Into the Abyss (2011)

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He looked just like a little boy lying on the gurney. Werner Herzog goes to Conroe, Texas to examine the case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, both convicted of a triple murder in 2001. He interviews the men, both of whom blame the other and proclaim their innocence from behind bars. Perry is 14 days from execution and appears to have made his peace with God. Burkett can look forward to eventually getting out. Hence the film’s subtitle:  A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death.  Burkett has married a prison groupie who somehow became inseminated despite there being no situation in which they could have had intercourse.  Herzog is walked around the crime scene by an investigating police officer and part of the film contains the police video of the aftermath. Widowed nurse Sandra Stolter was shot in her house in an expensive gated community as she baked cookies at Halloween. She was dumped in a lake.  Her 17-year old son (actually her older daughter’s illegitimate son, therefore her grandson) was hunted down and killed along with his friend. All of this was because Perry and Burkett wanted the woman’s red Camaro. They were chased for three days until they were caught. The car is in a pound, having been moved from its previous location where a tree grew through the floor. Herzog remains behind the camera and there is minimal voiceover but his solemn, methodical approach and his choice of interviewees buttresses his view that the death penalty is wrong although the film is so carefully constructed there is no real attempt to figure out what happened and who did what. The film is divided into a prologue and six sections. It begins with the prison chaplain whose job it is to comfort men about to be put to death. We see the cemetery where they are buried in their hundreds without their names, just their prison numbers. The former captain of death row Fred Allen finally gave up his job when he had to put a woman to death (Karla Faye Tucker in 1998) and sacrificed his pension:  he talks about living ‘in the dash’ ie the time between life and death as signified on the grave markers. Burkett’s father is himself serving 40 years and is interviewed behind bars, his fifth time inside. He blames his almost permanent absence from home for his son’s actions:  his testimony at sentencing saved Jason from lethal injection. Stolter’s daughter Lisa attended the execution and lets us know that Perry ‘forgave me.’ She laughs through her tears. On the one hand this is a careful indictment of a system of criminal justice which results in capital punishment. On the other, it’s a terrifying examination of broken families and dysfunction and the effects of drink and drugs. The big question here is why anyone kills in the first place – the individual or the State. But it’s still a small story. It’s an utterly tragic account of many lives destroyed in a small Texas town – all because two nasty teenagers coveted a car.

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The House (2017)

 

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One of us has to be the adult here. Scott Johansen (Will Ferrell) and his wife Kate (Amy Poehler) must figure out a way to earn some money after their daughter’s (Ryan Simpkins) scholarship falls through unaware that the local councillor (Nick Kroll) has squandered it on his unwilling office mistress. When all else fails, the desperate couple join forces with their neighbor Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) to start an underground casino in his home. He’s miserable since his wife Raina (Michaela Watkins) issued divorce proceedings due to his gambling and porn addiction. As the cash rolls in and the good times fly, Scott and Kate soon learn that they may have bitten off more than they can chew and the casino attracts the attention of the locals who are concerned nobody turns up at the Town Hall meetings any more …  This starts out as (potentially) a social satire and swiftly mutates into an execrable waste of time in such inconsequentially lazy plotting, production and performance you will wonder that anyone even remembered to record it. Its sole merit is the opportunity to see some truly horrible things done to Jeremy Renner. Someone however decided to release it. A disgraceful defecation upon the public. Un film de Andrew Jay Cohen, may he die in agony.

Captain Fantastic (2016)

