Friday, 6 December 2019

Yule Love It: The Nutcracker And The Four Realms (2018)

Here's another film that wants to tell you "the story you know" in a fresh reworking, allowing them to advertise it as "the story you think you know", or some such. It's a visual treat, in places, and you hear familiar musical refrains throughout, of course, but this take on The Nutcracker is ultimately a Christmas confection that looks sweet but has nothing decent at the centre of it.

Mackenzie Foy is Clara, a young woman who is upset on Christmas Eve, first by a gift left for her by her deceased mother, a puzzle egg that she can't figure out, and then by an argument with her father, stemming from her refusal to dance with him. But everything changes when Clara ends up being taken to a different world by Captain Philip Hoffman AKA The Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight). There are four realms, and Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley) tells Clara that they are all currently under threat of attack from Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren). Things happen. Characters fight. Everyone looks like they just lost a wrestling match with a Christmas tree.

Initially directed by Lasse Hallström, and then a month of reshoots were overseen by Joe Johnston, The Nutcracker And The Four Realms was a film I was looking forward to, despite the poor reception it had at the box office. I like both directors involved, I like a number of the main cast members, and you should know that I certainly like me a Christmas movie. The fact that this ended up so poorly handled is a surprise, because all of the elements would seem to be in place to make it quite the magical adventure.

The script, by Ashleigh Powell, isn't terrible, but is perhaps a shaky foundation upon which the movie rests. The plotting feels as if Powell was constantly wary of making sure that she checked off everything we would expect from the story, while she was also striving to make it feel a bit fresh. It turns out that trying to manage both isn't possible, at least not in this instance.

But a script that may lack some confidence can be overlooked while you are being treated to some razzle dazzle in the visual department. Weirdly, this looks nice throughout, but never fully embraces the look and feel of the season in the way that the main characters do. The costume designer knew what to do, but it seems that others were afraid of giving everything a sprinkling of magic and stardust. There's some, and it's good, but not enough.

Foy is a decent enough, if rather bland, lead. Fowora-Knight is the same. Thankfully, Knightley has a lot of fun in the role of Sugar Plum, and Mirren delights as Mother Ginger, simply because she's Helen Mirren. There are fun little roles for Omid DJalili, Jack Whitehall, and Richard E. Grant, while Matthew Macfadyen, Meera Syal, and Morgan Freeman portray the main adults that we see in the real world, with Macfadyen the father just hoping to dance with his daughter.

Ironically enough, this could work like so many Hallmark movies do, as something pretty to have on while you wrap presents and do other Christmas Day prep. But unlike those movies, it wasn't designed for that purpose. It was supposed to be one of those films billed as "a classic tale, reinterpreted for a new generation". And it isn't. It's just a slightly-below-average fantasy film.

4/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.




Thursday, 5 December 2019

Yule Love It: Mickey's Twice Upon A Christmas (2004)

With Disney currently positioning themselves to be our mouse-ear-wearing rulers, and owners of everything that we have emotionally connected to on the silver screen, I felt it was time to dive into one of their many festive selections. Unfortunately, I opted for Mickey's Twice Upon A Christmas. Disappointing, especially when you think of how enjoyable Mickey's Once Upon A Christmas was, this is something to point to immediately when people ask why you may prefer traditional animation techniques over computerised imagery.

The main story ideas, as the film is basically an anthology of Disney Christmas tales, aren't that bad. It's a simple case of the animation style being so ugly that it is enough to keep you from purely enjoying any part of the film.

First up we get a tale of Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck becoming more and more heated in their rivalry at a local ice-skating competition. Then we have a tale showing how Huey, Louie, and Dewey hatch a desperate scheme to get their names on Santa's good list. Third, we have Goofy being his usual embarrassing dad self, this time while his son, Max, brings home a girlfriend for Christmas. Donald Duck is driven mad by the crowds and Christmas carols in the fourth tale. Last, but not least, we get Pluto accidentally ruining Mickey's Christmas plans, which leads to him running away from home and becoming friends with Santa's reindeer.

All of these tales work well with the main characters, and many of them have some nods to other things you have loved from Disney (there are more than a couple of references to Fantasia, for example, and any excuse to get Scrooge McDuck making an appearance is alright by me). The tone and humour are pitched perfectly at the main audience, and every Christmas morning is shown to be that picture-perfect Christmas morning we enjoy seeing in movies (huge tree, snow all around, nice decorations everywhere, carol singers, gifts sitting there for loved ones, etc, etc).

The voice cast are also all as well as you'd expect. Wayne Allwine, Tony Anselmo, and Bill Farmer have been voicing Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, respectively, for many years, and they're excellent. Tress MacNeille and Russi Taylor likewise, the former as Daisy Duck, while the latter does both Minnie Mouse and the troublesome trio of Huey, Louie, and Dewey. And there are small roles for Edie McClurg, Chuck McCann, and Alan Young (who voices Scrooge McDuck).

You wouldn't even notice that three directors and at least a dozen writers were involved here. Everything feels fairly consistent throughout each sketch, culminating in a sequence that has everyone coming together, of course, for some Christmas cheer by a warm fire.

No, the only major sticking point here is the animation. But, DAMN, it's enough to spoil the whole experience. It's not just that it looks cheap and cold, although it really does, but it's also the fact that some of these characters just don't look right when computers smooth off the edges and try to make things sharper, and those characters are usually ducks.

It's not terrible, aside from the horrible animation, but if you have to choose between this and Mickey's Once Upon A Christmas then always go for the latter.

4/10

This is the best way to buy it.
Americans can pick it up here.


Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Prime Time: A Christmas Melody (2015)

Lacey Chabert is as much a part of my Christmas preparations nowadays as multiple half-used rolls of wrapping paper and a building sense of frustration every time I lose the end of the sellotape (no, I don't have a tape dispenser, we're not all living in some kind of organised state of bliss). Mariah Carey is also now very much part of the Christmas celebrations. And that goes double ever since I heard a large group of drunken men leave the Christmas Market in Hyde Park while they sang "All I Want For Christmas Is You" at the top of their lungs. So when I found a Christmas TV movie starring both Chabert and Carey I knew that I had to see it. And then I found out that Mariah Carey also directed the thing. Well . . . cover me in brandy and call me pudding.

The story is fairly simple, as these things so often are. Chabert plays Kristin Parson, a young woman who can design and make clothes, and who we first see sadly closing the doors of her little boutique clothing store for the last time. She has to head home again, with her daughter Emily (Fina Strazza) by her side. Emily has to adjust to a new life, and new school, while Kristin figures out what to do next. There's a lovely Aunt (Kathy Najimy), a music teacher who used to be a school friend (Danny, played by Brennan Elliott), and a woman who does her utmost to keep everyone in their place, as long as that place is just below her own social standing (Melissa, played by Carey). Oh, and there's a janitor named Thomas (Kevin Chamberlin) who seems to have a bit of magic about him, especially after we saw the same actor playing a homeless man given some money by Kristin.

This is a slightly odd Christmas movie, in that most of the things we know and love about them are present and correct, yet it lacks a certain something. Perhaps director Carey hoped to use the format to do something a bit different, or perhaps writer Jennifer Notas Shapiro (who did a good job with both The 12 Gifts Of Christmas and The Flight Before Christmas) lost focus while working on this one.

It's hard to pin-point exactly why it doesn't work, but a few contributing factors are: Chabert playing someone who is even more bland and passive than usual, Carey wanting to play a "mean girl" without ever leaning far enough into it, and a carelessness with the material that makes it all feel a bit more stilted than usual, especially during the product placement moment that is even more egregious than most you will see in these movies.

Strazza does perfectly fine in her role, despite her struggle never feeling enough like something to really be invested in, while Chabert and Elliott work well together, all smiles as they bond together while remembering sweet high school memories. Carey is alright, but should have been meaner (as mentioned), Najimy is as fun as she so often is, and Chamberlin does very well as the sort of person who can give children odd messages with a twinkle in their eye in a way that these movies maintain is completely charming and innocent, instead of worrying and creepy.

3/10

The movie can be bought here.


Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Yule Love It: The Grinch (2018)

And here is my second review for this year,
Of a film that is overloaded with good Christmas cheer.
It's an animated retelling of a Dr, Seuss tale,
But does The Grinch succeed, or does The Grinch fail?

I watched it last week, with hopes not raised high,
Even the cast could not help me stifle a sigh.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, and more,
Would they be any match for the casting from before.

First we had Karloff and then we had Carrey,
Both of those versions kept me happy as Larry.
But this boasts animation from Illumination,
Is it just a distraction or artistic creation?

Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney co-direct,
Not two names I would first choose to select,
But they're in charge of this cartoon presentation,
That ultimately wallows in creative stagnation.

The animation is nice, the voice cast not bad,
But nothing improves on the other's we've had.
You get what's expected, no more and no less,
It's shiny and new, but far from the best.

The characters are cute, some gags make you grin,
Whoville looks pretty, but lacking something within.
And the problem with Cumberbatch, his accent, I'm sorry,
He's clearly binged House and is copying Hugh Laurie.

The screenplay is dull, there aren't any good songs,
What the film gets right it outweighs with the wrongs.
So I got an idea! An awful idea!
This review was that wonderful, awful idea!

If you're thinking this is a waste of your time,
I can only apologise for trying to rhyme,
But it was better than other ideas that I had,
To say the film was not great, while not entirely bad.

It is what it is, which is nothing mindblowing,
Though I'm sure it will amuse you while outside it's snowing.
I'm no Dr. Seuss, but this review was fun.
I hope you were amused, and now it is done.

6/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.


Monday, 2 December 2019

Mubi Monday: Paterson (2016)

I have absolutely no idea how I am going to recommend this to other people, or even what I may end up actually having to say about it, but let me make clear from the very beginning that Paterson is an absolute delight from start to finish, largely thanks to the captivating presence of Adam Driver in a lead role that allows him to once again show why his career has gone from strength to strength over the last decade.

Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver who lives in the town of Paterson, New Jersey. He has a routine that seems to work for him. Work, catching up with his wife (Golshifteh Farahani), walking the dog, and enjoying a beer or two at a local bar. He also works on a variety of poems, influenced by the work of local poet, William Carlos Williams.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch, who also wrote the script, based on work by William Carlos Williams and Ron Padgett, Paterson is one of those slight films that feels about nothing while paradoxically feeling as if it may just hold secrets to the best way to get through modern life. If you take anything away from the film then perhaps it is how easy it can be to make the everyday and mundane into something poetic and worth taking note of. Even a matchstick is made into something beautiful and memorable here.

Although it wouldn't be half the film it is without Driver in the lead role (I could close my eyes and listen to that man read the phone book, but his ability to remain deadpan and calm despite whatever happens around him is also a big plus), Paterson also boasts a talented selection of supporting players. Farahani does well in her role, helping to make something more of a flighty character who could easily have come across as more annoying. Because it's hard to stay onside with someone who dreams of increasing their cupcake sales while trying to become a . . . country music artist. Barry Shabaka Henley is Doc, the owner of the local bar, and Chasten Harmon and William Jackson Harper are a couple of people who aren't in a relationship, despite how much Harper wants them to be in a relationship. Sterling Jerins is a young girl who shares a lovely little poem with our lead, and Masatoshi Nagase pops up to share a moment of appreciation for William Carlos Williams.

This is absolutely a film that you can go without seeing, it doesn't really say anything new or say it in a completely original way. Yet it's a rewarding and worthwhile experience, and one of my favourite viewings from the past month or so. Sometimes you don't need a story telling you something new, sometimes you don't need innovation in the storytelling techniques. A reminder of things buried away in the recesses of our mind can be just as good, a nudge to get us willing to look at things from a slightly different angle, be it a matchstick or time spent without a mobile phone (Paterson doesn't have one, which is perhaps what enables him to spend more time capturing imagery more poetically).

