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?

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Play It As It Lays (1972)

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I’ll tell you what I do. I try to live in the now. Burned-out B-movie actress Maria (Tuesday Weld), depressed and frustrated with her loveless marriage to an ambitious film director, Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) who would rather work on his career than on his relationship with her, numbs herself with drugs and sex with strangers. Only her friendship with a sensitive gay movie producer, B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), offers a semblance of solace. But even that relationship proves to be fleeting amidst the empty decadence of Hollywood as they both start to crack up ... How do you get to the desert? You drive there. Husband and wife screenwriting team Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted Didion’s sensational novel of alienation and its transposition to the screen by director Frank Perry captures its existential sense of crisis. Weld is perfect as the model turned actress whose flashbacks are a faux-documentary and some biker movies she has made with her husband (and Roarke starred in some himself, of course). Her narrative is determined by movie business ghouls and Sidney Katz’s editing plays into her disjointed sense that she is losing control in a chilling world where her retarded daughter is locked away and she undergoes an illegal abortion.  Weld is teamed up again with Perkins after Pretty Poison and they work beautifully together – you really believe in their tender friendship. An overlooked gem which reminds us what a fine performer Weld is and also the fact that Charles Bukowski wrote about her in the poem the best way to get famous is to run away.  A cult classic. The fact is, when an actress walks off a picture people get the idea she doesn’t want to work

Circus of Fear (1966)

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Aka Psycho-CircusCircus of Terror/ Das Rätsel des silbernen Dreieck / Mystery of the Silver Triangle/ Scotland Yard auf heißer Spur. I wonder if we have something in common with the murderer.  We’re both looking for the same thing. In the aftermath of a daring armoured car heist on London’s Tower Bridge that ends with the murder of a security guard, police detective Jim Elliott (Leo Genn) follows a trail of clues to the travelling Barberini Circus, which has just passed through the city. Though he suspects a conspiracy under the big top, he discovers strained relations between the disfigured lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee) and his associates and colleagues who include owner Barberini (Anthony Newlands), ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache), bookkeeper and wannabe clown Eddie (Eddi Arent), knife-thrower Mario (Maurice Kaufmann) and a dwarf called Mr Big (Skip Martin). Elliot struggles to find his man – and recover the stolen cash – in a maze of blackmail and deceit that concludes in a sharp-edged dénouement courtesy of Mario …  Why must these things always happen at the weekend? Written by producer Harry Alan Towers (as Peter Welbeck) and based on Again The Three Just Men by Edgar Wallace, whose prolific work had just spawned another series of adaptations at Merton Park Studios, this is a British take on the German krimi genre and happily has Klaus Kinski as the mysterious Manfred among a terrific cast numbering Suzy Kendall as Gregor’s niece Natasha, Cecil Parker as Sir John of the Yard, and Victor Maddern as Mason the unfortunate who uses a gun, with Lee in a mask rather defeating his key role but leading to a key unveiling in the third act. Genn is a bit of a PC Plod rather than an intuitive ‘tec but his role winds up anchoring the narrative and he’s nicely sardonic if secondary to the overly complex and twisty plot of the circus crowd’s behind the scenes antics with red herrings and dead ends dangling everywhere. Mostly nicely handled by cinematographer Ernest Steward with some interesting shot setups and well paced by director John [Llewellyn] Moxey. The opening scene is smartly achieved without dialogue and the final summing up scene is a high wire act quite different from what you’d see in Agatha Christie. Werner Jacobs directed the German version which has an alternative ending and was released in black and white. I do like to respect a man’s privacy but in a criminal case there’s really no such thing

Downton Abbey (2019)

