Queen of the Desert (2015)

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Who knows best about tribes? In 1902 Gertrude Bell Nicole Kidman the daughter of wealthy British parents and a recent Oxford graduate. has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions, and a life of privilege bring her only boredom. At one dance a potential suitor actually suggests fornication and alludes to her similarity to his prize herd. Aspiring to some usefulness in her life, Gertrude decides to join her uncle who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. There the young lady not only encounters the Near East but also falls in love with an embassy employee, Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who adores her for her perspicacity and teaches her Farsi. However, their romance does not last long as her parents consider the young man a poor matrimonial choice for their daughter and forbid the marriage. Desperate, Henry commits suicide, failing to reconcile himself to the enforced separation. Gertrude finds out in a letter home following her mother’s death. For the remainder of her long life Gertrude Bell completely devotes herself to exploring and writing about the Near East in the wake of his death. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) on an archaeological expedition and turns down a request to become a spy for the British Government. She visits her beloved Bedouin tribes over the Arab lands and earns their trust. Upon going to Damascus she encounters Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and he confesses his passion for her but he’s married. She is kidnapped by an emir who wants to marry her – she could be his mother.  And when she returns to Syria, she finds World War One has spread … I would give my life for a woman like you.  This extraordinary story, of a pioneering woman traveller, writer, archaeologist and (eventually) a politician whose views shaped the delineation of the borders in the Middle East, following the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, gets a romantic biographical treatment. Kidman brings tremendous feeling to a woman of singular self-possession whose life nonetheless is shaped by the contours of love and death. It’s a rather conventional form for Werner Herzog who wrote and directed it, but there are scenes which communicate seemingly directly with nature, music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yeager which feeds from desert song.  It’s not the mad epic you think you might get – it’s from Bell’s own writings and from history and it’s a swooning and beautiful interpretation of a woman alone among military men who seem to suffer intolerable repression. For the first time in my life I know who I am.  My heart belongs to the desert

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You Were Never Really Here (2018)

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Close your eyes. Traumatised war veteran Joe Rogers (Joaquin Phoenix) tracks down child traffickers for a living. He lives a small life with his mom (Judith Roberts) in between assignments. When he’s hired to find Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) the kidnapped thirteen-year old daughter of a senator he finds himself engulfed in a violent conspiracy and he vows to get the child back after she’s snatched from their hideout. But can he hold it together long enough to find her?… I want you to hurt them. No synopsis can capture or justify the sonorous strangeness of this film.  Lynne Ramsay’s gimlet eye for observation and composition was present in her first short films twenty years ago. Now her images remind one of Bresson, Kubrick, Melville. But scuzzy Phoenix is not the beautiful Delon – he’s a former soldier traumatised by PTSD and  haunted by the abuse he and his mother suffered at the hands of his father. (It’s not everyone whose safe place is in the closet with a polythene garment bag around their head.)  Nina’s numbed silence matches his flashbacks to terror – as more unspools in front of him. This is a chance for a kind of redemption, especially when the unknown thugs hurt his beloved mother who happens to have been watching Psycho when we first meet her. Some of the action is just avoided – we see Joe exit rooms via close circuit camera. We see what is absolutely necessary to understand his perspective – including snapshots of his life in the war zone which blurt into the action when he’s driving, struggling to stay conscious. It denies us the usual thrill of the chase. Who is Sandy, whose name chain figures largely at the beginning? Where were those other dead girls? His point of view is everything:  it simply propels us forward as the superfluous is jettisoned. We are left to imagine the sexual violence perpetrated:  it’s a refined approach to action which has its own reasoning, contrasting deeply with the beautifully drawn domesticity of Joe’s life with his mom. There are no explanations as to the sex slavery ring run at the higher echelons of public office.  If this doesn’t quite attain the levels of poetic one expects it packs a hell of a wallop. Ramsay adapted the book by Jonathan Ames and it’s shot by Thomas Townend with a score by Jonny Greenwood and despite the many ironic songs used in an inspired auditory experience courtesy of Paul Davies, nobody thought of If I Had a Hammer, Joe’s weapon of choice.  Sparse and sinewy, this tightly wound paean to suffering inhabits the mind. Hey Joe, wake up. Let’s go. It’s a beautiful day