9/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.


Sunday, 1 December 2019

Netflix And Chill: Angela's Christmas (2017)

Someone mentioned Angela's Christmas to me last year, and praised it highly, but it was just something I didn't get to until now. Despite the runtime being only thirty minutes. Sometimes I do manage to plan my schedule far enough ahead that everything is in place, although you wouldn't think it from the rambling nonsense I type out most days.

Anyway. It's Ireland. It's the 1910s. Christmas time. And this story centres on a little girl named Angela, of course. Seeing the baby Jesus in the middle of the nativity scene in her church, Angela thinks he looks too cold, so she plans to kidnap him and give him somewhere warm to spend the night. This leads to a bit of trouble, as you might imagine, and it seems like just a matter of time until Angela is caught and punished.

Based on a true story, that was turned into a children's story by author Frank McCourt (who also wrote Angela's Ashes, which was made into a feature film years ago), there's no denying that Angela's Christmas is sweet and enjoyable. It also looks lovely throughout, thanks to the sterling work of Brown Bag Films. You can feel the chill in every scene, which makes it all the easier to feel the warmth from every candle and fire.

With Malachy McCourt, brother of Frank, narrating the tale, it feels very much like a nice, personal story being shared with us. The voice cast do well. Lucy O'Connell is very good in the main role, Ruth Negga lends her talents to the role of Mother, and an assortment of other players make up the small supporting cast. It's all about the innocence of a child doing wrong while trying to do something good, an act that ties in to a story told by her mother about the night she was born, and it's . . . nice.

Unfortunately, that's all it is. It's the kind of tale you hear from someone who is doting over their child, ultimately always more rewarding and warming for the teller of the tale than whoever happens to be within earshot to tell it to. I mean, look, every piece of art, be it a painting, a movie, writing, or whatever, should be for the pleasure of the artist, first and foremost. The fact that others can enjoy it doesn't mean they will. The fact that others can see meaning in it doesn't mean that they will see the same meaning. That's a given. It's just a shame that this doesn't quite do enough to allow everyone to connect more with it. Having said that, others will strongly disagree.

As already mentioned, the visuals here are lovely, the tale itself is sweet enough, and there's definitely enough here to satisfy those after a heartwarming Christmas short story. I just thought it was going to move me more than it did, which maybe says more about my cold, dying heart than it does about the quality of the final product on display here. Maybe.

6/10

There's the book available here.
Americans can get a DVD here.


Saturday, 30 November 2019

Shudder Saturday: Monster Party (2018)

There's a fun idea at the centre of Monster Party, but it's also just a bit too silly. Murderers who are trying not to keep murdering get themselves some support network, in the same way as alcoholics use the AA. That should allow them to stay "dry" and keep everyone safer. A bunch of these murderers are gathered together in one house, while Casper (Sam Strike), Iris (Virginia Gardner), and Dodge (Brandon Micheal Hall) are trying to rob it. The robbers are obviously unaware of the deadliness of the party guests and home owners, but they'll soon discover it.

Written and directed by Chris von Hoffmann, his second full movie after numerous shorts and the feature Drifter (which I have not seen), Murder Party is, as mentioned at the start of the previous paragraph, a fun idea that ends up being a bit too silly. And I'm not sure if the material would have been better-served by making it a more subtle piece of work or by leaning harder into the fun of the premise.

It's a film that feels hard to say too much about, because none of the extra elements around the main thrust of the plot are worth the time spent on them. A lead character who needs the money to help his in-debt father to pay off someone he seems to regularly owe? Don't care. Characters acting upset that they are breaking their non-murdering time? It doesn't work. An extra house resident who turns up and looks like they've just escaped from The Funhouse? It's one additional scene that adds nothing. In fact, it ends up changing things for the worse.

The cast do okay, but it's a shame that Von Hoffmann places us alongside the three leads and younger members of the household when he has also managed to procure the talents of Robin Tunney, Julian McMahon, and Lance Reddick. The latter two are particularly fun, but Tunney is excellent as a woman tired and fed up of those not strong enough to avoid bloodshed. Strike, Gardner, and Hall aren't bad, they're just not good enough to keep rooting for. And very few of the other young cast members even make an impression, aside from Erin Moriarty (a member of the deadly family who may be different from the others). Kian Lawley stands out for all the wrong reason, he's neither threatening enough, nor is he enough fun in his role, and the same can be said for both Chester Rushing and Jamie Ward, both of whom you'd be forgiven for even forgetting they were actually in the film.

There are one or two good moments dotted throughout this, but they actually come along at the very beginning and end of the film. And those are the scenes bookending the "monster party" itself, which is surely not how Von Hoffmann intended things to seem. Perhaps he'll do better with his next feature. Maybe it will help him to work from a good idea developed by another writer. Or he'll just work harder to make the leads more worthy of your time and attention.

5/10


Friday, 29 November 2019

Noir-vember: Dragged Across Concrete (2018)

There are a number of things about Dragged Across Concrete that make it an interesting watch. First of all, the continuing development of the filmography of S. Craig Zahler, a man who has made quite a name for himself by crafting films around unpleasant characters with unpleasant attitudes. Certain things keep coming up again and again, making you question how much of himself Zahler puts onscreen (especially when so much of the runtime has characters saying, either overtly or more subtly, "I'm not racist, BUT..."), but you also have to accept that writers and directors can have fun with unpleasant characters without necessarily sharing any common ground with them. It's just unfortunate that Zahler seems to keep doubling down on elements of his work that are, at the very least, quite troubling, certainly on the surface. Second, you get a fantastic performance from Mel Gibson, all the more effective for it making good use of the baggage he now inevitably brings to many of his roles. Third, it certainly gives you plenty to talk about after.

