The Card (1952)

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aka The Promoter

D: Ronald Neame / 91m

Cast: Alec Guinness, Glynis Johns, Valerie Hobson, Petula Clark, Edward Chapman, Veronica Turleigh, George Devine

How many times does it happen? Just when you think you’ve seen all but the most obscure entries in an actor or actress’s filmography, then up pops a movie that elicits a blank-faced response and mutterings along the line of, “No, I’ve seen it… I must have seen it”. The Card is such a movie, an outing for Alec Guinness that somehow slipped through the cracks of the last forty years. Oh, the shame! The horror! The – okay, that’s enough hysterical melodrama. There’s an upside to this kind of situation, though, a silver lining in the dark cloud of feature blindness, and that’s the joy at discovering there’s still a movie starring a favourite actor or actress that you haven’t seen, a movie to savour at a point when you thought there wouldn’t be any more movies to catch up on. Of all the movies in this month’s strand, this has provided the most pleasure in terms of its being “discovered”.

It’s an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Arnold Bennett, and tells the tale of an ambitious young man called Edward Henry Machin (Guinness), but known as Denry by his friends, family and work colleagues. Denry wants to get ahead in Life, and isn’t above a little cheating in order to further his ambitions. He forges his exam results to get into a better school, and when he’s a young man he uses a lost wallet to get his foot in the door at the office of Herbert Duncalf (Chapman), town clerk and solicitor. One day, Denry meets the Countess of Chell (Hobson), one of Duncalf’s clients. Denry is smitten by her, and determines to win her patronage however he can. Charged by Duncalf with sending out invitations to a grand municipal ball the Countess is hosting, Denry ensures he has an invitation himself. Needing a dress suit he provides an invitation to the tailor, and needing dance lessons, he provides an invitation to his instructor, Miss Ruth Earp (Johns). At the ball, Denry accepts a challenge to dance with the Countess. He does so, and this earns him a reputation as a “card” (in other words, a “character”).

His attendance at the ball enrages Duncalf who fires him, but not before Denry spots an opportunity to work for himself. He offers his services as a rent collector to one of Duncalf’s dissatisfied clients, and quickly realises he can make money for himself by advancing loans to tenants and reaping the benefits of a profitable interest rate. His success secures him another landlord’s list of tenants, one of whom turns out to be Miss Earp. Despite her efforts to avoid paying her rent arrears, and despite Denry’s every effort to get her to do so, they find themselves engaged. On a trip to Llandudno in Wales – accompanied by Nellie Cotterill (Clark), Miss Earp’s friend and chaperone – Denry becomes aware of just how avaricious his fiancée really is (he’s had enough clues by now) and they part company. Denry returns to his home town of Bursley and starts up the Five Towns Universal Thrift Club, which allows members to buy on credit from certain shops. Using this as a platform to enhance his social standing, Denry becomes a councillor, persuades the Countess to act as patroness of the Thrift Club, gets involved with Bursley’s ailing football club, and looks ahead to running for Mayor. But who will he choose as the woman to share it all with – Miss Earp, the Countess, or young Nellie?

This was Guinness’s first outing as a romantic lead, but Guinness being Guinness he’s not the most romantic lead you’ve ever seen. Adopting a dreamy, wistful, semi-surprised look for most of the movie, Guinness does his best to look beatific even when things aren’t going entirely Denry’s way. It’s a performance full of light touches and broad brush strokes, charm and unassuming wit, with Guinness looking eternally cheerful and eternally optimistic. It’s often a carefree, overly relaxed portrayal, with Guinness opting for nonchalance instead of keen involvement, and it matches the light, frivolous nature of the material. This is a comedy, through and through, and one that’s played at just the right level – bordering on farce – by all concerned. You can reckon on the cast imbuing the characters with exactly the right mannerisms and exactly the right motivations, whether it’s Johns’ mercenary dance teacher, Chapman’s unctuous public official, or Hobson’s stately yet approachable Countess. They offer the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, and he experience of watching the movie is all the better for it.

But even though it’s an outright comedy, there are still dramatic elements that add depth to the material, such as an underlying critique of social conventions that’s dropped onto centre stage at times just to remind the audience that there’s more to the movie than laughs aplenty (even if most of those elements are steamrollered into submission by the end). Also there are moments where Denry’s plans look as if they might all tumble around him, and the movie adopts a plaintive, melancholy tone before Denry extricates himself in such a way that he comes out ahead (and make no mistake, Eric Ambler’s screenplay is firmly behind Denry all the way). And then there are the romantic antics of Denry and Miss Earp, an adversarial relationship that somehow seems fortuitous and yet ineluctably doomed at the same time. Guinness and Johns spar with each other delightfully, and the conclusion to their Llandudno trip – “I only said Rockefeller” – is beautifully judged and executed.

What drama there is, though, is completely overwhelmed by the movie’s earnest desire to entertain its audience purely and thoroughly. This isn’t a movie that will have you mulling over its finer points for weeks afterwards, nor is it a movie where its parochial backdrop serves as anything more than just that, a backdrop for the rags to riches tale of Denry’s success as a social climber. It’s directed nimbly and with a keen eye by Neame for the absurdity of having a whey-faced cheat as its “hero”, and he and Guinness have created a loveable seducer to hang their story on. Buoyed by crisp cinematography by the ever-reliable Oswald Morris, and with a singsong, happy-go-lucky score by William Alwyn, this is marvellous entertainment that doesn’t need to be anything more than it is: a silly, giddy, unpretentious piece of fun.

Rating: 8/10 – Guinness is on fine form (as always), and though he’ll never convince as a romantic lead, he does convince as a conniver and an opportunist, and retains a likeability that’s hard to ignore; easy-going and happy to be nothing more than a bit of fluff to be enjoyed for what it is, The Card is a genuinely cheerful experience, and proof yet again that they don’t make ’em like that anymore. (22/31)

NOTE: Sadly, there isn’t a trailer available for The Card.

The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell (2010)

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Original title: Quincas Berro d’Água

D: Sérgio Machado / 101m

Cast: Paulo José, Mariana Ximenes, Marieta Severo, Vladimir Brichta, Flavio Bauraqui, Luis Miranda, Frank Menezes, Irandhir Santos

When you think about it, there are hundreds of thousands of English language movies to choose from, with thousands more being added each year. But there are even more foreign language movies, and picking one to watch can be daunting. Do you keep it safe by seeing foreign language movies that are awards winners, such as Toni Erdmann (2016), or do you opt for pot luck and take a corresponding chance? Taking the second option can be a reward in itself, and if you choose to see The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell, an adaptation of the novella, The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray (1959) by Jorge Amado, then that choice will definitely be well made.

The plot concerns Quincas Wateryell (José), an old man whose friends have planned a surprise birthday party for him. But Quincas goes and does something unexpected: he misses the party and promptly dies (his first death). His body is found the next morning, and his family – his daughter Vanda (Ximenes), and son-in-law Leonardo (Brichta) – are contacted. While the news of her father’s death is obviously upsetting, there is another reason why the news is unwelcome: Quincas isn’t his real name, it’s Joaquim Soares da Cunha, and he disgraced his family by walking out on them to become a vagabond alcoholic. Having changed his name, only a handful of people are aware of his connection to Vanda, and she wants to keep it that way. Early preparations for the funeral are made, and some of Quincas’ friends – Curió (Menezes), Pé de Vento (Miranda), Pastinha (Bauraqui), and Cabo Martim (Santos) – hold a late night vigil over Quincas’ corpse.

The four men reminisce about the times they spent with Quincas, and they decide to give him what they regard as a proper send off: they take him for one last jaunt through town, going to the places they used to frequent, and treat it all as one big farewell party. Their intentions are simple, and the rest of the people who knew Quincas all join in, including his “girlfriend”, a club singer called Manuela (Severo). However, their having taken Quincas’ body is soon discovered, and the police become involved. It’s not long before they’re arrested and taken into custody, along with Quincas’ body. A hastily put together diversion allows the four friends (and Quincas) to escape from the police station, and they head for the docks where they plan to take him for one last boat trip. But a storm intervenes, and while the four friends, and Manuela, struggle to keep themselves afloat, Quincas’ final resting place suddenly seems more likely to be a watery one than one underground.

When Amado’s novella was first published, it was well received due to its indictment of Brazil’s class-ridden society, and The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell retains much of that original recrimination, though it becomes more of a comedic issue than a dramatic one. Vanda receives the news of her father’s death while in the company of two friends, and at first her shock is a natural reaction to such unexpected news. But it’s not long before she perceives her social standing as being under threat, and she takes steps to ensure her father, Joaquim, and Quincas, aren’t connected in any way. The same is true of her husband, Leonardo, who supports the fabrication that he ran off with the daughter of an Italian Comendatore and hasn’t been seen since. This stands him in good stead at work as well, with his colleagues taking more notice of him than before. Machado, working from his own script, starts off by making the couple unfeeling and duplicitous, but in a comedic light, as they’re unable to hide their conflicting emotions and their behaviour borders on being inappropriate. Even when Quincas’ relationship to them becomes more and more well known, they still can’t help themselves, and resort to misplaced pride to maintain their reputation in the local community.

What’s clever about Machado’s adaptation, though, is that he doesn’t continue with this attitude, and by the movie’s end, Vanda is a completely different person, wiser perhaps, and definitely changed, and free of the social insecurities she had before. How Machado achieves this is equally clever, and psychologically quite astute. He’s helped by a terrific performance by Ximenes, who provides each step of Vanda’s character arc with convincing details and honest emotional reactions. Less successful is Leonardo’s role in everything, as the longer the movie goes on, the less he’s involved, and he disappears from the final half an hour altogether. By then, of course, the focus is on getting Quincas to the boat trip, and Machado has to sacrifice tying up some of his script’s loose ends in favour of a dramatic denouement.

Along the way though, Machado achieves a lot of mileage out of Quincas’ “night out” with his friends. Taking a peek at the social underclass in Salvador da Bahia gives the director a chance to provide a colourful glimpse into a world of tradition and superstition, and which has a pronounced indifference to more conventional social practices (as evidenced by the religious ritual that Vanda dismisses as unnecessary because her family – not Quincas it’s important to note – are Catholics). It’s a lively, expressive environment, where people wear their hearts on their sleeves, and live with a passion for life that appears to be compromised amongst the people in Vanda and Leonardo’s social circle. The cast are all equally as expressive in their roles, with good performances throughout by Messrs Bauraqui, Miranda, Menezes, and Santos, but special mention must go to José, whose portrayal of Quincas is the bedrock of the movie, and an amazing feat in itself (at first you’ll be looking to see if he twitches or blinks or can be caught breathing; don’t bother, you won’t manage it). He also provides a witty, often poignant narration that’s delivered with sincerity and charm. Rounded off by immersive yet unshowy cinematography by Toca Seabra, it’s a movie that never flags for incident, and never undervalues its characters or their motives.

Rating: 8/10 – a vital and energetic comedy drama that tackles themes of social climbing, emotional disillusionment, and unwanted family legacies, The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell is a sturdy, engaging and ultimately winning movie that offers much for the casual viewer to enjoy; advertised more as a comedy, it has a depth to it that anchors much of the storyline, and shows that absurd moments involving a corpse don’t have to be purely a showcase for laughs. (21/31)

NOTE: There aren’t any English subtitles for the trailer below, but there shouldn’t be any problem understanding what’s going on.

Out of the Furnace (2013)

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D: Scott Cooper / 116m

Cast: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Tom Bower, Sam Shepard

There is a song by Sparks called Talent Is an Asset. It’s a turn of a phrase to remember when watching Out of the Furnace, the second feature by Scott Cooper, because without its very talented cast, the movie would not be as good as it is, and it wouldn’t be as persuasive. Cooper has taken a spec script by Brad Inglesby (who receives a co-writing credit) – and which originally had Leonardo DiCaprio and Ridley Scott attached to it – and made a movie that alternately baffles and convinces with its plotting. It’s a movie that takes over half its running time to get to the meat of the story, and which throws in a couple of sub-plots for good measure in order to pad out said running time.

It’s a tale that begins inauspiciously, in the small town of Braddock, with steel mill worker Russell Baze (Bale) discovering that his younger brother, Iraq War veteran Rodney (Affleck), is in serious debt to local bar owner and small town criminal John Petty (Dafoe). Without telling Rodney, Russell begins paying off his debt, but an unexpected and tragic accident sees Russell sent to prison. In the meantime, Rodney returns to Iraq for another tour of duty, their terminally ill father dies, and Russell’s girlfriend, Lena (Saldana), takes up with the town sheriff, Wesley Barnes (Whitaker) without even telling him. When he eventually gets out, he soon discovers that Rodney, who is now back home for good, is taking part in illegal bare knuckle fights in order to pay off his debt to Petty. Russell challenges him to work at the steel mill instead but Rodney refuses.

Rodney compels Petty to set up one last fight, one with a big enough payout that he can clear his debt and start his life afresh. Against his better judgment, Petty arranges a fight through one of his criminal contacts, a vicious drug dealer from the Ramapo Mountains called Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson). After the fight, evidence points to DeGroat having killed Rodney and Petty, but the police are hampered by the uncooperative nature of the Ramapo community, and DeGroat never being in the same place twice. Russell decides he has to take the law into his own hands, and he goes looking for DeGroat, but has the same luck as the police. And then he hits on an idea that will bring DeGroat to him…

Out of the Furnace has two clear ambitions: to be a tough, uncompromising drama, and to provide a snapshot of rural communities along the Eastern Seaboard of America, and their daily struggles to keep their heads above water. For the most part, Cooper succeeds in making the movie tough and uncompromising, and there are several scenes that exert a morbid fascination in terms of the characters and their acceptance of the way Life makes their situations worse than they need to be. Rodney can’t see a better way out of his financial situation, and so gets regularly beaten and bruised and bloodied. Russell comes out of prison and makes only a half-hearted attempt to reconnect with Lena (an attempt that is shot down in flames in moments). And Lena rues the decision she made in leaving Russell but is in a position where she can’t back out anymore. All this makes everyone’s life that much harder, and their various predicaments are what drive the movie forward. And then Russell finds himself in another corner, the one where he feels compelled to seek revenge for what’s happened to his brother.

Decisions and consequences, then, but ones that aren’t handled that well by Cooper, and ones that follow a very prescribed pattern. A scene showing DeGroat making and injecting heroin is interspersed with shots of a SWAT team advancing on the house where DeGroat is supposed to live. Not one viewer should be surprised when the SWAT raid reveals DeGroat isn’t home and that he’s somewhere else. This scene and others play out as if we’ve never seen them before, and while familiarity can be used to a director’s advantage, here they’re just stepping stones on a path too many of us have witnessed before. Cooper also connects the dots for the viewer at almost every turn, and there’s too much unnecessary exposition propping up these scenes to make them anywhere near effective. As for the backdrop of the town’s misfortune, aside from a brief mention that the mill is expected to close, the precarious nature of people’s lives and the decline of Braddock’s infrastructure is glimpsed but receives no further exploration.

With the story following a familiar through line, and Cooper finding it difficult to make the action as urgent as it needs to be, it’s left to the cast to rescue things. Bale gives a magnetic performance as Russell, a man with a strong moral code that brooks no compromise, and he’s matched by Affleck’s tightly-wound portrayal of Rodney, an Iraq War veteran whose seen too much and uses bare knuckle fighting to punish himself for being a part of it all (an aspect of his character which is barely explored but is a more effective reason for his fighting than paying off a debt). Whitaker, Saldana, and Dafoe offer strong support, taking largely underwritten characters and fleshing them out to good effect, but it’s Harrelson who steals the movie, making DeGroat one of the scariest, and yet charismatic villains of recent years. There’s something about Harrelson playing a psychopath that always seems just right, and here the actor gives an hypnotic performance that chills and repulses at the same time. In assembling such a great cast, Cooper has been lucky in that the material has been given a massive boost thanks to their overall commitment; but if they hadn’t agreed to take part…

Rating: 5/10 – an ambitious, rural-based thriller that isn’t as muscular or compelling as its writer/director intended, Out of the Furnace suffers from a muddled structure and too many scenes that exist in isolation of each other; saved by a clutch of very good performances, it remains a movie that should have made more of its deprived-area backdrop and even more of its generic revenge-based denouement. (20/31)

10 Reasons to Remember John Heard (1946-2017)

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John Heard (7 March 1946 – 21 July 2017)

John Heard was an actor who could have been a star – and briefly he was. Early on in his career, it looked as if A-list status was only a movie or two away. But it wasn’t to be, and though Heard continued to work steadily on both the big screen and on TV, he never achieved the level of fame or fortune that his skill as an actor warranted. He was sanguine about his lack of success, and in 2008 he had these very perceptive words to say about his career:

“I guess I went from being a young leading man to being just kind of a hack actor. When I came to Hollywood, I was pretty much a stage actor, and I expected everybody to be quiet. And they weren’t. They were doing their job, and you’re expected to do your job, and you’re sort of this ongoing co-existence. I was a little bit of an arrogant jerk. Now, it’s a little bit more like, ‘Okay, I realize you have to pat me down with powder every three seconds.’ And I stand there, and I’m a little more tolerant…. I think I had my time. I dropped the ball, as my father would say. I think I could have done more with my career than I did, and I sort of got sidetracked. But that’s OK, that’s all right, that’s the way it is. No sour grapes. I mean, I don’t have any regrets. Except that I could have played some bigger parts.”

Event though from the Eighties onwards he could be found quite low down on cast lists in often minor supporting roles, Heard could still infuse the characters he played with an honesty and a sincerity that often made them better roles than intended. Even in something as bad as Sharknado (2013), he was still worth watching, and he gave several other movies a boost just by being in them. Some careers don’t pan out in the way that actors expect or plan for, and even though Heard was capable of much better roles than he was given, and much better performances when given the chance, he was still an actor who could surprise an audience, as the Emmy nomination for his role as Detective Vin Makazian in The Sopranos (1999/2004) proved. However his career may be viewed now, one thing can be said with certainty: his was a talent that was never fully exploited, and that was, and continues to be, a detriment to us all.

1 – Head Over Heels (1979)

2 – Cutter’s Way (1981)

3 – Cat People (1982)

4 – The Trip to Bountiful (1985)

5 – Big (1988)

6 – Beaches (1988)

7 – Home Alone (1990)

8 – My Fellow Americans (1996)

9 – The Great Debaters (2007)

10 – Too Big to Fail (2011)

The Goob (2014)

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D: Guy Myhill / 84m

Cast: Liam Walpole, Sean Harris, Sienna Guillory, Marama Corlett, Oliver Kennedy, Hannah Spearritt, Paul Popplewell, Joe Copsey

Watching The Goob, it’s tempting to ask the question, just how many disaffected, aimless teenagers are there in the world? And following on from that question, it’s equally as tempting to ask: why is it that their mothers all seem to take up with violent, reprehensible boyfriends? Sometimes it seems that when it comes to teenagers navigating the ups and downs of trying to find their way in the world, the movies rely on too many clichés to get the story told. Cliché no 1: have the teenager sulk a lot and look miserable. Cliché no 2: make sure the teenager has very little dialogue, and that when he or she does speak, it’s in monosyllables. Cliché no 2a: and if they do speak, make sure they don’t articulate any feelings or emotions. Cliché no 3: make sure the teenager is shown walking or running or riding a bicycle or moped in a generally aimless direction (and more than once). Cliché no 4: give the teenager a chance at a meaningful relationship with a person of the opposite sex, but then ensure that something happens to ruin it. And cliché no 5: always, always, have the teenager do something that will alienate them even further.

Guy Myhill’s debut feature ticks all these boxes and more in its attempt to tell the story of Goob Taylor, a sixteen year old living in the wilds of rural Norfolk who we meet on a school bus heading home after his last day in full-time education. Home is a weather-worn diner run by his mother, Janet (Guillory), somewhere on a main road but only able to attract the custom of the local residents (which is strange, as aside from the odd building here and there, and a custom car race track, housing seems to be in very short supply). Janet and Goob have a strong, loving relationship, but recently she’s started seeing Gene (Harris), a local beet farmer and would-be race car champion who’s also a vindictive bully. Gene seems only interested in Janet for sex, while he treats Goob and his older brother, Rod (Copsey), with complete disdain. A joy ride in Gene’s race car ends in a crash that sees Rod ending up in hospital, but Goob barely suffering a scratch. This leads to Goob having to help Gene on his beet farm, holed up in a pit overnight to watch out for anyone trying to steal the crop.

The arrival of help in the form of Elliott (Kennedy), an upbeat, continually smiling young man a little older than Goob hints at a potential gay love interest, but Myhill avoids this by introducing instead a field worker called Eva (Corlett), whom Goob takes a shine to. As their relationship develops, it starts to provoke an envious response in Gene, who watches the pair from a distance, and with the intention of interfering. At a party where all the field workers are invited, Eva and one of Gene’s friends head off to play snooker but it’s not long before Gene interrupts their game in order to be alone with Eva and try his luck. When she rejects his advances he’s less than gentle in his response. Goob appears to rescue Eva and confront Gene, but whatever plan Goob has, Gene isn’t remotely aware of it, and their confrontation doesn’t go as Goob would like…

As well as the clichés listed above, there are several more that could be added. While the movie paints a melancholy tale of a life headed nowhere, literally and figuratively, this would be fine if there was any likelihood that Goob’s situation would be any different at the end of the movie from what it is at the beginning. Goob is not just stuck in the middle of nowhere, he’s stuck with no ambition and no willingness to improve his life in any meaningful way. His relationship with his mother constantly hints at being inappropriate – they play wrestle on her bed, she hugs him tightly and tells him he’ll still be her “boy” even when he’s forty-six – and she appears to gain more emotional support from him than the other way round. But while Myhill signposts this sort of thing with the appearance that it’s all relevant and will be explored later in the movie, this subplot and several others fall by the wayside with increasing frequency. The same is true of a scene where Goob discovers Gene having sex with Mary (Spearritt), a young girl who helps out in the diner. You’d be willing to bet that Goob will use this at some point to expose Gene in front of his mother, but it’s not even referred to. In The Goob, it’s surprising how many blind alleys there are lurking in the rural vastness of the Norfolk countryside.

With much of the plot lacking development, and less exploration of the characters’ states of mind than benefits the material, Myhill is rescued by Simon Tindall’s impressive cinematography, and sterling performances from Harris (convincing as always; now give this man a comedy, for God’s sake) and newcomer Walpole, whose glum demeanour and pouty stare adds to the sense of Goob’s isolation from those around him. But neither can detract from the pervading sense of familiarity that watching the movie provokes, nor the idea that Myhill has opted for style over substance in his efforts to tell Goob’s story – such as it is.

Rating: 5/10 – containing too many elements that don’t add up or are just ignored as the movie progresses, The Goob looks more persuasive than it is, and only occasionally proves as compelling as it should be; an occasion where less is just that, it’s a movie that looks good on the surface, but which tells its story without stopping to convince the audience how its main character feels about anything that’s happening to him or around him. (19/31)

RKO 281 (1999)

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D: Benjamin Ross / 87m

Cast: Liev Schreiber, James Cromwell, Melanie Griffith, John Malkovich, Brenda Blethyn, Roy Scheider, Liam Cunningham, David Suchet, Fiona Shaw, Anastasia Hille

In 1939, Orson Welles (Schreiber), the “boy wonder”, signed a movie contract with RKO Pictures. He was given unprecedented freedom to make whatever movie he wanted (though RKO hoped he would make a movie version of his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast). After two attempts at making his first picture, Welles, along with old friend and writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (Malkovich) came up with the idea of making a loosely fictionalised version of the life of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (Cromwell). Welles regarded Hearst as a hypocrite and a monster, a man richly deserving of being exposed in much the same way that Hearst’s newspapers had done to others. Welles considered he had nothing to lose by making such a movie, but before long it became something much more personal, and with a great deal of meaning for him. RKO 281Citizen Kane‘s production number – shows how the movie came to be made, some of the pitfalls along the way, and the pressure Hearst tried to exert in order to make the movie disappear without the public ever seeing it.

Like many an acknowledged classic, Citizen Kane didn’t just appear out of nowhere. In RKO 281, we see the genesis of both the myth and the legend, and the movie itself. After a year in Hollywood, and with nothing to show for his efforts, Welles was already being looked upon as a failure, a circumstance that didn’t bother him in the slightest, but which would spur him on to make a movie that is generally regarded as the best American movie ever made. Based in part on the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996), RKO 281 begins with Welles’ arrival in Hollywood, his fame preceeding him. Persuaded to come out there by RKO head George J. Schaefer (Scheider), Welles attends a dinner held by Hearst and is appalled by the man’s attitude and takes immediate offence. Soon he’s telling Mankiewicz that Hearst is the perfect subject for his first movie. But Mankiewicz isn’t so sure and tries to warn Welles of the trouble he’ll face if he goes ahead with his plan.

Soon, however, they have a screenplay, and though the two men have a falling out over Mankiewicz’s name being removed from the final script, the movie goes ahead and production begins in earnest. But Welles is soon behind, his quest for perfection causing delays and production overspends. The industry, still unaware of the content of Welles’ movie, predicts it will be a disaster. It’s only when news of its focus reaches the ears of Hearst that the possibility of its truly being a disaster becomes more likely. Determined to ensure that the movie, originally titled American, is never shown in cinemas, Hearst brings pressure to bear on the heads of the other studios, partly by playing the race card – that the heads were all Jewish wasn’t widely known or acknowledged – and partly by threatening to expose the immoral activities of their stars. While everyone else around him views Hearst as being entirely capable of destroying Welles’ career, and their own if he so wishes, it’s left to Welles to fight for his movie. Help, though, comes in an unexpected form…

The story behind the making of Citizen Kane is often as fascinating as the actual movie itself, and though RKO 281 uses The Battle Over Citizen Kane as its template for John Logan’s vigorous screenplay, there’s still a sense that this is a movie going over old ground, and without achieving the same effect. Logan certainly hits his mark as it were, and there are some priceless lines of dialogue – Mankiewicz on San Simeon, the massive estate where Hearst lived: “it’s the place God would have built if he had the money” – but once Hearst becomes aware of just how much of his life Welles has appropriated for Citizen Kane, the movie makes an unjustified attempt at becoming a thriller, with Welles’ career on the line versus Hearst’s reputation. And despite a passionate performance by Schreiber, and with the outcome already known in advance, the movie struggles to make Hearst’s threats as worrying as they must have been at the time, and he comes across as a petulant control freak. The same can be said for Welles also, and the movie makes the point several times over that the two men were very similar, but in doing this so often, it lessens the impact of what the movie is trying to say.

Before then, the movie focuses on the making of Citizen Kane, and here the movie is on firmer ground, replicating the ups and downs of the production with a great deal of enthusiasm, and recreating events such as the time that Welles had a massive hole dug in the studio floor to facilitate a particular low-level shot he wanted (apparently he never thought of raising the set instead). His relationship with the cinematographer, Gregg Toland (Cunningham) is also explored, but ultimately it’s his friendship with Mankiewicz that gets the most screen time, and the ways in which Welles exploited his friend’s talent. Both Schreiber and Malkovich relish the dialogue they’re given in their scenes together, and these scenes are some of the best in the movie, with both men sparking and feeding off each other to very good effect. Cromwell injects a little bit of pathos into his portrayal of Hearst, but it’s not enough to offset the idea that here is a man whose monomania – himself – has become a lifestyle choice. As the former silent actress Marion Davies, Griffith gives a sympathetic and sincere performance, while Scheider is equally good as the put-upon studio head who puts his career on the line to ensure Welles succeeds in getting his own off the ground.

