Black Christmas (2019)

Aren’t you tired of fighting against your true nature? With holidays around the corner, Riley Stone (Imogen Poots) and her friends Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) and Marty (Lily Donoghue) prepare for a Christmas party at their sorority house at Hawthorne College. But when a masked stalker targets girls and goes on a killing spree following a series of threatening direct messages to the girls’ phones purportedly from the school’s slave-owning founder, they decide to fight back – but he’s in the house. Then they realise there’s more than one masked man to deal with and a girl is missing …Something doesn’t feel right. The woke millennial remake of Bob Clarke’s brilliant 1974 Canadian slasher, this plugs into campus stories from the past decade involving unwholesome fratboy rituals and a rape culture targeting female students. It ups the ante by also unpicking the masculinist backlash against women and the idea of safe spaces – all that and with a supernatural undercurrent too. Written by director Sofia Takal and April Wolfe, adapting the original screenplay by A. Roy Moore, the Final Girl narrative is therefore stunningly contemporary in its politics but that means the thrills take a bit of a back seat. There really is no room in the story for the geeky romantic Landon (Caleb Eberhardt) who might or might not help the girls but Cary Elwes is good as the lecturer whose misogyny rules the roost. Riley is a good character but she never rises to the occasion, as it were, and needs help – so you might say that this heroine’s journey is very much a group endeavour as she is forced to come to terms with a past sexual assault. Truly a tribute to the notion of sorority. You used to be a fighter. It’s time to be a fighter again. If not for yourself for your sisters

Motherless Brooklyn (2019)


I got shot with my own gun. Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is a lonely private detective who doesn’t let Tourette’s syndrome stand in the way of his job. Gifted with a few clues and an obsessive mind, Lionel sets out to solve the murder of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) his mentor and only friend while they’re out on a job. Scouring the jazz clubs and slums of Brooklyn and Harlem, Essrog soon uncovers a web of secrets while contending with thugs, corruption and the most dangerous man in the city, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) famed for building parks but in reality lining the pockets of his fellow investors in building corporations. Meanwhile Lionel finds that the half-caste daughter Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatah-Raw) who campaigns against housing discrimination may be connected with him. And the man supplying him with information on Randolph (Willem Dafoe) is not quite who he claims to be Everybody looks like everybody to me.  Star and director Edward Norton loved Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel and determined to adapt it when it was published but this bears virtually no connection with its source material, setting it forty years earlier and fusing a variation on the plot of Chinatown with Robert Caro’s 1974 biography of Robert Moses.  It takes its sweet time to bed in and Norton’s character’s tics are immensely irritating even offputting. Once it settles into being a private eye flick it’s a better fit with the tone and the tropes work well – surveillance, shady operators, mistaken identity, chases, beatings and – just like Jake Gittes – going to a public meeting and then looking up files in City Hall. The issue of race and miscegenation replaces the incest plot but it’s all about power. Baldwin is at his best declaiming and he has some good lines here:  Do you have the first inkling how power works? The plot really kicks in when Norton works out who Dafoe really is. Norton asserts his own peculiar charms as the disabled guy whose problem ironically makes people think he’s dumb and uses that to his advantage. Either that or a sugar shaker. Wonderfully shot by Dick Pope, this is a tad long but ultimately a rather intriguing throwback noir melodrama with straightforward political commentary about slum clearance, ghettoising and corruption. This is not a programme for slum removal. This is a programme for negro removal

Year of the Dragon (1985)

