Death Defying Acts (2007)

Death Defying Acts.jpg

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?

 

Advertisements

The Company You Keep (2012)

The Company You Keep.jpg

We all died. Some of us came back. Decades after an ill-fated robbery in which an innocent man was killed, a former member of the Weather Underground Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is on her way to turn herself in to authorities when the FBI arrest her at a gas station after her phone is tapped. While covering the story and digging around, reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) discovers that recently widowed human rights lawyer Jim Grant (Robert Redford) was also a member of that particular group and is really a man called Nick Sloan since the real Jim Grant died in 1979. Sloan slips by the FBI led by Cornelius (Terrence Howard) who are following him when he goes on the run, from Albany through the Midwest and beyond, hoping to track down his former lover, Mimi (Julie Christie), who’s still underground and fighting for the cause. He leaves his young daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho) with his doctor brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) and his wife. Meanwhile, Ben encounters a police officer Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson) who knew Nick back in the day and meets his his adult daughter Rebecca (Britt Marling) who is a lot older than she initially seems and Ben figures she is somehow connected to Mimi and Nick ... Everybody knew somebody who was going over or somebody who wasn’t coming back.  Adapted by Lem Dobbs from the titular 2003 novel by Neil Gordon, Robert Redford directed and produced this film which of course nods to that period in his own life when he was politically attuned and making films which spoke to the zeitgeist. Partly it’s about the state of journalism and Ben’s role of the ambitious journo who isn’t looking beyond the headlines, as Nick/Jim declares to him, Well that pretty much sums up why journalism is dead. It’s a pivotal statement because this is all about ethics – Sharon’s self-justifying, his hiding away, the times in which people live and endure their families being destroyed by violence, homegrown or otherwise (and millennial corruption is everywhere evident as Ben gets information with the passing of greenbacks to everyone he encounters). LaBeouf is good as the questing young writer – and looking at his screen career perhaps it’s the company he keeps that improves his impact because he’s surrounded by a great ensemble doing very fine work, including Nick Nolte who shows up as another member of the group. This is a serious work about a complex time which clarifies why historical crimes demand more than cursory payback and jail time. It’s well-paced, a drama of conscience, guilt and retribution. Now that’s context. They did unforgivable things but you’ve got to admire the commitment.

 

 

In Fabric (2018)

In Fabric.jpg

You who wear this dress will know me.  Lonely divorcee Shelia  Woodchapel (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) visits a bewitching London department store boasting a strange saleswoman Jill (Sidse Babett Knudsen) to find a dress to transform her life. She finds a perfect, artery-red gown that unleashes a malevolent, unstoppable curse that gives her a rash, destroys her washing machine and eventually kills her. Then it’s bought in a charity shop by a bunch of lads who force washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) to wear it on his stag do. His fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires) likes the look of it for herself and the dress continues to wreak havoc … What I’d give to know what goes on in a man’s mind. Ever been in a shop where you thought there was a very weird atmosphere and the staff were obnoxious (Armani on the Via Condotti, if you must know) and were persuaded to buy something by sheer sales power and a particularly attractive retro catalogue circa 1974 that made you look smaller? That’s the territory explored here in a spliced-genre effort that blends Ballardian dystopic suburban ‘mares with freakoid Eastern European women out of Argento land who have got something much more sinister going on than those white stockings that lead to something unspeakable.  The doors you passed through are doors in perpetual revolve is just one of the doomy ungrammatical clichés uttered by the ghastly blood-lusting Jill with her Transylvanian shtick. With a soundtrack by the Cavern of Anti-Matter (Tim Gane), musician Barry Adamson as Sheila’s decent boyfriend and Gwendoline Christie as the shagtastic muse of Sheila’s teenage son (that’s one way to swot for your A Levels), auteur Peter Strickland is in even firmer cult territory than before:  sex and shopping abound in this satire on consumerism, with a most peculiar mutual masturbation scene which involves a mannequin and there’s some deliriously banal repairman speak that gives Julian Barratt an orgasm. Even more bananas fetishism than usual from one of the most fascinating of British auteurs with not so much a twist, rather a twisted, ending. As ever, Strickland reveals the utterly weird and disturbing in the mundane. Executive produced by Ben Wheatley.  One of your neighbours reported you

