The Sheltering Sky (1990)

The Sheltering Sky

We’re not tourists. We’re travellers. In the late Forties American expats Port Moresby (John Malkovich) and his wife Kit (Debra Winger) are trying to inject their tired marriage with adventure in North Africa. They are accompanied by their friend George Tunner (Campbell Scott) and fall in with some loathsome English expats, the Lyles, a mother (Jill Bennett) and her son Eric (Timothy Spall). When the city hems them in they journey through the desert. Port sleeps with a prostitute while George starts an affair with Kit and now there is a complicated love triangle unfurling in difficult circumstances because Port becomes ill … No matter what’s wrong between us there can never be anyone else. Bernardo Bertolucci’s romantic interpretation of Paul Bowles’ debut novel about alienation plugs into its erotic and dramatic intensity and wisely avoids any attempt at expressing its overwhelming interiority, with astonishing performances by the leads (particularly Winger), mesmerising cinematography of the sweeping desert landscapes by Vittorio Storaro and an utterly tragic dénouement to this unconventional marriage of fine minds and wild desires that feels utterly confrontational. It’s a staggeringly beautiful work that is as decorative as it is despairing, resonant, mystifying and depressing by turn. It’s a plot that promises melodrama but is more consequential in the symbolic realm yet it also boasts a harsh lesson – that white people will always be strangers in this strange land of seductive images and grasping locals with their own motives. The haunting score accompanying this epic tale of love and death is composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Richard Horowitz. Written by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe. Bowles hated it – and he’s in it. My only plan is I have no plan

Midnight Express (1978)

Midnight Express

The best thing to do is to get your ass out of here. Best way that you can. American college student Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is caught smuggling hashish when he’s travelling out of Turkey with girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle). He is prosecuted and jailed for four years. When his sentence is increased to 30 years, Billy, along with other inmates including British heroin addict Max (John Hurt) and American candle thief Jimmy (Randy Quaid), makes a plan to escape but local prisoners betray their plans to vicious guard Hamidou (Paul L. Smith)… It’s not a train. It’s a prison word for… escape. But it doesn’t stop around here. Adapted by Oliver Stone from Billy Hayes’ memoir (written with William Hoffer), this is a high wire act of male melodrama and violence with an astonishing, poundingly graphic series of setpieces that will definitely curdle your view of Turkey, even knowing that much of this was deliberately fabricated for effect. The searing heat, the horrendous conditions and the appalling locals will give pause to even the most strident anti-drugs campaigner. Director Alan Parker has a muscular, energetic style and brilliantly choreographs scenes big and small with the tragic and brilliant Davis (an appealing latterday James Dean-type performer) perfectly cast and Hurt a marvel as the shortsighted druggie whom he protects. The big scene where Davis totally loses it shocks to this day. Shot in Malta (permission to shoot in Istanbul was not granted, unsurprisingly) by Michael Seresin with a throbbing electronic score by Giorgio Moroder. Everyone runs around stabbing everyone else in the ass. That’s what they call Turkish revenge. I know it must all sound crazy to you, but this place is crazy

High Life (2018)

High Life

Nothing can grow inside us. Monte (Robert Pattinson) and a baby girl called Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) are the last survivors of a dangerous mission on the edge of the solar system. He dumps bodies in astronaut suits into space and rears the child as he continues his work. Flashbacks reveal that it is a spaceship filled with prisoners, chief among them mad scientist Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) who wants to breed a new generation of humans and gives the male criminals (André Benjamin, Ewan Mitchell) drugs in exchange for their semen on a trip that will not end in survival. Captain (Lars Eidinger) appears ineffectual while the women (Mia Goth, Claire Tran, Agata Buzek) resist male attention and don’t want to be forcibly impregnated. As the reproductive experiment takes shape a storm of cosmic rays hits the ship and tempers run high … You’ve become a shaman of sperm. Filmmakers can take a funny turn when they start making films in a language not their own. This screenplay by that singular director Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau with collaboration by Geoff Cox and additional writing credited to Andrew Litvack (and an uncredited contribution by Nick Laird) is a case in point as her first excursion into English is deeply strange and a reworking of many tropes and themes in the genre. For the first half hour you have to really like the sound of a baby crying;  the rest of the film is mostly about bodily fluids – their source, their harvesting, their destination – interspersed with acts of violence. Pattinson lends it his intensity but to what end? Well, a black hole, if you must know. Not so much a space mission as emission, this is really a hymn to onanism:  truly a mystery, all coming and no going in an exploration of sci-fi as inner space, in and out of hand. She is perfection

