Little Children (2006)

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It’s the hunger. The hunger for an alternative, and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness. Sarah (Kate Winslet) is in a stultifying situation – stay at home mom to a very robust little girl, she’s obliged to endure the Mean Girl quips of competitive moms at the playground, all of whom appear obsessed with house husband Brad (Patrick Wilson) who keeps failing his bar exams and is kept by his beautiful documentary filmmaker wife (Jennifer Connelly). On a dare, Sarah gets to know him – and they fall into a deeply sexual relationship while their children are on playdates. He conceals their meetings from his wife and they occur in between his trips to hang out with the local teenaged skateboarding gang and playing touch football with off-duty police officers. He reacquaints himself with Larry (Noah Emmerich) a retired officer who’s on a mission to go after a supposedly reformed returned paedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) in the neighbourhood:  Brad accompanies him to the house where they find the man is living with his elderly mother (Phyllis Somerville) who is trying to get her son to find a nice girl (which results in an utterly horrifying scene). Sarah finds her husband masturbating to online porn and she starts to think of escape… Adapted by Tom Perrotta from his own novel, this exerts a literary pull in a good way with a voiceover orienting us to people’s workaday notions and sordid lives in much the manner of Updike or Cheever or indeed Madame Bovary which features as the local book club’s choice. Shocking, adult entertainment about people as they probably really are, shallow, nasty and pretty terrible when they trap each other into relationships, this is outstandingly performed and made. Directed by Todd Field.

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The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies.  We are dealing with archetypes rather than real characters despite its biographical origins. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.

The Fisher King (1991)

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Obnoxious NYC shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is doling out advice as per and looking forward to a part in a TV sitcom when the news mentions his name – a man was inspired by his rant against yuppies to go on a shooting spree in a restaurant and then killed himself. Jack spirals into a suicidal depression and we find him three years later working in the video store owned by his girlfriend (a fiery Mercedes Ruehl) and about to kill himself when some youthful vigilantes decide to do some street cleaning – he’s rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), a Grail obsessive and homeless loner whose wife was killed in the restaurant massacre. How their lives intertwine and they both chase the objects of their affection (and each other’s obsession) while battling mental illness is the backbone of this comedy-drama-fantasy that is told in the usual robust and arresting style of Terry Gilliam, who was directing a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese. There are iconic images here – the Red Knight appearing to Parry as his hallucinations kick in, and the chase through Central Park;  the extraordinary Grand Central Station waltzing scene in which Parry meets the weird Lydia (Amanda Plummer);  Jack and Parry watching the stars. Gilliam’s own obsessions are all over this despite his not writing it, with references to the Grail (obv) and Don Quixote.  It’s all wrapped into four distinctive performances which embody oddball characters in search of a role for life in a very conventional time, with emotions riding high while personal circumstances contrive to drag them to the very pit of their being. There are some outstanding performances in small roles by Tom Waits, Michael Jeter and Kathy Najimy in a film that proves that dreams do come true.

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

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Batman (Will Arnett) is having an existential crisis and it’s not just because he’s realised he’s made of Lego. He has no family, the other superheroes don’t want anything to do with him, Gotham’s fed up of him and he still doesn’t quite understand that Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) his butler is his surrogate dad. He accidentally adopts Robin (Michael Cera). Calling Sigmund Freud! When his battle with the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) could end their good-vs-evil universe he learns to team up with everyone to stick it out and fight forever more. Long, with some good jokes and a few exciting moments but with some vocal inconsistencies from the assembled talent, what’s perhaps most baffling is that this little baby cost 80 million dollars. Now that’s funny. Directed by Chris McKay from a screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern and John Whittington. You know where you can buy all the products placed …

Hue & Cry (1947)

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Harry Fowler is the kid who reads the adventures of Selwyn Pike in the pages of the Trump comic to his gang of Blood and Thunder Kids and becomes convinced that the strip is used as code by black marketeers. The police won’t believe him and he takes on the criminals himself, first visiting the sinister writer Alastair Sim and then working for grocer Nightingale (Jack Warner) who turns out to be central to the smuggling ring. After some false attempts to capture the criminals and stave off a department store robbery, and tying up Rhona (Valerie White) from the magazine, the scene is set for a standoff using Sim to engineer it in his story … Tremendous entertainment from writer TEB Clarke, with vivid performances from the kids running amok in the rubble-strewn bombed-out East End right after WW2. Ealing Comedy was really up and running in a film whose Expressionist leanings (courtesy of DoP Douglas Slocombe) remind one of Emil and the Detectives. Directed by Charles Crichton.