The Front Runner (2018)

The Front Runner.jpg

Now they know who we are.  It’s 1987. Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) former senator of Colorado and one-time campaign manager for McGovern, becomes the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hart’s intelligence, alleged charisma and idealism make him popular with young voters, leaving a seemingly clear path to the White House with a strong team led by Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons). All that comes crashing down when allegations of an extramarital affair with a woman called Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) surface in the media after he’s goaded journalists to follow him in an interview with Washington Post reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), forcing the candidate to address a scandal that threatens to derail his campaign and personal life: his guarded wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) has stood by him but when the TV cameras fetch up at their house and their daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) is followed there’s some hard talking in public and in private ... I did all the things I was supposed to do to make that men wouldn’t look at me the way you’re looking at me right now. It was a great story and it ran for three weeks way back then. The good looking Democrat with great hair taunted journos to come looking for trouble and they did and they found it and the philandering politico was found on a boat called Monkey Business with a young woman who was then hung out to dry by the very people who said they’d protect her. Sound familiar? The coarsening of politics began right there, in the pages of the tabloids who found the idea of a Presidential contender openly carrying on an adulterous affair irresistible:  these are the kind of guys who sniggered about JFK’s women and let him away with everything – until he was murdered and it was open season on his legacy. Jason Reitman’s film is a serious look at an issue that has just got worse over the years (with rather paradoxical outcomes, considering the state of state surveillance and paparazzi and the interweb as we know) but it’s loud and busy for the first 45 minutes and hard to hear and hard to follow.  Only then does it settle, away from the hubbub of campaign offices and the rustle of burger lunches to focus on the man at the centre of the story who disproves his team’s views about what he should be doing – turns out he’s darn good at ax throwing. Trouble is, he’s not that interesting. Why on earth would he be a good President? He could win it – he’s got the hair. The superficial elements of campaigning are all over this (one advisor suggests that if Dukakis added a K to his name he’d take the South). The philosophical argument here which Hart is given in dialogue is that the public don’t care and he should have his privacy – and the public wouldn’t care if the journalists didn’t and Hart had never thrown down the gauntlet to them. That’s the point. So the story isn’t about a man carrying on behind the back of his wife or how Democrats are always found out in the same tedious way, it’s about grubby low journalistic standards and the free press and the dangers that poses to true political expression:  this in itself is a very conflicted narrative stance (not to Vladimir Putin, of course). Jackman does a very low-key characteristation and that compounds the narrative problems. He is a charm vacuum. We are left asking at the end of this, as Walter Mondale asked Hart (and the clip is included), Where’s the beef? Adapted from Matt Bai’s book All the Truth is Out:  The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Bai, (former Hilary Clinton press secretary) Jay Carson and Reitman, who has left his satirical knives in the drawer on this occasion. Pity.

Deadline USA (1952)

