American Woman (2018)

American Woman

We’re supposed to just sit here and wait. In a small blue-collar town in Rust Belt Pennsylvania, a 32-year-old single woman Debra Callahan’s (Sienna Miller) teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes missing. Left to raise her infant grandson Jesse (Aidan McGraw/Aidan Fiske) alone, she desperately seeks the answers behind her daughter’s disappearance while her sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) and mother Peggy (Amy Madigan) lend their support but Police Detective Sergeant Morris (E. Roger Mitchell) has no leads. After years of re-training at college and abandoning her habit of sleeping with married men, indulging a horrific coercive relationship and living from hand to mouth waiting tables, she has a job in administration and a prospective younger husband Chris (Aaron Paul) whom she marries after a couple of months but eventually life comes crashing down again …You think you’re special. More than anything else, this tale of working class people concerns the pain and difficulty of single motherhood (like mother, like daughter, both teen moms) which creates a cycle of poverty, low paid work and promiscuity. The story of generational mistakes is a somewhat run of the mill and depressing exercise, not caring to particularise the different phases of femininity save in its biological underpinnings which is after all a zero-sum game:  no matter what you do, you’re wrong and you’re trapped. Melodrama is substituted for mystery and Bridget’s disappearance is all but forgotten while life is dramatised as a series of betrayals. It finally obtains a power and focus in the closing sequences when Debra achieves a meeting with her daughter’s (inevitable) killer in prison: we just see the reflection of his face on hers, before they have an unheard conversation that leads Debra to Bridget’s final resting place, buried with his other victims. She is just a number in the earth now. Ironically, Debra now looks younger than she did eleven years earlier because is no longer the trashy tramp she essayed to survive:  with an answer to what happened she has a kind of equilibrium, at last. Very well performed by a great cast – how good is it see Amy Madigan even in a small role. Miller is superb, encompassing her character’s stop-start odyssey of rage in the smallest of gestures. Written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Jake Scott. This is it Mom. The moment you’ve been waiting for for forty years

Bad For Each Other (1953)

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I’ve got a chance at something better and I’m going to take it. After serving in the Korean War, Army colonel and doctor Tom Owen (Charlton Heston) returns home to Coalville, Pennsylvania, on leave where his mother (Mildred Dunnock) is mourning her other son Floyd’s death. Tom learns from wealthy mine owner Dan Reasonover (Ray Collins) that Floyd, a mine safety engineer killed in an explosion, had betrayed Dan’s trust by buying substandard equipment and taking kickbacks. Floyd was also in debt. Tom wants to pay Dan back, but Dan tells him to forget about the money. Dan’s daughter, the twice-divorced socialite Helen Curtis (Lizabeth Scott) meets Tom at a party and asks him for a date. She arranges for him to meet Dr. Homer Gleeson (Lester Matthews), who runs a fancy Pittsburgh clinic catering to wealthy women with imaginary health problems and he offers Tom a job. Tom hires nurse Joan Lasher (Dianne Foster, born Olga Helen Laruska!) an attractive and idealistic young woman who plans to become a doctor herself and is concerned at the way the practice is run. Dan warns him against marrying his daughter while her aunt (Marjorie Rambeau) cautions him once she finds out that Gleeson is a fraud having taken the credit for the lifesaving operation Tom performed. Tom discovers there’s an ethical price to pay for his compromises and finds himself envying Dr. Lester Scobee (Rhys Williams) who cares for the miners of Coalville and their families and then a disaster strikes underground … I sometimes remembered the hippocratic oath. A canny fusion of medical soap opera with film noir, with Scott terrific as the bad girl. Heston is fine as the conflicted doctor who initially chooses moving up in society until finally even he has to admit he’s being unethical. Smart writing about class from novelists Irving Wallace and Horace McCoy and smoothly managed by director Irving (Now, Voyager) Rapper. Gratitude is no substitute for what I want

The Irishman (2019)

