Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

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Are you normal?  What is normal?  Harvard psychologist and inventor Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) has the good fortune of having two women in his life – his eventual wife and colleague Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) who is denied her PhD because of her gender and their mutual lover, student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) the niece of the birth control activist, Margaret Sanger, whose feminist mother Ethel, Sanger’s sister, abandoned her to the care of nuns. Marston creates the DISC theory of Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance which he lectures on to besotted female students.  In addition to helping him perfect the lie detector test, they form a ménage à trois which leads to the academics being fired from their University jobs and moving to the burbs where the two women inspire him to create one of the greatest female superheroes of all time, beloved comic book character Wonder Woman as their unconventional lifestyle and penchant for S&M causes problems for the legitimate and illegitimate children they raise together…  This sly old dissertation on American values is told in a series of flashbacks as Marston is forced to defend his comic book’s content to Josette Frank (Connie Britton) inquisitor in chief at the Child Study Association of America in the post-war era as comic books were literally burned, Hitler style, in the streets. No fool she as she knows all the moves, BDSM or no.  It’s amusing to see the trio’s relationship revealed first with the lie detector machine and then in the den of iniquity lorded over by Charles Guyette, the G-string king (JJ Feild) while outwardly life in the burbs goes on as per usual. This is an origins story with a difference and if it plays rather fast and loose (or restrained, whichever you’d prefer) with the lasso of truth, then it’s fun and imaginative and very well performed – interpreted, written and directed by Angela Robinson. Produced by Amy Redford.

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Geostorm (2017)

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I worked on this day in and day out, week after week, for years. What did they do? They turned it into a gun.  A few years after 2019 following an unprecedented series of natural disasters that threatened the planet, the world’s leaders’ intricate network of satellites to control the global climate and keep everyone safe is acting strangely.  Dutch Boy’s inventor Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) is stroppy and a Senate Committee takes him off his own project and installs his younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess) in his place. But now, something has gone wrong: the system built to protect Earth is attacking it, and it becomes a race against the clock to uncover the real threat before a worldwide geostorm wipes out everything and everyone along with it. Jake has to go to back to outer space and Dutch Boy to try and suss out what’s gone wrong and finds himself in a political web with devastating outcomes as the machine designed to protect Planet Earth has become weaponised to destroy it and Max is the only person he can trust to get the POTUS to help as there’s a traitor in the crew … I don’t know about you but I’ve spent the last three weeks baking and I don’t mean cookie dough. Three months ago I was snowbound for a week and three months before that a huge storm nearly blew my house away. So even a trashy eco-disaster thriller with shonky FX, sibling rivalry, a barely-there political conspiracy and slim father-daughter story arc, compounded by some of the worst acting on the planet (take a bow, Mr Sturgess!) is somehow comforting in an era when some seriously smart people are arguing against climate change. Is it me?! Thank goodness the great Abbie Cornish is around to help save the world. Co-written by Paul Guyot with producer/director Dean Devlin. Batten down the hatches! And get me some ice…

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

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I could throw a stick across the river and hit fifty grieving fathers.  Following an Isis suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) as Mexican drug cartels are starting to smuggle terrorists across the U.S. border. The war escalates when Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug kingpin’s thirteen-year old daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to deliberately increase the tensions. When the young girl is seen as collateral damage, the two men will determine her fate as they question everything that they are fighting for, with Alejandro and the girl left on the wrong side of the border when the corrupt Mexican police upset the staged return of Isabel.  At the same time a teenaged Mexican in Texas Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is recruited to move people illegally and the Government drop Alejandro in it  … Sicario was my top film of 2015 and I was pretty surprised that it would become a victim of sequelitis. This is  a far more conventional action outing but steadily winds itself around you with a vise-like grip even if it entirely lacks the deep pulsating strangeness of the original and its fabulously formal widescreen compositions by director Denis Villeneuve and DoP Roger Deakins and the amazing, visceral score of the late great Jóhann Jóhansson, to whom this is dedicated. Crucially it also lacks Emily Blunt’s character, something of a passive protagonist who also functioned as moral compass. What an unusual setup that was! It punched you in the solar plexus, kicked you in the abdomen and grabbed you by the throat. And all the time you wondered who everyone really was. The formerly silent and mysterious Alejandro has achieved his revenge so why does this even exist? Better ask Taylor Sheridan, who is revisiting the border territory he seems to have made his own, writing some of the best screenplays of recent years. There has been a lot of guff about the timing of this and the fact that there’s a girl ‘separated’ from her (lovely!) family here but this is a film that shows us exactly why the US or the POTUS at least wants a wall:  it’s a portrait of ruthless people trafficking poor people with the resultant evolution of drug lords, gangs and murderers. You can leave the pity party at the door especially when you look at the murder rates in Mexico last year alone. Chaos streams from that part of the world, lest we forget. And the answer is a slew of dirty tricks and disavowed ops.  Alejandro is almost forced to question his actions, with Isabel figuring out his relationship with her father:  he’s the attorney whose wife and kids Daddy had murdered. Moner is fantastic, a real find. She is extraordinarily self-possessed as the narco whore! administering beatings in the school yard where the principal is shit-scared of expelling her for fear of reprisals. Brolin returns to the fray dealing out fear in Somalia trying to trace the Isis loonies but back on US soil he’s dealing with the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) and his immediate superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) who wants everything off the books when two dozen Mexican cops are killed (they unleash the firepower first) and the Oval Office can no longer be officially seen to sanction any cross-border activities. The clever aspect is parallel teenage stories – the Tex-Mex boy killer and the kingpin’s girl even if they are rather replete with clichés, no matter the shock value. The conclusion has been set up to deliver another movie with del Toro – a long way from the money laundering (literally) in Licence to Kill – still in the druggie violent territory to which he so frequently returns. Directed by Stefano Sollima. 

Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

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Gentlemen you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!  U.S. Air Force General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) goes completely insane and sends his bomber wing to destroy the U.S.S.R. He thinks that the communists are conspiring to pollute the ‘precious bodily fluids’ of the American people and takes hostage RAF Commander Mandrake (Peter Sellers) before blowing his brains out when Mandrake wants the code to stop global catastrophe. Meanwhile in the War Room President Muffley (Sellers again) tries to reason with General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and has to make an embarrassed call to the Russian premier while the Russian ambassador tries to sneak photographs on the premises and the creator of the bomb (Sellers – again) reveals it simply cannot be stopped …  Peter George’s serious book about nuclear proliferation, Red Alert, got a blackly comic workout by Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern, producing one of the great films and one that seems to get better and more relevant as the years go by. Sellers’ triple-threat roles were a condition of the financing after his work on Lolita. The spectre of him as the wheelchair-bound Führer-loving kraut by any other name mad scientist failing to control his sieg-heiling arm and utilising an accent familiar to fans of The Goon Show is not quickly forgotten, nor the image of Slim Pickens astride the nuclear bomb, rodeo-style. It’s not just Sellers’ appearances that are brilliant – Hayden is weirdly convincing when talking about depriving women of his essence due to the fluoridation of water;  and Scott’s expressivity is stunning. Apparently it was Spike Milligan’s idea to use Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again over the apocalyptic closing montage in which the nuclear deterrent has deterred absolutely nothing and blown us all to Eternity. The end of the world as we know it. A staggering tour de force.

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.

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

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Look at me – a fat silly lame impotent old woman.  Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is a prison clerk in 1887 India, sent by some accident of position to bring a valuable coin to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) in her jubilee year. She is sick and tired of her situation and fawning household courtiers and takes a fancy to Abdul, elevating him to be her Munshi, a sort of spiritual guide and teacher of all things Indian. His travelling companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) is kept on as his servant. She thinks Abdul is Hindu but he’s actually a Moslem. When the Queen realises Abdul has a wife she sends for her and she arrives with her mother, both clad in veils. Everyone in the house resents his increasing influence and when Prince Bertie (Eddie Izzard) arrives home from his feckless life in Monte Carlo expecting his mother’s death any day soon, he sets the staff on a course of revenge … Dench is in fine fettle as a naughty old woman just dying to let rip rather than having to endure endless official engagements and report on her bowel movements to doctors concerned with her poor diet. Lee Hall adapted the book by Shrabani Basu and Stephen Frears lends the material his customary sceptic’s eye particularly in the early stages where the comedy is high and the culture clash constant. The relationship at the story’s core is wonderfully played. Very entertaining return to the role for Dench, with apt mention of John Brown (Mrs Brown was released 19 years ago!) in another tale of Victoria’s unusual friendships and curses aplenty hurled at awful Scotland.  Funny, humane and good-natured with the inevitable bad ending wrought by the dastardly Bertie, the man who should never have been King.

