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. 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.

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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In the face of the fabulous new your thought is to kill it?  Los Angeles 2049. K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner for Wallace, the new incarnation of the Tyrell Corporation led by blind Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) whose right hand woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is enchanted by K’s story that a replicant may have had a child. He is ordered by LAPD (in the guise of Robin Wright) to get rid of any evidence that a replicant could have given birth in order to see off a war between replicants and humans. He returns to the site of a dead tree and finds something that makes him think he can remember something from his own childhood and it leads him into a spiral of discovery that involves tracking down his predecessor before Prohibition and the Blackout, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who appears to have something to do with the rebel replicants underground …. Where to start? This hybridised metafictive spawn of one of the greatest achievements in cinema is no easy ride. The way it looks for one. It’s horrible. Mostly greys with occasional harking back to the navy and neon and a sour yellow, a nod to the burnished autumnal shadings of the original. The Orientalised appearances are now more subtly rendered but are even more prevalent as though mixed into a Caucasian blender. Then there are the women. Luv is clearly meant to remind us of Rachael (Sean Young) while the reference to Nabokov’s Pale Fire is intended to tell us that there are two fictional characters sparring with one another here – but the question is, which two, and of them, who’s real and who’s a replicant? The quasi-Oedipal story steers right into a quagmire of identities and dreams and purported flashbacks. Other quotes – Kafka, Treasure Island, and even the songs that play as holograms in a burned-out Vegas – also serve to get us to look one way, instead of another. The idea of relationships as a figment of your imagination – literally, a hologram – is conceptually brilliant and well executed (in every sense) but takes too long as a narrative device to be told and then unravel. The ending is enormously clever and draws on facets of Philip K. Dick’s own backstory: it’s literally a tidal wash of action and memories. But are they real? Are they implants? Hampton Fancher is back but with co-writer Michael Green this time instead of David Webb Peoples. You can see the spliced DNA with Harlan Ellison (an insistence on procreation) as well as PKD  (what is humanity? what is reality?) and the literary turns which have some good jokes. There are some nice lines too and even if they’re on the nose they actually future proof it somewhat:  You’ve never seen a miracle.  Or, I know it’s real. Or, Dying for the right cause is the most human thing you can do. They actually conceal what is paid off by misdirecting us.  It gets away with its visual tributes to the original cast with the prostitute who looks like Darryl Hannah and Hoeks who clearly resembles Sean Young even in ill-fitting costume.  Directed by Denis Villeneuve who is one of the most audacious mainstream directors at the present time with Ridley Scott producing,  I appreciate what they’re doing here but it’s a pale twenty-first century facsimile, more replicant than human.  Ford enters the fray so late and Gosling is not my favourite actor albeit he acquits himself well as someone who starts to feel things he shouldn’t given his somewhat obscure origins as a police functionary. But I have feelings too. Nothing can compare with the sensory overload that is Blade Runner, the daddy of the species. Notwithstanding the foregoing, as all the best legal minds argue, the ending is brilliant. Oh! The humanity.

Wind River (2017)

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How do you gauge someone’s will to live? I once knew a film producer who said the two rules of moviemaking were, Never make a western and Never make a film in the snow. Well thank goodness nobody told screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who makes his directing debut here following the screenplays for the extraordinary Sicario and Hell or High Water, two of the best films in the past decade. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is an agent (read:  animal catcher) for the US Fish and Wildlife Service working in the vast titular Native American reservation in Wyoming when he happens upon the body of a young woman Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) who was his own late daughter’s best friend. He’s seconded by a neophyte FBI officer Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to help her as she has no expertise in tracking or this mountainous terrain the size of Rhode Island with just 6 police officers led by Graham Greene. While Cory is still dealing with the fallout of a divorce, having to forego caring for his young son when his ex is out of town for a couple of days in order to look for the killers, we unspool through family photos and start to understand some of his motivation for helping this officer who doesn’t even have the right clothing for minus 20: Cory’s mother in law loans her her late granddaughter’s clothing with the warning, These are not a gift.  His young son is startled at the sight of this white girl in his dead sister’s clothes. Together Cory and Jane embark on a hunt when the coroner finds the girl has been likely multiply raped but drowned in her own blood because the alveoli in her lungs filled with freezing air as she ran barefoot from her assailants. She ran six miles. So it can’t officially be listed as murder. Then Cory finds a second body …  With all Sheridan’s films now we see a certain pattern:  the idea of borders, which also extend to different races and traditions and values transmuted through marriage, and of course singular acts of transgression which here comprise murder but obviously incorporate other acts of violation arising from untrammelled self-justification. It culminates in a chase and a shootout but concludes in an act of individual revenge on Wyoming’s highest mountain peak which calls to mind the work of James Stewart and Anthony Mann in their western collaborations.  Most debut writer/directors make the mistake of filing every hole with overwritten dialogue:  Sheridan is too shrewd for that.  He allows the pictures to speak for themselves, human nature to assert itself as it usually does and the dead bodies are permitted testimony to their brutal demise. He chooses to end on a frame that expresses friendship and acceptance.  (Followed by a piece of text which states that the only portion of the demographic not featured in Missing Person figures is Native American women.) It’s a very satisfying film – tense, character-driven, fast-moving and deeply felt – and it’s adorned with excellent performances and some beautifully mournful songs composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

