Cujo (1983)

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There’s no such thing as a real monster. Only in stories. On the outskirts of Castle Rock, Maine, sweet family dog, the St. Bernard known as Cujo (Moe) is bitten by a bat when he’s out rabbiting.  He starts behaving oddly and becomes very aggressive in front of his owner, little Brett Camber (Billy Jacoby). As Cujo morphs into a dangerous beast, he goes on a rampage at the Camber family home and kills abusive mechanic dad Joe (Ed Lauter) after Brett and his mom Charity (Kaiulani Lee) make a run for it. Meanwhile, stay-at-home mom Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) has been carrying on with the town stud, her ex-high school boyfriend Steve (Christopher Stone) while her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) is working on advertising campaigns in the city. She swears to him that the adulterous relationship is over. When her car needs repairs she and young asthmatic son Tad (Danny Pintauro) get caught in Cujo’s crosshairs at the Camber garage where Cujo has now killed a visitor, Gary Pervier (Mills Watson). Stuck in their tiny car with a dead battery Donna and Tad have a frightening showdown with the crazed animal hoping he will be distracted every time the telephone rings but he’s tasted blood and wants fresh meat … Adapted by Don Carlos Dunaway and Barbara Turner (writing as Lauren Currier) from Stephen King’s novel, this is a rare horror – one that has to do entirely with the everyday and is completely plausible. As someone who was mauled by a dog when I was three years old and am still scarred physically and mentally from that incident, I find this film all too relatable. Sympathy for Donna and Tad is established in the carefully staged domestic scenes:  the distance from the light switch to his bed makes us empathise with this small boy and his fear of night monsters;  while Donna is a good woman bored in a big house all day long. And when she finally rejects Steve and she’s gone on her errand, he does what a scorned woman might – he takes a knife and tears up all the pillows so that the house is filled with downy feathers. We’re on her side. By the time the day’s pressures have built up, Donna and Tad’s imprisonment in the car when the battery runs down is positively sweat-inducing. As they suffer the effects of dehydration and the child becomes ill, the dog bounces off the car, bloodied from his kills. And when he finally gets a chunk of Donna, it’s truly terrifying. Her dismay when she sees the dog tackle the body of the policeman he’s savaged is completely convincing. Wallace is a marvel as the woman in jeopardy and this is fantastically efficient genre storytelling. Me? Been there, done that. I particularly enjoyed the cop’s death. So sue me. Directed by Lewis Teague.

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The Constant Gardener (2005)

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This is one we can save.  Assigned to a new post, reserved British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) relocates to Kenya with his new wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an activist for social justice. She is engaged on a hunt for the people behind a Big Pharma test of a dangerous AIDS drug being conducted on expendable local TB sufferers.  Her own child is born dead in an African hospital and a young girl in a neighbouring bed dies after taking the drug. When Tessa is found murdered out in the wilderness, circumstances point to her friend, Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), who has been agitating for the truth with her, but it is soon clear that he’s not the killer. Grief-stricken and angry, Justin sets out to uncover who is responsible for Tessa’s murder and in the process, he unearths some disturbing revelations – including that some of his cohorts in Government might be behind it. He also really discovers the woman he married … John le Carré is a remarkable novelist:  for five decades he has been writing books that point the finger through the prism of genre and in the Noughties he decided to take aim at the self-appointed God-like pharmaceutical companies that dominate so much of contemporary existence – and survival – and the countries whose internecine deals allow them to kill their own at will. Jeffrey Caine does a great job at filleting the story so it’s clear who the bad guys are – there are degrees of grotesquery here and it’s certainly not kind on African savagery either. A horrifying tale of corruption that, knowing its author, is all too true. Terrifically performed by the leads with good support from Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Huston. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. No drug company does something for nothing.