The Heat (2013)

If you’re not in trouble you’re not doing your job.  Ambitious NYC-based FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is a methodical investigator with a long-standing reputation for excellence and arrogance. She’s better at finding drugs than sniffer dogs and is far superior to her male colleagues so they don’t like her, putting her desired promotion in jeopardy. She can’t even keep a relationship going with a cat so she borrows her neighbour’s.  In contrast, foul-mouthed, hot-tempered Boston Irish detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) goes with her gut instincts and street smarts to remove criminals from the locale, including her brother Jason (Michael Rapaport) which has alienated her family. Her own mother (Jane Curtin) gives her the finger in a drive by.  Sparks fly when these mismatched polar opposites are forced to work together to capture a drug lord, the unseen Larkin, but in the process, they become the last thing anyone expected – buddies. When they discover there’s a mole in the investigation everything is put into jeopardy … My fear is that I’m gonna put you in a bikini and you’ll still look like a fucking bank teller. Screenwriter Katie Dippold has put so many zingers into this you’ll have to watch it twice because you’re laughing so much you miss half of them. This subversion of the odd couple cop/buddy actioner is screamingly funny as it works through the genre’s tropes with zest and two fingers. Bullock’s buttoned-up uptight PC perfectionist priss Ashburn is wonderfully set off against McCarthy’s unkempt foul-mouthed vicious bully Mullins. Ashburn can’t get a date, Mullins has a mystifying physical allure. Thrown together, they are mutually united in their disgust for the albino inflicted on them from the Drug Enforcement Agency – a wonderfully offensive running joke in homage to the film with a film, Goldie Hawn’s brilliant Foul Play (a regular spin here at Mondo Towers). The anticipated painful seam of piss-taking at Boston accents is disposed of in one neat exchange over the Mullins family dinner when Ashburn tells them they’ve dropped the ‘r’ in Narc. Mullins’ realisation her brother is in a coma because of her actions leads to the only transient episode of sentiment as Ashburn’s attitude is transformed hearing the sexist comments made by their male colleagues – she turns into a gibbering expletive-laden mini-Mullins – and triggers the final act when the women’s solidarity becomes ninja-strong. God, you guys are just – what is the matter with you? You’re such… you’re just such jerks! You’re just such… shit jerk! You’re just a shit jerk dick… fucker! You’re a shit jerk dick fucker assholer. And you can all just go fuck yourselves!  With Marlon Wayans as a thick drug dealer and Demian Bechir as the boss who can’t help laughing,  this is lightning fast, hilarious, rude and brilliantly directed by Paul Feig. Truly funny. The cat got one look at your shitty life and said “no fucking thanks, man. I am outta here.”