A Cry in the Dark (1988)

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Aka Evil Angels. You could crack walnuts on her face. Fred Schepisi’s docudrama-style retelling of John Bryson’s book is real watercooler stuff:  the appalling tale of a 9-week old baby, Azaria Chamberlain, taken from her family’s tent at a campsite beneath Ayers Rock and presumably murdered, and the prosecution and wrongful conviction of her mother Lindy (Meryl Streep). A dingo’s got my baby! was the war cry attributed to the unsympathetic woman whose every character flaw was exposed by a prurient Australian press who condemned her because of her appearance (that terrible haircut!), speaking voice and curt mannerisms. As played by Streep, she is obviously a more complex, interesting and compassionate woman in private.  Her inner strength is immensely bothersome to a public who are shown reacting variously to news reportage on TV – in their own homes, in bars, on the streets – which serves to demonstrate the horrendous arena that is the court of public opinion as well as distancing us somewhat perhaps from a more penetrating account of the couple at the centre of the tragedy. Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is the pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa, Queensland and it is the minority nature of their Christian sect that also works against them when the name Azaria is wrongly reported to mean ‘sacrifice in the wilderness’. His unconvincing and wavering witness testimony does for his wife, as does the sheer incompetence of the expert witnesses, many of whose claims were later discounted. The impact of her interviews and the way in which they are misreported by a baying press is very well handled and her eventual imprisonment on circumstantial as opposed to forensic evidence is still strikingly mediaeval in its stupidity (preserve us all from juries). Streep is terribly good and the portrayal of a loving marriage in all its fraying details is nicely observed:  posited against the procedural detail and the slipshod collection of evidence we are conscious of something akin to a conspiracy. This was released just about the time that the Chamberlains were finally exonerated (but it took until 2012 for the charges to be finally dropped). This isn’t creative so much as it is journalistic and in that spirit it makes up for the actions of some of those sewer rats who waited thirty years to apologise to Lindy Chamberlain for their vile lies. Her ex-husband (they divorced in 1991) died earlier this year. Adapted by Robert Caswell and director Schepisi from John Bryson’s Evil Angels.

Did You Hear About The Morgans? (2009)

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Those two are worse then Pete the Butcher. Recently separated NYC couple realtor Meryl (Sarah Jessica Parker) and lawyer Paul (Hugh Grant) have a civilised dinner and on the way home witness a murder. They have to leave their busy lives and go in the Witness Protection Programme, winding up in rural Ray, Wyoming with wily sheriff Clay (Sam Elliott) and his gun-toting wife Emma (Mary Steenburgen). Not only do they have to sleep under the one roof with just Clint Eastwood and John Wayne dvds, they get to experience life without traffic noise, cashmere and learn about each other, all over again, in between getting to shoot and ride. Because there isn’t a lot else to do.  She’s going nuts. And Paul finds out that he wasn’t the only one to be unfaithful after they had fertility issues. But they look up at the sky and see the stars – a view you can only get in the Planetarium! And then they win at the local Bingo game. What’s not to like?! Back in NYC their assistants (Elisabeth Moss and Michael Kelly) argue about whether they should call them and the hitman who saw them do his day job has the line bugged … Comic auteur Marc Lawrence reunites with his favourite leading man and mines the heck out of this fish out of water scenario with Grant giving an enjoyably droll performance even when he’s getting bear-sprayed in the eye. Very amusing indeed with some hilarious lines.

