Little Children (2006)

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It’s the hunger. The hunger for an alternative, and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness. Sarah (Kate Winslet) is in a stultifying situation – stay at home mom to a very robust little girl, she’s obliged to endure the Mean Girl quips of competitive moms at the playground, all of whom appear obsessed with house husband Brad (Patrick Wilson) who keeps failing his bar exams and is kept by his beautiful documentary filmmaker wife (Jennifer Connelly). On a dare, Sarah gets to know him – and they fall into a deeply sexual relationship while their children are on playdates. He conceals their meetings from his wife and they occur in between his trips to hang out with the local teenaged skateboarding gang and playing touch football with off-duty police officers. He reacquaints himself with Larry (Noah Emmerich) a retired officer who’s on a mission to go after a supposedly reformed returned paedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) in the neighbourhood:  Brad accompanies him to the house where they find the man is living with his elderly mother (Phyllis Somerville) who is trying to get her son to find a nice girl (which results in an utterly horrifying scene). Sarah finds her husband masturbating to online porn and she starts to think of escape… Adapted by Tom Perrotta from his own novel, this exerts a literary pull in a good way with a voiceover orienting us to people’s workaday notions and sordid lives in much the manner of Updike or Cheever or indeed Madame Bovary which features as the local book club’s choice. Shocking, adult entertainment about people as they probably really are, shallow, nasty and pretty terrible when they trap each other into relationships, this is outstandingly performed and made. Directed by Todd Field.

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Calendar Girls (2003)

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It’s not just jam and Jerusalem you know. Annie (Julie Walters) and Chris (Helen Mirren) are the two bored laggards at their Yorkshire branch of the Women’s Institute. When Annie’s husband dies young from leukaemia they come up with a plan to raise money for a relatives’ seating area in the hospital – but last year’s WI calendar only raised a few hundred quid so inspired by Chris’ son’s porn mag collection they devise a calendar with a difference. It’s a raving success. But Chris’s son goes off the rails, Annie is inundated with mail from her fellow bereaved and a trip to the Jay Leno show in LA brings out the tensions between the two. This real-life inspirational story of middle-class middle-aged countrywomen could have been truly mawkish but the interpretation by Tim Firth and Juliet Towhidi covers timidity, adultery, WI politics and bake-off rivalry amid the joking and stripping. Mirren and Walters are both specific and broad when it’s required. There are great character roles particularly for Penelope Wilton, but also Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie and Geraldine James with Ciaran Hinds, John Alderton and Philip Glenister bringing up the shapely rear. There’s a great moment when the band Anthrax introduce themselves to the infamous ladies. Directed by Nigel Cole.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

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Where did you get him – Psychos R Us? Its Christmas in LA. A beautiful young blonde takes some pills and swan dives from a high rise apartment onto the roof of a parked car. Ageing police officer and family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is newly paired with psychotically reckless widowed undercover cop and former Green Beret Marty Riggs (Mel Gibson) who has been suicidal and virtually homicidal since the death of his wife in a car crash. The dead girl is Amanda Hunsaker the daughter of an acquaintance of Murtaugh’s from Nam. Her pills were drugged with drain cleaner so she would have been dead within 15 minutes one way or another. After a shootout with Amanda’s pimp, Murtaugh figures the reason his friend was trying to contact him in the days before Amanda’s death was because he wanted to rat out his colleagues in a heroin smuggling ring dating back to their days in Air America, the CIA front for smuggling in Laos and they likely killed the girl as a warning. The group is led by General McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) whose enforcer Jack Joshua (Gary Busey) is a violent psychotic who meets his match in Marty Riggs and when he captures him it’s torture  … Shane Black’s screenplay caused a sensation when it sold for megabucks back in the day.  It has some uncredited work done by Jeffrey Boam because the original was much darker than what we see here. Sure it’s a trashy loud violent action buddy movie but its real strength is the bed of emotions played by Glover and Gibson, two well-matched actors who have charisma to burn and were ingeniously cast by the legendary Marion Dougherty. Murtaugh’s quandary as the father of a teenage daughter is amplified by his Nam buddy’s heartache over his daughter’s plight and motivates him to pursue the conspirators (and is also a significant plot point); while Riggs’s deranged grief is understandable to anyone who’s bereaved:  his rooftop rescue of a jumper is breathtaking.  The deadpan style is emphasised when Murtaugh is warned by a police psychiatrist after the fact about what could happen when Riggs blows. The treatment of the suicide storyline is extremely well written. It’s all about how these guys choose to express their feelings and confront their fears while carrying out their duties in this smart and funny slambang sensation which is so sharply directed by Richard Donner. It has visual and narrative energy in abundance: Donner makes his usual visual jokes about where he places his credit and puts The Lost Boys on a cinema marquee and the film is dedicated to stuntman Dar Robinson who died after production. This was the first in a long-running franchise and three years later Gibson starred in Air America a film about those very merry pranksters who are the villains here Produced by Joel Silver.

