Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing

Boy Erased (2018)

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I wish this had never happened but I thank God that it did. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the only son of a car dealer and small-town Baptist pastor Marshall (Russell Crowe), must overcome the fallout after being outed as gay to his parents following a violent sexual encounter at college, the truth of which he doesn’t wish to reveal. His father and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) struggle to reconcile their love for their son with their beliefs and Marshall approaches fellow pastors for advice. Fearing a loss of family, friends and community as Marshall is attempting to becoming a full-time preacher at his church, Jared is pressured into attending a conversion therapy programme called The Source. He comes into conflict with its leader Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) and begins his journey to finding his own voice and accepting his true self but not before a session of abject bullying perpetrated against fellow inmate Cameron (Britton Sear) has a devastating outcome …  Our family is so normal. The note of dreariness inbuilt from the first shot in actor Joel Edgerton’s sophomore directing outing after the superb home invasion horror The Gift is misleading and thankfully almost immediately dispatched.  Earnestness swiftly and happily becomes a victim of a suspenseful writing and directing style, Garrard Conley’s tangled memoir of evangelism and gay conversion camps transformed into something like a psychological thriller.  The performances, the hot-button topic and the treatment conspire to elevate this into a work pervaded by fear – from the militaristic therapy style (by Flea!); the horrible gay rape by student Henry (Joe Alwyn) immediately followed by its perpetrator’s desire to confess; and the prospect of a life under the guidance of a subliterate evangelical programme leader who replaces great literature like Lolita and teens’ diaries with misspelled handbooks (Almighty Dog) and gene-o-grams that seek to out family members (A for Alcohol, Ab for Abortion … etc) in an atmosphere where the word ‘intellectual’ is rhymed with ‘sexual’.  And it becomes a battle of the sexes with an angry mother finally strong enough to put a halt to the misguided form of masculinity threatened by difference. Enough said. But it’s never often enough, in this depiction of a perverted  and sinister take on Christianity which has its coda in the end credits with tension dissipated and history overtaking the story. Edgerton is proving a highly interesting filmmaker, isn’t he? I’m gay, and I’m your son. And neither of those things are going to change. Okay? So let’s deal with that!

The Company You Keep (2012)

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We all died. Some of us came back. Decades after an ill-fated robbery in which an innocent man was killed, a former member of the Weather Underground Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is on her way to turn herself in to authorities when the FBI arrest her at a gas station after her phone is tapped. While covering the story and digging around, reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) discovers that recently widowed human rights lawyer Jim Grant (Robert Redford) was also a member of that particular group and is really a man called Nick Sloan since the real Jim Grant died in 1979. Sloan slips by the FBI led by Cornelius (Terrence Howard) who are following him when he goes on the run, from Albany through the Midwest and beyond, hoping to track down his former lover, Mimi (Julie Christie), who’s still underground and fighting for the cause. He leaves his young daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho) with his doctor brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) and his wife. Meanwhile, Ben encounters a police officer Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson) who knew Nick back in the day and meets his his adult daughter Rebecca (Britt Marling) who is a lot older than she initially seems and Ben figures she is somehow connected to Mimi and Nick ... Everybody knew somebody who was going over or somebody who wasn’t coming back.  Adapted by Lem Dobbs from the titular 2003 novel by Neil Gordon, Robert Redford directed and produced this film which of course nods to that period in his own life when he was politically attuned and making films which spoke to the zeitgeist. Partly it’s about the state of journalism and Ben’s role of the ambitious journo who isn’t looking beyond the headlines, as Nick/Jim declares to him, Well that pretty much sums up why journalism is dead. It’s a pivotal statement because this is all about ethics – Sharon’s self-justifying, his hiding away, the times in which people live and endure their families being destroyed by violence, homegrown or otherwise (and millennial corruption is everywhere evident as Ben gets information with the passing of greenbacks to everyone he encounters). LaBeouf is good as the questing young writer – and looking at his screen career perhaps it’s the company he keeps that improves his impact because he’s surrounded by a great ensemble doing very fine work, including Nick Nolte who shows up as another member of the group. This is a serious work about a complex time which clarifies why historical crimes demand more than cursory payback and jail time. It’s well-paced, a drama of conscience, guilt and retribution. Now that’s context. They did unforgivable things but you’ve got to admire the commitment.