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I’m writing down everything you say – in my mind. Disillusioned anti-capitalist intellectual Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his absent wife Leslie (she’s in a psychiatric facility) and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society,  their kids are being educated them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie commits suicide, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time to attend her funeral in New Mexico where her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) fear for what is happening to their grandchildren and Ben is forced to confront the fact that the survivalist politics he has imbued in his offspring may not prepare them for real life… This starts with the killing of an animal in a ritual you might find in the less enlightened tribes. (Why did killing a deer become a thing a year ago?) Ben is teaching his eldest son Bodevan (George McKay) to be a man. But this is a twenty-first century tribe who are doing their own atavistic thing – just not in the name of Jesus (and there’s a funny scene in which they alienate a policeman by pretending to do just that) but that of Noam Chomsky. “I’ve never even heard of him!” protests their worried grandfather. Hearing the words “Stick it to the man!” coming out of a five year old is pretty funny in this alt-socialist community but the younger son in the family Rellian (Nicholas Rellian) believes Ben is crazy and has caused Leslie’s death and wants out.  Ironically and as Ben explains at an excruciating dinner with the brother in law (Steve Zahn) it was having children that caused her post-partum psychosis from which this brilliant lawyer never recovered. This stressor between father and younger son drives much of the conflict – that and Leslie’s Buddhist beliefs which are written in her Will and direct the family to have her cremated even though her parents inter her in a cemetery which the kids call a golf course. And Bodevan conceals the fact that he and Mom have been plotting his escape to one of the half dozen Ivy League colleges to which he’s been accepted. The irony that Ben is protecting his highly politicised kids from reality by having them celebrate Chomsky’s birthday when they don’t even know what a pair of Nikes are and have never heard of Star Trek is smart writing. Everything comes asunder when there are accidents as a result of the dangers to which he exposes them. This is a funny and moving portrait of life off the grid, with Mortensen giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as the man constantly at odds with the quotidian whilst simultaneously being a pretty great dad. McKay is terrific as the elder son who’s utterly unprepared for a romantic encounter in a trailer park. It really is tough to find your bliss. As delightful as it is unexpected, this is a lovely character study. Written and directed by Matt Ross.

The Big Money (1958)

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Willie Frith (Ian Carmichael) is the underachieving bad seed of a family of thieves Father (James Hayter), Mother (Kathleen Harrison) and sister Doreen (Jill Ireland), unworthy of his position as number one son.  One day, he steals a briefcase from a dodgy clergyman (Robert Helpmann), which is full of pound notes. But – the notes all have the same serial number, making them hard to spend. Seduced by the big money, he starts passing the counterfeits, one bill at a time. Much of his need for money is to impress Gloria (Belinda Lee), the pretty barmaid at his local pub. She dreams of the millionaire who will come and give her the good life. Unfortunately, he cannot pass the fake money fast enough to keep up with her wants. When she helps herself to some of the counterfeit money, it gets the attention of the police and the mobsters. It all ends in a free-for-all, between the police, Arabs, and mobsters, in disguise. Finally, she has to decide whether she loves him or his money… Bright and breezy and gorgeously shot (by Jack Cardiff and Jack E. Cox) including a sequence at Royal Ascot, this is a fun Britcom with Carmichael typically endearing as the bumbling bungler, Helpmann terrific as the enterprising vicar and a great showcase for the stunning and tragic Lee, who took over a role intended for Diana Dors. Written by John Baines with additional scenes by Patrick Campbell and directed by John Paddy Carstairs.

Going in Style (2017)

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These banks practically destroyed this country. They crushed a lot of people’s dreams, and nothing ever happened to them. We three old guys, we hit a bank. We get away with it, we retire in dignity. Worst comes to the worst, we get caught, we get a bed, three meals a day, and better health care than we got now. Lifelong friends Willie (Morgan Freeman), Joe (Michael Caine) and Albert (Alan Arkin) decide to buck retirement and step off the straight-and-narrow when their pension funds become a casualty of corporate financial misdeeds. They’re living on social security and eating dog food so what have they got to lose by taking a little action? Desperate to pay the bills and come through for their loved ones, they risk it all by knocking off the very bank that absconded with their money … The original had Art Carney, George Burns and  Lee Strasberg but in Theodore Melfi’s screenplay from the 1979 story by Edward Cannon, director Zach Braff appeals to the grey dollar audience with some of our favourite Sixties and Seventies performers with Freeman for good measure. Why wouldn’t you want to see this aged crew carry out a heist?! It’s conventionally made but has a resonance maybe moreso than the Seventies’ film did, with the banking crisis still having the ripple effect into everyone’s lives as a life’s work and savings vanish. It’s a lot of fun but says things about society and also the effect that participating in such a crime might have while quietly acknowledging that serial administrations simply permitted corporate criminals to ruin lives on an unprecedented scale and nine years later the effects are still being felt.  The guys have some good repartee and it’s pleasing to see a bunch of geezers making off with bags of swag.  Plus there’s Matt Dillon as an FBI guy and Ann-Margret for the Grumpy Old Men/Viva Las Vegas demographic.  What’s not to like?! For a comedy with a message this is a lot of fun.