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

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You save that jiggle for your husband.  Semi-retired Michigan lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) takes the case of Army Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who murdered local innkeeper Barney Quill after his wife Laura (Lee Remick) claimed that he raped and beat her.  However a police surgeon finds no evidence of rape.  Over the course of a big trial, Biegler is the smalltown lawyer (and recently deposed District Attorney) who must parry with the new DA Lodwick (Brooks West) and out-of-town prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) to set his client free, but his case rests on the victim’s mysterious business partner Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), who’s hiding a dark secret.  Biegler has to prove Manion was suffering temporary insanity but will the jury buy it after Biegler discovers he’s a violent and jealous husband and he knows in his heart he’s got a very weak defence? … Producer/director Otto Preminger spent most of the 1950s baiting the censor with material for adults and this long engrossing account of a true crime is no different. Wendell Mayes adapted Robert Traver’s (aka John D. Voelker) novel based on his own experiences on a 1952 case in the state of Michigan.The matter of fact handling of the explicit physical details in the courtroom confirms that this is a film that has no cinematic tricks. It’s shot wide and flat in black and white with the only camouflage or disguise in the personalities presenting themselves. That applies to the legal team too:  Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) has to swear off the booze for the duration to assist Biegler;  Laura must drop the tight pedal pushers, don skirts and hide her wonderful hair;  Biegler’s bonhomie hides a finagling mind that doesn’t express great surprise at anything anyone says or conceals.   There’s a strand of humour running through both dialogue and characterisation that raises the game: the lightness of Remick as the bruised flirtatious beauty, with her wonderful companion dog Muff (Snuffy) who gets to provide his own witness statement in court, alongside Stewart’s jolly and wryly witty performance, makes this more pleasurable than the subject matter suggests. In fact the whole film avoids melodramatic excess and has a devious sinuousness that leads from Stewart. His banter with Joseph N. Welch [chief counsel for the US Army when it was being investigated for UnAmerican Activities in the McCarthy Hearings] about fishing provides a lot of enjoyment; Eve Arden as the reliable and seen-it-all secretary Maida Rutledge offers her typical scepticism in a film constructed from the cynic’s playbook. There are no histrionics or crazy closing arguments, just practice, rationale  and evidence (of witness-coaching). Now, Mr  Dancer, get off the panties – you’ve done enough damage.  Duke Ellington provides the film’s notable score and he appears uncredited as pianist Pie Eye and enjoys an exchange with Stewart. The great titles are by Saul Bass. This is elegant filmmaking, wonderfully crafted, telling a difficult story in the procedural vernacular very stylishly.  How can a jury disregard what it’s already heard?

The Chase (1966)

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He never stole that $50.  I did.  When “Bubber” Reeves (Robert Redford) escapes from prison, it upsets the folks in the nearby town of Tarl, Texas. A man has been killed because Bubber’s companion is dangerous and Bubber is being blamed for the death.  While he’s on the run, Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) wants to capture Bubber alive, which puts him in opposition to many of the townspeople who have resorted to mob justice. Businessman Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall) wants Calder to apprehend Bubber quickly since he fears the criminal will come after Val’s son, Jake (James Fox) who is sleeping with Reeves’ wife (Jane Fonda).  The townspeople believe that Calder is Rogers’ puppet but Calder is his own man who wants to put things right for Bubber, framed for something he didn’t do … Famously problematic production because of on-set conflicts between powerhouse producer Sam Spiegel, director Arthur Penn and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, this adaptation of Horton Foote’s play and novel remains a lesson in star power even if the overall look of the film (grey-green) disappoints. Miriam Hopkins plays Bubber’s mother as a guilt-ridden paragon;  Marshall has the town’s power but knows it is corrupting and he’s surrounded by vicious thugs, including Richard Bradford;  Angie Dickinson is the soft maternal wife to Brando’s canny sheriff but she wants children they can’t have;  Fonda is unfaithful but Bubber can’t really blame his friend Jake:  Jake is basically a good guy, the son of the terrible father. Brando has a range that extends beyond many of his roles:  good husband, put-upon lawmaker, victim of a senseless and bloody assault.  He is the film’s conscience.  Bubber’s friend Lester (Joel Fluellen) is black and that plays into the margin notes of the film’s text as a political work. The straightforward depiction of smalltown corruption, mob rule and violence is constructed against a miasma of soap operatics:  Shoot a man for sleeping with someone’s wife?  That’s silly. Half the town would be wiped out! Janice Rule has a ball as the good time girl cheating on deceitful Robert Duvall;  Martha Hyer is partied out.  Redford is a relatively minor character, imprisoned for something he didn’t do, the pivot of most people’s actions, the litmus test for their humanity. His journey through the countryside as he marvels at nature provides the thread of possibility that the rest of the narrative denies. He plays Bubber with decency and clarity;  the scene sequence of terrible violence culminating in a Jack Rubyesque conclusion still has the power to shock.  It’s a confounding work:  a terrible indictment of the United States, the Deep South and complacency, eventually a rumination on the Kennedy assassination.  I was coming to the end of me.  I don’t  know how I knew. But I knew.