In Harm’s Way (1965)

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I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way. This sprawling WW2 naval epic from producer/director Otto Preminger is set amid the Pacific battles with the Japanese and starts with the attack on Pearl Harbour. John Wayne is Captain Rock Torrey who’s demoted after surviving that encounter because his ship is then damaged in a subsequent episode. He meets the son (Brandon de Wilde) whom he abandoned 18 years earlier, and the boy is now in the Navy himself. He starts to romance a nurse (Patricia Neal) but he and his troublemaker colleague Commander Paul Eddington (Kirk Douglas) are tasked with salvaging a dangerous mission … This is an underrated war film with a brilliant cast, a mix of old-timers (Franchot Tone, Bruce Cabot, Dana Andrews, Stanley Holloway, Burgess Meredith, Henry Fonda) with new talent (Tom Tryon, Paula Prentiss, James Mitchum) who together bring a brisk sense of character to a realistic and unsentimental portrayal of men and women in war.  It’s another in Preminger’s examinations of institutions, with a story that has romance and work relationships aplenty with a keen eye for toughness:  what happens to de Wilde’s girlfriend (Jill Haworth) is quite the shocker. There are no punches pulled when it comes to relaying the heavy price to be paid for victory and the concluding scenes are impressively staged. This is a film in which the characters never suffer from the scale of the narrative. Wait for the credits by Saul Bass, who also designed the wonderful poster.  Adapted by Wendell Mayes from the book by James Bassett.

Black Widow (1954)

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Writer/director/producer Nunnally Johnson had a great career as one of the finest screenwriters in Hollywood but he made some mis-steps when he moved to producing and directing and this is one of them. At a theatre world party, ambitious young writer Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner) weasels her way into the affections of married producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin) whose actress wife Iris (Gene Tierney) is away. She is then found dead in his apartment a presumed suicide but it swiftly becomes a murder investigation and Peter is the chief suspect. Neighbours Lottie Marin (Ginger Rogers) – another famous actress  – and her husband Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner) are concerned for their friend’s situation. Nancy was staying with a brother John (Skip Homeier) and sister Claire (Virginia Leith) from the Amberlys, a wealthy family, and it appears from Peter’s investigations that she had designs on the brother, as well as any man who could give her a leg up, as it were, but there’s a letter produced from Nancy that states she is pregnant by a man with a famous wife called Iris. George Raft is the detective on the case … Adapted by Hugh Wheeler from Patrick Quentin’s novel and with a screenplay by Johnson himself, this manages to fail on many fronts despite wonderful star wattage on display albeit some of the performances are poor. There is no attempt to conjure the attractions of Broadway despite the location shoot and the widescreen process doesn’t aid the suspense. The most arresting characterisation comes from Leith who had a very short career and her most infamous appearance was in a sci-fi called The Brain That Wouldn’t Die as a decapitated head. That’s showbiz.

Blade Runner (1982)

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I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Los Angeles 2019. A rebellion amongst replicants in the off-colonies has to be put down and blade runner (or detective/android killer) Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is recruited to assassinate the leaders – Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). The replicants are returning to Earth in order to extend their four-year lifespan. His employer, the boss of the Tyrell Corporation introduces him to Rachael (Sean Young) his most cherished creation …  Hampton Fancher and David Peoples loosely adapted Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and with Ridley Scott at the helm created an utterly beguiling brand of future shock which is beautiful and dazzling, grand and depressing. It’s a rain-slicked Metropolis where life is cheap and detectives prowl the streets like Chandler was scripting with robots:  human nature never really changes.  The mise-en-scène falls into both the sci-fi and film noir genres (echoing the identity crisis at the heart of the story). A proliferation of signs from both cinematic traditions, coupled with overwhelming production design (by Lawrence G. Paull and David Snyder based on sketches by Scott and Syd Mead) calls to mind modern-day Hong Kong, music videos and the fog and teeming rain associated with America in a World War II era familiar from hundreds of noir movies, this is a virtual essay in postmodernism (which supplants the concept of genre with that of textuality). This is such a complex quasi-generic film, awash with implications for representation in the age of modern technology which are obvious:  ‘authenticity’, ‘realism’ are artificial constructs.  A play on our familiarity with other cultural products is central to postmodernism’s perceived jokiness, while the traditional relationships between time and space are condensed (a condition of postmodernity) and undermined to create virtual reality so that a ‘real, knowable world’ is just that – a world in quotation marks, as real or unreal as you choose to make it.  The film represents a summary of this problem with a jumble of signs referring to other signs – its pastiche of styles telescoping the ancient world, 1940s, 1980s and 2019, its electronic soundtrack (by Eighties maestro Vangelis) and a raft of references to other movies, other characters, ideas and themes.  It’s about dystopia and imperialism, dehumanisation by a Tyrannical Corporation, totalitarianist tech companies and class revolution, the nature and function of memory, what it is to be free, what it is to have power and to have none, the fragmentary nature of identity in a dying culture, what it means to be human. No matter what version you watch – and there are nine (variously with and without voiceovers and certain revelations/clarifications) if you include The Director’s Cut and The Final Cut – you will never be able to stop its imagery searing your cortex. Philip K. Dick saw some footage before his untimely death from a stroke – and loved it. It is visionary cinema and it is astonishing. This is my 1,400th post on Mondo Movies. Thank you for watching.