Unfortunately, the main chain of events shown onscreen aren't really that interesting. Two cops (played by Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson) are caught being a bit too rough with someone during a raid. This leads to them being suspended, without pay, and leads to them eventually hatching a plan to get a payday from some criminal they suspect of lining up a big deal. It turns out that the big deal is actually a bank robbery, and things start to get more dangerous, and much harder to keep on track when innocent lives are at stake.

Dragged Across Concrete is a taut, 90-minute thriller that steeps every character in scene in the essence of neo-noir and builds to an expected climax of bloodshed and loss. Well, it could have been. If only Zahler had managed to rein himself in, and cut back on the many moments of excess that lead to the whole thing being a bloated and trundling mess that exceeds two and a half hours in length. Which would be understandable if he had better words to feed his talented cast. He doesn't. Any attempts at commentary, or even just cool, fall flat, and there isn't one character you end up wanting to see live to the end credits.

As good as Gibson is in his role, and he's very good, everyone else is pretty much wasted. Tory Kittles and Michael Jai White try their best, playing two men involved in the robbery who don't necessarily approve of the sudden jump to ruthless violence, but Vaughn can't make anything of his role (a bigger shame when you consider how well Zahler used him in Brawl In Cell Block 99), Don Johnson starts to get into his stride and is then out of the movie after only a couple of scenes, and Jennifer Carpenter is perhaps treated the worst of all, in a couple of scenes that are simply bizarre in how they unfold. Laurie Holden isn't given much to do either, just appearing to justify the actions of Gibson, in his work and, by extrapolation, his criminal plan.

If things keep progressing at this rate, Zahler should be along in a couple of years with his next movie, a thrilling dramatic reconstruction of the Rodney King beating from the point of view of the poor, overworked, police officers involved. We'll just have to wait and see. Suffice it to say, I will be waiting for news of any future films from him with much less anticipation.

5/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy the movie here.



Thursday, 28 November 2019

Noir-vember: Femme Fatale (2002)

Written and directed by Brian De Palma, Femme Fatale is entertaining and frustrating in equal measure. It's De Palma at his most playful, which can be very good or very bad, depending on how you usually react to his style.

Rebecca Romjin plays a woman who helps to steal some very expensive items in a daring robbery, and then you get the inevitable treachery and chaos, which leads to Romjin then heading somewhere she can lay low for a while. It turns out that she picks a home in which a woman who looks remarkably like her already lives. And that woman is about to commit suicide, which could lead to a whole new life for Romjin. If she can keep herself relatively hidden away.

The first time I watched Femme Fatale, I hated it. None of it is even remotely believable, the performances are all played at different levels, and De Palma seemed more interested in indulging himself than giving viewers a film. That all remains true, and yet I enjoy it more nowadays way more than I did on that initial viewing. Maybe it's because I know that De Palma almost always seems more interested in indulging himself whenever he directs a movie, maybe it's because I knew how things were going to play out so didn't invest in something I thought may develop towards a realistic finale, or maybe I just enjoyed the pulpiness of it all a bit more this time.

The script remains pretty awful though. This is De Palma at his most inept. He has given himself a plot that allows space for some of his favourite themes, yet he's also painted himself into a corner with other aspects of the plot that need to be focused on. Which leads to him seeming to just mash everything together with no attempt to blend the seams or edit the better sequences into something more generally cohesive. It's not hard to follow, it's not completely incoherent, it's just too much style over substance, leaving viewers feeling as if they are missing out on one or two pieces of the puzzle, ensuring that the completed product never quite satisfies as it should.

Romjin is excellent in the lead role, although that's largely due to her look and presence. There are times when she's mangling an accent, but there's usually a reason for that, and she's very believable as the kind of woman who could weave a spell on one or two useful men. Peter Coyote is one of those men, meeting her at just the right time and offering hope that could also turn very sour. The other male lead is Antonio Banderas, playing that De Palma favourite, the man always happiest viewing the world through the lens of a camera, and seeing something that wasn't meant for his eyes. The other main players - Eriq Ebouaney, Edouard Montoute, and Rie Rasmussen - all do decidedly . . . okay, but they're used as and when De Palma requires things to move along, as opposed to being as determined and effective as we know they would be in this situation.

A film that feels, in many ways, like a final film from De Palma, Femme Fatale isn't up there with any of his best work. There's fun to be had here though, especially if you are familiar with the style and recurring motifs he has always put front and centre over the years.

5/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy the movie here.


Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Prime Time: Scarlet Street (1945)

Reuniting the director and stars of The Woman In The Window, this film shows a man who wanders down a dark path, led there by love/infatuation. He's manipulated and used, which eventually makes him angry and irrational, but it's hard to feel much sympathy for him, considering how he makes one bad decision after another.

Edward G. Robinson is Christopher Cross, an unhappily married man who finds his life brightened up slightly after a chance encounter with a woman named "Kitty" (Joan Bennett). He doesn't realise that Kitty is in a relationship with an opportunistic crook named Johnny (Dan Duryea), and so wastes his time and money getting an apartment for Kitty, where he gets to paint her and spend time in her company. Embezzling from his work, Christopher is desperate to figure out a way to make his relationship with Kitty more official. He doesn't realise that Kitty is just stringing him along. And neither of them realise that his paintings are actually worth a bit of money to the right collector.

It's nice, comforting, in a way to watch this Fritz Lang movie and see him so at ease with the cast he used to well in The Woman In The Window. The screenplay by Dudley Nichols is decent enough, it may not fire off the zingers but it gets all the characters were they should be and moves the plot forward in a way that never feels ridiculous or implausible.