Witness (1985)

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We’re all happy that you’re going to live, John Book.  After witnessing a brutal murder, young Amish boy Samuel (Lukas Haas) and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) seek protection from police officer John Book (Harrison Ford). When Book uncovers evidence of police corruption involving narcotics lieutenant James McFee (Danny Glover), Book must take Rachel and Samuel, and flee to the Amish countryside where Rachel grew up. There, immersed in Amish culture and tradition, Book and Rachel begin a cautious romance while he tries to fit in and the enemy closes in …  I just don’t like the idea of my son spending all this time with a man who carries a gun and goes around whacking people! Great films tend to create a narrative fulcrum based on juxtaposition and opposites:  here we have simplicity and purity versus corruption and violence, delicacy versus roughness, city versus country, child versus man. Written by Pamela Wallace and Earl Wallace and William Kelley, this was director Peter Weir’s entree to the American mainstream after a decade of extraordinary work in his native Australia. It also marked Harrison Ford’s acceptance into the acting world proper after a decade as action superstar courtesy of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. His relationships with Rachel and Samuel and his willingness to look silly – that sheepish grin when he’s in Amish clothing! – signalled a new level of sensitive and complex personification.  With a barn-building sequence out of the Dutch masters,  a romantic dance scene that is one of the sexiest ever made, and a conclusion that ratchets like a vise-like grip closing on the protagonists with an astonishing climax in a grain silo out of silent horror cinema, this is made by a master craftsman at his most cinematic and beautiful. Maurice Jarre’s score is legendary. An American classic. No. Try not. Do or do not

Knight of Cups (2015)

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For optimal sound reproduction the producers of this film recommend that you play it loud. Screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) tries to make sense of life in Hollywood. We follow him on an odyssey through Los Angeles and Las Vegas as he undertakes a series of adventures with colorful figures, identified by eight tarot cards, with Rick as the Knight of Cups who sleeps with a half dozen women, leaves his own wife and impregnates another man’s…  Or as I like to call it, another episode in an occasional series known as When Good Auteurs Go Bad. See also:  Phantom Thread. Terrence Malick disappeared up his own fundament a while back:  if anyone thought To the Wonder was anything other than nonsense then they never saw real art house films.  This latest version of Hollywood Eats Itself functions as allegory:  of what, we don’t know, because it’s unnecessary.  All those years of living the life of someone I didn’t even know These movies have been around almost as long as Hollywood itself – but this is the experimental version. Cate Blanchett is Judgment, Natalie Portman is Death, Antonio Banderas is the Hermit, Brian Dennehy is the Hanged Man, and oh, for goodness’ sake, it looks wonderful. There are situations that almost approach coherence, particularly in the (only developed?) scenes with Portman;  an excursion to that simulacrum of plasticity in the desert, Vegas, in the company of a stripper; and the apartment burglary when the thieves bemoan Rick’s lack of possessions. Rick is haunted by the death of his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) who brings him on a tour of LA’s homeless. There are some insights amid the dissociative witterings and fragmentary musings and overheard bites of conversation inspired by The Pilgrim’s Progess but for the most part you won’t believe your ears as Christian’s character thinks he’s Christ wandering through his midlife crisis. Pity the actors, who had no script. Peter Mathiessen tells Rick that a man living in a cave eating nettles doesn’t concern himself with this sort of thing. Those desert monks had a point. This was in an edit suite for two years. After a cold compress go watch Sunset Blvd. Or 8 1/2. Whatever happened to visionary filmmaker Terrence Malick? We are too media-savvy not to understand the metaphors. We know that not all narratives are ordered or complete. But it’s a filmmaker’s job to get us at least some of the way there. And why squander the talents of these marvellous actors?  Presumably their best work wound up on the cutting room floor, as is Malick’s wont. Just to, you know, show them. As Forster would counsel, Only connect.  Woulda coulda shoulda. Begin

 

Lean On Pete (2017)

