Detroit (2017)

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I’m still so 1997 I thought Kathryn Bigelow was making a film about Kent State, which I at least knew about. Instead, it appears she and writer Mark Boal teamed up again to make another political film, this time about the race riots in Detroit in July 1967 and an incident of astonishing police brutality in the Algiers Motel during which three innocent black men were murdered and a handful more were beaten to a pulp. Adapted from witness testimony, this isn’t quite biographical but attempts to be factual and realistic. When the police break up a party for returning Nam vets in an illegal after-hours venue the black community responds by firing at them, looting stores and rioting leading to a city-wide curfew. You gotta agree with the councillor who asks an assembled crowd why they feel compelled to burn down their own property. And therein lieth the problem, at least at the beginning. This is a most unreasonable riot. Out of context. Then a bunch of cracker cops led by Krauss (Will Poulter) open fire on looters and he chases one, shooting him in the back. Back at the PD, they can’t decide to prefer murder charges against him so he and his compadres Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor, looking particularly gormless, like Dougal in Father Ted) are let back on the streets where the Army and the National Guard are swarming, taking potshots at perceived sniper fire. Dismukes (John Boyega) is security at a grocery store and when he saves a black kid from the Army he earns the title Uncle Tom.  A new band in town The Dramatics are about to go onstage when their showcase is shut down and one of them, Larry (Algee Smith) takes refuge at the Algiers with Fred (Jacob Latimore) where they befriend two white girls hanging out at the pool. One of the girls’ black friends Carl (Jason Mitchell) is also holed up at the motel’s annex and he fires a starter pistol.  It brings the cracker cops down on them with Dismukes attending the scene to try to prevent any violence but Krauss has already shot Carl in the back . Their interrogation technique involves pretending to shoot the men one by one as they separate them from the group in an attempt to get them to reveal the whereabouts of the non-existent rifle and a soldier Dismukes brought coffee joins in the party … This is more impressive the longer it goes on, but it does go on. And on.  It starts problematically and the characterisation is in many ways too on-the-nose if not stereotypical but the revelation of systemic corruption, the decision of the eventual trial jury (it all seems like a preview of coming OJ attractions in reverse) and the racism inherent in society so overwhelming that even without knowing the conclusion (included in a text over real-life photographs) we figure it out for ourselves,  is finally wearying. The persona of Dismukes seems deployed to present a good – if stupid – black man:  he’s predictably identified as a perpetrator for the police in a lineup despite having protected the white girl in question. Maybe it’s true but it doesn’t ring right for this dramatic purpose. The overlength (and underwritten) sequence of mind-numbing violence in the annex doesn’t help. It feels like it’s straight out of a seventies exploitationer, particularly in the shots of Flynn, sweating out his hatred before applying the butt of his gun to another black man’s head. Perhaps it’s a story that needed to be told but it’s unbalanced. There simply isn’t enough drama to portray a story of innocent people caught up in something that – as presented here – was woefully avoidable in a context that is under-explained. This is a failure of screenwriting, with the lingering suspicion that a true depiction of a police conspiracy, social destruction and legal corruption was literally beyond the pale. What a pity.

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American Honey (2016)

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I feel like fucking America! Whether you like this will depend on a) your tolerance for drug-addled amoral teenagers whose greatest ambition is to get knocked up and live in a trailer and if b) you don’t mind losing 157 minutes of your precious life to an almost pointless unendurable movie. Strange newcomer Sasha Lane is Star, a black girl from a dysfunctional and abusive background who falls for the spiel of magazine crew guy Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and joins this rag-tag band of scuzzy losers as they run around house to house in middle America, selling subscriptions and led by she-wolf leader Krystal (Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter). Star has sex with Jake after he steals a car owned by some well-heeled cowboys who rescue her from his abuse on the roadside – and this is after she sees him rubbing down Krystal’s shapely rear in a stars and stripes bikini. This being a movie, people act a lot like life – incoherently and inconsistently. When he takes the money she makes and drops her, she still wants him. She makes more money from giving an oil rig worker a handjob:  and he’s vile enough to criticise her. She still wants him. Krystal tells Star that she was handpicked by Jake and he fucks all the new girls – it’s his job. At the end, when there’s another apparently symbolic sequence with an animal – the only sign that there might be in this three-hour slog any indication of narrative rigour – you pray for her suicide:  or your own. What seems like artlessness is actually faux realist laziness. Were there NO editors available?? And for a movie that styles itself as a musical with all the group singalongs there’s extremely dodgy sound mixing.  I’m not arguing that the meth-taking underclass needs culling but they do exist and I’m hopeful that they don’t all listen to (c)rap. See Spring Breakers for a far more controlled (and much shorter) exposition of American youth. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who was inspired by a New York Times article.

