Extremely Wicked (2019)

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I’m not a bad guy. Law student Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) is in prison receiving a visit from long time girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) but she leaves upset. We flash back to how they met, set up home together with her baby daughter Molly and how news reports of the assaults and murders of young women across swathes of the United States result in his being apprehended as his photo fit is widely published. But Liz appears not to believe that Ted is capable of such evil.  Police Detective Mike Fisher (Terry Kinney) crosses state lines to leave an envelope of horrifying information at their house to try to persuade her that they have the right guy but she doesn’t open it for years. In the meantime, Ted starts to defend himself before Judge Edward Cowart (John Malkovich) in Florida, the first such trial to be televised … You know this didn’t start with a Stop sign. This biographical drama could have gone badly wrong but it’s far from a hagiography and a lot is left to the grisly imagination. Joe Berlinger’s feature follows from his documentary series on the subject, adapted from the book The Phantom Prince:  My Life With Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall.  It’s cannily structured, starting with that flashback meeting cute with Liz so that the entire narrative feels like a seduction of sorts, giving Efron an opportunity to create a complete personality. We feel the impact of that fatal charisma and because he establishes a home life including as stepfather to Liz’s young daughter Molly, the disconnect is all the more alarming, especially interspersed with reports of serial murders from those locations where we know him to have been and shots of him with girls in bars. When we see Ted and Liz together we are imagining how he would kill her – those hands around her little neck suggest so much of what is not shown about his murderous spree. Collins doesn’t have a lot to do but the final scene between them has a big reveal – they both have something to confess. How much did she know? What did he do, exactly? Efron is utterly compelling as this beacon of toxic masculinity:  it’s all about him, as with all narcissistic serial killers. We don’t know any more, even the extent of his slaughter. You know the rest. When I feel his love I feel on top of the world, when I don’t I feel nothing

 

 

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The Old Man & The Gun (2018)

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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

American Animals (2018)

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You’re taught your entire life that what you do matters and that you’re special. In 2003 Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) are four friends who live an ordinary existence in Kentucky. Spencer is a budding artist and following his visit to the Special Collections room at Transylvania University in Lexington, he informs Lipka of the contents. Lipka comes up with the idea to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the school’s library:  it involves tying up the librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) and making off with the Audubon book, Birds of America, the most valuable one there. They lose their nerve at the first attempt which they prepare for by dressing up as old men. They plot a different approach for the second attempt. As one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history starts to unfold, the men question whether their attempts to inject excitement and purpose into their lives are simply misguided attempts at achieving the American dream and Spencer gave an auction house in NYC his real-life cell phone number with his dumb message on it … How can I tell you if I’m in or I’m out without telling me the first thing about what I might be in or out of.  Writer/director Bart Layton takes a true crime and spins it into something stylish but problematic, a treatise on all-American stupidity. Interviews with the real-life perpetrators, rather humbled after the fact, are interspersed with the narrative drama, which gives it a melancholy quality but the consequent issues in pacing don’t always lead to a pleasing viewing experience. It’s not set up correctly, working against any possibility of suspense. The second attempt at the heist is permitted to progress unimpeded by anything other than the protagonists’ staggering ineptitude. The outcome is inevitable and famous. The film does however blend fact and fiction and the interviews form a kind of Greek chorus, baiting us with the various points of view, Rashomon-like, and at one point even inserts Spencer into the action, albeit briefly. And it does boast Udo Kier in the cast. One day you’ll die

 

The Mule (2018)

