Cape Fear (1962)

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From my limited knowledge of human nature, Max Cady isn’t a man who makes idle threats. After an eight-year prison sentence for rape, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) targets Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), one of the lawyers who sent him away. When Max finds Sam and his family, he begins a terrifying stalking spree, intending to ruin Sam’s life. Desperate to protect his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin), Sam makes every effort to send Max back to jail. But when his attempts fail, Sam realizes that he must take matters into his own hands if he wants to rid his life of Max for good after he targets his family and makes the lewdest of provocative suggestions to the Councillor …  The great John D. MacDonald’s novel The Executioners was adapted by James R. Webb and director J. Lee Thompson turns the whole kit and caboodle into something absolutely sensational:  a crime thriller that has an extraordinary pair of performances at its helm and a great sense of place. Peck (reunited with his Guns of Navarone helmer) is the relentlessly decent family man driven to violence and Mitchum is extraordinary as the horrifically lascivious crim who says and does everything imaginable to torture him, playing the system to its limits for all it’s worth while Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas are on both their tails. Brilliantly shot, paced and designed and totally enervating. Fabulous.

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Jasper Jones (2017)

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It’s not my brand. It’s the late 1960s in the small town of Corrigan in Western Australia.  14 year old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is the son of writer Wes (Dan Wyllie) whose frustrated wife (Toni Colette) is a restless soul. Wannabe writer Charlie spends his days with his best friend Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Lu), a Vietnamese boy daily confronted with race hate in a place where young men are being sent to Vietnam. Eliza Wishart (Angouire Rice) daughter of the President of the town hall becomes more and more endeared towards Charlie and they bond over their mutual love of books. On Christmas Eve Charlie is unexpectedly visited by Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath) an outcast due to his mixed White-Aboriginal heritage and rebellious lifestyle. Jasper begs for Charlie’s help, and leads him to his private glade where Charlies is horrified to see Jasper’s girlfriend Laura Wishart, battered and hanging from a tree. Jasper, aware that he is likely to be blamed for Laura’s murder, convinces Charlie that they should hide the body, so they throw it into a nearby pond, weighted by a large rock. Jeffrey is passionate about cricket, but his attempts to join the Corrigan team are thwarted by the racism of the coach and other players. Eventually he finds himself batting in a game against a rival town, watched by Charlie, who has befriended Eliza, Laura’s younger sister. As Jeffrey wins the game on the last ball, Charlie and Eliza hold hands and embrace. A search for the missing girl is soon organised, focused on the idea that she may have run away. Jasper is interrogated roughly by the local police, but he soon escapes. Meanwhile tension builds in the town, as parents fear more disappearances, and townspeople search for someone to blame. The tension is funneled into strict curfews for the children as well as racial attacks on Jeffrey’s family. It is revealed that Charlie’s mother, increasingly disillusioned with life in Corrigan and her marriage, is having an affair with the Sarge involved with the investigation into Laura’s disappearance. Jasper believes that Laura’s murderer is Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving) an old recluse rumored to have done terrible things in the past. Jasper determines to confront Lionel on New Year’s Eve, and together with Charlie, goes to his house. Lionel manages to defuse Jasper’s aggression, and the truth comes out: Lionel is actually Jasper’s grandfather who had ostracised his son’s family knowing that he had married with an Aboriginal woman when Jasper was a baby. His daughter-in-law then took care of him, spurring a change of heart towards her. One night, she needed medical attention, and Lionel had attempted to race her to hospital. In his haste, however, he accidentally crashed his car, causing her death. The incident has left him guilty, broken, and ostracized by the townspeople. Ever since, Lionel has been trying to reach out to Jasper and apologise for his actions. On the same night, Charlie comes to Eliza’s window. They go to Jasper’s glade. Here Eliza tells Charlie that she knows everything about Laura’s death and hands him Laura’s suicide note which explains the incestuous rapes to which their father had subjected her and left her pregnant. Eliza witnessed her sister’s suicide by hanging and then Charlie admits to her that he and Jasper got rid of her body. After exacting a revenge on her father the secret remains with Charlie and Eliza and her mother, who destroys the note but Charlie’s own family is broken up when his mother leaves the small town which cannot contain her … Craig Silvey adapted his own novel with Shaun Grant.  Director Rachel Perkins sustains an admirable atmosphere and sympathy in what is essentially a family drama enlivened by what Freud ironically termed ‘romance’ with a supposed murder mystery at its centre. The playing is excellent by actors both young and old with a canny sense of what it is to be young and trying to figure out how adults inflict damage on everyone around them – this is practically a thesis on different models of fatherhood, but it’s so well constructed you don’t understand until the final shot. The mystery isn’t really the point either although there is a deal of suspense. It’s a film that perfectly captures what it is to be young, to love books and to be loyal to your friends and the myriad ways that kids find to survive their parents.  There are echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird and Stand By Me in the themes rendered here but it exists on its own merits as a complex coming of age drama with its distinctive setting and concerns.