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth poster

Could you do without me? Northern England 1865.  Newly sold into marriage to an older man, rich industrialist Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself confined to the house and starved of companionship. Her husband can’t or won’t have sex with her but makes her strip and masturbates while she faces a wall. Forced to spend her days in endless tedium, dining with his bullying father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), when her husband is called away to one of his collieries she starts to spend more time with maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and begins a passionate and fiery relationship with a young groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) from the estate, beginning a conflict that will end in violence. Following her husband’s demise at her hands and after hiding his body, a surprise arrives on her doorstep in the form of her husband’s illegitimate son Teddy (Anton Palmer) accompanied by his grandmother Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) throwing Katherine’s plans into disarray .You’ve got fatter. Adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, this austere treatment of a rural tragedy is as contained as anti-heroine Pugh by corsetry and decency until sensuality spills forth and all hell breaks loose.  This is the distinctive Pugh’s breakout performance following The Falling and TV’s Marcella and her polarising character anchors a narrative which is ostensibly feminist but ultimately offers a critique of female power and how it is achieved and sustained. Perhaps the casting of black actors in the story complicates the issue of power by raising another issue, that of of race, in what is otherwise a melodrama of sex and class. Ultimately what happens when people are undone by desire can be murderous. It is a drama entirely without ornament. Directed by William Oldroyd. She is a disease

Bananas (1971)

Bananas

And now, as is our annual custom, each citizen of San Marcos will come up here and present his Excellency with his weight in horse manure. Hapless New York product tester Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) desperately attempts to impress attractive social activist  Nancy (Louise Lasser). He travels to the turbulent Latin American country of San Marcos where he falls in with resistance fighters and, before long, accidentally becomes drafted as their leader replacing the crazed Castro-esque Esposito (Jacobo Morales) after foiling an assassination attempt by General Vargas (Carlos Montalbán). While Mellish’s position of authority wins Nancy over, he has to deal with the many burdens of being a dictator but being President just might impress Nancy ... Can you believe that? She says I’m not leader enough for her. Who was she looking for… Hitler? A hoot from glorious start to ridiculous finish, Allen’s hilarious homage to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup has everything: silent musicians (they have no instruments); Swedish deemed the only suitably non-decadent language appropriate for a post-revolutionary society; and a very young Marvin Hamlisch’s first ever score (funny in and of itself). A freewheeling mix of parody, satire, one-liners, sight gags and slapstick, this loose adaptation of Richard B. Powell’s novel Don Quixote USA is co-written with Allen’s longtime close friend, Mickey Rose, who also collaborated on Take the Money and Run. Featuring Howard Cosell, Roger Grimsby and Don Dunphy as themselves. Gleefully bonkers fun in the worst possible taste. Power has driven him mad!

The Accused (1988)

The Accused

There’s a whole crowd. Twenty-four year old Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) hangs out at The Mill bar where her friend Sally Fraser (Ann Hearn) is waiting tables. She is gang-raped on a pinball machine by three men who are egged on by a gathering of onlookers, one of whom Ken Joyce (Bernie Coulson) runs out to a phone booth to call the police. In hospital Sarah meets Assistant DA Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) who prosecutes the case but agrees to a deal which will ensure they serve time because she fears Sarah’s history and her drinking on the night in question will make her a poor witness. However Sarah is angry and rams the car of one of the men who led the cheerleading during her rape and Kathryn feels guilty, deciding to go after the men who encouraged the crime … She put on a show, pure and simple. Inspired by the notorious 1983 gang rape perpetrated upon Cheryl Araujo, this controversial film has lost none of its power. Foster is stunning as the ornery, spiky, confrontational yet eager to please working class girl while McGillis is solid as the prosecutor who feels guilt at betraying her client and then pushes for a fresh trial of the men who cheered on the violent crime. Screenwriter Tom Topor was hired by producer Dawn Steel when the Araujo trial became a national talking point and he interviewed dozens of victims, rapists, prosecutors and doctors to hear their stories and point of view. The inclusion of the reenactment is the difficult issue that remains – and it’s a tough one to decide whether it is necessary:  perhaps the depiction proves the point that nobody ever believes the woman and those who do are never going to admit it much less say they are the guilty parties. It is playing this card that actually gives the film its authority and resonance not least because a point of view camera is involved and Foster’s vulnerability is paradoxically exploited. More than that, the film tackles the immediate and impersonal aftermath of reporting a rape, the portrayal of rape in the press, the acceptance by women (it’s truly terrible when the friend turns a blind eye and runs out of the bar), the inevitability of victim blaming and shaming and the overwhelming stench of testosterone in the male-controlled world that sees women as lucky receptacles whether they like it or not. This collision of plain pictures and words speaks truth to power. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, who has such empathy for young people and such a gift for establishing time and place:  after all, this is the guy who made Over the Edge, probably the greatest film about teenagers. It was Foster’s first film after graduating Yale and if it hadn’t been a success she intended retiring from acting. She won the Academy Award for her magnificent performance. I kept saying No

