Welcome to Marwen (2018)

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Sorry, I don’t speak Nazi. No one expects Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) to recover from a devastating assault by Neo-Nazis that has wiped away all of his memories. In his free time from the diner where he works he creates art installations using photographs of dolls enacting a story. Putting together pieces from the past and present, Mark meticulously creates a Belgian town called Marwen and becomes Captain Hogie, a heroic World War II fighter pilot. His installation soon comes to life with breathtakingly realistic dolls – a testament to the most powerful women he knows including Nicol (Leslie Mann) the woman who moved in across the street to get away from abusive ex Kurt (Neil Jackson) who becomes his fantasy nemesis, Major Meyer. Through this fantasy world, which becomes a kind of therapy, Hogancamp finds the strength to face his attackers who are due to be sentenced …   Like the wise man said, “Our pain is our rocket fuel.” It reminds us of our strength. Written by Caroline Thompson and director Robert Zemeckis, this man-child fantasy drama treads schmaltzy territory to rather indifferent effect despite its roots in the attack perpetrated on the real-life subject and Catskills resident in 2000 who admitted to his penchant for wearing women’s shoes and was almost killed by his assailants. The strength he obtains here derives not just from the fantasy but from his real-world friendships with the women who surround him (played by Janelle Monae, Merritt Weaver, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Stefanie von Pfetten, Leslie Zemeckis and Diane Kruger). Part of its lax storytelling arises from the lack of engagement with the five violent hoodlums who brutally assaulted Mark in the first place and how he has displaced his fears onto this animated iteration making his Neo-Nazis into the ‘real’ thing seventy years earlier enacting retribution in his own back garden. Perhaps less fantasy and more reality could have balanced this difficult narrative ploy. A flawed but interesting work about healing from devastation, high heels intact. I was beaten up because I was different, so I’ve built a place where I can heal

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Juliet, Naked (2018)

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Every aspect of civilisation is going to the dogs, with the notable exception of TV. Annie (Rose Byrne) returned to her seaside hometown 15 years earlier to take over her late father’s history museum and is stuck in a long-term relationship with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) – a media studies lecturer at the local further education college and an obsessive fan of obscure rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke).  Crowe has been out of the spotlight for a quarter of a century and Duncan has gathered a couple of hundred of fellow devotees online on a website he has created in his honour. When the acoustic demo of Tucker’s hit record from 25 years ago surfaces at their house, its release leads to a life-changing encounter for Annie with the elusive rocker himself when he responds to a review she posts on Duncan’s website and they start to contact each other regularly, telling each other their problems. Duncan, meanwhile, is moving on and moving in with new colleague Gina (Denise Gough) leaving his Tucker shrine intact in Annie’s basement. Across the Atlantic Tucker’s life takes on a further twist when Lizzie (Ayoola Smart) one of his illegitimate children announces she is about to become a mother and he decides to pay a visit to the UK when she’s about to give birth. Tucker has children he doesn’t even know, while sharing a garage with the only boy who means anything to him, his newest son Jackson (Azhy Robertson).  The reality of his relationship with his famous muse from three decades earlier is gradually revealed following a medical emergency which brings all the children he has fathered to his hospital bedside..Are you telling me I have to know Antigone before I can understand The Wire? Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel by Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Evgenia Peretz and Phil Alden Robinson,  this comic account of romantic mismatches, irresponsible breeding, inheritance, missed opportunities and fandom gets a lot of traction from the casting of Hawke, practically a poster boy for Generation X since, well, Generation X had a name and Evan Dando et al slid off our collective radar even if we still have the mixtapes to prove there was life before the internet – which then gave rise to this new outlet for sleb cultdom. As one Miss Morrisette used to wail, Isn’t it ironic. O’Dowd is his usual doofus self while Byrne shines as the long-suffering woman who ponders motherhood following the decision not to be a parent – well, with that guy, who would?! There is an amusing moment when the reality of Annie’s online musings materialises on the beach and Duncan simply doesn’t recognise his lifelong hero who he believes is living on a sheep farm in Pennsylvania sporting a long white beard. It’s an amiable amble down collective memory lane without much surface dressing and despite some weird editing early on, it coasts on the performances but never reaches emotional heights, reflecting the music that Hawke performs in character.  Directed by Jesse Peretz, who, entirely coincidentally one presumes, used to play with The Lemonheads and who made his directing debut long ago with another Brit writer, First Love, Last Rites, an Ian McEwan adaptation.  He is currently making a TV version of Hornby’s much-loved High Fidelity.  I love it, the internet! God, you’re finally entering the modern age. Which site was it? One for clever people, no doubt. Hornyhistorians.com?

Red Dawn (1984)

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My father turned me in. Oh God, they do things you can’t imagine. When Soviet soldiers invade Calumet, a small Colorado town, sending Nicaraguan and Cuban paratroopers into the local high school football field, brothers Jed (Patrick Swayze) and Matt Eckert (Charlie Sheen) escape with friends (C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton) to the forest where they call themselves Wolverines after their school mascot. With their father Tom (Harry Dean Stanton) a prisoner of the invading army, the children decide to fight against the Soviets. As the country comes under increasing attack and bitter winter closes in, the group teams up with Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe) to take back their town but how long can they hold out as they discover they are behind battle lines in occupied America? … West Coast. East Coast. Down here is Mexico. First wave of the attack came in disguised as commercial charter flights same way they did in Afghanistan in ’80. Only they were crack Airborne outfits. Now they took these passes in the Rockies. What a film to watch in the week that Vladimir Putin declared liberalism dead. From a story by Kevin Reynolds, auteur John Milius bootkicks the US into surreality positing a Soviet landgrab when we all know they’d nuke the country to high heaven before that would happen. So far, so ridick, as what was supposed to be a small arty antiwar outing becomes a teenage Rambo with Milius toying with the original material assisted by General Alexander Haig, on MGM’s board of directors at the time, dreaming up a what-if scenario evolving from Mexico’s left wing sympathy splitting the US in half as Hitler’s plan for invasion is reworked.  It starts with a history class in Genghis Khan’s warring tactics and within 5 minutes of explaining his stratagems the Russian helicopters are on the ground.  Soon Alexander Nevsky is playing for free at the local cinema and William Smith is in town marshalling the Russkies (in reality he’d been a Russian Intercept interrogator for the CIA). When the drive-in becomes a re-education centre, it’s a nod to the potential for camp classic status as an ‘ironic’ acknowledgement of its own silliness but also reminds us a lot of WW2. Given that this was the first film to receive a PG-13 rating for its violence, it occupies a certain stratum of cultdom and not merely for an alt history:  here are some of the era’s top teen icons (half of The Outsiders!) shooting the hell out of everything in sight. What joy there is in seeing Lea Thompson manning a sub-machine gun and Swayze romancing Jennifer Grey long before Dirty Dancing. With astounding cinematography by Ric Waite and Frederick Elmes and an operatic score from the great Basil Poledouris, this is a salutary lesson in survivalism and resistance. Milius would describe it as “a Close Encounters with Cold War Russians”. Children did this

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

The Hired Hand (1971)

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You mean you ain’t gonna go to the coast? It’s the 1880s. After seven years wandering in the Southwest during which young travelling companion Griffen (Robert Pratt) is murdered for the hell of it in a small town run by corrupt sheriff McVey (Severn Darden), drifting cowboy Harry Collings (Peter Fonda) abandons his dream of going to California and seeing the Pacific and brings along his friend Arch Harris (Warren Oates) when he returns to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and ranch … I wasn’t ready, that’s all. With its dreamy opening, unconventional mid-section and leisurely approach, debut director Peter Fonda was given free rein (following Easy Rider) with this Alan Sharp screenplay, Vilmos Zsigmond supplying beautifully naturalistic imagery edited into something of an occasionally hallucinatory montage by Frank Mazzola. The performances are a wonder. We are more accustomed to seeing Oates directed by Sam Peckinpah and here he is sympathetic and wise, a diametric opposite to the innocence embodied by the tragic Griffen. Then he unwittingly forms part of a new triangle with his friend’s wife. The marvellous Bloom meanwhile hints at a depth of narrative that doesn’t always reveal itself on the simple surface. She’s a frontier woman who didn’t replace a dog that’s run off – but she has herself had relations with other men during her husband’s walkabout, crudely describing the experiences as “like two dogs.” She’s one tough cookie and Bloom herself (Medium Cool, High Plains Drifter, National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Last Temptation of Christ) was a hell of an actress: she died in January of this year. The idea of a marriage being revisited is tested not just in the situation but in the visuals, as this younger husband has finally become the man his older wife needed, quietly reinventing their relationship. He’s what you went looking for. It’s not just about romance, it’s also about friendship and loyalty, travelling, hanging out, being – no doubt virtues of hippiedom mostly lost to us in the chatter of contemporary life, albeit this trip can be cut short by sudden violence, a constant trope in the most American of genres. The songs by Bruce Langhorne assist the mystical, even spiritual feel, enhanced by the cutting out of 20 minutes of more explanatory story, restored and then removed again for the 2001 re-release by its still centre, Fonda himself, who understands that the film operates like meditation.  But the beginning, and the conclusion, the alpha and the omega, as it were, are disturbing, the spectre of uneasy death all-pervasive. It’s been building up a long while

Decision at Sundown (1957)

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You’d better leave town if you want to stay in one piece. After three years of searching and hell-bent on revenge, flinty gunslinger Bart Allison (Randolph Scott) rides into a sleepy Western town with sidekick Sam (Noah Beery) and only one goal in mind: to kill local roughneck Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), who kidnapped his wife years ago. Both men have blood on their hands over the woman’s eventual suicide. Allison and Kimbrough, wracked with guilt but boiling over with bloodlust, are set to face off for one final confrontation. Tensions mount as sunset approaches, and the townspeople must choose sides before sundown just as Kimbrough prepares to wed local girl Lucy (Karen Steele) and sheriff Swede (Andrew Duggan) assists in surrounding the men in a stables… Doc, when you have been tending bars as long as I have, you wouldn’t expect so much out of the human race. With a screenplay by Charles Lang, director Budd Boetticher reunites with Scott for their second collaboration and the usually taciturn star plays a man unravelling at the seams rather with a residual question over his psychological well-being not to mention his partial responsibility for his wife’s death, tearing at the reason for his quest and turning the tables on the town itself as the lines blur between notions of the hero and the villain. There are ugly digs at women and their predilections with Kimbrough’s mistress Ruby (Valerie French) the third point of this bad women triangle but this is compensated for by the precision of the action sequences, cut closely and distinctively, echoing the irony that underscores this unusual revenge western, offering no light relief to the brutal sense of justice at its core. What we remember is the detail of Randolph Scott’s face, etched with pointless obsession. I’ll tell you one thing, none of us will ever forget the day that Bart Allison spent in Sundown

The Bookshop (2017)

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Dear Mr. Thornton, a good book is the precious distillation of a master’s spirit, embalmed and preserved for the purpose of achieving a life beyond life, which is why it is undoubtedly a necessary commodity. East Anglia, 1959. Young widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) risks everything to move into an abandoned building and open up a bookshop – the first such shop in the sleepy seaside town of Hardborough.  This soon brings her fierce enemies: she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers and also crosses Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) the town’s vengeful, embittered alpha female and doyenne of the local scene and earmarked The Old House (as it becomes known) as an arts centre. Only Mr Brundish (Bill Nighy) a reclusive bibiliophile who develops an interest in the novels of Ray Bradbury seems sympathetic to Florence’s business… In the case of biographies, it’s better, I find, if they’re about good people, whereas novels are much more interesting if they are about nasty people. Whatever delicacy or nuance Penelope Fitzgerald’s source novel (a Booker nominee) may possess is simply flattened here by an almost inert style-free interpretation from writer/director Isabel Coixet, inept barely-there directing and some terrible miscasting in a setting that doesn’t look remotely like Norfolk or Suffolk because it’s not, it’s County Down in Northern Ireland and that’s not all that’s wrong with the production design. Mortimer is heroically trying to save a poor choice of material directed with no sense of momentum or invention and the distracting narration (by Julie Christie) is utilised to strike some interest in the premise which would otherwise be almost impenetrable. Nighy has little to do except walk about looking grumpy and Reg Wilson as Clarkson’s retired General husband looks utterly incompetent far beyond the demands of his dim character. James Lance has a good role as the poisonous shop assistant toff but his serpentine ways make the outcome all too predictable; Honor Kneafsey as little Christine the girl who becomes a book lover and gives the story a decent payoff is quite effective as a plot device to explain the narration and bring it up to date. What is good but hardly well dramatised is the way every level of a community moves against a single woman and conspires to totally destroy her utterly unapologetically. A failure but a small one since so few people will have seen it and those who have will have experienced the utter misery of the protagonist for every single second of this film in a rotten adaptation that literally never gets started. How right she was when she said that no one ever feels alone in a bookshop

Battle of the Bulge (1965)

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I did not lose a war to die in the back seat of a car. At the end of 1944 American Lt. Col. Dan Kiley (Henry Fonda), a military intelligence whiz and former police officer, discovers that the Nazis are planning to attack Allied forces near Belgium. Certain that the exhausted enemy can’t muster much force, General Joe Grey (Robert Ryan) isn’t convinced by Kiley’s findings, and his men pay the price when the German tanks begin their offensive in the Ardennes. In the heat of this key World War II battle, Kiley must come up with a plan when it becomes clear that the Nazis are trying to steal fuel from the Allies, there are Germans disguised as American MPs diverting traffic from the new Western Front and an ambitious German Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw) who intends keeping the war going as long as possible no matter how many are sacrificed as he leads the Panzer spearhead of the German counterattack … Having been an inspector of police does not disqualify me from thinking. Written by (formerly blacklisted) Bernard Gordon, producer Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (with contributions by John Melson), this is proper WW2 entertainment about a huge episode that involved a million men and which I once had the temerity to describe to someone as an instance of poor project management on the part of Hitler and his cronies. I love me a good war movie, better still if there are tanks (my dream vehicle, particularly the camo models in Desert Storm. So sue me!) so this is perfect Easter (or Passover!) holiday fare. Criticised for not being 100% accurate and its Spanish locations being a poor imitation of the Ardennes setting, this has a lot going for it, not least the staging and the tremendous cast. There is detail by the yard – and the weather reports are crucial. The way that the strategy and tactics are exposed is a triumph of film storytelling. Shaw is sizzling as one of the nastiest Nazis outside the Bulgarian Waffen SS and it’s a star-making role. Fonda’s doggedness is wonderfully sympathetic, especially when you have the feeling (because you’ve seen him in other movies) that he’s probably right about everything and his bozo superiors find out, soon enough. It’s the perceptive structuring of the narrative from both perspectives that makes this tick along quickly. While not setting out to be a satire (hardly, although WW2 vet Sperling was no fan of warfare) the dialogue is sparkling with zingers – aphoristic and otherwise, particularly punctuating Shaw’s scenes – and there’s one out-and-out comic scene (played straight) when Savalas returns to his business to check how things are doing. Pier Angeli pleads for some promise of marriage because this is what she understands by the term ‘business partnership’ and wants a sign. But he’s rushing back to the front so he just tells her to keep feeding the chickens (they’re looking scrawny). This amusing character sidebar is one part of a dedicated soldier and Savalas plays it to the hilt. There’s a mass execution which won’t surprise you – but someone gets away and the payoff is very satisfying indeed. There are some good map room scenes; a really funny one-word message from US Command to German Command; and a breathtaking POV section with Fonda gliding down in silence over the attack position of the German tanks on the other side of the river:  just listen to the score. Such inventive work by Benjamin Frankel. The final sequence of tank battle is suitably fiery and an injured and vengeful Savalas joins forces with James MacArthur at the fuel depot where they get to blow up more than just the gas supply. Beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard in 70mm and a fine job of direction by Ken Annakin with not a moment to spare in its 163 minutes. Never mind what Ike said – this is simply sensational. When I have a brigade of tanks – that is reality!

Welcome Stranger (1947)

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The doctor’s as good as Frank Sinatra! Old Dr. Joseph McRory (Barry Fitzgerald) of Fallbridge, Maine, hires a replacement for his two-month vacation sight unseen. When they finally meet, he and young Californian singing doctor Jim Pearson (Bing Crosby) don’t hit it off, but Pearson is delighted to stay, once he meets teacher Trudy Mason (Joan Caulfield) who volunteers at McRory’s clinic. Only McRory’s housekeeper Mrs Gilley (Elizabeth Patterson) is sympathetic and gives him helpful advice. However the other locals take their cue from McRory and cold-shoulder Pearson, especially Trudy’s stuffy fiancé. But then, guess who needs an emergency appendectomy and the doctors are forced to put aside their differences…  This re-teaming of Crosby with Fitzgerald after Going My Way was huge in 1947 and was heavily promoted by Paramount – this time instead of playing bickering priests, they’re bickering doctors. (They would be reunited again in Top o’ the Morning). The songs of Jimmy Van Heusen are liberally sprinkled throughout the story. Other than trilling, Crosby gives quite a lazy performance in an underwritten role, Fitzgerald has some quaint sayings while Caulfield is lovely, as usual. It’s nice to see Pa Kettle himself (Percy Kilbride) in the smalltown lineup. Written by  N. Richard Nash and Arthur Sheekman from a story by Frank Butler. Director Elliot Nugent makes an appearance as a medic in a scene directed by Billy Wilder.

The Heroes of Telemark (1965)

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Don’t you ever make the mistake of under-rating the Germans. By Easter we will have not merely 10000 pounds of heavy water, but 12000 pounds of heavy water. British Intelligence receives shocking news of significant breakthroughs at a Nazi facility in occupied Norway where they’re developing heavy water stores for nuclear attack in the small town of Rjukan in Telemark county. The British work with Norwegian Resistance head Knut Straud (Richard Harris) and distinguished physicist Dr. Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas) to plan an urgent response even if Pedersen had planned on sitting out the war. As a Norwegian team headed by Straud struggles to blow up the store, a civilian hostage situation erupts with the Nazis keen to disrupt the local Resistance. Meanwhile, Pedersen has to negotiate domestic arrangements with his ex-wife Ann (Ulla Jacobsen) who’s living with her uncle (Michael Redgrave) As far as I remember you spent two years with him, and damn well didn’t get out of bed. If this isn’t as immediately psychologically suspenseful as director Anthony Mann’s rocky mountain Fifties westerns, it’s a terrifically tense thriller. This man on a mission movie benefits from the difficulties between the leading men – particularly when it comes to dealing with a questionable local Resistance leader:  Shoot him, says Douglas. Don’t, says Harris. They take a vote on what to do with this potential Quisling. You choose! Needless to say, there’s a deadly payoff. The location shooting in Norway provides a sensational snowscape in which this anti-Nazi anti-nuclear gang plough their furrow with a cross-country ski chase a particular highlight. Written by Ivan Moffat and Canadian blacklistee Ben Barzman, who get some nice jibes in about sexist behaviour, planting the chance for the traducing ex-husband (Douglas) to obtain redemption of sorts. It’s adapted from the memoir Skis Against the Atom by Norwegian Resistance hero Knut Haukelid and a novel by John Drummond on the same subject, But For These Men. Truly, this is a film about the greater good with stunning widescreen photography by Robert Krasker and a rousing score by Malcolm Arnold. Especially for that World War Two-shaped hole in your post-Christmas comedown. Epic stuff.  Press this little thing here and the bullets come out there