The November Man (2014)

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Pierce Brosnan had his eye on Bill Granger’s books for a number of years and acquired the rights to There Are No Spies (the seventh in the series) long before he brought it to the screen under the umbrella of his own production company.  Roger Donaldson is the man he hired to direct this pretty grim actioner set in eastern Europe and Russia about a betrayal in the ranks that brings retired CIA agent Peter Devereux (Brosnan) out in the open to try to rescue his former lover. It ultimately involves the kidnapping of Devereux’s young daughter – whom he had by the woman who is killed off in the first twenty minutes in a violent action sequence that clarifies that nobody is taking prisoners. The fact that his former protege David Mason (Luke Bracey) is now apparently on the opposite side of right causes all sorts of moral quandaries in a story concerning double-crossing and political expediency and rivalries.  It’s all about a former Russian General now in line to become President and the refugee case worker (Olga Kurylenko) who wants to expose him for very personal reasons that go back to the second Chechen war. That and a hatchet-faced Russian hitwoman (like Gisele Bundchen before the rhinoplasty) who has a nasty habit of shooting people in the head. There’s no doubt Brosnan was a fantastic James Bond – he played him as a dark character with some terrifically droll lines – but this is a humourless outing and the post-communist world does not look like a very attractive place. Another film has been announced but it would require a much defter hand than what’s on display here.  It was adapted by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek.

Tracks (2013)

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I just want to be by myself. If you read books like The Heroine’s Journey you’ll learn that what every girl really needs at some point is some time by herself – a separation of sorts, from the noise, from the world, from the patriarchal expectations …. all that jazz. And in 1977 Australian Robyn Davidson had just about enough of all the rubbish in life and decided to trek 1,700 miles from Alice Springs via Ayers Rock and the Western Desert to the Ocean – with Diggity the dog and Dookie, Bob, Sally and Baby Goliath, four camels that she trained and befriended. The problem of financing necessitated a sponsor and that came in the form of National Geographic magazine which sent freelance photographer Rick Smolan to shoot the story and he met up with her once a month, in various states of disrepair and anguish. Mia Wasikowska has the role of her life, encountering her real self, solitude, loneliness and loss. It’s a remarkable, demanding performance in this adaptation by Marion Nelson of Davidson’s memoir, which took 25 years to get to the big screen after many false starts. Adam Driver is the unfortunate guy whose expressions of concern for his occasional travelling companion are so regularly rebuffed while the inevitable publicity brings unwelcome meetings with an inquisitive public and there’s an especially amusing incident when Robyn’s mentor Mr Eddie (Rolley Mintuma) scares them off with a presumably typical Aboriginal attitude. This is a beautifully crafted film, memorably shot and simply bewitching, with layers of meaning about personhood, the environment and the ecology of animal and human friendship. One of my favourite films of 2013. Directed by John Curran.

Wonder Boys (2000)

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Michael Chabon’s droll campus novel of dejected one hit wonder creative writing professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) gets a funny and tender adaptation from the late Curtis Hanson and writer Steve Kloves. James Leer (Tobey Maguire) is the weird and ubertalented student whose work is stupendously impressive so when agent Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr) arrives at a college event for aspiring authors he immediately transfers his affection from his transvestitite companion to this new kid on the block and a raucous weekend on and off campus ensues. At a party given by the Chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) – who happens to be Grady’s mistress – and her husband Walter (Richard Thomas) a valuable piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia is stolen,  the family dog is shot and the body hidden in a trunk, and tension rattles when Sara reveals she’s pregnant by Grady, whose wife has taken off to her parents’. Grady thinks James is a suicide risk so keeps him with him – along with the dead dog. It eventually dawns on him that James is a compulsive liar and a total liability. His fellow student Hannah (Katie Holmes) has a thing for Grady but he’s not into her which makes life at his house tricky – she’s renting a room there. Walter sends the police for James when he figures where the MM goods have gone. What happens to Grady’s new book manuscript and the car is just cringeworthy … This is so great in every department – the very texture of the emotions is in every gesture and expression, something that occurs when writing, performance and staging are in perfect sync. Hilarious, compassionate and endlessly watchable. And for anyone looking to complete their picture collection of Michael Douglas’ abject masculinity on film, there’s the image of him standing on the porch in a woman’s dressing gown – something to knock that Basic Instinct v-neck into a cocked hat. Cherishable.