A Boy and his Dog (1975)

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It’s 2024. World War Four lasted five days and devastated the world as we know it. Vic (Don Johnson) and his clever telepathic dog Blood (Tiger, voiced by Tim McIntire) are foraging in the dangerous and doomy post-apocalyptic landscape of the southwest US when they happen upon Topeka, an underground pastiche of real middle class life as it used to be. He’s taken in by Quilla June (Susanne Benton) who’s a sexy ruse to get him to help father a new generation for a community led by Lou Craddock (Jason Robards) – all those guys living underground don’t have Vitamin D so can’t reproduce any more.  He leaves Blood overground, much to the dog’s annoyance:  he knows something is up …  Actor L.Q. Jones directed and co-wrote (with producer Alvy Moore) the adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s 1969 novella when the author got writer’s block. Reportedly Ellison liked it pretty much until the final line – which is glib and misogynistic even for a black comedy.  Ellison’s work is focused on procreation rather than alien invasion which makes him rather unusual for the sci-fi fraternity. Johnson makes for an attractive lead – until he gets down and dirty and Tim McIntire is a wonder as Blood.  He composed the score with Ray Manzarek of The Doors (and Jaime Mendoza-Nava). Although it was a commercial failure it turned out to be hugely influential if you’ve seen the Mad Max series. Jones had hoped to make a sequel starring a girl, but once the fabulous Tiger died, the plans evaporated. Maybe …

 

Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Nobody fucks with the Jesus. The Dude abides. Where to start with one of the most cherished films there has ever been? Not in the beginning. I may have almost had a coronary from laughing the first time I saw this at a festival screening prior to its release, but a lot of critics just did not get it. It’s the Coen Brothers in excelsis, a broad Chandler adaptation and tribute to Los Angeles,  a hymn to male friendship and the Tao of easy living with some extraordinarily surreal fantasy and dream sequences – not to mention some deadly bowling. Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, a guy so laid back he’s horizontal but he gets a little antsy when some thieves mistake him for The Big Lebowski and piss on his rug (it really tied the room together). Best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is his bowling buddy, an uptight Nam vet with adoptive-Jewish issues in this hilarious offside take on director John Milius. Steve Buscemi is their sweet-natured friend Donny and John Turturro is the unforgettable sports foe, a hispanic gangsta paedo in a hairnet, Jesus Quintana. After the rug issue is handled, Dude is hired by his namesake (David Huddleston) a wheelchair-bound multimillionaire philanthropist, to exchange a ransom when his young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped. Naturally Dude screws it up. There’s a band of nihilists led by Peter Stormare, some porn producers (Bunny makes flesh flicks), Lebowski’s randy artist daughter (Julianne Moore) and a private eye following everyone. And there’s Sam Elliott, narrating this tale of tumbleweed and laziness.  Everyone has their signature song in one of the great movie soundtracks and Dude has not only Creedence but White Russians to really mellow his day. Just like The Big Sleep, the plot really doesn’t matter a fig. This is inspired lunacy and I love it SO much.

Welcome to New York (2014)