Robinson is very good in his central role, a rather sad figure who fools himself into thinking he has found a shot at true happiness. His behaviour is that of a man in typical midlife-crisis mode, even though he may be a bit older, but he also looks self-aware and uncomfortable, not used to the apparent affections of such a lovely lady. Bennett is excellent, just the right mix of cute and moody, while viewers know it is all deliberate in order to keep a man wound round her little finger. Duryea is comfortable in the role of main rogue Johnny, Margaret Lindsay is good as the friend of Kitty who never warms to Johnny, and Rosalind Ivers is Mrs Cross, a rather stern and unhelpful woman who helps her husband be resolved in his actions.

I am in the minority here, in that I preferred the previous collaboration between director and stars, but this is a film that has a lot to recommend to fans of classic cinema. It is a well-crafted morality tale with solid performances from the cast, decent presentation throughout, and a dark and fitting ending to it all. And it feels like it has been remade/reworked numerous times, although I cannot put my finger on a prime example to cite right now. All suggestions and memory prompts are welcome.

7/10

There's a region-locked disc here.
Americans can buy the same disc here.


Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Noir-vember: Red Rock West (1993)

You know your small town is about to see some shit go down when Nic Cage comes rolling in, surely, and that is how Red Rock West starts, a fantastic neo-noir from John Dahl (contender for the director with the most overlooked filmography of the past few decades, everyone goes on about The Last Seduction and forgets he has done so many other greats).

Cage is Michael, a military veteran looking for work. He has a job lined up, but that doesn't go anywhere when he tells the prospective employer about his wounded leg. So he ends up in a bar, which is being tended by a barman (Wayne, played by J. T. Walsh) who is expecting an employee. Pretending to be the expected party, Michael ends up with a job. But that job involves killing Wayne's wife (Suzanne, played by Lara Flynn Boyle). Thinking that he can warn Suzanne, run off with some money, and alert the local Sheriff, Michael finds his situation getting a whole lot worse when he finds out that Wayne is also the head authority figure in the area. And the real killer is still due to arrive soon.

Coming out a year before the film that really made movie fans sit up and take not of him, Red Rock West is a perfect mix of real thrills, tension, and lighter entertainment. The script, written by Dahl and his brother, Rick, lines up the familiar noir tropes and absolutely embraces them, even as our hero watches events unfolding around him with a mixture of disbelief and bemusement, and even a hint of wry amusement when he's resigned to his fate at the hands of various individuals who have managed to keep hold of him amidst their immoral dealings.

Cage is excellent in the lead role here, perfectly portraying someone who doesn't seem too bright, or to have too many prospects, but has a history and an intelligence that belie his outward appearance. Walsh gives yet another one of his superb performances that saw him almost steal a number of movies throughout the '90s, a nasty piece of work who tends to try a smile and a modicum of charm first, right before revealing his true nature to those who get in his way. Boyle is also just the right casting for her role, the potential victim who may have her own cunning plan at work, and there's a lot of fun to be had once Dennis Hopper appears onscreen. Can you guess which character he plays?

It's interesting that the Dahl brothers have crafted an enjoyably small film with an backstory that could easily have opened up the scope of the tale. Obviously waved away for the sake of keeping the budget and focus of the film much easier to handle, viewers are instead dropped into this maelstrom of events alongside Cage, who is teased more and more information until all becomes crystal clear in a third act that then builds to a wonderfully atmospheric finale.

The more I think about Red Rock West, the less I can find fault with it. You have the tension, you have a good measure of black comedy, and you even have a couple of decent action moments. It's not quite perfect, and I understand that some people just can't bring themselves to watch Cage in anything nowadays (their loss), but it comes surprisingly close.

9/10

You can buy a disc here (but this deserves much better).
Americans can buy a disc here.


Monday, 25 November 2019

Mubi Monday: Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

My reasons for picking specific titles to review are myriad and often a lot less organised, or sensible, than they should be. Take the choice for today, for example, a rom-com from the Coen brothers that many would probably often forget is even part of their filmography. Many might even prefer it not to be in there. Which is a great shame, as Intolerable Cruelty holds up as yet another showcase for the talented siblings to pick a genre they enjoy and have fun showing their mastery of it.

George Clooney is perfectly cast as the smooth-talking and perfectly-groomed divorce lawyer, Miles Massey. Often defying the odds, and relishing the challenge, Miles has an amazing record for helping his clients get everything they want, even if they are not the wronged party. But he's been finding himself thinking some quite unique, potentially dangerous, thoughts recently, made more troubling as he gets involved in a case that leads to him withholding a huge payout from the beautiful Marylin (Catherine Zeta Jones). What follows involves love, pain, and the infamous "Massey pre-nup".

Very much in line with other Coen brothers movies, in terms of the snappy dialogue and assortment of memorable characters, Intolerable Cruelty is knockabout fare of the highest order, focused on two gorgeous leads who are surrounded by a fine collection of people taking on fun supporting roles. Geoffrey Rush is the cheated-upon spouse who finds his wife with another man, leading us to be introduced to the smooth ways of Massey. Edward Herrmann is the first husband of Zeta Jones, bringing the two leads together for the central conflict, while Billy Bob Thornton is the second. Cedric The Entertainer is an investigator who often shouts out a catchphrase he has coined as he gathers video evidence of extra-marital affairs. And Paul Adelstein is Wrigley, a man in awe of Massey until he sees how major changes start to affect his life, while Richard Jenkins is the poor attorney often at the other side of battles against the winning teams.

It may not always look as good as many of their other movies, the production design is relatively clean and simple throughout, but shot choice and style are, as ever with the Coens, in line with the type of film they are most trying to emulate. Rom-coms are not known for their lavish sets or dizzying cinematography, therefore we don't get those things here.

The script is even funnier than I remembered, either in terms of the actual dialogue or the delivery (Clooney is so good in this kind of comedic role that I wish we'd seen him in more of them, classic deliveries matching his old-school movie star looks), and the whole thing sets all of the plot points up briskly enough and positively dashes through the 100-minute runtime.

