Badlands (1973)

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At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.  1959 South Dakota. Teenage girl Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) angers her father (Warren Oates) when she begins dating an older rebellious greaser, garbage man Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) who fancies he’s like James Dean. After a conflict between Holly and her father erupts, he kills her dog. Then Kit murders him, so the young lovers must flee. In the ensuing crime spree, they travel through the Midwest to the Badlands of Montana, eluding authorities along the way, killing as they go … Holly’s dreamlike and hilariously affectless magazine-like narration anchors this exquisite blend of drama and horror as the true-life 1950s killers Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate inspired script doctor Terrence Malick to strike out and make a film of his own. The distance between the form and content is bridged by the effects of technique – was there every such wonderful magic hour photography (by Tak Fujimoto, Steven Larner and Brian Probyn) to offset the horror of a serial killer in his element?  As Holly begins to realise Kit is psychotic the shots place him further and further away from her. This is an astounding work with beguiling performances by two adult actors who inhabit this fairytale of deluded teenage desire with strange conviction. The score based on work by Carl Orff, Erik Satie, James Taylor and George Tipton is classic. A remarkable, lyrical, transcendent film. Unforgettable.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

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I may well be dead – just not typed.  IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a pernickety type who lives by the time on his wristwatch. When he hears the voice of author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) in his head  he thinks he’s going crazy but then discovers that he is the ill-fated protagonist of her latest novel.  While Eiffel’s assistant Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) tries to cure the author’s case of writer’s block, Harold and a professor of literary theory Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) set out to find the woman and make her change her story from tragedy to comedy.  Meanwhile, Harold falls for one of his delinquent auditees, baker and Harvard Law dropout Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and wants to do something meaningful with his life. It’s essential to ensure that Eiffel doesn’t let him die but when Hilbert reads the book he declares it’s her masterpiece and Harold simply must succumb to her ending … Quirky, funny rumination on protagonists, motivation, narration, literary theory and (accidents of) fate – with Ferrell playing low-key to the point of diffidence and Thompson practically persecuted when she realises she is writing about a real living person and has the power to control him – the problem is, all her subjects die.  Great jokes about academia and storytelling (‘little did he know’ is the omniscient phrase that gives away to Hilbert that Harold is sane!). This may come off as a lesser iteration of Charlie Kaufman or even Woody Allen but it’s charming and funny – and cleverer than thou.  Written by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster.

Wakefield (2016)

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What is so sacrosanct about a marriage and a family that you have to live in it day after day after day? New York City lawyer Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) has a nervous breakdown and hides out in the garage attic of his home for weeks, watching his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and young daughters from the vantage point of the first floor window, coming out in the daytime when his family is gone in order to shower and eat. His withdrawal leads him to examine his life, and he rationalizes that he has not abandoned his family because he is still in the house. When a former boyfriend Wall Street trader Dirk Morrison (Jason O’Mara) re-enters his wife’s life, he realizes that he may not be able to return to the life that he has abandoned… E. L. Doctorow’s short story (by way of Hawthorne) gets a strange workout from writer/director Robin Swicord who previously adapted Little Women and The Jane Austen Book Club.  It seems like a cross between Rear Window, The Seven Year Itch and (maybe) Mad Men. In literary terms we might then say Cornell Woolrich meets John Cheever. But that is part of the problem since it requires a (intermittently unreliable) narration to make sense. Cranston is given something of an odd showcase for his particular brand of addled masculinity but this is really the portrait of a marriage gone wrong. And perhaps the lesson is that a relationship born out of dishonourable behaviour will never last (he stole his wife from his friend). One of the lessons of cinema is show, don’t tell. Or at least don’t do both simultaneously. One hour in, Howard tells us, I left myself. Seventy minutes in he declares, My family is better off without me. Ya think?! There are some amusing moments and scenes – when his Early Man Neanderthal look earns him pity and coins in a public park while reading about his former friend’s success on the front of a business magazine. When he’s chased through the neighbourhood gardens and discovered by the disabled kids next door. When he observes a memorial service to himself – complete with PowerPoint photograph. But it’s not enough. And you know what? You really do need someone to state the absolutely bleeding obvious, like they did at the worst ever stage production of The Diary of Anne FrankHe’s in the attic! And cut the legs from under this narcissistic drag of a man. A disappointment.