The movie is attractively shot and lit by DoP Mike Southon, and there are some well chosen contemporary numbers on the soundtrack, but though the script is good enough to tell the story in a slightly lumbering fashion (there are very few highs and lows to help capture the intensity of the production itself), Ross’s direction is too pedestrian to elevate the material above that of solid and dependable. Too many scenes lack the energy to push the narrative forward with any real conviction, while others are repetitive in nature, as if the audience wouldn’t understand things the first time. And that’s without the scene near the end where the story contrives to have Welles and Hearst alone in an elevator – let the verbal sparring commence! It’s an unnecessary cinematic cliché that’s included in a movie about another movie that was anything but clichéd.

Rating: 7/10 – a mixed bag of a movie, with good performances overcoming several narrative slip-ups, RKO 281 is mostly intriguing if you don’t know the story, and fairly run of the mill if you do; still, it’s a movie that’s largely entertaining despite itself, and as a passive recreation of the making of one of the most influential features of all time, it’s effective without being too demanding. (18/31)

Bruiser (2000)

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D: George A. Romero / 95m

Cast: Jason Flemyng, Peter Stormare, Leslie Hope, Nina Garbiras, Andrew Tarbet, Tom Atkins, Jonathan Higgins, Jeff Monahan, Marie V. Cruz, Beatriz Pizano

Henry Creedlow (Flemyng) is one of Life’s true put-upons. Married to a woman, Janine (Garbiras), who no longer loves him, Henry fares no better at work, where he’s a mid-level executive for a magazine called Bruiser. The magazine’s owner is a sleazy mini-despot called Miles Styles (Stormare). Styles chides and insults and derides his staff, and acts as if they’re all inconsequential in comparison to himself. Henry is friends with Miles’ wife, Rosemary (Hope), who works as a photographer at the magazine; she’s unhappy because she knows that Miles is sleeping around at every opportunity. What neither of them knows though is that Miles is having an affair with Janine. At a party at Miles’s house, Henry sees his wife in a compromising situation with Miles and he confronts her about it afterwards. Janine is dismissive of his feelings and berates him for being “nothing” and “a nobody”. The next morning, Henry discovers something terrible: his face is covered by a white mask similar to the one Rosemary made, only he can’t remove it.

The mask has a strange effect on Henry. At first he hides from their maid, Katie (Pizano), until he sees her stealing money from his wallet. When he confronts her it’s a different story from the night before, and later, when he overhears Janine arranging to meet Miles, he follows her to the Bruiser offices. Rosemary is also there and she catches Miles and Janine in the act. After she leaves, and while Miles chases after her, Henry deals with Janine in his own way. The police become involved, and it’s not long before they’re looking for Henry, who is righting all the wrongs that have been done to him in the past. Finally, the only one who’s left is Miles. At a company party that Henry has arranged, he stalks his boss while the police come ever closer to catching him.

The movie that always slips past unnoticed whenever there’s any discussion of George A. Romero’s career, Bruiser was the last feature he made before returning exclusively to the world of zombies (with 2005’s Land of the Dead). It was also the first movie he made away from Pittsburgh. It’s certainly an odd movie, a French/Canadian/US co-production that’s a valiant attempt by Romero to do something out of the ordinary. That it doesn’t succeed entirely is perhaps not so surprising, as Romero’s ambition is stifled by budgetary constraints and an allegorical narrative that likely seems far more heavy-handed than he originally intended. Romero was well used to working with limited budgets – something which is sorely in evidence here – and Bruiser is one of those times when he was forced to work with some very strict, prescribed resources. But there are problems too with Romero’s script, and though he’s on top of the material, the plot takes several short cuts on its way to a less than satisfying conclusion.

The worm-has-turned scenario that Romero adopts lacks subtlety throughout, but as the movie progresses it becomes clear that Romero isn’t too concerned with how sophisticated his narrative is, or how it might be perceived. Henry’s aggrieved nature is the central focus here, and Romero signals this through a series of fantasy sequences where Henry imagines killing the people who upset him. These are the movie’s most extreme moments, designed to illustrate the depth of Henry’s pain at being ignored or belittled, and Romero stages them with gusto, hinting at the possibility that Henry has psychotic tendencies, a mental health problem that can’t be solved just by his being assertive or regaining his self-confidence. This gives the early scenes an edge as the viewer tries to work out just what it will be that will push Henry over the edge. And then comes that mask…

The mask is an amazing creation, and it proves eerie to look at no matter how many times we see it. But as an allegory, or a motif, for how Henry is regarded by his peers it’s a little too obvious, though still highly effective. Behind it, Flemyng is required to give a portrayal that’s mostly about body language – each time he angles his head he’s giving the viewer a very good idea of what he’s thinking or feeling – and his vocal performance, laced with a wicked, black humour, relays the various new emotions Henry is feeling with poise and precision. It’s a confident, nuanced performance, even when the script pushes things closer to melodrama than is required, and Flemyng, whose skill as an actor is often overlooked, keeps Henry from becoming just another revenge-happy psycho with a permanent axe to grind. Romero may occasionally let him down when it comes to some of the dialogue, but Flemyng avoids a few obvious bear traps and is consistently good throughout.

Less successful is Stormare’s over the top turn as Miles. Given free rein to chew the scenery and anything else in reach, Stormare is like a bull in a china shop, pushing the limits of his character’s hedonism in terms of words if not thankfully, deeds (the sight of him in what suspiciously look like spanks is another of the movie’s “highlights”). He’s like a pantomime villain, but one that you can’t take seriously, and Stormare at least is wise to this, and imbues Miles with a requisite lack of self-awareness. It’s a showy, breathless performance, but it does work well against Flemyng’s more measured portrayal. Sadly, Hope and Garbiras aren’t afforded quite so well rounded characters to play, with Hope stranded as Henry’s potential true love interest, and Garbiras stuck with being an admittedly very attractive, but dislikeable shrew.

As a thriller, the movie has its moments, and Romero still knows how to set up a compelling murder scene, but the setting for the movie’s conclusion, a Bacchanale party that features the band, The Misfits, gets away from him, and it’s undermined by some injudicious editing courtesy of Miume Jan Eramo. Better in terms of understanding what Romero is looking for is Adam Swica’s low-level camerawork which heightens Henry’s sense of displacement, and long-time collaborator Donald Rubinstein’s energetic, jazz-based score. In the end, Bruiser isn’t able to overcome many of the problems that hold it back from being an accomplished and entertaining diversion, but it’s also not as bad as its reputation might suggest.

Rating: 6/10 – a low-key yet mostly absorbing outing from a director who was never fully allowed to make the movies he wanted to make (and how he wanted to make them), Bruiser is a movie whose potential can be glimpsed throughout, even though it’s not been achieved fully; aided by a great performance from Flemyng, the movie does its best to provide a compelling narrative, but too many stumbles along the way make too much of a difference – unless you can forgive Romero for lacking the wherewithal to achieve greater things. (17/31)

Death in High Heels (1947)

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D: Lionel Tomlinson (as Tommy Tomlinson) / 48m

Cast: Don Stannard, Elsa Tee, Veronica Rose, Denise Anthony, Patricia Laffan, Diana Wong, Nora Gordon, Bill Hodge, Kenneth Warrington, Leslie Spurling

A cheap and cheerful murder mystery – told by the lead detective in flashback – Death in High Heels is a “quota quickie” designed by Hammer Films (who had been dormant as a production company since 1937) as a way of reviving the company name and helping to fill the gaps in cinema schedules. Made on a shoestring, its tale of murder in a Bond Street dress shop is a perfect example of the material that Hammer looked to release at the time, and though it seems unremarkable at first glance, acts as a snapshot of the period, and what could be done on a micro-budget.

As already mentioned, the movie is set (largely) in a dress shop and is narrated by Detective Charlesworth (Stannard) as he recounts a tale of murder, jealousy and ambition. The dress shop is called Christof’s, and it’s owned and run by a man named Frank Bevan (Warrington). He employs a staff of seven: two supervisors, Agnes Gregory (Rose) and Magda Doon (Laffan); a designer, Mr Cecil (Hodge); three dress models, Victoria (Tee), Aileen (Anthony), and Almond Blossom (Wong); and a cleaning lady, Mrs ‘Arris (Gordon). Eight very different people all together, but with seven of them all united about one thing: their dislike of Miss Gregory. Sharp-tongued and unfriendly, Miss Gregory has earned the enmity of everyone at one time or another. She has attached herself to Bevan though, and when Magda is put in line for a promotion ahead of her, Miss Gregory does her best to get the job instead. When Bevan changes his mind, and gives the job to Miss Gregory, Magda’s unexpected death (which follows soon after), leads to a murder investigation.

The cause of death is poisoning, and by an acid that was brought into the shop by Aileen and Victoria in order to clean a hat. Most of it was spilt on the floor and then cleared up by Mrs ‘Arris who was supposed to have left it in an envelope on a table. But the envelope disappears before Magda’s death, and no one will admit to taking it. Everyone is a suspect, but Charlesworth quickly deduces that Magda wasn’t the intended victim, it was Miss Gregory, the poison added to her lunch but eaten by her rival instead. As his investigation continues, Charlesworth learns that some of the staff have secrets that may or may not be reasons for trying to kill Miss Gregory, and as he sifts through a web of lies and deceit, two main suspects emerge… but did either one of them try to poison Miss Gregory?

The answer is nowhere near as obvious as you’d expect, though it’s not really the point of this fast-paced little thriller, which seeks instead to shine a light on post-War Britain and the social imperatives of the period. Bevan is the haughty self-made man who enjoys the prestige that goes with having titled clients and a shop in London’s exclusive Bond Street. Miss Gregory has ideas above her station as well, and behaves badly towards the others because she rides on Bevan’s coat-tails and presumes an intimacy with him that allows her to feel superior to everyone else. Aileen’s “young man” is “very grand” and it’s her ambition to be as grand as he is, even though she’s from a working class background, the same background as Mrs ‘Arris. Mr Cecil is something of an hysterical ninny, a man whose sense of self-worth is reinforced by his mother. Only Magda and Victoria seem comfortable in their own skin, as even Almond Blossom’s aloof nature seems to be a cover for an unfortunate prior experience with Bevan. All this is neatly laid out in the nineteen minutes before Magda’s death, and all this has a bearing on the nature of Charlesworth’s investigation.

Inevitably, the secrets the characters have been trying to hide are revealed, and just as inevitably they prove predictable and of no relevance to the murder. But Christianna Brand’s screenplay, adapted from her novel of the same name, makes good use of the distrust amongst the characters, and even if to contemporary eyes there doesn’t seem to be anything too striking about the inter-relationships and the society in microcosm approach to the staff and their foibles, nevertheless, someone watching this seventy years ago would have recognised much of the social dynamic on display. They would have felt comforted by it to some degree, and even now the movie has that ability to reassure the viewer as to its intentions. Familiar territory then, and all the better for it; and despite some awkward line readings, it holds the attention and balances its various storylines with ease.

Though the performances range from arch (Wong, Rose) to overtly theatrical (Laffan), there’s still the sense that everyone is familiar with the material and knows what to do. Stannard gives a carefree performance that is amusing and relaxed, while Tee is confident and direct, and in their brief scenes together, a good foil for his breezy attitude. Tomlinson, whose first feature this was, keeps the camera as agile as possible given the confines of the sets, and uses his previous experience as an editor to give the movie a sprightly feel that adds to the pleasant nature of the material as a whole. It’s not a movie that will rock anyone’s world (not that it was ever meant to), but as a calling card to the rest of the British movie industry that Hammer was back and here to stay, it has to be judged a success.

Rating: 6/10 – it’s too easy to be dismissive of a movie like Death in High Heels, and too easy to ignore its obvious virtues, but anyone willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt will be pleasantly surprised by its jaunty nature and effective character building; the low budget and sparse production values do hinder things, and some unnecessary narrative leaps and bounds in the second half don’t help, but overall this is a solid, agreeable mystery that deserves a wider audience. (16/31)

NOTE: Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a trailer for Death in High Heels.

10 Reasons to Remember Martin Landau (1928-2017)

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Martin Landau (20 June 1928 – 15 July 2017)

Before he became an actor, Martin Landau was an editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News, a job he held from the age of seventeen before the lure of the stage claimed his attention at the age of twenty-two. In 1955 he auditioned – along with five hundred others – for the Actors Studio. There were only two successful applicants, Landau, and a young actor named Steve McQueen. While there he was also best friends with another young actor, James Dean. Two years later he made his debut on Broadway, and two years after that he made an impact playing a ruthless villain in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

However, despite further roles on stage and the big screen, Landau’s career really took off thanks to the small screen. Guest spots on shows such as Bonanza, The Outer Limits, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. led to a recurring, then permanent role on Mission: Impossible (1966-69). The role of Rollin Hand gave Landau the chance to employ a variety of accents and disguises, and it brought him international recognition. But he was never able to capitalise on the show’s success and transpose it into a better big screen career. TV continued to dominate, and during the Seventies he was best known for appearing in Space: 1999 (1975-77). It wasn’t until Francis Ford Coppola offered Landau a plum role in Tucker: The Man and His Dream that he began to experience the kind of career upsurge that he was long overdue for.

In the years that followed, Landau did some of his best work, and earned very high praise indeed from Woody Allen: “Of all the actors I’ve ever worked with, he gives expression to my dialogue exactly as I hear it. His colloquialisms, his idiom, his inflection is exactly correct. So of all the people who’ve ever read my lines, he makes them correct every time…” And in 1995 he won an Oscar for his role as an aging Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s excellent biopic Ed Wood. From then on, Landau continued to work as steadily as before, but often adding a much needed lustre to some of the movies and shows he appeared in. It could be argued that Landau had to wait until he was much older before he could give the performances that were tailor-made for him, but even if that were true, he still leaves behind a tremendous body of work – from the Fifties to the current decade – that we can enjoy for many more years to come.

1 – North by Northwest (1959)

2 – Cleopatra (1963)

3 – Decision at Midnight (1963)

4 – They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970)

5 – Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)

6 – Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

7 – Max and Helen (1990)

8 – By Dawn’s Early Light (1990)

9 – Ed Wood (1994)

10 – Harrison Montgomery (2008)

10 Reasons to Remember George A. Romero (1940-2017)

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George A. Romero (4 February 1940 – 16 July 2017)

Although best known for his series of zombie movies, George A. Romero’s desire to make movies came about when he saw The Red Shoes (1948), a movie so far removed from the genre that made him famous that it’s intriguing to wonder just where his career would have taken him if he’d followed in the footsteps of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and not fallen in with the low budget horror arena where he spent pretty much all his career. He was also a huge fan of The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), a movie he would rent on 16mm from the very same rental company that Martin Scorsese used.

But a career creating those kind of artistic endeavours wasn’t to be. Romero started out by making TV commercials and industrial training movies in and around his home town of Pittsburgh. In 1968, he and some friends all contributed $10,000 so he could make his first feature. The result was an unqualified success, and Night of the Living Dead became a movie that would influence an entire sub-genre of horror. From then on Romero was pigeon-holed as a horror director, and though he made a number of movies that didn’t involve zombies or extreme gore effects (usually courtesy of Tom Savini), Romero was always grateful that his first feature allowed him to have a movie making career.

Romero would return to zombies five more times in his career, and though the law of diminishing returns had set in by number five, Diary of the Dead (2007), there was still enough of Romero’s patented social commentary to make the last three in the series interesting to watch at the very least. But Romero’s work away from marauding members of the undead, often provided examples of the best that he could do. Martin (1978) is a creepy, unsettling modern vampire tale, with a great performance from John Amplas, and Knightriders (1981) is a counter-culture movie that features probably Romero’s best assembled cast, and a knowing, mordaunt sense of humour. He was capable of so much more but spent too much time developing projects that inevitably never got off the ground, such as a TV version of Stephen King’s The Stand, or movies such as Resident Evil (2002) where he was slated to direct. An affable, knowledgeable, and likeable figure within the industry, Romero will be missed for all the subtexts he put in his movies and for the way he made zombies “cool”.

1 – Night of the Living Dead (1968)

2 – Season of the Witch (1972)

3 – The Crazies (1973)

4 – Martin (1978)

5 – Dawn of the Dead (1978)

6 – Knightriders (1981)

7 – Creepshow (1982)

8 – Day of the Dead (1985)

9 – The Dark Half (1993)

10 – Bruiser (2000)

Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985)

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D: Alan Clarke / 89m

Cast: Phil Daniels, Alun Armstrong, Bruce Payne, Louise Gold, Eve Ferret, Richard Ridings, Don Henderson, Neil McCaul

There are some movies that seem to have been made expressly with the intent that they become cult items some time after their initial release. The world’s only vampire snooker musical, Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is such a movie, a one-off that’s unlikely to ever be remade, rebooted, or given a sequel. It’s also very much a product of its time, a musical fable built around the real life rivalry between British snooker players Ray Reardon (the green baize vampire) and Jimmy White (Billy the Kid). Small in scale and very cheaply made, and dismissed by contemporary critics and audiences at the time, the movie has gained a certain caché over the last thirty-two years. Rarely seen these days, but available on DVD if you know where to look, the movie makes the most of its limited budget and if you’re in the right mood, offers a viewing experience that might just capture your interest.

The story is a simple one: Billy the Kid (Daniels) is an up and coming snooker prodigy. Just twenty years old, two years before he was discovered by T.O. (The One) (Payne), who now acts as his manager and promoter. Having made a name for himself, Billy is being touted as the next World Champion. He’s flash, he’s arrogant, he plays unsanctioned exhibition matches for money, and he’s as good as he says he is (maybe even better). His attitude earns him the ire of former nine times World Champion Maxwell Randall (Armstrong). A war of words erupts between them in the press, fuelled by manipulative journalist Miss Sullivan (Gold), and soon there’s talk of a challenge match.

T.O. brokers a deal with a loan shark called the Wednesday Man (Henderson) (T.O. is in his debt), and the match goes ahead with the added stipulation that whoever loses has to stop playing professional snooker. Randall shows off his prowess by winning the first frame with a maximum break of 147. He goes on to win the next seven frames, giving himself a seemingly unassailable lead of eight frames to nil, with the match being played over seventeen frames. During a break, Billy  – who’s in shock at how badly he’s faring – and T.O. discover something about the match that changes everything, and when play resumes, a lucky break gives Billy the opportunity to play his way back into the match. It all comes down to the final frame. Which player will be able to hold their nerve and win the match… and how will they do it?

Shot in what looks like the basement of an old abandoned cement factory, Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is definitely one of the oddest movies you’re ever likely to see, but even with its low budget production values and its over-reliance on sports tropes – the talented newcomer with something to prove, the aging player who resents the newcomer’s apparent disrespect for him and the sport, the manager with financial problems who puts the newcomer’s career on the line, the journalist who foments discord as part of her own agenda, the shadowy figure (here the Wednesday Man) who pulls all the strings behind the scenes – the movie still has a charm that makes it an easy watch, and by the end you can see why it’s gained something of a cult following over the years, and despite being very rough around the edges.

A collaboration between two creative talents for whom this would not have been a predictable choice, the movie has a solemn, well-constructed screenplay by Trevor Preston, and highly stylised direction by Alan Clarke. Both men had backgrounds in more gritty and realistic TV dramas such as the excellent Out (1978 – Preston), and the controversial Scum (1977 – Clarke). Though the screenplay does play things “by the book” and follows a well established template, Preston strays far enough from the template on occasion to make the story more intriguing, such as providing Randall with a home where vampire-related paraphernalia gives rise to the idea that he really is a vampire, and it’s not just a nickname. Also, Preston doesn’t give Billy a girlfriend who’s there solely to tell him how good he is and cheer from the sidelines. And the inclusion of rival sets of fans for the players gives rise to a battle of the classes that should seem out of place, but isn’t at all.

For his part, Clarke keeps the characters hemmed in thanks to the claustrophobic nature of the various sets, and this gives the feel of their being in a pressure cooker environment, where every little slight and criticism is blown up out of all proportion, and emotions run more intensely than they would do otherwise. However, this does give the movie a very theatrical feel, with Randall’s living room looking like a stage set, and the setting for the match, with its spectators’ galleries on three sides, also giving the impression of watching a filmed play rather than a movie. Clarke thankfully compensates for this through the editing, and although the movie never shakes off this notion fully, Clarke’s staging and framing of the action helps smooth things over as well.

As a musical, the movie is on less firmer ground than it is as a sports tale, and though the inclusion of several well written songs (lyrics by Preston, music by George Fenton) gives the movie a boost from time to time, not all of them work as well as they should. The opening song, Green Stamps, will baffle anyone born after 1991, while Kid to Break‘s repetitive nature quickly undermines the intended potency of the song as a whole, which seems to have been written as the snooker equivalent of a football chant. Two songs do stand out though: the vituperative I Bite Back, with its chorus and vocal counterpoint from Eve Ferret (it’s also the one song that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Broadway or West End musical), and the exuberant Snooker (So Much More Than Just a Game), sung by the match’s flamboyant compere, Big Jack Jay (McCaul).

The performances are spirited and engaging, with Daniels wisely abandoning his usual cheeky chappie demeanour, and Armstrong hissing his lines with thinly restrained anger. Both actors are on good form, taking the bare bones of their characterisations and fleshing them out beyond Preston’s original intentions, and looking very comfortable and authentic at the snooker table. Payne, whose career has never really recovered from his being the bad guy in Passenger 57 (1992) (though he was very good indeed in it, better than Wesley Snipes), is the surprise here, giving gambling addict T.O. a much broader, more sympathetic reading than was probably on the page, and making him the most interesting character in the movie. One thing that should be noted though, is that none of the cast are particularly good singers, and their voices aren’t always up to the challenges of the songs, which is a pity as the ways in which they interpret them, are very good indeed.

Rating: 7/10 – much better than it looks (just ignore Clive Tickner’s murky photography), and sounds (Randall’s squeaky shoes are a distraction), Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is quirky enough and original enough to warrant closer inspection and a better reputation; Clarke squeezes a lot out of Preston’s screenplay, the cast are all on fine form, the songs reflect and enable the narrative, and the whole daft nature of the material – which is taken very seriously indeed –  is exactly what makes it work as well as it does. (15/31)

NOTE: At the moment there’s no trailer available for Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire.

A Dangerous Method (2011)

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D: David Cronenberg / 99m

Cast: Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon

A movie examining the intellectual and professional battle between Carl Jung (Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) may not be the most obvious choice for David Cronenberg to direct, but there’s long been a psycho-sexual element to his movies that fits in quite easily with Jung and Freud’s combative attitudes about notions of sexual repression (though even they may have balked at some of the ideas Cronenberg came up with during his Seventies output). What emerges though is a movie that concentrates as much on the machinations of the mind as it does on the pleasures of the flesh.

The movie opens in 1902, with the arrival of Sabina Spielrein (Knightley) at the Burghölzli, a psychiatric hospital in Zurich. Sabina displays extreme manic behaviour and contorts her body into uncomfortable positions as an expression of her illness. She is placed in the care of a young doctor, Carl Jung. He begins treating her using various techniques including dream interpretation (though mostly he just asks her how certain events in her childhood made her feel). Sabina responds to the treatment and soon she makes a breakthrough in understanding the root cause of her mania. Wishing to be a psychanalyst (the term Jung uses), Sabina begins to help Jung with his research. Soon, he begins corresponding with Freud, and before long they have a mentor/pupil relationship despite some of the differences in their approach to psychoanalysis (the term Freud uses).

When Freud recommends Jung treat one of his patients, Otto Gross (Cassel), the man’s indulgence of his sexual desires and his insistence that sexual repression is at odds with living a normal, healthy life, serves to make Jung confront his desire for Sabina. They embark on an affair, one that Jung’s wife, Emma (Gadon), tolerates, while Jung himself continues his professional and personal relationship with Freud. However, at the same time that their friendship begins to deteriorate over their different opinions about psychoanalysis, Jung is struck by guilt and seeks to end his affair with Sabina. She involves Freud on her behalf but while he sympathises with her (and more so because Jung has lied to him about the affair), he is unable to intervene. Soon, he and Jung end their relationship, and Sabina strikes out on her own as a psychoanalyst.

Adapted partly from the book, A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr, and partly from screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s play, The Talking Cure, A Dangerous Method is a beautifully shot movie (by DoP Peter Suschitzky) that features a marvellous, deftly arranged score by Howard Shore (based on leitmotifs from Wagner’s Siegfried), and a richly detailed recreation of early 20th century Europe (some parts of which didn’t need to be de-modernised at all). It’s also a movie that outlines and explains in simple terms the differences between Freud and Jung’s different approaches to psychoanalysis, while at the same time doing so in a way that maintains the mystique that surrounded their differing approaches (and for many people, still does). It’s all down to Hampton’s intelligent, precise screenplay and Cronenberg’s effortless way of telling the story. There’s not a wasted scene or moment in the whole movie.

Cronenberg shows a sure hand throughout, and as the inter-relationships between Jung and Freud, and Jung and Sabina, and eventually Sabina and Freud, begin to grow more and more intense, he allows the viewer a glimpse inside the mind and the motivations of each character, whether it’s Jung’s fear of professional repudiation, or Freud’s unyielding pragmatism, or even the enjoyment Sabina derives from being humiliated. These are characters, real life people, that we can understand and, to a degree, sympathise with. They were all involved in the creation of a field of medicine that has since been of benefit to millions upon millions. That they had their own problems shouldn’t be a surprise, anf thanks to Hampton’s erudite and very adroit script, those problems are fleshed out with tremendous skill, and in Cronenberg’s hands, delivered with impeccable attention to professional and emotional detail. Jung may have been more willing to explore other avenues relating to the way in which our subconscious works, but even Freud’s rigid demeanour and intellect are presented credibly and with no small amount of rigour.

The director is aided by a trio of superb performances. Mortensen, playing older, gives Freud a shrewd gravitas, appearing always thoughtful, always seeking to understand the impulses that drive everyone around him (and especially Jung). It’s a role that requires the actor to appear ruminative for long stretches, passively observing and deducing, and Mortensen carries it off with his usual skill and ingenuity. He’s also the source of much of the movie’s dry, offhand humour. Mortensen is such a thoughtful, articulate actor that his presence acts almost as a guarantee of quality, and working with Cronenberg for the third time – after A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) – he renews that acquaintance to incredibly good effect. As Jung, Fassbender gets the lion’s share of the narrative, and gives a detailed, insightful performance that shows the doubts and concerns that Jung had in terms of his work, and his marriage, and his relationship with Sabina. It’s a well rounded portrayal, not lacking in emotional precision, and gives the actor a chance to impress in a role that requires much of the character’s feelings to be expressed internally, as befits both the period and contemporary public expectations.

How different then for Keira Knightley, who right from the very beginning has to provide an hysteric performance, one that pushes her as an actress and one that pushes the audience’s acceptance of her as a dramatic actress (there’s no doubt that Knightley can act; it’s just that it gets easily forgotten when she’s also a celebrity). She brings a passion and a commitment to the role of Sabina that is powerful and uncomfortable to watch in her early scenes, and even though she gets “better”, the character’s mania remains there, just under the surface and ready to release itself at a moment’s notice. Here, Knightley’s angular features are used to strikingly good effect as Cronenberg keeps her looking as if every moment is a struggle to continue to be “normal”. She and Fassbender work well together, and their scenes are some of the most potent in the whole movie.

As a movie dealing with the birth of psychoanalysis as we know it today, the arguments for and against the theories of Jung and Freud are presented in a way that makes them both intriguing, and elusive, in terms of their true efficacy. Both men were convinced their own approaches were the correct ones, but the movie doesn’t side with either of them, leaving the viewer to make up their own minds as to which man is “right” and which man is “wrong”. Cronenberg orchestrates these discussions with admirable finesse, and if some scenes seem too clinical or distant from the heated passions they’re depicting, it’s in keeping with the notion that Jung and Freud, and even Sabina, were first and foremost observers, and that their own lives were just as worthy of inspection (or introspection) as anyone else’s. And perhaps even more so.

