Little Big Man (1970)

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I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers. My name is Jack Crabb. And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, uh, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. When a curious oral historian (William Hickey) turns up to hear the life story of 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), he can scarcely believe his ears. Crabb tells of having been rescued and raised by the Cheyenne, of working as a snake-oil salesman, as a gunslinger, and as a mule skinner under General Custer (Richard Mulligan). He learned the way of the Indian and the Creation story at the foot of Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who ponders the difference between Custer and Human Beings.  He also claims to be the only white survivor of the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn but is he telling the truth or is he the biggest liar ever?… Am I still in this world? Calder Willingham’s adaptation of Thomas Berger’s novel is a superb, caustic, funny, shocking and humane saga of the West as you have never seen it before. Told in a circular structure through this self-proclaimed adopted son of Cheyenne, it debunks myths, casting an acerbic eye over the rationale of the genocides carried out by so-called American heroes and how they have previously been dramatised. Inevitably the awful violence calls up parallels with the Vietnam War. Hoffman is quite brilliant as the ridiculously old guy who claims to have been there and done that with Faye Dunaway lending terrific support.  This grand, flavourful shaggy dog epic is beautifully crafted by director Arthur Penn making it an insidiously charming, educational entertainment that is virtually a masterpiece of Seventies cinema. I was afraid it would turn out this way

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Fata Morgana (1971)

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It’s not Morgan le Fay but it could be witchcraft or sorcery of sorts. In the sense explored in Werner Herzog’s film it’s a mirage or optical phenomenon that’s observable just over the horizon with objects variously stretching or compressing. This mysterious swirling film consists of pictures of the Sahara accompanied by a narration (which is occasionally frankly nutty) spoken by critic and curator Lotte Eisner, Wolfgang Büchler and Manfred Eigendorf and songs by Leonard Cohen, Blind Faith and the Third Ear Band plus music by Handel, Mozart and Couperin. Divided into three sections – Creation, Paradise, The Golden Age (which breaks into the surreal) – it becomes rapidly apparent that this is a highly ironic disquisition on the future of mankind. If you think this good earth is Paradise – and this was shot 50 years ago mostly from a VW camper van – then you’re clearly being misled as Part III demonstrates. Herzog has said of the film that it takes place “on the planet Uxmal, which is discovered by creatures from the Andromeda nebula, who make a film report about it.” So it’s an exploration of our dying world from the perspective of science fiction. Extraordinary, visionary work from one of the great filmmakers with cinematography by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. The mythic wellspring of the Herzogian universe. Invisible is the face of the earth

Time Bandits (1981)

Time Bandits

Heroes? What do they know about doing a day’s work? Bored suburban boy Kevin (Craig Warnock) loves nothing more than stories of heroes and books about history. So he can scarcely believe it when six dwarfs emerge from his closet one night (led by Kenny Baker and David Rappaport). Former employees of the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), they’ve stolen a map charting all of the holes in the fabric of time and are using it to steal treasures from different historical eras. Taking Kevin with them, they variously drop in on Napoleon (Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese) and King Agamemnon (Sean Connery) before the Supreme Being catches up with them just as the world is being created …  Why couldn’t you leave me when I was happy? A perfectly imagined diorama of a child’s worldview of history – with heroes, myths and legends telescoped into one brilliant adventure and popping up in a mesmerising story about stories – assisted by a band of men of about his own height. Perhaps not as sharp in tooth and claw as you’d expect from Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam and co-writer Michael Palin but that makes it more endearing as a story for boys yearning to be part of something significant. The merry little men and Kevin literally drop in on the Titanic and order more ice just before they get what history dictates; get rewarded for making Napoleon feel good about his short stature; and back home there’s an amazing gameshow on TV Your Money Or Your Life which turns out to be rather toe-curlingly predictive.  Vastly fun, beguiling stuff told with just the right tone. There’s a marvellous score by Mike Moran with songs by George Harrison. That’s concentrated evil. One drop of that could turn you all into hermit crabs

 