I know that some automatically dislike the stars here, but they're both doing some of their best (or, at the very least, most fun) work, and casting them in these roles was a typically-great decision from the Coen brothers. It's hard to pick any one favourite from the supporting players either, with so many good moments to choose from. Everyone is hilariously over the top, and Rush sets the tone perfectly in the opening scenes, but I think I'll take this opportunity to highlight Jenkins, who does such wonderful work in a role that isn't as immediately full of comedic potential as the others, yet his performance just sprinkles more treats throughout the runtime.

The soundtrack is wonderful, the character developments, and small twists and turns, are constantly amusing, and this remains a fun time. I'm not going to argue that it's a masterpiece, or deserves to be in the top tier of a filmography from two men who have given audiences so many modern classics, but I am going to encourage people to either check it out or revisit it. You may realise that it's a lot more fun than given credit for.

7/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can get it here.


Saturday, 23 November 2019

Netflix And Chill: The Woman In The Window (1944)

I REALLY enjoyed The Woman In The Window, despite the fact that the very end of the movie reveals it to be a much lighter affair than the rest makes out (an ending perhaps imposed upon the film-makers, or perhaps it's a grace note they enjoyed after a particularly downbeat finale). I'm starting this review by discussing the end because I think it could be a bone of contention for many, a decision that spoils their enjoyment of what they might otherwise view favourably.

But let's get back to the beginning. Edward G. Robinson is a psychology professor named Richard Wanley. We see him parting from his wife and children as they head off on a holiday, and he then meets his friends in a cosy gentlemen's club. Drinks and conversation flow. When Wanley heads home late in the evening, he stops to admire the painting of a woman in a nearby shop window. Which is when he meets Alice Reed (Joan Bennett). She looks like the woman in the painting. It's not long until she also looks like a lot of trouble, when she invites Wanley back to her place for drinks, only for them to be interrupted by an angry lover. A death occurs, and Wanley then needs to do his utmost to dispose of the body and cover up any evidence. Will anybody even miss this man? Will they be able to figure out what happened? Wanley can stay in the loop as he hears about current police efforts from his friend, a D. A. named Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey).

Written by the talented Nunally Johnson, adapting a novel named "Once Off Guard" by J. H. Wallis, The Woman In The Window is a film that weaves tonally between moments of amusement and darker events, with everything growing incrementally more and more tense on the way to the finale. It's never flippant, but it's very easy to stay on the side of a central character who made one mistake and then just keeps making things worse for himself.

Fritz Lang is in the director's chair, with this being during a period of time during which he seemed to be churning these films out. It's a super-light concoction when compared to his absolute classics, but that makes it no less worthy of a place in your viewing schedule. Okay, maybe a little bit. I'd say it's still well worth checking off your list though, as are many of the "lesser" titles in his filmography.

Robinson is excellent in the lead role, someone who takes a wrong turn up a one-way street and keeps trying to carefully turn himself around while the walls just keep closing in. Bennet is also very good, posited as the femme fatale of the plot, but almost as much a victim of circumstance as Robinson, although it's worth noting that she is ultimately responsible every time things go from bad to worse. Massey is an exemplary and upstanding citizen, blissfully blinkered to just how guilty his friend looks as the evidence starts to pile up, and Edmund Breon is the other main friend, equally blind to the guilt of a friend, despite occasionally commenting on some remarkable coincidences.

The runtime is 107 minutes, yet this feels like a shorter film. The pacing is perfect, viewers remain completely invested in the fate of the lead character for every minute of the post-death runtime, and it's good to have the one-two punch of the ending that lets you experience two extreme reactions to the material. Although, as mentioned, some may strongly disagree on that.

8/10

There's a lovely disc available here.
Americans can get a disc here.


Shudder Saturday: The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971)

This might be a very early feature from Dario Argento (the second film he helmed, and also the second of his animal-themed trilogy), but this rather sedate giallo certainly has a lot of elements in place that the director would become known for throughout the next couple of decades.

The basic plot concerns a number of killings that seem to be connected to a scientific laboratory. As the mystery deepens, it becomes something more and more interesting to a journalist (Carlo Giordani, played by James Franciscus) and a blind puzzle enthusiast (Franco Arnò, played by Karl Malden). But as they get closer to the truth, they also get themselves targeted by the killer.

Although a bit bloodless compared to what Argento would deliver within the next few years, The Cat O'Nine Tails is a fun murder mystery that is punctuated by death scenes often enough to help the pacing of the film. For fans of this kind of thing, you get everything you could expect from an early 1970s Italian thriller. A handsome lead. Someone with a disability that doesn't stop them from being quite brilliant, yet critically holds them back from solving the mystery any time before the grand finale (of course). Some wonderfully cheesy dialogue, especially in a scene showing the sexual chemistry about to shatter the beaker when James Franciscus is being as forward as he can be with Catherine Spaak. A bit of gratuitous nudity. A ridiculous explanation for the killings, with some enjoyably silly science backing it up. And, of course, the usual equivalence of any deviance from the entrenched hetero-normative standards with the potential to be a dangerous psychopath.

Franciscus is good in his role, all noble intent and twinkly eyes, and Malden does very well as the blind man who ends up becoming an invaluable assistant as the investigation gathers momentum. Spaak is made to start off icy and full of attitude, before thawing out in the company of the lead hunk, and she does fine in her role. Small turns from Aldo Reggiani, Horst Frank, and Carlo Alighiero help to remind you of the many red herrings to be considered as the killer, up until the reveal that we get in the final sequence. And it's also worth mentioning that Cinzia De Carolis is a lot less irritating than she could have been in the role of Lori, the niece of Malden's character, and someone who provides him with one or two essential observations.

Argento is already showing his eye for interesting shot choices (especially extreme close-ups that show an unflinching eye looking at victims), but there's still some way to go before he would have the style and flair that would make his more celebrated outings stand out from the crowd. The best thing here is seeing him hold back, setting up some nice moments of tension with simpler shot choices and camera movement, in line with a plot that is slightly less convoluted than many of his other works.