The Irishman

It is what it is. In 1975 mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives are on an east-west roadtrip, their ultimate destination Detroit for the wedding of Russell’s niece. An elderly Sheeran tells the story of their association as a meet-cute when he was driving a meat truck in the 1950s and his rise through the ranks, his appointment to a Teamster position under Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the union supremo with deep Mafia ties. It becomes apparent that there is an ulterior motive to the journey and their role in America’s evolution particularly with regard to the Kennedy family is traced against a series of hits Sheeran carries out that reverberate through US history… What kind of man makes a call like that. Not so much Goodfellas as Oldfellas, a ruminative journey through midcentury America via the prism of a violent hitman who allegedly befriended and later murdered infamous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. This is toned-down Scorsese, with muted colours to match the readjusted and very mature framing of Mafia doings in terms of the impact it has on family, chiefly Sheeran’s sensitive daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult) whose mostly silent presence functions as the story’s moral centre:  her horror of Bufalino is a constant reprimand. Steven (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses is not for the fainthearted:  its overlength is sustained mainly by performance with a powerhouse set of principals (plus Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale et al) battling against a lot of unmemorable and somewhat repetitive dialogue (but when it’s good, it’s great), under-dramatised setpieces and a fatally bloated midsection (as in life, so in narrative), much of which is spent in courtrooms. Every time there’s a lull in the action someone needs Frank to off the source of their discontent and sometimes this is handled with straightforward exposition, sometimes in a montage of Frank disposing gun after gun off a bridge. That’s the story punctuation in this flashback within a flashback. Mostly however the issue is DeNiro’s dull and wearying voiceover. This is not the funny jive kick of Ray Liotta in the aforementioned 1990 classic, it’s a man utterly comfortable in his killer’s skin who doesn’t defend himself because it’s who he is and he is not given to introspection, a flaw in the amoral anchoring perspective. If we’re seeing it, we don’t need to be told too. The de-ageing effect is jarring because we don’t see the DeNiro of Mean Streets, rather a jowly preternaturally middle-aged man who shuffles in an old man’s gait with no visible difference between how he looks in 1950 and 1975. While Pesci is calm and chillingly content in his own position as a capo, it’s Pacino (in his first collaboration with Scorsese) who lifts the mood and fills the air with punchy, positive ions, giving the movie a much-needed burst of energy. But even he seems to be circling the wagons around his own self-satisfied persona as the same story/work-life issues repeatedly arise. It’s a big movie about nasty men who (perhaps) played a huge role in the shaping of their country and the hierarchies of cultures and ethnicities are regularly invoked in a tale which may or may not be true. There are some potentially amusing gatherings of men in black suits at family events. But funny they ain’t.  It’s sad perhaps that Scorsese didn’t make this for cinema and after three weeks on limited release it is fated for eternity on a streaming service:  a sign of the times and perhaps the swansong of a major filmmaker at the end of the 2010s. The nail in the coffin of an era? After this we might be asking not just who killed Jimmy Hoffa but who killed the mob movie. Late Scorsese, in more ways than one. They can whack the President, they can whack the president of the union

Steel Country (2018)

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Aka A Dark Place. With a dead kid there’s almost always abuse first. In smalltown rural Pennsylvania garbage truck driver Donny Devlin (Andrew Scott) becomes obsessed with the death of local boy Tyler Ziegler when the police don’t want to investigate how he is found in a river and he is buried without an autopsy. Donny takes it upon himself to investigate, irritating his initially sympathetic co-worker Donna (Bronagh Waugh), getting an admission of suspicion of abuse from Mrs Ziegler (Kate Forbes), confronting a local police officer Max Himmler (Griff Furst), tackling the sheriff (Michael Rose), the paediatrician Dr Pomorowski (Andrew Masset) whose office has taken a lot of calls from Tyler’s mom and finally suspecting the boy’s father Jerry (Jason Davies). His own disordered personality almost puts him in the frame, until he digs up Tyler’s corpse and brings it to a coroner to prove his suspicions … Nothing ever happens around here. Brendan Higgins’ screenplay is equal parts character study and mystery. The noises in Donny’s head and his frankly unusual disposition are never truly explained, the grounds for his obsession left untapped other than a presumed autistic problem hence a rather narrow field of enquiry. The circumstances of how he conceived his beloved 11-year old daughter Wendy (Christa Beth Campbell) with Linda (Denise Gough) are rather seedy;  his living situation with his disabled mother (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) kindly depicted. Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography peers into the American darklands but other than corruption, the kind of easy institutional conspiracy that seems ten-a-penny in child abuse cases and the interesting positing of a paediatrician as a paedophile (one is reminded of a case in the UK when subliterate vigilantes targetted a doctor’s office, presumably believing that child abusers advertise their predilections on their doors), it doesn’t really ring the narrative cause-effect that is required. However it is tonally interesting and Scott delivers a committed if distracting performance in this ironically titled story where industry has long departed leaving predators free to exploit their working class targets. The ending is jaw-dropping – just not necessarily in a good way. Directed by Simon Fellows. What are you trying to do? You trying to give your shitty life some meaning?