Where There’s a Will (1936)

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A merry Christmas, girls and boys / I’ve brought you jewels, instead of toys / In spite of what you think / it seems to me I’ve earned a drink. A bumbling incompetent solicitor Benjamin Stubbins (Will Hay) is tricked by some American gangsters into helping them pull off a robbery …  Hardly the jewel in old school Brit comic (and pilot and astronomer…!) Hay’s crown (that’s Oh, Mr Porter!), this saw him team up with a good team but it’s a blink and you’ll miss it affair, aside from a few edits to produce visual payoffs on lines.  There’s fun with the office repartee between him and the truculent youth he employs (Graham Moffatt) and it’s an opportunity to see former Ziegfeld girl Gina Malo as a wisecracking moll. She spent the better part of her film career in operatic musicals in Britain.  It all ends as you think it might at a Christmas party and guess who’s Father Christmas? The screenplay is by Sidney Gilliat and Leslie Arliss with additions by Hay, director William Beaudine and Robert Edmunds.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

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This never happened to the other fellow. Secret agent 007 (George Lazenby) and the adventurous Tracy Di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg) who is mob boss Draco’s (Gabriele Ferzetti) daughter join forces to battle the evil SPECTRE organization in the treacherous Swiss Alps. But the group’s powerful leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas), is launching his most calamitous scheme yet: a germ warfare plot that could kill millions! … What most true Bond fans know is that this is the probably the greatest of them all. It’s self-referential but is also true to the book; it has real emotion and not the ersatz pastiche variety underwriting past iterations and which sadly wouldn’t make a proper reappearance until the Eighties;  it’s a real action movie with life at stake;  it has Bond’s only functioning romantic relationship; the action is breathtaking and the safe-cracking scene is one of the best crime process scenes ever shot; it has one of the greatest songs ever written, never mind in the Bond canon – We Have All the Time in the World is just swoonsome and literally timeless; and Telly Savalas is a marvellous Blofeld, ensconced in his Alpine tower surrounded by pretty women – like Joanna Lumley. Lazenby isn’t given an easy ride taking over from Connery primarily because he spends a lot of the time undercover pretending to be a bespectacled man called Sir Hilary Bray presumed to be researching allergies and who must deal with Blofeld’s henchwoman Irma Blunt (Ilse Steppat). Rigg is a brilliant romantic foil, taking no nonsense and being quite Bond’s equal which makes the perfectly tragic ending so devastating.  For tourism porn there’s any amount of Alps, the cable car station and the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant above Bern, the Arrabida National Park and the Palacio Hotel in Estoril, Portugal – stunning scenery that still delights. Written by Richard Maibaum with additional dialogue by the fascinating Simon Raven and directed by Peter R. Hunt who had done assistant work on the earlier films. Simply brilliant.

Run for Cover (1955)

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Do you think putting a gun in his hand will cure what is in his heart? After being mistaken for train robbers and shot and injured by a wrongheaded posse an ex-convict drifter Matt Dow (James Cagney) and his flawed young partner whom he’s just met Davey Bishop (John Derek) are made sheriff and deputy of a Western town. Bishop is deeply resentful of the people who’ve crippled him while Matt befriends and then romances the daughter Helga (Viveca Lindfors) of the recent Swedish emigrant Swenson (Jean Hersholt) who takes in the pair while Davey is getting medical treatment. Then the crime rate surges with the re-appearance of an outlaw who Matt knows from his time in prison where he did six years in a case of mistaken identity …  Winston Miller’s screenplay is from the story by Harriet Frank Jr and Irving Ravetch. It lacks the baroque weirdness of Nicholas Ray’s previous western, Johnny Guitar and the soaring emotionality of his forthcoming Rebel Without a Cause, but it is notable that in a script featuring a mentoring relationship of the father-son type that the focus is on the older  man’s experiences with Derek becoming a substitute for Cagney’s son whose death ten years earlier is not explained. Derek plays a prototype of the aspiring juvenile delinquent character that would be front and centre of Rebel but here he’s the antagonist whose bitterness is supposedly because of being crippled courtesy of the town’s lynch mob but whom Cagney finally realises is rotten no matter what the cause. Not a classic but interesting to look at for Ray’s compositions in an evolving cinematic signature and for the contrasting performances. There are some nice lines too, such as when Matt asks Swenson for his daughter’s hand in marriage:  Ever since you leave she go round like lost heifer. Derek’s role is a pointer to many of the tropes in the JD cycle to come with Cagney very far from giving him soft soap treatment:  Why don’t you stop going round feeling sorry for yourself! Other people have it far worse!

