If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

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Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street. In early 1970s Harlem, daughter and wife-to-be Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James), who goes by the nickname Fonny. Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together, but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman he has never met by a grudge-bearing beat cop Officer Bell (Ed Skrein). Tish’s mom Sharon (Regina King) determines to get justice for her prospective son-in-law and tracks down the rape victim who has disappeared to her home country; while her husband Joseph (Colman Domingo) and Fonny’s dad Frank (Michael Beach) have a more pragmatic approach and resort to theft to make money. Meanwhile, Tish is pregnant and Fonny is in prison …  Love brought you here. Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary success with the singular Moonlight has led him to adapting James Baldwin, a classic author who has been underrepresented insofar as screen adaptations are concerned and this shares that film’s flaws with scenes of charming and alarming domesticity alternating with slowed-down moments of expressionist beauty and entire sequences of unremitting tedium – Fonny’s conversations with Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry) are a case in point. Not content to both under- and overdramatise the story, this draws into its narration a bigger issue about police brutality, corruption and racism, overloading the slight balance which then relies in turn on terrific performances which are rather unhinged by a comic book crooked cop as stooge. Enchantingly scored by Nicholas Britell who enlivens a very uneven, occasionally wearying experience. Written and directed by Jenkins. I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life

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Night School (2018)

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What’s happening?/Pubes and racism. High school dropout Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart) is a successful BBQ salesman whose life takes an unexpected turn when he accidentally blows up the store where he works just when he’s on the verge of inheriting it and marrying his sweetheart Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Forced to attend night school to get his GED so that he can become an investment adviser alongside his friend Marvin (Ben Schwartz), Teddy soon finds himself dealing with a group of misfit adult students of losers and flakes, his former high school nemesis (Taran Killam) who is the school principal and feisty teacher Carrie (Tiffany Haddish) who doesn’t think he’s all that bright and has no time for troublemakers in a classroom. Teddy starts working behind the counter at fast food Christian Chicken outlet and everyone is flunking. There’s nothing for it but to steal the practice test. … This is a minor setback for a major comeback. Little Kevin Hart’s efforts to emulate Eddie Murphy’s loudmouth hustler shtick continue apace while tumbleweed blows across the screen every time someone opens their mouth. There’s a good prison fight on Skype, though. Written by Hart, Nicholas Stoller, J’Dub (is that a name?), Harry Ratchford, John Hamburg and Matthew Kellard, clearly a group for whom attendance ranks above excellence. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. There’s no cure for what you have

Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)

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He’s gonna give the dog fleas. Unlucky homeless guy Dave (Nick Nolte) decides to call it quits, and so sneaks into a stranger’s backyard in the posh enclave of Beverly Hills and tries to drown himself in the pool. However, Jerry’s plans are stopped by the pool’s owner, white-collar businessman Dave (Richard Dreyfuss), who pulls the tramp out of the water and into the pool house. But Dave’s hospitality and his status-obsessed wife Barbara (Bette Midler), don’t impress Jerry, who ignores them and first makes their crazy dog Matisse (Mike!) take his instructions and then pursues the family’s maid, Carmen (Elizabeth Peña) who is Jerry’s lover. Then Barbara succumbs to him during a massage. As he insinuates himself into the family they each think he’s solely devoted to them. Things finally come to a head at the New Year’s party when Dave is trying to impress potential Chinese buyers and his anorexic daughter Jenny (Tracy Nelson) reveals the reason she’s eating again … I went shopping for gratification. But it was like sex without a climax. Paul Mazursky’s remake of the 1932 Renoir film Boudu Saved From Drowning (itself adapted from a French play) is a sprightly screwball farce with some very funny performances in this story of a one-man home invasion who seduces all before him, starting with the dog, who has his own psychiatrist. Taking potshots at midlife crises, below-stairs relationships, race relations, wellness fads, consciousness raising and silly people who have more money than sense, it might not be the vicious satire you expect from Mazursky but it’s hilarious from start to finish with some really smart verbal transitions from scene to scene. Co-written with Leon Capetanos. I knew that bum was trouble

Little Big Man (1970)

