In This Our Life (1942)

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You’ve never gotten over me and you never will. John Huston’s sophomore outing (after The Maltese Falcon) is this deranged adaptation of Ellen Glasgow’s Pulitzer-winning novel concerning race relations and sibling rivalry in the contemporary South, a subject on which she was rather an expert. Bette Davis is Stanley Timberlake who is about to marry lawyer Craig Fleming (George Brent, Davis’ frequent co-star) but runs off instead with her brother in law Dr Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan). Stanley’s sister Roy (Olivia DeHavilland) divorces Peter but starts dating Craig in revenge and Peter starts to get nervous when Stanley goes kinda crazy at a roadhouse.  He becomes an alcoholic and commits suicide. Stanley returns to Virginia and wants to stop Roy from marrying Craig. She kills a mother and child while drunk and tries to pin the crime on a young black man Parry Clay (Ernest Anderson) working for the family and interning in Craig’s office to prepare for law school … What a wonderful showcase of the very opposing talents of Warners’ biggest stars. Both Davis and DeHavilland were having a bad time on this film:  Davis’ husband fell very ill and the company made it difficult for her to visit him then she fell ill;  DeHavilland was overworked and tired and felt overweight. Davis felt Huston favoured her co-star and drew attention to herself with her overwrought self-designed makeup scheme and her very busy costumes by Orry-Kelly. Her personification of this selfish nasty histrionic woman whose very physicality bespeaks narcissism is totally compelling;  her quasi-incestuous scene with her indulgent uncle William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn) is still shocking – he holds the power once he’s taken over the family business. That scene was directed by Raoul Walsh when Huston was called away on war duty (this was made between October and December 1941). But what made this film such a problem when it was released was its truthful depiction of the state of race relations and therefore created a distribution issue. There are many things wrong with Howard Koch’s adaptation but the busy-ness of the production design with its wildly clashing patterns, the strength of the ensemble scenes and the sheerly contrasting powers of the ladies playing opposite one another in their varying interpretations (madly hysterical versus quiet revenge) in some very good shot setups by Huston make this a very interesting example of Forties melodrama. Watch for Walter Huston as a bartender.

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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In the face of the fabulous new your thought is to kill it?  Los Angeles 2049. K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner for Wallace, the new incarnation of the Tyrell Corporation led by blind Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) whose right hand woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is enchanted by K’s story that a replicant may have had a child. He is ordered by LAPD (in the guise of Robin Wright) to get rid of any evidence that a replicant could have given birth in order to see off a war between replicants and humans. He returns to the site of a dead tree and finds something that makes him think he can remember something from his own childhood and it leads him into a spiral of discovery that involves tracking down his predecessor before Prohibition and the Blackout, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who appears to have something to do with the rebel replicants underground …. Where to start? This hybridised metafictive spawn of one of the greatest achievements in cinema is no easy ride. The way it looks for one. It’s horrible. Mostly greys with occasional harking back to the navy and neon and a sour yellow, a nod to the burnished autumnal shadings of the original. The Orientalised appearances are now more subtly rendered but are even more prevalent as though mixed into a Caucasian blender. Then there are the women. Luv is clearly meant to remind us of Rachael (Sean Young) while the reference to Nabokov’s Pale Fire is intended to tell us that there are two fictional characters sparring with one another here – but the question is, which two, and of them, who’s real and who’s a replicant? The quasi-Oedipal story steers right into a quagmire of identities and dreams and purported flashbacks. Other quotes – Kafka, Treasure Island, and even the songs that play as holograms in a burned-out Vegas – also serve to get us to look one way, instead of another. The idea of relationships as a figment of your imagination – literally, a hologram – is conceptually brilliant and well executed (in every sense) but takes too long as a narrative device to be told and then unravel. The ending is enormously clever and draws on facets of Philip K. Dick’s own backstory: it’s literally a tidal wash of action and memories. But are they real? Are they implants? Hampton Fancher is back but with co-writer Michael Green this time instead of David Webb Peoples. You can see the spliced DNA with Harlan Ellison (an insistence on procreation) as well as PKD  (what is humanity? what is reality?) and the literary turns which have some good jokes. There are some nice lines too and even if they’re on the nose they actually future proof it somewhat:  You’ve never seen a miracle.  Or, I know it’s real. Or, Dying for the right cause is the most human thing you can do. They actually conceal what is paid off by misdirecting us.  It gets away with its visual tributes to the original cast with the prostitute who looks like Darryl Hannah and Hoeks who clearly resembles Sean Young even in ill-fitting costume.  Directed by Denis Villeneuve who is one of the most audacious mainstream directors at the present time with Ridley Scott producing,  I appreciate what they’re doing here but it’s a pale twenty-first century facsimile, more replicant than human.  Ford enters the fray so late and Gosling is not my favourite actor albeit he acquits himself well as someone who starts to feel things he shouldn’t given his somewhat obscure origins as a police functionary. But I have feelings too. Nothing can compare with the sensory overload that is Blade Runner, the daddy of the species. Notwithstanding the foregoing, as all the best legal minds argue, the ending is brilliant. Oh! The humanity.