Only one Stanley White. Following the murders of Mafia and Triad leaders in NYC, Polish Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) takes it upon himself to bring down the Chinese organised crime gangs. He’s breaking the long held treaty to permit the Chinese to take care of things in Chinatown. This puts him in conflict with Tony Tai (John Lone) the ruthless leader of the organisation.  It pulls his life apart with his already crumbling childless marriage to nurse Connie (Caroline Kava) collapsing altogether when Stanley falls for the charms of ambitious journalist Tracy Tzu (Ariane). Now Tony has a major shipment coming in from Thailand and Stanley engages in wire tapping for information .. This is America and it’s two hundred years old and you need to change your clocks. This sprawling portrait of the gangs of New York was much misunderstood upon its release but it lays its cards on the table upfront: it’s all in the name (changed) because NYC’s most decorated cop is an unapologetic racist Nam vet and sexist to boot. He’s launching his own tong war. Naturally Rourke plays him as a total charmer and it works:  he has the aura of death about him, his hair is as white as his adopted name and everyone around him seems to get crushed.  As written by Oliver Stone and director Michael Cimino this adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel is remarkably discreet in some areas – and lurid in others. The major love scene between Stanley and Tracy is cleverly done as they tell each other how much they hate each other and then … Her big ‘angry’ scene when he’s moved his team into her preposterously huge loft is amusing because her acting is so poor, all stiff arms like an Irish dancer. Part of the film’s issue representationally is the obvious inexpressivity of the Chinese actors, a physical trait there’s no escaping. They make up for it by killing people. Their treatment historically in the US and their unequal immigrant experience is posited against Stanley’s veteran’s hangups, something that’s used against him.  He wants to sleep with a journalist while both he and Tony decry the media’s role in the portrayal of violence and the way ethnicity is covered. Therefore there is a balance established with Tony – that’s clever storytelling. Lone is super handsome, a great suave villain to play opposite.  The lean way in which the marital story is exposed is a good hook for Stanley’s humanity and it’s the dramatic crutch that assists the outcome. The intra-Asian racism is well dramatised and horrendously violent. Class is an issue that becomes an overriding theme. The whole thing looks incredible – shot by Alex Thomson on a set (by Wolf Kroeger and Victoria Paul) in North Carolina for NYC (except for the views from Tracy’s apartment at the top of the Clocktower Building giving a beguiling view of the city’s skyline).  There’s a fascinating and intricate score by David Mansfield with echoes of phrases from The Deer Hunter. That this is a disguised western is clarified in those final scenes on the railway track. And in this wonderful mesh of genre and tradition there is an honourable way out for one man. What a way to end. Amazingly the role of White (originally called Arthur Powers – but there’s a Stanley White credited as Police Consultant!) was intended for Clint Eastwood. Both he and Paul Newman turned it down. Just as well. Only one Mickey Rourke. He’s a good cop but he won’t stop

The Good Liar (2019)

What I deplore more than anything is deception. Career con artist Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) can hardly believe his luck when he meets wealthy recently widowed Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) online. As Betty opens her life and bland suburban home to him, Roy is surprised to find himself caring about her, turning what should be a straightforward swindle into the most treacherous tightrope walk of his life. Her PhD student grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey) makes it clear he suspects Roy is out for financial gain and turns up at various encounters. When Roy is away from Betty he’s in London organising a long con from investors using Russian decoys with co-conspirator Vincent Halloran (Jim Broadbent). One of the victims follows Roy in the street one day and after he is dispatched under a Tube train Roy decides to take Betty on holiday to Berlin where a surprise awaits … It’s like being smothered in beige. Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s novel goes in different directions and manages to constantly surprise while being faithful to the traits established in the first scenes. McKellen and Mirren effortlessly plumb the characterisation, coming up trumps as the narrative brings us back to a very different world where the stakes where initially raised. The story’s roots in 1940s Germany are jaw-dropping when revealed – this is far from being a conventional story of a duped geriatric in some pensions scam:  we are tipped off when McKellen drops his act early on and meets his fellow crims at Stringfellows’ strip club and we meet the guys who want to join in the quick profit as investors (nice to recognise Mark Lewis Jones and Lucian Msamati from the astonishingly violent summer TV hit Gangs of London). Now that’s not a typical octagenarian move. We have to look after what we’ve worked to secure. The long con twists wonderfully in Mirren’s favour in Berlin when another identity is uncovered and the suspense ratchets up several notches as an obscenity from the past is resurrected. The stylish and pacy direction of this wonderfully tangled web is by Bill Condon, who previously worked with McKellen two decades ago on the cherishable Gods and MonstersDo you know who you are?

The Party’s Just Beginning (2018)

