucks the big one as this amply demonstrates it in its many shades of hypocrisy, corruption and cynicism in adult behaviour. A fascinating showcase for several second- (and in the case of Coppola, third-) generation Hollywood talent in a film which literally blames the parents. I’m older and I know that there aren’t a lot of good things around, and I know that you are really good