American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.

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The Beguiled (2017)

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You vengeful bitches! I had high hopes for Sofia Coppola’s take on the Don Siegel Southern Gothic movie that made such a difference to our perception of Clint Eastwood way back when. Coppola has created such an interesting catalogue of films that are female-centred and immediately recognisable from their diffused palettes, lens flare, sense of mystery,soundtracks, alienation from family and the ultimate unknowability of teenaged girls. Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, the Irish soldier of fortune fighting for the North lying wounded in the woods near Martha Farnsworth’s boarding school for young ladies in deepest Louisiana when he is found by little girl Amy (Oona Laurence) on her daily mushroom-picking trip. She drags him back to the almost derelict building and the decision is made not to report him to the Confederates passing through the area despite the objections of staunch loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice, who was so great in The Nice Guys). There are only five students and the eldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) is the woman most obviously hot to trot – sad and clearly desperate for a man and a reason for escape. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney while he is unconscious and there are a lot of shots of water pooling in the cavities of his neck and abdomen. His objectification is writ large by the simple expedient of not having the camera include his face. Farnsworth admits to having had a man before the war when McBurney asks but as each of the girls enters his room to get a look at him and steal a kiss (a foxy Fanning) he realises he can play them off against each other. He learns to walk again and helps out, cutting wood and generally being the maintenance man. But all the while he has become the women’s fantasy. The problems really begin when each of them finds out what he is doing with the others. When Edwina invites him to her room after a particularly excruciating dinner and dance in this Gothic manse, she finds him having sex instead with Carol and takes terrible revenge …. And Farnsworth aims at keeping him there forever. There is something not quite right about the film. The control and the tone never really articulate the plot’s inherent collective madness, something that was so brutally effective in the earlier adaptation. The photography doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bruce Surtees’ work and that is surprising given Coppola’s customary attention to appearances (and the consequently unfortunate effect on the way Kidman appears). The relative containment of the story to the building doesn’t really work since so many of the shots are repetitive and one has the paradoxical desire to see more of the outdoors. Coppola has dropped some of the previous film’s elements – the black servant, the flashbacks to Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother – and this vacuum is not replaced with enough plot to sustain the story’s mordantly black tone. The performances are uniformly good and Dunst and Fanning are obviously back working again with Coppola. (And if you still haven’t watched Marie Antoinette go look at it now to watch Dunst give a complete performance as the child bride.) Farrell gives a good account of himself as a man who can’t believe his good luck even if it’s quite disconcerting to hear him speaking in an Irish accent. The young kids are very good in their roles and while Dunst’s part is not written especially well the sex scene with her buttons spilling over the floor is one of the best things in the film. Fanning is just a little too odd – but she has definitely grown up since Somewhere. Laurence is especially good as the little girl who stands up for McBurney right up until he hurts her little turtle Henry. The revenge is all too clearly telegraphed in a way that it wasn’t in the earlier film and that is the ultimate disappointment:  the staircase scene is thrown away.  There are some nice touches – the use of jewellery (Coppola loves fetishising sparkly objects) and costume and some Hitchcockian shots of the women’s hairstyles from behind. But it can’t make up for the lack of real tension. There is good use of music – that’s Mr Coppola’s band Phoenix reinterpreting Monteverdi’s Magnificat on the soundtrack and there’s apposite use of Stephen Foster’s song Virginia Belle.  Overall however this just doesn’t work the way you want it to do and despite its relatively short length (94 minutes) for a contemporary film it has its longeurs. Coppola adapted the original screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, a woman who was writing pseudonymously as ‘Grimes Grice’ which is the name mysteriously used on the film’s credits. Despite my reservations about this,  I find Coppola a fascinating – even beguiling! – director and I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s new book about her in the latest issue of Offscreen which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

The Beguiled (1971)

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What an extraordinary generic blend this is:  part Western, part Gothic or Grand Guignol, and an emblematic role for Clint Eastwood who would turn aspects  of its perverse sexuality into a motif in Play Misty for Me and Tightrope.  He’s a Union soldier badly wounded in the Civil War, found by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) a little girl who attends a seminary nearby in very Southern Louisiana. Deciding eventually not to report him to the Confederate soldiers, headmistress Geraldine Page sets her sights on him – but so does teacher Elizabeth Hartman. And student Jo Ann Harris … Adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, this plumbs areas of psyched out femininity that no other films truly reach.  It becomes clear that Page indulged in an incestuous relationship with her late brother;  Hartman is a virgin;  and Harris is a fox – whom Eastwood naturally beds, to the others’ uncontrollable fury. The Gothic trope of the staircase looms and Hartman pushes him to the bottom of it – giving Page an excuse to lop off one of his legs and trap him there forever. When he accidentally kills Amy’s turtle everything comes to a head and any plans he might have are as dust. There’s nothing like women scorned, is there? Bruce Surtees’ dreamlike cinematography lends this twisted narrative an art house feel that is entirely different to any of Eastwood’s output to that time – and the studio had no idea how to market it. Blacklisted writer Albert Maltz did the original adaptation but he gave it a happy ending – so another draft was done by Irene Kamp. Both of them were credited pseudonymously. And the real rewrite by associate producer Claude Traverse went uncredited. Director Don Siegel worked with Eastwood to create a different phase of his iconicity following the spaghetti westerns that brought the actor global fame  – and this was the real start of crafting something mysterious and ineffable and even masochistic in his screen persona, alongside the action roles that kept the studios happy. No wonder Sofia Coppola wanted to remake it. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. This is great anyhow you choose. (And an opportunity to see the tragic Hartman). When this came out my aunt’s mate at boarding school snuck out to see it and she was caught by the nuns climbing back in a window very late at night. When she explained her uncontrollable weakness for Mr Eastwood they said they understood completely and she wasn’t punished. Now that’s some cool nuns. And how very fitting!