Rating: 8/10 – a vivid and captivating examination of the ways in which early forms of psychoanalysis drew on the experiences and sentiments of its practitioners, A Dangerous Method is absorbing and exhilarating in equal measure; with Cronenberg handling the material so sensitively and without over-simplifying things, it’s a movie that stands out for being about complex ideas as to what makes us tick, and isn’t just a vapid exploration of carnal desires. (14/31)

The Skin I Live In (2011)

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Original title: La piel que habito

D: Pedro Almodóvar / 120m

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Álamo, Eduard Fernández, José Luis Gómez, Blanca Suárez, Susi Sánchez, Bárbara Lennie

What happens when a multi-award winning and very well respected director gets it completely wrong? The answer is a movie called The Skin I Live In. Since making his first feature, the anarchic Folle… folle… fólleme Tim! (1978), Pedro Almodóvar has presided over Spanish moviemaking like a benevolent enfant terrible, promoting home grown talent while making his own idiosyncratic movies and gaining an international reputation for flamboyance, passion and high-camp melodrama. He’s a true original, and a writer/director who has always been unapologetic about the movies he’s made, and their content (anyone who’s seen the opening five minutes of Matador (1986) will know what I mean). But sometimes, even the most innovative and instinctive of directors will take on a project they really should have steered well away from, and The Skin I Live In is Almodóvar’s. In attempting to fuse his usual movie making style with a genre he’s never worked in before, the director of such modern classics as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and High Heels (1991) has made his most unconvincing and mundane movie to date.

The movie begins with an old-fashioned two-pronged mystery; who is the woman (Anaya) being kept in a locked room by renowned surgeon Dr Robert Ledgard (Banderas), and why? As with all good mystery thrillers, there are no answers that are immediately forthcoming, just a number of clues and a few clever hints. What is clear is that Ledgard has been researching and cultivating an artificial skin that is resistant to fire and insect bites. And soon it becomes clear that he has been using this artificial skin on the young woman (whose name we learn is Vera). And for a while, that’s the movie. There’s a housekeeper, Marilia (Paredes), but she doesn’t appear relevant to the storyline or the plot. Oh, wait, here comes her criminal son, Zeca (Álamo), who’s on the run and needs a place to hide. When he realises there’s an attractive young woman in the house, he has one thing on his mind: sex, and whether she’s willing or not. Fortunately, Ledgard returns home (a little late, to be fair) and Zeca is “taken care of”.

It’s at this point that the script, by Almodóvar and his brother Agustín, decides its time to reveal just what is going on, and why. Cue a late-night confession from Marilia, a flashback from Ledgard’s perspective, and then, more intriguingly, a lengthier flashback from Vera’s point of view. This passage reveals almost everything you could need to know about what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how it’s all happened in the first place. The why, somewhat inevitably, is borne out of revenge, with Ledgard targeting a young man, Vicente (Cornet), for a particular misdeed that has gone unpunished. This futher explains what’s happening, and how it has all come about, but with the flashbacks out of the way, the movie begins to unravel as it heads for a melodramatic but also muted ending. And that’s without a coda that would work better as the beginning of a whole other movie.

Almodóvar has been quoted as saying that The Skin I Live In is “a horror story without screams or frights”. That may sound clever, or even something of a challenge to achieve, but the problem is that while Almodóvar may be good at exploring the lives of those living on the margins of Spanish society (very good in fact), when it comes to horror it’s obvious he doesn’t have the grounding or the knowledge to put together the kind of terrifying experience required of genuinely good horror movies. Instead, Almodóvar plays with his Frankenstein-lite scenario in such a way that he leeches all the horror out of it and leaves the audience with a soap opera melodrama that occasionally acts as a psychological or psycho-sexual thriller. Almodóvar isn’t really interested in making a horror movie; instead he seems more interested in seeing if he can fit horror themes into one of his standard dysfunctional family tragedies.

The result is a movie that proves disjointed and erratic when it comes to the characters and their motivations (Ledgard does a lot of things that are baffling or poorly thought through by the script), and which seems happier in observing things from a distance – much as Ledgard does with Vera. This makes it harder for the audience to engage or sympathise with the characters, and scenes where this might be regarded as essential in terms of building or maintaining tension, remain flat and unremarkable. Almodóvar is better off having his characters express their emotions, no matter how histrionic they might be, but here he opts for a restrained approach that gives the movie a chilly, displaced feel. It’s another bad decision that affects the movie greatly, and leaves the cast adrift completely. Banderas (reuniting with Almodóvar after a twenty-one year gap) plays Ledgard as a man determined on revenge but who makes some very strange choices along the way, while Anaya has the awkward task of denying her character’s back story while at the same time, needing it to perform her role adequately.

Ultimately, it’s a movie that doesn’t work because its director doesn’t know what kind of movie it should be in order to work. With that in mind, Almodóvar’s attempts at making his audience squirm, end up doing so, but for all the wrong reasons. Dread is replaced by unwarranted black humour, terror never has enough time to establish itself, and outright horror is knocked down and killed by a reliance on turgid melodrama. The movie may look good – Antxón Gómez’s production design is perfect for expressing the clinical, sterile environment that Ledgard inhabits – and it may have a surprisingly romantic score courtesy of Alberto Iglesias, but these are plusses that are unable to make up for the wayward, tonally artless moments that Almodóvar peppers his script with. When a horror movie fails in asserting itself as a horror movie and never quite realises where and why it’s going wrong, therein lies the true horror.

Rating: 4/10 – despite occasional moments where Almodóvar reminds us of his auteur status, The Skin I Live In is a movie whose purpose and raison d’être is never compelling enough to warrant the viewer’s full investment of their time; with way too many scenes in its last half hour that provide bafflement instead of suspense, the movie is proof that some directors should stick to what they know, and know what they should stick to. (13/31)

Simon Killer (2012)

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D: Antonio Campos / 105m

Cast: Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Constance Rousseau, Lila Salet, Solo, Michaël Abiteboul

There’s a particular sub-genre of dramas where the protagonist travels to another country in order to get away from some trauma or terrible circumstance that has affected them badly, or which they were responsible for. Such is the case with writer/director Antonio Campos’ third feature, Simon Killer. Here the protagonist is recent college graduate Simon (Corbet), who has come to Paris following the break up of his relationship with a girl called Michelle. At least, that’s what he tells people, and especially Victoria (Diop), a prostitute he begins a relationship with, and Marianne (Rousseau), another young woman he begins seeing when things with Victoria begin to go wrong. He tells them that Michelle was seeing another man, and he has come to Paris to do “nothing at all” in the wake of their break up. But there’s more to the story than Simon is willing to let on, and as the movie progresses, just how much of his story is true becomes more and more relevant.

What also becomes more and more relevant is why Simon’s story might not be true. There’s no one to back it up, and no other evidence to support his claims. As he wanders through the city he meets Marianne and her friend, Sophie (Salet). His French is passable, but is enough to keep him in their company for most of the evening. The next day, Simon is cajoled into visiting a sex club, where he meets Victoria. There’s a connection between them, so much so that Victoria tells him they can meet up outside of the club (though he’ll still have to pay to have sex with her). Following an altercation where Simon is assaulted, he turns to Victoria for help. She takes him home, and in the days that follow, they begin a relationship. Simon, however, soon runs out of money. At first he “borrows” money from Victoria, and then he comes up with the idea to blackmail some of her clients at the club.

Their first attempt doesn’t go as planned, so they target another client, René (Solo). And then one day, Simon runs into Marianne and he asks for her number. The second blackmail attempt is more successful than the first, but their first intended victim (Abiteboul) finds out where Victoria lives and he beats her up. Simon tends to her at first but soon turns his attention to Marianne. They start seeing each other, but with no money, Simon decides to blackmail René again, but when he calls him, repeatedly, each time there’s no answer. It’s only when Simon receives a call from René’s wife who tells him that René has gone missing, that he goes back to Victoria. When he tells her they need to leave Paris immediately, Victoria’s reaction isn’t what he was expecting. Unable to get her to understand the seriousness of their situation, Simon reacts in a way that has unforeseen consequences.

Much of Simon Killer is kept hidden and obscured from the viewer by Campos’ artistic decision to be as elliptical and as cryptic as possible. If you’re a fan of movies made as a kind of intelligence test – can you work out what’s going on and why, and explain it in twenty-five words or less? – then this is the movie for you. And while there is definitely a place for these kinds of movies, when the movie itself can’t or won’t explain itself then the test is more about endurance than intelligence. What is clear is that Simon is damaged, and likely in a way that means he should avoid having close physical and emotional relationships (Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is an obvious progenitor). An arch manipulator – he uses being assaulted as a means of eliciting sympathy from both Victoria and Marianne – Simon is unconcerned with the feelings of others, and he’s always a little off when he talks about his own; he’s the poor, put-upon victim trying just to get by, and seemingly always at the mercy of others.

As the nominally sociopathic Simon, Corbet is in first-class form, his performance the glue that holds the movie together, and which stops it from becoming entirely forgettable. For make no mistake, Simon Killer is not a movie that satisfies or works, even within its own narrow framework. True, it is stylish and colourful to look at, thanks to the impressive work of DoP Joe Anderson, and it has a powerful soundtrack that balances techno rock with a discordant, unsettling score by Saunder Juriaans and Danny Bensi. But it’s also distant and vague in its mood, and bleak in its outlook, using the backdrop of La Pigalle to overstate the sleazy, absentee-morality of most of the characters, and the seedy milieu in which most of it takes place. It’s also a movie that reliably frustrates the viewer by sending its main character off into the streets of Paris with no fixed destination to aim for, and providing only the back of their head as a viewpoint (Campos also includes several shots that are presented at crotch level; whether this has any real meaning is debatable). Why indie moviemakers feel this is an acceptable way of padding out their movies remains a mystery that may never be solved.

Another mystery involves the nature of his Stateside relationship with Michelle, which is addressed around the halfway mark via an e-mail from said character, but in such a way that it opens up a whole other conundrum that isn’t addressed by Campos, and which only serves to throw confusion into the mix as to Simon’s behaviour and the motives for that behaviour. Sure, he’s a borderline narcissist and sociopath, but something must be driving him. Alas, Campos either knows but doesn’t want to tell us or give us any clues, or he doesn’t know and doesn’t think it’s important. Either way, we can only guess at the true nature of Simon’s mental and emotional malaise. But only if we want to, though, because again, it’s only Corbet’s terrific performance that keeps the viewer anywhere near interested. Campos may be interested in focusing on making the movie a chilly, atmospheric thriller with a decidedly villainous central character – an odious one, even – but it’s not enough to make the movie as compelling or as enthralling as he might believe.

Rating: 5/10 – technically ambitious yet emotionally sterile thanks to the approach to the material by its writer/director, Simon Killer is beset with issues relating to pacing, tone and clarity; a laudable effort then on some levels, but as a whole, this is a movie that frustrates more than it rewards, and which is undermined by a reluctance to let its audience fully engage with its central character (not that you’d necessarily want to). (12/31)

Jack Goes Boating (2010)

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D: Philip Seymour Hoffman / 91m

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Tom McCarthy, Salvatore Inzerillo

When actors make the transition from appearing in front of the cameras to working behind them as directors, their first attempts at building a secondary career have a tendency to be remarkable debuts. Think Charles Laughton and The Night of the Hunter (1955), or Kevin Costner and Dances With Wolves (1990), or Sarah Polley and Away from Her (2006) (just to name a few). Well, you can add Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jack Goes Boating to the list. A movie that clearly shows that Hoffman could have had an equally lustrous career as a director as well as an actor (this was his only outing as a director), Jack Goes Boating sees him deftly handling comedy, drama, and romance in his screen version of the play by Robert Glaudini. It’s an unsurprising choice as Hoffman, along with Ortiz and Rubin-Vega, appeared in the original Off-Broadway production in 2007. The main cast’s familiarity with the material – similar to that with Fences (2016) – helps tremendously, but Hoffman is astute enough to transpose the action so that at no point does it feel stage-y or contrived.

The movie is terrifically understated from the start, with Hoffman’s shy, reticent Jack working as a limo driver for his uncle. He works with his best friend, Clyde (Ortiz), and the two have an easy going relationship that is affectionate and endearing. Clyde is married to Lucy (Rubin-Vega), but their relationship is on rocky ground, though they both help set up Jack with one of Lucy’s co-workers, Connie (Ryan). Connie is similar to Jack in that she’s shy and diffident; she also has some intimacy issues. Their first meeting goes well, and by the end of it they’re talking about doing something during the summer, such as boating. Neither of them have done anything like this before, and Jack is especially worried as he can’t swim. Clyde agrees to teach him, and in the process, Jack learns about positive visualisation, which helps him have the confidence to overcome his fears.

An incident involving Connie leads to Jack agreeing to make dinner for her, something nobody – aside from her mother – has ever done before. Clyde helps out again by giving Jack the name of a chef nicknamed The Cannoli (Inzerillo), who’ll show him how to cook a meal. But there’s more to The Cannoli than Jack is initially aware of, and as the night of the meal for Connie draws nearer, Jack learns more about his friends’ marriage than he was ever prepared for, while his own relationship with Connie grows stronger. On the night of the meal, the various stresses and strains affecting Clyde and Lucy come to the fore, and the evening descends into chaos, one that has repercussions for Clyde and Lucy, and has a profound effect on Jack and Connie…

What’s immediately apparent from Jack Goes Boating is the surety that Hoffman shows in guiding the material from its opening scenes where the script’s dry humour is given room to breathe, through the middle section where Jack and Connie’s romance takes centre stage, and then on into the final stretch where it becomes a stinging drama. Hoffman handles each stage of the movie with due care and attention to the characters and, more importantly, their inner lives. As a director, Hoffman is incredibly generous to his cast, giving them the room to explore their roles and instill them with small details that enhance both their performances and the movie at the same time. What this means for the viewer is a movie that delights and captivates in equal measure, and has the ability to leave said viewer wearing a happy grin for most of the movie. Hoffman and Ryan in particular do more with a look and a glance than some actors can do with a four-hour movie and two hundred pages of expository dialogue.

The romance between Jack and Connie is handled with a great deal of finesse, as the pair gingerly and carefully get to know each other, and try to overcome their lack of confidence in being part of a couple. Opening up to each other and trusting each other, the pair behave in a winsome manner that sees them warily circling around the idea of being together while at the same time, being eager to move forward as quickly as possible – as long as they’re both okay with that. In contrast, Clyde and Lucy are at the kind of loggerhead where intimacy is painful and recriminations for past misdeeds are just a breath away. Clyde grows to be jealous of his best friend’s good fortune in finding Connie, and his unhappiness threatens to ruin the meal. Lucy too is unhappy, and like Clyde, is dealing with her feelings in a way that’s detrimental to the possibility of their staying together. Lucy’s unhappiness also threatens to ruin the meal, and when things do begin to unravel, it’s Lucy whose anger finds its full expression in an excoriating attack on Clyde. As the warring couple, Ortiz and Rubin-Vega give outstanding performances, each imbuing their character with a potent mix of pained acceptance (that things are unalterably wrong between them), and a desperate need to wipe the slate clean (which they’ve tried and failed to achieve).

While there’s little here that’s new or hasn’t been covered before – Marty (1955) is an obvious forerunner – it’s the way in which Hoffman and his very talented cast handle the material that makes Jack Goes Boating so emotionally vivid and deceptively compelling. Jack and Connie are characters you can’t help but like, and you can’t help but root for them all the way through. And though they’re at odds with each other, Hoffman ensures that Clyde and Lucy deserve our sympathy as well. It’s all supplemented by a wonderfully expressive soundtrack that mixes an often poignant score by Grizzly Bear, and a handful of Fleet Foxes songs that contribute greatly to the movie’s overall tone and mood.

Rating: 9/10 – Hoffman’s death in 2014 robbed us of an inspired actor and director, and after viewing Jack Goes Boating, that sense of loss is more keenly felt than ever; beautifully observed and endlessly affecting, the movie is funny, romantic, tragic, and a terrific showcase for all concerned. (11/31)

Destiny (1921)

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Original title: Der müde Tod: ein deutsches volkslied in 6 versen

aka Behind the Wall

D: Fritz Lang / 94m

Cast: Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen, Bernhard Goetzke, Hans Sternberg, Karl Rückert, Max Adalbert, Wilhelm Diegelmann, Erich Pabst, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Károly Huszár

Fritz Lang fled Germany in 1933 following a meeting with Josef Goebbels where Lang was offered a position as the head of the German movie studio, UFA. Up until that point he had made sixteen movies – seventeen if you include the French version of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) – and he was the most successful German director of the Twenties and early Thirties, both critically and commercially. He made movies that were beautiful examples of the Expressionist movement, and he introduced many future staples of sci-fi cinema such as the countdown to lift-off (Ten, nine, etc.) which was first seen in Woman in the Moon (1929). Destiny was the second movie he made with his wife, the actress Thea von Harbou, and their collaboration helped Lang display a better understanding of women than he’d shown previously, making this movie more relatable for female audiences as a result.

A young couple (Dagover, Janssen) arrive at a village where Death (Goetze) is in the process of erecting a great wall around the land he has purchased. While they spend time in the tavern, the girl is distracted and her lover disappears. Later, while she weeps by the wall, she sees a ghostly procession of souls pass through the wall, and the last of them is her lover. She exhorts Death to release him to her but instead he leads her into a dark room and shows her three candles, all lit, but each at a different stage of burning. Death tells her that each candle represents a life. If the girl can save just one of these lives then Death will restore her lover to life. The girl agrees to Death’s wager, and finds herself in a Middle Eastern city during Ramadan. Now a princess, Zobeide, she has to secure the life of her lover, the Frank (Janssen), but she fails in the attempt and he is killed.

Next, the girl finds herself in Venice as a noblewoman, Monna. She too has to protect the life of her lover, Gianfrancesco (Janssen), from the murderous intentions of her fiancé, Girolamo (Klein-Rogge). In this she fails again, and next the girl finds herself in China as a magician’s assistant, Tiao Tsien. The magician has another assistant, Liang (Janssen), who is Tiao Tsien’s lover. When the Emperor of China (Huszár) tries to seduce her she rejects him, and attempts to flee the palace with Liang. But Liang is killed and the girl has to face Death knowing that she has failed his challenge. But Death gives her one last chance: if she can persuade someone from the village to trade their life for hers, then the lovers will be reunited. Of course, she accepts, but will she be able to persuade anyone to make such a sacrifice?

For a movie that contains three sections that might be regarded as fantasies, Destiny’s framing storyline exists in a dream all by itself. Taking place “in some time and some place”, Lang invites us to follow his two young lovers as they arrive in a picturesque little village, unaware of the fate that awaits them. Even the appearance of the mysterious hitchhiker can’t dampen their enjoyment of life and love. But Lang has other plans for them, and soon happiness is replaced by grief and the lovers’ dream-like reality becomes a nightmare. Lang was always fascinated by the idea of Death as a spectral, other-worldly figure, and the character appears in a number of his movies, but this was the first time Lang brought him to the screen. Goetze’s gaunt features and fixed stare are a disturbing, unnerving sight, and the actor imbues the character with an impassive, worrying stillness, as if he’s always waiting for that next victim of “God’s will” – and it could be anyone. Lang makes Death an implacable, emotionless adversary for Lil Dagover’s heartsick protagonist, and the contrast between their acting styles adds a fine juxtaposition to their relationship in the movie.

The opening section, with its idyllic setting and array of “colourful” village stereotypes, seems very like Lang attempting to wrong foot the audience. But Death’s presence is an augur that all isn’t as it seems, and the wall he erects around the land he’s purchased gives rise to that. But the young lovers remain unaware of the darker forces around them, until it’s too late, and Dagover is pleading for mercy for the life of her paramour. Happiness, Lang seems to be saying, is fleeting and can’t be relied upon. But if you want it badly enough, you’ll do whatever you can to keep hold of it. And so, Dagover’s chastened young woman must endure a series of travails that the audience can see will be doomed to failure, but which she must put her heart and soul into. There’s a phrase, Love Conquers All, but for most of the movie, Lang seems to be saying, Don’t you believe it. It’s this overtly pessimistic point of view that drives the movie forward, as each new scenario sees love thwarted at every turn, and Dagover’s determined character suffers more and more.

The three scenarios that the young woman becomes involved in all have an element of the fantastical about them, and depict a romantic idealism that reflects the feelings of the young lovers. Unavoidable fate and tragedy are the outcome of each tale, and Lang is resolute in denying the young woman any joy during these episodes. But the art direction – by Robert Herlth, Walter Röhrig, and Hermann Warm – along with Heinrich Umlauff’s striking costume designs – is a joy. Silent movies in 1921 were rarely charged with such expressive and impressive imagery, and it’s equally rare for a silent movie of the period to overcome the impression of appearing fake or overly theatrical (though Dagover does do histrionic with gleeful abandon from time to time). Lang was a master when it came to the visual styling of his movies, and Destiny doesn’t disappoint in this area. Allied to a script that deftly explores notions of love as an immutable force, and the will to endure for love, it features good performances from its cast, and strong, passionate direction from Lang.

Rating: 8/10 – a tight, purposeful script allows Lang to expand and build on the promise of his career up until that point, and he shows that there are no lessons wasted or ignored in his tale of love under threat; emotionally redolent and deceptively poignant in places, Destiny is a terrific example of a director finding his “groove” and having found it, never looking back. (10/31)

Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)

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Original title: Un coupable idéal

D: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade / 111m

With Patrick McGuinness, Ann Finnell, James Williams, Michael Glover, Dwayne Darnell, Brenton Butler, Melissa Butler, James Stephens

On May 7th 2000, outside a Ramada Inn in Jacksonville, Florida, a vacationing couple, James and Mary Ann Stephens, were accosted by a black man with a gun. Within seconds he had shot Mary Ann Stephens in the face, killing her instantly. He ran off with her bag, which contained her purse (which had around $1200 inside it), and other items. The murder took place at approximately 7:30 in the morning. A description of the assailant was broadcast to police vehicles in the area, with the warning that he was likely to be armed and dangerous. Around two and a half hours later, fifteen-year-old Brenton Butler was stopped by two officers in a police cruiser; he was on his way to a local Blockbuster Video store to drop off a job application. He was taken to the Ramada Inn where James Stephens identified him as the man who had killed his wife. Butler was duly arrested, and during his questioning by the detectives assigned to the case, he signed a confession. The case went to trial later on in 2000.

An open and shut case, yes? Certainly the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department thought so. Thanks to James Stephens and the certainty he showed in identifying Butler as the killer, the police looked no further than the teenager they had in custody. Not so surprising you might say. And you’d wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But Murder on a Sunday Morning highlights the dreadful way in which the detectives on the case, James Williams and Dwayne Darnell, along with a colleague, Michael Glover, did nothing to properly investigate the case, but did all they could to coerce Butler into making a confession (which, in reality, he never did). As a miscarriage of justice, it’s frightening. As a cautionary tale about the perils of “swift justice” it’s also alarming. As a vindication of “the best legal system in the world” (a direct quote from the trial judge, Wendell Waddell III), it’s on shakier ground. This is a case that should never have gone to trial. The police knew they didn’t have a case, the State Attorney knew they didn’t have a case, but the trial went ahead anyway.

Thank heavens then, for Patrick McGuinness and Ann Finnell, two lawyers appointed by the Public Defenders Office to represent Butler at trial. It didn’t take them long to realise that the prosecution’s case was flimsy, and it didn’t take them long to work out a strategy for Butler’s defence that would be effective in exposing the police investigation for what it really was: non-existent. And thanks to Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s excellent documentary, we can see how McGuinness and Finnell took on the prosecution’s case and dismantled it piece by piece. de Lestrade and his French crew were there from the time McGuinness and Finnell were appointed, all the way through the pre-trial period as they made their own enquiries, and then at the trial itself, recording the key exchanges that highlighted the police’s laissez faire attitude and their unwillingness to mount a proper investigation.

The movie adopts a straightforward, linear approach that allows the viewer to become increasingly involved with the case and the trial, and with Butler’s family as they try to come to terms with the enormity of what’s happened to their son. The courtroom scenes are mesmerising. McGuinness is like a quietly spoken pitbull, prodding and poking at the detectives and getting them to admit to their own inadequacies as police officers. Away from the courtroom, the chain-smoking McGuinness reveals his disdain for the detectives, and points out that if he has no respect for a police officer then he won’t address him by his rank; McGuinness wants that officer to be annoyed, to become antagonistic perhaps, because then they’ll trip themselves up and make his job that much easier. He doesn’t have to worry, or put so much effort in. Williams and Darnell and Glover – they do all the work for him. Their complacency is his best weapon.

As well as its linear approach, the movie is free from any frills or unnecessary embellishments, and it’s this plain and simple way of addressing the material that makes Murder on a Sunday Morning such a compelling documentary. When the story is this good, you don’t need to make it overly dramatic or accentuate certain points to be effective, and de Lestrade is wise enough to let the story tell itself. As the depth and breadth of the police’s ineptitude is revealed, the viewer is likely to be shaking their head in disbelief and wondering how on earth Butler’s arrest and subsequent trial could have been allowed to happen in the first place. But de Lestrade and his team show you exactly how it happened, and why (hey, let’s make sure this murder doesn’t affect the number of tourists that visit each year), and they also ensure that nothing is either lost in translation or through Ragnar Van Leyden and Pascal Vernier’s rigorous editing. Each point that the defence raises in opposition to the prosecution’s case is recorded precisely and with as much impact as possible.

By the time the trial reaches its conclusion and the jury retires to consider its verdict, the movie has delivered a crushing blow to anyone who may have believed in law enforcement officers as fair-minded, dedicated, and professional (at least in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department). In exposing the failings of a murder investigation, and the officers who put more effort into railroading a fifteen-year-old into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit than they did looking for someone else who actually fitted the description James Stephens gave them originally, the movie proves compelling, gripping and powerful. And when the trial is over and the verdict is in, the movie has one more ace up its sleeve, a postscript that provides further evidence of the incompetence of the police.

Rating: 9/10 – sincere and expertly assembled, Murder on a Sunday Morning is absorbing, meticulous, moving, and profoundly shocking (count how many times Michael Glover lies under oath); the level of access that de Lestrade and his team had throughout the time that McGuinness and Finnell were involved is phenomenal, and even though this is a case that can be looked up on the Internet in seconds, it manages to keep you guessing as to what the verdict will be – and that’s no mean feat in today’s media-saturated society. (9/31)

One Eight Seven (1997)

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aka 187

D: Kevin Reynolds / 119m

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, John Heard, Kelly Rowan, Clifton Collins Jr (as Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez), Tony Plana, Karina Arroyave, Lobo Sebastian, Jack Kehler, Jonah Rooney, Demetrius Navarro, Richard Riehle

If you were a regular moviegoer in the mid- to late-Nineties then you’ll remember there was a spate of inspirational movies that revolved around teachers going into difficult schools and classrooms and making an impact on the lives of their – up ’til then at least – rowdy and supposedly unreachable pupils. In 1995 we had both Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer, and Mr. Holland’s Opus with Richard Dreyfuss. 1997 also saw Good Will Hunting, with Robin Williams mentoring Matt Damon’s maths prodigy. And 1999 gave us Music of the Heart with Meryl Streep. All of these movies had one thing in common: they pitted a committed individual against both institutional and cultural apathy within the US education system. But in amongst all those valiant portrayals and feelgood endings, one movie took an opposite stance. (Can you guess which one?)

Trevor Garfield (Jackson) is a science teacher working at a Brooklyn high school. One of the students in his class stabs him repeatedly with a shiv after being given a failing grade. Fifteen months later, and Garfield is living in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, and working as a substitute teacher. He gets a call to sub at John Quincy Adams High School for four days. Day one is something of a disaster. He starts off in the wrong classroom, and when he’s in the right one he finds himself having to deal with a disrespectful student called Benny Chacón (Sebastian). Benny is the leader of a local Chicano gang that go by the name K.O.S. (Kappin’ Off Suckers). When another teacher, Ellen Henry (Rowan), tells Garfield that Benny has threatened her in the past, Garfield is sympathetic but doesn’t have any answers for her.