Witness (1985)

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We’re all happy that you’re going to live, John Book.  After witnessing a brutal murder, young Amish boy Samuel (Lukas Haas) and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) seek protection from police officer John Book (Harrison Ford). When Book uncovers evidence of police corruption involving narcotics lieutenant James McFee (Danny Glover), Book must take Rachel and Samuel, and flee to the Amish countryside where Rachel grew up. There, immersed in Amish culture and tradition, Book and Rachel begin a cautious romance while he tries to fit in and the enemy closes in …  I just don’t like the idea of my son spending all this time with a man who carries a gun and goes around whacking people! Great films tend to create a narrative fulcrum based on juxtaposition and opposites:  here we have simplicity and purity versus corruption and violence, delicacy versus roughness, city versus country, child versus man. Written by Pamela Wallace and Earl Wallace and William Kelley, this was director Peter Weir’s entree to the American mainstream after a decade of extraordinary work in his native Australia. It also marked Harrison Ford’s acceptance into the acting world proper after a decade as action superstar courtesy of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. His relationships with Rachel and Samuel and his willingness to look silly – that sheepish grin when he’s in Amish clothing! – signalled a new level of sensitive and complex personification.  With a barn-building sequence out of the Dutch masters,  a romantic dance scene that is one of the sexiest ever made, and a conclusion that ratchets like a vise-like grip closing on the protagonists with an astonishing climax in a grain silo out of silent horror cinema, this is made by a master craftsman at his most cinematic and beautiful. Maurice Jarre’s score is legendary. An American classic. No. Try not. Do or do not

All the Right Moves (1983)

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Who in the hell gave you that power? You’re just a coach. You’re just a high school football coach. Steff Djordjevic (Tom Cruise) is the star player of his high school football team and desperately hoping that his football talents will earn him a scholarship. That’s his only chance to get out of his dying hometown of Ampipe, Pennsylvania where his father and brother and every other guy works at the plant before they’re laid off. When a heated argument with his coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) gets him kicked off the team and blacklisted from college recruiters, petty revenge is taken on Nickerson’s house. Steff is blamed and then has to fight for a chance to achieve his dream and escape the dead-end future he faces while girlfriend Lisa (Lea Thompson) wants to study music but reckons she’ll never have the chances that he’s screwed up … From the roughhousing in the changing room to the nasty barroom exchanges and the explicit sex scenes and the unfortunate friend (Chris Penn) who knocks up his girlfriend and has to get married, this has the distinct whiff of authenticity yet never really makes you like it. The blue collar Pennsylvania milieu reminds you both of Flashdance and The Deer Hunter yet the narrative feels underpowered and even Cruise can’t really make this work. Risky Business was his slicker film that year and it’s a colder piece of work while fundamentally dealing with the same crap game of college entrance and kidding other kidders but it stays in the mind in a different way.  Michael Kane’s screenplay was based on an article by Pat Jordan and this marked the directing debut of the great cinematographer Michael Chapman.

The Boys from Brazil (1978)