A Cure for Wellness (2016)

 

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Do you know what the cure for the human condition is? Disease. Because only then is there hope for a cure. An ambitious young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to retrieve his company’s CEO Pembroke (Harry Groener) from an idyllic but mysterious “wellness center” at a remote location in the Swiss Alps. He soon suspects that the spa’s miraculous treatments are not what they seem and the head doctor Volmer (Jason Isaacs) is possessed of a curiously persuasive zeal and, rather like Hotel California, nobody seems able to leave.  Lockhart’s sighting of young Hannah (Mia Goth) drives him to return. When he begins to unravel the location’s terrifying secrets, his sanity is tested, as he finds himself diagnosed with the same curious illness that keeps all the guests here longing for the cure and his company no longer wants anything to do with him because the SEC is investigating him – and is that Pembroke’s body floating in a tank? … Part bloody horror, part satire, indebted equally to Stanley Kubrick, mad scientist B movies and Vincent Price, this has cult written all over it. Co-written by director Gore Verbinski with Justin Haythe, with his proverbial visual flourishes, this is one 141-minute long movie that despite its outward contempt for any sense of likeability, actually draws you in – if you’re not too scared of water, institutions, eels or demonic dentists. Isaacs has a whale of a time as the equivalent of a maestro conducting an orchestra who dispatches irritants with a flick of a switch or insertion of an eel. DeHaan gets paler by the scene. Wouldn’t you? The one thing you do not want to do is drink the water! A man cannot unsee the truth!

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

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I can’t say anything defamatory and I can’t say fuck piss or cunt. After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, divorcee Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) hires three billboards leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) the town’s chief of police. When his second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist immature mama’s boy with a penchant for violence – gets involved, the battle is only exacerbated. Willoughby’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis is known around town so the locals don’t take kindly to Mildred’s action. Dixon’s intervention with Red (Caleb Landry Jones) who hired out the advertising is incredibly violent – he throws him out a first floor window – and it’s witnessed by Willoughby’s replacement (Clark Peters) and gets him fired. When Mildred petrol bombs the sheriff’s office she doesn’t realise Dixon is in it and he sustains terrible burns but resolves to become a better person and resume the investigation into the horrific murder of Mildred’s teenage daughter … Martin McDonagh’s tragicomedy touches several nerves – guilt, race, revenge, justice. The beauty of its construction lies in its allowing so many characters to really breathe and develop just a tad longer than you expect. Those little touches and finessing of actions make this more sentimental than the dark text might suggest. That includes difficult exchanges between Mildred and her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and the wonderful relationship between Willoughby and his wife Anne (the great Abbie Cornish) which really expand the premise and lift the lid on family life. Yet the sudden violence such as that between Mildred and her ex Charlie (John Hawkes) still contrives to shock. There are two big character journeys here however and as played by McDormand and Rockwell the form demands that they ultimately come to a sort of detente – and it’s the nature of it that is confounding yet satisfying even if it takes a little too long and concludes uncertainly, just adding to the moral quagmire.  A resonant piece of work.

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

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You can never tell who your enemies are, or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I love animals so much. You look in their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts. They’re not like people. The time is 1939 and the place is Poland, homeland of veterinarian Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh). The Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). The Zabinskis covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save the lives of hundreds from what has become the Warsaw Ghetto… Zoos and Jews. That’s what this should have been called. And unless you’re either sadistic or masochistic or a Nazi you won’t enjoy the spectacle of mass murder perpetrated on either party in the Warsaw Ghetto or at the Zoo. As usual Niki Caro’s film is a game of two halves with an ugly child. It’s hard to empathise because Chastain – not an actress who really cares if we like her – is the main protagonist and she has a squeaky high-pitched accent so ludicrous you laugh and it’s only in the second half that the action, narrative and emotions clarify and coalesce. You can probably guess the ending (the Nazis lost, the zoo survived, the Jews and animals, not so much.) Adapted by Angela Workman from Diane Ackerman’s book, based on a true story. Goy veh!