One Fine Day (1996)

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Let’s do this right. Let me freshen up so I’ll feel a little more like a woman and less like a dead mommy.  Melanie Parker (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a divorced mom and architect who needs to give a very important presentation. Jack Taylor (George Clooney) is a divorced father and newspaper columnist looking to land a big scoop for his story about the mob. Both are single parents whose children, Sammy (Alex D. Linz) and Maggie (Mae Whitman), respectively, miss the bus for a field trip. They wind up left with their kids on  a hectic day. They decide to put aside their bickering and juggle baby-sitting duties, but the children don’t make it easy as they dislike each other and disappear while their parents’ identical mobile phones complicate the situation … This somewhat tiresome romcom spin on screwballs past is saved by two wonderful performances – Pfeiffer in particular makes this fun instead of the rather formulaic single-parent family downer comedy it is at is heart. The kids are good characters but the situations from Terrel Seltzer and Ellen Simon’s screenplay are pat and predictable although NYC gets a great showcase. Pfeiffer produced this so it was a conscious beefing up of her brand.  Clooney is quite impressive as the love interest but it was before he refined his look and skill and he doesn’t make the kind of impact you’d expect although they pair have undoubted chemistry. There are some bright spitballing exchanges: Men like you have made me the woman I am/All the women I know like you have made me think all women are like you. They’re delivered with relish and enliven a less than classic romcom. Directed by Michael Hoffman.

Elle (2016)

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Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all. Believe me. Perverse, funny, strange, blackly comic and at times surreal, this is a film like few others. It opens on a black screen as Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped by a masked man. She gets up, cleans herself and bathes and carries on as though nothing has happened. At work she is the one in control – it’s her company and she deals in the hyper-real, trying to make video games more experiential, the storytelling sharper, the visuals more tactile. She is attacked in a cafe by a woman who recognises her as her father’s lure – as a child she her dad murdered a slew of people and he’s an infamous serial killer, turned down for release yet again at the age of 76 and it’s all over the news:  there’s a photo taken of her as a blank-eyed ten year old which haunts people. Her mother is a plastic surgery junkie shacked up with another young lover. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is broke and tries to pitch her an idea for a game. Her loser son has supposedly knocked up a lunatic girlfriend (the eventual baby is not white) and needs money for a home. Elle is sleeping with the husband of her partner Anna (Anne Consigny). She likes to ogle her neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). Now as she gets text messages about her body she tries to figure out who among her circle of acquaintances could have raped her – and then when it happens again she unmasks him and starts a relationship of sorts following a car crash (a deer crosses the road, not for the first time in a 2016 film).  This is where the edges of making stories, power, control, reality, games and the desire for revenge become blurred. Adapted from Patrick Dijan’s novel Oh by David Birke and translated into French by Harold Manning, this is Paul Verhoeven’s stunning return to form, with Huppert giving a towering performance as a wily, strong, vulnerable, tested woman – she owns her own company and handles unruly employees using a sympathetic snitch but cannot control her family members and their nuttiness. You can’t take your eyes off her, nor can the camera.  While she tries to figure out how to regain her composure (she rarely loses it, even while she’s getting punched in the face) she also sees a way in which she might obtain pleasure.  In some senses we might see a relationship with Belle de Jour: Michèle is the still centre of a world in which crazy is normal. It’s shot to reflect this, with the video game and the animation of her made illicitly by one employee the only visual extremes:  the assaults (there’s more than the first, when she gets the taste for it) are conventionally staged. She has turned the tables on her rapist – he is undone by her desire for sex. This is all about role play.  When Michèle finally decides to cut the cord on all the loose ends in her life it brings everything to a satisfying conclusion as she regains her balance – her role as CEO assists her manage her own narrative minus any generic tropes. Now that’s clever. Oh! The audacity! What a great film for women in a very contemporary take on noir and the notion of the femme fatale. Big wow.  I killed you by coming here.

The Snowman (2017)