It may be more for completists than anyone seeking out the cream of the crop, when it comes to either gialli or Argento films, but it's still more worthwhile than many others you could choose, including some from the latter part of Dario's filmography.

6/10

There's a lovely disc available here.


Friday, 22 November 2019

Noir-vember: Throw Momma From The Train (1987)

The first theatrical feature film directed by Danny DeVito, after some years spent honing his craft on TV episodes, shorts, and a few TV movies, Throw Momma From The Train hints at the knack he has for black comedy. It's not as good as most of his other films, lacking the sharp teeth he would grow less afraid of in future works, but it's still a fun idea made into a decent diversion.

Taking a cue from Strangers On A Train, this is the tale of two individuals who have murder in mind. Billy Crystal is Larry, a frustrated writer who now spends his days teaching other amateur writers how to start on their journey. He's frustrated because his ex-wife (Margaret, played by Kate Mulgrew) has made herself a name and fortune by putting her name to a novel that he wrote. Owen (Danny DeVito) is attending Larry's class, and he's frustrated by years spent living with his horrible and abusive mother (Anne Ramsey). Taking some advice from Larry, who is just trying to basically shoo him away, Owen ends up in a cinema that is screening Strangers On A Train. He thinks this is an unsubtle hint from Larry, and begins plotting to kill Margaret, which would mean Larry could then kill his overbearing mother. Nothing goes to plan, especially when it comes to the fate of the unstoppable force that is momma.

Despite the strength of the two lead performances here (Crystal and DeVito work very well off one another) there's not enough that can be done to lift the material above the script, written by Stu Silver. Silver doesn't have the most extensive filmography, and this is the only full movie he is credited with. His relative inexperience shows, although I understand that there may have been spaces left in which Crystal and DeVito could riff and work in more laughs. That's all well and good when enough magic is made to fill up the runtime, but otherwise it's not ideal.

There are also not enough great moments, or care, given to the supporting cast. Ramsey is superb, but she is required to do nothing more than be gruff and gravel-faced again (her characters is essentially Ma Fratelli in need of a full-time carer), and Mulgrew has a lot of fun saying lines and acting in ways that constantly get Crystal more and more enraged. Kim Greist is sorely underused, playing a colleague who agrees to date Crystal, and the same can be said of Annie Ross, Rob Reiner, and Oprah Winfrey (the latter two being used in amusing cameo roles).

So, in case it wasn't clear from the previous two paragraphs, the biggest thing working against the movie is the fact that it's too lightweight. In fact, the central concept, which remains a fun idea to rework, ends up feeling as if it could just as easily be slotted into any sitcom special episode. The ending doesn't help either, further showing that this is a dog barking at everyone to keep them at a distance from which they can't see a mouth full of false teeth.

DeVito shows a capability in the director's chair that would help him over the next couple of decades (with better efforts from him including The War Of The Roses, Matilda, and, my personal favourite, Death To Smoochy). It's just a shame that he didn't have enough faith in his cast, and himself, to make this darker, and potentially a lot funnier, than it is.

6/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy the movie here.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Noir-vember: Strangers On A Train (1951)

It's a classic conceit, but only because this Alfred Hitchcock movie did it so well. Two strangers end up in conversation on a train (hence the title) and one puts forward his idea for a perfect murder: two people who aren't really connected commit a murder on behalf of the other party. So begins this enjoyable thriller, based on a tale by Patricia Highsmith and worked into screenplay by a few different people, including Raymond Chandler.

Farley Granger plays Guy Haines, a minor British celeb on the tennis circuit, and Robert Walker is Bruno Antony, the stranger who starts talking about a plan that he actually wants to put into action. Guy is having a hard time trying to arrange a divorce from his wife, Miriam, which would free him up to marry the lovely daughter of a US Senator, while Bruno seems to have spent many years carrying around a hatred of his father. Time passes, and it's not long until Bruno has done what he sees as his part in a confirmed deal. Guy is shocked, and also afraid. He doesn't know how to best explain the situation to the authorities, especially while Bruno has his personalised cigarette lighter in his possession, ready to plant at the murder site to incriminate him much more than the circumstantial evidence.

Although the central idea was very familiar to me, and will be very familiar to anyone who has even the most cursory knowledge of the film, or the many films/TV show episodes it has influenced, I had no idea that things would cut to the chase so quickly. Bruno is a psychopath, which becomes clear after those initial scenes, and that makes it very easy to believe that he starts off this chain of events after the most non-committal conversation with Guy.

As expertly constructed as you would expect from Hitchcock, this arguably sits alongside his lighter offerings. While there is danger for our guilty-looking hero, it always feels as if Guy will find some way out of his predicament. It helps that he eventually confides in his understanding partner, Anne (Ruth Roman), and that he has the truth on his side, even if it won't really seem like the truth when he tries to explain it to the authorities. His actions may seem a bit silly at times, but it's hard to think of other ways in which he could have sought to clear his name and get everything resolved satisfactorily.

Granger is decent in his role, required to look nervous and sweaty for most of his time onscreen, and Walker is very entertaining as someone who quickly casts off any semblance of normalcy once a sliver of his dangerous madness is shown. Roman is lovely, just the kind of person you would want on your side if trying to clear your name and maintain a smooth course on a journey of true love, Leo G. Carroll is as good as ever as her father, the Senator, and Patricia Hitchcock (daughter of the man in the director's chair) has fun in her role, the younger sister of Roman's character, prone to saying whatever she thinks, without considering whether or not it is something others may want to hear.

I can't say that this would rank up there with the very best of the Hitchcock movies I have seen, and I have seen a great many of his works, but it's absolutely worth seeing, and makes up for a lack of major set-pieces throughout with a finale that features the police firing a gun far too carelessly at a funfair, a carousel on superspeed, and a villain who remains unrepentant even as some major evidence comes into plain sight.