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I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers. My name is Jack Crabb. And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, uh, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. When a curious oral historian (William Hickey) turns up to hear the life story of 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), he can scarcely believe his ears. Crabb tells of having been rescued and raised by the Cheyenne, of working as a snake-oil salesman, as a gunslinger, and as a mule skinner under General Custer (Richard Mulligan). He learned the way of the Indian and the Creation story at the foot of Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who ponders the difference between Custer and Human Beings.  He also claims to be the only white survivor of the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn but is he telling the truth or is he the biggest liar ever?… Am I still in this world? Calder Willingham’s adaptation of Thomas Berger’s novel is a superb, caustic, funny, shocking and humane saga of the West as you have never seen it before. Told in a circular structure through this self-proclaimed adopted son of Cheyenne, it debunks myths, casting an acerbic eye over the rationale of the genocides carried out by so-called American heroes and how they have previously been dramatised. Inevitably the awful violence calls up parallels with the Vietnam War. Hoffman is quite brilliant as the ridiculously old guy who claims to have been there and done that with Faye Dunaway lending terrific support.  This grand, flavourful shaggy dog epic is beautifully crafted by director Arthur Penn making it an insidiously charming, educational entertainment that is virtually a masterpiece of Seventies cinema. I was afraid it would turn out this way

The Skeleton Key (2005)

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The thing folks just don’t understand about sacrifice… sometimes it’s more of a trade. Twentysomething Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson), a good-natured nurse living in New Orleans feels guilty about not being around for her father’s death while she was on the road working for rock bands. She quits her job as a carer at a hospice to work at a plantation mansion in the Terrebonne Parish for Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), an elderly woman whose husband, Ben (John Hurt), is in poor health following a stroke. When Caroline begins to explore the couple’s rundown house where Violet bans mirrors, she discovers strange artifacts in a locked room at the back of the attic and learns the house has a mysterious past to do with servants from the 1920s, Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott) and the practice of hoodoo. She realises that Violet is keeping a sinister secret about the cause of Ben’s illness and wants to get the old man out of there. When she appeals to their estate lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) for assistance she finds that he’s not quite what he seems to be …  It gets harder every time. They just don’t believe like they used to. Gotta get ’em all riled up. An immensely appealing excursion into folk horror that is as much about the history of Louisiana and race relations as it is a genre exercise (though it’s a fairly efficient suspense machine too). Beautifully staged and atmospherically sustained by that very stylish director Iain Softley, it’s written by Ehren Kruger, who burst on the scene with the surprising Arlington Road, another look at Americana (of the homebred terror group variety) who has spent his time since this either a) making a shedload of money or b) squandering his immense talent (take your pick – perhaps both?) making the Transformers films. Hudson is very good opposite screen great Rowlands while Hurt spends his time silenced by the stroke, emoting with his eyes and making a failed suicide attempt off a roof. That’s how badly he needs outta here. Gorgeous location shooting around New Orleans and Louisiana make this a feast for the eyes and the twist ending is very satisyfing, cherI don’t believe I don’t believe I don’t believe

The Unforgiven (1960)

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Death for death and blood for blood. The Zachary family live quietly on a border cattle ranch in post-Civil War Texas. A sabre-wielding stranger called Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) appears and disturbs their bucolic existence by spreading a malicious rumor that their adopted daughter, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn), is a Kiowa Indian. Soon, the Zachary brothers Ben (Burt Lancaster), Cash (Audie Murphy) and Andy (Doug McClure) and their mother Matilda (Lillian Gish) must defend themselves from both racist whites and vengeful Kiowa as they prepare a cattle drive to Kansas while Rachel’s relationship with Charlie (Albert Salmi) the son of  neighbour Zeb Rawlins (Charles Bickford) triggers a murderous intervention and ruins the family’s partnership … Nothing could kill me except lightning out of the sky and then it would have to hit me twice. A positively strange and tantalising cast in one of John Huston’s more unusual outings, this adaptation by Ben Maddow of Alan Le May’s novel is an ‘issue’ movie and that issue is racial prejudice, specifically that of Native Americans.  What an odd but interesting role for Hepburn and she paid for it with a broken back while horse riding (she was assisted in her recovery by the real-life character she had played in The Nun’s Story!) and the clash of acting styles is really something:  Lancaster (who produced with his company) is the man of the family who thinks nothing can surprise him but it’s Gish who provides the spectacle as the matriarch and moral centre, anchoring a narrative oriented towards death in both a poetic and real sense. Bickford is her equal as the patriarch in mourning. Wiseman’s odd and fearsome character is an augury, with his Sword of God and Biblical portents.  The question of Rachel’s origins provides the engine for a story about stories and lies and what families do to survive. The final siege with Cash absenting himself from his ‘red-hide nigger’ sister as the Kiowa surround the Zachary family is brilliantly executed. Will Audie ride in to save the day? Will Audrey be loyal to her Kiowa brethren? So many of these performances hinge on what we know of the actors from their previous roles.  Maddow had written The Asphalt Jungle for Huston ten years previously and spent much of the interim on the HUAC blacklist fronted mostly by Philip Yordan (whom he castigated).  He and Huston would co-write an episode of Jungle‘s TV series the following year. A splendid almost visionary film about different ways of death that’s paradoxically full of life. The year of falling stars a baby strapped to a crib

