Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing

Ad Astra (2019)

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Most of us spend our entire lives in hiding. Sometime in the future. Following a mysterious global power surge, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a cool guy with a blissfully low pulse rate, travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his father, heroic scientist Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who’s been missing for 29 years following the disappearance of the Lima Project.  Now apparently there are signs that he’s alive, out on Neptune. The purpose of the trip is to unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of humans on Earth and to uncover whether Clifford is somehow responsible for the weird imbalances that are killing tens of thousands back on Earth. Roy travels to the Moon in the company of Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) and they are set upon by violent assailants in a buggy chase across craters that endangers them both and kills a crew member. He suspects from his psychiatric evaluations that he’s being used as a stooge and hears from a woman called Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) whose parents travelled with Clifford all those years ago that his father probably murdered them and others in the team. He determines to carry on with the trip to Neptune to locate his father and has to deceive Space Comm in order to do so … I don’t know whether to find him or to finally be free of him. What are the chances of Brad Pitt giving his finest two performances in back to back films? If the first, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, ponders the very contemporary question of whether movie stars serve a function in the new cinematic universe, this film, the second, is the proof that they do. And how. To the stars is a wonderfully ironic title in these circumstances. And what about the usually moribund director James Gray finally breaking out of the chains of realism (with his excursion to the jungle in The Lost City of Z he came close to greatness) and unsympathetic characters by shooting out of the earth’s atmosphere to infinity and beyond? It has set him free as a filmmaker. This has a lyricism and a beauty arising from the script by Gray and Ethan Gross, yet the resolutely familiar shooting style (by Hoyte van Hoytema and Caleb Deschanel (credited with ‘additional photography’) maintains a sober palette that permits the performances and the intrinsic ideas to shine, rather like when Godard did sci fi in Alphaville. We know this world.  We even believe that the Moon (‘the Earth’s Moon’, as one character puts it) could look like a shopping mall once humans colonise it. The brief sequence between Pitt and Lee Jones has more humanity in it than the entirety of the auteur’s preceding body of work: Roy’s lack of emotionality turns into something else when the reality of his father’s existence hits him:  this is a Conradian truth and this might be Apocalypse Now in space. We’re all we’ve got. In between we have a fabulously Freudian take on fathers and sons and space with some mileage gained from the diadic homonym son/sun and the movie’s existential philosophising pondering the father’s quest for alien intelligence; while the son’s ruminations take a decidedly more paternalistic twist despite his own lack of family, visions of an ignored wife Eve (Liv Tyler) chiefly accessible through old videophone messages notwithstanding. There are cute and clever references to other films but so intelligently do they unfold you won’t remotely care. It’s tremendous. It’s just what the cinema needs: a thrilling exploration of metaphor that oozes humanity, awe, wonder and acceptance as space becomes the past and the future, all at once. In the end the son suffers the sins of the father

 

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

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They told me I’d have control over it but they lied. Fired from the National Security Agency, Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) recruits infamous computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) to steal FireWall, a computer programme he has created that can access codes for nuclear weapons worldwide and he wants to disable it before it falls into the wrong hands. The download soon draws attention from an NSA agent Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) who traces the activity to Stockholm where he’s warned off interfering on arrival by Gabriella Grane (Synnove Macody Lund) deputy director of the Swedish Security Service. Further problems arise when Russian thugs take Lisbeth’s laptop and kidnap a math whiz who can make FireWall work. When Frans is murdered and his young autistic son August (Christopher Convery) is kidnapped Lisbeth must race against time to save the boy and recover the codes to avert disaster but a series of violent obstacles lead her to ask journalist ally Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) for help and he understands that the roots of her problem lie within her own family and the sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks) whom she says is dead I think you are scared of what would become of Mikael Blomkvist if there was no Lisabeth Salander. It’s not really about Mikael, actually, because it’s about family and the violence within and what Lisbeth left behind. Adapted by director Fede Álvarez, Steven Knight and Jay Basu from the eponymous novel by David Lagercrantz, a sequel to the Millennium Trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson, this forms a sequel of sorts to David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo whose audience reception apparently caused him to lose interest in continuing the series and there’s a total change in casting and emphasis. It starts with a flashback to sex abuse in Lisbeth’s family, with a pervert father and an abused sister who cannot reconcile Lisbeth’s crusade against men who harm women:  Lisbeth left her behind and Camilla has pursued her father’s career with Russian gangsters. The jeopardy with the kidnapping of August produces emotional resonance but everything else is rather by the numbers considering the depth of backstory and Foy’s performance, supplanting earrings and bodily markings with characterisation in what is a kind of origin story. The sisters’ face off (literally – involving S&M and stopping Lisbeth breathe) is one of the film’s highlights, another is a motorcycle escape across an icy Swedish lake and there’s a nice turnaround featuring techie expert Plague (Cameron Britton) working in cahoots with Edwin, but otherwise it’s quite a muted and unenergetic thriller with a rather silly plot, seemingly shot in Stockholm’s yellowy grey mornings at dawn, and not exactly an advert for the tourism business.  I bet you can’t wait to write a story about all this