Peyton Place (1957)

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Quality is a very good thing in a roll of cloth but it’s very dull on a big date. Mike Rossi (Lee Phillips) arrives in the small New England town of Peyton Place to interview for high school principal, usurping the favourite teacher (Mildred Dunnock). He drives past a shack where Selena Cross (Hope Lange) lives with her mother (Betty Field), little brother and drunken stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Selena’s best friend is the graduating class’s star student and wannabe writer Allison Mackenzie (Diane Varsi) whose widowed mother Constance (Lana Turner) has a clothing store and immediately attracts Mike’s interest. Allison has a crush on Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) heir to the local fabric mill but he only has eyes for trashy Betty (Terry Moore). Allison confides in Norman (Russ Tamblyn) whose watchful mother has altogether too much to do with her shy son. All of the characters attempt to assert their individuality and grow up but malicious rumours, a rape and a suicide followed by a murder are just around the corner as Lucas forces himself on his stepdaughter and Constance reveals to Allison the truth about her obscure origins; then the newspaper carries a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor … Even decades after Grace Metalious’ novel was published it bore the whiff of scandal and my eleven-year old self carried it as though it were dangerous contraband – which of course it was, for about a minute. Part of its attraction was the back cover photograph of the authoress, a gorgeous young thing with a Fifties Tammy ponytail wearing a plaid shirt, cut offs and penny loafers – it was years before I would learn that this was a model (paid tribute by a shot of Allison in the film) and that Metalious was in reality a bloated alcoholic who died not long afterwards:  not such a role model after all!  The bestselling exposition of a horribly inward looking and vicious group of people in an outwardly lovely small town in Maine gets a meticulous adaptation by John Michael Hayes who was working carefully around the censor yet still managed to craft a moving even shocking melodrama from some explosive storylines arranged through the seasons. Lange comes off best in a film which has some daring off-casting – including Turner as the frigid so-called widow, cannily using her star carnality against the character. (In reality she would encounter her own extraordinary scandal with teenage daughter Cheryl within a year of this film’s release). Lloyd Nolan playing the local doctor has a field day in the showstopping courtroom revelation telling some vicious home truths amid some frankly disbelieving onlookers including the unrepentant gossips. Tamblyn gets one of the roles of his career as Norman, the son who is loved just a little too much by his mom… I hadn’t seen this in a long time but much to my surprise was immediately humming along again with the wonderfully lyrical score by Franz Waxman. In many ways this evocative drama sums up the morality of the Fifties even while being set on the eve of WW2 and the early Forties. A very pleasant, beautifully made and surprising reminder of a book whose opening line I’ve never forgotten:  Indian Summer is like a woman … Ah! The film is sixty years old this year. Directed by Mark Robson.

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

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Everybody’s got a right to be a sucker once. When Budd Boetticher wrote this story he thought it would be a perfect return to Hollywood after his near-decade long Mexican odyssey when the subject of his bullfighting documentary died and he nearly bought the farm himself. But his career was effectively over and this was rewritten by Albert Maltz, another (blacklisted) resident of Mexico and instead of his hoped-for Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr starring, it was supposed to have Elizabeth Taylor in the lead. She gave the script to Clint Eastwood on the set of Where Eagles Dare (in which he co-starred with Richard Burton) and the whole game changed when it wasn’t going to be shot in Spain. In fact it became a Mexican co-production.  Eastwood is Hogan, a mercenary en route to assist Mexican revolutionaries against the French who were then engaged in an invasion of the country, with the promise of enough gold to set up a bar in California. He rescues nun Sara (MacLaine) who has had her clothes ripped off her by a bunch of marauding cowboys and he shoots them dead. She proves to be much more resourceful than he expects and enjoys drinking, smoking and helps him stop an ammunition train in its tracks as they make their way to a French fort on behalf of the Juaristas.  It turns out that the nun’s garb is just a costume that covers up her real vocation, that of prostitute … Gorgeously shot by Gabriel Figueroa (assisted by Bruce Surtees) this is a sensational comedy western with two gripping star performances. Don Siegel didn’t like MacLaine whom he declared unfeminine because she had too many balls. It was the last time Eastwood got second billing and also the last time that he would agree to an actress of stature as his co-star until Meryl Streep acted opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County. Siegel takes a spaghetti-style story and gives it some nicely sardonic twists with some terrific scenes – when MacLaine is giving a former client the last rites; and playing for time with General LeClaire (Albert Morin) while children dump a dynamite-filled pinata at the fort, to name but two. Boetticher was appalled at the alterations to his original story and when Siegel said he woke up every day to a paycheque, Boetticher responded he woke up every day and could look at himself in the mirror. Nonetheless this is engaging, smart and funny and a really great acting masterclass. Ennio Morricone’s insistent, brutally repetitive score is a plus.

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!

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.  We are dealing with archetypes rather than real characters despite its biographical origins. 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 …