Nightcrawler (2014)

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What a character Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is – petty thief turned news stringer, a hollowed out husk of a ghoul, shooting pictures of the grisliest crime scenes in LA, an autodidact with a taste for death trying to impress a news director (Rene Russo) on the vampire shift competing with all the other TV outlets in the area. This modern day Taxi Driver goes even further in Dan Gilroy’s screenplay, providing a window into the colluding audience’s bloodlust for murder and suffering. The scene-setting is extraordinary, the performances utterly committed and brilliant. Compelling, horrible, wonderful and probably a modern classic.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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How can you tell what’s a glitch and what’s me? In the near future Major (Scarlett Johansson) is a human enhanced with a cybernetic physique who’s been engineered to take on violent criminals. Rescued from a sinking boat that drowned her parents, she’s experiencing strange thoughts she cannot decipher. Meanwhile a terror group is attacking what appears to be the science project (2571) that created her in the first place – and she suspects her true origins are not what she’s been told. Partnered with a proper human, Pilou Asbaek from TV’s Borgen (aka Boring chez moi), she’s working for legendary Takeshi Kitano and appealing to the better instincts of the scientist (Juliette Binoche) who created her when things get rough. Then she meets the guy behind all the attacks and those memories or glitches remind her of something else than the past she’s been programmed with. Now she has to choose what side she belongs on. This is a perfectly judged adaptation (and remake) of an iconic manga/anime by Shirow Masamune, adapted by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger (haven’t heard from him in a while – welcome back). It’s reminiscent of a lot of other films – principally (and happily) Blade Runner – yet it’s done with a lightness of touch that escapes a lot of other future-genre cyborg outings. ScarJo is tremendous in the lead as the woman whose humanity overpowers the machine and seeks her origins. It plays perfectly into her star text, from her casting (we all know she’s Natasha in that comic book franchise) to that telling shot of her lying on her side in her panties in a Japanese skyscraper (remember the star-making shot in Lost in Translation?); while her pulchritude is aggressively put out there not just in her movement – barreling about, arms akimbo – but in that genital-free nudie action outfit as she powers through the air. It’s great to see Michael Pitt (billed as Michael Carmen Pitt) as her male Other or predecessor and the weirdly romantic way in which they look at each other and themselves as different evolutionary iterations of their selves in a world overwhelmed by technology companies, scientists interfering in conception (three parents, anyone?!) and where privacy is a thing of the past (sound familiar?). Whose memories does she experience? Rupert Sanders knows just how to stage this – there’s no excess, it’s just enough of everything and the science even works.  There are a lot of small things to appreciate in addition to the sweeping concept – the wonderfully 90s costuming by Kurt and Bart (I think I own one of those coats), the sweet way the animals are treated that’s so typical of anime and the mournful score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe. It’s also a great exercise in existential dread and marvellously free of the built-in snark that has come to distinguish most American live action comix of late. If it reminds me of anything else it’s Total Recall with Der Arnold’s line, If I’m not me den who de hell am I?! And what’s better than that? Great stuff.

Happy Birthday Roger Corman! 04/05/2017

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Aside from being a great opportunity to look at 50 years of wonderful poster art and titles to die for, today is trash-horror-exploitation maestro Roger Corman’s 91st birthday. The legendary Pope of Pop Cinema started life as an engineer but lasted just 4 days in the job. After a spell studying literature and reading scripts for Hollywood studios he got into the whole filmmaking thang himself and created a company that eventually served as a film school for some of the most notable directors in American cinema, from Francis Ford Coppola to Martin Scorsese, Stephanie Rothman to Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich to Penelope Spheeris. The most acclaimed of his work is the Edgar Allan Poe series, adapted by top-class scenarists like Richard Matheson and Robert Towne. His own best work as director (The Intruder) was so controversial he steered clear of such subject matter (racism) again and passion projects like Von Richthofen and Brown aka The Red Baron eventually gave way to serial producing:  his last directorial effort was a quarter of a century ago (Frankenstein Unbound). He audited acting classes with blacklistee Jeff Corey to understand performance and meet talent – which is how Jack Nicholson got his break in Cry Baby Killer and Robert Towne started writing screenplays. What I love about his early work is the way the women come to the fore:  June Kenney, Fay Spain, Beverly Garland and Susan Cabot are some of my favourite ladies and some of his alumni like Paul Bartel, Ron Howard and Demme have called upon him to act in small character parts in their mainstream successes. I once presented him with a project on biker movies and it was returned to me with the dry comment ‘Very accurate.’  High praise indeed! A scattering of my own fave raves from this renaissance man would include Gunslinger, Sorority Girl, A Bucket of Blood, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Wild Angels and Cockfighter. So much choice! Happy Birthday Mr Corman!