 

 

Getting Straight (1970)

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A man who can’t believe in a cause can never believe in himself.  Graduate student Harry Bailey (Elliott Gould) was once one of the most visible undergraduate activists on campus, but now that he’s back studying for his master’s for a teaching qualification after a bruising experience with the real world while serving in Vietnam he’s trying to fly right. Trouble is, the campus is exploding with various student movements, and girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen), is caught up in most of them yet betrays her deeply traditional desire to be a suburban wife. As Harry gets closer to finishing his degree, he finds his iconoclastic attitude increasingly aligned with the students rather than the faculty and believes he can be a great high school teacher dedicated to finding the next Salinger, but what of the majority of kids he’ll teach? His beliefs are challenged by his professors and he gets in deep trouble when his draft-dodging friend Nick (Robert F. Lyons) sits one of his exams Good scientist. Lousy lay. The genial performance of Gould (sporting a moustache fit for Groucho Marx) is one of the reasons that this campus revolution movie survives slightly better reputationally than the other ones released that year, The Strawberry Statement and RPM (and supporting actress Jeannie Berlin is also in the latter). It’s also because it’s fair – a smart and savvy takedown of the student politics that always remain within the safe space of the campus and not the real world of Vietnam where Harry realised that reality bites the big one. The marines want guys who are crazy about killing, they don’t want guys who are just crazy, he deadpans when Nick shows signs of insanity – the Army rejects this doofus so he volunteers for their soul brothers and becomes a gung-ho fighter. It’s also about the vocation of teaching and how to communicate effectively and kindly to the majority, as Harry must be reminded when he expresses a desire to uncover and tutor only the gifted. Both Jeff Corey and Cecil Kellaway are a steadfast presence on faculty, proving that not all the Establishment is a washout.  The goose-cooking is complete in a viva where Harry finds himself confronted by a professor determined to make him believe The Great Gatsby is the work of a closet homosexual and Harry just gets mad as hell and can’t take it any more. A sharply observed portrait of a time and place teasing out the contradictory sexual and political strands of the period’s self-justifying rationale that is oddly resonant in today’s self-satisfied sociocultural echo chamber. Bergen is a great romantic other half, a fresh-faced and naively optimistic girl who would really like the happy suburban life away from all of this, yet she still gets stuck into protests. Harrison Ford makes a terrific impression in a well written supporting role. Adapted by Robert Kaufman from the novel by Ken Kolb and sympathetically directed by Richard Rush, lensed by his favourite DoP, László Kovács (Hell’s Angels on Wheels, Psych-Out, The Savage 7, Freebie and the Bean). It’s always just great with you

Submission (2017)

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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

The Dreamers (2003)

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Before you can change the world you must realize that you, yourself, are part of it. You can’t stand outside looking in.  In May 1968, the student riots in Paris exacerbate the isolation felt by three youths:  American exchange student Matthew (Michael Pitt) and twins Théo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green). Having bonded over their mutual love of cinema, Matthew is fascinated by the intimacy shared by Isabelle and Théo, who were born conjoined. When the twins’ bohemian parents go away for a month, they ask Matthew to stay at their apartment, and the three lose themselves in a fantasy straight out of the movies that dominate their daydreams … I was one of the insatiables. The ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen. Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first. Adapted by the late Gilbert Adair (how I miss him) from his novel The Holy Innocents (inspired by Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles) this insinuates itself into the mind and the senses as surely as the French brother and sister at its heavily beating cinéphile’s heart. Scrupulously tracing the evolution of a romantic sensibility alongside a political education, this merges a rites of passage story with social and personal revolution in intelligently provocative fashion, fusing Adair’s narrative with director Bernardo Bertolucci’s sympathy for youthful yearning. And it’s sexy as hell, this movie about movies and movie lovers and passion and politics. Green is enigmatic and brave and beautiful, while the boys’ attraction for one another, emerging as a homosexual encounter in the original screenplay, is sacrificed by Bertolucci, whose sexual depictions are always of the hetero variety. There’s a delectable selection of movie clips and songs on the soundtrack of this startlingly beautiful dream of a film. The first time I saw a movie at the cinémathèque française I thought, “Only the French… only the French would house a cinema inside a palace”

The Children Act (2017)

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Life is more precious than dignity. London High Court judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) must decide if she should order a life-saving blood transfusion for a teen with leukaemia Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead) despite his parents’ (Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh) refusal to accept medical treatment because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Fiona’s home life adds extra pressure to the decision-making – she is deep in the middle of a marital crisis because her academic husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) declares his wish to pursue an affair with a colleague. She decides she must do something unconventional during the court case and pays a visit to Adam in hospital … Don’t you remember how we were? Don’t you miss that? This issue film is adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel and boasts a stunning performance from Thompson as the woman daily challenged by ethical matters which have life-enhancing (or -ending) consequences. Richard Eyre directs with customary rigour and nuance in beautifully photographed settings in the Law courts and the English countryside but it feels somewhat like flogging a dead horse, as it were, failing to offer a robust counter-argument to the rationale of assisting a person in peril, making Thompson’s Herculean efforts seem somewhat … in vein?! Perhaps it’s a topic better suited to the likes of Jodi Picoult but the interesting plot turn which suggests a much deeper seam of emotion is not exploited as deeply as one would hope. This court is a court of law not of morals

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

 

 

Kinsey (2004)

