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.

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Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

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I’m gonna tell everyone in prison that I travelled back in time to kill my own father! Three friends are stuck in a rut in full-blown mid-life crisis: underachiever (and kicked out by his girlfriend) Adam (John Cusack), henpecked husband Nick (Craig Robinson) and party animal Lou (Rob Cordrry). Accompanied by Adam’s nephew shut-in Jacob (Clark Duke) they travel to Winterfest and after getting into the tub on the balcony and consuming Chernobly – the Russian answer to Red Bull! – they turn out on the slopes and it’s … 1986. MTV is playing music videos (of all things), Michael Jackson is still black and Poison are playing tonight.  But when they look at their youthful images in the mirror Jacob is flickering – he hasn’t been conceived yet. And weird repairman Chevy Chase hasn’t got the right equipment to whip them back to 2010. And it’s the night Adam split up with his girlfriend and she stuck a fork in his eye, Jacob’s mom got together with Lou and it’s imperative everything stay the same so that they get back to the present intact … It’s not The Terminator or Back to the Future but the parameters of the latter are called upon big time in the person of one-armed bellboy Crispin Glover and a seriously Freudian scene with the future zillionaire Lou. Director Steve Pink reminds us of another collaboration with star/producer John Cusack riffing on the fork joke from Grosse Pointe Blank. It’s a surprisingly warm film about male friendship and kind-hearted about relationships and what ifs:  in Adam’s case it’s a chance meeting with music journalist April (Lizzy Caplan) who makes him realise he can change things. And Nick bawls out his nine year old future wife on the phone! Back to the future indeed! Written by Josh Heald, Sean Anders and John Morris.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

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You can’t unfuck what’s been fucked. Women are always getting in the way. Aren’t they? Berlin 1988. The Cold War. Protesters are gathering to break down the Wall. Super spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed in an MI6 bunker back in London about an impossible mission that’s gone horribly wrong. She relates the sorry saga to her boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA honcho Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) as their uber chief observes behind the usual glass wall. She was deployed to retrieve a dossier of double agents following the murder of their man Gascoigne.  Her meeting in Berlin with station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) is put in jeopardy by the KGB in the first sequence which has the most innovative use of stilettos since Rosa Kleb. The comparison is not for nothing. This is a rollicking non-stop who’s-working-for-what-agency action thriller with an astonishing array of gruesome encounters.  The list everyone wants ends up becoming a Hitchcockian McGuffin because the fun is in the execution (quite viscerally).  It wouldn’t be a Cold War thriller without a double cross-cross-cross complete with a twist ending.  You want it? You got it! This is a postmodern delight with tongue firmly embedded in cheek: from the amazing soundtrack (that’s an audacious thing, using Bowie’s Cat People theme over the titles!), Stalker is playing at the cinema on Alexanderplatz, to a KGB villain called Bakhtin (if you’re into cultural theory) and a neat inversion of the Basic Instinct interrogation scenario with the men defused (literally) by Lorraine’s recollection of Lesbian sex with neophyte French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella). There’s a double agent called Merkel (ha!) and there’s even someone called Bela Balazs on the credits (film theorists will appreciate this…). The songs in some scenes are laugh out loud appropriate and the clothes … the clothes! Talk about on the money!  The action is horribly violent but balletic and believable and Theron is super-likeable in what might well be an audition for Jane Blonde. I want to be her when I grow up. Great fun. Adapted by Kurt Johnstad from the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart and directed by David (John Wick) Leitch, who knows a good action sequence and how to use it.

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.

Baby Driver (2017)

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Ansel Elgort is the super speedy getaway driver with tinnitus and a soundtrack to beat the band as he works his way through a debt to heist mastermind Kevin Spacey and there’s the One Last Job that must be carried out. How much you like this depends on your identification with the leading man (it took me a while since I don’t like the actor);  your tolerance for minimal characterisation but some snappy one-liners (even if you can’t comprehend the poor delivery of one Jamie Foxx); the use of a sub-Freudian scenario (aspiring singer Mom was killed in a car crash and love interest Debora sings B-a-b-y when he first sees her in a diner);  and your capacity to take a story that more or less falls apart in a big-budget Kenneth Anger dream blowout (weelllllll……!!!) at the conclusion. Jon Hamm is the psycho banker turned Satanic cokehead robber but that’s as much development as you’ll find here in this fabulously OTT car chase of a movie from Edgar Wright who’s finally almost living up to expectations and even aspires to doing a Jacques Demy in those street scenes in this musical wannabe. Makes me want to see The Driver all over again and you can’t say fairer than that.