Garfield’s time at the school is extended, and Benny disappears. Garfield and Ellen start seeing each other, and things seem to be settling down until Garfield’s watch is stolen during a class. Knowing that the new leader of K.O.S., César Sanchez (Collins Jr), is responsible, he reports it to the school principal (Plana). The principal appears more concerned with avoiding any potential law suits than investigating or backing up Garfield’s claim, and Garfield has to take matters into his own hands in order to get his watch back. This sets in motion a war of attrition between Garfield and Sanchez that is brought to a halt when Sanchez is attacked one night and one of his fingers is cut off. Knowing that Garfield is responsible but unable to prove it to the police, it’s only a matter of time before Sanchez decides to get even with Garfield. However their home invasion-cum-execution plan doesn’t go exactly the way they planned…

At the end of One Eight Seven, a caption advises the viewer that “a teacher wrote this movie”. If it’s meant to convey a truthfulness to the events depicted in the movie then it misses that particular mark by a wide, country mile. There’s little about this movie that makes any sense, and even less that appears credible. Narrative problems begin to make themselves known in the opening scenes, with Jackson’s earnest and more than a little worried Garfield talking to a superior, Walter (Riehle), about the death threat he’s received from a student. Walter behaves like an ass, and refuses to take the threat seriously. It’s an unlikely scene, and while it’s there to make a point that will  become more relevant later on, it’s astonishingly clumsy. And it’s the first moment where the movie takes the viewer by the hand and lays everything out for them as if their ability to grasp the criticism that the schools system is managed by incompetent administrators is beyond them.

From then on, Scott Yagemann’s screenplay does its best to tick all the boxes relating to school-based clichés, and even throws in the talented student who lacks confidence/is bullied or abused (or both) (Arroyave), and who Garfield takes under his wing (he also agrees to tutor her at his home unsupervised, something that no teacher in his or her right mind would contemplate; more cynically, it’s an excuse for Arroyave to be shown naked). Equally problematic is the relationship that develops between Garfield and Ellen. On the one hand it’s yet another mixed race semi-romance that won’t go anywhere (they’re only allowed to kiss in this movie), and on the other, Ellen is there solely as the Voice of Reason, the one character who will remind audiences that vigilantism is a bad thing, and all while the movie promotes the opposite.

Because at its core, One Eight Seven isn’t about the schools system being in crisis, or how teachers are increasingly under threats of violence from alienated pupils. Instead it’s a movie taking a very provocative and very conservative stance. It’s saying, if you’re a teacher and you can’t get through to certain pupils because they aren’t responding to your teaching methods, then it’s okay to maim or kill them (the movie does try to make it seem as if Garfield’s innocent of harming Benny and Sanchez, but it’s too obvious that he’s not). It’s hard to believe that this is a recommendation being made by a former teacher (Yagemann worked for over seven years in the Los Angeles public schools system), but even if you dismiss it as a form of artistic licence, it still leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and one that director Kevin Reynolds seems unaware of. Though not exactly known for making “message movies”, Reynolds still seems way out of his depth here, and the movie lacks consistency, with many scenes failing to engage the viewer or advance the plot.

For the most part the performances are adequate, with Jackson building up to the kind of vocal pyrotechnics that are expected of him even more these days, and Heard underused as usual as a fellow teacher who takes a concealed firearm to work (this isn’t challenged either; is Yagemann saying this is normal, or even okay?). Rowan has little to do beyond acting as a bundle of nerves, Plana is only required to behave obsequiously in a couple of scenes, and Arroyave is the Dangerous Minds alumni with a bigger, yet cruelly underwritten role. Only Collins Jr, for whom this was a break-out role and a break-out movie, injects any real passion or commitment into his portrayal, and his is the one performance that offers anything more than what seems to have been in the script.

Rating: 4/10 – flawed, and taking a reactionary stance that it tries to be ambivalent about, One Eight Seven crosses a line early on and never looks back to see if it should have crossed it in the first place; uninspired and leaden for long stretches, it’s a movie with an unpalatable message, and no idea (or intention) of providing a balanced viewpoint that might allow the audience to entertain any doubts about the issues under discussion. (8/31)

Fading Gigolo (2013)

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D: John Turturro / 90m

Cast: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone, Sofía Vergara, Tonya Pinkins, Bob Balaban

Question: when is a Woody Allen movie not quite a Woody Allen movie? Answer: when it’s written and directed by John Turturro… who’s had help from Woody Allen in assembling the script. A broad romantic comedy with a large helping of sympathy for its characters, Turturro’s fifth outing in the director’s chair is an engaging, likeable movie that has all the hallmarks of a Woody Allen movie, but then tweaks them in varied and surprising ways.

It begins with Turturro’s character, Fioravante, helping his friend, Murray (Allen), with the closure of his bookstore. Looking for a new business opportunity, Murray reveals that his dermatologist, Dr Parker (Stone), revealed to him during an appointment that she and a girlfriend of hers, Robbie (Vergara), are looking to engage in a ménage à trois. As Dr Parker is willing to pay for the experience, Murray suggests that Fioravante is the man they need, but he’s initially resistant to the idea. Eventually, Murray convinces his friend to take the “job” and contacts Dr Parker. She decides to meet Fioravante on her own to see if he will be suitable. He passes the test and soon, Dr Parker is recommending his services to some of her friends, while Murray is drumming up clients in his own fashion.

Fioravante’s success as an escort leads to an unexpected encounter. Through Murray, Fioravante meets the widow of a Hassidic Jew, Avigal (Paradis). They begin a tentative relationship that attracts the attention of Dovi, who works for Shomrim, a neighbourhood patrol. He has been in love with Avigal since they were teenagers, and he begins to follow her when she leaves the neighbourhood. While Fioravante and Avigal spend more and more time together, Dr Parker finally decides the time is right for the planned threesome to go ahead. But just at the point that Fioravante realises that he’s in love with Avigal, Dovi grabs Murray off the street and takes him to face a Rabbinic court. His involvement with Avigal is questioned, and it takes an unexpected intervention to resolve matters once and for all.

From the very beginning, Fading Gigolo is a genial, simple, romantic comedy drama that does what it does with equanimity, and which never tries to go beyond its basic remit. It’s this self-awareness that helps the movie immensely, and while the characters are largely stereotypical and written in broad brush strokes, Turturro’s direction encourages his talented cast to portray them with small, idiosyncratic details that help enhance the material as a whole. Turturro, both as director and actor, is generous with his cast, and his lack of selfishness in front of the camera is reflected in his largesse behind it.  Turturro also encourages his cast to underplay their emotions and provide more subtle character beats than would be expected (Stone in particular is good as a confident professional whose vulnerability is revealed during her first meeting with Fioravante). There’s a lot going on below the surface a lot of the time, and more is relayed to the viewer by the characters’ expressions than by the dialogue.

This allows the viewer to respond to the material to a much greater degree than might be expected. As a result, the movie gains increasing credibility as a romantic drama, and the cast respond accordingly. As it slips off its comedic mantle in favour of dealing properly with the emotional and relationship issues that have arisen, Turturro ensures each development is accorded the relevant amount of sincerity and pathos (except for Balaban’s appearance as Murray’s lawyer at the Rabbinic court, a turn that is resolutely out of place, and is the one major lapse in Turturro’s direction). The emerging friendship between Fioravante and Avigal is treated with a tenderness and a subtlety that mirrors the mutual uncertainty that both are feeling, and Paradis perfectly expresses the sadness and the hope that Avigal feels as both a widow and a woman. In comparison, Turturro keeps his performance reined in, barely moving, and keeping his dialogue to a minimum, and yet still expressing his character’s anxieties and sense of anticipation. The outcome of their relationship is never in doubt – such is the entirely foreseeable nature of the screenplay – but when it comes it, it’s a brief and affecting moment that in a very succinct fashion, highlights exactly why the outcome is what it is.

Allen’s participation is unusual in that he rarely appears in other people’s movies these days – the last time was in Alfonso Arau’s Picking Up the Pieces (2000), which also featured Stone – but what isn’t a surprise is that he plays yet another minor variation on the neurotic Jewish intellectual-cum-nebbish he’s been playing for over fifty years. He does infuse the role with a desperate, greedy quality we haven’t seen before, but otherwise it’s business as usual. Fortunately, Allen’s presence doesn’t overwhelm things, and his supporting role is integrated effectively into the main storyline. Again, there are many similarities between this movie and others that Allen has made over the years, enough perhaps to make him feel comfortable in taking on the part. But though his involvement in the script has been confirmed by Turturro, this isn’t a movie that anyone could say Allen directed. Turturro has his own style, and he approaches the characters in a very different way from the way that Allen does. And faced with such a predictable plot to begin with, that Turturro does overcome it is a sign of the actor’s confidence in being a director.

Rating: 7/10 – funny and dramatic in equal measure, Fading Gigolo never loses sight of what’s important and at the heart of its tale: how much we want to connect, and how much we’re willing to give of ourselves in order to make that connection; Turturro makes it all look relatively easy, and does so by remembering that every character (even Murray) is looking for love in some form or other, and that even if it’s provided by an escort, it can still be fulfilling and/or the right choice. (7/31)

The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005)

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D: Rebecca Miller / 107m

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Camilla Belle, Catherine Keener, Ryan McDonald, Paul Dano, Jason Lee, Beau Bridges, Jena Malone, Susannah Thompson

When Daniel Day-Lewis announced his retirement from acting recently, it’s likely that many of us felt the need to revisit one of his movies and remind ourselves of what a prodigious acting talent he possesses. That being said, it’s unlikely that anyone decided to watch The Ballad of Jack and Rose, a somewhat dour, slow-paced drama that he made between Gangs of New York (2002) and There Will Be Blood (2007). It’s a movie that benefits from Day-Lewis’s usual commitment to his roles, but aside from a grating Scottish-US accent and obvious weight loss late on, his role as Jack is perhaps his most low-key performance to date.

The movie is set in 1986 on an island off the East Coast of America (actually Prince Edward Island). Jack (Day-Lewis) is an environmentalist who first came to the island in 1967 when it was home to a hippie commune. Now, only Jack and his teenage daughter, Rose (Belle) live at the commune, which is largely rundown. Jack has a heart problem, and is trying to prepare Belle so that she can move on from the island and begin living her adult life. But Belle is resistant to the idea, and tells Jack that when he dies she will commit suicide because she doesn’t want to live without him. Looking for another way of getting Belle to interact with the wider world, Jack arranges for the woman he sees on the mainland, Kathleen (Keener), to come live on the island with them, and to bring her two children, Rodney (McDonald) and Thaddius (Dano), with her.

Their arrival upsets Belle immensely, and she withdraws from Jack while finding a friend in Rodney. Jack has a mission of his own to deal with, though, in the form of property developer Marty Rance (Bridges), who is building several houses on an adjoining part of the island. Jack is adamant that one of the houses is being built on government protected wetland, and he does his best to halt the building work. Meanwhile, the adjustments that everyone is having to make are beginning to cause friction. Rose’s feelings become murderous towards Kathleen while she also tries to get Rodney to sleep with her. He rebuffs her, and though Rose doesn’t like him, she turns to Thaddius. When Jack realises what she’s done he becomes angry with her, and tells Thaddius he has to leave the next day. But that night, an incident happens that causes Jack to rethink things in relation to Kathleen’s presence on the island, and following a further incident, his relationship with Belle.

For many, The Ballad of Jack and Rose will be about the performances rather than the story, with particular attention paid to Day-Lewis and Belle’s easy chemistry. After so many roles where Day-Lewis has been required to access his more macho side, seeing him here in a more vulnerable and sympathetic role acts as a reminder of both his range and his skill as an actor. Jack is a man of conviction who lacks self-doubt in the decisions he makes. And if Rose ever questions one of his decisions, his reply is the same: “new chapter”. He refers to the arrival of Kathleen and her sons as an experiment, but this is a sop to Rose’s animosity towards the idea, and he expects everything to go well without really thinking through the potential consequences. Day-Lewis portrays Jack’s oblique, trusting nature with a quiet yet detached authority that’s in keeping with the character’s attitude to those around him. He’s an instigator and a promoter but aside from Rose, he keeps himself aloof from other people. Even with Kathleen there’s a detachment that refuses to take her feelings about being on the island into consideration.

As Rose, Belle excels as Jack’s conflicted, emotionally inexperienced daughter whose need for his attention has grown into something unhealthy. Early on there are hints that Rose has inappropriate feelings for her father, but thanks to Belle’s ability to mask her character’s feelings whenever Rose is challenged about her behaviour, any suspicions remain fleeting. Her attraction for Rodney arises out of sexual jealousy, and her subsequent liaison with Thaddius is borne out of need and Rose’s capricious nature. Rose is very similar to her father in that she has assimilated his lack of foresight, and inability to consider any negative consequences for his actions. As such, she operates with no regard for other people’s feelings, and if she wants to punish him, even her father’s. As Rodney says to Rose at one point, “You’re innocent. Innocent people are just dangerous.” Belle’s portrayal of Rose as an emotionally stunted young woman whose development has stalled thanks to living in virtual isolation with her father is earnest and sagacious; it’s a shame her career hasn’t been more successful.

Other than McDonald’s sympathetic turn as Rodney, the rest of the performances aren’t as well crafted as those of Day-Lewis and Belle, but that’s due to Miller’s script and the ways in which she loses interest in them, picks them up, and then forgets all about them again. Miller’s script loses its focus from time to time, and as a result, it’s not as gripping in places as it might have been, and some of the arguments between Jack and Rose sound like the petulant exchanges you’d expect from teenagers. In the end, Miller resolves everything a little too neatly and in doing so requires Jack to make a complete volte face, something that Day-Lewis manages somehow to make convincing – even though in dramatic terms it isn’t. These and other aspects of the script’s construction stop the movie from being as compelling as it should be, and allied with Miller’s erratic framing, make this a movie experience that only partially succeeds in its somewhat limited ambitions.

Rating: 6/10 – if The Ballad of Jack and Rose had remained a two-hander throughout then it might have been able to offer better rewards for its audience, but as it is, it falls short of being entirely involving; too many distractions rob the movie of any lasting impact, leaving Day-Lewis and Belle’s contributions and Ellen Kuras’ splendid cinematography to save the day. (6/31)

CBGB (2013)

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D: Randall Miller / 101m

Cast: Alan Rickman, Malin Akerman, Justin Bartha, Richard de Klerk, Johnny Galecki, Kyle Gallner, Ashley Greene, Rupert Grint, Estelle Harris, Taylor Hawkins, Ryan Hurst, Stana Katic, Donal Logue, Joel David Moore, Ahna O’Reilly, Freddy Rodriguez, Mickey Sumner, Bradley Whitford, Josh Zuckerman

When a movie begins by telling its audience that punk began, not in the UK, but in a basement in New York in 1975, then you can be sure that the story you’re about to be told isn’t going to be too concerned with getting all the details absolutely correct. Admittedly, that’s the prerequisite of any movie portraying real events, but when it takes the time and effort to make such a statement (and such a questionable one at that), then it does tend to make the viewer question the validity of anything else that’s depicted. (That said, if you pay attention to the closing credits there’s an acknowledgment relating to Iggy Pop that’s more than a little relevant to any notions of fidelity to the truth.)

There’s a saying that, “If you remember the 60s, then you weren’t really there”. In truth you could substitute “the 60’s” for “CBGB’s” and the saying would retain the same meaning. And with the screenplay by director Randall Miller and Jody Savin not having been based on an article or a book or a memoir, how factual it all is becomes very much the issue. Because as a remembrance of (mostly) good times past, CBGB is a massive disappointment. This should have been a celebration of a period when underground music was making a bigger and bigger impact on the wider music industry, and helping to shape the future for emerging artists. Instead it quickly defaults into telling a piecemeal tale where CBGB’s owner, Hilly Kristal (Rickman), continuously mismanages the club to the point of near-bankruptcy, scenes revisit the same issues time and time again, characters pop in and out of the narrative with little reference as to why they’re there, and the viewer gets to play Spot the Famous Band Before They Were Famous. And that’s about it.

As an evocation of the late Seventies/early Eighties, CBGB rarely strays far enough away from its Bowery location to give any indication of the musical and cultural changes that were going on elsewhere, and relies on newspaper articles being read out to provide any sense that the club is having any greater impact than at a local level. As a result, the movie maintains an insular and largely passive tone that makes even the more dramatic events – a New York shakedown, band The Dead Boys crashing their tour bus – feel bland and uninteresting to watch. Part of the issue is with Kristal himself, who is portrayed as a man travelling the path of least resistance, and who seems passively intent on ruining the most successful business he’s ever had (when we meet him he’s in bankruptcy court for the second time). While his business partner, Merv (Logue), and daughter Lisa (Greene), continually berate him for ignoring the basics of owning a club (like paying the rent), Kristal floats above it all, oblivious to the risks to the club and focusing on the bands coming through his doors looking for a stage on which to express themselves.

With the main storyline – how did Kristal manage to keep the club open for so long? – failing to provide anything meaningful for the viewer to connect with, it falls to the music to add some flair and excitement to proceedings. However, despite the level of talent that appeared at the club over the years, and despite some very obvious choices – Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, Ramones, The Police – the musical interludes lack for energy, even when Justin Bartha throws himself around as Dead Boys’ singer Stiv Bators. When even the music that’s meant to be celebrated can’t make a difference to things then it’s time to close the club (or shutdown the movie) and send everyone home.

Thanks to the script the performances have no option but to range from adequate to perfunctory. Rickman is on good form in terms of expressing Kristal’s blasé attitude, but it ends up being the whole performance. Everyone else is a secondary character, with Logue, Greene and Hawkins (as Iggy Pop) faring best, and the rest contributing what are mostly extended cameos. Rodriguez is the junkie Kristal gives a kitchen job to, Grint looks out of place as Dead Boys’ bassist Cheetah Chrome (who really cameos as a cab driver), Harris is Kristal’s mother who when told Stiv Bators has been known to jerk off into Hilly’s Chili remarks that she’s “had worse in her mouth”, and Akerman is so stiff as Debbie Harry you’d be happy for the real thing to step in and take over (and despite Harry being seventy-two). When you have such a great cast and they’re given so little to work with, it definitely qualifies as a waste.

As alluded to above, the fault lies squarely with Miller and Savin’s script, and Miller’s direction. With the screenplay lacking purpose, and much of the dialogue sounding like the co-writers’ did a first pass and kept to what they’d written, there are too many occasions where what’s being said seems trivial and/or unlikely given the circumstances on screen. Miller seems unable to inject any verve or energy into proceedings, and the movie trails along in a functional, pedestrian way that saps what little vigour the movie does possess. By the movie’s end it’s hard to work out what the motive was behind making it, but if it was in tribute to Hilly Kristal and his championing of the underground music scene, then it’s unfortunate that his influence is best exemplified by an end credits sequence that shows real-life footage from the 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. Here we get to see Talking Heads accepting their award and inviting Kristal up on stage with them, and then thanking him for his support. Sadly, it’s the most poignant and moving moment in the whole movie.

Rating: 4/10 – lacking a clear purpose and repeating itself too often, CBGB at least has a killer soundtrack to fall back on – and thank heavens for that; less a biopic than a slow trawl through a defining era in the history of rock music, the movie spends too much time trying to define the iconic nature of the club, and in doing so, fails to portray adequately its influence on the wider music scene. (5/31)

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (1999)

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D: Martin Duffy / 96m

Cast: Elijah Wood, Janeane Garofalo, Roger Rees, Joe Perrino, George Gore II, Rachael Leigh Cook, Jeffrey Force, Oni Faida Lampley

In pretty much every actor’s filmography there’s usually at least one movie that hardly anyone ever sees, and slips past audiences like a whisper in the night. These movies are often ones that have been made quickly and cheaply, with mid-range stars either on their way up the Ladder of Stardom, or heading back down it. Sometimes they’re movies that have been made for an international market, with said mid-range stars heading up a European or African or Far Eastern cast, and sometimes only appearing for maybe a third of the movie’s running time. And sometimes, those mid-range stars have taken part as a favour to the director, or a producer, or someone else attached to the project. In essence, they’re jobbing gigs, a somewhat easy payday for the actor(s) concerned, and one that they’ll look back on only if pressed.

It’s hard to determine if there really is a market for these kinds of movies. There are enough of them out there to prove that people are willing to invest in them, but often it’s hard to determine who is the target audience (aside from any fans of the stars that appear in them). And one such movie is The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, a feature that appeared at the Deauville Film Festival in September 1999, opened briefly in the US in January 2000, and hasn’t been seen in cinemas anywhere in the world since. If you’re one of the few people who saw it way back then, then you probably already know the reason why it had such a limited exposure. And that’s because it’s bad, so very, very bad.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Robert Cormier, The Bumblebee Flies Anyway has all the appeal of the kind of car crash it opens with (or actually, that it doesn’t open with; there isn’t the budget to stage a proper car crash). Poorly staged and leaden-footed throughout, the movie is achingly stilted, with careless attempts at characterisations, and a set up that nearly disappears under the weight of its own inconsequence. This is an adaptation that makes less and less sense the longer it goes on, and Jennifer Sarja’s screenplay sacrifices dramatic tension in favour of soap opera theatrics at nearly every opportunity, while also leaving the cast stranded on a desert island of inane dialogue. (This is Sarja’s only credited screenplay, and it’s not difficult to work out why.)

The story itself is puzzlingly obscure, with Elijah Wood’s car crash amnesiac, Barney Snow (no, really) taking part in a medical experiment designed to help him deal with his involvement in the crash and move on with his life. But he’s receiving his treatment in a medical facility for terminal cancer patients, all of whom are teenagers or younger (well, all actually means three). Barney is kept on medication (or “the merchandise” as he keeps calling it for no apparent reason), and is sedated every now and again and taken to a basement room where he undergoes some form of regressive hypnotherapy (which he doesn’t know about). Meanwhile he makes friends with bone cancer sufferer Mazzo (Perrino), kidney cancer victim Billy (Gore II), and undisclosed cancer patient Allie (Force). The movie tries to present their respective illnesses with as much poignancy as it can, particularly Mazzo’s, but does so in a way that makes Billy and Allie look like poster boys for cancer remission. As Mazzo gets worse and worse, he receives a visit from his twin sister, Cassie (Cook). Concerned about her brother she naturally turns to Barney for comfort and they begin a tentative romance (well, what else are they likely to do?).

But Barney has his own problems. He has a memory of the car crash and a woman stepping out in front of his car that just won’t go away. He thinks the woman is his mother but he can’t remember her name. When he does he persuades Billy to help him locate her address, and gets Cassie to drive him there. The visit doesn’t go as planned, and subsequent treatments by Barney’s doctors, Harriman (Garofalo) and Croft (Rees), cause further memories to surface, and in them, Barney learns about the basement room and the inherent contradiction that exists at the heart of his treatment. Soon he has a difficult choice to make, one that will have far-reaching consequences whichever way he decides. But before then he makes another difficult choice, and this time it’s one with the potential to affect everyone around him.

Everything about Barney’s predicament and the so-called medical facility that he resides at is so ridiculous it’s hard to take any of it seriously. Garofalo’s caring doctor advises Barney not to get attached to Mazzo et al, but he finds himself drawn into their worlds almost against his will, and not caring about them doesn’t become an option. None of it however, is compelling or dramatic enough to make the unsuspecting viewer care about any of them, and the cast find themselves endlessly bogged down in scenes that should be affecting but which are so flatly directed by Duffy that they inspire ennui instead. Indeed, the combination of Duffy’s pedestrian direction and Sarja’s lumbering screenplay leaves Wood and his co-stars struggling to inject any purpose into their performances, and any meaningful exchanges between the characters are undermined before they’ve even begun. It all leads to a rooftop “showdown” that is laughable instead of sincere, and insufferably trite instead of emotionally haunting. Not the best outcome for a movie that already has enough strikes against it to warrant an enquiry into just how it received a showing at Deauville in the first place.

Rating: 3/10 – a perfect example of why some movies get the barest of releases, The Bumblebee Flies Anyway is dramatically inert from start to finish and offers proof (if any were needed) that the presence of a “name” actor is no guarantee of quality; shoddy in every department, and with platitudes masquerading as dialogue, it’s not even fascinating in an “oh no they didn’t” kind of way (which might at least make it halfway bearable to watch). (4/31)

Multiple Maniacs (1970)

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D: John Waters / 96m

Cast: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, Rick Morrow, Howard Gruber, Paul Swift, Susan Lowe, George Figgs

Some movies that garner a reputation for being “obscene” or “perverted” upon release generally don’t have a long shelf life, and soon fade not into obscurity exactly, but rely on gaining a cult following to ensure they’re still watched and talked about. And any such movie certainly won’t expect to be critically lauded, or attain cult status amongst those who’ve seen it unless it has something that no one other movie can offer, and John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs has that something: the amazing, human tornado of strident perversion called Divine.

Waters’ early work – this is his second feature – is synonymous with the rise of Harris Glenn Milstead as the merciless, murderous-minded, savagely anti-establishment grotesquerie known as Divine. This is a movie that puts itself out there as being counter-culture entertainment, a bargain basement, shot-on-16mm trash bag of arch religious references, austere social commentary, and documentary-like footage. It doesn’t look or feel like a standard issue movie because Waters has deliberately chosen to shoot it in such a diffuse, non-professional way that it often looks like a collection of outtakes strung together for convenience rather than a truly finished product where everything was shot as planned and nobody forgot their lines in the middle of a scene (which happens here a lot). There’s also a lot of guerrilla moviemaking, as outdoor scene after outdoor scene reveals a member of the public looking on in confusion and/or horror at what they’re witnessing (Divine in various states of undress and challenging middle class perceptions of good taste).

Beneath all the amateur hour shenanigans and louche bravado of its characters though, Waters’ ode to unrestrained perversion is touchingly conservative in its approach, and nowhere near as bizarre as it wants you to believe. Part of the appeal of Waters’ movies in the early Seventies is their deliberate inversion of public, social and moral standards, and the ways in which Waters’ gleefully attempted to subvert the cultural values of the time. Waters was only twenty-four when he made Multiple Maniacs, but it feels like a movie made by a rebellious teenager taking pot shots at his parents (the religious elements) and the passive determinism of the denizens of his home town of Baltimore. It’s no wonder Waters wants to shake things up and challenge the status quo; he’s a young man still working out his issues from growing up.

In Multiple Maniacs, this kind of celluloid psychotherapy finds its best and truest expression in the form of Lady Divine (Divine, naturally) and her Cavalcade of Perversion, the travelling freak show she fronts as a way of making money (by robbing the poor fools who are persuaded to see the show), and espousing her contempt for society. Lady Divine surrounds herself with “assorted sluts, fags, dykes and pimps” because they share her disdain for more traditional adult roles. They’re the protesters and the dissenters, acolytes who share her (and Waters’) disapproval at the way society treats the disenfranchised and the socially excluded. Lady Divine would kill them all if she could, but Waters’ Catholic upbringing precludes such extreme measures, and though his transgressive alter ego does kill on a handful of occasions, and even feasts on the entrails of one of her victims, when she’s finally consumed by a murderous mania, the most violent act she commits is to take a sledgehammer to a car.

The movie’s more violent excesses are leavened by unintentional moments of levity, such as when Lady Divine attempts to stab her new friend, the Religious Whore (Stole), and begins her attack by stabbing the air above the character’s head, an obvious concession to the fact that Divine is wielding a real knife and doesn’t want to hurt his co-star. And towards the end, when Lady Divine is chasing dozens of people through the streets of Baltimore, her terrifying creature moment is undermined by the number of faces that are displaying laughter instead of terror. But through it all, Waters makes no apologies for the excesses he portrays, and he burns any religious bridges he may have had access to by juxtaposing Christ and the Stations of the Cross with Lady Divine being anally pleasured by a rosary-wielding Mink Stole. It’s profane and it’s crass but it’s still just Waters railing against the formalities and restrictions imposed by organised religion.