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It’s like living in a factory. It’s 1927. Excitement is high at Downton Abbey when the Crawley family headed by Robert, Earl Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) learn that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to visit. Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) is perturbed that Maud, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) Queen Mary’s lady-in-waiting, is included in the tour. Maud is Robert’s cousin and her closest relative. The two families have fallen out over who should inherit Maud’s estate, Robert or Maud’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton). Tom Branson (Allen Leech) makes nice with a stranger known only as Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore) who he believes is keeping him under surveillance for his Irish Republican sympathies. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) scrambles to get the household ready but butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is proving inadequate to the task and Carson (Jim Carter) is quickly summoned out of retirement. But trouble arises when the cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Daisy (Sophie McShera), housekeeper Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and the rest of the servants learn that the king and queen travel with their own chefs and attendants – so when the Royal Page of the Backstairs (David Haig) arrives with the entourage the stage is set for a showdown below stairs Secrets always muddle things. Julian Fellowes returns to the big screen with a country house tale nearly two decades after Gosford Park which inspired the hugely successful Downton Abbey TV show in the first place. There’s less plot than one of those episodes and it picks up approximately 18 months after the last one but the characters are so barely skimmed over and it all looks so pretty you’ll hardly notice – the only possible controversy is with an attempted royal assassination, trouble with the monarch’s daughter Princess Mary’s (Kate Phillips) marriage, Barrow’s trip to the Twenties equivalent of a gay rave, Lady Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) mysterious retreat from independence into the world of ladies who lunch (which she only addresses late in the story) and a lightly trailed retirement of the world’s favourite pantomime Dame Maggie who lands all of the best lines. Well she would, wouldn’t she. Even Isis the dog makes a return albeit she isn’t called. Nary a hint of revolution save a mention of the General Strike which leads the Dowager Countess to observe that she noticed her maid was rather curt to her. Featherweight entertainment, as light and fluffy and non-calorific as one of Mrs Patmore’s soufflés. Directed by Michael Engler.  I know I’m going to forget my lines

 

A Dog’s Way Home (2019)

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As a puppy, Bella (played by Shelby and voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) finds her way into the arms of med student Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) a young man who with girlfriend Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) finds her in a demolition site with her friend Mother Cat and her kittens and gives her a good home with him and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd) a military vet who volunteers at the local Veterans’ Administration assisting the rehabilitating of fellow vets with PTSD and physical injuries. When Bella becomes separated from Lucas in an encounter with Animal Control, she is transported to the home in New Mexico of his Olivia’s family. She escapes and soon finds herself on an epic 400-mile journey across mountains and forest to reunite with her beloved owner. Along the way, the lost but spirited dog touches the lives of an orphaned cougar cub whom she calls Big Kitten, surviving hunters and predators, is kept in chains by a down-on-his-luck homeless alcoholic veteran Axel (Edward James Olmos) and briefly has a home with some friendly strangers, a gay couple (Barry Watson, Motell Gyn Foster) who happen to cross her path during an avalanche.  After two long years away from Lucas what will happen when she reaches her destination? … A reworking perhaps of Disney’s  The Incredible Journey, this had me at Woof. And in between the times I was blinking away tears and outright crying, it’s scary, tender, heartfelt and full of compassion. You might quibble with a CGI Big Kitten and the over-sentimentalising but there is real peril and some nasty human behaviour as well as an issue over how a dog should be classified when it comes to having a pit bull for a parent:  well, what’s new. And what’s not to love about a dog separated from her mother who finds a mother in a cat family?  And then a human family? And comforts soldiers suffering the after-effects of service? And who then befriends an orphaned cougar? At the end of the day, there’s no place like home. Sob. Adapted by W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon from Cameron’s book and directed by Charles Martin Smith, an actor who will always be Toad in American Graffiti here at Mondo Movies as well as Farley Mowat in that splendid wilderness film Never Cry Wolf. I knew now that my journey was much longer than I’d ever imagined

Hotel Mumbai (2019)

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The whole world is watching. In 2008 terror strikes in the heart of Mumbai, India, as members of the Islamic terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba storm the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, one in a series of 12 coordinated attacks throughout the city by the jihadists. Amid the gunfire and mayhem, a brave chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and Sikh kitchen worker Arjun (Dev Patel) decide to risk their own lives to try and protect the frightened guests in a place where the credo is the guest is god. As the militants continue their assault on the hotel, a British Moslem heiress Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and her American architect husband David (Armie Hammer) and their nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) must do whatever they can to protect their newborn baby, even while circumstances conspire to separate them; while shady Russian businessman Vasili (Jason Isaacs) steps up to see how he can protect himself and others. Meanwhile the under-resourced local police force are completely overwhelmed by the military-grade assault and the terrorists make sporadic appearances, executing more and more guests as they make their way through the building taking orders from Brother Bull ...  From Mumbai to Washington, their screams will be heard. The temptation to describe this as a disaster movie is overwhelming, because that’s how this account of a terror attack is presented and packaged. It’s a technically proficient exercise in docudrama with little time to get to know the real heroes who make incredible sacrifices to save strangers. In reality 174 people were murdered in an act of racial hatred that lasted four long days. This was no sinking ship or fiery skyscraper, it was a meticulously planned carnival of cold-blooded mass murder carried out against supposed infidels by Moslems with some stupid complicity by news media giving away the escapees’ location (something repeated during the factory siege following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris). The conventions of genre are efficiently deployed by debut director Anthony Maras and co-writer John Collee to very discomfiting effect with gruesome brutality. A frankly misjudged piece of work which might lure more terrorists into the fray in the belief that their actions will be dramatised unquestioningly, even with a degree of entirely inappropriate sympathy for gullible subliterate peasants whose first experience of flush toilets this was. Or: it’s a timely warning to western and westernising countries to get a grip and stop permitting Islam to flourish.  If any of you want to back out now, no hard feelings

