Submission (2017)

Submission 2017.png

I hope they crucify you. Married one-hit wonder novelist Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) is a creative writing professor at a college in Houston having difficulty producing his followup. His talented student Angela Argo (Addison Timlin) asks him to read the first chapter of her novel Eggs and when he reads poetry about a phone-sex worker she wrote for another professor, Magda Moynahan (Janeane Garofalo), he begins to fantasise about the sex acts she describes and gradually becomes obsessed with her while she manipulates him into doing things for her including bringing her to a town where she can buy a computer. Then she seduces him in her room but their coitus is interrupted when he breaks a tooth. When she finally presents her work to the class the other students repay her bullying by telling her what they really think of her writing and she becomes tearful.  She guilt trips Ted into bringing her pages to his New York editor Len (Peter Gallagher) and then files charges against him when she thinks he hasn’t done what he’s been asked … My father set himself on fire. Adapted from Francine Prose’s novel Blue Angel (and using that film and novel as its template), this is really an obvious story about how a young pricktease can stupefy a man into losing everything by dint of sexual suggestion and wearing thigh-high boots and black underwear. The problem for the viewer is that Angela’s act is so transparent – if I heard her say My pages one more time … that the outcome is inevitable if not quite depressingly tedious.  She is no Dietrich. (And anyone who’s ever had an irritatingly ambitious student in their class will find their teeth grinding in recognition.) That it concludes in the usual safe space of a hearing with an allegation backed up with a neat recording, the vixen dressed down in dungarees, says more about the state of things than any review could explain.  There are clever elements: how the narration of Angela’s work becomes the movie’s own unreliable narrator as well as Ted’s masturbation material; an excruciating dinner party (is there any other kind?) which exposes the hidebound nature of academia where moronic millennialist paranoia about sexual harassment actually operates as a duplicitous form of Salem-style censorship and has the adults on the run; Ted’s novel is based on his own life and his agent suggests he rewrite it as a memoir – forcing him to confront his own limitations and not just on the page. His life with delightful wife nurse Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick) has an edge because of his difficulties with their adult daughter Ruby (Colby Minifie, who literally bears no resemblance to either biological parent!) – cue another awkward dinner, mirroring his inability to read the tricky women around him and deal with the everlasting fallout from that father who was a celebrity for the 15 minutes it took him to burn himself to death in an act of political outrage in the Sixties. Ah, sweet mysteries of life! Tucci is fine, or at least I hope he is. Written and directed by Richard Levine. He read her story. Then he became part of it

Advertisements

The Unforgiven (1960)

The Unforgiven JH.jpg

Death for death and blood for blood. The Zachary family live quietly on a border cattle ranch in post-Civil War Texas. A sabre-wielding stranger called Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) appears and disturbs their bucolic existence by spreading a malicious rumor that their adopted daughter, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn), is a Kiowa Indian. Soon, the Zachary brothers Ben (Burt Lancaster), Cash (Audie Murphy) and Andy (Doug McClure) and their mother Matilda (Lillian Gish) must defend themselves from both racist whites and vengeful Kiowa as they prepare a cattle drive to Kansas while Rachel’s relationship with Charlie (Albert Salmi) the son of  neighbour Zeb Rawlins (Charles Bickford) triggers a murderous intervention and ruins the family’s partnership … Nothing could kill me except lightning out of the sky and then it would have to hit me twice. A positively strange and tantalising cast in one of John Huston’s more unusual outings, this adaptation by Ben Maddow of Alan Le May’s novel is an ‘issue’ movie and that issue is racial prejudice, specifically that of Native Americans.  What an odd but interesting role for Hepburn and she paid for it with a broken back while horse riding (she was assisted in her recovery by the real-life character she had played in The Nun’s Story!) and the clash of acting styles is really something:  Lancaster (who produced with his company) is the man of the family who thinks nothing can surprise him but it’s Gish who provides the spectacle as the matriarch and moral centre, anchoring a narrative oriented towards death in both a poetic and real sense. Bickford is her equal as the patriarch in mourning. Wiseman’s odd and fearsome character is an augury, with his Sword of God and Biblical portents.  The question of Rachel’s origins provides the engine for a story about stories and lies and what families do to survive. The final siege with Cash absenting himself from his ‘red-hide nigger’ sister as the Kiowa surround the Zachary family is brilliantly executed. Will Audie ride in to save the day? Will Audrey be loyal to her Kiowa brethren? So many of these performances hinge on what we know of the actors from their previous roles.  Maddow had written The Asphalt Jungle for Huston ten years previously and spent much of the interim on the HUAC blacklist fronted mostly by Philip Yordan (whom he castigated).  He and Huston would co-write an episode of Jungle‘s TV series the following year. A splendid almost visionary film about different ways of death that’s paradoxically full of life. The year of falling stars a baby strapped to a crib