When Waters isn’t expressing his dissatisfaction with contemporary morality, he’s holding up a mirror to contemporary issues as well, with mentions of the murder of Sharon Tate – Lady Divine tortures her boyfriend, Mr David (the splendid David Lochary), with the possibility he was involved in her murder – and various references to the war in Vietnam. And he’s surprisingly waspish when it comes to notions of the nuclear family, with Lady Divine doting on her somewhat promiscuous daughter, Cookie (Mueller), while submitting to the attentions of glue-sniffing rapists, Miss Stole and her beads, and a giant lobster (Lobstora) that appears out of nowhere and sets her on the road to sexually-induced hysterical violence. And the idea that Mr David could be seeing another woman, Bonnie (Pearce), whips her into a hypocritical frenzy (and allows Waters’ favourite Edith Massey to provide her first mangled performance in one of his movies).

The dialogue is suitably terse and aggressive, as befits a group of characters who are angry at themselves and the wider world, and though the performances are what you’d have to charitably regard as “authentically naïve”, there’s a rude energy to it all that more than makes up for the deficiencies of shooting on such a low budget. Waters opts for some uncomfortable close ups to highlight the pains and suffering felt by his characters, and doesn’t always worry if those images are distorted or out of focus (one gets the feeling a lot of scenes and shots were the first, and only, take). This adds to the documentary tone the movie adopts and exploits from time to time, and shows that Waters was very much aware of the concept of cinema verité when he was putting his movie together. All of which makes Multiple Maniacs a more heartfelt and poignant movie than may be expected, and shows that, despite all the attempts at shocking its audience, the movie is as much an ode to treating people of all walks of life fairly as it is about exposing the social injustices that stop this from happening. This leaves John Waters looking very much like a social reformer – and who would have thought that?

Rating: 8/10 – a trial by fire for anyone unfamiliar with Waters’ early work, Multiple Maniacs nevertheless works on many levels and is unremittingly earnest in its exposure of small-minded hypocrisy amongst middle-class America and its apologists; for all the sturm und drang on display though, it’s a tract that preaches acceptance but only insofar as you conform to the way society expects you to behave – and if you don’t, then society will call out the National Guard. (3/31)

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)

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D: Tom Six / 88m

Cast: Dieter Laser, Ashley C. Williams, Ashlynn Yennie, Akihiro Kitamura, Andreas Leupold, Peter Blankenstein

If you’ve ever thought that hype and horror go together like Tom Cruise and Scientology (in that they both support each other), then The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is a prime example of that particular maxim. Even its production, where the investors were kept in the dark about the nature of the “conjoining” writer/director Tom Six had in mind, added to the perception that here was a movie that was setting out deliberately to shock audiences and in the worst imaginable way possible. And soon, the hype took over, as word got out that Six’s movie would show people joined mouth-to-anus as part of a medical experiment carried out by the movie’s main character. And just that idea, that you would see three people joined together in such a way – with their mouths actually grafted onto someone else’s anus – was all the movie needed to attract a huge amount of attention. And outrage. Let’s not forget the inevitable outrage. Regarded by many as “sick” and “depraved”, the movie’s success was assured from the moment it’s raison d’être became known.

But more often than not, hype has a nasty way of proving itself to be unfounded. The greater the outrage, the less outrageous a movie usually is. The more critics charge a movie with being “disgusting” the less likely it is that it will be. And The Human Centipede (First Sequence) fits these requirements almost perfectly. It’s ostensibly a horror movie, it has a shocking central idea, and it makes no apologies for its existence. In short, it’s a success exactly because of the approbrium heaped upon it. But is it “sick”, “depraved”, or “disgusting”? The answer is an easy one: No.

What Six did was to take a crazy idea for a horror movie, pull together the funding needed to make it, and then give his project as much pre-release build-up as he could before unleashing it on a very suspecting world. And most everyone saw what he wanted them to see: a movie described as “sick”, “depraved”, and “disgusting” but which wasn’t. The movie that Six actually made was very much a standard monster movie with an opening section that riffed on slasher movies in an effort to lull audiences who weren’t aware of the movie’s content into thinking they were going to see yet another masked psycho feature. And so we’re introduced to Lindsay (Williams) and Jenny (Yennie), two Americans touring Europe who’ve reached Germany and find themselves stranded on a dark and lonely country road, and with no idea where they are (and surprise, surprise, they can’t get a phone signal). Instead of sticking to the road they head off into the woods, get even more lost, and bicker between themselves until they discover a house handily located in the middle of said woods. A safe haven at last. Or is it?

Of course, we all know the answer to that one, as the house is the home of the man we’ve seen right at the beginning of the movie aiming a sedative gun at a truck driver who’s defecating behind some bushes. One glass of water with a Rohypnol chaser (for Jenny), and a sedating injection (for Lindsay) later, and the man of the house, retired surgeon Dr Josef Heiter (Laser), has the girls cuffed to surgical gurneys in his basement and being prepped for an advanced procedure of his own design. But the truck driver has been a poor choice and has to go. And so, Japanese tourist Katsuro (Kitamura) finds himself abducted and taking the driver’s place. Lindsay makes an escape attempt, which in turn inspires Heiter’s admiration for her, and his decision to make her the middle part of his human centipede. The operation goes ahead, the three are joined together, and for a long while the movie forgets that it needs to expand on its basic premise and that seeing three people in what look like oversized nappies crawling around on the floor isn’t very enthralling. Thank God, then, that two cops (Leupold, Blankenstein) come looking for any missing tourists the doctor may be keeping hidden, and the movie can head for the finish line without any further delay.

If much of the previous paragraph sounds as if the movie isn’t being taken too seriously, then that’s because it isn’t. You only have to look at the image above to know that this is a movie that shouldn’t be taken seriously by anyone, and even less so as a horror movie. While it does include a number of traditional horror tropes – the mad doctor, the creature that never wanted to be born, the creature turning on its creator – The Human Centipede (First Sequence) never aspires to doing anything remotely meaningful with them, or provide any subtext beyond a risible connection with experiments carried out by the likes of Dr Josef Mengele during World War II. This leaves the movie looking and sounding rather flat once the human centipede is put together. Kitamura shouts a lot, Williams and Yennie groan and cry a lot, and Laser struts around like the ruler of a kingdom only he can see.

This is a movie where we’re supposed to be horrified at the sight of three people connected in a way that wouldn’t look too out of place in a porn movie. Does this make the movie “sick”, “depraved” or “disgusting”? (Spanish audiences didn’t think so; they found the movie funny, and laughed throughout screenings.) Ultimately, this is a minor horror movie elevated through hype into something that it’s not. Six should be congratulated for bringing his movie to a wider public awareness, but it’s also a movie that betrays its Seventies Euro-horror and Cronenbergian influences at every turn. And if you’re holding out for some gore-soaked thrills, you’ll be disappointed there as well: what little there is has been done before, and on too many occasions to make Six’s efforts stand out from the crowd. If it’s real body horror you’re after, then go see Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989). Now there’s a movie where mouth to anus really is just the beginning.

Rating: 4/10 – an uninspired horror movie that holds back from being as exploitative as it sounds, The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is a triumph of carefully planned marketing and narrative shortcomings; bolstered by Thomas Stefan’s antiseptic production design and Goof de Koning’s angular cinematography, the movie promises a lot that it never follows through on, and in the end is too reliant on the so-called “shock value” of its basic premise to be anywhere near as effective as it should be. (2/31)

A Field in England (2013)

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D: Ben Wheatley / 90m

Cast: Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley

The British writer/director/editor Ben Wheatley has made six movies to date, all of which have been greeted warmly by critics, but less so by audiences. So what does this say about the movies Wheatley makes? Or the critics that review them so favourably? Or the audiences who aren’t as moved as the critics? Well, like any discerning director, Wheatley makes the movies he wants to make. He’s not singing or dancing to anyone else’s tune, and he’s never been just a director for hire. His movies are personal to him (and his co-writer/co-editor, and wife Amy Jump), and he brings his own unique visual aesthetic to them. Perhaps it’s this individuality of purpose that makes him so popular with the critics. But still, wider audiences haven’t taken to Wheatley’s movies, and he remains a movie maker with a great deal of critical caché but very little box office appeal.

Is this fair? Possibly not, but Wheatley’s distinctive approach to making movies isn’t always as welcoming as it could be. His fourth movie, A Field in England, is probably the best example of how his distinctive approach can get in the way of making a movie accessible, or even fundamentally appealing. Set during an English Civil War battle, the movie begins with Reece Shearsmith’s cowardly alchemist’s assistant, Whitehead, crashing through a hedge and cowering in fear from his pursuer, Commander Trower (Barratt). Rescued by a soldier named Cutler (Pope), the pair also encounter a couple of deserters, an alcoholic called Jacob (Ferdinando) and his witless companion, Friend (Glover). They decide to leave the battle and travel to an alehouse that Cutler tells them isn’t far away. They begin crossing a field that’s ringed by mushrooms, and Cutler forces Jacob and Friend to eat them. Things begin to a turn for the weird when the men seemingly haul an Irishman named O’Neill (Smiley) from out of the ground. He quickly assumes control of the group and convinces them that there is treasure buried in the field, and traumatises Whitehead into become a kind of human divining rod in order for them to know where to dig.

What follows is a series of events and episodes that may or may not be the result of the men ingesting the mushrooms, as hallucinations and psychotic breaks affect the whole group except for O’Neill (who may be real and then again he might not be; his provenance is doubtful). And this is the point where what occurs, and what follows, can’t be trusted. If you accept that Wheatley has sent his characters on a really strange trip, then you can go with the flow quite easily and just accept what you’re seeing without worrying about what it might all mean. But if you do need to know what it all means, then the rest of the movie is going to be problematic for you.

Wrongly or rightly, deliberately or accidentally, A Field in England is a movie that takes a huge stylistic and narrative gamble around the half hour mark and never looks back. It maintains a semblance of traditonal storytelling but filters it all through a succession of moments of bravura visual and sonic experimentation. At one point, while being chased by O’Neill, Whitehead shoves mushroom after mushroom into his mouth and Wheatley uses it as a cue to transport the viewer into Whitehead’s mind and expose them to the kaleidoscopic and fantastical visions that the character is experiencing. It’s a tremendous feat of editing, combining fractured and composite visuals with an overwhelming audio conflation of natural sound and music, and it’s far and away the standout moment… but, exceptional as it is, it’s also indicative of the way in which Wheatley and Jump have decided to treat the narrative, and the material as a whole.

As the movie progresses, and the characters experience vision after hallucination after extended fever dream, it becomes clear that the story, such as it is, has been abandoned in favour of transporting the viewer into a world where anything Wheatley and Jump can come up with is the new norm, and regardless of whether it makes sense or not. What makes this all the more frustrating is that the dialogue and the characterisations, which were so redolent during the movie’s first half hour, are also abandoned, and the characters – literally – all become pawns to be moved around the field at random, and until Wheatley can set up the final showdown between Whitehead and O’Neill (which ends with a line from Whitehead that has Eighties action movie cliché written all over it; not bad for a movie set during the English Civil War). In the end, the viewer has no choice but to go along with what’s happening, because Wheatley isn’t giving them a choice; and if it doesn’t make sense – which a lot of it doesn’t – then it’s too bad.

But where the movie scores highly is in its imaginative cinematography, courtesy of DoP Laurie Rose (who has lensed all of Wheatley’s movies). The crisp, pin-sharp black and white images are hugely immersive, and close ups are rendered in such a precise, detailed fashion that there are several moments where the urge to pause the movie and savour the image is irresistible. It’s a movie that’s staggeringly beautiful at times, and if it’s ever released in a 4K UHD version it would be an even more incredible viewing experience. Full marks too to sound designer Martin Pavey and composer Jim Williams for combining their work in a way that adds so much resonance to the images, and helps accentuate the profoundly disturbed states of mind of the characters once their real “journey” has begun. Without these elements – the imagery and the soundtrack – A Field in England would definitely suffer further, but thankfully they more than make up for the errant narrative and directorial choices that Wheatley has made.

Rating: 6/10 – impressive visuals and an equally impressive soundscape aren’t enough to stop A Field in England from being a disappointing, and frustrating viewing experience; loaded with style and directorial flourishes, it neglects its storyline in favour of these approaches, and leaves the movie struggling to retain any meaning, which makes it an exercise in style that overwhelms any substance it may have had in the beginning. (1/31)

July Is Catch Up Month

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Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to watch all the movies you want to see (worse still, sometimes there aren’t enough days in the week). That means missing or putting off seeing some movies that you really want to see, but you just can’t find the time to watch them. Over time it’s like having a Bucket List of movies to catch up on, and the more time goes by the less eager you are to watch them. And after a bit more time goes by, those movies become the ones you know, in your heart of hearts, you’re probably never going to watch.

Some of these movies might be mainstream blockbusters, movies that have been hyped to the hills and it’s taken an incredible amount of will power to avoid. Some might be awards winners, movies that have attracted huge dollops of critical acclaim, and appear regularly on end of year top 10 lists. Some might be movies that have been on a must-see list at one time or another, but then have slipped off the list when the reviews came out and everybody said those movies were rubbish. And then there are the movies that everyone says you should watch – irrespective of how good they are – but which you put aside for exactly that same reason.

Like everyone else, I have such a Bucket List, and I add to it each and every year. Some of the movies I didn’t see in 2016: Warcraft: The Beginning, The BFG, War Dogs, The Neon Demon, and Paterson. Will I watch them eventually? I hope so, but I make no promises either. All of which leads me to July 2017, a month that will see me make a concerted effort to scratch thirty-one movies off my self-imposed Bucket List. Do I know which movies will be removed from the list? Uh-uh, not even in the slightest. Will it be fun to find out? Absolutely. Will they all prove to have been worth the wait? Now there’s a question…

Monthly Roundup – June 2017

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Attack of the Killer Donuts (2016) / D: Scott Wheeler / 85m

Cast: Justin Ray, Kayla Compton, Ben Heyman, Michael Swan, C. Thomas Howell, Fredrick Burns, Kassandra Voyagis, Chris De Christopher, Lauren Compton, Alison England, Michael Rene Walton

Rating: 3/10 – Johnny (Ray) works in a donut shop, while his mad scientist uncle (Swan) works in his basement lab cooking up a formula that – surprise! – will eventually turn donuts into flesh-hungry, bloodthirsty… donuts; bottom of the barrel stuff that aims for kitschy fun but misses by a mile, Attack of the Killer Donuts wears its sugar-coated heart on its sleeve, but is too awful in its execution to make up for its many, many, many faults, or the fact that it’s run out of steam before the first victim is put out of their misery (unlike the audience).

Before the Flood (2016) / D: Fisher Stevens / 96m

With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Al Gore, Elon Musk, Barack Obama, John Kerry

Rating: 8/10 – actor and UN Messenger of Peace on Climate Change, Leonardo DiCaprio explores the ways in which the world is still refusing to acknowledge the effects of greenhouse gases and the need to switch to renewable energy; DiCaprio is a passionate environmental activist who has access to many of the “big players”, and his targeted globe-trotting highlights the natural disasters that are occurring all around us, all of which makes Before the Flood a worthy successor to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), and an important, and sadly necessary, acknowledgment that we’re still not doing enough to turn things around and ensure our collective futures.

Dough (2015) / D: John Goldschmidt / 95m

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Jerome Holder, Phil Davis, Ian Hart, Pauline Collins, Andrew Ellis, Malachi Kirby, Natasha Gordon, Melanie Freeman, Daniel Caltagirone, Andy de la Tour

Rating: 7/10 – an aging Jewish baker (Pryce) takes on an apprentice (Holder) whose second job as a drug dealer leads to the bakery’s sales going through the roof when an unexpected ingredient finds its way into the dough mix; a genial, inoffensive movie that features winning performances from Pryce and Holder, Davis as the kind of smarmy business developer who belongs in a pantomime, and a pleasant sense of its own shortcomings, Dough is a cross-cultural comedy drama that is amusing for the most part but which lacks the substance needed to make it more engaging.

Grief Street (1931) / D: Richard Thorpe / 64m

Cast: Barbara Kent, John Holland, Dorothy Christy, Crauford Kent, Lillian Rich, James P. Burtis, Larry Steers, Lloyd Whitlock

Rating: 5/10 – there are plenty of suspects, but just who did kill less than popular stage actor Alvin Merle (Kent), and why?; a locked room murder mystery where everyone with a motive is assembled Agatha Christie-style at the end to reveal the murderer, Grief Street is a brash, enjoyable whodunnit whose villain will be obvious to anyone who’s seen more than a handful of similarly plotted movies, but the movie more than makes up for this thanks to spirited performances from its cast, and Thorpe’s relaxed directing style.

The Outer Gate (1937) / D: Raymond Cannon / 63m

Cast: Ralph Morgan, Kay Linaker, Ben Alexander, Eddie Acuff, Charles Brokaw

Rating: 5/10 – when an up-and-coming employee (Alexander) is sent to prison for embezzlement, his employer (Morgan) is the first to believe in his guilt, but when the truth is revealed and he’s released from jail, the employee sets about getting his revenge; directed by Cannon in a crude, rudimentary way, The Outer Gate is nevertheless a movie that plays to the strengths of its gosh-you-won’t-believe-it screenplay, Morgan’s low-key, passive performance, and a surprisingly grim fatalism, all of which make it more intriguing than it appears to be on the face of things.

High Voltage (1929) / D: Howard Higgin / 63m

aka Wanted

Cast: William Boyd, Carole Lombard, Owen Moore, Phillips Smalley, Billy Bevan, Diane Ellis

Rating: 4/10 – when a bus load of passengers is stranded thanks to heavy snow, they take refuge in an abandoned church, only to find they’re not alone; a dialogue heavy drama made in the early days of the Talkies, High Voltage is a well acted if dreary experience that tries hard to make itself interesting but falls short thanks to its focus on (already) stereotypical characters and the period’s need for a neat, everything-wrapped-up-satisfactorily ending.

CHIPS (2017) / D: Dax Shepard / 101m

Cast: Michael Peña, Dax Shepard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rosa Salazar, Jessica McNamee, Adam Brody, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Kristen Bell, Justin Chatwin

Rating: 4/10 – rookie motorcycle cop Jon Baker (Shepard) is teamed up with newly transferred Frank Poncharello (Peña) in the California Highway Patrol, and soon finds himself tracking down a bunch of dirty cops led by veteran Ray Kurtz (D’Onofrio); forty years on from its origin as a TV series, CHIPS is given a big screen reboot thanks to fanboy Shepard, but is only moderately successful in its efforts to drag the show kicking and screaming into the 21st century, leaving it completely dependent on how you feel about Shepherd and Peña as a comedy duo, and its less than inspired script.

Baby Driver (2017)

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D: Edgar Wright / 113m

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones, Flea, Lanny Joon, Sky Ferreira, Paul Williams

There are very few times when directors manage to achieve fully the vision they have for their movies. Some have pet projects that they wait years to bring to the big screen, but when they do, they’re not always successful. Some movies have audiences wondering what on earth the director was thinking of, some can be filed under glorious failures, while others achieve the distinction of gaining a cult following. None of these apply to Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, a movie that zooms onto our screens like a gust of fresh air designed to blow away all the horrendously bloated blockbuster movies that have been foisted on us so far this year.

Wright’s ode to fast cars, old-fashioned meet-cute romance and killer tunes is quite simply, a blast. If this is your kind of movie then you are going to have an amazing time. And if this isn’t your kind of movie… well, that’s a shame, as you’re missing an absolute treat. Wright has made a movie that is energetic, soulful, visually arresting, and chock full of great performances, from Spacey’s criminal mastermind to Foxx’s psycho with extra attitude. The story is a simple one: Baby (Elgort) owes Doc (Spacey) for trying to steal his car when Baby was younger. By being the driver on bank robberies that Doc has set up, Baby’s debt diminishes with each job. With one last job to go before the debt is fully paid, Baby meets waitress Debora (James), and suddenly he has a reason to move on with his life.

Baby takes a job as a pizza delivery driver (no one’s going to get a free pizza after thirty minutes if he’s delivering), and he begins to make plans for himself and Debora to leave Atlanta and hit the road, travelling to wherever it takes them. But Doc appears with another job, one that could see Baby earning a lot more money than before; he’s also aware of Baby’s relationship with Debora and makes it clear that he’s not giving Baby a choice in taking part or not. Doc has assembled Bats (Foxx), Buddy (Hamm) and his wife Darling (González) to carry out the robbery, with Baby as the driver. But in prepping the job, Baby begins to have second thoughts about going through with it. He tries to get away and hit the road with Debora, but he’s outwitted by Buddy and Bats, leaving him with only one choice: take part in the robbery or see Debora come to harm. And then the robbery goes horribly wrong…

From the start, Wright displays a flair and a confidence that elevates the material to greater heights than anyone could have expected. Expanding on an idea he had back in 1994 – and which he first explored in the 2003 video for Mint Royale’s Blue Song – Wright has written, constructed, and brought to life a movie that celebrates love, and a passion for music that is a form of love in itself. Baby suffers from tinnitus, a “hum in the drum”, and he uses music to drown it out. This gives Wright the chance to flood the soundtrack with an array of carefully and aptly chosen songs that punctuate and inform the mood at any given time. Some choices might seem counter-intuitive (Focus’s Hocus Pocus for a foot chase? The Damned’s Neat Neat Neat for a robbery getaway?) but they all work, adding to the clever visual and aural stylings that Wright employs throughout.

But while the soundtrack is the key to much of what is going on emotionally in the movie, it’s the look of it that clinches our involvement. Wright is supremely confident when it comes to placing and moving the camera, and some of the angles and shots that he conjures up are nothing short of breathtaking. An early scene where Baby waits outside a bank and is listening to Bellbottoms by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion offers the viewer a bravura expression of Baby’s love for music and the way it can motivate and uplift him. This is only Elgort’s eighth movie, but his performance is a far cry from his usual pouty roles in a variety of YA movies. The pout is still here but it’s reined in for the most part, and seeing `Baby “rock out” to various songs in the apartment he shares with his deaf foster father (Jones) shows an ease and a loosening of attitude that is a good sign for any future roles.

But Baby Driver isn’t just a visually arresting movie with a terrific soundtrack, it’s also a tender romance and a cracking thriller. The relationship between Baby and Debora could have been a little too saccharine in comparison to the more muscular action elements (of which there are plenty), but Wright is wise to this and keeps it all light and dreamy, a forever fairy tale approach that works well against the macho posturings of the crews Doc assembles. James and Elgort have an easy-going chemistry, and their scenes together are funny and sweet and engaging. On the other side of the fence, Foxx is brusque and confrontational as psycho-without-an-off-switch Bats, Bernthal is another crew member who picks on Baby to no avail, while Hamm goes from amiable robber to avenging killer once the final robbery goes wrong. These are all good performances but they’re topped by Spacey’s sinister yet urbane Doc, a character you actually want to see more of, but who Wright wisely uses sparingly.

The action scenes are all very well choreographed, with the first car chase at the beginning of the movie (and which features that manoeuvre from the trailer) proving to be one of the best action sequences you’re likely to see all year. Wright shows a tremendous sense of space and distance in these sequences, and the camerawork by DoP Bill Pope is magnificent, propelling the viewer along with Baby et al, and providing enough breathtaking moments for two movies. And even when Wright slows things down in order to advance the plot, there’s still a sense of energy waiting to be released, of power straining at the gate to be let loose. And with the next squeal of tyres there it is, and off we go again.

This isn’t a movie though where the characters are secondary to the action, or play second fiddle to a script that doesn’t make sense. It’s a fairly simple, straightforward movie that looks amazing but still manages to retain a heart and a soul thanks to its romantic elements, and to the way in which the characters interact with each other. There are moments of humour, too – how could there not be in a movie by Edgar Wright – and they fit right in with all the other elements, unforced, and keeping the tone from becoming too serious. Wright balances all these elements to perfection, and there aren’t any scenes that either feel extraneous or tonally at odds with the rest of the movie. All in all, a tremendous achievement, and one that at long last proves that mainstream moviemaking doesn’t have to be loud, brash, overly reliant on CGI, and devoid of a coherent story and plot. Hollywood – take notice.

Rating: 9/10 – the first bona fide all-round success of 2017, Baby Driver is a triumph of style, visuals, acting, directing, writing – hell, everything, and a movie to be savoured just as much for the things it doesn’t do as the things it does; and of course it has possibly the coolest soundtrack of the year as well, a feast for the ears that contains so many gems that you won’t be able to decide which one to hum as you leave the cinema.

Baywatch (2017)

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D: Seth Gordon / 116m

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera, Jon Bass, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Hannibal Buress, Rob Huebel, David Hasselhoff, Pamela Anderson

Drivel.

Rating: 2/10 – drivel; just drivel.

10 Reasons to Remember Michael Nyqvist (1960-2017)

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Michael Nyqvist (8 November 1960 – 27 June 2017)

Although he was born in Sweden, Michael Nyqvist’s interest in acting began when he was a teenager living as an exchange student in Omaha, Nebraska. He made several stage appearances while he was a senior in high school, but on his return to Sweden he was accepted into ballet school; he gave it up though after a year. When he was twenty-four he was accepted into the Malmö Theatre Academy, and his career as an actor began in earnest. But for a long while he appeared solely on the stage before he made his first appearance on screen in a TV movie called Kamraterna (1982) (as The Model). However, it wasn’t until the mid-Nineties that Nyqvist began to get regular work as an on-screen actor, and it wasn’t until he appeared in Lukas Moodysson’s Together (2000) that he really made an impression on audiences and critics.

From then on, Nyqvist made a number of Swedish movies that traded on his ability to portray fierce yet vulnerable male characters, and with a great deal of sincerity and intelligence. But it was his role as the journalist Mikael Blomkvist in the Millennium TrilogyThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009), The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009), and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009) – that brought him to the attention of international audiences, and in particular, Hollywood’s casting agents. Two years later and he was making his English language debut in the sadly less than enthralling Abduction (2011). From there he combined working in Hollywood with working in Sweden, and maintained an integrity in his work that guaranteed good performances, even if the material he was working with wasn’t quite up to the standard required. Regarded unfairly perhaps as a “serious” actor, Nyqvist was always able to find the light and shade in most of the characters he played, and he was always a magnetic presence when on screen. In short, he was one of that select band of actors who always improved a movie they appeared in, and you could count on him to deliver a thoughtful, considered performance whatever the genre. For that, he will be sorely missed, and even more so for dying at such a relatively young age.

1 – Together (2000)

2 – The Guy in the Grave Next Door (2002)

3 – As It Is in Heaven (2004)

4 – Suddenly (2006)

5 – The Black Pimpernel (2007)

6 – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

7 – Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

8 – My So-Called Father (2014)

9 – John Wick (2014)

10 – The Colony (2015)

Trailers – Bronx Gothic (2017), Stronger (2017) and The Hippopotamus (2017)

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If you’ve seen the New York-based writer, performer and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili then you’ll be aware of just how magnetic a stage presence she is, and how impressive is her ability to manipulate her frame in such a way as to give full expression to an incredible range of feelings and desires and emotions. In 2014, Okpokwasili performed her one-woman dance piece, Bronx Gothic, where she used a series of letters sent between two young girls in the Bronx – and her remarkable body – to illustrate how little one of them knew about her body, and how they were able to connect with each other. It was a tour-de-force performance, and is now the subject of Andrew Rossi’s latest documentary. Rossi, who also made Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011) and The First Monday in May (2016), goes behind the scenes of Bronx Gothic and examines the way in which Okpokwasili conceived and created the piece, and how she used elements from her own life in the process. This may not attract a particularly wide audience base, but it promises to be one of the more original and impressively mounted documentaries of 2017. And with Okpokwasili being such an incredible performer to watch, any chance to see her is absolutely worth taking.