Dirty Harry (1971)

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You’ve got to ask yourself a question.  ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk? When a serial killer calling himself Scorpio menaces women in San Francisco cop ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is assigned to track him down. He’s involved in a cat and mouse chase that sees him racing all over the city in pursuit even dragging a school bus with children into the fray and bringing him into disrepute by questioning suspects’ Escobedo and Miranda rights. This starts by honouring the institution of policing and ends very firmly on a note of critique – with a move by Harry that is replicated by Keanu Reeves in Point Break twenty years later (albeit Harry gets his man). This starts in such an astonishing fashion, with the camera at the killer’s shoulder when he takes aim with a sniper rifle at a woman swimming in a rooftop pool:  it sutures you directly into his point of view and makes you question everything you see. There is an undertow of satire (and a string of murders) that secures your sympathy for Harry’s unorthodox approach. The story by Harry Julian Fink and R. M. Fink was vaguely based on the Zodiac killer terrorising young women at the time (and later the subject of another brilliant film) and was rewritten by John Milius and Dean Riesner (and Terrence Malick did an early draft), and the end result is tight as a bullet casing. Milius said it’s obvious which parts of the screenplay were his – because for him Harry is just like the killer but with a police badge. It’s directed in such a muscular way by Don Siegel (who had just made The Beguiled with Eastwood) and characterised so indelibly by Eastwood there is only one word to encapsulate it – iconic. Much imitated (even with four sequels of its own) but never equalled, with a moody empathetic score by Lalo Schifrin. What’s weird is that the killer was played by unknown actor and pacifist Andy Robinson – who replaced war hero Audie Murphy following the star’s death in a plane crash before he signed on the dotted line.

Father Goose (1964)

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Great blood! A battle of the sexes comedy masquerading as a wartime spy film, this features Cary Grant’s penultimate screen outing as history prof Walter Eckland living as a beach bum and persuaded by his old friend Commander Frank Houghton (Trevor Howard) of the Australian Navy to report for the Allies on Japanese activities around his remote Pacific island following an evacuation in the area. He’s a lousy watch and spends most of his time drinking so he’s ordered to fetch his replacement on a nearby island. Instead he finds stuck-up French teacher Catherine (Leslie Caron) who was washed ashore with seven of her charges, the children of diplomats whose ship was wrecked. In between the sparring the romantic sparks fly and Eckland’s unexpected rapport with the children leads one of them to speak for the first time. And the difficulties between the adults dissolve leading them to contemplate marriage over the radio with a Navy chaplain presiding. Then the Japanese arrive … once, twice and then with feeling. It’s time to get off the island and into a submarine. Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff adapted S. H. Barnett’s short story A Place of Dragons and their screenplay won the Academy Award – definitely not what you’d figure in these PC days when clever light comedy is far from the trophy room. It was Stone’s second script for Grant after Charade and while it doesn’t have the depth or construction or even the raft of smart dialogue (there is some nursery rhyme byplay) of that Hitchcockian thriller, it’s an agreeable way to spend a couple of hours. It looks lovely and Grant and Caron are very good together. But here’s the thing:  Grant turned down My Fair Lady to do this and he wanted his Charade co-star Audrey Hepburn to co-star with him in this but she had already committed to My Fair Lady … Wow! Apparently Grant felt this was the screen role that most resembled him in real life which is pretty incredible when the general belief was that he was the suave smooth talking gent he generally portrayed. He got on so well with the children he kept in touch  with them as they grew up and had their own families – and of course he married after this and had a daughter of his own. Directed by Ralph Nelson.