I Saw the Light (2015)

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It starts with a marriage in a garage and within the first ten minutes I had switched this off twice. Elizabeth Olsen plays the talentless attention-seeking narcissistic divorced mother Audrey Sheppard, who latches onto Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) like a leech and whines and wheedles her way on his radio show alienating his band, his producers and his manager mother Lillie (Cherry Jones). Her vile off-key nasal voice literally drove me to distraction and the OFF button. It may be true to life but boy did it rile me. Sometimes verisimilitude is fine for dialect coaches but not the audience. This manages to boast a sterling performance by Hiddleston in a story which tells you nothing about how this genius’ mind worked. It has no interest in portraying how he got those demons, how his mother drove his father away, how she ran her son’s life, just the external consequences and incomprehensible relationships. A musical biopic with no interest in music? How a man who couldn’t understand notation came to write some of the century’s greatest songs? No context for those significant radio shows? The wider musical landscape? His dealings with his bandmates? The beating Williams took before his strange death in his own car after being treated by a quack for his chronic alcoholism en route to a concert? Nope. That’s all folks. Hiddleston, who sings all the songs himself, and very well, is wasted. What a shame. If you knew nothing about Williams before you will know even less after this. Stick with Your Cheatin’ Heart  (1964) with George Hamilton.  Or prepare to get really irritated indeed. Adapted from the biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen by writer/director Marc Abraham.

JFK (1991)

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11/22/63. No matter where you stand on whodunnit, this adaptation of N’Oleans DA Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs’s book hits so many targets so precisely you have to just wonder in awe at Oliver Stone’s masterful cinematic achievement. The legal-conspiracy thriller reached new – and mature, true – heights with this exploration of the facts, theories, rumours and lurid stories surrounding the many oversights and strange findings of the Warren Commission. The expedient assassination of the most charismatic American President and the many malcontents who might have ordered it are explored in a series of brilliant character portraits in Stone and Zachary Sklar’s screenplay and performed by a game, talented cast. Garrison is played by Kevin Costner but there are so many great supporting actors – Joe Pesci and his wig are unforgettable as David Ferrie, Walter Matthau is great as Senator Long,  Gary Oldman is the patsy, Lee Harvey Oswald, Kevin Bacon impresses as Willie O’Keeffe. And more. So many more! I don’t know if Stone ever discussed this with Woody Harrelson, whose hitman dad was rumoured to be the shooter on the grassy knoll, and I don’t know if the second fatal shot was shockingly administered in error (maybe) by one of the agents on the car (that’s the most probable scenario, given the ammo burns, IMHO), and frankly it always seemed logical that LBJ ordered the hit, but  what do I know?! This packs a visceral punch. And it was 53 years ago today.  What a revolting anniversary to have to mark. Politics, American-style, with all those mysterious lone gunmen and Manchurian candidates. Stunning, shocking, what film is for.

French Quarter (1978)

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We love N’Oleans, cher. And we love odd films. So this curiosity from the late 70s drive-in circuit is just the ticket. Directed by Dennis Kane from his screenplay with Barney Cohen. Bereaved drifter Alisha Fontaine (a newcomer of 17 going on 35 who had done a biker flick and a drugs movie some years earlier…) turns up on the Greyhound bus and doesn’t like life as a stripper. By some voodoo trick she winds up in the same bed 100 years earlier, in a brothel. Pretty Baby X French Lieutenant’s Woman, as one wag has it, this has okay production values, narrative stretch (with a VO to keep us in the loop) and some serious strangeness. Bizarrely, the soundtrack is composed by the great Dick Hyman and there are tracks by Jelly Roll Morton (who shows up 100 years ago!!!) Virginia Mayo’s late career appearance is a welcome addition. And there’s Barry Sullivan too!  (And spot a Playboy Bunny). Was it all just an especially piquant dream?

Fear is the Key (1972)

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If you planted me on a desert island with ten movies to choose I would pick two Alistair MacLean adaptations right away – The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. The writer was amazingly prolific and gifted at adventure plots, action and character. I had only seen this particular effort dubbed into French a long time ago so welcomed the opportunity to watch en anglais. It’s the second feature by British director Michael Tuchner, who had directed Villain the previous year, a rather enervating violent heist thriller from the pens of comedy auteurs Clement and La Frenais with Al Lettieri and starring Richard Burton. This adaptation of MacLean’s 1961 novel was by Robert Carrington and it starts excitingly. Barry Newman (the early/mid 70s were a ‘moment’ for him – remember Vanishing Point?! And Petrocelli!) hears people gunned down on an airplane over a radio. Then he starts a fight in smalltown Louisiana, turns out he’s already wanted,  shoots a policeman in court and kidnaps Suzy Kendall:  it’s part of a bigger plan to retrieve a cargo …  And get revenge. Also a good MO. This isn’t the greatest thriller you’ll ever watch but it’s nicely put together, well shot, with great stunts and a very good score by Roy Budd (we like him, don’t we? The amazing Get Carter, score, born out of a minuscule budget. He died shockingly young, aged  just 46.)  What’s not to like? And it was Ben Kingsley’s one and only screen appearance before Gandhi. It also features Irish actor Ray McAnally. Newman’s next film was The Salzburg Connection, another thriller adaptation, from a book I recall fondly, this time from terrific British writer Helen MacInnes.  Tuchner went on to direct some interesting work, including an adaptation of one of my very beloved ‘tween’ novels, Summer of My German Soldier.