Queen of the Desert (2015)

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Who knows best about tribes? In 1902 Gertrude Bell Nicole Kidman the daughter of wealthy British parents and a recent Oxford graduate. has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions, and a life of privilege bring her only boredom. At one dance a potential suitor actually suggests fornication and alludes to her similarity to his prize herd. Aspiring to some usefulness in her life, Gertrude decides to join her uncle who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. There the young lady not only encounters the Near East but also falls in love with an embassy employee, Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who adores her for her perspicacity and teaches her Farsi. However, their romance does not last long as her parents consider the young man a poor matrimonial choice for their daughter and forbid the marriage. Desperate, Henry commits suicide, failing to reconcile himself to the enforced separation. Gertrude finds out in a letter home following her mother’s death. For the remainder of her long life Gertrude Bell completely devotes herself to exploring and writing about the Near East in the wake of his death. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) on an archaeological expedition and turns down a request to become a spy for the British Government. She visits her beloved Bedouin tribes over the Arab lands and earns their trust. Upon going to Damascus she encounters Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and he confesses his passion for her but he’s married. She is kidnapped by an emir who wants to marry her – she could be his mother.  And when she returns to Syria, she finds World War One has spread … I would give my life for a woman like you.  This extraordinary story, of a pioneering woman traveller, writer, archaeologist and (eventually) a politician whose views shaped the delineation of the borders in the Middle East, following the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, gets a romantic biographical treatment. Kidman brings tremendous feeling to a woman of singular self-possession whose life nonetheless is shaped by the contours of love and death. It’s a rather conventional form for Werner Herzog who wrote and directed it, but there are scenes which communicate seemingly directly with nature, music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yeager which feeds from desert song.  It’s not the mad epic you think you might get – it’s from Bell’s own writings and from history and it’s a swooning and beautiful interpretation of a woman alone among military men who seem to suffer intolerable repression. For the first time in my life I know who I am.  My heart belongs to the desert

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You Were Never Really Here (2018)

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Close your eyes. Traumatised war veteran Joe Rogers (Joaquin Phoenix) tracks down child traffickers for a living. He lives a small life with his mom (Judith Roberts) in between assignments. When he’s hired to find Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) the kidnapped thirteen-year old daughter of a senator he finds himself engulfed in a violent conspiracy and he vows to get the child back after she’s snatched from their hideout. But can he hold it together long enough to find her?… I want you to hurt them. No synopsis can capture or justify the sonorous strangeness of this film.  Lynne Ramsay’s gimlet eye for observation and composition was present in her first short films twenty years ago. Now her images remind one of Bresson, Kubrick, Melville. But scuzzy Phoenix is not the beautiful Delon – he’s a former soldier traumatised by PTSD and  haunted by the abuse he and his mother suffered at the hands of his father. (It’s not everyone whose safe place is in the closet with a polythene garment bag around their head.)  Nina’s numbed silence matches his flashbacks to terror – as more unspools in front of him. This is a chance for a kind of redemption, especially when the unknown thugs hurt his beloved mother who happens to have been watching Psycho when we first meet her. Some of the action is just avoided – we see Joe exit rooms via close circuit camera. We see what is absolutely necessary to understand his perspective – including snapshots of his life in the war zone which blurt into the action when he’s driving, struggling to stay conscious. It denies us the usual thrill of the chase. Who is Sandy, whose name chain figures largely at the beginning? Where were those other dead girls? His point of view is everything:  it simply propels us forward as the superfluous is jettisoned. We are left to imagine the sexual violence perpetrated:  it’s a refined approach to action which has its own reasoning, contrasting deeply with the beautifully drawn domesticity of Joe’s life with his mom. There are no explanations as to the sex slavery ring run at the higher echelons of public office.  If this doesn’t quite attain the levels of poetic one expects it packs a hell of a wallop. Ramsay adapted the book by Jonathan Ames and it’s shot by Thomas Townend with a score by Jonny Greenwood and despite the many ironic songs used in an inspired auditory experience courtesy of Paul Davies, nobody thought of If I Had a Hammer, Joe’s weapon of choice.  Sparse and sinewy, this tightly wound paean to suffering inhabits the mind. Hey Joe, wake up. Let’s go. It’s a beautiful day

The Heat (2013)