Hell or High Water (2016)

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Call it white man’s intuition.  Taylor (Sicario) Sheridan writes a great screenplay so this was bound to be thrilling one way or another. Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers carrying out bank heists in west Texas to retrieve the family land, in foreclosure by the local bank two weeks after their Mom’s death. Tanner’s not long out of prison, Toby is divorced and wanting to do right by his sons:  he’s found oil on the property so he knows it’s crucial to get the ownership in order and there’s no way out now he’s lost his job and is behind in child support. Tanner carries out a third robbery after Toby is befriended by a waitress in a nearby diner and it’s the first bank to have CCTV that works. Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) who’s mere weeks from retirement gets the bit between his teeth and decides to take them down if he can figure out who they are by a simple method of deduction as the brothers rob the remaining banks in the chain – to repay the same bank  … Crafty, wise, mordantly funny and unbearably tense, this has two parallel male friendships – Marcus’s partner Indian-Mexican Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is the target of his ongoing race jokes –  winding around each other like DNA. This contemporary western has a great socio-political background (mass repossessions after the 2008 crash) and a wonderful setting:  look at those empty roads and desert and big skies. All four are convincing in their acutely interesting roles, everyone with something to lose and clearly defined by both action and dialogue. It reminds me of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, another outing with Bridges but with him on the other side of the law four decades later. It asks questions about right and wrong and family and friendship and being a western it must have a logical conclusion – with a shootout. And then some. Brilliantly balanced storytelling that’s really well directed by David (Starred Up) Mackenzie, a Brit who clearly relished being let loose in all that big scenery.

Cafe Society (2016)

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Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood straight outta the Bronx  c.1935 to work with his movie agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and falls for his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Everything looks beautiful, bathed in magic moment sunshine and swoony evening light and people talk about Irene Dunne and Willie Wyler but it turns out Vonnie is Phil’s mistress and he leaves his wife to marry her leaving Bobby brokenhearted and back in his beloved Bronx working front of house for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in a glamorous nightclub. He marries divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively) whom he promptly rechristens Vonnie. She has a baby and her time is taken up caring for her. Then Phil and Vonnie visit while passing through NYC and a romance of sorts recommences but as Bobby realises, Vonnie (this Vonnie) is now his aunt … This is a film of two halves, which do not mesh.  The leads are in their third film together but Stewart is much too modern to play her role, Eisenberg is quite weird – that hunched-shouldered look doth not a schlub make – and the good performances are in supporting roles:  Jeannie Berlin and particularly Ken Stott as the Dorfman parents, Stoll, who is literally criminally underused and Stephen Kunken as the brother in law who inadvertently causes Bobby’s sister Evelyn to have Ben murder their neighbour. Despite the episodes of violence, the talk about what is reality and what is cinema, and the central idea about marriage and what people do to keep relationships going despite clear incompatibility – and there’s a strange (self-?) reference to a man with a teenaged mistress… – this just doesn’t work. The faraway looks in the leads’ eyes at the unsatisfying and inconclusive climax, a country apart, merely highlight the vacuum at the story’s centre. Minor Allen to be sure. It looks great though, so thank you Vittorio Storaro.

Sideways (2004)

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Pinot’s a very thin-skinned grape, it doesn’t like light or humidity. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a wine-loving high school English teacher and wannabe author whose best friend actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is getting married next Saturday:  road trip! To California wine country, where he can educate Jack in the mysteries of tasting. Two middle aged men on an emotional journey, one a depressive mourning his marriage, the other a past-it who can’t wait to get it up. Maya (Virginia Madsen) is the college professor’s wife waiting tables who has the best palate for wine of any woman Miles has ever met and Jack fancies her smartass friend and single mom Stephanie (Sandra Oh). There ensue some funny sexcapades (Jack), sad drunk dials (Miles), terror on the golf course and major education in oenology:  sometimes all it takes is the feel of a bunch of grapes in the hand to get the mojo going and a bottle of wine can bring anyone back to life. The marvellous Maya turns out to be the woman who coaxes Miles to his truest expression. Funny, louche, and humane with killer lines and tone-perfect performances from all concerned. Beautifully written, staged and shot, this is the comical male midlife response to Thelma and Louise, minus the violence and police. Mature, full-bodied and earthy, it simply gets better every year. From Rex Pickett’s unpublished novel, adapted by Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne. Savour it.

The Two Jakes (1990)

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We’re approaching Jack Nicholson’s landmark 80th birthday and he’s not very far from our minds anyhow, is he? Nobody dislikes this guy, a Seventies superstar whose offscreen life never threatened his essential abilities to act better than most anyone else. Two Jakes is the continuing story of Jake Gittes whom Nicholson inhabited so memorably in the classic Chinatown, a mythos of Los Angeles created by Robert Towne as part homage, part interrogation of that great city and its wobbly foundations. Now it’s post-WW2 and Gittes is hired by another Jake, Berman (Harvey Keitel) to do a routine matrimonial job. Gittes leads Berman to his wife’s lover, whom he murders. He’s Berman’s business partner. We return to the world of deceit and conspiracy that characterises film noir, albeit we are in living colour with a fabulously feline Madeleine Stowe as a very fatale femme.  It isn’t always a success and while the voiceover narration is true to the style it’s not always satisfying in a plot which might have been tightened a tad had screenwriter Robert Towne been around to finish it, an issue that caused trouble for Nicholson, who directed this outing. However there’s a lot to savour – it looks amazing and there’s a flavoursome soundtrack by Van Dyke Parks. It makes me wish we could finally have the last part of Towne’s projected LA trilogy. For more on this see my book about Robert Towne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1492610518&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

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The one with the chicken salad scene. Jack Nicholson was on the verge of becoming one of the most famous actors in the world with this portrait of alienation which just floored contemporary audiences. There had simply never been a character like Bobby ‘Eroica’ Dupea. He was the creature of writer Carole Eastman, writing under the nom de plume Adrien Joyce, albeit co-star Susan Anspach claimed that Nicholson made up stuff on the hoof and deserved credit. Bob Rafelson the director and co-writer was already a name from The Monkees but this was really a high point of New Hollywood – a departure and an arrival, with behavioural observation the strong point of a narrative that sees wildcatter Bobby shacked up with Tammy Wynette devotee waitress Rayette (Karen Black) and screwing around with his friend Elton (Billy ‘Green’ Bush). When he expresses his contempt for Elton (a ‘cracker asshole’) we get the first intimation that Bobby may not be like him: in fact he’s the estranged son of a family of gifted musicians and he himself is a former musical prodigy who has literally abandoned his talent. When Elton tells him Rayette is pregnant then Elton is arrested for robbing a gas station, Bobby takes off to LA to see his sister Partita (Lois Smith) a pianist who’s recording an album. She tells him their father is gravely ill. He takes off – regretfully – with a suicidal Rayette and leaves her at a motel while he broaches a difficult family reunion at Puget Sound including  violinist brother Carl Fidelio (Ralph Waite) whose pianist fiancee Catherine (Anspach) he beds. The final scene with his unresponsive father is hopelessly moving and the movie’s final shot when he hitches a ride on a truck away from a gas station and his car and his jacket and Rayette (who has turned up and embarrassed him en famille) … seems endless. Nicholson is allowed show all his colours here and it’s a transcendentally emotional and funny performance in a complex character study – the restaurant scene with the awful hitch hikers is a highlight, the wild sex with a pick-up another, and Nicholson’s tears are terrible to witness. He doesn’t know himself at all. This is a standout film from an era devoid of hope and this seems to encapsulate its anomie and capture it entirely. Luminously shot by Laszlo Kovacs, those burnished skies feel like the aspirations of a generation. Nicholson was officially a superstar.

The Last Detail (1973)