The Old Man & The Gun (2018)

The Old Man and the Gun.png

You’re never exactly where you’re supposed to be, are you? I mean, ’cause if you are, you’re dead. In 1981 at the age of 70, Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) makes an audacious escape from San Quentin, conducting an unprecedented string of bank heists across the south with his friends Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) that confound authorities and enchant the public because he comports himself so politely and makes friends of the tellers. He’s the classic gentleman thief who never resorts to violence. Embroiled in the pursuit are detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), who becomes captivated with Forrest’s commitment to his craft, and widowed retiree Jewel (Sissy Spacek) who loves him in spite of his chosen profession.  But Dorothy (Elisabeth Moss) the daughter he never knew thinks she can assist the police with their enquiries Ten years from now, where will you be, what’ll you be doing? Now, whenever I close the door, I think: “Oh, is this the last time I’ll ever have a chance to do whatever that thing was?”  Supposedly the last film by Seventies superstar Redford, it sees him reunited with his impressive Pete’s Dragon writer/director David Lowery in a slight but engaging tale of true crime adapted from a story in The New Yorker by David Grann. The pleasures are mostly small ones, with the sense that the parallel police story interwoven with the main narrative is subtracting from the whole rather than enhancing it, particularly with a relatively short running time, even if the relationship between Tucker and Hunt is one of mutually grudging respect. It’s fun to see three old guys on a seemingly harmless crime spree:  the money doesn’t even seem to be the point, it’s more like taking on The Man and there are some witty lines (particularly one diatribe from Waits) in this lightly written piece. It’s shot nicely on grainy 16mm, reminiscent of films made in the era being depicted, a florid landscape contributing to the relaxed tone. Spacek is fine in a rare appearance, amused by this playfully persuasive career criminal but not so much that she will agree to stealing jewellery at a mall.  Redford’s cryptic persona, once described as ‘there’s no there there’ (like LA), is effortlessly distracting and self-satisfied, the film concluding on his enigmatic smile, glinting like that of the Cheshire Cat. As a film wrapping up a star text that includes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting it’s a fitting finale but it’s more a footnote than a lap of honour (that may have been All Is Lost). Redford is a true movie star and the last of a dying breed if the most recent show at the pitiful affirmative action Oscars is anything to go by. Charisma – there’s nothing like it, is there? He’s a guy… who is old… but used to be young… and he just really loves robbing banks

Crazy Heart (2009)

Crazy Heart

You woke me up. Former country-music legend 57-year old Otis ‘Bad’ Blake (Jeff Bridges) is so broke he’s reduced to playing dives and bowling alleys in various desert venues in the Southwest. He’s always retching from a combination of long-term heavy drinking, cancer and emphysema. In town for his latest gig, Blake meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a sympathetic reporter and the niece of a talented pianist whom he’s hired as part of his pick-up band, who has come to do a story on him. He unexpectedly warms to her and a romance begins, with Bad taking to her four-year old son Buddy and regaining a kind of balance that even the need to support and write songs for his protegé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) can’t undo.  Then he finds himself at a crossroads that may threaten his last shot at happiness when he opts to have a drink one day when he’s looking after Buddy I’ve been drunk most of my life. I missed a hell of a lot. Adapted from Thomas Cobb’s eponymous book by writer, producer and director Scott Cooper, this is a tale of a mellow fellow on the outs. Played beautifully by Bridges, he’s the kinda guy that probably inspired Bradley Cooper to top himself in the latest iteration of A Star is Born:  oozing talent but permanently dying for want of a drink, ageing without mercy.  He’s got an opportunity to contact the son he hasn’t seen in 24 years and he blows it horribly. It’s a compelling portrait and Bridges is matched by not only Gyllenhaal who has some moving scenes with him, but such a ridiculous cast of co-stars – Robert Duvall (who also produces) hires him to play at his bar while the great Tom Bowers is the proprietor of a liquor store. A warm drama about a likable if flawed protagonist who’s got one last shot – and a whole lot more lined up in the bar. Bridges is an avatar for real-life country hero Merle Haggard and with original songs written by T. Bone Burnett this is a treat for music fans. That’s the way it is with good ones, you’re sure you’ve heard them before

