Split (2017)

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We are what we believe we are. Mental patient Kevin (James McAvoy) knocks out the abusive uncle of Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and kidnaps her and her two friends, taking them to a basement where he holds them captive. Various of his 23 personalities materialise and the girls try to play the kinder ones to make their escape. However his complex psychiatric issues are revealed in various visits to his analyst Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley) who realises too late there is a 24th personality that her cack-handed empowering therapy has inadvertently caused to be released and just when the girls were about to get away … This feels a lot like M. Night Shyamalan, that late 90s auteurist who fell foul of his own concepts since approximately The Lady in the Water, decided to use a medical scenario to give that profitable Noughties rape/torture porn trope a workout with a psycho(logical) horror bent, filtered through our collective memories of the great Manhunter. Or something like that. Being the filmmaker he is, he structures it very well, using the backstory of Kevin’s various personalities as they materialise in front of Fletcher to give us a break from what we fear he is doing to the girls in captivity. And there are flashbacks to some very nasty experiences in Casey’s childhood. It has a grimy look which is probably what it should have, given its mostly underground setting. There’s a twist to the end which finally brings us back to the Universe the auteur created, oh, years ago, if you care that much. Not my bag, actually. I don’t like seeing girls raped or eaten even if you’re blaming it on paranoid schizophrenia or whatever you’ve chosen from the medical dictionary as a rationale to get your career back on track. Bald baby-faced McAvoy is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. Call me picky. Go on, I dare you. And step away from the therapist!

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The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.

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 …

 

In Harm’s Way (1965)

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I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way. This sprawling WW2 naval epic from producer/director Otto Preminger is set amid the Pacific battles with the Japanese and starts with the attack on Pearl Harbour. John Wayne is Captain Rock Torrey who’s demoted after surviving that encounter because his ship is then damaged in a subsequent episode. He meets the son (Brandon de Wilde) whom he abandoned 18 years earlier, and the boy is now in the Navy himself. He starts to romance a nurse (Patricia Neal) but he and his troublemaker colleague Commander Paul Eddington (Kirk Douglas) are tasked with salvaging a dangerous mission … This is an underrated war film with a brilliant cast, a mix of old-timers (Franchot Tone, Bruce Cabot, Dana Andrews, Stanley Holloway, Burgess Meredith, Henry Fonda) with new talent (Tom Tryon, Paula Prentiss, James Mitchum) who together bring a brisk sense of character to a realistic and unsentimental portrayal of men and women in war.  It’s another in Preminger’s examinations of institutions, with a story that has romance and work relationships aplenty with a keen eye for toughness:  what happens to de Wilde’s girlfriend (Jill Haworth) is quite the shocker. There are no punches pulled when it comes to relaying the heavy price to be paid for victory and the concluding scenes are impressively staged. This is a film in which the characters never suffer from the scale of the narrative. Wait for the credits by Saul Bass, who also designed the wonderful poster.  Adapted by Wendell Mayes from the book by James Bassett.

The November Man (2014)

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Pierce Brosnan had his eye on Bill Granger’s books for a number of years and acquired the rights to There Are No Spies (the seventh in the series) long before he brought it to the screen under the umbrella of his own production company.  Roger Donaldson is the man he hired to direct this pretty grim actioner set in eastern Europe and Russia about a betrayal in the ranks that brings retired CIA agent Peter Devereux (Brosnan) out in the open to try to rescue his former lover. It ultimately involves the kidnapping of Devereux’s young daughter – whom he had by the woman who is killed off in the first twenty minutes in a violent action sequence that clarifies that nobody is taking prisoners. The fact that his former protege David Mason (Luke Bracey) is now apparently on the opposite side of right causes all sorts of moral quandaries in a story concerning double-crossing and political expediency and rivalries.  It’s all about a former Russian General now in line to become President and the refugee case worker (Olga Kurylenko) who wants to expose him for very personal reasons that go back to the second Chechen war. That and a hatchet-faced Russian hitwoman (like Gisele Bundchen before the rhinoplasty) who has a nasty habit of shooting people in the head. There’s no doubt Brosnan was a fantastic James Bond – he played him as a dark character with some terrifically droll lines – but this is a humourless outing and the post-communist world does not look like a very attractive place. Another film has been announced but it would require a much defter hand than what’s on display here.  It was adapted by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek.

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)

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Tom Buchanan (Randolph Scott) is a mercenary returning from Mexico to West Texas intending to start up a ranch of his own. He stops in a community run by a family called Agry – they own everything. When a young Mexican (Manuel Rojas) kills one of them in revenge for raping his sister the brothers wreak their own revenge while Buchanan winds up killing the villain and helping the young man whose wallet has been emptied and his life spared. Then the three Agry brothers cross and double cross each other by alternately threatening to hang and ransom him for their own ends.  Buchanan attempts to manipulate the situation … This is the fourth Scott collaboration with Budd Boetticher and the second written by Charles Lang (adapted from a novel The Name’s Buchanan by Jonas Ward). It’s perhaps not as iconic as the first two in the cycle, which were written by Burt Kennedy, and it stands out for its drama taking place in a settlement, but it has many of the tropes and shares some of the settings in the series (typically, Lone Pine and its environs). This skirts the edges of comedy – maybe even satire! – as it grapples with the western form. Scott is good in this wittier than usual entry. Beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard, a regular part of the team.