  1. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – ‘Bellbottoms’
  2. Bob & Earl – ‘Harlem Shuffle’
  3. Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers – ‘Egyptian Reggae’
  4. Googie Rene – ‘Smokey Joe’s La La’
  5. The Beach Boys – ‘Let’s Go Away For Awhile’
  6. Carla Thomas – ‘B-A-B-Y’
  7. Kashmere Stage Band – ‘Kashmere’
  8. Dave Brubeck – ‘Unsquare Dance’
  9. The Damned – ‘Neat Neat Neat’
  10. The Commodores – ‘Easy (Single Version)’
  11. T. Rex – ‘Debora’
  12. Beck – ‘Debra’
  13. Incredible Bongo Band – ‘Bongolia’
  14. The Detroit Emeralds – ‘Baby Let Me Take You (in My Arms)’
  15. Alexis Korner – ‘Early In The Morning’
  16. David McCallum – ‘The Edge’
  17. Martha and the Vandellas – ‘Nowhere To Run’
  18. The Button Down Brass – ‘Tequila’
  19. Sam & Dave – ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby’
  20. Brenda Holloway – ‘Every Little Bit Hurts’
  21. Blur – ‘Intermission’
  22. Focus – ‘Hocus Pocus (Original Single Version)’
  23. Golden Earring – ‘Radar Love (1973 Single Edit)’
  24. Barry White – ‘Never, Never Gone Give Ya Up’
  25. Young MC – ‘Know How’
  26. Queen – ‘Brighton Rock’
  27. Sky Ferreira – ‘Easy’
  28. Simon & Garfunkel – ‘Baby Driver’
  29. Kid Koala – ‘Was He Slow (Credit Roll Version)’
  30. Danger Mouse (featuring Run The Jewels and Big Boi) – ‘Chase Me’

The Beguiled (2017)

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You vengeful bitches! I had high hopes for Sofia Coppola’s take on the Don Siegel Southern Gothic movie that made such a difference to our perception of Clint Eastwood way back when. Coppola has created such an interesting catalogue of films that are female-centred and immediately recognisable from their diffused palettes, lens flare, sense of mystery,soundtracks, alienation from family and the ultimate unknowability of teenaged girls. Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, the Irish soldier of fortune fighting for the North lying wounded in the woods near Martha Farnsworth’s boarding school for young ladies in deepest Louisiana when he is found by little girl Amy (Oona Laurence) on her daily mushroom-picking trip. She drags him back to the almost derelict building and the decision is made not to report him to the Confederates passing through the area despite the objections of staunch loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice, who was so great in The Nice Guys). There are only five students and the eldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) is the woman most obviously hot to trot – sad and clearly desperate for a man and a reason for escape. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney while he is unconscious and there are a lot of shots of water pooling in the cavities of his neck and abdomen. His objectification is writ large by the simple expedient of not having the camera include his face. Farnsworth admits to having had a man before the war when McBurney asks but as each of the girls enters his room to get a look at him and steal a kiss (a foxy Fanning) he realises he can play them off against each other. He learns to walk again and helps out, cutting wood and generally being the maintenance man. But all the while he has become the women’s fantasy. The problems really begin when each of them finds out what he is doing with the others. When Edwina invites him to her room after a particularly excruciating dinner and dance in this Gothic manse, she finds him having sex instead with Carol and takes terrible revenge …. And Farnsworth aims at keeping him there forever. There is something not quite right about the film. The control and the tone never really articulate the plot’s inherent collective madness, something that was so brutally effective in the earlier adaptation. The photography doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bruce Surtees’ work and that is surprising given Coppola’s customary attention to appearances (and the consequently unfortunate effect on the way Kidman appears). The relative containment of the story to the building doesn’t really work since so many of the shots are repetitive and one has the paradoxical desire to see more of the outdoors. Coppola has dropped some of the previous film’s elements – the black servant, the flashbacks to Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother – and this vacuum is not replaced with enough plot to sustain the story’s mordantly black tone. The performances are uniformly good and Dunst and Fanning are obviously back working again with Coppola. (And if you still haven’t watched Marie Antoinette go look at it now to watch Dunst give a complete performance as the child bride.) Farrell gives a good account of himself as a man who can’t believe his good luck even if it’s quite disconcerting to hear him speaking in an Irish accent. The young kids are very good in their roles and while Dunst’s part is not written especially well the sex scene with her buttons spilling over the floor is one of the best things in the film. Fanning is just a little too odd – but she has definitely grown up since Somewhere. Laurence is especially good as the little girl who stands up for McBurney right up until he hurts her little turtle Henry. The revenge is all too clearly telegraphed in a way that it wasn’t in the earlier film and that is the ultimate disappointment:  the staircase scene is thrown away.  There are some nice touches – the use of jewellery (Coppola loves fetishising sparkly objects) and costume and some Hitchcockian shots of the women’s hairstyles from behind. But it can’t make up for the lack of real tension. There is good use of music – that’s Mr Coppola’s band Phoenix reinterpreting Monteverdi’s Magnificat on the soundtrack and there’s apposite use of Stephen Foster’s song Virginia Belle.  Overall however this just doesn’t work the way you want it to do and despite its relatively short length (94 minutes) for a contemporary film it has its longeurs. Coppola adapted the original screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, a woman who was writing pseudonymously as ‘Grimes Grice’ which is the name mysteriously used on the film’s credits. Despite my reservations about this,  I find Coppola a fascinating – even beguiling! – director and I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s new book about her in the latest issue of Offscreen which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998)