Miss Congeniality (2000)

Miss Congeniality.jpg

It’s not a beauty pageant, it’s a scholarship program. When a domestic terrorist threatens to bomb the Miss United States pageant, the FBI puts Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) in charge and he rushes to find a female agent to go undercover as a contestant, replacing the disqualified Miss New Jersey. Unfortunately, Eric’s partner FBI Special Agent Gracie  Hart (Sandra Bullock) is the only woman who can look the part despite her complete lack of refinement and femininity. She prides herself in being one of the guys and is horrified at the idea of becoming a girly girl.  Going undercover is tough and she’s taken under the wing of camp Brit Victor Melling (Michael Caine) for a total makeover, while hard as nails pageant director Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen) steadily assumes the role of suspect in chief … In place of friends and relationships you have sarcasm and a gun. A light and funny take on the transformation arc with a reversal of the usual tropes, this is Bullock’s baby – she produced and shepherded the production straight into our hearts. With its fish out of order scenario intact, this proceeds to reverse expectations – becoming a beauty queen is no walk in the park, demanding starvation, exfoliation and high heels;  masquerading as a socially conscious peace-lover when you’re a gun-wielding action woman gives her more pause than she thought;  while camouflaging her true identity from alpha females who look good in swimwear troubles her as she gains new friends. As the irony ratchets up a notch with William Shatner MC’ing proceedings and the chase complements the on-stage glass harp playing and self-defence exhibition, Bullock shines in a frothy, fun star performance.  After a while you forget why you’re here! Written by regular Bullock collaborator Marc Lawrence with Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas, this is directed by Donald Petrie and marks Caine and Bergen’s reunion thirtysomething years after The MagusHaven’t you been drinking too much Coppertone?

Local Hero (1983)

Local Hero.jpg

How do you do business with a man who has no door?  Up-and-coming Houston oil executive ‘Mac’ MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) gets more than he bargained for when a seemingly simple business trip to Scotland changes his outlook on life. Sent by his colorful boss Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) to the small village of Ferness, Mac is looking to buy out the townspeople and their properties so Knox Oil can build a new refinery. But after a taste of country life Mac begins to question whether he is on the right side of this transaction …  It’s their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can’t eat scenery!  Writer/director Bill Forsyth’s greatest work will remind you of Ealing Comedy and I Know Where I’m Going: wonderful antecedents and references but not entirely true to the atmosphere of this very magical film, operating with the underlying power of a fairytale. It’s primarily a film about characters and their interactions and it’s absolutely low-key and exact, sidelining whimsy for revelation.  This is truly a fish out of water scenario, about a man learning to live to a different beat in an utterly alien landscape. Lancaster’s inevitable arrival brings a sense of transcendence to the film, augmented by marvellous cinematography courtesy of Chris Menges and a legendary score by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler. I’ve been a fan of Forsyth since I nearly choked to death laughing at That Sinking Feeling so it’s sad that he never had the long career that would have been predicted. This is a romance between people and land and sky and the immensity of living a small life, alive to the wonder. The sun, moon and stars were aligned when they made it.

Any Given Sunday (1999)