The Prince of Tides (1991)

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They f*** you up, your mum and dad. So wrote Philip Larkin. Well that’s their parental duty. And they certainly did that to Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte, in a wide-ranging and delicate performance) and his twin sister Savannah (Melinda Dillon). He goes to NYC to speak to Savannah’s psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand) after her latest suicide attempt and he tells her about their abusive background and painful family memories emerge. Pat Conroy adapted his novel with Becky Johnston, and director/star Streisand crafted a rich, deeply moving, sweeping romantic drama that will leave you sobbing the words, Lowenstein. Lowenstein. as you hit the Play button again. A comfort blanket to envelop you on this cold January night. And if you haven’t read the novel – do so straight away.

Chinatown (1974)

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How do you describe a movie you’ve seen? How do you write a movie you’ve seen in your head so many times it’s like you lived it? The stars aligned when this one was made. Robert Towne turned down a lot of money to adapt The Great Gatsby for producer Robert Evans to decamp to Catalina Island with his great friends – the scholar Edward Taylor and his dog Hira. There, in the winter of 1971, he wrote one of the great Hollywood films, a fictionalised telling of the diversion of water from the Owens River Valley, set a few decades later than it occurred.  Private eye Jake/JJ Gittes was based on his friend Jack Nicholson, who played the role as born to it. Los Angeles, 1937. Jake is hired by a woman to investigate her cheating husband and gets mired in a mystery he could never hope to solve:  the corruption infesting the State of California and the distribution of Water (and Power), unwittingly finding himself falling in love with an heiress who’s given birth to her sister/daughter, the progeny of the man responsible for raping the land. Towne wrote a second draft which reads like Hammett, a beautiful exercise in pulp noir: I love it so much I dream about that biplane ride out to Catalina. But director Roman Polanski forced Towne into a third draft with an altered ending which is what was shot. Even with plot holes it’s extraordinary, shocking, funny, terrifying and blindingly brilliant, a sublime cinematic experience. It’s a modern classic, for which Towne won the Academy Award. The guide at Paramount may be too young to know about it when you do the studio tour but if you want to know more you can read my book about Towne and this film and all the other screenplays he’s written and films he’s made: https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481117503&sr=1-3&keywords=elaine+lennon.

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Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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Who wouldn’t want to be the preternaturally gifted Tom Ford? A Single Man was such a wonderful piece of work and the real reason Colin Firth was recognized by the Academy for The King’s Speech (these things happen a lot). I was positively salivating over the prospect of seeing this. It’s tantalising isn’t it, given the talent involved? And the source novel, Tony & Susan, by Austin Wright, is stunning. And I like the poster. And the trailer. So then I saw it and thought, meh. Which isn’t what you want from an adaptation of what is a very fine postmodern literary thriller which sucks you in as you follow Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) progress through the eviscerating novel her ex-husband Edward Sheffield has sent her after a divorce, oh, years ago (in the book it’s 25) which is dramatised as a film within the film. She is now in the marriage for which she left him, to a more successful man and not a failing novelist, and Armie Hammer plays Hutton, the philandering art dealer, while she stays at their gallery and plays snark with fellow professionals and feels her life hollow out as Edward’s avatar Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal plays him as well in the film within a film) infects her brain. Episodes from her life with Edward and their breakup play as respite from her reading of the novel, in intermissions from the violent deaths of Tony’s wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber), redheads just like Susan, raped and murdered in West Texas by a crew of rednecks led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson or whatever he’s calling himself nowadays. (Their destination in the novel is their summer home in Maine;  here it’s Marfa, Texas, the location for the great James Dean film, Giant – I wonder why?).  Michael Shannon turns up to help Tony identify the killers (a much more cursory treatment than the novel). Meanwhile Susan deals with her ridiculous friends and the scene with Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough at an opening is actually risible. It’s astonishingly badly directed. The point of the book within the book, Nocturnal Animals, is that it’s Edward’s revenge, his way of letting his LA-living bourgeois-loving ex, whom he christened a nocturnal animal, This is what you did to me. You left me on the side of the road to be ravaged and tortured. But it’s a literary device and in the novel it becomes truly postmodern when Wright allows Susan enter the story for the horrendous denouement – which can’t happen here since Isla Fisher plays her avatar in the film/novel within the film. There are changes, notably to Susan’s occupation and that of her husband but they don’t necessarily damage the text per se …  But the juxtaposition of the smooth LA gallerist with the awful Texan thugs doesn’t really elicit the emotions required to make the movie’s engine work. Adams does what she can in the present-day setup but the scenes are mostly DOA. She doesn’t even get angry when she hears her husband’s mistress on the phone. And the payoff doesn’t work as well as in the book for all sorts of reasons. A principal one is not just Ford’s own adaptation but – ironically – the aesthetics. For a great designer who transitioned to cinema with a magnificent looking debut that revelled in the California light beautifully shot by Edward Grau, here it’s Grimm and grimmer, sad to say since it’s talented Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey who’s responsible for the filthy palette presumably chosen by Ford. Imagine this master of colour, light, movement, fabric, shape, surfaces, tone, texture and what he’s capable of dreaming into life on the catwalk, and then look at this and ask, Why Tom, why? When you can do so much better? I’ll wait for the next collection. Disappointing.

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 .