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You don’t get attached to horses. Don’t treat them as pets.  Horses are for racing, nothing else.  Teenager Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer)and his father Ray (Travis Kimmel) wander the Pacific Northwest as Ray goes from job to job. Charley wants stability in his life and when he encounters horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) and his race horse Lean On Pete he finds a new purpose in life. But reality intervenes when his father is beaten up by his lover’s irate husband and is seriously ill in hospital. Charley secrets lives at Del’s stables but when Lean On Pete is injured and Del wants to sell him, Charley makes a decision … Andrew Haigh’s first American film is adapted from country musician and novelist Willy Vlautin’s fine book. It’s a simple story of people’s circumstances and a chance event that turns everything around – for a while. Beautifully constructed and performed, with Plummer making such a great impression in his nuanced interpretation of a boy just looking for a decent home, a good friend, a life.  You can draw your own metaphors from the issue of the ‘stable’ that offers Charley this opportunity – and the inevitable sorrow that follows.  The desert scenes are all big sky and lonesomeness. His behaviour as he confronts his homelessness on city streets is a byword for silent communication:  how he carries himself tells us so much. There is a marvellous soundtrack, with one song by Richmond Fontaine, Vlautin’s band,  and there are good supporting roles for Chloe Sevigny and Steve Zahn. A very rewarding and affecting watch.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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I know what I like and don’t like.  When I like something, I like it enormously. When I don’t like something, I can’t abide it.  An avalanche stops the famous train the Orient Express in its tracks and one of the occupants, the very unlikable Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered in his compartment. As the acclaimed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) interrogates the passengers, his little grey cells working overtime to find the culprit, he discovers that each of them has a link with the victim … Agatha Christie’s classic novel gets another interpretation, this time adapted by Michael Green and directed by star Branagh who goes overboard with his facial decoration.  You can dream up your own cliché:  the plot runs out of steam or goes off the rails, as a remake it’s clueless (in consideration of the 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet) and so on, but the real crime is by Branagh because he makes directing and staging choices which do not work. There are overhead shots depriving us of the detail and nuance of some performances (Hitchcock only did this when a deception was being carried out) while the 1974 version gave each of its superstarry cast a real opportunity to chew the sumptuous scenery in well thought out one-on-one scenes. Here, the interviews are cursory and underplayed with Branagh playing Poirot for laughs. The film opens on a scene in Jerusalem in which Poirot proves his detecting mettle. It’s unnecessary. It also gives him a romantic backstory. As if. Michelle Pfeiffer is a wonderfully vampy character, Judi Dench is a Princess, Penelope Cruz is a religious nut, while Daisy Ridley, Willem Defoe, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman and Josh Gad round out the ensemble. This feels as under-nourished as its cast. I once stood on a station platform waiting for the Reading train into London and the real Orient Express pulled up:  there was more drama peering in the windows at that glorious vehicle and its travellers in those five minutes than there is in this entire film’s running time.

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

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You don’t fuck me and I always have to drive. In Portland, Oregon 1971, Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) is the leader of a family of drug addicts consisting of his wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), and another couple, goofy Rick (James Le Gros) and Nadine (Heather Graham), a troublesome teenage drifter who can’t take Bob and his fear of hexes seriously. They feed their habit by robbing drug stores and pharmacies as they travel across the country. They vex tenacious cop Gentry (James Remar) and frame a neighbour for a bust. After one of them dies and the others have to stay in their motel room with the corpse because there’s a Sheriffs’ convention, Bob decides he has to clean up and go straight. Parting ways with his junkie past is tough, especially when he is stalked by an old acquaintance, Fr. Murphy (William Burroughs), who just wants to score … Director Gus Van Sant, legendary writer William Burroughs and Daniel Yost adapted James Fogle’s unpublished memoir of his junkie past. It’s a remarkably balanced movie about modern day outlaws, with the confidence to avoid moralising and just relate a story about criminals whose way of life revolves around the next fix. Their escapades are humorous and enervating, Bob’s highs are animated and amusing, the tragedy is inextricably linked to the comic ennui and unintentional deaths that this lifestyle entails. It has a remarkable texture, a combination of realistic documentary-style touches with colourful effects to suggest the visuals experienced in drug use. Told with daring and wit, irony writ large in the situation, the performances by Dillon and Lynch are outstanding. One of the best films of its era.