 

Following on the heels (no pun intended) of Peter Berg’s gripping Patriots Day (2016), Stronger tells the smaller scale story of one of the victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Jeff Bauman (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) was caught in the first blast and lost both his legs. The movie, based on the book of the same name written by Bauman and Bret Witter, charts Bauman’s recovery and readjustment to life in the wake of the tragedy, and how his rehabilitation affected him, and his relationship with his girlfriend, Erin Hurley (played by Tatiana Maslany). Without trying to denigrate or undermine Bauman’s efforts to learn how to walk again, and overcome the emotional trauma he experienced, the trailer for Stronger hints at the movie being a straightforward re-telling of Bauman’s struggle, and the trailer’s content seems to include all the clichés you’d expect, right down to the moment where Bauman cries, “I showed up for you!” Let’s hope then that director David Gordon Green has a tighter grip on the material than is evident from the trailer, and that Bauman’s story is given a better handling than what we’ve seen so far.

 

When he’s not appearing on television or in the movies, Stephen Fry is also a well regarded writer with a string of successful books to his name. The Hippopotamus was his second novel to be published, and if you’ve read it then you’ll know that it’s ripe for a big screen adaptation (or a small screen mini-series). And at last that big screen adaptation is here, and for once, with the perfect choice for its lead character, disgraced poet Ted Wallace, in the form of Roger Allam. Allam’s crumpled features and unimpressed demeanour are a terrific combination for the part, and from the trailer it’s clear that the actor has the measure of the role and is also enjoying himself immensely. Whether or not the script will allow him to be the singular focus of Fry’s typically erudite comedy of manners remains to be seen, but if so then this could be the movie that provides a well-earned boost to Allam’s career. Let’s hope then, that Fry’s eccentric yet amusing novel has been given the adaptation it deserves.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

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D: Raoul Peck / 93m

With: Samuel L. Jackson, James Baldwin (archive footage)

In 1957, the writer, visionary, poet and humanist James Baldwin returned to the US having spent the last nine years living in Paris, France. He was thirty-three. Soon he was at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, and was touring the South giving lectures on his views on racial inequality. In six short years he had become such a well known supporter of the movement that his writings and speeches on the matter were listened to with respect on both sides of the debate. His views on the Civil Rights movement, and his ability to see the issue from both sides, arose out of his seeing first hand the effects of integration, along with his relationships with the leading players of the time. In 1979, Baldwin committed to write a book about America based on the lives of his three friends, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X. He wrote just thirty pages of notes before abandoning the project, which he’d entitled Remember This House. It’s these notes, and a collection of interviews and speeches given by Baldwin over the years, as well as contemporary footage and clips from the movies, that have been brought together to form I Am Not Your Negro.

Baldwin was a natural thinker and orator, precise in his arguments and astute in his observations, and there are many moments in the movie where those attributes are given their due. An appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968 sees Baldwin express his concerns for the future of the US (while an entirely uncomfortable Cavett looks as if he can’t wait for the interview to be over). It’s a short excerpt, but it shows just how much consideration Baldwin had given to the idea that things were improving for the black man in America, something that clearly worried him. His answer is far from comforting, and in many ways, is a foreshadowing of events to come, such as the Rodney King incident, or the Black Panthers. The movie expressly and explicitly reveals Baldwin’s thoughts on these matters, and particularly the way in which he felt that politics and the media were attempting to reassure the American public that progress was being made, when in truth it was stalled, held up at a point when progress could and should have been made. He was an optimist, but a realist too, and as a result his views could appear pessimistic, but Baldwin would have denied this. He’s telling his truth as he sees it, and he wants everyone to make up their own minds about the necessity for racial violence and intolerance.

Baldwin’s observations are supported by archival footage that goes back to the pre-War era, where his disdain for actors such as Mantan Moreland and Stepin Fetchit – who essayed stereotypical black characters in movies in the Thirties and Forties – helped to enforce his beliefs about America’s racist, institutional characteristics, and the difficulty of getting an entire culture to change its way of thinking. The movie sees Baldwin chipping away at that sort of intransigence, asking uncomfortable questions, making uncomfortable statements (he refers to Gary Cooper and Doris Day as “two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen”), and challenging the average white man to ask himself why he feels so threatened by the presence of the black man.

But the main focus is on the lives of his friends, three martyrs to the cause who died for their beliefs, and who in their different ways, were committed to overthrowing the institutional racism that permeated the US during the first half of the 20th century (and long before), and which they sought to eradicate through their efforts. Their methods were different, their personalities were different, but their goal was the same, and Baldwin is their chronicler, a self-confessed witness to a time when change seemed inevitable, and where Evers’ activism, King Jr’s passive ministrations, and Malcolm X’s angry dissention caused such waves amongst the white establishment that their deaths seemed almost inevitable. Baldwin’s anguish at each man’s death is relayed through his thoughts at the time, and they are poignant, studied and powerful, brief meditations on the nature of loss and the repercussions that followed. But through it all, Baldwin’s composure and his awareness of the continuing struggle ensures he has no time to be maudlin.

In assembling the various strands needed to paint such a vivid portrait of a man and his times, director Raoul Peck has succeeded in drawing together these various strands in such a judicious way that they both highlight and underline the points Baldwin makes, and reaffirm just how acute his intellect was. He was a thoughtful and thought-provoking commentator on a period of civil upheaval that is still being dissected even today, and Peck has chosen fittingly in terms of Baldwin’s presence in front of the cameras. There must have been occasions when Baldwin was more loquacious than subdued, but if he was, Peck hasn’t included those moments, and the man’s measured, heedful expressions of dismay and apprehension are given their due, and backed by archival footage that is both relevant and, on occasion, deliberately shocking. The movie paints a portrait of a time when the hopes of millions of black Americans were routinely sabotaged by the efforts of a white majority savagely defending itself from censure, and its condemnation of those tactics is absolute. And still it celebrates the resilience of the men and women who fought to improve their place and their standing in America.

Baldwin’s off-camera musings and thoughts are more than adequately expressed by Samuel L. Jackson, and it’s a measure of Jackson’s skill as a voice actor that he’s not always recognisable as Samuel L. Jackson. He doesn’t attempt to sound like Baldwin, but he does offer a knowing detachment when reciting Baldwin’s comments about himself. These comments are often full of self-doubt and muted reflection, something that gives the audience the sense that no matter how eloquent he might have been in print or on camera, Baldwin was as readily unsure of himself as anyone else might be. One thing the movie isn’t though, is unsure of itself, and it moves confidently between Baldwin’s observations on America’s tolerance for racial lassitude, and a broader history of the struggle for civil rights. It makes a number of salient points, acts as a primer for the issues involved, and serves as a reminder that the fight for equality still goes on today, and is just as important as ever.

Rating: 9/10 – a powerful and emotive subject as seen through the eyes of one of its most shrewd and capable observers, I Am Not Your Negro is an expertly assembled chronicle of a period in recent American history whose ramifications are still being felt today; succinct and incisive, Baldwin’s prose and oratory act as an entry point for a topic that can be explored in so many different ways, but what can’t be ignored is how much of what he says and reveals seems so obvious now to those of us looking back.

A Family Man (2016)

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Original title: The Headhunter’s Calling

D: Mark Williams / 108m

Cast: Gerard Butler, Gretchen Mol, Alison Brie, Anupam Kher, Max Jenkins, Alfred Molina, Willem Dafoe, Mimi Kuzyk, Dustin Milligan, Julia Butters, Dwain Murphy, Ethan MacIver Wright

Dane Jensen (Butler) is a tough, no-nonsense headhunter who uses a mixture of insider knowledge, sharp practice and carefully orchestrated bullying to get the sales figures he needs; everyone he successfully finds employment for earns his company, Blackridge Recruiting, a five-figure sum. His boss and mentor, Ed Blackridge (Dafoe), informs Dane and his main rival, Lynn Vogel (Brie), that he’s taking a step back from running the company, and his successor will depend on which one of them is the more successful in the forthcoming financial quarter. Dane is the better headhunter, and heading into the quarter has no doubts that he will take Ed’s place.

But while Ed is all-conquering at work, at home it’s a different matter. His wife Elise (Mol), would like Dane to be home more, as would his kids, Ryan (Jenkins), Lauren (Butters), and Nathan (Wright). But Dane is committed more to his work than he is to his family, and he continually makes excuses for getting home late and/or missing events in his children’s lives. The only promises he can’t seem to break or those that he makes to his clients, such as engineer Lou Wheeler (Molina). However, Dane’s outlook on life and his commitment to Blackridge begins to derail when Ryan is diagnosed with ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia). Faced with losing Ryan if his treatment fails, Dane spends more and more time with his son but to the detriment of the sales target he needs to reach to step into Ed’s position. As he struggles to come to terms with his son’s illness and his declining fortunes at work, Dane has to decide which is more important: his family, or providing for them.

If you decide to watch A Family Man, then be prepared to enter a world where lots of things happen that don’t happen in the real world. Now, of course, A Family Man isn’t based on a true story (not that it would matter), and it’s not a movie that’s set in a far-off fantasy world where dragons lurk over the next hillside, or wizards in pointy hats loiter in the local tavern. But its story does take place in an alternate reality, one that looks and feels just like the real world, but it’s also one that gives itself away from time to time as being wholly imaginary. It’s on these occasions that the movie, and Bill Dubuque’s saccharine-drenched screenplay, give the game away, and as a result, any suspension of disbelief disappears in an instant. And it’s a shame, as the movie didn’t need to be created in this fashion, and if the makers had excised all the otherworld trappings, then it might have stood a better chance than it does in its current form.

It’s a familiar story, told with a smattering of charm and a large amount of pontificating. Dane is the classic absent husband, too hooked up on the importance and the power he has at work to notice his home life slipping away from him. There’s always one more phone call to take, one more employer to call and cajole into taking on a client, one less occasion to spend with his wife and kids. He tries to justify his behaviour, his absenteeism, by spouting that he’s doing it for his family, as if they should be grateful that he’s becoming less and less of a presence in their lives. But the script isn’t satisfied with just having Dane dressed up in Hugo Boss and seeing life with blinkers on. He has conversations with Elise where he wonders about the bigger questions in life: is there more to everything than work (yes), how do you know if you’re happy (you just know), and why should it take forty minutes to ejaculate (ah, you’re too stressed?). It’s okay that Dane’s not just a lean, mean recruiting machine, but the script’s idea to make him seem more rounded as a character is laughable and obtuse.

But with the arrival of Ryan’s cancer, the movie abandons any attempt at investigating Dane’s interior life, and instead, takes us on a journey into the alternate reality already mentioned above. This is a world where a child’s desire to be an architect when they grow up leads to Dane and Ryan visiting five famous Chicago landmarks, and Dane being able to recite facts about each one with confidence and precision. Dane appears able to skip work whenever he needs to in order to make these trips, and the hospital where Ryan is being treated seems remarkably unconcerned about them (one of Ryan’s main symptoms is generalised weakness and fatigue; wouldn’t these trips be detrimental?). A phone call between Dane and Lou sees Lou try to act as Dane’s counsellor when he doesn’t even know him. And then there’s Ryan’s doctor, an oncologist (Kher), whose bedside manner includes kissing Ryan’s hand at one point (yeah, that probably happens all the time).

There are further examples as the movie grinds mercilessly towards the kind of sugar-coated resolution that is meant to extract copious amounts of tears from its audience, but which in reality (yes, the real reality), is likely to encourage groans and unforced laughter. It’s all topped off by an unlikely last-minute piece of character reversal that only happens in the movies, and which even the most forgiving of viewers will find ludicrous/ridiculous/silly (delete as appropriate). Through it all, Butler at least plays it straight, even when the absurdity of some scenes seems written in letters forty feet high, and he’s backed by Mol whose role as Elise is undermined by the character’s yo-yoing back and forth between castigating Dane and supporting him. Dafoe’s role is nothing more than a recurring cameo, Brie is wasted, Molina has perhaps the movie’s best moment – in a bathroom, and the rest of the cast orbit around Butler until told what to do. Directing for the first time, Williams lacks the necessary experience to overcome or iron out the script’s inherent problems, and there are too many times where his direction brings out the commonplace rather than anything that might raise the material above the level of acceptable.

Rating: 4/10 – adequately done, A Family Man won’t stick around in the memory, but while you’re watching it, it will make an impact, albeit an unfortunate one; laden with too many moments and scenes that are hellbent on manipulating its audience’s emotions, the movie has all the hallmarks of a glossy disease-of-the-week TV movie, but with a bigger budget, a better known cast, and more time to drag out its increasingly implausible narrative.

12 Feet Deep (2016)

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Original title: The Deep End

aka 12 Feet Deep: Trapped Sisters

D: Matt Eskandari / 85m

Cast: Alexandra Park, Nora-Jane Noone, Diane Farr, Tobin Bell, Christian Kain Blackburn

Two sisters, Bree (Noone) and Jonna (Park), meet up after having been apart for three years. Their choice of venue is the local aqua centre. Bree is there first, and when Jonna arrives their shared history prompts a less than happy reunion. Attempting to patch things up, the sisters have a swim but they’re not in the water long before the manager (Bell) announces the pool is closing early for the bank holiday weekend. As they get ready to leave, Bree realises she’s lost her engagement ring. When Jonna spots it at the bottom of the pool, wedged in a grate, the two sisters both try to free it, but in the process Jonna’s hair becomes trapped in the grate. While Bree tries to help Jonna free herself, the manager activates the fibreglass cover and the women surface to find themselves trapped beneath it.

Now at this point in 12 Feet Deep, and with the bulk of the running time still to be played out, the average viewer may well be wondering where the movie will be going next. Obviously the sisters will attempt to find a way out of their predicament, and obviously the animosity borne out of their past history will push itself to the fore (and more than once), while Bree’s diabetes will also factor itself in (where would these stories be if one of the characters didn’t have some kind of medical condition that the situation would aggravate?). Perhaps the manager will remember something he’s forgotten, and return in time to save the day. Or maybe Bree’s fiancé, David (Blackburn), will start to worry when she doesn’t come home and trace her whereabouts back to the pool, and save the day himself. Or perhaps there’ll be an alternative development, something unexpected or unforeseen that will heighten the tension of the sisters’ misfortune.

In the end the route the movie takes is certainly an unexpected one. Jonna soon adopts a pessimistic “we’re both doomed” attitude while Bree tries to be more positive and problem solve her way out of their dilemma. She also manages to retrieve her ring and in the process discovers that the grate is loose. But she’s unable to free it completely. The only apparent hope they have of getting out is to use a piece of broken plastic to carve away at an opening in the cover, but this is likely to take them forever (or at least until the pool reopens). The sisters bicker and rake over painful childhood memories, and then the script – by director Eskandari and co-writer Michael Hultquist – reveals its trump card: the centre’s cleaner, Clara (Farr).

Or, rather, it reintroduces her. Clara has been seen earlier rifling through some of the other customers’ bags and stealing money from them. We’ve seen the manager catch her in the act, but instead of firing her on the spot, he laments the fact he’s just written a glowing reference to her parole officer, and then tells her to finish up her shift. It’s such a clumsy, unbelievable thing for him to have done that anyone paying attention would have wondered why we were ever introduced to her. But Eskandari and Hultquist have further plans for her. Duly finishing up her shift, Clara becomes aware of the sisters’ presence under the fibreglass cover and does what any self-respecting parolee would do: she keeps them trapped and coerces Bree into revealing the pin code for her bank card (Clara has financial problems that take precedence over any ambition to be a heroine).

From the moment it becomes obvious that Clara is going to make the sisters’ predicament even worse, the movie throws itself into a deep end of its own making, and presents the viewer with a succession of scenes that fail to make any dramatic sense whatsoever. The remainder of the movie is so poorly thought out that it never recovers from Clara’s reappearance and invidious behaviour. Any unease or trepidation as to how Bree and Jonna will eventually escape their potentially watery grave is abandoned in favour of a credibility-free exercise in cat-and-mouse theatrics that kills the movie’s ambition of being a nail-biting thriller absolutely and completely stone dead. Eskandari and Hultquist attempt to make Clara a disquieting and menacing figure, but fail to make the motivations for her actions even remotely convincing, and in doing so give Farr what may well be the most impossible acting challenge of 2016. That she navigates her tortured dialogue as well as she does is a tribute to her skill as an actress, and a blessing for the viewer; in the hands of some actresses Clara could have been the character equivalent of road kill.

As Jonna and Bree, Park and Noone also fare better than the script should have allowed them to, and though there’s no physical resemblance between them, they’re more than credible as sisters. As the movie progresses the childhood trauma that is the source of the animosity they share is revealed piece by piece, and Noone, whose job it is to reveal it, overcomes a great deal of awkward dialogue in order to do so effectively. It’s a heavily manufactured trauma that doesn’t add to the situation they find themselves in, and like much else in the movie, lacks any resonance or depth except that, against the odds, Noone and Park manage to give it. On the very meagre plus side, Byron Werner’s strategically astute cinematography is a plus that at least allows the movie to appear more gripping than it actually is, and Vincent Albo’s claustrophobic production design enhances the sisters’ physical quandary.

Rating: 3/10 – what could have been a tense, gripping examination of the plight of two women in a life-threatening situation is undermined by atrocious plotting, an incredibly weak justification for Clara’s behaviour, and too many scenes that should have been rewritten before shooting began; all these things make 12 Feet Deep a chore to watch, and massively disappointing, but the performances offer strong mitigation against the daft scenario, and they also provide occasional bouts of relief from the woeful material on hand.

Motive for Revenge (1935)

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D: Burt P. Lynwood / 60m

Cast: Donald Cook, Irene Hervey, Doris Lloyd, Edwin Maxwell, Le Strange Millman, Russell Simpson, John Kelly, Edwin Argus, Billy West, Wheeler Oakman, Fern Emmett

During the Thirties, crime dramas were a staple ingredient of the moviegoer’s diet, with studios falling over themselves to supply a waiting public with as much product as they could possibly want (and then a lot more besides). Of course, these crime dramas ranged in terms of the production values afforded them, the quality of their scripts, the skill of their directors, and the abilities of their casts. At the independent end of the ladder, these kinds of movies were made fast, cheaply, and with no further ambition than to get into cinemas as quickly as possible, and make as much money as possible before settling into obscurity. Often they were entirely forgettable, with plots and storylines and characters that blended into one, and the kind of resolutely upbeat endings that look and feel entirely cheesy and unrealistic to modern viewers.

Motive for Revenge is exactly that kind of crime drama. Made on a shoestring budget by Majestic Pictures, the movie suffers from an absurd, mind-boggling screenplay that makes you wonder if writer Stuart Anthony was on some serious medication when he wrote it, the kind of absentee direction from Lynwood that could imply he wasn’t even on set during the shoot, and enough woeful acting from its cast to make the viewer wince every few minutes (or sooner, depending on your tolerance). The movie crams a lot into its short running time, but hardly any of it makes any sense, and even more of it will have the average viewer shaking their head in disbelief. Viewers familiar with this type of movie, however, should derive some measure of appreciation for the efforts of all involved in putting this movie together. Because, against all the odds – or maybe in spite of them – Motive for Revenge is much more enjoyable than it seems.

Again, the screenplay is mind-boggling. Barry Webster (Cook) is a bank teller who decides to rob his own bank in order to provide a luxury lifestyle for his wife, Muriel (Hervey). He does this because his mother-in-law (Lloyd) keeps making nasty comments about his lack of money and ambition. Unable to tell his mother-in-law to take a hike, he steals enough money to go on a spending spree with his wife before he’s caught and sentenced to seven years in jail. At first, Muriel tells Barry she’ll wait for him, but it’s not long before a fellow inmate is showing him a newspaper headline announcing her impending divorce from Barry. Then she marries jealous businessman, William King (Maxwell). It’s not a happy marriage, but it’s too late to back out. Meanwhile, Barry falls in with the wrong crowd in jail and when he’s released he uses them to plot his revenge against his ex-wife and her new husband. He goes to their home, and during a confrontation in which all three have guns in their hands, King is killed. Barry goes into hiding, Muriel attempts to take the blame for her husband’s death, and the movie gets sillier and sillier (except for a pretty good speedboat chase that’s marred by some awkward looking model work at the end).

There’s a lot more to it, but despite all its shortcomings, and faults that practically leap off the screen in their efforts to draw attention to themselves, the movie has a certain energy and presence about itself. Yes, the direction is awful, and yes, there’s enough wooden acting going on to give the viewer secondary splinters, but even with all this, the movie has a rough charm that makes up for all its failures. The early scenes zip by at a fair old lick as it sets up the movie’s second half and the murder mystery – just who did shoot William King? (You’ll never guess) – that will become the focus of the remainder of the movie. But along the way the characters all behave strangely, with some motivations and decisions made seemingly at whim, or out of the blue (you get the sense that Anthony was making it all up with no idea of how to piece it all together). And yet with all that, the movie retains a strange, almost hypnotic appeal. You have to keep watching just to see how silly it can get.

On that level, it doesn’t disappoint. Cook and Hervey act like a married couple who spend most of their time avoiding each other, while Maxwell, as the paranoid, controlling second husband, adopts a perma-scowl throughout and chews on his lines as if he didn’t like the taste of them. There’s solid, unspectacular, but also deathless support from the wonderfully named Millman as a District Attorney who won’t look further than Muriel for the killer, and there are “comic” interludes featuring Kelly and Argus as the cops’ answer to Dumb and Dumber. These interludes aren’t as funny as some of the more unintentional comic moments in the movie, especially if they involve Cook having to walk and talk at the same time, but they do break up the otherwise po-faced narrative. With the benefit of over eighty years of hindsight, Motive for Revenge is easily the kind of movie that will be overlooked by casual viewers, and dismissed by afficionados of this sort of thing. But that would be unfair, as the movie – and quite perversely – has a way of worming its way under your defences and making an impact. You won’t necessarily want to see it a second time, but as an example of a movie that shouldn’t make any kind of an impact at all, it’s well worth seeking out.

Rating: 3/10 – unashamedly bad, Motive for Revenge is not a minor gem or in need of critical reappraisal, but a good old-fashioned Thirties crime drama that is strangely entertaining, and despite its seemingly best efforts to appear otherwise; a movie where looking past the obvious brings its own unexpected reward, it’s a rare occasion where a movie somehow manages to transcend its low-budget origins and decides, in the words of Madonna, to “strike a pose and let’s get to it”.

NOTE: There is currently no trailer available for Motive for Revenge.

Question of the Week – 23 June 2017

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Meryl Streep and Bruce Campbell both celebrate their birthdays today, which prompts the obvious question:

Why haven’t they co-starred in a movie yet?

Ash vs Florence Foster Jenkins perhaps? Or maybe a remake of Death Becomes Her (1992) with Streep reprising her role, and Campbell taking over from Bruce Willis? Whatever the idea or the combination, someone, somewhere, get these two together in a movie – now, before it’s too late…

Shimmer Lake (2017)

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D: Oren Uziel / 86m

Cast: Benjamin Walker, Rainn Wilson, Stephanie Sigman, John Michael Higgins, Wyatt Russell, Adam Pally, Mark Rendall, Rob Corddry, Ron Livingston, Angela Vint, Isobel Dove

A low-key yet bristling thriller, Shimmer Lake – another title that is atmospheric yet has little relation to the main plot of the movie – tells its story in reverse. And so we see Andy Sikes (Wilson) in the basement of his own home, and yet he’s clearly trying to avoid being discovered. Upstairs is his brother, Zeke (Walker), the town sheriff. Soon we realise that there’s been a bank robbery, and Andy is involved, along with two other men, Ed Burton (Russell) and Chris Morrow (Rendall). It transpires that Andy has  the money from the robbery, and Zeke is certain that he’s planning to meet up with Ed. He also has to contend with two FBI agents, Walker and Biltmore (Corddry, Livingston), whose approach to the investigation and the hunt for the three men appears less than serious. When they find the body of Judge Dawkins (Higgins), a wider conspiracy involving the death of Burton’s son begins to come to light. Later that night, having avoided being seen, Andy meets up with Ed’s wife, Steph (Sigman), but their meeting doesn’t go the way Andy had hoped.

The day before, Dawkins demands the return of an incriminating tape from Burton, Morrow’s role in the robbery is revealed, Steph deliberately injures herself before talking to Zeke and the FBI agents, and further details of the conspiracy are revealed. The day ends with the death of Dawkins and Andy coming into possession of the money. The previous day, Chris is lured out of hiding by Steph, and the two meet at a motel. Dawkins appears, anxious to secure the return of the tape. Steph has the money from the robbery and she makes Dawkins hide it until it’s safe. Andy hears that Zeke was shot during the robbery, and the FBI agents arrive in town. And on the day before that, all the various threads that have spun out along the ensuing days are shown their origins as we learn what happened during the robbery.

It’s easy to like the structure that first-time writer/director Oren Uziel has employed in telling his tale of small-town corruption, greed, and revenge, but while Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) is an obvious reference point, sadly – and despite the best of intentions – Shimmer Lake doesn’t match it for inventiveness, style, or sheer narrative trickery. Part of the issue is the pacing, with stretches of the movie feeling as if they’ve been played out beyond their natural length. The early scenes involving the FBI agents are tonally at odds with the rest of the movie, as if Uziel doesn’t trust their inclusion unless they’re cracking wise and providing fleeting moments of comedy. This makes them seem like idiots in a movie where everyone else is being resolutely serious. As the movie progresses and they appear less and less, it’s a minor blessing for the material that they do so, and the tone improves immensely.

But if there’s one main, altogether obvious, problem with Shimmer Lake, it’s the lack of any characters to sympathise with or root for. Zeke is a laconic, quietly thoughtful sheriff who lacks any charisma, and thanks to Walker’s laidback performance, often looks bored by having to mount an investigation in the first place. His deputy, Reed Ethington (Pally), is someone who manages to stay just this side of “dim-witted”, but it’s a close-run thing. Andy is shown initially as panicked, which might have provoked some sympathy, but as the movie reveals more and more of his past, we discover he’s a bit of an arrogant prick, and any sympathy dissipates. Chris is an obvious patsy, Steph is the Lady Macbeth character amongst it all, Ed is the “mastermind” who can’t tell an 8 when he sees it, and Dawkins is the devious bank manager whose private “foibles” act as a catalyst for the bank robbery itself (there’s a back story involving the death of Burton’s son, and this is ostensibly the reason for everything that happens, but Uziel refers to it as a motivator far too often for it to maintain any effectiveness).

What we’re left with is a thriller that spends too much time explaining itself, and not enough time posing a broader mystery than the one we can see in front of us. In telling a reverse-linear story, Uziel does well to hide the various inter-connections and relationships that drive the story backward (forward?), but by the time all is revealed, the viewer is unlikely to care too much, and a last-minute revelation (which is meant to be clever in a “ah-ha-you-didn’t-see-that-coming” kind of way), lacks the impact needed for audiences to say to themselves, “now it all makes sense”. Instead, Uziel presents us with a patchwork of moods, tones, dramatic elements, comedic soundbites, and an unconvincing milieu where Zeke and Reed are the only cops in town, and Andy’s daughter, Sally (Dove), can hear the phrase “fat, f*cking bastard” and then apply it to Reed within the very next minute.

Despite the talented cast, and Jarin Blaschke’s often brooding cinematography, what we have here, ultimately, is a movie whose clever approach doesn’t amount to much, and will in all likelihood, frustrate and annoy anyone who watches it. The test of a good reverse storyline is if it plays just as well – or better – if you watch from end to beginning (or beginning to end – you get the idea). Shimmer Lake is certainly a movie that tries its best, but there are few rewards here for the casual viewer, and for die-hard fans of this particular sub-genre of thrillers, too much will remain obvious no matter how much time Uziel has spent in obscuring things. Like so many thrillers with a clever central conceit that isn’t as rigorously applied as it needs to be, Shimmer Lake is more of a disappointment than a triumph.