The Accountant (2016)

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I have no idea how to interpret why people do what they do. That makes two of us, bub. Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is the autistic number cruncher working out of a strip mall south of Chicago. But he’s being hunted down by a T-man (JK Simmons) whose pursuit has some personal impetus. Is it possible that Wolff – who likes target practice – is laundering money for the Mob? And is a decent hitman to boot? There are flashbacks to a troubled child whose mom walks out and whose military dad takes him and his brother all over the world to learn fight techniques. When Christian is hired to look at the books of a robotics technology firm run by Lamar Blackburn  (John Lithgow) his mathematical genius uncovers a plot nobody thought he would uncover and the eccentric accountant Dana (Anna Kendrick) at the firm could wind up as collateral damage as a string of hits is carried out. There’s a hard man Brax (Jon Bernthal) who is being deployed to off awkward embezzlers – and is currently including Christian in his sights. … What a weird idea. An autistic assassin-accountant. And yet the DNA of this is so tightly wound around parallel plots – the psychodrama of a mentally ill child genius combined with a government hunt for money launderers and it gets tighter as  it progresses. Bonkers, with an astutely cast Affleck (line readings were never his thing) in a thriller like no other. Adding up, with more bodies. That’s mental illness for ya. If you can see the end coming you are a better man than I. You might even BE a man. Written by Bill Dubuque and directed by Gavin O’Connor.

Less Than Zero (1987)

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Clay (Andrew McCarthy) is back in Los Angeles for Christmas following his first semester at college and finds that his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) is now using cocaine and his best friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.) whom he found sleeping with Blair over Thanksgiving is a serious cokehead indebted to the tune of $50,000 to the nasty Rip (James Spader – frighteningly reasonable) who runs a rent boy ring and gets his creditors to service his clients. This portrait of life in the higher-earning echelons of LA is chilling. Bret Easton Ellis’ iconic novel is a talisman of the mid-late Eighties coming of age set and the icy precision of his affectless prose is inimitable. Once read, never forgotten. Harley Peyton’s screenplay is a fair adaptation but the casting lets this down – with the exception of Downey who is simply sensational as the tragic Julian, gifted with a record company for graduation by his father (Nicholas Pryor) and then simply dumped when he screws up.  This lovable loser’s mouth drools with the effects of his addiction when rehab doesn’t work and he spirals unhappily trying to bum money off his uncle to open a nightclub. Watch the scene when he talks to Clay’s little sister as though she’s a lover who’s pushing him away – knockout. The Beverly Hills scene with its horrible parents and their multiple marriages and awkward dinners with exes and stepchildren, making teenagers grow up too fast, is all too real.  While McCarthy and Gertz just don’t really work – McCarthy’s supposed to be a vaguely distanced observer but he doesn’t convey much beyond a bemused smile, Gertz looks confused and both look too old – the shooting style is cool and superficial, like the lives it critiques. Directed by Marek Kanievska.