Quadrophenia (1979)

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You’ll be getting like them bloody beatniks before you know it. Ban the bomb and do fuck all for a living poncing about all day. In 1964 angst-ridden London teenager Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels) escapes the drudgery of his mailroom job at an ad agency as a member of the Mods, a sharply dressed drugged-up scooter-riding tribe of post-war teens constantly at odds with their conformist parents and their rivals, the bike-riding Rockers.  Jimmy  parties with Dave (Mark Wingett), Chalky (Phil Davis) and Spider (Gary Shail), fellow Mods. When the Mods and Rockers clash in the coastal town of Brighton, England, it leads to both trouble and an encounter with his crush, the lovely Steph (Leslie Ash). Returning to London, Jimmy, who aspires to be like Mod leader Ace Face (Sting), becomes even more disillusioned when his scooter is destroyed by a collision with a lorry, he’s thrown out of home and he returns off his head to Brighton where he discovers the kind of reality he has long sought to escape … If you don’t work, you don’t get paid no money. And I like money. Forty years since its original release, this is a landmark film about working class culture, growing up and finding your place in the world. The Who must have already seemed out of step with the times when this was made at the height of punk (Johnny Rotten was screen tested for Jimmy but nobody would insure him) – it’s an adaptation of their 1973 opera, an expression of the band’s situation (each band member’s face is reflected in the four mirrors on Jimmy’s Lambretta on the album cover) which would be splintered completely a mere two weeks before production with Keith Moon’s shocking death. Their first manager Peter Meaden had died the previous year. So the meta story becomes about the band’s own reinvention. It’s the story of all youthful quests, different songs reflecting the various band members while Pete Townshend tries to sum up the culture that drove the formation of The Who in the first place. There’s real pleasure to be had seeing well-known actors and musicians as teenagers, albeit Trevor Laird and Toyah Wilcox were 20 and Sting, who was topping the charts with The Police by the time this was released, was in his late twenties. Ray Winstone is Kevin, Jimmy’s childhood friend who has left the Army and is beaten up in an act of revenge and Jimmy rides off when he can’t stop the attack. For true cultists, there’s a brief (uncredited) appearance by Simon Gipps-Kent, a gifted actor who died young in mysterious circumstances (he opens the door to the guys at the posh party 15 minutes in).  The critics weren’t too kind to a film that’s rough around the edges and could have been better directed for much of its running time, but its blend of kitchen sink realism, rites of passage narrative, theme of rebellion and astonishing music gives it real heart and meant the audience lapped it up and it led to a revival of Mod culture and probably helped launch ska, prompting a whole new era in music. The Who’s John Entwistle was responsible for supervising the soundtrack and those of the album’s songs that are featured are in a different order from the album and are mixed up with The Kinks and The Crystals, among others, and the score doesn’t drive the story, it serves it. It starts with The Real Me and the most poignant inclusion from the original album is Love Reign O’er Me. Why do people love it so, this teenage symphony to Mod? It’s about searching for something to believe, somewhere to belong:  meanwhile, life as tragicomedy. Written by director Franc Roddam, Martin Stellman, Dave Humphries and Pete Townshend. We are the Mods! We are the Mods! We are, we are, we are the Mods!