If you’re not in trouble you’re not doing your job.  Ambitious NYC-based FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is a methodical investigator with a long-standing reputation for excellence and arrogance. She’s better at finding drugs than sniffer dogs and is far superior to her male colleagues so they don’t like her, putting her desired promotion in jeopardy. She can’t even keep a relationship going with a cat so she borrows her neighbour’s.  In contrast, foul-mouthed, hot-tempered Boston Irish detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) goes with her gut instincts and street smarts to remove criminals from the locale, including her brother Jason (Michael Rapaport) which has alienated her family. Her own mother (Jane Curtin) gives her the finger in a drive by.  Sparks fly when these mismatched polar opposites are forced to work together to capture a drug lord, the unseen Larkin, but in the process, they become the last thing anyone expected – buddies. When they discover there’s a mole in the investigation everything is put into jeopardy … My fear is that I’m gonna put you in a bikini and you’ll still look like a fucking bank teller. Screenwriter Katie Dippold has put so many zingers into this you’ll have to watch it twice because you’re laughing so much you miss half of them. This subversion of the odd couple cop/buddy actioner is screamingly funny as it works through the genre’s tropes with zest and two fingers. Bullock’s buttoned-up uptight PC perfectionist priss Ashburn is wonderfully set off against McCarthy’s unkempt foul-mouthed vicious bully Mullins. Ashburn can’t get a date, Mullins has a mystifying physical allure. Thrown together, they are mutually united in their disgust for the albino inflicted on them from the Drug Enforcement Agency – a wonderfully offensive running joke in homage to the film with a film, Goldie Hawn’s brilliant Foul Play (a regular spin here at Mondo Towers). The anticipated painful seam of piss-taking at Boston accents is disposed of in one neat exchange over the Mullins family dinner when Ashburn tells them they’ve dropped the ‘r’ in Narc. Mullins’ realisation her brother is in a coma because of her actions leads to the only transient episode of sentiment as Ashburn’s attitude is transformed hearing the sexist comments made by their male colleagues – she turns into a gibbering expletive-laden mini-Mullins – and triggers the final act when the women’s solidarity becomes ninja-strong. God, you guys are just – what is the matter with you? You’re such… you’re just such jerks! You’re just such… shit jerk! You’re just a shit jerk dick… fucker! You’re a shit jerk dick fucker assholer. And you can all just go fuck yourselves!  With Marlon Wayans as a thick drug dealer and Demian Bechir as the boss who can’t help laughing,  this is lightning fast, hilarious, rude and brilliantly directed by Paul Feig. Truly funny. The cat got one look at your shitty life and said “no fucking thanks, man. I am outta here.”

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

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You save that jiggle for your husband.  Semi-retired Michigan lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) takes the case of Army Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who murdered local innkeeper Barney Quill after his wife Laura (Lee Remick) claimed that he raped and beat her.  However a police surgeon finds no evidence of rape.  Over the course of a big trial, Biegler is the smalltown lawyer (and recently deposed District Attorney) who must parry with the new DA Lodwick (Brooks West) and out-of-town prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) to set his client free, but his case rests on the victim’s mysterious business partner Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), who’s hiding a dark secret.  Biegler has to prove Manion was suffering temporary insanity but will the jury buy it after Biegler discovers he’s a violent and jealous husband and he knows in his heart he’s got a very weak defence? … Producer/director Otto Preminger spent most of the 1950s baiting the censor with material for adults and this long engrossing account of a true crime is no different. Wendell Mayes adapted Robert Traver’s (aka John D. Voelker) novel based on his own experiences on a 1952 case in the state of Michigan.The matter of fact handling of the explicit physical details in the courtroom confirms that this is a film that has no cinematic tricks. It’s shot wide and flat in black and white with the only camouflage or disguise in the personalities presenting themselves. That applies to the legal team too:  Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) has to swear off the booze for the duration to assist Biegler;  Laura must drop the tight pedal pushers, don skirts and hide her wonderful hair;  Biegler’s bonhomie hides a finagling mind that doesn’t express great surprise at anything anyone says or conceals.   There’s a strand of humour running through both dialogue and characterisation that raises the game: the lightness of Remick as the bruised flirtatious beauty, with her wonderful companion dog Muff (Snuffy) who gets to provide his own witness statement in court, alongside Stewart’s jolly and wryly witty performance, makes this more pleasurable than the subject matter suggests. In fact the whole film avoids melodramatic excess and has a devious sinuousness that leads from Stewart. His banter with Joseph N. Welch [chief counsel for the US Army when it was being investigated for UnAmerican Activities in the McCarthy Hearings] about fishing provides a lot of enjoyment; Eve Arden as the reliable and seen-it-all secretary Maida Rutledge offers her typical scepticism in a film constructed from the cynic’s playbook. There are no histrionics or crazy closing arguments, just practice, rationale  and evidence (of witness-coaching). Now, Mr  Dancer, get off the panties – you’ve done enough damage.  Duke Ellington provides the film’s notable score and he appears uncredited as pianist Pie Eye and enjoys an exchange with Stewart. The great titles are by Saul Bass. This is elegant filmmaking, wonderfully crafted, telling a difficult story in the procedural vernacular very stylishly.  How can a jury disregard what it’s already heard?