Billy Jack (1971)

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Some years ago Vanity Fair told me what I suspected for years:  my obsession with this film proved I am a film snob. What can I say? I saw it on TV when I was thirteen years old and it speaks to the thirteen year old in everyone about unfairness, killing animals, bigotry, viciousness in all its forms. In the days before you could find such things on the internet I discovered the soundtrack album on vinyl in a backstreet store on a trip to London. The hero is a half-Navajo former Green Beret back home after ‘Nam and invariably dragged into violence despite his wish to be a peace-loving law-abiding citizen who’s exploring his Native American heritage and practising hapkido. He comes to the rescue of kids at a freedom school run by Delores Taylor, who happens to be the wife of actor-writer-director-producer auteur, Tom Laughlin. This was absolutely mega on the drive-in circuit and slayed all comers upon re-release after AIP pulled out and Fox messed it up in theatrical and was the second of four movies about BJ. If you don’t love this movie you were never thirteen and you definitely never wore flowers in your long blonde hair. All you gotta do is relate. Peace and love, dudes. This is the source.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

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It was a dark and stormy summer night on Long Island when I first saw this and I can barely re-watch it to this day. The story of serial killer Freddy Krueger and the teens whose dreams he inhabits was an epoch-defining event in the horror genre and made Wes Craven’s name as well as starting a profitable franchise and introducing Johnny Depp to the world (although he’s soon swallowed by his own bed.) Heather Langenkamp is the cop’s daughter who draws the short straw and has to lure Freddy out so he can be captured …  Don’t fall asleep. Don’t take a bath. Don’t unplug the phone. And don’t be the child of a vigilante! Perfect Halloween horror.

The Quick Gun (1964)

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Audie Murphy was not an ordinary man but sometimes he made quite ordinary westerns, usually with quite a strong moralistic message. Here he’s Clint the titular sharpshooter, exiled from his hometown after killing two brothers before they killed him. When he returns to reclaim his late father’s ranch and to protect his old friends from a marauding gang led by Spangler (Ted de Corsia), he’s not welcome. Sheriff Scotty (James Best) tells him there are easier ways to commit suicide, old sweetheart schoolteacher Merry Anders says it’s too late as she’s now engaged to the Sheriff. The invariable confrontations occur as the father of the dead boys has a bone to pick but you’ll probably not see the twist ending coming, and very satisfying it is too. Sidney Salkow is on directing duties.

The Night Visitor (1971)

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What an oddity this is:  Ingmar Bergman’s regular troupe – Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Per Oscarsson – in the middle of an ax-murdering spree investigated by Trevor Howard in Sweden’s snowy wastes. You know you’re in for something different when you don’t recognise Henry Mancini as the composer – no easy cinematic grace notes, here, just an off-key harpsichord, organ, woodwind and synths which have the predictably unsettling effect that producer Mel Ferrer and director Laslo Benedek sought. Max escapes a lunatic asylum and starts killing the family members who framed him for a crime that saw him put away for life. But he goes back at night – curling his lanky and unwieldy frame into unlikely shapes and climbing vast edifices and running through the snow fields leaving a ghastly trail of bodies in his wake. He succeeds in persuading police inspector Howard that something is indeed amiss about the circumstances of his imprisonment but gets out again and, well, he’s now a serial killing ax murderer. There will be blood. Striking in all sorts of ways, but the parrot really takes the cake! Written by Guy Elmes.

The Brave One (2007)

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Jodie Foster doesn’t make enough films. And maybe since she became a director herself she is ever more picky, which is her right, and our loss. She probably isn’t everyone’s idea of a vigilante either but this genre-bending exercise is a perfect fit for her subtle technique. She’s a talk radio DJ living with her doctor fiance in an NYC walk-up. One night when they take their mutt for a walk in Central Park they’re jumped by thugs who take the dog, try to rape her and when her boyfriend intervenes they’re both beaten up. He doesn’t survive. She does. And determines to take affirmative action. Cop Terrence Howard is on to her when she responds with the word ‘us’ to a statement about how people living in the city respond to crime. And the narrative of what basically becomes a serial killing spree hinges on the spine of their cat and mouse relationship. Which leads to an interesting outcome – perhaps changing the tone of all that we have seen before, suggesting a last-minute rewrite?  Certainly nobody thought Foster would turn into Charles Bronson. Or Bernard Goetz. It’s a change from director Neil Jordan, working from a story and screenplay by Roderick Taylor and Bruce A. Taylor with Cynthia Mort. And it’s a surprising post-9/11 NYC tale about anxiety and how awful it is to find yourself living beside murderous thugs who don’t value life. And what they could drive you to do to regain your equilibrium after enduring such trauma. Strong stuff.