48 HRS (1982)

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I wanna know what the fuck this is all about! I gave you 48 hours to come up with somethin’ and the clock’s runnin’! Renegade San Francisco cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) pulls bank robber Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) from a federal prison on a 48-hour leave to help him capture Hammond’s old partner, Albert Ganz (James Remar). After escaping from a prison work crew where he shot up two of the guards, Ganz is on a killing spree around San Francisco, on the trail of half a million dollars that went missing after one of his robberies. The cocky Reggie knows where the money is, but spars with the hotheaded Jack as he enjoys his temporary freedom…  I’ve been in prison for three years. My dick gets hard if the wind blows. The great screenwriter turned director Walter Hill surrenders full tilt boogie to the action genre and makes one of the best films of the Eighties with this tough buddy movie starring one of the best double acts to ever appear on screen:  Nolte’s gruff cop to Murphy’s fast-talking crim provides an exercise in contrast and juxtaposition – straight/funny, white/black, law/disorder- with their fast prolix exchanges both profane and meaningful as they find each other on the same side. The scene in the redneck bar is justly famous but the tone and thrust of the entire muscular narrative is warm and funny, characterful and plain, overtly racist and sexist, in a constant battle of oneupmanship. This was Murphy’s big screen debut and it made him a star. It all plays brilliantly, with Remar making a return visit to Hill territory following The Warriors and the city of San Francisco provides the stylish stomping ground while Annette O’Toole is Nolte’s love interest, Elaine. Written by Roger Spottiswoode, Hill & Larry Gross and Steven E. DeSouza, this is the basic cop-buddy template, the mother of all action comedy. Now, get this! We ain’t partners. We ain’t brothers. And we ain’t friends

Death Defying Acts (2007)

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We had a real double act, my mam and me.  It’s 1926. Upon arriving in Edinburgh, Scotland for a series of mind-boggling performances, master illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) offers an impressive cash reward of $10,000 to any supposed psychic who can accurately tell him his beloved late mother’s exact last words. Gorgeous local swindler Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) rises to the challenge and together with her streetwise daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) leads Houdini on in a dangerous flirtation that blurs the line between reality and paranoia –  but she has reckoned without the machinations of his canny manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) who knows a con when he sees it but has his own reasons to let this Oedipal obsession play out in the world of spiritualists, fake or not … Nothing in this world’s free. It’s an engaging premise and well staged but this drama of who’s-fooling-who sadly won’t hoodwink the audience. Pearce is hardly Houdini although he’s a charmer whether tied up underwater or on the surface, and Jones’ and Ronan’s lively performances as grifters are marvellous but can’t conceal the dramatic deficit at the centre of the narrative. It looks wonderful and is beautifully staged but never really takes off, the mystery of Houdini’s personality is never convincingly exposed and of course as we know it ends in tragedy. Written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, directed by Gillian Armstrong. I used to be a nice man you know. Do you believe me?

 

The Company You Keep (2012)

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We all died. Some of us came back. Decades after an ill-fated robbery in which an innocent man was killed, a former member of the Weather Underground Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is on her way to turn herself in to authorities when the FBI arrest her at a gas station after her phone is tapped. While covering the story and digging around, reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) discovers that recently widowed human rights lawyer Jim Grant (Robert Redford) was also a member of that particular group and is really a man called Nick Sloan since the real Jim Grant died in 1979. Sloan slips by the FBI led by Cornelius (Terrence Howard) who are following him when he goes on the run, from Albany through the Midwest and beyond, hoping to track down his former lover, Mimi (Julie Christie), who’s still underground and fighting for the cause. He leaves his young daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho) with his doctor brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) and his wife. Meanwhile, Ben encounters a police officer Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson) who knew Nick back in the day and meets his his adult daughter Rebecca (Britt Marling) who is a lot older than she initially seems and Ben figures she is somehow connected to Mimi and Nick ... Everybody knew somebody who was going over or somebody who wasn’t coming back.  Adapted by Lem Dobbs from the titular 2003 novel by Neil Gordon, Robert Redford directed and produced this film which of course nods to that period in his own life when he was politically attuned and making films which spoke to the zeitgeist. Partly it’s about the state of journalism and Ben’s role of the ambitious journo who isn’t looking beyond the headlines, as Nick/Jim declares to him, Well that pretty much sums up why journalism is dead. It’s a pivotal statement because this is all about ethics – Sharon’s self-justifying, his hiding away, the times in which people live and endure their families being destroyed by violence, homegrown or otherwise (and millennial corruption is everywhere evident as Ben gets information with the passing of greenbacks to everyone he encounters). LaBeouf is good as the questing young writer – and looking at his screen career perhaps it’s the company he keeps that improves his impact because he’s surrounded by a great ensemble doing very fine work, including Nick Nolte who shows up as another member of the group. This is a serious work about a complex time which clarifies why historical crimes demand more than cursory payback and jail time. It’s well-paced, a drama of conscience, guilt and retribution. Now that’s context. They did unforgivable things but you’ve got to admire the commitment.