Any Given Sunday.jpg

You will not take this from me baby!  The Miami Sharks, a once-great American football team are struggling to make the 2001 Associated Football Franchises of America (AFFA) playoffs.  They are coached by thirty-year veteran Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino), who has fallen out of favour with young team owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) who inherited the team from her father, and offensive coordinator and D’Amato’s expected successor Nick Crozier (Aaron Eckhart). In the thirteenth game of the season, both starting quarterback and team captain Jack “Cap” Rooney (Dennis Quaid) and second-string quarterback Tyler Cherubini (Pat O’Hara) are injured and forced to leave the field. The desperate Sharks call on ambitious third-string quarterback Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) to replace them. A nervous Beamen makes a number of errors and fails to win the game for the Sharks, but he plays well and gains confidence. Rooney vows to make it back by the playoffs, with D’Amato promising to not give up on him….  Holy mackerel now that’s what I call football!  Adapted from the book On Any Given Sunday by NFL defensive  end Pat Toomay, this gets a typically robust treatment by writer/director Oliver Stone, who appears in the small role of TV commentator, giving a running narrative on the moves. There are lots of other big names including Jim Brown (what a second act!). If Pacino is a highly unlikely coach, he gets his boo ya moment with more than one big speech which is such a part of his repertoire (since Dog Day Afternoon and latterly in Scent of a Woman) but this was a role that should have been Burt Reynolds’ (Florida! Football!).  Pacino gets his Pacino moments, loud and soft, and a halfhearted romance with a prostitute (Elizabeth Berkeley) who wants to talk football post-coitally with this man who’s given up wife and family for the game, but she deflects his relationship overtures and always charges. However it’s a great ensemble:  Diaz is fine as the young woman trying to make her mark in a sport where her father’s rule was firmly based on friendship but times have changed; her mother’s (Ann-Margret) a lush; Christina wants the Sharks leading again, even if that means giving up Cappy, who gets another chance to be the hero leading the team – down on his luck after a horrible accident in the first sequence. With Willie breaking the rules to get ahead and butting heads with Tony, Dr Mandrake concealing the extent of Cherubini’s head injury, Cappy battling his wife (Lauren Holly) who wants him to keep playing, and Christina planning on offloading the team, this conforms to the playbook of most sports movies with all the storylines converging in Tony and how he responds to the pressures exerted in every direction. The medical subplot with internist Ollie Powers (Matthew Modine) discovering that unscrupulous team physician Dr Mandrake (James Woods, reuniting with Stone long after Salvador) is concealing the extent of Cherubini’s head injury and with Christina’s collusion raises the issue of concussion in sport and its long-term outcomes.  Either we heal now as a team or we will die as individuals.  That’s football. That’s all it is.  Beneath all the gut-busting aggression, the injuries, the quarrels, the deceptions, the betrayals and the on-field activities, this long loud movie has a great structure, with wonderful exchanges exhibiting the different philosophies. Willie goes against the playbook to achieve victory;  Tony is loyal to Cappy who knows he’s had it but plays along;  Christina is in it for money, having forgotten the roots of the team and she has a sharp learning curve that she cannot anticipate.  All the plot threads unite in those final seconds in the brutal race against time on the countdown clock. How apposite that the film within a film when Tony is serving Willie home-cooked dinner should be Ben-Hur:  the following year John Logan would write Gladiator.  The editing and sound mixing is second to none:  the gloss and wham bam and contrasting musical choices (Tony’s cool jazz vs Willie’s rap) eventually give way to something unified, as the theme of team building suggests. If this doesn’t entirely play fair – that twist ending unwinds over the lengthy credits sequence – the gamesmanship does leave a certain satisfaction and don’t say you weren’t warned by the dialogue which plants the ultimate payoff:  When a man looks back on his life he should be proud of all of it

 

A Ghost Story (2017)

A Ghost Story.jpg

When I was little and we would move all the time I would write these notes and I would hide them in different places so that if I ever wanted to go back there’d be a piece of me there waiting. Recently deceased composer C (Casey Affleck) returns as a ghost, clad in a large white sheet from his mortuary gurney, to his suburban home to console his bereft wife M (Rooney Mara) after he has died in a car crash only to find that he is unstuck in time, forced to watch passively as the life he knew and the woman he loves slowly slip away.  He observes her through the stages of grief, listening to music, packing boxes, then driving away from their home. He befriends another ghost in a neighbouring house. He watches and scares off a young mother with her two children. He is at a party where a guest (Will Oldham) conducts a discourse on death. The house is knocked and becomes a futuristic skyscraper. Then it’s years earlier when the first settlers arrived. And then, finally, he sees himself with M once more in the house, dislodges from a crack in a wall a note left there for him by her, and dissolves … ‘Whatever hour you woke there was a door shunting.’ Simultaneously ridiculous, laughable and intensely moving, this is not like another ghost story. We move through the stages of grief as obviously as though we were ourselves bereaved:  but here it is C who cannot move on, in a place but moving back and forth through time, decades, centuries, backwards, forwards, mute, alone, watching. David Lowery directed Pete’s Dragon and he has written and directed this and I cried at both films:  radically different in form and content and exposition yet they have something ineffable about them.  When M puts in her earphones to listen to a song C has composed, he’s with her, alive, but when he’s gone and she does it, he’s just out of reach as she lies on the floor and her fingers almost touch the frayed edges of his sheet, standing, watching:  it’s unbearable. The song is Daniel Hart’s I Get Overwhelmed, performed by Dark Rooms. When C is then framed in the window with the reflection of the U-Haul driving off it’s shattering. The sequence is conducted as a musical episode, the images carefully constructed to affect a sonorous swirl of feelings. The scene where M eats a pie, starting on the dining table, finishing it in its entirety while sitting on the floor, propped against the kitchen cupboards, is shot in real time. Then she runs to purge.  It feels like grief. The elliptical editing through hard cuts makes you think that Alain Resnais has been put in a blender with Casper the Friendly Ghost. Mara and Affleck are reunited from Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and it’s their unclassifiability, their distance, their lack of expressivity, that paradoxically makes this so intense. That and the fact that Affleck is in a bed sheet for most of the story, a child’s idea of a Hallowe’en costume with blank eyes that make you shift uneasily:  he can see you but can you see what he’s looking at? This is unsettling, emotional, and a reminder that we all die, all stories are about death and that we are living with this knowledge but what do we do with it? Lowery made this on a shoestring budget, in secret. I am so glad that he did. Utterly original, absolutely compelling. You do what you can to ensure you’re still around after you’re gone