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

Raising Arizona (1987)

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Ed felt that having a critter was the next logical step.  When incompetent convenience store robber  H.I. ‘Hi’ McDonough (Nicolas Cage) marries policewoman Edwina ‘Ed’ (Holly Hunter) after she takes his mugshots, they discover that she is infertile. In order to appease Ed’s obsessive desire for a child,  Hi steals one of a set of quintuplets born to Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), mega rich owner of a chain of furniture stores. Mayhem ensues when his former cellmates, brothers Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and  William Forsythe) break out and turn up on their doorstep and the child’s rich father sends a rabbit-shooting bounty hunter biker – the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse – after the kidnappers…  Everything’s chAAAnged! With hysterical overacting turns, a set piece chase to rival the best of them – all over a packet of diapers – an incredible prison break, and a winning set of adorable blond babies, this sophomore outing by the Coen Brothers divided critics after their dark-hearted debut, Blood Simple. It fizzes with photographic flourishes, nonsensical action and witty lines, with hyper-exaggerated enunciation (take a bow, Ms Hunter!) and dog-tired impersonation (by Cage) of a desperate father belatedly realising when there’s a new baby in the house that life will truly never be the same again. The meal-time pelting by his in-laws’ children crystallises his hapless sorrow.  With bravura cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld, a yodel-along score by Carter Burwell and sparky performances by the entire cast, this is highly charged, effervescent and exuberant, practically exhorting the audience to dislike it as it races over the top and into the fantastical abyss in order to emerge with glee. Y’all without sin can cast the first stone

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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I know what I like and don’t like.  When I like something, I like it enormously. When I don’t like something, I can’t abide it.  An avalanche stops the famous train the Orient Express in its tracks and one of the occupants, the very unlikable Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered in his compartment. As the acclaimed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) interrogates the passengers, his little grey cells working overtime to find the culprit, he discovers that each of them has a link with the victim … Agatha Christie’s classic novel gets another interpretation, this time adapted by Michael Green and directed by star Branagh who goes overboard with his facial decoration.  You can dream up your own cliché:  the plot runs out of steam or goes off the rails, as a remake it’s clueless (in consideration of the 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet) and so on, but the real crime is by Branagh because he makes directing and staging choices which do not work. There are overhead shots depriving us of the detail and nuance of some performances (Hitchcock only did this when a deception was being carried out) while the 1974 version gave each of its superstarry cast a real opportunity to chew the sumptuous scenery in well thought out one-on-one scenes. Here, the interviews are cursory and underplayed with Branagh playing Poirot for laughs. The film opens on a scene in Jerusalem in which Poirot proves his detecting mettle. It’s unnecessary. It also gives him a romantic backstory. As if. Michelle Pfeiffer is a wonderfully vampy character, Judi Dench is a Princess, Penelope Cruz is a religious nut, while Daisy Ridley, Willem Defoe, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman and Josh Gad round out the ensemble. This feels as under-nourished as its cast. I once stood on a station platform waiting for the Reading train into London and the real Orient Express pulled up:  there was more drama peering in the windows at that glorious vehicle and its travellers in those five minutes than there is in this entire film’s running time.

Red Sparrow (2018)

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The Cold War did not end, it merely shattered into a thousand pieces.  Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) faces a bleak and uncertain future after she suffers an injury to her leg that ends her performing career. Her uncle Vanya(!) (Matthias Schoenaerts) is deputy director of the SVR and has photos which incriminate her dance partner and rival at the Bolshoi and she inflicts terrible injuries on the pair of them, as he predicted.  He then makes her a deal and she becomes a witness to a state-sponsored killing and either has to die or do what he says.  She needs her sick mother (Joely Richardson) to be cared for. She is sent to Sparrow School, a secret intelligence service set up by Khrushchev, that trains exceptional young people to use their minds and bodies as weapons under the watchful eye of Matron (Charlotte Rampling). Egorova emerges as the most dangerous Sparrow after completing the sadistic training process which turns her into a prostitute for the State, with killer abilities. As she comes to terms with her new job, she encounters CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in Budapest and he tries to convince her that he is the only person she can trust as her mission threatens to undo the security of the US and Russian alike and she agrees to become an agent for the US – or does she? … As the world moves back to Cold War positions, this throwback to that era aims to be a tough sexy thriller but Jason Matthews’ novel adapted by Justin Haythe abounds with clichés which no amount of nudity (gratuitous or otherwise) convince us that this belongs with the great espionage films we all know and love. Long and violent, there are some amusing exchanges, particularly with Putin lookalike Schoenaerts such as when his niece hisses  You sent me to whore school! I thought all Russian women went, but there you go. There are twists upon twists and ultimately they play well, with Lawrence very good in a role which is truly abject and horrible in parts. This is a fast-moving travelogue with a conclusion that is planted well in advance and you don’t need to be a master in spycraft to figure it out. It’s not Graham Greene, but what are you going to do? Lawrence is reunited with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for this walk on the wild side and it looks splendid:  even the torture is shot prettily.