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For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for everything. Broke, alone and facing foreclosure on his business, 90-year-old horticulturist and Korean War veteran Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) takes a job as a drug courier for a Mexican cartel and transports huge loads to Chicago in the trunk of his pick-up truck. His immediate success leads to easy money and the opportunity to help other folks in trouble. A larger shipment soon draws the attention of hard-charging DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) who has to work hard to convince his boss (Laurence Fishburne) to track the culprit. When Earl’s past mistakes start to weigh heavily on his conscience, and his guilt over the way he treated his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and his estranged daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) plunges him into grief, he must decide whether to right those wrongs before law enforcement and cartel thugs catch up to him but his drug lord amigo Laton (Andy Garcia) is no longer in charge Next time you see me, I’ll be texting my brains out!  Adroitly positioned between comedy and drama and boasting an amiable performance by star/director Eastwood, this manages to be both droll and horrifying with a raft of racial references that frankly could be taken either way except they’re made by a white man of a wholly different world and he happens to be very sympathetic: there are thematic connections with Gran Torino (also written by Nick Schenk)to completely different effect. Garcia has fun as Laton the  kingpin (until he’s not) and Cooper is probably paying his dues in a by-the-numbers role in exchange for having been directed to greatness in American Sniper albeit they have a nicely ironic meeting in a diner which improves upon the non-event that was Heat‘s encounter between De Niro and Pacino.  Mostly shot with a great feel for landscape, there are surprising lapses in the cinematography (focus pull, anyone?) that like a lot of Eastwood’s output indicate there’s been some slapdash shooting. Nonetheless, even with the predictable subject matter and the silly sentimentality (Wiest is like a latterday saint) Eastwood plays with his star persona in absurdly engaging fashion (even casting his own daughter Alison as his screen daughter) so much so that you’ll be looking for an orangutan in that truck. This has things to say about ageing, family, friendship, community, the generation gap(s!) and regrets. His unique lyrical interpretation of those radio songs just rocks practically turning this into a musical. Adapted from the true life story of Leo Sharp, an octogenarian mule for the Sinaloa cartel, this was inspired by a New York Times article by Sam Dolnick although all character names have been changed. As an exercise in self-critical auteurist filmmaking, this is rather amazing. Roll on, Rowdy! At least I’ll know where to find you

 

The French Connection (1971)

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You still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie? When wealthy Marseilles heroin smuggler Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) has an undercover cop murdered by hitman Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi) he reveals his plans to smuggle $32 million worth of pure heroin into the United States by hiding it in the car of his friend, French TV personality Henri Devereaux, who is traveling to New York by ship. In NYC narcotics detectives Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Roy Scheider) are on undercover stakeout in Brooklyn. After seeing a drug transaction take place in a bar, Cloudy goes in to make an arrest. After a short pursuit, the detectives interrogate the man, who reveals his drug connection and the biggest drug bust in American history looms … All right, Popeye’s here! Get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!  What an extraordinary film this is:  a display of a singular, muscular, arresting, narrative vision with masterful control and seemingly effortless storytelling. It’s a version of a true early 1960s crime but bears none of the burdens of historicism. The shifting camerawork, changing locales, tone-perfect performances and the obsessive pursuit of an imperturbable French crime kingpin chime perfectly with director William Friedkin’s realistic style. The chase involving the 1971 Pontiac Le Mans and the elevated train is one of the most famous action scenes in film history, undercranked by the ingenious cinematographer Owen Roizman to make everything look faster. Apparently, Friedkin was goaded into doing it by Howard Hawks, who said, Make a good chase. Make one better than anyone’s done.  Hackman is peerless as the alcoholic bigot with a bee in his bonnet but Rey and Scheider are fantastic too and Tony Lo Bianco as Sal, the NYC connection, gets a great, physical showcase. The jagged jazz score by the preternaturally gifted Don Ellis is one of the great film soundtracks and Jimmy Webb wrote an original song performed by The Three Degrees at the Copacabana. A breathtaking film, complex, violent and well-managed, a specific articulation of the urban landscape told in an economical 99 minutes, it won a slew of Oscars – for editor Gerald B. Greenberg, Hackman’s performance, Best Film, Best Director and writer Ernest Tidyman who adapted the book by Robin Moore. Stunning. That son of a bitch is here. I saw him. I’m gonna get him