 

The Chase (1966)

The Chase 1966.jpg

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.

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

Sicario 2.png

I could throw a stick across the river and hit fifty grieving fathers.  Following an Isis suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) as Mexican drug cartels are starting to smuggle terrorists across the U.S. border. The war escalates when Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug kingpin’s thirteen-year old daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to deliberately increase the tensions. When the young girl is seen as collateral damage, the two men will determine her fate as they question everything that they are fighting for, with Alejandro and the girl left on the wrong side of the border when the corrupt Mexican police upset the staged return of Isabel.  At the same time a teenaged Mexican in Texas Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is recruited to move people illegally and the Government drop Alejandro in it  … Sicario was my top film of 2015 and I was pretty surprised that it would become a victim of sequelitis. This is  a far more conventional action outing but steadily winds itself around you with a vise-like grip even if it entirely lacks the deep pulsating strangeness of the original and its fabulously formal widescreen compositions by director Denis Villeneuve and DoP Roger Deakins and the amazing, visceral score of the late great Jóhann Jóhansson, to whom this is dedicated. Crucially it also lacks Emily Blunt’s character, something of a passive protagonist who also functioned as moral compass. What an unusual setup that was! It punched you in the solar plexus, kicked you in the abdomen and grabbed you by the throat. And all the time you wondered who everyone really was in that rather Homeric setup. The formerly silent and mysterious Alejandro has achieved his revenge so why does this even exist? Better ask Taylor Sheridan, who is revisiting the border territory he seems to have made his own, writing some of the best screenplays of recent years. There has been a lot of guff about the timing of this and the fact that there’s a girl ‘separated’ from her (lovely!) family here but this is a film that shows us exactly why the US or the POTUS at least wants a wall:  it’s a portrait of ruthless people trafficking poor people with the resultant evolution of drug lords, gangs and murderers. (You can leave the pity party at the door especially when you look at the murder rates in Mexico last year alone. Chaos streams from that part of the world, lest we forget. And the answer is a slew of dirty tricks and disavowed ops.)  Alejandro is almost forced to question his actions, with Isabel figuring out his relationship with her father:  he’s the attorney whose wife and kids Daddy had murdered. Moner is fantastic, a real find. She is extraordinarily self-possessed as the narco whore! administering beatings in the school yard where the principal is shit-scared of expelling her for fear of reprisals. Brolin returns to the fray dealing out fear in Somalia trying to trace the Isis loonies but back on US soil he’s dealing with the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) and his immediate superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) who wants everything off the books when two dozen Mexican cops are killed (they unleash the firepower first) and the Oval Office can no longer be officially seen to sanction any cross-border activities. The clever aspect is parallel teenage stories – the Tex-Mex boy killer and the kingpin’s girl even if they are rather replete with clichés, no matter the shock value. The conclusion has been set up to deliver another movie with del Toro – a long way from the money laundering (literally!) in Licence to Kill – still in the druggie violent territory to which he so frequently returns. Directed by Stefano Sollima.