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Are my answers typical? Professor Alfred ‘Prok’ Kinsey (Liam Neeson) is interviewed about his sexual history by one of his graduate students Clyde Martin (Sarsgaard) and reflects on how he became the author of famous studies of modern Americans’ sexual behaviour. He grew up in a repressed household headed by Alfred Seguine Kinsey (John Lithgow) and disobeyed him to study biology and became a lecturer, marrying his student Mac (Laura Linney). After completing his study of gall wasp behaviour and addressing the sexual issues within his own marriage his advice is sought by students and he begins teaching a sex ed course that raises questions he cannot answer.  He devises a questionnaire to find out what passes for normal activity among his students but soon realises that 100 completed documents are not remotely sufficient.  He commences a countrywide research project in which he taxonomises sexual behaviour inside and outside average marriages and subgroups like homosexuals at a time when all these things are illegal in several states … The forces of chastity are massing again. Writer/director Bill Condon’s biography of the famed sex researcher whose reports rocked midcentury America is careful, detailed and filled with good performances (appropriately). Both Linney and Neeson contribute complete characters and their respective realisation that Clyde wants to seduce Prok are extremely touching and when you consider it’s established in a phonecall it’s all the more affecting. Their marriage is a profile of the parameters of this study – until things become more extreme and the grad students carrying out the research offer their own services to be recorded. The issue of agreed infidelity and extra-marital sex is just one of the common behavioural tics dealt with here and deftly personalised. There are of course some limits to even these sexologists’ tolerance – and Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell) storms out when a particularly noxious individual (William Sadler) decides to regale him and Kinsey about his incest, bestiality and more, including incidents with pre-adolescent children. There are some abusive perversions that are just too tough to take. Word about the nature of the team’s methodologies gets out and their funding is cut by the Rockefeller Foundation, an issue that is particularly effective as a narrative device because it reminds us of the real-world difficulties in securing funding and the consequences that not funding this particular study might have had – its far-reaching insights into human behaviour in a highly censorious era was groundbreaking.  Oliver Platt is particularly good as the genial Herman Wells, President of the University at Bloomington whose support of the controversial work is so important. The confrontational nature of the film doesn’t descend to pornography chiefly because the humanity of the protagonists – and that of the study’s participants – is carefully graphed against the social norms. The topper to Alfred Senior’s difficult relationship with his son is very sad and crystallises the reasons behind his bullying, a habit Prock has inherited and replays with his own son Bruce (Luke MacFarlane) over mealtimes. At this point we don’t need any lectures on nature versus nurture or gene theory. The coda is a wonderful exchange between Kinsey and his latest interview subject played by Lynn Redgrave. It’s a marvellous conclusion to a remarkable film that deals with biology, family and the life force. A very satisfying experience. Where love is concerned we’re all in the dark

The Wife (2017)

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Without this woman I am nothing. Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) has been the supportive wife to charismatic Jewish novelist Joe (Jonathan Pryce) for forty years when they get the call that he’s won the Nobel Prize. Her resentment at his behaviour and success boil over in Stockholm where his wannabe biographer Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater) teases  her that he knows who really wrote all of Joe’s books and goes drinking with their surly son David (Max Irons) tipping the author’s son over the edge and leaving Joan to wonder at the wisdom of allowing her husband his moment of glory while she continues to play the role of dutiful wife … All the ideas are there. I can fix it. Do you want me to fix it? Jane Anderson adapted the novel by Meg Wolitzer, one of the best writers working today. She is shrewd, witty, incisive, brutal, parodic and smart, observing human antics with a gimlet eye and a knowing glance at contemporary society. Behind every great man is, what, a great woman? A pudding of hatred? A long-simmering resentment waiting it out? All of the above. The great masquerade of the Great American Novel is excavated with exquisite viciousness. When Joe doesn’t even recognise the name of one of his most famous characters we know something’s up. A trip to the past clarifies his third-rate writing but when Joan  works at a publisher they dismiss women’s output and wonder where they’ll find the next Jewish man. A brilliant cameo by Elizabeth McGovern makes the situation of women writers clear:  The public can’t stand bold prose from a woman. Don’t ever think you can get their attention. It’s the late 50s and this gal has hitched her star to a wannbe who isn’t a good writer – but he has fantastic ideas. And she can write. It’s a great gag to have a student be better than the master and to have a biographer figure it out – son David describes Bone as ‘Andy Warhol’ reminding us of the midcentury origins of American over-writers. No wonder Plath put her head in an oven. Close is a revelation as her distaste steadily grows into something she can no longer control and she can’t accept Joe’s philandering (she was his mistress before she was his wife) and playing dogsbody, finally deciding on terminating the arrangement born of youthful ambition during the most public of ceremonies, where she declares to the King of Sweden:  I am a kingmaker. It’s a great moment. There are a lot of pleasures to be had in this quiet assault of a narrative:  seeing Close’s daughter Annie Starke play her in flashback;  Slater’s insidious turn as the pivot that turns this family inside out; the horrible spectacle of the famous writer father belittling his son’s efforts as an author; Stockholm in winter, the setting for another Nobel-themed novel that was filmed, The Prize, which had a very different text but, well, kind of a similar body count.  Directed by Bjorn Runge. This is my life God help me