 

Night and Fog (1955)

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Alain Resnais is unique in the French New Wave. He was the sole enquirer into the Holocaust. Every other filmmaker camouflaged and did away with political analysis in favour of winsome, humorous cinematic style and a rhetoric lacking in nerve. Perhaps it was due to the level of collaboration with the Nazi regime and the Vichy government that formed so much of the recent past.  This is not a pretty history. With a script by Mauthusen-Gusen survivor Jean Cayrol and Chris Marker, voiced by Michel Boquet, and a deceptively urgent score by Hanns Eisler, we are brought into the realm of German horror, a genocide manufactured at the behest of Amin al-Husseini. Integrating newsreel footage with contemporary colour film shot in Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland by Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny this is a solemn narration of a true crime made all the more significant in a restive period of anti-semitism. This week alone saw the remains of six nameless victims of the concentration camps buried in England, given a dignity they never had in life;  and a cross-party coalition in the Irish Republic brought the Occupied Territories Bill before Parliament in a stark reminder that anti-semitism is overt, the territory of braggarts, and there are many in positions of power who would deny Jews their right to exist and the right of Israel to flourish.  A few years ago the Irish government voted to support the administration of Hamas – an Islamist extremist group whose constitution includes the admonition It is the duty of all Moslems to kill Jews on sight. Israel is rapidly becoming a safe haven for European Jews as Islam’s tentacles reach further afield. It is spreading in Europe courtesy not only of the pernicious Eastern Europeans assimilating in their millions in the British Isles but also because of the unstoppable immigration problem from North Africa and the Near East, with millions flooding in, urged on by a Germany that is constantly on the rise and currently in charge of Europe. Today is the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Let us never forget. L’chaim.

The Senator (2017)

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Aka Chappaquiddick. To Ted. And the White House in ’72. On July 18, 1969, following a party with RFK’s secretaries (the Boiler Room Girls), his cousin Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms) and the attorney general for Massachusetts Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drives his car off of a bridge into Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island. The accident results in the death of his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), a 28-year-old campaign strategist who worked for Kennedy and who had quit as Bobby’s secretary in the wake of his death and whom Ted is attempting to woo into a relationship. He rushes back to the beach house they’ve rented and asks Gargan and Markham to help him see if Mary Jo is alive and when they can’t retrieve her from the upended car he persuades them to say nothing while he claims he will report the accident. The following morning word is out that the car has been found while he enjoys breakfast at a local diner and Gargan and Markham discover he didn’t report the incident and his bedbound father mutters the word alibi in a phonecall … I want you to know that every effort possible was made to save her. The patina long having slid off the Kennedy family’s halo, this is far from a hagiography yet it still leaves many unanswered questions. The long shadow of his brothers –  Joe was the favourite one, Jack was charming, Bobby was brilliant and I’m stupid – hung over Ted Kennedy, the boy who cheated at school, on his wife and then finally did something so horrifically spineless a year after RFK’s murder it destroyed the hope that this papa’s boy would become the second President in the family. I can be charming. I can be brilliant. I’m the only one left! There is nothing new here but what is interesting structurally is how this is bookended by a TV interview which Ted departs when the reporter introduces the subject of JFK’s legacy;  and concludes in his onscreen admission of guilt in Kopechne’s death while Joe watches from his sick bed and the public in Massachusetts are asked in a live vox pop how they feel about him potentially becoming President:  television’s role in politics was ingeniously utilised by the photogenic JFK and its influence seized upon by his wife when she decided to do some home decorating. The shadow not just of JFK but of TV news haunts Ted a week later when he and his kids sit around watching the moon landing and his young son reminds him all this space exploration is down to his dead uncle. No wonder Ted didn’t have a decent bone in his body:  imagine being the least promising son of a philandering billionaire bootlegger bully with political power who dallied with the Mafia (allegedly). The tragedy that this recounts of course is not that of the Kennedys but of the Kopechnes, whose daughter was made of such stern stuff that she quit politics when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and on 18 July 1969 she fought valiantly for her life, probably for hours, eventually succumbing to underwater suffocation evidenced by the post mortem foaming from her nostrils dramatised in some very distressing but necessary crosscutting – while Ted and his friends began the misguided cover up, subsequently engineered at the behest of a mostly mute stroke-afflicted Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) by the henchmen led by Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) and Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) who had been at JFK’s side when he took the 1960 election.  However the Kopechnes didn’t utter a squeak of protest. Nobody cared about Mary Jo or who killed her. There is little insight beyond the usual cod Freudian clichés of what made Ted tick.  Perhaps the post hoc paradox is that he went on to become just about the best legislator the United States Senate ever had, leaving a far more tangible legacy in his wake than that bequeathed by his charismatic but corruptible murdered brothers. A sobering portrait of the power wielded by the Kennedys on those in their immediate circle and those who should have resisted their supposed charm, this incomplete work was written by Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen and directed by John Curran.  I could have got her out of the car in 25 minutes if I got the call but no one called