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Big Trouble in Little China

Do you know what good ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this?  Hard-boiled truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) gets caught in a bizarre conflict within and underneath San Francisco’s Chinatown. An ancient Chinese prince and Chinatown crime lord Lo Pan (James Hong) has kidnapped a beautiful green-eyed woman Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) engaged to marry Jack’s best friend Wang Chi (Denis Dun).  It happens right before their eyes at the airport just as she sets foot on American soil. Jack must help his friend rescue her before the evil Lo Pan uses her to break the ancient curse that keeps him a fleshless and immortal spirit but has to battle old Chinese gangs, a 900-year old sage, an ancient army, sorcery and a monster in a labyrinthOnly a dream can kill a dream. John Carpenter revels in macho self-mockery, dumb heroics and Chinese tropes (or clichés) in this kung fu comedy thriller with Russell gleefully playing hard as the wisecracking bozo trucker who just has to help out his friend especially if it means getting the other girl in the picture, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) who brings to mind Hawksian heroines. W. D. Richter adapted the original 1880s-set western written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein and turns it into a rambunctious modern genre-bending martial arts fantasy with tongue set firmly in cheek, much in the style of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This doesn’t let up until the final frame – and even that promises more action! Russell is ideally cast in a role which director Carpenter described as a sidekick who thinks he’s the leading man. Great, daft fun. Take what you want and leave the rest – just like a salad bar! 

Justice League (2017)

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I guess this means the band’s not getting back together. Fuelled by his restored faith in humanity, and inspired by Superman’s (Henry Cavill) selfless act, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck and his new face) enlists newfound ally Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to face an even greater threat from Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) who’s wielding his terror on the island of Amazons led by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly-awakened enemy. Superman’s mom Martha (Diane Lane) confides in Lois Lane (Amy Adams) that the bank has foreclosed on the family farm. Despite the formation of an unprecedented league of gifted heroes including Aquaman aka Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), Cyborg aka Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) and the Flash aka Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), it may be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions… You don’t want me to live. You don’t want me to die.  If I cared about this, I’d care about this, if you know what I mean. At the heart of it is Superman’s crisis – instead we are diverted full tilt boogie by a truly gobsmackingly dumb story about Steppenwolf and his three Mother Boxes (I ask you) screwing up those ladies who mothered Wonder Woman. The effects are horrible:  this is one visually awful film. The mentoring relationship between Batman and nerdy/autistic Barry/Flash has some moments of humour (especially with Affleck’s cosmetics denying his facial mobility, complementing his line delivery) and echoes the story’s underlying mentoring/parenting theme.  Lacking faith in the original story’s thrust we have to endure some foreign family’s suffering to, you know, pack in the contemporary emotion because the West and North of the planet are full of non-English speakers flooding onto our shores from the South and East, as if we all didn’t know.  Newsflash straight from Gotham! Crime is bad! People are awful! Vengeful gods are killer! A leaner, meaner narrative could have done wonders because – how ironic – it’s the action that lets this down. Oh! The metahumanity! The screenplay is credited to Chris Terrio & Joss Whedon from a story by Terrio & director Zack Snyder.

The Magus (1968)

The Magus

We have all been cast as the traitor for one simple reason:  we have all failed to love.  Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine) takes up a position as schoolteacher on the Greek island of Phraxos where his predecessor has committed suicide. He wants to write and to escape the pressures of his relationship with Anne (Anna Karina) an emotionally complex air hostess.  He becomes obsessed with a rich old man Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn) living in a big complex on the other side of the island who draws him into his odd domestic arrangements which include beautiful American actress Lily (Candice Bergen).  As Maurice starts to play mind games with Nicholas and tells him of his alleged involvement in the deaths of more than 80 villagers during the Nazi occupation, Nicholas loses his grip on reality – he doesn’t know if Maurice is a filmmaker, a psychiatrist, a Nazi collaborator or a demonic magician. They play a dice game which inevitably signals more than its elements. He is put on trial, with everyone from Maurice’s stories and films attending… The once fiendishly famous John Fowles adapted his own novel which no self-respecting student could be seen without.  He may have fallen out of fashion but his work is entrancing and important and if this doesn’t live up to its billing that can be laid at the door of Fowles himself and director Guy Green (Caine and Bergen certainly did). However, it’s a beguiling production, one of the best looking you will ever see courtesy of DoP Billy Williams (Green himself was of course an Academy Award-winning cinematographer) and in its narrative creases you might detect a kind of text much more acknowledged these days – psychogeography, the T.S. Eliot references hint at this of course although even entry level kids can rhyme off the line, No man is an island. Of course the Magus himself is a reference to the diabolical Aleister Crowley (whose home had been in Sicily) but Quinn’s character creates a backstory based in real-life horror and a mass execution, all the while taking on the physical qualities of a latterday Picasso. Fowles himself appears as a boat captain who speaks to Nicholas.  There’s a tremendous cast – including Julian Glover, Takis Emmanuel and Paul Stassino – telling a complex story of identity, responsibility, punishment and redemption that is streamlined to its essential parts and it adds up to something utterly beautiful.  We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time