The Happy Prince (2018)

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Intimacy in the sewers followed by fantasy in the gods, and then, total silence.  As he flees England to France in the wake of his release from prison, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) tries to reestablish his life, finish his writing work and disdain his lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Colin Morgan) whose father the Marquis of Queensberry had him gaoled for his homosexuality following a libel suit.  All the while he is hounded by the press who have made his life a misery in a society  whose denizens once enjoyed being sent up by him but which are now all too happy to shun him. He is assisted in exile by his literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and loyal friend, journalist Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). But when his identity is revealed to a hotel proprietor following a fracas with bullying English tourists, he is obliged to take up residence in Paris where he slides into dissolution, corresponds with Bosie and is cut off by his wife Constance (Emily Watson) on the advice of her solicitors… There is no question that Everett achieves something rather special here:  he inhabits Wilde with the kind of comfort that can only come from someone who has long shepherded this project as well as playing him a number of times on stage;  the acknowledging that Bosie was truly Wilde’s Achilles heel – he simply cannot resist the nasty little bugger, a beauty, a nauseating irresponsible temptress in male clothing, a sop to Wilde’s vanity.  He is his downfall and he is simply irresistible. Everett doesn’t spare Wilde physically either – bloated, drugging and drinking, wearing rouge, he’s a braggart whose survival depends on his wit yet he says he found God in gaol:  in that cell there was only himself and Christ. He has lost his strength yet he musters a violent thug within to confront holidaying yobs who recognise him in France:  that their showdown occurs in a church is a nicely Wildean touch. He finishes De Profundis;  he tells the story of The Happy Prince both to his sons in flashback and to the two street boys he befriends in the Parisian underworld. The multi-faceted backwards and forwards in time structure should confuse but doesn’t because the focus is all on Oscar:  and Everett is savage as appropriate.  This is a self-inflicted theatrical exit, fuelled by lust and blind obsession, invariably leading to terrible pain which he seems unable to stop. We are watching a great writer decompose, in all the senses that that term might conjure. There are all kinds of second-tier attractions:  the mood of melancholy offset with famous bons mots and rueful self-examination;  the locations;  the portrayal of male friendship and loyalty;  the hypocrisy writ large even within Oscar’s own worldview because he tells people what they need to hear even when everyone concerned knows it’s not true (Ross truly loves him and Wilde loves him back, just not in the same way);  his thoroughly wistful longing to see his small children again which grieves him terribly;  Everett’s old pal Béatrice Dalle (from Betty Blue) turning up as the proprietress of a risqué bar;  the interweaving of onstage characters from Wilde’s plays with his real-life associates; the wondrous score by Gabriel Yared. Frisky, fruity and just a little salty – rather like the man himself. It’s a heartbreaking  and profoundly literary valentine, wise and witty and immensely good. What a debut for Rupert Everett, film writer and director.  Surely Love is a wonderful thing

Badlands (1973)

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At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.  1959 South Dakota. Teenage girl Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) angers her father (Warren Oates) when she begins dating an older rebellious greaser, garbage man Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) who fancies he’s like James Dean. After a conflict between Holly and her father erupts, he kills her dog. Then Kit murders him, so the young lovers must flee. In the ensuing crime spree, they travel through the Midwest to the Badlands of Montana, eluding authorities along the way, killing as they go … Holly’s dreamlike and hilariously affectless magazine-like narration anchors this exquisite blend of drama and horror as the true-life 1950s killers Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate inspired script doctor Terrence Malick to strike out and make a film of his own. The distance between the form and content is bridged by the effects of technique – was there every such wonderful magic hour photography (by Tak Fujimoto, Steven Larner and Brian Probyn) to offset the horror of a serial killer in his element?  As Holly begins to realise Kit is psychotic the shots place him further and further away from her. This is an astounding work with beguiling performances by two adult actors who inhabit this fairytale of deluded teenage desire with strange conviction. The score based on work by Carl Orff, Erik Satie, James Taylor and George Tipton is classic. A remarkable, lyrical, transcendent film. Unforgettable.