Rating: 4/10 – what could have been a tense, nail-biting experience is reduced to that of a tepid, unfocused drama, and though Shimmer Lake takes some narrative risks, they’re not enough to make things any more rewarding; shallow at times, and with a casual disregard for any empathy that might be shown towards its characters, the movie is yet another feature that looks good on the surface but lacks the necessary substance underneath to keep audiences hooked until the end.

A Brief Word About Daniel Day-Lewis

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The sudden, and unexpected, announcement that Daniel Day-Lewis is to retire from acting has definitely come as a shock, and though there will be many who will hope he changes his mind at some point in the future, it’s unlikely that will be the case. Day-Lewis has always maintained a strict control over his career, and it’s also unlikely that he will have made this decision lightly. Whatever his reasons (which at the moment remain personal), the loss of such a highly talented actor at such a relatively young age – he’s 60 – will no doubt be heavily discussed and analysed over the coming days and weeks. But what we can rely on, and indisputably so, is the body of work he’s left us with.

With Paul Thomas Anderson’s 50’s-set fashion drama, Phantom Thread, still to come at the end of 2017, the only person to win the Best Actor Oscar three times – for My Left Foot (1989), There Will Be Blood (2007), and Lincoln (2012) – will have made just twenty-one movie appearances, from his first, uncredited role as a child vandal in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), all the way to Anderson’s latest. It’s an incredibly impressive body of work, and one that highlights Day-Lewis’s versatility and commitment to his craft. Famed for staying in character for the duration of shooting a movie, his approach to inhabiting a character was to immerse himself as much as possible into the world that character was a part of, whether his role was that of an adopted Indian tracker called Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), the wrongly imprisoned Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father (1993), or the vicious gang leader Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York (2002).

Arguably the finest actor of his generation, Day-Lewis’s absence from our screens – albeit something that we’ve become used to over the last thirty years as he’s pursued other interests between projects – may potentially rob us of even greater performances. But the movies and the appearances he does leave us with will remain exceptional examples of his skills as an actor, and his willingness to give everything of himself to a role.

Spotlight on a Murderer (1961)

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D: Georges Franju / 92m

Original title: Pleins feux sur l’assassin

Cast: Pierre Brasseur, Pascale Audret, Marianne Koch, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Dany Saval, Jean Babilée, Georges Rollin, Jean Ozenne, Philippe Leroy, Gérard Buhr, Maryse Martin

Comte de Kerloguen (Brasseur) is dying. He knows it, his housekeeper knows it, his lawyer knows it, even his stable hand knows it. But the rest of his family don’t. So when the fateful moment arrives, the Comte does what all good patriarchs do: he hides himself away in a secret room in the family chateau, a place that nobody knows about and where his body is unlikely to ever be found. When his lawyer assembles the family to inform them of the Comte’s disappearance, he has odd news for them. While the Comte can be declared legally dead, his actual disappearance means that his estate can’t be divided amongst his family for another five years. And until that time, the family are fiancially responsible for the upkeep of the chateau.

Naturally, this doesn’t sit too well with most of the family, but as most of them don’t have the wherewithal to maintain the chateau, when Micheline (Saval), the girlfriend of youngest son Jean-Marie (Trintignant) suggests they make the chateau a tourist attraction and charge people to visit the place, the idea is adopted tout suite. But as the plan goes ahead and amongst other things, the building has a speaker system installed, a series of unfortunate “accidents” sees death take the lives of some of the family, until it becomes clear that one of them is determined to be the sole beneficiary of the Comte’s  estate in five years’ time.

The third feature from director Georges Franju, who had made the creepy Eyes Without a Face the year before, Spotlight on a Murderer reunites Franju with thriller writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac in their tried and trusted tale of a family being riven from within when greed prompts one of them to dispatch the others in order to be the sole claimant of their wealthy antecedent’s estate. The key phrase here is “tried and trusted”, as this is a movie that does its best to employ a sinister vibe once the deaths begin to mount up, and all to direct attention away from the flaccid nature of the plot. Said vibe is employed to good effect, but the material itself is riddled with longueurs, and the pacing is awkward, with some scenes ending abruptly as if the team of Boileau-Narcejac haven’t thought them through fully, or don’t have so much to say.

It’s a problem, too, that the storyline, even for 1961, is “old hat”, with the script attempting to emulate or outshine previous old dark house mysteries. But thanks to a tepid script and Franju’s erratic commitment to the narrative, the movie lacks the necessary inventiveness to place it over and above the myriad of similar features. There’s only one moment that manages to overcome the indifference of the rest of the material, and that’s when the chateau’s speaker system picks up someone moving through the rooms. At first, there are only three people in the control room, and all three wonder the same thing: where is everyone else? And within a minute, everyone appears with them, leaving the audience in a quandary: if everyone is there, then it can’t be the murderer, can it? Or maybe, just maybe, the Comte isn’t as dead as we’ve all thought? Viewers who are paying attention will know the answer to this quandary, but for a brief couple of scenes the movie steps up a gear and becomes a real mystery thriller, complete with an atmosphere of dread.

The characters suffer too, being archetypes painted with broad brush strokes, from Koch’s earthy cousin, Edwige, to Audret’s easily exploited paranoiac, Jeanne. On occasion we get to learn a little bit more abut them all, but it’s never enough to help the viewer sympathise with them for more than a few minutes. The various deaths – aside from one – lack the impact needed to tighten the tension, and the whodunnit aspect of the tale generally takes a back seat to the trials and tribulations of the main characters. A blatant visual sleight-of-hand endeavours to wrong foot the viewer but again, does so only if the audience isn’t paying attention.

Spotlight on a Murderer wasn’t as well received as Eyes Without a Face, and it’s easy to see why. Regarded as a minor Franju movie by critics at the time, the movie has picked up its supporters over the years, but it remains a curio in terms of its gloomy mise en scene, and its place in the director’s career. There’s also the matter of Maurice Jarre’s less than inspired score, which tries to prop up the periods where the camera tries to make the chateau look menacing and/or atmospheric. The cast are competent enough, with Saval’s wild child girlfriend proving one of the movie’s few stellar accomplishments, while Franju sees fit to embrace rather than reject the scene where the murderer is apprehended (and which, amazingly, includes two moments of physical slapstick along the way). All in all, it’s a movie that proceeds in fits and starts and never really settles into a convincing groove – which is a shame, as there is clearly the potential there to make a movie that resonates and inspires dread to a much better degree.

Rating: 5/10 – despite the pedigree of its director, writers and cast, Spotlight on a Murderer is only a mildly successful thriller that squanders a lot of its running time with soap opera elements that feel out of place, and which don’t advance the plot in any meaningful way; proof again that even the most highly regarded of movie makers don’t always get it right.

NOTE: Alas, there isn’t an available trailer for Spotlight on a Murderer.

A Brief Word About the 2017 Blockbuster Season

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Okay, it’s well and truly here, the 2017 Blockbuster Season, the time when the big studios release their tentpole summer movies in the hopes of bagging massive box office returns, and if they’re lucky, some long overdue critical approval. The movies that have been given the biggest push through trailers and promotional tie-ins and targeted social media outlets. The movies with the biggest budgets and the biggest stars. And the movies that roundly and soundly let us down. Each. And. Every. Year.

If you begin with Logan (released back in March), and if you treat it as a blockbuster, then the following movies all fall into the same category: big movies given big releases after big advertising spends have been pretty much exhausted. And those movies are: Kong: Skull Island, Beauty and the Beast, Power Rangers, Ghost in the Shell, The Fate of the Furious, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Alien: Covenant, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Baywatch, Wonder Woman, and The Mummy. Not one of these movies is an original. They’re either a reboot, a remake or a sequel. Most of them have made a shed load of money already, and two of them have made over $1 billion. But can anyone say, hand on heart, that any of these movies have been so good that the anticipation built up by the studios was entirely justified? I don’t think so. To put it bluntly, none of them were that good.

So, still to come we have: Transformers: The Last Knight, Despicable Me 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes, Cars 3, Dunkirk, The Dark Tower, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle. More heavy doses of fantasy and action, and another round of movies that we’ll all hope will be better than we think they’ll be. But how is it that we always fall for this “false advertising”? How is it that we always fall for the same build-ups and the same claims that Movie X will be amazing/fantastic/mind-blowing/the best thing sliced bread? Are we that numb to the continual failings of the big studios to provide audiences with movies that they can actually engage with on an emotional and intellectual level? And can we not just say No to over-hyped movies and their dire content? The people that make these movies are all highly regarded and all highly talented, but they make the same mediocre/rubbish/moronic (I’m talking about you, Baywatch) movies over and over. And we all rush to see them (and before you say, “yes, and so do you”, my excuse is that I’ll watch anything – I’m a movie addict).

This is a concern that I’ve raised before on thedullwoodexperiment, and I have no doubt that I’ll be raising it again in the future (probably next year). But before I do, think about it like this: the big studios tell us that their summer blockbuster movies help subsidise the smaller, more intimate movies that they also make. But even with that, aren’t we entitled to spend our money on seeing a tentpole movie that really does move us – and not to ennui?

Table 19 (2017)

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D: Jeffrey Blitz / 87m

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson, Stephen Merchant, June Squibb, Tony Revolori, Wyatt Russell, Amanda Crew, Thomas Cocquerel, Margo Martindale

Eloise McGarry (Kendrick) is in a difficult place: with her best friend Francie’s wedding fast approaching, her boyfriend (and Francie’s brother) Teddy (Russell) dumps her, but she still receives an invitation to the wedding. She decides to attend but at the reception, finds that she’s been allocated a seat at Table 19, the furthest table away from the bride and groom’s. There she meets Bina and Jerry Kepp (Kudrow, Robinson), diner owners who know the groom’s father; Jo Flanagan (Squibb), who was Francie’s first nanny; Renzo (Revolori), whose parents are acquaintances of the groom’s family; and Walter (Merchant), a cousin of Francie’s father. Together they are the Randoms, the people who don’t fit in with any of the other tables. And as Jerry points out, it’s the table nearest the toilets.

As the reception gets under way, Eloise and Teddy argue over her being there, Renzo reveals that his parents have pushed him into going in order to meet a girl, Walter reveals a criminal past, Jo reflects on the good times she had as Francie’s nanny, and Bina and Jerry’s marriage shows signs of being under strain. As they learn more and more about each other they begin to find common ground, and band together when it’s clear that no one else at the reception will miss them or engage with them. A stranger (Cocquerel) makes a brief but telling connection with Eloise, Jo persuades most of the group to take medical marijuana with her, Bina surprises Jerry with the real reason why she agreed to attend the wedding, Renzo makes increasingly inappropriate overtures to one of the younger female guests, and Walter throws caution to the wind and comes out of the shell his family have imposed on him. By the end of the night, all their lives will have changed, and mostly for the better, with Eloise making a very big decision, and her actions emboldening everyone else who was assigned to Table 19.

On the face of it, Table 19 has all the hallmarks of an amiable comedy of manners that opts for easy laughs and doesn’t try too hard to entertain its audience. And on the face of it, that’s entirely true. For the most part, the movie is entirely predictable, plays it safe in terms of characterisations and its by-the-numbers storyline, and offers little in the way of wit or sophistication. Viewers who like this sort of thing will be able to guess who Eloise ends up with right from the start, and there are several scenes that exist just to provide unnecessary exposition instead of pushing the various subplots forward. Some of the movie is also unbearably trite, and there are moments where director Jeffrey Blitz – making only his second feature after Rocket Science (2007) – seems unable to combat the curious sense of inertia that settles over the movie and halts its momentum.

But buried amongst all the familiar rom-com tomfoolery and wacky behaviour of Kendrick et al, there’s a relationship drama unfolding that perhaps should be the focus of an entirely separate movie. When we first meet Bina and Jerry they’re sitting in adjacent booths in their diner, and with their backs to each other. They bicker about attending the wedding, and conclude their bickering by giving each other the finger. It’s amusing (to a point), but an early indication of the disparity that’s grown to the fore in their marriage. Jerry is supremely confident about most things, while Bina is subdued and quick to challenge Jerry’s assertions. As the evening draws on, we see how unhappy Bina is, and how oblivious Jerry is to her unhappiness. At one stage he tells her he hasn’t changed, as if it was a badge of pride. But Bina’s argument is much more succinct: if he believes he hasn’t, then why is she so unhappy? The only real dramatic element in a movie that tries hard to make a virtue of being twee and genially subversive at the same time, Bina and Jerry’s fractured marriage is also the only element that is likely to engage the audience and offer any real reward or satisfaction. As the couple-at-odds, Kudrow and Robinson deliver confident and touching performances, and their scenes together are absorbing for being so different from the rest of the movie (which is a good thing). It’s a pleasure to see two actors who are known more for their appearances in comic roles, commit so completely to examining the interior lives of two supporting characters, and achieve so much in the process. Simply put, they make the viewer care about both of them.

Blitz has written the screenplay based on a story he’s collaborated on with the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark. This is likely the reason that Bina and Jerry’s story has such resonance, as the dialogue between the two regularly steps outside the range of a mid-budget, mainstream romantic comedy. It’s a shame then that their story has to rub shoulders with the rest of the movie, and take a back seat to the trials and tribulations experienced by Eloise, and the rest. The good news is that the ensemble cast has been well chosen, with all six Table 19-ers (except Kendrick) triumphing over the screenplay’s stock situations and tired characterisations. And the movie does at least have its visual moments thanks to Ben Richardson’s skillful cinematography and Timothy David O’Brien’s clever production design, which takes a modern day wedding reception and keeps it looking like a throwback to the Eighties. But these are plusses in a movie that otherwise contents itself with being only occasionally effective.

Rating: 5/10 – worth watching for the dynamic between Bina and Jerry alone, Table 19 is let down by its generic rom-com approach and laboured sense of humour; a sharper, more detailed script would have benefited the movie greatly, but as it stands, it’s yet another wasted opportunity released to audiences who will have seen this sort of thing too many times for comfort.

Rakka (2017)

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D: Neill Blomkamp / 22m

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, Robert Hobbs, Carly Pope, Brandon Auret

In the future, aliens have invaded Earth and set about destroying our world and making it into a facsimile of their own, with giant engines spewing methane into our atmosphere and humans being used as de facto incubators for the aliens themselves. The human resistance is sporadic but determined to fight back with whatever resources it can muster. In Texas in 2020, a small group of resistance fighters led by Jasper (Weaver), hatch a plan that involves the use of helmets called brain barriers that reduce the influence the aliens can have over humans. Enlisting the aid of a bombmaker called Nosh (Auret), Jasper hopes to use the brain barriers and an item made by Nosh to take the fight to the aliens and maybe turn the tide against them.

While Jasper and a handful of her team carry out their mission, a man called Amir (Khumbanyiwa) is tended to by a woman called Sarah. Amir has been rescued from the aliens, but he’s been operated on and his skull is a bio-mechanical fusing of human and alien materials. His condition appears to offer a view into the future, and Sarah attempts to get Amir to tell her what he can see, but though he has visions relating to Jasper’s mission, he’s unable to tell her the outcome he’s privy to.

With District 9 (2009), Neill Blomkamp’s career, previously consisting of shorts, got an impressive boost, and his future as a director seemed assured. But Elysium (2013) and Chappie (2015) didn’t fare so well with audiences and critics alike, and Blomkamp’s long-gestating Alien project found itself cancelled when Ridley Scott decided to reboot the original franchise. Faced with setback after setback and unable to get any projects green-lit with the studios, Blomkamp decided to take matters into his own hands and create his own production company, Oats Studios. With a remit that involves producing a number of short movies that are hoped will go viral and be successful enough to raise enough money for full-length movies to be made, Oats Studios is a brave step for the director, but perhaps a necessary one. By starting out small – returning to his own beginnings perhaps – Blomkamp will be able to retain overall control of any productions made under the Oats Studios banner. And if his distinct visual and narrative style is allowed to flourish under these conditions then it’s possible that he could be responsible for other moviemakers following suit and making their own movies without having to go cap in hand to the major studios.

But as a calling card for his new production company, Rakka isn’t necessarily the best choice to entice further viewers or converts to Blomkamp’s cause. Shot both formally and experimentally – which gives the movie a slightly schizophrenic feel – Rakka is yet another dystopian slice of science fiction that riffs on both District 9 and Chappie through its gritty, effects-heavy visual style and deliberately disjointed editing. Making the most of an obviously low budget, Blomkamp pays close attention to creating a familiar mise en scene for his story to unfold in front of, but forgets to provide as much detail for the characters or the overall storyline. This leads to some scenes appearing out of sync with others, as if the limitations of the budget meant that Blomkamp had to make too many concessions in order to meet the requirements of the running time, and the script suffered as a result. It’s clear that this is a taster for a longer movie, and if it’s ever made it would, hopefully, delve more into the workings of our invaded world, and provide audiences with a clearer picture of what’s happening. But Blomkamp has taken a risk by leaving so much unanswered, and by hoping that he’s done enough to encourage enough interest to get a full-length version made in the future. Too often it’s the substance that suffers in a short movie, and while Rakka is a visually enthralling experience, the alien invasion storyline isn’t as immediately compelling as it could have been.

Rating: 5/10 – though Blomkamp should be applauded for taking his moviemaking career into his own hands, Rakka sees the director revisiting past glories to a much lesser effect; hopefully, other Oats Studios releases will veer away from the recurrent themes and imagery of Blomkamp’s movies so far, and if they’re to be successful, concentrate instead on creating much more original content.

There’s no official trailer for Rakka, but the movie can be seen here:

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2016)

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D: Joseph Cedar / 118m

Cast: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Steve Buscemi, Harris Yulin, Yehuda Almagor, Neta Riskin, Hank Azaria, Scott Shepherd, Josh Charles, Isaach De Bankolé

Norman Oppenheimer (Gere) is an aging, low-level fixer, a facilitator who wants to help people succeed in business, but who doesn’t have the necessary contacts to make things happen or to avoid being looked on with suspicion, or being dismissed out of hand. When he approaches a young investment banker, Bill Kavish (Stevens), with a deal that could make Kavish’s boss, Jo Wilf (Yulin), a fortune, he’s given the brush off. With the deal involving Israeli tax write-offs, Norman turns his attention to rising Israeli politician, Micha Eshel (Ashkenazi), who is in New York for a brief visit. He “bumps into” Eshel outside a men’s clothing store where Eshel is admiring a pair of shoes. Norman buys Eshel the shoes – as a gift – and persuades him to to join Norman at a party he’s going to that night at the home of Wilf’s main rival, Arthur Taub (Charles). But Eshel doesn’t go, and Norman’s plan to get the two men together (and involve Taub in the deal for the Israeli tax write-offs) falls apart.

Three years later, Norman is still committed to helping people achieve great success in their lives, when Eshel returns to New York as the new Israeli Prime Minister. At a reception, Norman and Eshel are reunited, and Eshel welcomes him into his inner circle as a close friend. But any further access becomes difficult, with Eshel’s chief advisor, Duby (Almagor), ensuring Norman’s calls go unanswered. Meanwhile, the synagogue that Norman is affiliated with is threatened with being sold off unless $14 million can be raised to save it. Norman takes it on himself to do so, and when Eshel asks for Norman’s help in getting his son into Harvard, he sees a way of turning the favour into a chance to save the synagogue. But his plan doesn’t work out, and Norman begins to weave a web of lies and half-truths in an effort to keep his relationship with Eshel, and the synagogue, alive in the eyes of everyone around him. But when he talks to a special Israeli investigator (Gainsbourg) on a train, and innocently mentions his connection with Eshel – and those shoes – it puts in motion a series of events that Norman couldn’t have predicted, and which leaves him having to make a decision that will have far-reaching consequences for everyone he’s involved with – and most of all, for Norman himself.

In recent years you could be forgiven for wondering if Richard Gere had given up on Hollywood altogether, and had decided to make only low budget movies for the rest of his career. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015), his first mainstream movie since Chicago (2002), reminded us that he could still pull off the kind of matinee idol role he essayed so successfully in the Eighties and Nineties, but it was a surprise to see him in something so pleasantly superficial. Now, after several trips to the indie well, Gere has found a role that suits him as the character actor he prefers to be known as, and which offers him the chance to give his best performance in years. As the indefatigably persistent Norman Oppenheimer, Gere the matinee idol is buried beneath a camel hair coat, flat cap, unflattering hairstyle, and dangling ear buds. There are times when Gere doesn’t even look like Gere, so complete is his transformation. He gives a fascinating portrayal of a man whose entire life is predicated around helping others, of arranging meetings between remarkable men while steadfastly remaining in the background.

This does make Joseph Cedar’s follow up to his Oscar-nominated Footnote (2011) (which also starred Ashkenazi) a little difficult to get to grips with at first, as Norman’s self-effacing personality threatens to overwhelm the narrative. He’s a nice guy, but he’s still not someone you’d want hanging around in your life all the time – which is exactly what he would do. And even though Norman’s motives are entirely genuine and full of good intentions, there’s something about his demeanour that keeps the players he tries to associate with from embracing him entirely (the analogy that would best describe him is the one where he’s the kid who’s chosen last by his classmates to be on someone’s team). We also learn very little about Norman, about his life or his beginnings, how he came to be a fixer. We never see him at home either; instead he retreats to the synagogue when he needs to take a break. And he seems to be financially independent as we never see him receive any money from anyone. He’s a mystery to the viewer, and more so to the characters he interacts with, who never quite manage to interpret his actions as anything other than self-serving.

Cedar’s impressively detailed script gains momentum as the story unfolds, with Norman in the midst of a web of his own making and finding himself trapped at its centre. But Norman never gives up, and though the solution he arrives at is detrimental to himself he doesn’t hesitate to do what he must. And everything he does is for someone else’s benefit; and he doesn’t care if people aren’t appreciative. It’s not the point. Cedar surrounds Norman with a cadre of (mostly) unlikeable contacts and movers and shakers and allows them to manipulate Norman for their own ends, while Norman continues being Norman and sticking to his guns. As the movie progresses, it becomes easier and easier to understand him, and to appreciate what he’s doing, even if the why is missing. In many ways, it’s better that Norman’s motivations remain hidden, as it somehow makes the resolution to his story all the more satisfying.

Gere is surrounded by a talented cast, some of whom appear whenever necessary – Gainsbourg, Stevens, Yulin – and some, like Ashkenazi, whose involvement is absolutely essential to the success of Cedar’s movie. The Israeli-born actor gives a terrific performance as a politician whose moral compass is gradually pulled askew in the name of political expediency. Cedar gifts the actor with a tremendous monologue about the nature of compromise, and Ashkenazi delivers it with scathing wit and undeniable rancour. It’s a stand out moment, and shows that Cedar isn’t going to fall back on standard tropes for his characters, even when they’re engaged in somewhat predictable political manoeuvrings. He’s also constructed a screenplay that is humorous and darkly comic, flecked with delicious subtleties that add to the screenplay’s already impressive nature, and which makes much of the dialogue unexpectedly tart and/or subversive. With Cedar also employing a split screen effect that affords an unexpected emotional weight when it’s used, Norman is a movie that is full of surprises, and definitely worth seeking out.

Rating: 8/10 – the kind of intelligent, well thought out, and observant movie that rarely gets the attention it deserves, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is quite simply a joy to watch, and very easy to recommend; with Gere on such good form, and Cedar in full control of the various elements that make up his entertaining screenplay, the movie may tread some well-worn paths on it’s way to the end, but this shouldn’t put off anyone from seeing it.

The Mummy (2017)

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D: Alex Kurtzman / 110m

Cast: Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari

The first in Universal’s Dark Universe series of movies featuring all the old horror villains from the Thirties and Forties – Dracula Untold (2014) can be ignored – The Mummy arrives with all the hoopla and advertising overkill of a movie designed to put as many bums on seats in its first week before audiences realise just how much they’ve been duped into thinking it might be any good. There were clues in the trailers, but nothing as bad as the finished product, a dispiriting mishmash of better ideas already well executed elsewhere, and lesser ideas propped up by a script that needed three screenwriters to work on it. If this is an example of what we can “look forward” to, then it would be best if Universal gave up now and saved us all the pain and anguish of further entries.

The main problem with The Mummy is that it’s clearly not a horror movie, and it’s just as obvious that at no point have Universal ever considered making it into one. Rebooting those movies from seventy, eighty years ago isn’t such a bad idea, but at least those outings for Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man were meant to be horror movies. This is a bloodless, scare-free action adventure movie that pays lip service to its series tagline “Welcome to a world of gods and monsters”, and relies on big CGI-enhanced action set pieces to provide what little entertainment it can muster. Somehow, the big studios have decided that these big set pieces are what audiences want, but that’s just wishful thinking. What audiences want are stories that make sense, characters they can relate to or sympathise with, moments that make them sit up and take notice, or any combination of all three. What audiences don’t want is to be force fed the same tired, formulaic rubbish over and over.

The Mummy arrives at a point in the year where the annual blockbuster season is well under way, but there’s very little chance that this is going to be as successful as Universal may have hoped. The presence of Tom Cruise (in another franchise role) would normally help sell a movie, but here he’s playing the same kind of cocky, rule-breaking maverick that he’s been playing for the last thirty years. As a result, his character, a US army sergeant called Nick Morton with a sideline in stealing antiquities, looks and feels tired right from the start, and Cruise is unable to inject more than a basic energy into his performance. He’s not helped by the script, which requires him to look puzzled, confused, bewildered and all the way back to puzzled with each and every scene once Sofia Boutella’s evil Egyptian princess, Ahmanet, is freed from her ancient prison.

Away from the action and the garbled storyline, it falls to Crowe’s role as Dr Henry Jekyll, head of the Prestigium (“We recognize, examine, contain, destroy.”), to provide a link to any future Dark Universe movies. But instead of keeping Dr Jekyll in the forefront, and Mr Hyde under wraps until a potential solo movie, The Mummy takes a detour around the halfway mark and reveals Hyde in all his ashen-faced, grumpy glory, and with a horrible Cockney accent to boot. It’s a prime example of the makers not knowing how to maintain a consistent tone. There’s much more that doesn’t make sense, or feels as if it wasn’t fully explored or worked out ahead of shooting, but the movie doesn’t concern itself with telling a coherent story, or treating its audience with respect. This is a big, dumb action movie with mild horror moments that are about as scary as watching Sesame Street. The next in the series is meant to be Bride of Frankenstein (2019), with Bill Condon in the director’s chair. Let’s hope – if the movie goes ahead as planned – that he has better luck than Alex Kurtzman in creating a world where gods and monsters really do have an impact that goes beyond massive indifference, or exacting criticism.

Rating: 3/10 – meh, meh, meh; the movie equivalent of oxygen – colourless and odourless – The Mummy is yet another abject blockbuster lacking a heart, a soul, and a sense of its own stupidity, and is a waste of its cast and crew’s time and effort – with the same going for its audience as well.

My Cousin Rachel (2017)

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D: Roger Michell / 106m

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Iain Glen, Pierfrancesco Favino, Simon Russell Beale, Tim Barlow

Philip Ashley (Claflin) is a young man whose guardian, Ambrose Ashley, owns a large Cornish estate. When Ambrose travels to Italy, his letters home tell of a woman he’s met, their mutual cousin, Rachel (Weisz). They are married, but it’s not long before Ambrose falls ill. His letters become increasingly paranoid, with claims that Rachel is watching him closely and that he can trust no one, and so Philip travels to Italy and the villa where Ambrose is living. There he meets Rainaldi (Favino), a friend of Rachel’s who tells Philip that Ambrose has died of a brain tumour. Philip returns home without meeting Rachel, and once there, he inherits the estate. Blaming Rachel for Ambrose’s death (he doesn’t believe there was a brain tumour), he makes it clear that if they ever meet he will exact a punishment on her. Not long after, though, Rachel arrives at the estate, and despite his vengeful intentions, Philip finds himself fascinated by her.