Country (1984)

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We’re not dealing in real estate. We’re trying to farm.  Jewell (Jessica Lange) and Gil Ivy (Sam Shepard) run a farm in Iowa that has been in her family for generations. They make enough to just about get by until two devastating events threaten to take their land away. First, a tornado tears through the farming community and devastates the area, then the Farmers Home Administration calls in loans owed by most of the area’s farmers, which most are in no position to repay. The stress buckles Gil and he resorts to getting loaded every night leaving Jewell to do the math and figure out a way to save their way of life… William Wittliff’s screenplay is a properly political piece of work, focussing on the specifics of a family’s response to economic disaster in the era of Reaganomics – to the point that the President decried it which means it hit home.  Gil isn’t exactly a wastrel but his father in law (Wilford Brimley) leaves us in no doubt that he believes he has thrown away an opportunity to make a financial surplus on the best land in the county. Was his drinking to blame for the threatened foreclosure? Terrific performances in this detailed portrait of family life with a standout lowkey characterisation by Levi Knebel as teenaged son Carlisle. There’s an opportunity to see famed drama coach Sandra Seacat play neighbour Louise Brewer whose husband hides sheep from the banks on the Ivy land. The auction scene makes you weep. Heartfelt, powerful stuff. Produced by Wittliff and Lange and directed by Richard Peerce.

Odd Man Out (1947)

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If you get back to your friends, you’ll tell ’em I helped you. Me, Gin Jimmy. But if the police get you, you won’t mention my name, huh?  Johnny McQueen (James Mason) has been in hiding in Kathleen Sullivan’s (Kathleen Ryan) home for the past six months since his escape from prison. He’s the leader of a political group (the Organisation, code for the IRA) that needs funds although his compatriots think he’s not up to the task:  he believes negotiating with the other side might get them further than attacking them.  Nonetheless he takes part in a raid on a bank but it goes wrong and he’s shot as he kills a cashier. Pat (Cyril Cusack) drives off before Johnny can get into the getaway car and the gang are the subject of a manhunt while Johnny is left to struggle on his own relying on help from passing strangers …  R.C. Sheriff adapted F.L. Green’s novel and while it’s not named, this is clearly set in Belfast. Mason is rivetting as the terrorist who’s experiencing his delirious last long night of the soul in a film that is equal parts documentary and pretentious psychological thriller, with wonderfully atmospheric canted angles and shadows from Robert Krasker’s cinematography. The supporting players are largely drawn from the ranks of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre – including Robert Beatty, W.G. Fay, Joseph Tomelty, Noel Purcell, Eddie Byrne and Dan O’Herlihy. Albert Sharpe (presumably fresh off Finian’s Rainbow on Broadway, where he made his fortune) plays a bus conductor. Robert Newton impresses as the wild philosophising artist painting Johnny. While some exteriors were shot in Belfast it would appear a great many scenes were done in London including a reproduction of the famous Crown Bar, which was actually a set at D&P Studios. A powerful and gripping drama, this remains one of the great British films, an unconventional, potent and poetic treatise on compromise, brutality, daring and death centering on a passive protagonist around whom much of the plot revolves. Out of the ordinary. Directed by Carol Reed. MM #1800.

Trumbo (2015)