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

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The world is perfect. Appreciate the details. In the sleepy small town of Centerville, Pennsylvania something is not quite right. News reports are scary with the earth tilting on its axis and scientists are concerned, but no one foresees the dead rising from their graves and feasting on the living, and the citizens must battle to survive. Chief  Robertson (Bill Murray) and his officer sidekick (Adam Driver) get to work dealing with the undead while Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) reluctantly accompanies them, terrified and Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) observes hostilities The only way to kill the dead is to kill the head. Well I didn’t see that coming. Jim Jarmusch making a zombie comedy? Things are getting exceedingly strange in the world of the cool Eighties auteur when he’s making a film that serves at least partly as an homage to George Romero with a side salad of Assault on Precinct 13 and a reference to Samuel Fuller. The title comes from a short story turned TVM written by Robert Psycho Bloch and it’s somewhat honoured here with a subplot about juvenile delinquents and the revenge they take. It’s something of a shaggy dog story with slow-running gags and the Murray/Driver double act offers deadpan self-conscious commentary on filmmaking indicating the lack of genre commitment, which may or may not irritate and take you out of the action the wrong way. In fact it makes it a bit of a zombie zombie film, if you think about it. There is a huge head count and most of the fun is in watching the different tools used to decapitate – guns, garden shears and, with her fierce Scottish accent and a samurai sword, funeral home proprietor Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton). Even sweet Selena Gomez is separated from her torso. Did I mention the UFO?! Thought not. A nicely made oddity shot with typical aplomb by Frederick Elmes. This is definitely going to end badly

The Aftermath (2019)

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There may not be an actual show of hatred but it’s there beneath the surface. Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives in rubble-strewn Hamburg in 1946 with her husband Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) of British Forces Germany, charged with helping to rebuild the city shattered from aerial firestorms. They also need to rebuild their own marriage following the death of their young son and are billeted in the home of architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) who Lewis allows to remain on the premises against Rachael’s wishes. She is initially suspicious that Stefan is an unreconstructed Nazi and Lewis confirms Stefan has yet to be cleared. They blame each other for their son’s death and Rachael starts to warm to Stefan and makes efforts to befriend Freda. Freda consorts with Bertie (Jannik Schümann) a member of the Werewolves, the violent Nazi insurgents who want the Allies out of Germany. When Lewis is obliged to travel for work Rachael and Stefan commence an affair and she agrees to leave Lewis. Meanwhile, Freda gives Bertie information about Lewis’ whereabouts and upon his return he is informed by his cynical colleague intelligence officer Burnham (Martin Compston) that Rachael has been advocating for Stefan and things come to a head… Do you really need a philosophy to make something comfortable? That’s what Rachael asks when architect Stefan is trying to explain a chair in the moderne style designed by Mies Van Der Rohe:  it sums up the issues wrought from this adaptation of the source material by Rhidian Brook, dealing with the difficulties of making the peace in post-war Germany but we still ask, who really won the peace and what does the future hold for peoples and societies so broken by war and its legacy? Stunde Null, Year Zero, everything can start again.  Grappling with bereavement and the unsettling transposing of emotions and the desire to be a parent, Knightley gives a good account of a lonely woman in trauma while Clarke is as good as he has ever been. It lacks complexity and real passion, however, and the post-war scene is as difficult to explain as it has ever been: everyone takes sides, that’s the point. It’s how and why this is resolved that matters. Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse & Brook wrote the screenplay and it’s directed by David Kent.  We’re leaving the city in better shape than we found it