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

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What do you think you are dealing with, a total idiot here? In August 1972 in Brooklyn, NYC inexperienced criminal and Vietnam vet Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) leads a robbery on the First National Bank to finance his male lover Leon’s (Chris Sarandon) sex change.  Things quickly go wrong, and a hostage situation develops. The phone rings and it’s Police Captain Moretti (Charles Durning) informing them the place is entirely surrounded. As Sonny and his accomplice, Sal Naturile (John Cazale) try desperately to remain in control, a media circus develops and the FBI arrives led by Agent Sheldon (James Broderick) creating even more tension. Gradually, Sonny’s surprising motivations behind the robbery are revealed, his wedding photo to Leon is shown on TV and his standoff  moves toward its inevitable end as the forces of law and order consider his demands for a limo to the airport and a jet on the tarmac to take him to Algeria He wants to kill me so bad he can taste it.  Attica! Attica! Frank Pierson adapted the article The Boys in the Bank by P.F. Kluge and Thomas More and Sidney Lumet spins it into a community art installation – a ribald yet tough portrait of dysfunctional men looking for a way out. The siege is interspersed with mordantly funny phonecalls, Sonny’s parents (Dominic Chianese and Judith Malina) moaning about how his personal life has led to this, his wife Angie (Susan Peretz) calling him and telling him she can’t come over to talk because she can’t get a babysitter, the squabbles and misleading information fed him by the bank tellers and manager and Sal teed off because the newscasters are calling him a homosexual too. Penelope Allen (Sylvia) and Carol Kane (Jenny) are notable as two members of staff –  Sylvia has the opportunity to leave with a hostage but opts to stay with her girls and when Jenny’s husband calls he tells her to ask Sonny when he thinks the siege might be through. This wonderfully atmospheric outing is so well constructed and dramatised that you almost forget very little is actually happening. But when Lance Henriksen shows up you just know it’s not going to end well. The meta irony here is that Pacino wound up playing a guy who was allegedly inspired by what he had seen in The Godfather (in which of course Cazale was his brother)!  He mighta done it, his body functions mighta done it,  but he himself, he didn’t do it

On the Waterfront (1954)