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You could save them you know… gave you all the clues and everything.  Norwegian detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is back from a week on a bender and he is looking for a woman who has disappeared after her scarf is found on a snowman.  He is accompanied by newly drafted detective Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) who unbeknownst to him has a mission to find out who her father is. Meanwhile, as a serial killer dismembers women who have an abortion and fertility clinic in common, Harry has to deal with his responsibilities to his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her teenage son Oleg while her boyfriend Mathias (Jonas Karlsson) appears to broker a peace between them … Jø Nesbo’s beloved Harry Hole novel (the first of a projected series – nope, I don’t think so!) was adapted by Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan and Søren Sveistrup and directed by Tomas Alfredson and boy is it an unholy mess – apparently they just cobbled it together as they went, production schedules being unstoppable once the money starts to flow.  Fassbender is passable as the drunken cop but gifted he ain’t and things are just daft in the improbable office with Ferguson on her own bizarre mission. The story is illogical which doesn’t work when you’re doing a police procedural. Some of the shot choices and edits are laugh-out-loud bad due to the lateral implications.  In fact it starts with a flashback that in terms of the story construction is clearly supposed to suggest that Harry is the killer. Without that intro the text is even more nonsensical. A film that is not just stupid and wretched it is totally dense and tasteless – frankly this is a narrative about fatherless bastards and their supposedly whoring mothers and the dismemberment the women have coming to them for their sins.  Somebody should remind filmmakers to actually think about their subject matter before they lose the run of themselves and it all goes to hell in a handcart. I started to giggle every time I saw a snowman no matter what the killer did – I didn’t care.  This is quite literally misconceived. Mad, bad and dreadful. Oh joy!

Their Finest (2016)

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Why do you think that people like films? It’s because stories are structured; have a shape, a purpose, a meaning; and when things gone bad they’re still a part of a plan; there’s a point to them. Unlike life. In 1940 London former secretary and comic strip writer Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to insert more realistic female banter in propaganda films. She’s shacked up with failing war artist Ellis Cole (Jack Huston) who becomes jealous of her job while he can’t get an exhibition of his work. She starts working on a story from the newspapers about identical twin sisters who supposedly rescued soldiers at Dunkirk but discovers it was exaggerated. While she is struggling with the screenplay she falls for screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and rows with self-centred actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) whose career is basically at an end.  All the while the German bombs rain down on London and they’ve got to use an American war hero (Jake Lacy) who’s never acted before , turning journalistic fiction into a movie to entertain the masses and get America into the war … There’s a great idea buried here under a mound of rubble caused by the German bombs. Gaby Chiappe’s adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a drama and at its heart is an issue of research – and the lack of it. There are some good insights into the kind of wartime propaganda inserted into films of the era and nice pastiches but they’re overly obvious. The second (major) death is quite laughable which is presumably not what was intended. Rachael Stirling offers some terrific oppositional feminism as Phyl from the Minstry and Nighy steals every scene as the actor who turns out to be human after all. Jeremy Irons enjoys himself as the Secretary of War.  Another somewhat tentative tragicomic British film from Danish director Lone Scherfig (after An Education and One Day) with Arterton more or less delightful in a performance which attempts depth but drops the Welsh accent PDQ and Nighy gives his best Leslie Howard, sort of.  Harmless and inoffensive irony which I suppose is a kind of propaganda in itself.

The Apartment (1960)

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Normally, it takes years to work your way up to the twenty-seventh floor. But it only takes thirty seconds to be out on the street again. You dig?  Ambitious insurance clerk C. C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) permits his bosses to use his NYC apartment to conduct extramarital affairs in hope of gaining a promotion. He pursues a relationship with the office building’s elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) unaware that she is having an affair with one of the apartment’s users, the head of personnel, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) who lies to her that he’s leaving his wife. Bud comes home after the office Christmas party to find Fran has taken an overdose following a disappointing assignation with Sheldrake … Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were fresh off the success of Some Like It Hot when they came up with this gem:  a sympathetic romantic comedy-drama that plays like sly satire – and vice versa. Reuniting one of that film’s stars (and a nasty jab at Marilyn Monroe using lookalike Joyce Jameson) with his Double Indemnity star (MacMurray, cast as a heel, for once) and adding MacLaine to the mix, they created one of the great American classics with performances of a lifetime. Bud can keep on keeping on as a slavering nebbish destined to be the ultimate slimy organisation man or become a mensch but he can’t do it alone, not now he’s in love. This is a sharp, adult, stunningly assured portrait of the battle of the sexes, cruelty, compromise and deception intact. With the glistening monochrome cinematography of Joseph LaShelle memorializing that paean to midcentury modernism, the architecture of the late Fifties office (designed by Alexandre Trauner), and an all-time great closing line (how apposite for a Wilder film), this is prime cut movie.  The best Christmas movie of all time? Probably, if you can take that holiday celebration on a knife edge of suicidal sadness and bleakly realistic optimism. Rarely has a home’s shape taken on such meaning.