Deadline USA.jpg

A journalist makes himself the hero of the story. A reporter is only a witness. New York City newspaper The Day is in money trouble. Even though editor Ed Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart) has worked hard running the paper, its circulation has been steadily declining. Now the widow (Ethel Barrymore) of the paper’s publisher wants to sell the paper to a commercial rival, which will most likely mean its end. Hutcheson also worries that his estranged ex-wife Nora (Kim Hunter) is about to remarry. His only hope of saving the paper is to increase the numbers by finishing his exposé on a dangerous racketeer Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel) before the sale is made final after a reporter is badly beaten up investigating the murder of a girl called Bessie Schmidt who may have been Rienzi’s mistress while her brother Herman (Joe De Santis) had dealings with him... Stupidity isn’t hereditary, you acquire it by yourself. Twentieth Century-Fox and writer/director Richard Brooks were a good fit:  a studio that liked pacy stories paired with a filmmaker whose toughness had a literary quality and a fast-moving narrative style.  Both parties wanted message movies and the message here is A free press, like a free life, sir, is always in danger. The newspaper is broadly based on New York Sun which closed in 1950 (and it was edited by Benjamin Day) although according to Brooks’ biography it was more or less based on New York World which closed in 1931. The casting is great with Bogart excellent as the relentlessly crusading editor who acts on his principles while all about him tumble to influence and threats, trying to peddle the truth rather than the expeditious. Barrymore towers in her supporting role as the publisher and their conflict with her daughters is the ballast to the crime story, with the marital scenario giving it emotional heft. Jim Backus does some nice work as reporter Jim Cleary:  For this a fellow could catch a hole in the head. A cool piece of work, in every sense of the term. Watch for an uncredited James Dean as a copyboy in a busy montage. That’s the press, baby. The press! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!

Holmes & Watson (2018)

Holmes and Watson.png

He and I co-detectives? Not I. Not here. Not even in my rapturous moments of private fantasy! Renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) join forces to investigate a mysterious murder threat upon Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) at Buckingham Palace. It seems like an open-and-shut case as all signs point to Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), the criminal mastermind and longtime nemesis of the crime-solving duo. Both men are diverted by American women – Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her companion Millicent (Lauren Lapkus) whom she insists is her electric shock treatment subject, a woman reared by feral cats. When new twists and clues begin to emerge, the sleuth and his assistant must use their legendary wits and ingenious methods to catch the killer who may have been hiding in plain sight very close to home I have the oddest feeling. Like knowing, but the opposite. Blending the steampunk approach of the Robert Downey films and the flash-forward visual detection of Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV Sherlock, this also has anachronistic shtick (Titanic in the life of Queen Vic, anyone?) and a cheeky reference to one of the more arcane Holmes incarnations in the casting of Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – TV’s House, geddit?! (That’s a scene that doesn’t work, sadly). Some of the best sequences and laughs are with Hall and Lapkus, between the misogyny and the bits about nineteenth century medical treatments, with some genuinely amusing romantic farce and bromantic jokes.  This is beautifully shot by Oliver Wood, exquisitely designed by James Hambidge and costumed by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Naturally it’s only a matter of time until someone says No shit Sherlock and it’s from the mouths of Dickensian runts straight out of Oliver!  There’s a funny passing song that occasions a joke about musicals when the film finally lets rip à la The Muppets giving it more promise than it delivers and there are some highly contemporary visual and political references. So there’s wit and invention aplenty but it’s not quite clever enough all the time. Rather like Holmes. Minus the innuendo and lewdness this could have been a marvellous comic outing for children, agreeably silly with some easy but amusing targets but you know, these guys, they just can’t help themselves, with Ferrell doing too much of what he likes as the ultimate defective detective and Reilly as his hapless foil, a Johnson in more ways than one (until the roles get switched, which happens constantly and is confusing). The ladies are fantastic and Fiennes brings that immaculate class as is his wont and manages to be the only one who doesn’t actually twirl that comedy moustache; while Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald and Steve Coogan (as a one-armed tattooist) get their moments of infamy. Written and directed by Etan Coen. No, not that Coen, obvs. Terrible and clueless but not totally awful. Go figure.  A sniff of morning cocaine always helps the brain

Lizzie (2018)