 

Stalag 17 (1953)

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How do you expect to win the war with an army of clowns? 1944.  It’s the longest night of the year in a German POW camp housing American airmen.  Two prisoners, Manfredi and Johnson, try to escape the compound using a tunnel but are quickly discovered and shot dead. Among the men remaining in Barracks 4, suspicion grows that one of their own is a spy for the Germans. All eyes fall on cynical Sgt. Sefton (William Holden) who everybody knows frequently makes black market exchanges with the German guards for small luxuries. To protect himself from a mob of his enraged fellow inmates, Sgt. Sefton resolves to find the true traitor within their midst… Director Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum adapted the autobiographical Broadway hit by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trczinski, a canny blend of comedy and drama which asks serious questions of its players yet taints the seriousness with jokes and the high jinks with irony. Holden is superb as the entrepreneur whose go-getting attitude would be admired back home but in a POW camp it’s a different story. The men are stratified by their ethnicity and class. Rob Strauss and Harvey Lembeck repeat their stage roles as Animal and Harry, and are highly entertaining comic relief, with Don Taylor, Neville Brand and Peter Graves making up the principal roles. The Nazis are led by Otto Preminger’s rather hammily amusing Colonel von Scherbach which casts the enemy as something of a Greek chorus to the loyalties being figured out by the Americans under deadly pressure. Sefton is a model for the Scrounger played by James Garner in The Great Escape while the whole provides a template not just for the legendary Sergeant Bilko but Hogan’s Heroes on TV. Holden got a deserved Academy Award:  he stands out, yes, but in the right way. He’s not exactly Bogie in Casablanca but it helps to think of him in that shadow even if he felt he didn’t deserve recognition and many thought he should have had it for his previous work with Wilder – Sunset Blvd. He’s just swell in a film that is shrewd, bittersweet, hilarious, human and true.

Meet Me Tonight (1952)

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Three short stories by Noel Coward comprise this film. The Red Peppers: The constant squabbling between married song and dance team Lily (Kay Walsh) and George Pepper (Ted Ray) takes a turn when their co-workers begin carping, too and they get more than they bargained for when they complain. Fumed Oak:  Henry Gow (Stanley Holloway) reaches the end of his rope with his nagging wife (Betty Ann Davies), tyrannical mother-in-law (Mary Merrall) and his hopeless adenoidal misery of a daughter (Dorothy Gordon) announcing his plans for escape. Ways and Means:  High society fraudsters Stella (Valerie Hobson) and Toby Cartwright (Nigel Patrick) prove to be the guests from hell and it takes the ingenuity of chauffeur and burglar Murdoch (Jack Warner) to sort them out for their hostess Olive (Jessie Royce Landis) after their plan to rob her proves an insult too far… Adapted by Noël Coward from his own one-act plays (Tonight at 8.30) and directed by Anthony Pelissier this is very much of its time and the viciousness of Henry Gow towards his family might be personal to Coward but plays a little differently today. There is little trace of the attractive urbanity of his most famous work however the sparky performances and pleasant twist conclusion is one for completionists, and that includes fans of Coward’s compositions, co-written with Eric Rogers. Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson does a decent job of making Pinewood resemble Monaco for the last episode while the editing is by future director Clive Donner.