Silent Running (1972)

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It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth… and there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in – you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air… and there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out in to space.  After the end of all botanical life on Earth, with all the flora and fauna destroyed and forests defoliated, ecologist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) maintains a greenhouse on a space station around the rings of Saturn in order to preserve various plants for future generations. Assisted by three robots (Huey, Dewey and Louie!) and a small human crew (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint), Lowell rebels when he is ordered to destroy the greenhouse in favor of carrying cargo.  The decision he takes puts him at odds with everyone but his robots and they are forced to do anything necessary to keep their invaluable greenery alive. But when he finds himself playing poker with his remaining robots he realises the desperation of loneliness and then his bosses locate him … This is one of a slew of environmentally conscious sci fis from the early 70s. It works because it asks the biggest question:  what do we mean in the universe? And it does so simply and without deep philosophical pondering, it’s just a guy in outer space who wants to save the world and realises he misses human companionship. Dern is superb as the uncomplicated man who tries to save himself. Written by Michael Cimino, Steve Bochco and Deric Washburn. The directing debut of 2001‘s effects guy, Douglas Trumbull:  when you see his charming robots you’ll know why he got a call from George Lucas for Star Wars. Ecological elegance.

The Dam Busters (1955)

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Every time one of these Lancasters fly over, my chickens lay premature eggs.  At the start of WW2, British aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) is struggling to find a means of attacking dams in Germany in the hope of crippling the country’s heavy industry. He is working for both the Ministry of Aircraft Production and Vickers Engineering trying desperately to make practical his theory of a bouncing bomb which would skip over the water to avoid protective torpedo nets. When it came into contact with the dam, it would sink before exploding, making it much more destructive. Wallis calculates that the aircraft will have to fly extremely low (150 feet (46 m)) to enable the bombs to skip over the water correctly, but when he takes his conclusions to the Ministry, he is told that lack of production capacity means they cannot go ahead with his proposals.  Frustrated, Wallis gets a meeting with Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris (Basil Sydney) the head of RAF Bomber Command who is reluctant to take the idea seriously. Eventually he takes the idea to the Prime Minster who authorises the project. Bomber Command forms a special squadron of Lancaster bombers, 617 Squadron, to be commanded by Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) and tasked to fly the mission. He recruits experienced crews, especially those with low-altitude flight experience. While they train for the mission, Wallis continues his development of the bomb but has problems, such as the bomb breaking apart upon hitting the water. This requires the drop altitude to be reduced to 60 feet (18 m). With only a few weeks to go, he succeeds in fixing the problems and the mission can go ahead and the bombers attack the dams … Paul Brickhill’s account of this daring strategy and Guy Gibson’s own memoir East Coast Ahead were adapted by R. C. Sheriff who himself had written some brilliant tales of WW1 derring-do. Redgrave and Todd are superb as the principals in an exciting biographical account of ingenious engineering and aeronautical bravery which was first released 63 years ago today and which is re-released as part of the RAF’s 75 year anniversary. The Dam Busters March by Eric Coates is justly famous and Erwin Hillier’s aerial cinematography is magnificent. Dedicated to director Michael Anderson who died just a few weeks ago.

 

 

 

Silkwood (1983)

 

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You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?  Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) works at a plutonium processing plant, along with her boyfriend, Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell), and their roommate, Dolly Pelliker (Cher). When Karen becomes concerned about safety practices at the plant, she begins raising awareness of violations that could put workers at risk. Intent on continuing her investigation, Karen discovers a suspicious development: She has been exposed to high levels of radiation, probably intentionally because of her union activism. Her decision to follow up on the cause jeopardises her life … Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen’s screenplay is a dramatisation of what actually happened to the real Karen Silkwood and there is much to cherish about this film, not least the brilliant performances. What may have happened in November 1974 after Silkwood went to meet with a reporter from The New York Times has been well documented but this is a very human portrayal of friendships, romance and labour relations, a rare combination in cinema and never done so sympathetically. Mike Nichols does an impeccable job of finding the right tone in what is basically a noir-ish conspiracy thriller but laced into the narrative are hints of a Lesbian relationship between Karen and Dolly, complicating their home life with Drew and deepening the surrounding texture which is political and social, growing out of the problems around unions and workers and the knotty issues in the nuclear industry. Streep’s most likeable performance to date.