Hell or High Water (2016)

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Call it white man’s intuition.  Taylor (Sicario) Sheridan writes a great screenplay so this was bound to be thrilling one way or another. Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers carrying out bank heists in west Texas to retrieve the family land, in foreclosure by the local bank two weeks after their Mom’s death. Tanner’s not long out of prison, Toby is divorced and wanting to do right by his sons:  he’s found oil on the property so he knows it’s crucial to get the ownership in order and there’s no way out now he’s lost his job and is behind in child support. Tanner carries out a third robbery after Toby is befriended by a waitress in a nearby diner and it’s the first bank to have CCTV that works. Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) who’s mere weeks from retirement gets the bit between his teeth and decides to take them down if he can figure out who they are by a simple method of deduction as the brothers rob the remaining banks in the chain – to repay the same bank  … Crafty, wise, mordantly funny and unbearably tense, this has two parallel male friendships – Marcus’s partner Indian-Mexican Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is the target of his ongoing race jokes –  winding around each other like DNA. This contemporary western has a great socio-political background (mass repossessions after the 2008 crash) and a wonderful setting:  look at those empty roads and desert and big skies. All four are convincing in their acutely interesting roles, everyone with something to lose and clearly defined by both action and dialogue. It reminds me of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, another outing with Bridges but with him on the other side of the law four decades later. It asks questions about right and wrong and family and friendship and being a western it must have a logical conclusion – with a shootout. And then some. Brilliantly balanced storytelling that’s really well directed by David (Starred Up) Mackenzie, a Brit who clearly relished being let loose in all that big scenery.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975)

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Normally I have issues with Jack Lemmon playing serious – he’s such a superb comedian I get nervous when he’s doing pathos. However this Neil Simon adaptation skirts those potential problems – the writing is just so good every time you fear the worst he goes for the laugh and boy does it work. Even if Lemmon doesn’t – he’s the exec made jobless in a purge and just loses it – wife Anne Bancroft is incredibly pragmatic and understanding even when he stops shaving and washing and getting dressed and going out.  He stays in except when he’s picking fights with neighbours in the apartment block during the summer heat wave. By the time he’s going to a shrink and his wife returns to the workplace his brother Gene Saks (can you really see HIM as Jack’s brother?! Me neither!) wants to get involved and their childhood issues are resurrected while their older sisters sob. There’s a brilliant payoff to a mugging at Central Park – by Sylvester Stallone! And it’s wrapped up very well when Anne starts to go off the rails as SHE is fired. NYC looks great. Look sharp for F. Murray Abraham and M. Emmet Walsh. Directed by Melvin Frank.

Big Business (1988)

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Is this how you dress for the office? You look like a blood clot! Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin in a reworking of The Comedy of Errors? (With maybe a touch of The Prince and the Pauper… and Aesop).  NYC 1988?  The Plaza? Hell yeah! They’re the two mismatched pairs of identical twin sisters separated at birth in a country hospital in the 1940s and now … the bumpkins are coming to the big city to deal with the proposed takeover of their family firm in Jupiter Hollow which is being handled by … their posh twins whose socialite folks were just passing through forty years earlier! And neither set knows the other set exists! And they have the same names – Rose and Sadie – because the poor farmer overheard the rich guy naming his daughters! Bette is the obnoxiously bitchy divorced CEO with a kid she pays to do better at school, Lily is the timid flibbertigibbet sister who can eat anything and is sympathetic to the factory at Jupiter Hollow because their father wanted it in the family to honour their birthplace; and Bette is also the louder bumpkin with the skinny sweet sister who runs their company. When they get the posh women’s suite at the Plaza all sorts of screwball mixups ensue which should be a little funnier – costume and accents are not as riotous as they might be but when push comes to shove country Sadie’s wannabe beau (Fred Ward) turns up and the company’s execs think he’s a conman – who doesn’t get it when they invite him to sleep on their couch (they’re a gay couple).  The finale – the meeting with the stockholders – is run like a scene from Dynasty because country Rose has studied Alexis Carrington like a book. The writing (by Dori Pierson and Marc Reid Rubel) lets this brilliant premise deflate – not to get too Aristotelian about it there are  no real scenes of ‘recognition’ other than the failsafe one in the Ladies’ bathroom and the original baby switch which leads to the concluding life swap is never dealt with satisfactorily in terms of even reference to it – this convoluted plot never really stands scrutiny. But it’s a breezy show even if these fabulous women never really get their considerable comic chops into it. Wonder what would have happened if Barbra Streisand and Goldie Hawn had starred, as was intended?! Heck, the clothes are just great. Directed by Jim Abrahams.

Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

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Christmas is coming so it’s time to take this out. But it works at Halloween, Easter and ice cream season too – which is all year round, isn’t it?! This classic Hollywood musical comedy drama is simply perfection. Adapted from Sally Benson’s New Yorker stories of a midwestern family at the start of the twentieth century, it tells the story of the Smiths through the seasons.  Made at the height of WW2, this fantasy about a pretty family shimmers with the lustrous care of director Vincente Minnelli, whose background in theatre design comes to the fore in terms of staging, decor, colour, choreography and performance. Judy Garland has some great moments in a film stuffed with them – The Trolley Song, the romance with The Boy Next Door, the amusing scenes with her sister Lucille Bremer; but the standout moments are mostly those with little Margaret O’Brien as Tootie, on her Halloween outing, her destruction of the snowmen and her distress at their father’s proposed move to NYC.  Judy soothes her with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Funny, sad, touching and joyous, this is a forever film.

Home Alone (1990)

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Sensational, kinetic, lively action comedy from the late and beloved chronicler of childhood and adolescence, auteur John Hughes.  Little Kevin is terrorised by everyone in his family – and they forget about him when they depart for a trip to Paris for Christmas, leaving him on his own in their big suburban Chicago house to deal with a pair of bungling thieves. Macaulay Culkin is brilliant as the kid whose dream comes true – to be spared his awful family, even for a short time. This held the record as the biggest grossing live action comedy in the US until Hangover Part II came along to spoil the party.  Simply sublime entertainment for any time of year.

Black Mountain Poets (2016)

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A shambolic exercise in shaggy dog poetry, or something. Writer/director Jamie Adams had an idea, got an ensemble together and they semi-improvised the scenes over five days in the Black Mountains of Wales. This, by the way, has nothing to do with the actual Black Mountain poets in the US, in case you thought you had stumbled onto an artistic exploration of experimental writers. Two con artist sisters, Alice Lowe and Dolly Wells, narrowly escape the clutches of the law trying to steal a JCB and make off in a stolen car which runs out of petrol. Lost in the middle of Wales they steal a car belonging to the Wilding Sisters, a pair of poets on their way to a poetry retreat – and pretend to be them. Lisa (Lowe) falls for earnest Richard (Tom Cullen) whose ex Louisa (Rosa Robson) shows up unimpressed. Things take a turn when they’re obliged to do outdoor pursuits and go camping and Richard falls for Claire (Wells). (And if you think that’s unbelievable, I narrowly avoided one such writing retreat which forced participants to climb up a waterfall and then dive in – and yes, someone fractured their skull and neck on the rocks below …) Then there’s a pretty funny poem-off with the police dropping by. All the while the real Wildings are wondering why nobody has come to rescue them … Pretty silly and misses its supposed targets and sometimes feels as long as the five days it took to make this 82-minute effort. Mostly daft fun and it’s almost refreshing to see nature take a hold of these neurotic loser thirtysomethings who miss their late dad to the point where Lisa wants to put pen to paper and read out more than a Tesco receipt or the card her dead father wrote her twenty years ago. Harmless, just as long as nobody got hurt putting up those tents.