Space Cowboys (2000)

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I can’t fill up a spaceship with geriatrics.  In 1958, the members of Team Daedalus, a group of top Air Force test pilots, were ready to serve their country as the first Americans in space. When NASA replaced the Air Force for outer atmospheric testing, they were pushed aside for a chimpanzee by nemesis Bob Gerson (James Cromwell). The team retired, but the dream of going into space has never died. Forty years later, Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood) is called into NASA to see Gerson who’s now a NASA project manager. A Cold War Russian communications satellite is freeflying and out of control and the archaic control system is based on Frank’s old SKYLAB design. He gathers the old guys from the Right Stuff days – widower Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones), Jerry O’Neill (Donald Sutherland) and pastor Tank Sullivan (James Garner) and they go through the rigorous  training of any young team,  trying to do in 30 days what would normally be done in 12 months. Then Frank is told he can’t go up but he also finds out one of his team has cancer. When he finally assembles everyone and they’re joined by Ethan (Loren Dean) and Roger (Courtney B. Vance) the younger astronauts supposedly there to do the real work, he sees that the satellite is nuked, a violation of the Outer Space Treaty You don’t need to be putting foolish notions in the head of a fool. From a screenplay by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner, star and director Eastwood fashions an old geezer take on the men on a mission movie, with a nostalgic harking back to the test pilot days when the moon was still a dream in the sky. Gathering a cast of veteran actors (Jones has a big role, Sutherland some comic moments, Garner is poorly served) they literally go through the motions of contemporary space flight and have to face some difficult home truths as well as the inevitable jeopardy.  That the premise’s hook is that the KGB stole the designs in the first place tells us a lot about what might really been going on all this Hot Non-War time with those lovely Russians. There’s all the technology and the moon yearning to consider but really this is about a bunch of ageing flyers achieving their ambitions and getting to their final destination with some romance provided on the ground by Marcia Gay Harden with medical advice from Blair Brown. The coda of course is a tribute to Dr Strangelove and you can’t say much better than that in the original geriaction movie that is quite literally the final frontier. An amiable, charming work, filled out with the smooth sounds of regular Eastwood collaborator Lennie Niehaus. They were around when rockets were born

 

Seven Days to Noon (1950)