 

 

The Others (2001)

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Mummy you’re letting the light in. Grace (Nicole Kidman) is the devoutly religious mother of Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). She moves her family to the Channel Islands in 1945. She awaits word on her husband who’s gone missing in WW2 while protecting the children from a rare photosensitivity disease that causes the sun to harm them. Curtains shroud the windows throughout the huge house.  Three new servants arrive, stating that they are very familiar with the place as they worked there years before: Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), Edmund Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and mute girl Lydia (Elaine Cassidy).  When Anne claims she sees ghosts, Grace initially thinks that the servants are playing tricks but chilling events and visions make her believe something supernatural has occurred and Bertha warns of intruders returning … Owing something of its origins to James’ The Turn of the Screw (which was previously directly adapted as the brilliant The Innocents) this original work by Spanish writer/director Alejandro Amenabar was undoubtedly inspired by the success of The Sixth Sense, another example of visual and narrative sleight of hand but nonetheless has its own particular brand of the uncanny. Unless you’re looking for particular breadcrumbs to follow you don’t see them until you work backwards after the twist ending which is carefully built:  this is a masterclass in control. From the Gothic concept, the empty rooms, the lack of food, the nature of the interactions, the fog encasing the mansion, the graveyard, the clues are there, but Grace is wilfully ignoring them until an unexpected intervention that includes a boy called Victor. Kidman’s performance really holds us in the suspension of disbelief that the story requires – tearful, gutsy, protective, guilty, scared, she plays a gamut of emotions while being terrified in this spooky house where she locks every single door to keep her children safe.  This is a very satisfying thriller with there being no question of feeling conned because the mood is perfectly sustained … No one can make us leave this house.

The Boss Baby (2017)

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He carries a briefcase! Does no one else think that’s, oh, I don’t know, a little freaky? A new baby’s arrival impacts a family, told from the point of view of a delightfully unreliable narrator the wildly imaginative 7-year-old Tim Templeton (Miles Bakshi). The unusually verbal Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin) arrives at Tim’s home in a taxi, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. The instant sibling rivalry must soon be put aside when Tim discovers that Boss Baby is actually a spy on a secret mission, and only he can help thwart a dastardly plot that involves an epic battle between puppies and babies… This is simultaneously inventive, overdone, funny and draining,with a serious dip in energy round about the hour mark but it picks up by the end. Is anyone else as tired of endlessly gee-whizz-flash computer-generated animation as I am? At least there’s a nice use of The Beatles’  Blackbird in the story. Adapted from Marla Frazee’s 2010 picture book by Michael McCullers and directed by Tom McGrath. And yes, Bakshi is the grandson of the incredible Ralph. Sigh.

Carry On Cleo (1964)

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I came. I saw. I conked out. Julius Caesar (Kenneth Williams) is invading Britain. Mark Antony (Sid James) has to lead the army through horrible weather. Cavemen Horsa (Jim Dale) and Hengist Pod (Kenneth Connor) try to warn Queen Boudicea but they are taken captive. Horsa is sold as a slave by Marcus et Spencius. Nobody wants Hengist so he’s going to be thrown to the lions – but they both escape and hide in the Temple of Vesta when Caesar arrives for a consultation with the Vestal Virgins but an attempt is made on his life by his bodyguard Bilius (David Davenport). In the ensuing action Horsa kills Bilius and escapes leaving Hengist to take the credit for saving Caesar’s life and to be made his new bodyguard. In Egypt a power struggle leads Caesar to send Mark Antony to force the abdication of Cleopatra (Amanda Barrie) in order for Ptolemy to succeed – but he falls in love with her and kills Ptolemy instead! Then she persuades him to kill Caesar so he can take over Rome himself and they can rule the entire region together … – I’ve got a poisonous asp. – It’s not that bad. Probably the greatest in the Carry On series (although my own favourite is Carry On Screaming) this is simply laugh out loud hilarious from start to finish, with lines you’ll wish you’d written yourself. Infamy, infamy. They’ve all got it in for me!  Using the sets from the abandoned first attempt to film the juggernaut that was Cleopatra at Pinewood, the crazy gang went in and made a meal of everything past and present even giving James’ and Connor’s own What a Carve Up! a shout out while making a complete mockery of Cleopatra itself. Sublimely funny. Written by Talbot Rothwell, produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas. Blimus!

 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) attends the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in a small Western town. Flashing back 25 years, we learn Doniphon saved Stoddard, then a lawyer, when he was roughed up by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). As the territory’s safety hung in the balance, Doniphon and Stoddard, two of the only people standing up to him, proved to be very important, but different, foes to Valance. Stoddard opened a law office over the offices of the Shinbone Star, the newspaper which is run by a steadfast editor determined to expose the reality of the violence terrorising the territory and preserve the freedom of the press. Both Doniphon and Stoddard are in love with the same woman, Hallie (Vera Miles) who cooks in her immigrant parents’ restaurant and whom Stoddard teaches to read and write. When the newspaper prints a (mis-spelled) headline declaring Valance is defeated, he takes revenge – and then the peace-loving Stoddard takes up a gun … This is a film of polarities, exemplified by the civilising influence of Ransom opposed to Valance and Doniphon’s own belief in the power of the gun (which ironically opens up the possibility for bringing law and order to the place). Vera Miles is splendid as the illiterate love of both men:  What good has reading and writing done you? Look at you – in an apron!  An eloquent essay on the genre itself, this was not received warmly upon release. And yet its entire narrative provides the content for soon to be popular structuralist analysis of the western:  the East versus the West, old versus new, the wilderness versus civilisation, violence versus law and order, reality versus myth, the desert versus the garden. Never was a cactus rose deployed to such symbolic effect! John Ford made one of the great films but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch up. Adapted from Dorothy Johnson’s short story by producer Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah .

Captain Ron (1992)

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Some day Marty will do something worth writing about. Chicago businessman Martin Harvey (Martin Short) is leading a humdrum life with his wife Katherine (Mary Kay Place), trampy teenage daughter Caroline (Meadow Sisto) and little boy Ben (Benjamin Salisbury) until he inherits a yacht formerly owned by Clark Gable from his late uncle, last seen in  the US in 1962. They head off to the island of St Pomme de Terre (Saint Potato) in the West Indies to do it up and sell it through yacht broker Paul Anka (!) and inadvertently hire an eye-patched pirate type – the titular Ron (Kurt Russell) –  to lead them through tranquil aquarmarine waters as they venture through the islands cleaning up what turns out to be a wreck. Marty doesn’t trust Ron one iota but learns to trust in himself as his kids and wife become their truly adventurous selves – Place in particular has a whale of a time. There are no pirates in the Caribbean, says Marty. Then they give guerillas a lift from island to island and have their boat stolen by pirates and take their raft to Cuba -where the yacht is docked… Critics slated this for obvious reasons – why on earth was brilliant comic Short cast in the role of straight man in this twist on the Yuppies in Peril strand so popular in the early 90s? There are compensations, principally in some of the setups and the cinematography. The midlife crisis narrative of course has a twist – that’s in the narration by Marty and in the ending, when Ron doesn’t have a glass eye in his new job:  pirate tales are all in the telling, after all. Colourful and amusing. Written by John Dwyer and directed by Thom Eberhardt.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

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You can’t unfuck what’s been fucked. Women are always getting in the way. Aren’t they? Berlin 1988. The Cold War. Protesters are gathering to break down the Wall. Super spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed in an MI6 bunker back in London about an impossible mission that’s gone horribly wrong. She relates the sorry saga to her boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA honcho Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) as their uber chief observes behind the usual glass wall. She was deployed to retrieve a dossier of double agents following the murder of their man Gascoigne.  Her meeting in Berlin with station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) is put in jeopardy by the KGB in the first sequence which has the most innovative use of stilettos since Rosa Kleb. The comparison is not for nothing. This is a rollicking non-stop who’s-working-for-what-agency action thriller with an astonishing array of gruesome encounters.  The list everyone wants ends up becoming a Hitchcockian McGuffin because the fun is in the execution (quite viscerally).  It wouldn’t be a Cold War thriller without a double cross-cross-cross complete with a twist ending.  You want it? You got it! This is a postmodern delight with tongue firmly embedded in cheek: from the amazing soundtrack (that’s an audacious thing, using Bowie’s Cat People theme over the titles!), Stalker is playing at the cinema on Alexanderplatz, to a KGB villain called Bakhtin (if you’re into cultural theory) and a neat inversion of the Basic Instinct interrogation scenario with the men defused (literally) by Lorraine’s recollection of Lesbian sex with neophyte French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella). There’s a double agent called Merkel (ha!) and there’s even someone called Bela Balazs on the credits (film theorists will appreciate this…). The songs in some scenes are laugh out loud appropriate and the clothes … the clothes! Talk about on the money!  The action is horribly violent but balletic and believable and Theron is super-likeable in what might well be an audition for Jane Blonde. I want to be her when I grow up. Great fun. Adapted by Kurt Johnstad from the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart and directed by David (John Wick) Leitch, who knows a good action sequence and how to use it.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

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I see dead people. How extraordinary is this film? A truly scary ghost story – even all these years later when you know the amazing twist at its centre. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is the child psychologist treating troubled Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). The son of a single mother (Toni Collette), he’s a kid whose weirdness marks him out amongst his schoolfriends leading to bullying and strange injuries. Halfway through the story he tells the extremely sympathetic Malcolm his dark secret – and he knows that Malcolm just doesn’t get it. A stunning exposition of death, bereavement, grief, sorrow, the problem with acceptance and some punishing home truths, this is augmented by totally believable, realistic performances. A really audacious and cunning piece of work by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan.