The Birth of a Nation (2016)

The Birth of a Nation theatrical.png

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.

Advertisements

Wind River (2017)

Wind River theatrical.png

How do you gauge someone’s will to live? I once knew a film producer who said the two rules of moviemaking were, Never make a western and Never make a film in the snow. Well thank goodness nobody told screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who makes his directing debut here following the screenplays for the extraordinary Sicario and Hell or High Water, two of the best films in the past decade. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is an agent (read:  animal catcher) for the US Fish and Wildlife Service working in the vast titular Native American reservation in Wyoming when he happens upon the body of a young woman Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) who was his own late daughter’s best friend. He’s seconded by a neophyte FBI officer Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to help her as she has no expertise in tracking or this mountainous terrain the size of Rhode Island with just 6 police officers led by Graham Greene. While Cory is still dealing with the fallout of a divorce, having to forego caring for his young son when his ex is out of town for a couple of days in order to look for the killers, we unspool through family photos and start to understand some of his motivation for helping this officer who doesn’t even have the right clothing for minus 20: Cory’s mother in law loans her her late granddaughter’s clothing with the warning, These are not a gift.  His young son is startled at the sight of this white girl in his dead sister’s clothes. Together Cory and Jane embark on a hunt when the coroner finds the girl has been likely multiply raped but drowned in her own blood because the alveoli in her lungs filled with freezing air as she ran barefoot from her assailants. She ran six miles. So it can’t officially be listed as murder. Then Cory finds a second body …  With all Sheridan’s films now we see a certain pattern:  the idea of borders, which also extend to different races and traditions and values transmuted through marriage, and of course singular acts of transgression which here comprise murder but obviously incorporate other acts of violation arising from untrammelled self-justification. It culminates in a chase and a shootout but concludes in an act of individual revenge on Wyoming’s highest mountain peak which calls to mind the work of James Stewart and Anthony Mann in their western collaborations.  Most debut writer/directors make the mistake of filing every hole with overwritten dialogue:  Sheridan is too shrewd for that.  He allows the pictures to speak for themselves, human nature to assert itself as it usually does and the dead bodies are permitted testimony to their brutal demise. He chooses to end on a frame that expresses friendship and acceptance.  (Followed by a piece of text which states that the only portion of the demographic not featured in Missing Person figures is Native American women.) It’s a very satisfying film – tense, character-driven, fast-moving and deeply felt – and it’s adorned with excellent performances and some beautifully mournful songs composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

A Cry in the Dark (1988)

A Cry in the Dark

Aka Evil Angels. You could crack walnuts on her face. Fred Schepisi’s docudrama-style retelling of John Bryson’s book is real watercooler stuff:  the appalling tale of a 9-week old baby, Azaria Chamberlain, taken from her family’s tent at a campsite beneath Ayers Rock and presumably murdered, and the prosecution and wrongful conviction of her mother Lindy (Meryl Streep). A dingo’s got my baby! was the war cry attributed to the unsympathetic woman whose every character flaw was exposed by a prurient Australian press who condemned her because of her appearance (that terrible haircut!), speaking voice and curt mannerisms. As played by Streep, she is obviously a more complex, interesting and compassionate woman in private.  Her inner strength is immensely bothersome to a public who are shown reacting variously to news reportage on TV – in their own homes, in bars, on the streets – which serves to demonstrate the horrendous arena that is the court of public opinion as well as distancing us somewhat perhaps from a more penetrating account of the couple at the centre of the tragedy. Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is the pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa, Queensland and it is the minority nature of their Christian sect that also works against them when the name Azaria is wrongly reported to mean ‘sacrifice in the wilderness’. His unconvincing and wavering witness testimony does for his wife, as does the sheer incompetence of the expert witnesses, many of whose claims were later discounted. The impact of her interviews and the way in which they are misreported by a baying press is very well handled and her eventual imprisonment on circumstantial as opposed to forensic evidence is still strikingly mediaeval in its stupidity (preserve us all from juries). Streep is terribly good and the portrayal of a loving marriage in all its fraying details is nicely observed:  posited against the procedural detail and the slipshod collection of evidence we are conscious of something akin to a conspiracy. This was released just about the time that the Chamberlains were finally exonerated (but it took until 2012 for the charges to be finally dropped). This isn’t creative so much as it is journalistic and in that spirit it makes up for the actions of some of those sewer rats who waited thirty years to apologise to Lindy Chamberlain for their vile lies. Her ex-husband (they divorced in 1991) died earlier this year. Adapted by Robert Caswell and director Schepisi from John Bryson’s Evil Angels.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Sleepless in Seattle.jpg

Those were the days when people knew how to be in love. Jeff Arch’s story was a meta discourse about people’s views of love and relationships being mediated by the movies. Nora Ephron turned it into a valentine to An Affair to Remember, a 1957 movie starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Together with her sister Delia it became as much com as rom, but it still has a baseline of melancholy and that killer feeling, bittersweet. Sam (Tom Hanks) is the widowed architect whose son Jonah (Ross Malinger) wants him to find The One so he can have a mother again. They live in Seattle. Annie (Meg Ryan) is the very proper journalist in Baltimore who gets engaged to the allergy-afflicted Walter (Bill Pullman).  She hears Jonah on a late night radio phone-in and stops at a diner where the waitresses talk of nothing else but this sweet  guy whose son wants him to remarry. She thinks there’s a story there but there’s more, as her friend  (Rosie O’Donnell) figures when her newly affianced friend is so distracted.  While she vaguely plans to hunt down Sam and carry out some friendly stalking, he starts to date again and his son is disgusted by his choice, one of his co-workers. Sam and Annie see each other across a crowded road when she nearly gets hit by a couple of trucks. Her letter to him asks him to meet at the top of the Empire State building on Valentine’s Day a la Cary and Deborah and it’s sent by Becky without her knowledge.  Things pick up when Jonah flies to NYC to keep the date and she’s there having dinner with Walter during a romantic weekend at The Plaza … The tropes from When Harry Met Sally are here – the mirroring conversations, the advice from friends, the movie references, and even that film’s director Rob Reiner plays Sam’s friend and even though she’ d already made a movie this was what really made Nora Ephron as an auteur. It’s a clever premise, discursive as well as fairytale, positing the idea that even though they’re a country apart a pair of compatible people are destined to meet. Eventually. Isn’t that wild? Separating a romantic couple until the very last five minutes of a film?! What a risk! With a helping hand from fate, a kid and a dream of finding love on Valentine’s Day, it helps that this hits three holiday celebrations including Christmas and New Year’s.  It shouldn’t work but it does, helped with some tart lines about men and women and what people settle for as opposed to what everyone really wants. What a dream team, boosted by some wonderful songs. Irresistible.

In Harm’s Way (1965)

In Harm's Way.jpg

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.

Born to be Blue (2015)

Born to be Blue poster.png

This faux biography of a particular episode in Chet Baker’s life plays fast and loose with the truth – which is not really what you expect. Ethan Hawke is Baker in 1954, when he’s the James Dean of jazz, getting his first hit of heroin; then he’s Baker in 1966, making a film about himself, when his dealer breaks his front teeth and almost ruins his playing career. He takes up with Jane (Carmen Ejogo) the actress playing his ex-wife Elaine and endures the usual cycle of movie portrayals of jazz musicians/junkies:  getting in trouble with the cops, making good with his parents, cleaning up, getting his girl pregnant, getting a chance again, getting hooked again. The big scene – Baker singing My Funny Valentine, the one everyone knows – doesn’t add up to much dramatically speaking despite it being quite literally the sweet spot in his career. The big irony in this interpretation is that he berates his father (Stephen McHattie) for giving up on his talent but then he has so little belief in his own that he thinks he needs heroin to play again at Birdland – a long sought gig  – after he’s got accustomed to his dentures. There are some lines thrown away about the difference between east and west coast music and Baker’s desperate quest to impress Miles Davis. The other subtext of Baker’s story was his weird desire to be part of the black community – hence his relationships with black women one presumes. This just raises more questions than it can answer. A bleak, joyless film that never conveys the utterly unfathomable improvisable beauty of a genre that I love. Written and directed by Robert Budreau.

Breaking Away (1979)

Breaking Away theatrical.jpg

– My dad told me Jesus never went more than fifty miles from home. – Look what happened to him! Dave (Dennis Christopher) and his high school friends are doing nothing for the summer other than getting fired from the A&P.  Mike (Dennis Quaid) is the former quarter back hero with no future, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is in love with his cashier girlfriend and waiting for the family home to sell so he can get out, and Cyril (Daniel Stern) hates his father. Nobody wants to go to college even though they’re living right on the edge of Bloomington campus. To the college kids they’re known as Cutters – working class kids destined for the quarries where they go swimming and laze around on summer days. Dave is obsessed with the Cinzano cycling team and his entire world revolves around cycle practice and Italy – he calls his father (Paul Dooley) Papa, christens his cat Fellini and his mother (Barbara Barrie) succumbs to his love of both opera and Italian food. Then he falls for college girl Catherine (Robyn Douglass) who’s dating hottie Hart Bochner and their rivalry ends up with an accident in the quarry and a fight in the cafeteria bringing Mike’s policeman brother into the fray. The Cinzano team arrives and Dave has to beg Papa for time off at his used car lot to participate in a race with them one weekend but the Italians cheat and Dave is shattered. Together with the Cutters he pulls himself together to enter an endurance race and he falls off the bike … Steve Tesich’s marvellous screenplay was based on a classmate at college so it’s a quasi-biographical piece as well as being a smart film about families, friendship and the issues boys face when they graduate high school and have no plans. It’s a beautiful, delicate, funny coming of age tale treated with the care that it requires by director Peter Yates and cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this and it gives me that warm fuzzy feeling that it did the first time round – a lot of the genius lies in pitch perfect performances with a cast that now rings of future stardom. Christopher (who is half-Italian) won a BAFTA for this and he would go on to star in cult entry Fade to Black but never attained the heights of Quaid in the Eighties and Nineties; Stern worked with Woody Allen and Haley made a comeback in the Noughties after becoming a director of commercials. Dooley and Barrie are fantastic as Dave’s bemused parents – his father’s working class aspirations are opposed by his mother’s fanciful thoughts and when Dave woos Catherine by singing an aria on campus it’s parallel cut with his mom doing exactly the same with a recording over a romantic dinner with Papa. Dooley’s realisation that his son is hurting when he finds out people cheat is brilliantly played:  they had already played father and son in Altman’s The Wedding. And the friends who have to face reality but give it their all when the chips are down – well, everyone wants friends like that. Gentle and tough, inspiring, funny and uplifting, with an ending to make the hardest heart happy, this is just cherishable. I thought we were going to waste the rest of our lives together.  I love love love it.

The Accountant (2016)

The Accountant.png

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.

Piccadilly Incident (1946)

Piccadilly Incident theatrical.jpg

Don’t touch me! A brutally effective wartime tearjerker with WREN Diana Fraser (Anna Neagle) meeting cute with Captain Alan Pearson (Michael Wilding) in an air raid and taking refuge in his Piccadilly flat. They fall madly in love and marry because she’s being deployed abroad in 72 hours and they encounter his father, a judge (AE Matthews) in a restaurant and celebrate their hasty wedding.  They share some very sensual scenes but her sojourn in Singapore lasts a lot longer than anticipated – when the city falls and the ship she’s on is wrecked she fetches up on a desert island and is gone three years before being rescued. She is reported missing presumed drowned. Upon her return she finds his flat has been bombed and goes to his country seat where she meets the American woman Alan married in her absence and they have a baby. She watches him performing – in one of several musical segues, one of which is a ballet sequence devised by future director Wendy Toye – and pretends she’s found someone else. They are both injured in a bombing and she makes a deathbed confession as he kisses her … This romance carried out amid bombs and blackouts is bookended with the legal fate of Alan’s illegitimate son making Florence Tranter’s wartime take on Enoch Arden (screenplay by actor/writer Nicholas Phipps) both more realistic and trapped in its time:  nonetheless the accidental pairing of director Herbert Wilcox’s wife Neagle with Wilding (it was supposed to be Rex Harrison) was hugely popular (number 2 at the 1946 UK box office after The Wicked Lady) and they were re-teamed a further five times to make more, beautiful music together. No wonder.  Sob. Watch out for an uncredited Roger Moore at a table.

Invaders from Mars (1986)

Invaders from Mars theatrical.jpg

When a spacecraft lands in the hill behind the house where David Gardner (Hunter Carson) lives, his parents don’t believe his story. And then they start behaving strangely – and it’s not just them, it’s his ghastly teacher Mrs McKeitch (Louise Fletcher) and horrible little classmate Heather (Virginia Keehne). And as for the police … This remake of the striking and iconic Cold War classic (directed by William Cameron Menzies) falls between the stools of sci fi and horror, in other words right into the lap of auteur Tobe Hooper who was working for the Go-Go boys. David enlists the help of the school nurse (Karen Black, Carson’s real-life mother) who believes his bizarre story. It turns out aliens have landed in order to mine copper and the military are starting to figure out something odd is going on. If this isn’t the classic it might have been, Dan O’Bannon (& Don Jakoby) make a good attempt to scythe fears about parental weirdness, Cold War paranoia and school bullying into this genre piece – which also has something to say about dumb scientists who think they know what aliens are really up to… It all ends in a conflagration. Or does it?! Remember:  never trust a teacher who eats the lab experiments while they’re still alive and watch out for people with Band-Aids on their necks! Based on the original screenplay by Richard Blake with an appearance by the original little boy, Jimmy Hunt, as the police chief.