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When I was young I saw science as a means of serving God and my fellow men. When Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones) becomes wary of the nuclear weapons he is helping build, he steals a warhead and writes a letter to the Prime Minister threatening to detonate it in London in one week unless the government begins nuclear disarmament. As Willingdon goes into hiding in various locations around London, Detective Folland (Andre Morell) of Scotland Yard sets out to find him using all the resources at his disposal. Willingdon’s daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) also joins the cause, hoping she can talk sense into her father before he causes a catastrophe but the Government decides evacuating the capital city is the only answer as time runs out and Willingdon takes up with an unwitting actress (Olive Sloane) when he needs a place to overnight … London – she’ll either make you or break you, isn’t that what they always say? Co-director Roy Boulting and Frank Harvey wrote the screenplay from an original story by Paul Dehn and James Bernard. From the cracking titles sequence to the wonderfully shot panoramas by Gilbert Taylor, we are taken on a grand tour of London from massage parlours, boarding houses and pubs, through the Underground and to the British Museum, the BBC and 10 Downing Street. The eerie silence of the streets when the trains leave the city is positively terrifying. When did you ever think you’d hear the words, Advancing into Belgravia?!  An absolutely cracking blackmail thriller about doomsday whose moral grip is intensified by the bristling inventive score from John Addison, that genius composer whose work we love so much. Directed by the Boulting Brothers. Repressing of fear is like trying to hold down the lid of a boiling kettle. Something’s got to give eventually

The Medusa Touch (1978)

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Talk about beating somebody’s brains out. French detective Brunel (Lino Ventura) working temporarily on assignment to Scotland Yard in London reconstructs the life of author John Morlar (Richard Burton) who is lying in hospital with severe head injuries following a brutal assault that has nearly killed him.  With the help of the man’s journals and psychiatrist Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick) he realises that Morlar had powerful telekinetic abilities. His books make the link between evil and power and a pattern starts to emerge:  Brunel starts making uncanny connections with a series of disasters occurring in the outside world triggered initially perhaps by Morlar’s childhood brush with a terrible fire-breathing nanny (Frances Tomelty) whom he believes he willed to death …  If he believed himself involved in disasters he may have convinced someone else too. And they may have sought revenge. This oddly satisfying genre-splicing of psychological thriller/supernatural horror/disaster film/policier is aided immensely by Burton’s brilliant performance and Ventura’s charismatic presence, a real fish out of water navigating both a bizarre case and the politics of London policing. There are a number of significant alterations from the novel but the texture is enhanced by plugging into contemporary fears and layering them with cod-Freudianism to effectively channel several horror tropes and a heady dose of misanthropy. John Briley adapted Peter Van Greenaway’s source book and it was produced by the brilliant editor Anne V. Coates and shot by reliable veteran Arthur Ibbetson. Directed by Jack Gold.  I am the man with the power to create catastrophe

Hiroshima, mon amour (1959)

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Does the night never end in Hiroshima? The conversation between a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) and a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) in Hiroshima 15 years after the end of World War II. The couple were adulterous lovers overnight and now are friends talking, trusting each other with intimate stores. They recount, over the course of many hours, previous romances and life experiences. The two intertwine their stories about the past with pondering the devastation wrought by the atomic bomb dropped on the city… Novelist Marguerite Duras’ collaboration with debut feature director Alain Resnais is an epic of love and war, a simply structured idea that revels in the complexity of its uniqueness, the erotic conjoined with the political, in which human flesh becomes covered in the residue of disaster as the couple struggle to understand the past. Hiroshima can never be Nevers in France and the chasm of memory between the lovers is intractable in this brief encounter dictated by history and a need for understanding. An astonishing, transformative film, a properly modern cinematic work as radical now as it was in 1960. With a soundtrack by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco. Hiroshima, c’est ton nom

Fathom (1967)

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Freddie Arthur Tom Harry Oscar Milton.  While touring in Europe, beautiful American skydiver Fathom Harvill (Raquel Welch) gets wrapped up in international intrigue when Scottish spy and HADES chief Douglas Campbell (Ronald Fraser) recruits her to help him on a secret mission to retrieve a failsafe nuclear device. Before long, Fathom realises that no one around her, including the mysterious Korean War deserter Peter Merriweather (Tony Franciosa), can be trusted and that’s before she encounters the dastardly Col. Serapkin (Clive Revill) and finds that perhaps the device is not what she’s looking for at all I’m a hundred years older than the day I met you. Trains and boats and planes and… skydiving. With tongue planted firmly in cheek this slick Bond parody is great fun, loaded with spectacular beauty, not just the spirited Welch but the lovely location work shot by Douglas Slocombe and some nice one-liners which you’d expect from Batman scribe Lorenzo Semple Jr., adapting an unpublished novel (Fathom Heavensent) by Larry Forrester.  Revill makes a great baddie, Franciosa an agreeable hero/villain and Fraser and Richard Briers as Timothy a surprising double act. There’s a great aeroplane chase to conclude everything and a very funky Sixties score by Johnny Dankworth. Welch is really impressive in the light-hearted Mata Hari role. Directed by Leslie H. Martinson who did probably every American TV series in the era as well as the disappointing feature Mrs Pollifax – Spy. My temperature is ten degrees lower than normal. In the presence of great beauty it drops even further