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You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy.  In the early Forties in Hollywood Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is the highest paid scriptwriter but he’s also a member of the Communist Party. In a 1947 purge led by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott) Trumbo and several of his fellow writers are hounded into appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington where they go off-script and ten of them wind up being imprisoned and their careers are ruined. When they get out they have to rebuild and face down their betrayers as they scrabble to write for the black market … Adapted from Bruce Cook’s biography of the blacklisted screenwriter, this is so good on so many levels. It takes a relatively complex history of the Hollywood anti-communist campaign and makes it understandable and it comprehensively names all the people who were behind it as well as communicating the terrible fear that descended upon the creative industries when what America was really fighting was creeping liberalism (which it learned decades later and which was also feared by the communists). It accurately portrays the documented differences among the Hollywood Ten and how they were perceived by their peers (not entirely positively especially following their self-aggrandising performances at the HUAC hearings) and the terrible compromises and betrayals between friends:  Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) didn’t work for a year and gave names of those men already behind bars. How to win against the oppressive Hollywood machine drives so much of their post-prison experience – sue them like the composite figure of Arlen Hird (Louis CK) wants to do? or do what they’re good at and beat the bastards at their own game? like Trumbo does – and how apposite that Trumbo was selected to rewrite Spartacus after winning the Oscar for both Roman Holiday and The Brave One under a front and then a pseudonym. What raises this again above other films dramatising the same situation is the sheer wit and brio with which it is written and performed – which you’d frankly expect of anything with Trumbo’s name attached:  kudos to John McNamara. It also clarifies the extent to which this was a self-administered situation – these guys were screwed over by the studios voluntarily, not Government decree. Cranston is perfect in the role which is suffused with sadness and smarts and he embodies the writer we all really want to be – smoking like a train, drinking like a fish, tranked up on benzedrine and writing in the bathtub. A wonderfully ironic touch for a man who didn’t wallow. It’s wonderful to watch him deal with his daughter Nicola (Elle Fanning) become as politicised as him and he must assume a different parental role as she matures:  he admires her but he can’t be disturbed to get out of the tub and celebrate her birthday because he’s got a deadline.  There are great scenes:  when Trumbo notices that Robinson sold a Van Gogh to pay for the writers’ legal defence;  the writing of the cheapie scripts for the King Brothers. This is a complicated portrait of a fascinating and contradictory individual. Diane Lane has a thankless and almost dialogue-free part as his brilliant wife Cleo but her charismatic presence transforms her scenes:  she is duly thanked by Trumbo in the film’s final scene in 1970 during a Writers Guild ceremony. John Goodman is fantastic as the Poverty Row producer Frank King who meets a Motion Picture Alliance thug with a baseball bat and leaves him in no doubt as to what will happen if he gets the way of his hiring Trumbo because he’s in the business for money and pussy and doesn’t care about politics.  There’s a fantastic scene sequence that illustrates the different working methodologies of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger:  Trumbo played them off one against the other to get his credits restored. The best tragicomic moment is perhaps in the clink when Trumbo encounters his nemesis J. Parnell Thomas who’s been imprisoned for a real crime – tax evasion. Trumbo was however convicted of one thing – contempt. He was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and this film does not shirk from that fact.  Directed sensitively and with panache by Jay Roach who has made a film that is literate, eloquent and humane. I am Spartacus.

Hampstead (2017)

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What am I, your cause of the month now? Couldn’t get anywhere with global warming, no?An American widow Emily (Diane Keaton) living in the London suburb of Hampstead and an Irish man Donald (Brendan Gleeson) who lives on the Heath in an illegally erected shack form an unlikely alliance against unscrupulous property developers in the neighbourhood  as they both confront the fallout from their respective romantic entanglements … Diane Keaton has done rather well in work about ageing, particularly in the films of Nancy Meyers. Her ditzy carapace shields a core of steel and her charm is very winning, used correctly. Here she’s just doing it somewhere else – London – and she has a grown up son (James Norton) who’s relocating abroad and she’s got a mountain of debts left by her philandering husband.  Using a pair of binoculars she finds while trawling the attic to find anything she might sell to make ends meet, she spots a man being attacked on the heath. He’s the guy she spotted swimming in the pond. Their meet cute happens at Karl Marx’s grave which is a nice trope for the class and money basis of the unlikely narrative which is in all other matters pretty superficial. While her neighbour Fiona (Lesley Manville) tries to set her up with creepy ukulele-playing accountant James (Jason Watkins) who has designs on her, her campaign to save Donald from an eviction order pits her against Fiona’s property developer husband. The tone is mostly light but Donald’s character is given some heavy lines and the bear-like Gleeson does the drama here which lends this an unevenness that is inappropriate to something that otherwise might have played like a screwball comedy. Somehow he and Keaton cancel each other out instead of making a great couple. They each have great lines but the reactions are not right because they’re mostly in differing scenes. Keaton ‘becomes’ Keaton – she spots a beret in a window and eventually her drabness is transformed into a figure we know on- and offscreen as her character gains in confidence.  She now has a cause beyond her own immediate concerns about the taxman, but her occasional shrillness can’t compensate for what feels sometimes like an underwritten script by Robert Festinger:  she only gets angry at her husband’s grave and we learn at the film’s conclusion it appears Fiona likely knew about the mistress and didn’t tell Emily. Norton’s cursory appearances seem like a last minute addition and do nothing to characterise her predicament which was devised as a fictional device to complement the real story of Hampstead Heath squatter Harry Hallowes. Phil Davis and Simon Callow are terrific in the courtroom scene but this lacks the chemistry between the leads that might have pulled it up beyond its bogus plot contrivances:  even the ending has a very obvious metaphor about navigating your path in life! These fish out of water are destined to swim away from each other, methinks. Directed by Joel Hopkins.