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The post-feminist take on Cinderella, or how you can get your man and still retain your dignity and read Utopia without feeling guilty. Susannah Grant is a sassy screenwriter and this fairytale is plonked right into history as the Queen of France (Jeanne Moreau) regales the Brothers Grimm the story of Danielle, the unfortunate girl whose father has married a right cow (Anjelica Huston) with two daughters (Megan Dodds and Melanie Lynskey) and then he goes and dies and leaves her in their terrible hands. Drew Barrymore is the girl who loses her shoe after making it to the ball, Dougray Scott is the well-read but out of control prince who doesn’t want to settle down in organised matrimony to the dismay of his parents. This is smart and witty without the pantomime that usually accompanies the story and Barrymore is just about perfect as you’d expect in a gorgeous looking outing shot on location in France.  The final twist is but well deserved! Great fun. Directed by Andy Tennant.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

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Aka Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Men Tell No Tales. Thanks to the Australian government’s tax incentives, that Pirates-shaped gap in my life has finally been plugged with a new instalment in the delayed series. I love these films, and all pirate films, and have had to sate myself with the genius Black Sails in the interim (I have one series to go, so no spoilers please! I’m still not over Charles Vane’s execution!). This is number 5 in the franchise and it operates as a kind of unofficial reboot because it has been (gasp) 14 long years since the first film, Curse of the Black Pearl, was released. And it’s aptly returned to this for most of the bones in terms of story, character and structure, even if this has way more shaggy-dogness about it in an untidy set of plot mechanics. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann vows to find Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to right the wrong on his father who’s abiding in a watery limbo on the Flying Dutchman. He knows that the Trident of Poseidon will break the curse. Death meanwhile lurks on the high seas in the form of Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghostly crew who cannot set foot on dry land – also condemned and cursed by Sparrow’s antics. An astronomer Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario) is being executed as a witch in St Martin where a bank is being opened – and this is where Captain Jack makes his spectacular reappearance with his unruly and disgruntled crew led by Kevin McNally, with their awful ship in dry dock where they’re all broke. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is summoned by Henry to help out and he is ironically reunited with a daughter who doesn’t know the provenance of the map she seeks … Colourful, silly, not entirely logical and definitely rehashing plot points from the earlier films particularly the first one, this is handled pretty well by Norwegian directing duo Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg working from a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, with a story by Nathanson and Terry Rossio.  The young lovers story gets a run-through, the Barbossa plot gets a very fitting conclusion, there’s a fascinating flashback (I want one to give me skin like that in real life) and there are homages here and there to make you smile – the zombie sharks being a reference to the original summer blockbuster granddaddy of them all, the ghost crew a nod to the original’s skeleton crew, Depp taking his Robert Newton/Keith impersonation to new heights of pantomime, a great Paul McCartney cameo and a bank robbery like no other. Some of the lines could have done with a rewrite – especially the jokes which are heavy on the misogyny; and there’s no real mad surrealism which has graced previous episodes (is there anything as wild as the hallucination of the ship on dry land and the multiple Jacks?!). While most of the legendary tropes are present bar a real Brit villain the last action sequence is so darned complex I genuinely forgot what it was about. But it’s full of fun and wild adventure and I for one love this series even if number 4 fell far short of expectations. Thwaites and Scodelario make a pretty useful couple to base the next set of films, kicking some new plotlines into touch. What do you want – live action Space Mountain?! Hoist the mainbrace! Wahey me hearties! More!