Hereditary (2018)

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All I do is worry and slave and defend you, and all I get back is that fucking face on your face! Miniaturist artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) lives with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their strange looking 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Charlie Shapiro). At the funeral of her mother, Ellen, Annie’s eulogy explains their fraught relationship. When Steve is informed that the grave has been desecrated, he keeps it secret, while Annie thinks she sees Ellen in her workshop. At a bereavement support group she reveals that, growing up, the rest of her family including Ellen suffered from mental illness. Daughter Charlie, who likes decapitating birds, sees Ellen, to whom she was especially close, several times.  Ellen’s miniatures reveal that Ellen wanted to breastfeed the girl herself.  Following a terrible accident and another family death Ellen’s difficult relationship with Peter is revealed. She is approached by support group member Joan (Ann Dowd) who persuades her to join her in trying to contact lost loved ones. When Annie attempts to do so at the house she unleashes powerful forces which she knows signify a malign connection only she can stop but her husband just thinks she’s mentally ill …  Ari Aster’s debut feature as writer/director has given Toni Collette a return to the genre that made her world famous nineteen years ago in The Sixth Sense. That was another film about failing families and strange relations and her art works have a prophetic and odd quality which pervades the film itself using the family home as a kind of dollhouse where female power is entrapped.  (Feel free to add your own theatrical metaphor).  Collette doesn’t have all the operatic colours in her performance one is led to expect (although her weird trousers assist in her levitating) considering the importance attached to Greek mythology. At its heart this is about the mother from hell, trying to protect her family from terrible self-knowledge. It could have gone in another more troubling direction. Things are left unsaid, and that’s a good confident script, but it also means certain elements are simply not clarified:  is Steve a psychiatrist? Why is Charlie’s disfigurement not mentioned?  The trail towards the mystery’s solution is cleverly laid even if it’s a particularly slow burn. This is a film which has a split identity:  on the one hand it’s a maternal melo or psychodrama, crossing generations;  on the other it’s a horror homage owing a very large debt to Rosemary’s Baby in particular and therein lieth a problem for this viewer at least. When I finally figured out the plot hook – which actually made me laugh but also made me remember to always trust my prejudices – once the quiet stuff ended about 90 minutes in, I took umbrage at the slight at Roman Polanski which is tasteless if oblique, considering the weight one attaches to certain rumours spread about him in the wake of his wife’s murder. Meta? Yes. Clever? Not especially. But the admonition to Get Out obviously calls up another satirical family horror. This one doesn’t have that film’s sociopolitical critique but it does remind us that true horror resides right there in your family if you look hard enough. Right inside the dollhouse.

The White Buffalo (1977)