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Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up! Hoboken dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) had been an up-and-coming prize-fighting boxer until powerful local mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) persuaded him to throw a fight. His older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right hand man and lawyer. When longshoreman Joey Doyle is murdered before he can testify about Friendly’s control of the Hoboken waterfront, Terry teams up with the dead man’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and the streetwise priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) to do something about the violent gangsters controlling the dock. Terry finally figures out it was Charley getting him to throw a fight at Madison Square Garden that put him in this jam. He decides to go against his advice and testify … Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts. This classic film can never be separated from its origins:  Arthur Miller wanted to write about the infiltration of the dockers’ unions by the Mafia and his project The Hook was brought to Columbia with Elia Kazan as director but Harry Cohn insisted the criminals be called communists instead. Sam Spiegel took it on and Frank Sinatra was tapped to play Terry inintially. Miller gave up on it completely when Kazan testified and named names at the HUAC (if he hadn’t his career was dead, he named people whose names were already known); and fellow friendly witness Budd Schulberg’s screenplay could be partly attributed to a series of articles based on a true story about a longshoreman who tried to do something about union corruption. It didn’t work. (A series of lawsuits arose with the studio because Schulberg had talked to a number of individuals about racketeering and they recognised their story onscreen).  The original ending was rejected because of the censors:  crime could not win. So there is a brutal fight.  Brando’s was not the only influential acting in this film, which is a hymn to mid-century Method style, a kind of heightened reality with actors finding ‘business,’ like the accidentally dropped glove that Brando picked up and stroked, an unplanned incident that adds to the film’s text. And that legendary taxi scene between Brando and Steiger? Brando was a soft guy. He hated the cold. He wanted to be back in his hotel all the time when they were on the docks. This particular scene was shot in the studio and he wouldn’t do the decent thing and do the reverses for Rod Steiger after Steiger had acted his ass off for Brando’s shots. Steiger had to emote to a stage hand reading the script. Brando won the Academy Award and the film got Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actress (for Saint), Art Direction, Editing and Cinematography (for Boris Kaufman.) Leonard Bernstein should have won for Best Score because he makes the big dialogue scenes work. Turns out you can justify anything.  I’m standing over here now. I was rattin’ on myself all those years. I didn’t even know it.

Brubaker (1980)

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That’s murder they’re talking about in there. And if they condone it, how are you gonna turn around and tell these guys why they’re locked up? 1969 Arkansas. Posing as an inmate at Wakefield Prison, the new warden of the penitentiary, Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford), witnesses firsthand the scams and abuse inflicted upon the prisoners by the staff (maggot-ridden food, paying for medical care) and the prisoners upon one another – rape, bullying, violent beatings. After revealing his true identity when a prisoner in the tank Walter (Morgan Freeman) takes another Larry Lee Bullen (David Keith) hostage and threatens to kill him, Brubaker brings much-needed reform to the prison with the help of supporters: trustee (prisoner turned gamekeeper) Dickie Coombes (Yaphet Kotto) and administrator at the board of governors Lillian Gray (Jane Alexander). But not everyone is happy especially not the prison governors who are profiting from years of graft. When the benefactors of the old corrupt system inside the building, like Huey Rauch (Tim McIntire) and Roy Purcell (Matt Clark) are threatened by the changes, Brubaker’s battles really begin and he realises that Dickie is correct to warn him that innocent people are going to die to prove his point … Accomplices to the Crime:  The Arkansas Prison Scandal by Thomas Murton and Joe Hyams was adapted by W.D. Richter (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) and it’s a striking and compelling film of social injustice directed by Stuart Rosenberg, based on Murton’s experiences when he was appointed under Governor Rockefeller to reform an an unprofitable prison.  The inmates were slave labour for local business, the crops on the 15,000 acres were being poisoned, the canned food was being stolen by prison officers and sold on while the inmates starved. When he discovered dozens of men had been murdered and put in unmarked graves he was dismissed. Redford is quite brilliant as the man who is at first in there undercover and then breaks out in order to save an habitual criminal who then becomes a trustee. He understands he has to play the system to make humanitarian gains but finally the demands are too much even when proposed by the woman who wanted him in there, Gray (Alexander). Freeman’s role is small but astonishing – when he sings Respect with David Keith’s neck in his hands you listen. It’s tautly written, brutal and flawlessly staged.  Rosenberg of course is the man responsible for that other great prison movie, Cool Hand Luke. This is a devastating indictment of corruption and graft and there simply isn’t a false moment.