London Town (2016)

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This is a strange one – a coming of age story set against a few songs and performances by The Clash and a couple of run-ins with the iconic singer/guitarist Joe Strummer, a man who inhabited several different musical incarnations but whose major persona was forged in the late Seventies against a maelstrom of sociocultural chaos. Shay (Daniel Huttlestone) is from a broken family with dad Dougray Scott running a music shop and driving a taxi by night to support him and his little sister. Mum Natascha McElhone has run off to live in a squat with Tom Hughes and some other handsome alternatives to find herself on the punk scene. Shay meets Vivienne (Nell Williams) a cool punkette scenester who introduces him to The Clash but when his dad has an accident moving a piano which hospitalises him, Shay has to man up, run the house and the gauntlet of debt collectors. With Vivienne’s help he drags up to take over his dad’s taxi runs and takes Joe Strummer (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) home one night.  Strummer serves as a kind of Jiminy Cricket or even Humphrey Bogart a la Play it Again, Sam but there is no real reason for him to be in this story and the conclusion is unbelievably low-key considering the potential in a narrative which sees real-life footage of an Anti-Nazi concert, with Rhys Meyers doing his trademark immersive performance (he’s already portrayed Bowie and Elvis with some success). Directed by Derrick Borte from a screenplay by Matt Brown. London was definitely not calling this one with neither story strand properly developed. The only real attraction is to hear The Clash originals and some of their songs reworked (even anachronistically). How odd.

Moonlight (2016)

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What’s a faggot? This sensuous journey through three chapters of a black man’s life won the Academy Award for Best Picture and its experimental nature, its subject and its lack of narrative sense all make that a problematic and strange choice. It’s a fairytale without a happy ending – a story about gay sex that avoids showing it directly. Director Barry Jenkins, a Florida SU film graduate, adapted it from an unproduced and very visual play written for a  drama programme, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney which used several voices back and forth to tell a story of a gay boy in Liberty City, one of Miami’s projects. It wasn’t dramatised because it didn’t really work for the stage, structured with three different guys of different ages playing the same character in the course of a day. It was apparently very unclear. When Jenkins found it, he changed it and it now tells the story of Chiron, the son of a junkie single mom Paula (Naomie Harris, who is superb) at three different stages of his life in three separate stories. The first 37-minute chapter (Little) is about him as a young boy (played by the very striking Alex R. Hibbert) getting solace from visits with Juan (Mahershala Ali) a drugs dealer, and his girlfriend (Janelle Monae). Their father-son friendship is sundered when he realises Juan is selling his mom crack. As a teenager (Chiron) he’s a sullen withdrawn kid (now played by a very different looking Ashton Sanders) terrorised in high school, bullied daily for being gay and he takes a public beating directed by the nattily dreadlocked Terrel (Patrick Decile) but carried out by Kevin (Jaden Piner) who’s had sex with him on the beach.  He’s taken away by police. In the final forty-minute episode (Black) we’re introduced in Atlanta to a garish grill-wearing earring-bedecked drug dealer – and it’s him, now played by Trevante Rhodes. He looks like a powerful guy with a bodacious workout ethic but when he takes a call of apology from Kevin (Andre Holland), a decade after the violence, it starts him on a different path. He visits Paula in a drug rehab centre where she’s become institutionalized and she finally seems to comprehend what her lifestyle drove him to do. We follow him back to Miami to the restaurant where Kevin works as a short order cook following a spell in prison. It’s shot superbly but with the art-house touches of a student film – and the shots singling out the adult Kevin lead us to believe we are in black Warhol territory and something major is going to happen. (Do you really think that’s smoke?! Someone remembered Blow Job!)  He doesn’t know why Black is here – but the camera tells us as it sensually caresses Black’s face:  Black practically has an orgasm watching Kevin and the cinematography has us primed for mano-a-mano action. (The shots are separated by several minutes but the intent is clear.) But Kevin has a kid with a girl they knew at high school and he’s on probation after a spell in prison: Kevin is not gay. Their reunion over a few bottles of wine (Chiron doesn’t drink) makes us realise that Black is a hollowed-out man and his confession to Kevin, who introduced him to the phenomenon of physical love, is – eventually – deeply touching.”This is not you,” Kevin tells Black.  So nothing happens. With all those pretty boys! Talk about leading a person on! Naomie Harris is the acting heart of the film primarily because aside from a fine performance as the strung out mom, she appears in all three chapters which are otherwise quite disconnected and Little/Chiron/Black is basically mute. So much of the story’s emotion depends on the heightened expressivity of the actors in the final section and Rhodes and Holland are just breathtaking in their physicality. James Laxton’s camera just loves Rhodes (and Holland too, to be entirely fair…) Black actors often suffer visually because of the lighting issues with skin tone but here they used an Arri Alexa digital camera and worked on the colorising with great attention to detail to achieve a different kind of texture in each chapter. There is however a narrative disconnect between the three sections not helped by the totally different actors with Harris the only source of continuity. (Jenkins and McCraney grew up in neighbouring projects with junkie mothers so there is a hint of autobiography in the story.) And yet despite its major shortcomings it’s oddly memorable. Some readings of this suggest that it’s a story of a boy who finds support from his community. Golly. The community bullied him senseless for being gay and he became a sexy virginal shell of a man who puts people in fear for not buying his supply. This is all foreplay and no … well I told you already. All mouth and no trousers, as it were. Talk about a p***ktease.  Next year:  #OscarsNotRemotelyGayEnough. Watch this space!