The Partys Just Beginning

Fuck you for leaving me. Liusaidh (pronounced Lucy) (Karen Gillan) is a 24-year-old woman from Inverness in Scotland. Stuck in a dead-end job selling cheese at a supermarket, she spends her evenings binge drinking and having sex in the alley with strangers. She is coping with the suicide of her best friend, Alistair (Matthew Beard) who died by jumping off a bridge in front of a train almost a year earlier after struggling with his homosexuality and decision to transition to female due to his unrequited love for door to door evangelist Ben (Jamie Quinn). Liusaidh keeps flashing back to the previous year with Alistair. She meets a stranger (Lee Pace) at a bar and has sex with him in his hotel room. He tracks her down and the two have a few more sexual encounters before he informs her that he is returning home and takes a call from his young daughter who lives with his ex-wife. Walking home at night after another night out, Liusaidh passes the bridge where Alistair committed suicide. She is surprised to see the stranger there, apparently about to kill himself, and she manages to talk him down. The two spend time together and though Liusaidh asks him to stay, he decides to leave, this time for real. Before he does Liusaidh tells him her name, and he tells her that his name is Dale. She is fired from her job after she misses several days of work, and spirals further out of control. On Christmas, the anniversary of Alistair’s death, she blacks out and is gang raped by three men after she’s blacked out following a boozy night. She goes home to see her mother (Siobhan Redmond) still socializing with her friends (including Daniela Nardini – so good to see her again). On the phone she talks to the unnamed old man she has been talking to throughout the film, who abandoned his children after his wife died. She opens up about what happened and cries. Her estranged father overhears the conversation, and when she tries to leave for the night he tries to talk to her but she is suicidal … You are literally changing your gender to be with this guy. This occasionally ugly ode to self-harm has echoes of the French New Wave and its focus on the female protagonist specifically reminds one of Agnès Varda’s work but it has a lot of flaws in tone and the lack of plot clarity and spatial distinction reinforces this (I misunderstood the concluding twist which has to do with the house phone being supposedly mistaken as a help line – I think).  Actor Karen Gillan is making her writing and directing debut and she is a fearless performer whose Scottish origins call to mind that great contemporary author Alan Warner who has similarly dealt inventively with bereavement and hedonism in the story of a Scottish shop assistant in Morvern Callar, filmed with Samantha Morton. Gillan is matched by the wonderful Pace as Dale and there are some interesting scenes with Redmond and some ‘amusing’ ones with Liusaidh’s friend Donna who is a truly atrocious stepmother. The pitch from drama to black comedy doesn’t work, but the comedy works better than the drama. However overall it’s let down by a terrible sound mix which is an affliction shared by many recent low budget productions and makes it tough to endure beyond the confused treatment of the subject matter and Alastair’s tragic gay character with Pepijn Caudron’s score blasting us all over the shop and into kingdom come, millennial style.  It’s time to wake up now

 

The Operative (2019)

The Operative

We do not execute at any cost. If something is not according to plan you have the right to call it off.  British-Jewish Mossad agent Thomas (Martin Freeman) who is based in Germany is summoned to try and figure out the whereabouts of an agent he recruited following her father’s funeral in London because she is a valuable asset who has vanished without trace.  He met and persuaded this mysterious woman Anne/Rachel (Diane Kruger) to become an agent, sending her to Tehran on an undercover mission where she falls in love with Farhad (Casvar) whose business Mossad are hoping to use as cover for a nuclear weapons exchange to destabilise the national programme. When her missions become more dangerous and Farhad is kidnapped by her colleagues, she decides to quit, forcing her boss to find her before she becomes a threat to Israel… You should visit Israel. To connect to the place. The people. Adapted from the Hebrew novel The English Teacher by former intelligence officer Yiftach Reicher-Atir, writer/director Yuval Adler has made a smartly told, nuanced story benefitting from a defining performance by an almost unrecognisable dressed-down Kruger. The Tehran section is as educative as it is narrative, with Rachel’s love story an echo of her real feelings about the city and its people. Her enigmatic persona – she persists in telling people she’s adopted even though she isn’t – is not properly explored which suggests a hinterland the film doesn’t entirely reconcile. The letdown is Freeman, who apparently replaced Eric Bana as Rachel’s handler. Refreshing mainly because of its insights into the region’s geopolitics from a new perspective. I can’t believe I’m here. Doing this

The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972)

The Magnificent Seven Ride

Aka The Magnificent Seven 4Seven’s always been my lucky number. Former gunslinger Chris Adams (Lee Van Cleef) has put his rowdy days behind him, settling down with new wife Arrilla (Mariette Hartley) and serving as the sheriff of his town in the Arizona territory. When his old pal Jim Mackay (Ralph Waite) asks for help defending the border town of Magdalena, Mexico, from a marauding bandit named Juan De Toro (Ron Stein) and his 50-strong band of outlaws, Chris refuses. Arrilla persuades him to reluctantly release teenage bankrobber Shelly Donovan (Darrell Larson) but Donovan and his gang kidnap and hang her after they rob another bank and wound Chris in the getaway. He then enlists a cutthroat gang of prisoners led by Mark Skinner (Luke Askew) to help him get revenge, pursuing De Toro into Mexican territory and helping a town of women who’ve been raped by the marauding men, including widowed mother Laurie Gunn (Stefanie Powers), while newspaper reporter Noah Forbes (Michael Callan) accompanies him to document the latest events in his storied career out West as he kidnaps De Toro’s woman (Rita Rogers) setting up a shootout to even the score … There sure has been a lot of killing since I met you. With Lee Van Cleef in the saddle as the redoubtable Chris, you know you’re in good hands. If it never feels exciting, exactly, there’s a decent plot by Arthur Crowe that turns the screws more than once, it has pretty good roles for two of my favourite actresses and it’s all set up well visually by director George McCowan and cinematographer Fred Koenekamp. And there’s still the variation on that legendary score by Elmer Bernstein anchoring the action which is pretty much nonstop. Don’t die just ridin’, that’d be a real anti-climax