A relationship begins to develop between them, a friendship at first, and one that is welcomed by his godfather, Nick Kendall (Glen). Philip soon becomes infatuated with Rachel, and reacts poorly to tales of her misbehaviour in Italy with Rainaldi. Goaded by such gossip, Philip ensures she has an allowance (which she spends too rapidly), and at an estate party, wears a pearl necklace that was his mother’s. Kendall is none too happy with this, but Rachel returns them without any fuss. With his twenty-fifth birthday approaching – when he can do whatever he likes with his inheritance – Philip has a transfer written whereby Rachel becomes the estate’s owner. In return he expects Rachel to marry him, but she denies him, and despite their friendship having become intimate. And then Philip falls ill, and the similarities between his illness and Ambrose’s leads him to suspect that Rachel is now poisoning him…

A late arrival in the remake stakes, My Cousin Rachel appears sixty-five years on from its predecessor, and offers several good reasons for the gap being longer. Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, Roger Michell’s adaptation is a heady exercise in turgid melodrama that does little with its “Did she? Didn’t she? Is she? Isn’t she?” storyline, and instead of concentrating on the thriller elements, turns to a one-sided romance for its focus. This means there are plenty of scenes where Claflin’s love-sick booby hovers over and around Weisz’s prideful widow, and with the worst kind of eager beaver-itis. That Philip goes from determined avenger to smitten teenager (even though he’s twenty-four) in the blink of an eye, should alert viewers that this isn’t going to be an engrossing Gothic-tinged chiller, but a romantic drama with all the fizzle of a sparkler reaching the end of its lifespan. Philip’s actions in pursuit of Rachel’s affections become more and more absurd the longer they go on, until they culminate in his climbing up to her bedroom window in order to bestow on her the family jewellery (and in the process  his own jewels). (Oh, and he climbs down again the next morning.)

In between all this uninspiring swooning, the movie remembers to include scenes that paint Rachel as some kind of predatory black widow (as well as Ambrose’s sad demise, her first husband was killed in a duel). This secondary plot (which should be the movie’s primary one), relies heavily on Ambrose having left hidden notes and letters in his clothing and books, and their being conveniently found just when Rachel’s potential perfidy needs a nudge in the right direction. Out of this, any ambiguity is brushed aside as Michell’s script lacks the panache to sow doubt in the mind of the viewer. And if you’re familiar with the novel or Henry Koster’s 1952 version, then you’ll already know the outcome, something that Michell fumbles badly thanks to a very, very clumsy piece of foreshadowing, and an equally clumsy denouement.

Against this, Weisz delivers an arresting performance that in many ways highlights the paucity of ideas and the lack of energy that the movie exhibits elsewhere. Weisz’s career can safely be described as eclectic, and in recent years she’s done some of her best work. As Rachel, Weisz is an hypnotic presence, her round, moon-faced features expressing vulnerability, pride, determination, gratitude and forbearance in equal measure. As the naïve Philip, Claflin has the harder task, and he doesn’t always succeed, but this is due more to the script than his portrayal, as the character is more callow than necessary, and he operates on a dramatic level that never allows the viewer to feel sorry for him. Grainger (as Kendall’s daughter) and Glen offer solid support, while there’s a terrific turn from Barlow as the estate’s chief overseer, Secombe. It’s all wrapped up in a bucolic haze that’s further enhanced by Mike Eley’s evocative cinematography and Alice Normington’s impressive production design.

Rating: 5/10 – a movie that could have been a whole lot better had its writer/director tried harder to make it more compelling, and more of a psychological thriller, My Cousin Rachel is undermined by its inability to seem more than a stifled piece of moviemaking; Weisz’s performance almost makes up for its obvious shortcomings, but if you have to see this then adjust your expectations accordingly.

Win It All (2017)

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D: Jake Swanberg / 89m

Cast: Jake Johnson, Aislinn Derbez, Joe Lo Truglio, Keegan-Michael Key, Nicky Excitement, Kris Swanberg, Jude Swanberg, Steve Berg, Arthur Agee, José Antonio García

Eddie Garrett (Johnson) is a compulsive gambler. He supports his addiction by working at odd jobs such as parking cars at a sports stadium. He’s in his thirties, isn’t in a relationship, and has no ambition beyond having enough money to bet at his local casino each night. One day an acquaintance of his called Michael (García) makes him a proposition: if Eddie can look after a bag for him while Michael spends time in gaol, there’ll be $10,000 for him when Michael gets out. The only proviso is that Eddie doesn’t look in the bag. Believing himself entirely able to look after the bag, Eddie accepts, but it’s not long before he looks inside it and discovers it contains a lot of money. Eddie convinces himself that it’s okay to take $500 from the bag and use it to gamble. He does so, and he wins over $2,000.

While he’s out celebrating his good fortune, Eddie meets a nurse called Eva (Derbez) and they hit it off. But while they tentatively begin a relationship, Eddie’s gambling addiction leads to him losing the money he’s won, and then using even more of Michael’s money until he’s lost over $21,000. At this point, Eddie decides to turn things around. He goes to work for his brother, Ron (Lo Truglio), at his landscaping business, starts attending GA meetings under the supervision of his sponsor, Gene (Key), and stays away from gambling. He and Eva grow closer and closer, but just as it looks as if everything is going to be okay, Michael calls to say he’s going to be released early. With no other way of recouping the money he’s lost, Eddie takes the rest of Michael’s money and gambles on winning big at a high stakes game…

The directorial career of Joe Swanberg is one that has been consistently entertaining and enjoyable, from early low-budget features such as Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), and Uncle Kent (2011), through to more polished outings such as Drinking Buddies (2013) and Digging for Fire (2015). The common component in those last two movies and Win It All is Jake Johnson, an actor for whom Swanberg’s off centre, idiosyncratic style of moviemaking (albeit heading toward a more mainstream vibe with each release) seems a perfect match for the actor’s ability to play the careworn, loveable loser with humanity and disarming depth. Such is the case here, with Johnson and Swanberg’s collaboration on the screenplay giving the movie a rough charm that belies the darker themes of addiction and personal dysfunction. Eddie is a classic indie loser: he’s a good person with everyone except himself, and he can’t always understand why Life treats him so badly.

With Eddie being such a recognisable character, it’s not a surprise to learn that the movie as a whole is predictable, although it’s a benign predictability that actually serves the movie well. Win It All is awash with honesty and charm, and it tells its familiar story with a great deal of sincerity. Swanberg has a way of exploring well worn themes with a fresh eye, and with Johnson’s input has made a movie that speaks of redemption in terms of doing what is best and not necessarily what is right. It’s a refreshing angle, and it isn’t delivered in a preachy, patronising manner, but instead it arises naturally out of the situations that Eddie finds himself in. Johnson is ably supported by Derbez and Lo Truglio while Key contributes yet another terrific supporting turn as Eddie’s credulous sponsor. Swanberg and Johnson cram a lot in, but it’s all delivered at a considered, effective pace that suits the narrative well… until the end, that is, which is rushed and feels out of sorts with what’s gone before. But then, just as you think the story is over, a mid-credits scene flips the ending on its head and reveals that the price of redemption is much higher than Eddie, or the viewer, could have expected.

Rating: 8/10 – a winning look at the efforts of a gambling addict trying to go straight, Win It All has plenty to lure in the viewer and reward them for their attention; the movie makes a virtue of its simple plot and flawed central character – and the milieu he inhabits – allowing the material to shine in often unexpected but very, very enjoyable ways.

Brain on Fire (2016)

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D: Gerard Barrett / 89m

Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, Thomas Mann, Richard Armitage, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jenny Slate, Tyler Perry, Navid Negahban, Robert Moloney, Vincent Gale, Janet Kidder, Alex Zahara, Jenn McLean-Angus

Susannah Cahalan (Moretz) is a young reporter working at the New York Post. Life for Susannah is good: she’s working at her dream job, she still has the love of her divorced parents, Tom (Armitage) and Rhona (Moss), and she’s in a relationship with budding musician Stephen (Mann). At the Post, her boss, Richard (Perry), is encouraging and acknowledges her good work, while one of her colleagues, Margo (Slate), has become a firm friend. But one day, while celebrating her birthday with her parents, their respective new partners, and Stephen, Susannah experiences a dissociative moment where she’s unable to focus on what’s being said or whether she should be responding. The moment passes without anyone noticing, and Susannah forgets about it, thinking it’s just a one-off.

But it happens again. And again. And again. Soon, Susannah is experiencing these dissociative moments five or six times a day, but she doesn’t mention them to anyone. She does mention bites on her arm that she thinks are caused by bed bugs, but when anyone else looks at her arm, they don’t see anything there. One night, while she’s with Stephen, Susannah has a fit, but while he gets her to hospital, the tests they carry out don’t reveal anything wrong. She sees a doctor (Gale) who has further tests carried out, but when they come back normal as well, his diagnosis is that Susannah is drinking too much and her symptoms are those of alcohol withdrawal. Tom and Rhona aren’t impressed by this, and they take turns in looking after Susannah at their respective homes. But Susannah’s beahviour worsens and she becomes paranoid and delusional. Another fit ensures a longer stay in hospital, where her condition worsens. As she edges into a semi-catatonic state, the hospital staff admit they have no idea what’s causing Susannah’s illness. It’s only the last-minute attendance of physician Dr Najjar (Negahban) that offers Susannah a chance at regaining her life, and finding a solution – and a cure – to the illness that’s crippling her.

The disease that was eventually diagnosed as causing the dissociative moments, the hallucinations, the manic outbursts, the paranoia and the semi-catatonia, was anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. It was also a disease that had only been identified a mere three years before Susannah Cahalan was diagnosed as having it. Her subsequent memoir, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness (2012), told her story from the viewpoint of when she woke up after having been in hospital after a month and couldn’t remember anything that she’d done, or had happened, during that period. Gerard Barrett’s adaptation of Cahalan’s book eschews that approach for a more linear, traditional way of presenting her story. It’s not an entirely surprising direction for the movie to take, but it does mean that many of the standard tropes associated with good old-fashioned disease-of-the-week TV movies are all present and correct.

It also means that the viewer has to contend with an ill-advised and unalterably trite opening voice over that has Susannah forewarn them that something is going to go terribly, terribly wrong (as if we couldn’t have already worked that one out for ourselves), and a succession of scenes that reinforce the idea that Susannah is leading a wonderful life. But when Susannah begins “zoning out” she doesn’t say anything to anyone, and attempts to carry on as if her “zoning out” is a minor inconvenience. But then the disease pulls the rug out from under her: an assignment that she believes she’s written on a Thursday for inclusion in the Post on Saturday, is rubbished by her boss on the ensuing Monday – the day he’s received it. Watching Brain on Fire, this is the point at which many viewers will be saying to themselves, Why doesn’t she say anything? Sure, she goes to the doctor but when that proves inconclusive of anything and her illness begins to worsen, her behaviour is written off as either an alcohol problem or potentially psychiatric in nature.

That the various medical professionals who examine Susannah fail to diagnose her condition properly, makes for another staple of this kind of movie, but while it’s a familiar presentation, what makes it particularly invidious on this occasion is a caveat that the movie avoids providing. Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis was only identified three years before Susannah was affected by it, and the number of patients who had been diagnosed up until then was relatively small. This allows for Dr Najjar’s actions to appear almost miraculous in relation to the rapid decline that Susannah experiences (in her book if not in the movie; here her illness and its development is allowed to take place over what seems far longer than a month). Again, this is tried and tested stuff, as predictable as it is anodyne, and Barrett makes sure the audience knows just how terrible it all is by having Moretz looking spaced out and/or wasted at every opportunity.

Susannah herself is given short shrift by Barrett’s script, with too much emphasis on the illness instead of the character. This leaves Moretz adrift for much of the movie, looking vacuous for the most part, and never ensuring that the audience really cares about Susannah and her plight. As she stumbles through her life, effectively dismantling it from the inside out as she goes, Susannah (as portrayed by Moretz) is a helpless witness to what’s happening, and where this should offer some poignancy or even outright sympathy, it never quite pays off as it should. The viewer can readily acknowledge that what’s happening to Susannah is terrible, but beyond that it’s difficult to maintain any empathy for her. Moretz struggles with a number of scenes where she’s under the influence of her illness and either self-diagnosing – “I’m bipolar; I have multiple personality disorder” – or attempting to deal with it on her own. By the time Susannah is in a semi-catatonic state, the audience could be excused for breathing a sigh of relief: now we’re getting somewhere…

The characters around Susannah are mostly stereotypical, with Stephen’s initial self-absorption giving way to his staying resolutely at her bedside, while Tom agonises over her situation at every turn and Rhona acts calmly yet decisively and keeps it all together. Her doctors are either blasé or baffled, Margo is the concerned friend who makes just the one visit to her in the hospital, and her boss, Richard, behaves in a manner that stretches credulity as when Susannah botches an important interview and he doesn’t fire her. Throughout all this, these characters remain cyphers, given just enough to do to avoid being bystanders to it all, but at the same time, not having any depth that would prompt a connection with the audience.

Barrett’s script lacks the edge or the energy to make Susannah’s story compelling enough for more than a cursory investment by the viewer, and there are several stretches – mostly where Susannah wanders the streets of New York in an apparent daze – where the editing needed to be more judicious. As a director, Barrett doesn’t seem to know how to build on the story to make it more affecting and effective, and there are times when the movie’s pace founders and becomes less measured than at other times. All in all, the movie fails to engage properly with its audience, and though it’s a valiant attempt by Barrett et al to tell a fascinating story, there’s not enough attention to detail, and not enough in place to make this stand out from the crowd.

Rating: 5/10 – with its less than gripping plot and inconsistent narrative, Brain on Fire is persistent in its efforts to bring its audience on board, though its under-developed script makes it hard to pull that off; Moretz’s strained performance, the movie’s pedestrian tone, and its preponderance of fugue moments, all serve to make this a potentially intriguing movie that never quite makes the most of its incredible real life story.

Top 10 True Crime Movies at the International Box Office

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In a very real sense we’re all fascinated by crime, and the behaviour of criminals. We all like to think that we wouldn’t do anything like the things we see in our movies and on television, but as that’s very likely the thinking that every criminal starts out with, it’s not so surprising then that there are all kinds of thoughts and plans and counter measures in place to offset this leaning, but there will always be those for whom the regular rules won’t apply – and they’ll tell you that if you’re unlucky. Thankfully, history is full of criminal activities, and many of them have been adapted for the big screen. And some have been very successful indeed. So, here they are: the Top 10 True Crime Movies at the International Box Office.

10 – Zodiac (2007) – $84,785,914

During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a serial killer operated in the San Francisco Bay area. The unsolved murders he was responsible for, and the manhunt for him, are the movie’s prime focus, with director David Fincher offering a clinical yet thrilling exercise in true crime that grips from its opening scene, and which never lets go. The recreation of the period, and the events that occurred back then, is played out on an almost forensic level, and Zodiac‘s amazing cast – which includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr, and Mark Ruffalo – all give career-defining performances. Gripping despite the absence of a cathartic ending – the Zodiac killer was never caught – this is still a bold and uncompromising movie that remains as impressive now as it was on its original release.

9 – Pain & Gain (2013) – $86,175,291

Body building, kidnapping, blackmail, and torture – three of those things seem like natural bedfellows, but in the mid-1990’s all four elements came together when a Sun Gym employee Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) recruited Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) in a plot to kidnap and extort a ransom from local Florida businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). It was a plan almost doomed to end in disaster, and Michael Bay’s uneven, and superficially appealing black comedy benefits from good performances, and a sense of its own violent absurdity. Not a hit with the critics, Bay and Wahlberg’s names nevetheless helped Pain & Gain in its success, and if it’s a movie neither mentions very often, then this quote by Ed Harris’s detective perfectly sums it all up: “Unfortunately, this is a true story.”

8 – Black Mass (2015) – $99,775,678

The first of three movies on the list that star Johnny Depp in the lead role, Black Mass charts the criminal life and career of South Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. His association with the FBI remains an incredible example of real life mutual dependency and manipulation, with both sides certain they were “in control” of the other. As the reptilian Bulger, Depp has the look and gaze of a velociraptor, and his performance is probably his best in a very long time, but ultimately the movie suffers from poor pacing and too many unresolved subplots. There’s terrific support from Joel Edgerton, Jesse Plemons, and Peter Sarsgaard, and the soundtrack supports the tone and the mood of the movie with aplomb, but again, this is a movie where a lot happens but not all of it matters or has any impact.

7 – Gangster Squad (2013) – $105,200,903

A heavily fictionalised account of the LAPD’s attempts to neutralise crime czar Mickey Cohen, Gangster Squad plays fast and loose with the truth in an effort to be as slick and entertaining as possible. Terrific period detail and a great cast can’t compensate for the movie’s many shortcomings, or the emerging feeling that it’s the violent action sequences that mattered most when the movie was being put together. Still, it’s these same sequences that provide Gangster Squad with the crude energy that makes it acceptable on a visceral level, but if it’s well rounded characters, a coherent plot, or credible dialogue you’re looking for, then this isn’t the movie for you’re looking for.

6 – Changeling (2008) – $113,020,256

The 1928 Wineville Chicken Coop case may not be one of the more widely known criminal cases of the twentieth century, but in the hands of director Clint Eastwood it becomes a fascinating, and thought-provoking drama about police intransigence and the determined efforts of a mother (Angelina Jolie) to convince the authorities that the boy returned to her after her son has been abducted, isn’t really her son. Jolie gives a fearless performance, but while the movie is generally compelling in a “what happens next?” sense, as a whole Eastwood’s decision to dial down the inherent melodrama of the case leads to the movie feeling lacklustre and pedestrian.

5 – Donnie Brasco (1997) – $124,909,762

The second movie on the list to feature Johnny Depp examines the career of Joseph Pistone, an undercover FBI agent. During the 1970’s, Pistone infiltrated the Mafia Bonnano crime family, an assignment that led to the convictions of over one hundred Mafia members. Depp is superb in the title role, but he’s edged out – just – by Al Pacino’s portrayal of Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, the low-level soldier Pistone uses as a way to gain acceptance by the crime family. Both actors challenge each other in their scenes together, and they’re ably supported by the likes of Michael Madsen and Bruno Kirby. With a terrific script by Paul Attanasio and scalpel-like direction from Mike Newell, Donnie Brasco offers ethical and moral dilemmas, friendships borne out of necessary deceit, and a trawl through the criminal underworld that is both attractive and repulsive – and unapologetically so.

4 – Public Enemies (2009) – $214,104,620

Depp 3.0 sees him as notorious Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger, otherwise regarded as Public Enemy No. 1. Michael Mann’s ode to a more lawless, bygone era, plays somewhat as a Western, with Depp as the bad guy and Christian Bale as the good guy, FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Mann’s trademark visual aesthetic is on display as expected, and often to breathtaking effect, and the supporting cast includes the likes of Giovanni Ribisi, Carey Mulligan, Channing Tatum, and Lili Taylor. It’s a movie that has as many detractors as it does supporters, but what can be said with confidence is that it features one of Depp’s very best performances, an impressive level of period detail, and a handful of superbly choreographed action sequences.

3 – American Gangster (2007) – $266,465,037

The life of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and how he became a North Carolina crime lord through his efforts smuggling heroin into the US from Vietnam during the 1970’s, is told in a very heavily fictionalised way that also includes his nemesis, task force detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Directed by Ridley Scott, American Gangster is a pungent, gritty examination of the dark side of the American dream, and while the real Frank Lucas was nothing like the way he’s portrayed by Washington, the movie has him take charge of his criminal empire in bold, vicious strokes that highlight the menace beneath the suave exterior. It does drag in places as the script attempts to cram in as much as it can, but this is still an absorbing, meticulously constructed movie that rewards far more than it disappoints.

2 – Catch Me If You Can (2002) – $352,114,312

Crime comes in various forms and is committed by people from all walks of life – as evidenced by Catch Me If You Can, essentially a caper movie about real life conman Frank Abagnale Jr (Leonardo DiCaprio). It’s hard not to sympathise with Abagnale as he leads a life, and several lifestyles, that are far removed from his humble beginnings in New York state. In the hands of Steven Spielberg the movie offers a virtual kaleidoscope of funny, sweet-natured moments that are entertaining and delightfully assembled, making this a movie that celebrates Abagnale’s quick-witted charm and ebullient nature, and which rarely complicates matters by criticising his actions or behaviour. Tom Hanks is excellent as the FBI bank fraud agent charged with catching Abagnale, and there’s fine support from Christopher Walken as Frank’s father. Not necessarily one of Spielberg’s best, but definitely one of his most enjoyable movies, and a more than pleasant way to spend nearly two-and-a-half hours.

1 – The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – $392,000,694

DiCaprio again, as Jordan Belfort, the corrupt stockbroker whose excessive lifestyle, paid for by insider trading, brought him to the attention of the FBI (them again!), and precipitated his arrest and subsequent imprisonment. Directed by Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street is possibly the moviemaker’s most exuberant and freewheeling movie ever, with an ever-increasing number of directorial flourishes being brought into play, and a sense of overriding fun that becomes contagious the longer the movie continues. However, it’s celebration of the hedonistic times Belfort thrived on (and benefitted from) becomes wearing after a while, and too much repetition threatens to harm the movie’s pace irreparably. DiCaprio is on fine form, and the likes of Margot Robbie and Jonah Hill flesh out their slightly underwritten characters to good effect. Scorsese’s most successful movie at the box office isn’t necessarily his best, but it’s a lot better when it’s not focusing on the excess.

Before I Fall (2017)

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D: Ry Russo-Young / 99m

Cast: Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, Kian Lawley, Elena Kampouris, Cynthy Wu, Medalion Rahimi, Erica Tremblay, Liv Hewson, Diego Boneta, Jennifer Beals

It’s Cupid’s Day (12 February), a day for romantic gestures, red roses, and if you’re high schooler Samantha Kingston (Deutch), the perfect time to lose your virginity with your boyfriend, Rob (Lawley). As her day begins, Samantha is teased about this by her three best friends, Lindsay (Sage), Ally (Wu), and Elody (Rahimi), but she’s comfortable with their comments and single entendres. One of her classes is interrupted by the arrival of flower girls, students going from classroom to classroom and distributing roses for the lucky students who have an admirer (known or unknown), and while Rob has sent her some, she receives another that she believes has come from Kent (Miller), someone she’s known since they were children. Later, Kent invites her to a party he’s having that night. At the party, Rob drinks too much to be of use sexually, while the arrival of Juliet (Kampouris), an outsider that Samantha and her friends have bullied for some time, leads to an altercation and Juliet running off into the surrounding woods. The four friends leave soon after, but as they travel home in Lindsay’s car, it hits something in the road and crashes, killing them all.

But Samantha wakes up and it’s Cupid’s Day again. She can remember what happened, but when she meets up with her friends again, they’re all doing and saying the same things they did the day before. Samantha relives the day knowing that something isn’t right, but while some incidents and events happen differently, the end result is the same and Samantha finds herself waking up on Cupid’s Day. This continues over and over, with Samantha finding different ways of dealing with each same day. As she does so, she discovers things about Lindsay that she didn’t know, and about Juliet, and begins to understand much of what was going on in her life, but which she’d either ignored or wasn’t aware of. But with each change she makes there are consequences, some emotional, some moral, some unexpected. In time she begins to realise that the true benefit of having so many days in which she can experience her life over and over again, is the ability it brings to live a perfect day, and to use it to put right so many of the things that would otherwise remain unalterably wrong.

Before I Fall is based on the young adult novel of the same name by Lauren Oliver, and while it certainly paints an interesting portrait of the group dynamic surrounding Samantha and her friends, on its wider, broader themes of bullying, peer pressure, socially approved acceptance, and emotional confusion, Maria Maggenti’s screenplay lacks the focus needed to make the movie as compelling as it could have been. The opportunity to provide viewers with a powerfully realised exploration of teenage redemption as seen through the eyes of Samantha and the cruel circumstances of her death, is undermined by the determinedly soap opera elements of the plot, and the stereotypical natures of the characters.

Samantha is revealed to be the conscience of her little clique, while Lindsay is the overbearing queen bitch that the other three defer to, and Ally and Elody are the “other two”, the less rounded but nevertheless essential characters needed to make Samantha and Lindsay more important in comparison. With these stock incarnations established, and the movie’s opening twenty minutes devoted to the kind of socially exclusive banter and posturing that quickly grows tiresome if you’re not a member of the group itself, the movie heads for Kent’s party and an awkwardly staged – and edited – hazing of Juliet that you can’t help but feel wouldn’t have happened because Juliet would never have gone there in the first place. It disarms the movie in moments, and brings the viewer out of what up until then, had been an acceptable small town milieu with recognisable small town behaviours. But without it, a major part of Samantha’s coming to terms with her own attitudes and prejudices would go amiss, and her Road to Damascus would take a lot longer to travel along. It’s a compromise, but it’s also dramatically unsound.

The tone of the movie varies too, with domestic scenes at Samantha’s home taking centre stage just as further explorations of her friends and their interactions seem likely to reap better dividends, and then again when the plot decrees that of course Samantha’s relationship with Rob is inappropriate and it shifts her attention to Kent. There isn’t always a through line to connect all these disparate elements though, and while there is a piecemeal, episodic approach to the material that’s no doubt derived from its Groundhog Day-style structure, what connections there are, are often left hanging in order for the action to move from one scene to the next. By the time of Samantha’s last day, the day when she makes everything right, the movie has corrected this imbalance, but it’s too late. However it all turns out, whatever sympathy or support the viewer may have had for Samantha and her efforts will have evaporated long before then (like so many of the movie’s subplots).

What also evaporates very early on is any attempt at providing the plot and the characters with any depth. Maggenti’s script references Sisyphus (a clumsy metaphor for Samantha’s plight) and the Butterfly Effect (an inane metaphor for… what exactly?), but otherwise keeps things simple and simplistic in equal measure. Even the blatant promotion of the mantra Be Yourself (here reworked as Become Who You Are) has all the resonance of a greetings card homily. Meaning and purpose are bandied about with abandon, but neither land with conviction on either the script or the characters, and when pressed into action, feel contrived and pedantic.

The performances are serviceable, with Deutch given the kind of voice over dialogue that even the likes of Meryl Streep or Julianne Moore would struggle with, and only Kampouris makes any real impression, and that’s thanks to possibly the most unflattering blonde wig seen in many a year, and the strident nature of her portrayal. Otherwise it’s business as usual in a teen drama, with the problems of a bunch of well off kids put into sharp relief by the banality of their issues, and their persistent bullying of one of their classmates proof that they’re as shallow as their own gene pools.

Russo-Young’s direction is as wayward as the script, and they seem to be a perfect match for each other, but though the director lacks the wherewithal to make a better movie out of Maggenti’s ill-focused screenplay, she is at least able to relay a sense of the painful ennui that must come eventually from reliving the same day over and over. Thematically, she doesn’t have as tight a control on things as the viewer would like, and this shows in the pacing too, as scenes that should have a directness and a sharpness of intent are allowed to go on for too long, and jeopardise the viewer’s patience and/or interest. It’s all topped off by a slightly trippy score courtesy of Adam Taylor that, much like the movie overall, is intermittently successful at adding to the mood, and sometimes, is overly intrusive.

Rating: 5/10 – to borrow a phrase from sellers everywhere, “Buyer beware!”, because Before I Fall never lives up to its promise, and never focuses long enough on what it needs to in order to be more effective; a drama attempting to be something much more than it is, it’s a project that – like so many others – needed a much better script before it was allowed into production, and which works best if you go into it with absolutely no expectations at all.