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I am the motherfucking shore patrol! Jack Nicholson was one of the biggest stars of the 70s after Easy Rider and this adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s terrific novel is one of the key buddy movies of the period. Nicholson plays Billy ‘Badass’ Buddusky, Signalman First Class who’s awaiting orders at Norfolk naval base with Richard ‘Mule’ Mulhall (Otis Young) when they are directed to escort young Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to prison in Maine in the depths of winter.  He tried to steal $40 from a charity collection box – and the problem is it’s a favourite of his commanding officer’s wife so he’s got eight years for his efforts.  They set out on a Bon Voyage tour of the north east, getting into all sorts of scrapes and seeing the virginal Larry’s miserable home in Philadelphia en route.  Screenwriter Robert Towne, working for the first (but not the last) time with director Hal Ashby radically altered Ponicsan’s Camus-loving protagonist with his beyond-beautiful wife and recast him as a more ultimately compromised man, adding him to the gallery of unformed underachievers that populates his screenplays:  J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, George Roundy in Shampoo, Mac in Tequila Sunrise.  All of these men are compromised in their need for the means to survive. Of these characters, it could be said that Buddusky (certainly in Towne’s interpretation of the original character as conceived by Ponicsan) is actually the least tragic (he does not succumb to the fate administered in Ponicsan’s novel, thereby rendering the title meaningless!), the most pragmatic – and the most well-adjusted. Towne’s interpretation of Buddusky aligns him in the vanguard of New Hollywood in its politicised, anti-authoritarian heyday.  While his work on the film was undoubtedly influenced by his producer (Gerald Ayres) and director (particularly, it seems, by Ashby), he wrote it with Nicholson in mind and it copperfastened his position as upcoming screenwriter in the early Seventies.  Nicholson’s casting also helped get the film made – the original draft screenplay had ‘342 fucks.’ (There were 65 in the final release.) However Towne had also envisioned the film being cast with Rupert Crosse who died before it got the greenlight so the spotlight of the film now shifted more completely to Nicholson, and the script’s emphasis was therefore changed: Nicholson simply did not have the same kind of relationship with Otis Young, Crosse’s replacement. It was now truly a star vehicle. Meadows was played by Texan newcomer Randy Quaid, who towered over Nicholson, lending even more comedy to the situation. (John Travolta made it to the last two but it was Quaid’s height which lent his character even more poignancy.) It took Nicholson’s winning the Best Actor award at Cannes to get Columbia to finally release the film which was a long time in the editing room. Nicholson still regards it as his best role – Chinatown notwithstanding! Ribald, profane, oddly touching and screamingly funny, this is a tonally perfect comic drama and one you won’t forget in a hurry. For more on it and the significance of Nicholson’s work with his greatest collaborator, screenwriter Robert Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489670058&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Get a Job (2016)

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College grad Miles Teller has a job in video production lined up at LA Weekly – until he doesn’t cos they’re downsizing even after he interned for them for free two straight summers. Girlfriend Anna Kendrick has a responsible well-paying position – until she gets fired, and winds up living with him and his drug buddies. Meanwhile Teller’s dad Bryan Cranston loses his job and has to put his positive thinking into job hunting. Teller gets a job making in-your-face employment ads for men just like him.  Roomie Christopher Mintz-Plasse is developing an iStalkU app which culminates in a toilet debacle. This sat on the shelf for four years and if it tries hard to be a witty comment on snowflakes/millennials it has to rise above some nasty casting (who likes these people?!) and no real character development, just a series of comic misadventures and some payback against nasty boss Marcia Gay Harden but no true resolution. Written by Kyle Pennekamp and Scott Turpel, directed by Dylan Kidd.

 

Psycho (1998)

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The Hitchcock film is so ingrained in the collective psyche it was some kind of madness to remake it shot for shot (almost – there are some surreal inserts.) When Gus Van Sant’s name was attached it didn’t even make lunatic sense. Nor the fact that some cast members (I mean you, Anne Heche) didn’t even seem to know the original. The cinematographer (Chris Doyle) didn’t even understand the point of some shots, it appears. If you can get past the fact that this is sacrilege; that paradoxically Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, the keeper of her father’s flame, approved it; and that huge dead-eyed Vince Vaughn was selected to play the delicate bird-like Norman Bates (okay, Vaughn is truer to Bloch’s image, but who but the indelible Anthony Perkins is Norman?!), this can be viewed as an interesting homage to the most important film in (some people’s) living memory. It is about identity and its negation;  the camera articulates vision and perception (just look! A crane shot introduces Marion Crane! And the final shot of her eye is the single most important image in cinema); and Anne Heche’s underwear is kinda wonderful – the whole first section of the film is all about the colour orange. It’s about a man in a dress pretending to be his dead mother, whose rotting corpse is in the fruit cellar. The original film was censor-bait – when Janet Leigh flushed her calculations down the toilet censorship was literally flushed away in American cinema: that doesn’t even register nowadays. It is a reverie about a kingdom of death, as Donald Spoto has it. Joseph Stefano’s screenplay (he had a lot of help from Mrs Hitchcock) is shot word for word;  and Bernard Herrmann’s score is reworked by Danny Elfman. So this is an empty act of nostalgia and avant-gardism inasmuch as it is doing a Warhol to something that effectively belongs to everyone. But it is Hitchcock. Not to be reproduced. Like I said, sacrilege.