The L-Shaped Room (1962)

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Everybody tells me how to get rid of it. Nobody tells me how to have it. 27-year old French woman Jane Fosset (Leslie Caron) moves into a seedy Ladbroke Grove boarding house and gets to know the other residents who are a motley crew of waifs and strays.  Toby (Tom Bell) is a lovelorn wannabe author;  Johnny (Brock Peters) is a black jazz musician  who hears everything in her living quarters through a paper-thin dividing wall; Mavis (Cicely Courtneidge) is an old unemployed actress who has hidden her Lesbian tendencies;  Sonia (Patricia Phoenix) is an ageing prostitute who runs her business from her basement room. When Jane starts a relationship with Toby, Johnny tells him she’s pregnant – she’s been in two minds about whether to keep the result of her sexual initiation with an actor from whom she’s split and she realises she loves Toby as she didn’t love the father of this baby and his departure prompts a crisis … As a child I was always in mourning. The novels of Lynne Reid Banks were something of a talisman for me and I would imagine for many other adolescent girls – and this adaptation of her key work does it justice, rooted in the kitchen sink realist style of the era. Bryan Forbes adapts and directs with some startling compositions (courtesy of Douglas Slocombe). Caron is wonderfully touching as the French woman (originally English) impregnated by her first ever lover; and while Bell wasn’t entirely my image of the Jewish writer created by Banks, he is nonetheless impressive. You believe their tentative friendship that blossoms into something else while their dealings with third parties hover at their shoulders. The whole ensemble embody their roles with real feeling. How fascinating to see the legendary Phoenix (Coronation Street‘s Elsie Tanner) while her long-time legendary love Tony Booth has a bit part (‘Youth in the street’). Nanette Newman aka Mrs Forbes plays the new girl in the L-shaped room at the end. There’s a credible jazz score by John Barry as well as some nicely chosen Brahms to enliven a sensitively told story, so very nicely played and staged in a ghastly London run by slum landlords, a few years before certain of its ‘burbs began to swing and before either legal abortion or the Pill were available. If you haven’t read the author, then for goodness’ sake do. She’s great – a proper Angry Young Woman capable of utterly unsentimental sentences about profoundly moving experiences. Don’t fall in love with me. You don’t know me

 

 

Widows (2018)

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The best thing we have going for us is being who we are… no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.  When Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew of criminals are engulfed in flames during a botched job in Chicago, Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself owing hustler-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a couple of million dollars. Armed only with a notebook in which Harry detailed his past and future plans, Veronica teams up with the gang’s other widows – Linda (Michelle Rodriquez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and single mom Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to mount a robbery her husband was planning that could clear their debt and give them a new start. Meanwhile, an increasingly brutal election battle featuring Irish-American career politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his father Tom (Robert Duvall) emphasises the social problems of Chicago, raising the stakes for this ramshackle group’s first foray into crime…  I’m the only thing standing between you and a bullet in the head. Steve McQueen won the Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave, a relentlessly gruesome account of black American history, an astonishing achievement for a British visual artist never mind a black director. His genre impetus has hardly been on anyone’s radar but he was a fan of Lynda La Plante’s feisty women from the 1983 British TV series (set in London) and brings a lot of artistry to this slick feminist outing concerning itself as much with issues of poverty, domestic abuse and childcare as the unlikeliness of a heist led by women trying to pay back their criminal husbands’ debts following the conflagration that killed the men in a botched heist.  The backdrop which exists in the narrative courtesy of Farrell’s role is given huge expressivity through Sean Bobbitt’s widescreen camerawork, the issues of money and race and class and the sewer of Chicago politicking right there for all to see but of course that deflects from the main story even as it serves to amplify a theme of difficult intergenerational relationships.  This detailed texture is an expansive approach in an established genre which usually has a narrow focus but if ultimately it doesn’t fully engage in the manner which you’d wish, it’s probably due to the underwhelming adaptation by McQueen and Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn which doesn’t give the principals a lot to work with – a shame in the case of Davis, who works at it and has some great scenes with Neeson. Debicki comes off best because she has a character who goes through real development and lots of emotions as the narrative progresses – from abuse by mother and husband, through sugar baby, to independence. Good, but should have been a lot better, especially with that twist 75 minutes in. Criminals and cops are the same. They never bring their shit home