The White Buffalo

Aka Hunt to Kill.  The whites have no honor. White man wants death, comes out of season.  In 1874 an ageing Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson) finds his dreams haunted by a rampaging white buffalo.  He decides the only solution is to find and kill the creature. With the help of his old friend One-Eyed Charlie (Jack Warden), he sets out across the snowy plains using the pseudonym James Otis, unaware that he’s not the only one looking for the fabled beast. Sioux Chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson) has recently lost a daughter to the white buffalo, and he fears the girl’s soul won’t rest until he kills it. Hickok briefly resumes his relationship with lover Poker Jenny (Kim Novak) and takes to the mountains to kill his quarry because he has recurrent experiences of déjà vu and believes it is his destiny … Adapted by Richard Sale from his 1975 novel, this strange western has an unsettling effect. On the one hand it uses known facts about Hickok, on the other it melds elements of Moby Dick (and the recent Jaws) into a western setting to eerie purpose.  There is some nice character work by John Carradine, Shay Duffin, Clint Walker and Stuart Whitman. Bronson is Bronson, reunited with director J. Lee Thompson after St Ives.  Oddly satisfying Freudian outing even if Larry McMurtry said that Sale had impaled himself on the mythical story. Creature work by Carlo Rambaldi.

The Dark Tower (2017)

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Darkness is your weapon, guns are mine.  Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last Gunslinger, is locked in an eternal battle with evil sorcerer Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), aka the Man in Black. The Gunslinger must prevent the Man in Black from toppling the Dark Tower, the key that holds the universe together. With the fate of worlds at stake, two men collide in the ultimate battle between good and evil. with the Man in Black using the powers of clairvoyant children to target the Tower with their minds. This takes place in Mid-World, a parallel universe to present day New York where teenaged Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is being sent to therapists because of his inability to deal with his father’s death, his new stepfather and these mythical characters from his dreams that he draws … I’m not invested in the later works of Stephen King the way I am in the classic era of his 70s and 80s output so the poor reception for this adaptation of his bestselling saga didn’t bother me. As a viewer, no matter the origins, it does bother me however. A mythical exercise, it boasts King’s usually passionate and symbolic argument this time set in a wasteland but the short running time (91 minutes) gives you a clue that they knew this was a dog with whole sub-plots reduced to shards of suggestion. Reducing an eight-volume 3,000 word story of graphic violence nodding to Tolkien, the Arthur legends and spaghetti westerns to this length for a young audience may be one explanation. Apparently Akiva Goldsman took the central section as the principal material but that doesn’t excuse the shonky CGI and silly fights.  Elba does his serious spittle-enhanced enunciating act waving guns around while McConaughey skirts the edges of camp as the evil sorcerer/disco dancer whose very words can cause instant death. An oddity that had real promise but if you ever saw The Neverending Story you’ll have seen this, pretty much and if you recall The Shining you’ll know that calling Jake’s talent The Shine really reminds us of something far better in the meta-universe.  Directed by Nikolaj Arcel with a screenplay by him, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinker and Anders Thomas Jensen.

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

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Who knows what men are really capable of?  We all wear pantomime masks.  It’s 1880 and Victorian London is gripped with fear as a serial killer is on the loose leaving cryptic messages written in the blood of his victims who appear to have no connection with each other. As the body count mounts the mystery becomes increasingly outlandish and blame falls on the mythical creature of Jewish lore – the golem. With few leads and increasing public pressure, Scotland Yard assigns the case to Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), a seasoned detective whose homosexual inclinations prevent his promotion and who suspects that he’s being set up to fail. Faced with a long list of suspects, Kildare must rely on help from a witness to stop the murders and bring the maniac to justice… Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful Victorian novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem gets a suitably OTT workout here but Jane Goldman’s adaptation misses a trick or three and doesn’t entirely sustain the plot (you’ll guess the killer very quickly). There’s a lot to like, particularly in the interplay between Nighy and Daniel Mays as Constable George Flood which is put to the forefront of this interpretation but the rivalry with Inspector Roberts (Peter Sullivan) is badly underwritten. A game cast including Douglas Booth as the legendary Leno, Eddie Marsan as Uncle, Sam Reid as failed playwright John Cree, Olivia Cooke as his wife and surprisingly literate former music hall performer Lizzie and even Paul Ritter bringing up the rear as a librarian, do a lot in a good-looking production. It’s not often Karl Marx and George Gissing are suspected of serial murders! And Nighy deepens his usual bonhomie with barely concealed emotion. However the misguided construction means that this never really comes over the way you’d expect given the powerful origins of the tale and ultimately it fails to reconcile the male and female stories in this multifaceted portrait of sex and violence.  Directed by Juan Carlos Medina.