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Until a half dozen years ago one didn’t necessarily equate the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank with molestation, self-pleasuring and rape – other than financial. With the arrest of French presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn, we learned that it’s a merry-go-round of whores, call girls, strippers, hookers, prostitution rings, orgies and sex parties. The first thirty minutes of this Abel Ferrara epic concern themselves precisely with this subject matter,  in which an important person going by the name Devereaux, a DSK-alike (Gerard Depardieu, who clarifies he hates all politicians and that one in particular in the opening ‘meta’ EPK) satisfies himself with a plenitude of whores in a succession of scenes. It’s a grotesque sight not merely because Devereaux is enormous and growls when aroused. It’s pure porn. This is prefaced by a meeting prior to his departure for the US where he’s warned that the secret service there are going to be monitoring him because of rumours (they’re not specified). The messenger is immediately offered sexual favours by one of Devereaux’s whores. After hiring two ladies of the night a housekeeper walks in on him naked, he grabs her and jerks off on her. Admittedly I had to pause at this point and come up for air because the stench off this story was overwhelming. He meets his adult daughter and embarrasses her in front of her boyfriend by asking if she enjoys sex with him. The police then grab him before his aeroplane leaves the ground at JFK. He is arrested and humiliated, stripped naked and imprisoned in a police cell when he’s finally allowed his one phonecall and it’s to his powerbroker wife Jacqueline Bisset as Simone, a version of Anne Sinclair. Bisset plays her with elegance, hauteur and the infinite understanding of a woman who is very much aware that she is married to an insatiable, repulsive sex fiend.They have a big scene about an hour in, when he’s permitted to stay in a posh modern duplex under house arrest. She begs him not to touch her – even now she’s susceptible to his touch. His adult daughter by a previous wife calls Simone humorless. He addresses the camera when they discuss his detractors and snarls,’They can go f**k themselves!’ After a therapy session enforced by law/his wife in which he admits he cannot be saved nor does he wish it, we enter real Ferrara territory, exploring the mindset of this unrepentant unChristian sinner:  Devereaux is back at the house, looking out at NYC. His reflection is fragmented in such a way as to actually look like the real DSK. His voiceover narration explains his contempt for ‘the herd’. We flash back to his previous sexual encounters including his assault of a young journalist whose mother he knows – he insinuates she wasn’t as much of a problem when it came to sex. His sense of entitlement is supreme, his sense of his power over women unvarnished, his sense of shame utterly non-existent. The charges are dropped, we don’t know why, he presumes it’s his wife’s chequebook. Can anyone comprehend the power of a billionaire? (In reality the immigrant hotel worker was accused of lying because her statement was mis-translated.) And we end with him looking straight to camera after his housemaid says he’s a nice person. If you can get through the vile first half an hour … you get to know why the world is the way it is and why we know next to nothing about the women he abused. But you probably know that already and since this barely got released, you probably don’t need to have this awfulness reinforced. This is a horrible film about a horrible person and the horrible people around him .

Can You Keep It Up for a Week? (1974)

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In my ongoing search to see some of the worst films ever made, my viewing turns once again to that dread beast, the British Sex Comedy. This mini-genre, which feasts off the audience’s total embarrassment, is well served here in its gruesome attention to genitalia and stupidity. Jill Damas will only marry boyfriend Jeremy Bulloch if he can hold down a job for seven days. This is not a Buster Keaton film. He starts by pumping petrol and you can figure out the double entendres, pratfalls and shot choices. He bungles everything, everywhere.Every other job necessarily involves sexual relations with females succumbing to his hapless charms. Richard O’Sullivan cameos as a camp photographer, Valerie Leon as a predatory femme who hits on Jill -but this makes it sound respectable. It culminates in an orgy around a swimming pool. The producers thank the Holiday Inn chain for using their facilities at Heathrow and Swiss Cottage. Presumably they’ve cleaned the rooms by now. This allegedly had a screenplay by someone called Robin Gough (his sole outing, whew) and was directed by Jim Atkinson (his only directorial job). Crossroads‘ creator Hazel Adair wrote the lyrics to the theme song. Even I have to say:  I have now seen enough. Ghastly.

The Iceman (2012)

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One critic called this Zodiac meets Goodfellas. And therein lieth the problem. It’s the true story of a mob hitman, Richard Kuklinski, who supposedly murdered around 100 people between 1965 and 1986. Michael Shannon marries Winona Ryder who thinks he dubs Disney cartoons. Actually he puts together pornos for the Mafia. When his boss (Ray Liotta) shuts down the place he tests him by giving him his gun to shoot a homeless man. He has form so it’s not a problem. And he keeps on killing. And doublecrosses his boss with another contract killer (Chris Evans) who operates a Mr Whippy van. And the killings just go on and on. Until he’s caught. And we don’t care. Shannon’s is an unsympathetic character and the (co-)writing by director Ariel Vromen just doesn’t move us a whit, even with the backstory of the rough upbringing and the brother inside for raping and murdering a 12 year old girl. Hear this? It’s the sound of the smallest violin in the world.

Cool It Carol! (1970)

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Janet Lynn is Carol Thatcher (!), the smalltown girl who’s bored and wants to go to London for fun and a modelling career. She convinces Robin Askwith playing Joe the trainee butcher to join her and deflowers him on the train journey. They quickly run out of money and she thinks it’d be a lark to pose for nude photos and when they have to wait to see if they’ll sell, he pimps her out so they can eat. Lynn maintains her upbeat approach to the world of seed even when old men masturbate over the pair of them having sex for a porn film. She wants to draw the line at having sex with a sheikh but now that Joe’s managing her she has to go through that and more because there’s so much money involved … they fetch up with a lorra lorra money but they’re not happy. Lynn is quite the delight and Askwith is good as the naif. From the pen of Murray Smith, this Pete Walker outing is a typically cautionary tale about prostitution – but it doesn’t stop him shooting all those couplings and breasts, eh? The Seventies. Another time, when you really did find stories in the News of the World and just change the names. Allegedly.