The Firm (1993)

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Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) is the hotshot Harvard grad hired by Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an established law firm run by Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) but he soon discovers that beneath the outward trappings of success there’s a very dark side and a price to be paid for that nice car and condo (well, they’re lawyers, whatcha expect but corruption?). When Mitch travels to the Caymans to hide client funds, he’s seduced by a woman on the beach – and the resulting photos compromise his marriage (to Jeanne Tripplehorn) and he’s now under the cosh to do as he’s told because as he finds out previous associates were murdered when they uncovered the firm’s mafia tax fraud. He’s approached by the FBI to wear a wire … There are tremendous performances here in this super-efficiently told thriller, especially by Holly Hunter who has a whale of a time as Gary Busey’s secretary/ lover – he’s the private eye who shared a prison cell with Mitch’s brother, whose existence made Mitch vulnerable to exploitation. The John Grisham thriller was originally adapted by David Rayfiel who had been working with director Sydney Pollack since the mid-Sixties however a major rewrite and restructuring (and removal of some) of the book’s elements by Robert Towne made it a far pacier piece of work.  (There was a draft by David Rabe but Towne supposedly never saw it.) It’s a fantastically suspenseful entertainment, with a great performance by Cruise and he is matched by the peerless Hackman. You can read more about all of this in my book ChinaTowne in the chapter detailing Towne’s collaborations with superstar Cruise:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1489868389&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

Another Day in Paradise (1998)

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Another controversial work from auteur Larry Clark, this is a 1970s-set tale of junkies whose crime spree goes horribly wrong. Young Vincent Kartheiser (unrecognisable as Mad Men‘s weaselly Pete) carries out a disastrous vending machine robbery and girlfriend Natasha Gregson Wagner gets his mentor and friend James Woods to help fix up his injuries. Woods trains him in safe-cracking and they all go on the road with his girlfriend Melanie Griffiths and get embroiled in a series of terrible robberies which wind up with death and destruction all around them. Woods and Griffiths are re-teamed for the third time and work well in this febrile situation even if her wig sometimes outacts him. Kartheiser and Wagner do okay in this sordid story with full-frontal sex scenes but it’s the bizarre and uncredited (why?!) performance by Lou Diamond Phillips as a bejewelled feminised gay co-conspirator that fascinates. Adapted from Eddie Little’s novel (allegedly plagiarised by James Frey…) by Stephen Chin and Christopher B. Landon. A very alternative, nasty road movie. Not for all tastes, as they say.