Lizzie 2018.png

Your face is familiar – perhaps it’s the scent that’s throwing me off.  In 1892 Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) lives a quiet life in Massachusetts under the strict rules established by her father, unscrupulous businessman Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) who has remarried to Abby (Fiona Shaw). Lizzie finds a kindred spirit in the new live-in Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), called ‘Maggie’ by everyone else since her real identity is immaterial, and friendship soon blossoms into a secret romance. Tension mounts in the Borden household, with Mr Borden raping Bridget with his wife’s knowledge, Lizzie’s maternal uncle town constable John Morse (Denis O’Hare) attempting to rape her, and all over the inheritance which will one day be hers and her sister Emma’s (Kim Dickens) but which Lizzie discovers is now intended for Abby. All the while, Andrew is receiving written threats to do with his acquisition of local land … This attachment you’ve formed is unhealthy, and it must end. We all know the rhyme even if we don’t quite know its origins:  Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.  How fascinating that one-time It Girl Sevigny shepherded this production and teamed up opposite current It Girl and European art house darling Stewart, who nailed her millennial credentials long ago but took a leftward swerve into seriously good auteur territory. This is almost Bergmanesque in its studied still centre, so that the final sequences revealing in flashbacks the violent axe-murders as they happened, give a virtually orgasmic climax to pent up anger: well if someone brutally killed your pets and served them up for dinner, wouldn’t you? How not to be a parent 101. This refusal of emotionality and virtually flat, undemonstrative performances, until the unleashing, almost deprives us of empathy – but not quite. The stars are terrific in this low-key presentation of a lurid story.  Written by Bryce Kass and impressively directed by Craig William Macneill.  And at last, we are on equal footing, father 

 

 

Vice (2018)

Vice.png

How does a man go on to become who he is? Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is responding to 9/11 with other White House officials. We flash back and forth to his drunken antics as a young man, getting kicked out of Yale, his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) setting him on the straight and narrow when he’s a drunken linesman and then getting into Washington out of Wisconsin U as an intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and seeing everything close up and personal during the Nixon era. Rumsfeld’s abrasiveness gets them distanced from the office, where Cheney overhears the President discussing the secret bombing of Cambodia with Kissinger (Kirk Bovill). His father in law appears to murder his mother in law (never investigated) and Cheney and Lynne form a tighter family unit. He becomes Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) while Rumsfeld is Secretary of Defence and he is introduced by Antonin Scalia (Matthew Jacob) to the Unitary Executive Theory. He has his first coronary while running to represent Wyoming and Lynne campaigns for his seat in the House of Representatives. He then becomes Secretary of Defence under George H. Bush during the Gulf War. When younger daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out, he resigns to prevent media scrutiny. He is CEO at Halliburton when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) asks him to be his running mate in 2000 but he demurs and says he’ll help select that individual. But when he satisfies himself that Bush Jr. is incompetent he gets him to promise that mundane issues like energy and foreign policy be left to him and he accepts the role and sets up offices in every possible executive area … He would be a dedicated and humble servant to power. How is it that some of the most penetrating films about politics have been made by comedy auteur Adam McKay? Is this the only way we can take our reality nowadays? Perhaps. This freewheeling exercise in postmodernism is incredibly formally inventive, audacious even, and the film actually stops and the credits roll for the first time at 47 minutes. And then we kickstart into the real story, once again, back to 9/11 and the film’s narrator (a great joke, by the way) asks us why on earth was Cheney having a private talk with his lawyer David Addington (Don McManus) in the middle of this unprecedented act of terror? Amid the family dramas, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War on Terror, Halliburton’s involvement, the Crash,and everything else that has beset the US since that date, Cheney was the real power behind the White House controlling everything, even the terms of public discourse – ‘global warming’ became ‘climate change’, and so on. Sometimes the synoptic approach is genuinely funny, sometimes it feels too episodic. The film is all about heart – heart attacks, a heart transplant, the heart of power and family. Cheney’s final monologue tells us what we already know and Bale offers a robust picture of a seemingly bland man pummeled into unchecked power by an ambitious wife who himself becomes an untameable and unstoppable juggernaut, he’s everywhere, all of the time, at every formative event in recent Republican Party history. It’s a jigsaw puzzle moving backwards and forwards through the decades that pieces together how one person’s worldview came to predominate in the culture. Irreverent, entertaining and fairly shocking, this will make you laugh and hurl, sometimes simultaneously. Vice is the word. You have to remember that if you have power people will try to take it away from you – always

The Natural (1984)