Catch-22 (1970)

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Help the bombardier. Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) an American pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II attempts to cope with the madness of armed conflict. Convinced that everyone is trying to murder him, he decides to try to become certified insane but that is merely proof that he’s fully competent. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian has to resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation... All great countries are destroyed, why not yours? Not being a fan of the rather repetitive and circular source novel aids one’s enjoyment of this adaptation by director Mike Nichols who was coasting on the stunning success of his first two movies (also adaptations), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, which was also adapted by Buck HenryThe critical reception for this resisted adulation instead focusing on a flawed construction which really goes back to Joseph Heller’s book and does not conform to the rules of a combat picture as well as contracting the action and removing and substituting characters. But aside from the overall absurdity which is literally cut in an act of stunning violence which shears through one character in shocking fashion, there is dialogue of the machine gun variety which you’d expect from a services satire and there are good jokes about communication, following orders, profiteering and stealing parachutes to sell silk on the black market.  There are interesting visual and auditory ways of conveying Yossarian’s inner life – in the first scene we can’t hear him over the noise of the bombings, because his superiors are literally deaf to what he’s saying, a useful metaphor. The impressionistic approach of Henry’s adaptation is one used consistently, preparing the audience for the culmination of the action in a surreal episode worthy of Fellini. I like it a lot, certainly more than the recent TV adaptation and the cast are just incredible:  Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen and Orson Welles among a large ensemble. Even novelist Philip Roth plays a doctor. It’s shot by David Watkin, edited by Sam O’Steen and the production is designed by Richard Sylbert. Where the hell’s my parachute?

Radio Days (1987)

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Who is Pearl Harbour? Narrator Joe (Woody Allen) tells the story of two burglars in his childhood neighbourhood of Rockaway Beach, NY, who get caught when they answer the phone to participate in a live radio competition back in the medium’s golden age. The songs trigger childhood memories and we are taken back to his life as a child as Young Joe (Seth Green) immediately prior to and during World War 2 where his mother (Julie Kavner) served breakfast listening to Breakfast With Irene and Roger and his father Martin (Michael Tucker) keeps his occupation a secret from the family until Joe finds out he’s a taxi driver when he hails a cab.  Joe’s favourite show is The Masked Avenger so he has a healthy fantasy life but when he spots a Nazi submarine on the shoreline he fails to alert anyone because he thinks they won’t believe him. Unmarried Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) lives with them and is constantly going out with losers. Joe has heard stories about radio stars and we learn about Sally White (Mia Farrow) a hatcheck girl with acting dreams and a bad accent who sleeps with big names including Roger to get ahead but always gets left behind until she gets her big break when she witnesses a murder … He’s a ventriloquist on the radio! How can you tell he’s not moving his lips? As any fule kno, Rockaway Beach is one of the most inspiring spots in New York. Winning, winsome and witty, this series of vignettes is stitched together with what can only be described as love with nods to famous radio stories including Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, here interrupting a fogbound assignation. One of the funniest tales involves a sportscaster prone to melodrama regaling his audience with the story of a blind one-legged baseball star. Farrow and Wiest get two of the best character arcs, the former’s Singin’ in the Rain-ish storyline turning her from squeaky-voiced trampy wannabe actress to Louella Parsons-type gossip columnist via a run-in with a sympathetic mob hitman Rocco (Danny Aiello) from the old ‘hood; while the latter is terminally disappointed in love including a necessarily brief romance with a white-suited Tom Wolfe lookalike bemoaning the loss of his fiancée who turns out to have been a man called Leonard. Music and songs churn and curdle the endless embarrassment and kind hearted acts as friends, family and neighbours get on with their daily lives when war breaks out. Memories of Annie Hall abound in the voyeuristic kids whose new teacher Miss Gordon (Sydney Blake) turns out to be the exhibitionist they’ve been watching surreptitiously when they were out spotting German aircraft. Brimful of nostalgia and told with fond humour, this concludes on a bittersweet note as these little lives filled with crazy incidents and relatable attitudes acknowledge that they exist vicariously through what is the soundtrack of their lives, driven by the music of all the era’s greats with everyone from Artie Shaw to Duke Ellington and Xavier Cugat featured in the world of this kaleidoscopic narrative, like a lovingly reproduced living postcard. A beautiful, intensely funny and deeply affectionate work of art. I wonder if future generations will ever even hear about us