The Heroes of Telemark (1965)

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Don’t you ever make the mistake of under-rating the Germans. By Easter we will have not merely 10000 pounds of heavy water, but 12000 pounds of heavy water. British Intelligence receives shocking news of significant breakthroughs at a Nazi facility in occupied Norway where they’re developing heavy water stores for nuclear attack in the small town of Rjukan in Telemark county. The British work with Norwegian Resistance head Knut Straud (Richard Harris) and distinguished physicist Dr. Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas) to plan an urgent response even if Pedersen had planned on sitting out the war. As a Norwegian team headed by Straud struggles to blow up the store, a civilian hostage situation erupts with the Nazis keen to disrupt the local Resistance. Meanwhile, Pedersen has to negotiate domestic arrangements with his ex-wife Ann (Ulla Jacobsen) who’s living with her uncle (Michael Redgrave) As far as I remember you spent two years with him, and damn well didn’t get out of bed. If this isn’t as immediately psychologically suspenseful as director Anthony Mann’s rocky mountain Fifties westerns, it’s a terrifically tense thriller. This man on a mission movie benefits from the difficulties between the leading men – particularly when it comes to dealing with a questionable local Resistance leader:  Shoot him, says Douglas. Don’t, says Harris. They take a vote on what to do with this potential Quisling. You choose! Needless to say, there’s a deadly payoff. The location shooting in Norway provides a sensational snowscape in which this anti-Nazi anti-nuclear gang plough their furrow with a cross-country ski chase a particular highlight. Written by Ivan Moffat and Canadian blacklistee Ben Barzman, who get some nice jibes in about sexist behaviour, planting the chance for the traducing ex-husband (Douglas) to obtain redemption of sorts. It’s adapted from the memoir Skis Against the Atom by Norwegian Resistance hero Knut Haukelid and a novel by John Drummond on the same subject, But For These Men. Truly, this is a film about the greater good with stunning widescreen photography by Robert Krasker and a rousing score by Malcolm Arnold. Especially for that World War Two-shaped hole in your post-Christmas comedown. Epic stuff.  Press this little thing here and the bullets come out there

Broken Arrow (1996)

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Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapon? US Air Force pilots Vic Deakins (John Travolta) and Riley Hale (Christian Slater) are sent on an overnight top-secret mission with two nuclear weapons aboard their aircraft. But, after they are in the air, Deakins changes the plan. He attempts to kill Hale and then steals the weapons with the intent of selling them to terrorists led by financier Pritchett (Bob Gunton). However, Hale survives the crash and meets up with park ranger Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis) who initially misreads the situation and tries to arrest him. Together they try to thwart Deakins’ plan as Government man Giles Prentice (Frank Whaley) and Colonel Max Wilkins (Delroy Lindo) try to uncover what is going on in the desert – while a murderously ruthless chase ensues… John Woo’s second American film tones down his trademark stylistic elements but it has non-stop action, great effects, some terrific explosions and would have been improved by introducing some complexity into the screenplay, by Graham Yost, which mostly sets up sequence after sequence of shoot-em-ups, blow-em-ups and kill-em-ups in beautiful desert locations shot by Peter Levy, finishing with a face off between these terribly charismatic co-stars in a symphony of action that takes place on trains, boats, planes, helicopters and Hummers. It all culminates in a fiery conflagration and Travolta literally burns up the screen.  There’s no difference between you and a guy who shoots up a schoolyard.  You’ve both got a head full of bad wiring