The Natural RR.jpg

I came here to play baseball.  In 1910s Nebraska Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) plays catch with his father who is killed by a tree hit by lightning. Roy makes a bat from the split tree and in 1923 tries out for the Chicago Cubs with girlfriend Iris (Glenn Close) in tow, meeting legendary Whammer (Joe Don Baker) and sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall). He impresses the mysterious beauty Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) who had been fawning over Whammer. She is actually a celebrity stalker who turns up in Roy’s hotel room where she shoots him, apparently dead. Sixteen years later he has a chance as a rookie with bottom of the league New York Knights where he immediately becomes a star to the surprise of manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley).  He falls into the clutches of Pop’s niece Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) who is handmaiden to Gus Sands (Darren McGavin, unbilled) a ruthless bookie who loves betting against him. His form turns until a woman in white stands in the crowd and it’s Iris – who is unmarried but has a son. Mercy finally remembers where he first saw Roy who gets a chance as outfielder following the tragic death of colleague Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen) but the illness resulting from the shooting catches up with Roy and he’s on borrowed time … I used to look for you in crowds. Adapted by Roger Towne (brother of Robert) and Phil Dusenberry from Bernard Malamud’s novel, this is a play on myth and honour, with nods to mediaeval chivalry in its story of a long and arduous journey where Roy encounters the death of his father, bad and good women, resurrection, mentors and villains and lost opportunities and the chance at redemption. It’s a glorious tale, told beautifully and surprisingly economically with stunning imagery from Caleb Deschanel and a sympathetic score from Randy Newman. Redford seems too old at first but you forget about that because he inhabits Hobbs so totally and it’s so finely tuned. This allegorical take on the price you pay for success in America is expertly handled by director Barry Levinson, even if the novel’s ending is altered. I didn’t see it coming

Otley (1968)

Otley.jpg

If they are the cowboys we’re supposed to be the Indians. Gerald Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) is a petty crook and wannabe antique dealer mistaken for a British secret agent when he sleeps on a couch belonging to his friend Eric Lambert (Edward Hardwicke) who’s really a suspected influence pedlar and document smuggler and who is found murdered while Otley wakes up two days on the runway at Gatwick. Otley trails double agents and double martinis at a posh cocktail party before discovering the villains have the cooperation of top government officials. He’s pegged to pose as a possible defector to oust the criminal mastermind who plans to sell stolen documents vital to national security to any enemy agent with the most money. British secret agent Imogen (Romy Schneider) first has Otley beaten up by her thugs before combining forces to go after the real villains …  I was last year’s winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Award for Lethargy. Directed by Dick Clement and co-written with his regular collaborator Ian La Frenais, this adaptation of a novel by Northern Irish author Martin Waddell is funny and characterful, laced with real wit and a bright British cast including James Bolam (from Clement and La Frenais’ The Likely Lads), Alan Badel as MI5 overlord Hadrian, James Villiers as the resurrecting spy Hendrickson, Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mum and you can see the shared mannerisms), Geoffrey Bayldon as a police superintendent, Freddie Jones as an epicene gallerist, the dulcet tones of radio DJs Pete Murray and Jimmy Young, and Leonard Rossiter – as a hitman! Great mileage is got out of the mistaken identity scenario, everyone changing sides constantly, with Courtenay wonderfully charismatic as the feckless cheeky chappie protagonist street trader in way over his head between teams of rival spies who believe everyone has a price, while Schneider has fun as the perky intelligence agent. With fantastic location shooting (by Austin Dempster), the action scenes are atypical of the spy genre although the golf course sequence will remind you of a certain Bond movie, a titles sequence in Portobello Road market shows uncooperative shoppers staring into the camera as it tracks back from Courtenay strolling among the stalls and shops, there’s a rumble among the houseboats at Cheyne Walk, a sequence at the Playboy Club and a disastrous driving test that turns into a nutty car chase. This comic approach to the wrong man spy thriller is uniquely entertaining. Damian Harris, Robin Askwith and Kenneth Cranham play kids and the music and theme song are by Stanley Myers. I’m Gerard Arthur Otley and I’ve had enough