Legally Blonde (2001)

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Years before the feel-good musical! Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is the beyond blonde Californian sorority queen who just wants to settle down with her boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) after graduation from college and on the night she thinks he’s going to propose he dumps her  – for a brunette swot Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair) who’s going to Harvard Law with him.  Elle decides to follow him and crams for the Law School Admission Test – and winds up at Harvard too, pretty in pink with her beloved chihuahua in tow. She’s laughed out of class and takes refuge at a hair salon owned by Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) and gets real, hits the books and winds up being romanced by her tutor Luke Wilson and getting on the team to defend a wealthy widow who’s accused of murdering her much older husband. Very funny outing with the redoubtable Witherspoon giving a barnstorming performance in a smart satire with a big princess heart at its centre.  The concluding courtroom scene is a doozy. With a slew of nice supporting cast including Ali Larter, Oz Perkins, Victor Garber and Raquel Welch, this is nicely shot by Anthony B. Richmond, and directed by Robert Luketic from a screenplay by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, adapting Amanda Brown’s novel (the first in a series).

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

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The one with the chicken salad scene. Jack Nicholson was on the verge of becoming one of the most famous actors in the world with this portrait of alienation which just floored contemporary audiences. There had simply never been a character like Bobby ‘Eroica’ Dupea. He was the creature of writer Carole Eastman, writing under the nom de plume Adrien Joyce, albeit co-star Susan Anspach claimed that Nicholson made up stuff on the hoof and deserved credit. Bob Rafelson the director and co-writer was already a name from The Monkees but this was really a high point of New Hollywood – a departure and an arrival, with behavioural observation the strong point of a narrative that sees wildcatter Bobby shacked up with Tammy Wynette devotee waitress Rayette (Karen Black) and screwing around with his friend Elton (Billy ‘Green’ Bush). When he expresses his contempt for Elton (a ‘cracker asshole’) we get the first intimation that Bobby may not be like him: in fact he’s the estranged son of a family of gifted musicians and he himself is a former musical prodigy who has literally abandoned his talent. When Elton tells him Rayette is pregnant then Elton is arrested for robbing a gas station, Bobby takes off to LA to see his sister Partita (Lois Smith) a pianist who’s recording an album. She tells him their father is gravely ill. He takes off – regretfully – with a suicidal Rayette and leaves her at a motel while he broaches a difficult family reunion at Puget Sound including  violinist brother Carl Fidelio (Ralph Waite) whose pianist fiancee Catherine (Anspach) he beds. The final scene with his unresponsive father is hopelessly moving and the movie’s final shot when he hitches a ride on a truck away from a gas station and his car and his jacket and Rayette (who has turned up and embarrassed him en famille) … seems endless. Nicholson is allowed show all his colours here and it’s a transcendentally emotional and funny performance in a complex character study – the restaurant scene with the awful hitch hikers is a highlight, the wild sex with a pick-up another, and Nicholson’s tears are terrible to witness. He doesn’t know himself at all. This is a standout film from an era devoid of hope and this seems to encapsulate its anomie and capture it entirely. Luminously shot by Laszlo Kovacs, those burnished skies feel like the aspirations of a generation. Nicholson was officially a superstar.