Tell it to the Bees (2018)

Tell it to the Bees

He said this town was too small for secrets. With her failing marriage to her estranged former soldier husband Robert (Emun Elliott) and a curious young son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), Manchester-born Lydia Weekes (Holliday Grainger) does not fit into the small Scottish Borders town where she has ended up. She starts a friendship with the town’s new doctor Jean Markham (Ann Paquin) who has bonded with Charlie after he takes an interest in her bee colonies at the house she inherited from her late father, the town’s former doctor. However, in 1950s rural Scotland, the women’s relationship raises questions particularly because Jean is remembered from a terrible incident involving another girl in her schooldays which prompted her father to send her away.  When Lydia is evicted from her home and loses her job at the local lace factory where her boss is her sister-in-law Pam (Kate Dickie) she goes to live at Jean’s house with Charlie to work as her housekeeper. However they are drawn to each other and start a sexual relationship. Somehow the locals get wind of the arrangement and gossip spreads. Charlie witnesses them in bed together and runs to report to his father. Jean could lose her career if Lydia fights for custody of Charlie.  Meanwhile, Robert’s younger sister Annie (Lauren Lyle), who is friends with Lydia, is happily pregnant by her black boyfriend and the family want her dealt with before the pregnancy becomes public … How do I explain? Jessica Ashworth and Henrietta Ashworth adapted the 2009 novel by Fiona Shaw [not the actress]. What could occasionally be perceived as a contemporary story retro-fitted to critique the insular homophobic values of its Fifties setting, this mostly manages to overcome that fear by reducing the significance of the unlikeable child who is a prism for adult behaviour.  It broaches some tough situations (like a botched home abortion) with the refusing of sentiment and a modicum of unsettling violence. This steers it through the conventional posturing and clichéd setup which is nimbly handled by director Annabel Jankel.  The leads (particularly Grainger) are superb. The cinematography by Bartosz Nalazek is beautiful.  Those sort of people don’t change their minds

The Accused (1988)

The Accused

There’s a whole crowd. Twenty-four year old Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) hangs out at The Mill bar where her friend Sally Fraser (Ann Hearn) is waiting tables. She is gang-raped on a pinball machine by three men who are egged on by a gathering of onlookers, one of whom Ken Joyce (Bernie Coulson) runs out to a phone booth to call the police. In hospital Sarah meets Assistant DA Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) who prosecutes the case but agrees to a deal which will ensure they serve time because she fears Sarah’s history and her drinking on the night in question will make her a poor witness. However Sarah is angry and rams the car of one of the men who led the cheerleading during her rape and Kathryn feels guilty, deciding to go after the men who encouraged the crime … She put on a show, pure and simple. Inspired by the notorious 1983 gang rape perpetrated upon Cheryl Araujo, this controversial film has lost none of its power. Foster is stunning as the ornery, spiky, confrontational yet eager to please working class girl while McGillis is solid as the prosecutor who feels guilt at betraying her client and then pushes for a fresh trial of the men who cheered on the violent crime. Screenwriter Tom Topor was hired by producer Dawn Steel when the Araujo trial became a national talking point and he interviewed dozens of victims, rapists, prosecutors and doctors to hear their stories and point of view. The inclusion of the reenactment is the difficult issue that remains – and it’s a tough one to decide whether it is necessary:  perhaps the depiction proves the point that nobody ever believes the woman and those who do are never going to admit it much less say they are the guilty parties. It is playing this card that actually gives the film its authority and resonance not least because a point of view camera is involved and Foster’s vulnerability is paradoxically exploited. More than that, the film tackles the immediate and impersonal aftermath of reporting a rape, the portrayal of rape in the press, the acceptance by women (it’s truly terrible when the friend turns a blind eye and runs out of the bar), the inevitability of victim blaming and shaming and the overwhelming stench of testosterone in the male-controlled world that sees women as lucky receptacles whether they like it or not. This collision of plain pictures and words speaks truth to power. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, who has such empathy for young people and such a gift for establishing time and place:  after all, this is the guy who made Over the Edge, probably the greatest film about teenagers. It was Foster’s first film after graduating Yale and if it hadn’t been a success she intended retiring from acting. She won the Academy Award for her magnificent performance. I kept saying No