Us (2019)

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Once upon a time, there was a girl and the girl had a shadow. The two were connected, tethered together. Accompanied by her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), son Jason (Evan Alex) and daughter Zora (Venus Williams lookalike Shahadi Wright Joseph), Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) returns to the lakeside home at Santa Cruz CA where she grew up. Haunted by a traumatic experience from 1986 when she entered the funhouse at the pier and encountered her doppelganger, subsequently becoming electively mute,  Addie grows increasingly concerned that something bad is going to happen but agrees to go to the beach where they meet their friends Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their twin daughters. They have a better house, car and boat than the Wilsons. Jason wanders off at the beach and Addie grows frantic. Her fears soon become a reality when four masked strangers descend upon the house, forcing the Wilsons into a fight for survival. When the masks come off, the family is horrified to learn that each attacker takes the appearance of one of them and they have to fight to the death with Addie finally facing up to what happened thirty years ago … Who are you people?/ We’re Americans. Dontcha just hate it when the people who break into your home look exactly like you? This second outing for Jordan (Get Out) Peele gives the game away when it enters comedic territory for its second hour. And in the penultimate sequence, when Gabe says to the children Leave it to your mother, she’ll know what to do, we get a hint as to the final twist – and precisely what he may have known about his wife all along. You’ll probably figure it out from the poster. This take on – what? impostor syndrome? race relations? slavery? the Other? the base versus the superstructure? people who live underground in tunnels?! rich versus poor? Mexico?! –  wants to be so much more than it is. On the other hand, it nods towards horror tropes quite cleverly with Nyong’o being a very modern Final Girl – of a sort. It’s not remotely scary despite its publicity campaign. There are a lot of rabbits:  breeding like … I don’t know, people who want to make the US great again?! The tilt towards pantomime brings out some spectacularly bad acting – thank you, Ms Moss! – and rather rubs our faces in some crude rap to make a point about society and Reagan-era politics with a telling mention of South of the Border and then goes and robs the ending from the great Mad Men. What a cheek! It’s well set up and crafted but has some diffuse ideas about things that remain stubbornly unresolved so ultimately isn’t about anything at all, if you ask me. Sigh. Too many twins around here

Billy Two Hats (1974)

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I don’t like no kind of law breaker, breed. But the kind I hate worse is a cheap one. And cheaper than you and your friend, they just don’t come!  After a bank robbery goes wrong, half-breed outlaw Billy Two Hats (Desi Arnaz Jr.) is captured by Sheriff Gifford (Jack Warden). Billy’s ageing partner, Arch Deans (Gregory Peck), rescues him, but during the escape Deans gets shot in the leg. The wound leaves Deans unable to ride a horse, but Billy refuses to leave him behind. Instead, he builds a horse-drawn cot for him, and they continue together. The apparatus slows them down, making them more vulnerable to capture from Sheriff Gifford. They take shelter at a ranch owned by Spencer (John Pearce) married to much younger mail-order bride Esther (Sian Barbara Allen) who falls for Billy … You’re old enough to be half as stupid. Coincidentally released on this very day 45 years ago, this is a striking if flawed work from Scottish novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp (Luke Perry’s father-in-law). Shot in Israel by director Ted Kotcheff, it brings together what might be called a mis-cast and gives them all terrific vignettes. Arnaz shines as the half-white, half-Indian protagonist with Peck’s grumpy older sidekick a fascinating foil. And who doesn’t love Jack Warden?! Perhaps the political point about race gets muddied by the usual chase/revenge tropes but it might best be appreciated as an operatic work, focussing on feeling. Look out for renowned stuntman Vic Armstrong as Harry Sweets Bradley.  He’s fancy all right. Thinks this old man of his is comin’ to cut him loose