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Will I be plagued till my dying day by that infernal Jew? Keen young Nazi hunter Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) contacts the renowned Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) from South America with the startling news that Nazi war criminals are gathering in Paraguay under the aegis of Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck). As he phones him a recording of a meeting detailing a strange plan he is killed and Mengele realises someone knows something they shouldn’t…. In Vienna, Lieberman opens a packet of photos Barry sent him and tries to make sense of what he’s heard – why must 94 sixty-five year old male civil servants in several different countries be killed by a certain date? After speaking to Nazi guard Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen) in prison he finds out that several male babies were adopted in the Sixties by women who were 23 years younger than their husbands. After speaking with biologist Professor Bruckner (Bruno Ganz) he discovers that cloning is indeed possible and not necessarily from living donors:  Mengele has bred mini-Hitlers and is having them raised in conditions akin to those in which his glorious leader lived (his father was a civil servant who died before the boy was 15). Lieberman must stop the plot to rekindle the Fourth Reich.,, Ira Levin’s speculative fiction is probably closer to happening now than it was in the Seventies – since which time IVF, cloning and three-parent babies are a mere thought away from what Mengele was doing in his horrifying twins experiments in Auschwitz. So this is a lot less like science fiction than it is science fact. It plugs into the real-life work of Simon Wiesenthal (with Olivier perhaps atoning for his sins in Marathon Man!) when real-life Nazis were still relatively young and of course a huge number of high profile SS men were known to be living freely in sympathetic countries like Brazil and Argentina (never mind running Austria and Germany). It also uses the Lebensborn project as a basis for what is now entirely feasible – apparently. James Mason plays Eduard Seibert, the man who comes to rain on Mengele’s crazy rainforest parade but not before Mengele makes his way to Lancaster Pennsylvania to murder Wheelock (John Dehner) the father of the fourth cloned Hitler (Jeremy Black) a child who is as obnoxious and snotty as his copies in London and elsewhere but has a crucially murderous nature which Lieberman discovers after the boy sets the family’s Dobermans on Mengele. There is a fight to the death – but whose?  This is literally sensational and for connoisseurs of Nazi villains (in cinema) it’s bizarre to see the great liberal actor Peck have a go at Walter Gotell whom he thinks is betraying his plan for world domination. Didn’t they meet in The Guns of Navarone?! Bizarre also to see Bruno Ganz pontificating about clones when his own resemblance to Hitler meant he would play him years later in Downfall. Most bizarre is the fact that Mengele was still alive (for at least another year, possibly longer) when this was released. And for all we know all those Germans in South America (and Europe) have already got their fortysomething men waiting in the wings. Adapted by Heywood Gould and directed by Franklin Schaffner, this had 25 minutes cut for theatrical release in Germany. Poor things! When will everybody stop talking about the Third Reich already?! In the words of the great Dr Henry Jones Jr., Nazis, I hate these guys.

Wonder Boys (2000)

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Michael Chabon’s droll campus novel of dejected one hit wonder creative writing professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) gets a funny and tender adaptation from the late Curtis Hanson and writer Steve Kloves. James Leer (Tobey Maguire) is the weird and ubertalented student whose work is stupendously impressive so when agent Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr) arrives at a college event for aspiring authors he immediately transfers his affection from his transvestitite companion to this new kid on the block and a raucous weekend on and off campus ensues. At a party given by the Chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) – who happens to be Grady’s mistress – and her husband Walter (Richard Thomas) a valuable piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia is stolen,  the family dog is shot and the body hidden in a trunk, and tension rattles when Sara reveals she’s pregnant by Grady, whose wife has taken off to her parents’. Grady thinks James is a suicide risk so keeps him with him – along with the dead dog. It eventually dawns on him that James is a compulsive liar and a total liability. His fellow student Hannah (Katie Holmes) has a thing for Grady but he’s not into her which makes life at his house tricky – she’s renting a room there. Walter sends the police for James when he figures where the MM goods have gone. What happens to Grady’s new book manuscript and the car is just cringeworthy … This is so great in every department – the very texture of the emotions is in every gesture and expression, something that occurs when writing, performance and staging are in perfect sync. Hilarious, compassionate and endlessly watchable. And for anyone looking to complete their picture collection of Michael Douglas’ abject masculinity on film, there’s the image of him standing on the porch in a woman’s dressing gown – something to knock that Basic Instinct v-neck into a cocked hat. Cherishable.

Groundhog Day (1993)

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It’s no accident that weatherman Phil Connors shares his name with the beaver that surfaces (or not) every February 2nd to forecast the end of winter:  Punxsutawney Phil is a metaphor for the crisis besetting a man whose cynicism needs a serious reboot. He relives the same day. Over and over again. The irony for the viewer is that the more often you see this film, the repetition becomes more meaningful, the karma more poetic, the lessons more refined. A work of utterly incomparable comic genius approaching philosophical brilliance, written and directed by the late, great Harold Ramis from a story by Danny Rubin. Simply classic.