8/10

This is the set you want.




Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Prime Time: Dishonored Lady (1947)

Here's a strange bit of personal trivia to start things off today. Although I had heard of Hedy Lamarr over the years, and I MAY have first heard the name utilised in Blazing Saddles, I had never seen her in a movie. I could be forgetting something, it happens, but I really think that this is the first film I have watched featuring her in a main role. And I couldn't have made a better choice. Well, that's very debatable when considering sheer cinematic quality. But it's less debatable when you consider the plot details here, and pair that up with the reputation of someone who is credited with a frequency hopping radio system that is used today in WiFi, Bluetooth, and more.

So . . . what's it all about? Why am I so happy to have started with this? Well, it's all about Ms Lamarr, who plays a woman named Madeleine Damien, heading off to start a new life with a new identity. This is all for the sake of her mental health, and can you guess what has caused her to have such a problem? She's being viewed with disdain because she has been seen as someone who doesn't mind partying, and doesn't need to just stick to partying with one guy. Yes, the more things change, the more things stay the same. Dishonored Lady is a noir film revolving around the core idea that Hedy Lamarr is slut-shamed into starting a whole new life. Anyway, it works out well. She meets the lovely Dr. Cousins (played by Dennis O'Keefe) and the future looks bright. But her past isn't quite ready to stay in the past, and those who knew Madeleine before cannot believe that she has changed all that much. There's an attempt to ruin her happiness, there's a fair bit of alcohol, and there's a dead body, one that leads to an embarrassed Madeleine having to bear witness to a trial that seems more concerned with her lifestyle choices than any actual motivation for murder.

Based on a play, and adapted for the screen by Edmund H. North (who also happened to write one of my favourite films of all time, The Day The Earth Stood Still), Dishonored Lady is a simple and effective little thriller that also ticks some of the boxes to qualify as a noir. You get the moral shadiness, and that's without considering how '40s audiences may have viewed the central character, you get various people scheming to get results, and the corpse turns up just in time for the third act to step everything up.

Director Robert Stevenson handles everything well, making the most of his cast to easily further move away from any potential staginess in the material (and, kudos to North, there is plenty done in the adaptation to add some cinematic quality to everything). It's not flashy or overly complicated, Stevenson is a professional who keeps this focused on the main character, her journey and her big dilemma.

Lamarr is fantastic in her role, and I'll be seeking out more of her movies whenever I remember to make the time for them, and O'Keefe does well as the nice and proper love interest. John Loder and William Lundigan have two vital supporting roles, they do fine, while Morris Carnovsky has to be the exposition for a couple of main scenes in which he portrays the doctor who has tried to help Lamarr move on from her "unhealthy" past. And Margaret Hamilton is good to see in a small role, playing a landlady who likes her tenants but doesn't like the turn of events when the police come calling.

I can see people dismissing this easily enough. It's never all that gripping, it's essentially a love story interrupted by a bit of drama (as opposed to a noir with some chemistry between the leads), and there aren't enough big names padding out the cast list. It just all worked for me, thanks to the parallels you can make between attitudes of yesteryear and attitudes of today, and thanks to the central performance from Lamarr.

8/10

There doesn't seem to be any decent disc release for this, which is a great shame. Surely some major Lamarr retrospective boxset is out there, or due at some point.


Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Noir-vember: A Bittersweet Life (2005)

I haven't seen many films from writer-director Kim Jee-woon, but I've been very impressed by those I have seen. I Saw The Devil (reviewed here, complete with incorrect naming structure) is fantastic, A Tale Of Two Sisters is a modern horror masterpiece (and the film that put him on my radar, making me keen to see this one when I knew his name was attached to it), and even The Last Stand (reviewed here, where I make the same naming error) is a good bit of fun. So you could say that I'm a fan, and I'll tell you right now that A Bittersweet Life is up there with his best work.

Lee Byung-hun plays Kim, a right hand man to a criminal big cheese named Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol). When he is heading to Shanghai on business, Kang asks Kim to keep an eye on a young woman (Hee-soo, played by Shin Min-ah) he has been seeing. But the young woman may also be seeing someone else. This complicated situation is unfolding at the same time as tensions are rising with another criminal gang, headed up by Baek Dae-sik (played by Hwang Jung-min), meaning things are about to get worse and worse for Kim, a man who has spent a long time trying to do the best job possible for an employer who now looks set to discard him.

There are so many things to praise about A Bittersweet Life that I may as well just apologise now for not mentioning them all. There's only one thing I dislike about it, a comedy sequence that feels jarring until the rest of the film starts to mix the humour more effectively in with some escalating violence, but the rest comes damn close to perfection for every minute of the runtime.

Let's start with the cast, and let's start discussing the cast by discussing the star. Byung-hun is at his very best in the lead role, putting in a performance that is alternately sweet and courteous and then absolutely vicious when necessary. His introduction sets the tone for the whole film, dealing with a big problem by offering the chance of a peaceful resolution before having to resort to swift and decisive violence. Yeong-chol, Min-ah, and Jung-min all do well in their roles, and there are a number of entertaining supporting turns, but this is Byung-hun's movie through and through. He holds the screen in a way that seems effortless, confirming his star status to anyone who hadn't encountered him on film before.

The script, also by Jee-woon, is rich in detail without underlining every sentence. This is a film in which every gesture and word counts, especially when they're being delivered by a main character who doesn't do anything without giving it serious thought beforehand, and the big picture that builds from start to finish makes the whole experience more and more immersive, all the way to a grand finale that ends things very much in line with the title of the film.

Gorgeous cinematography comes courtesy of Kim Ji-yong, and the film is bookended by some great camerawork that replicates a certain journey throughout the main location that feels more like home to Kim than the actual residence where he gets to lay his head down, the music works nicely in an unobtrusive way, and everything just feels perfectly in place, from the clothing to the production design work.

I know that I have one or two reasons for not giving this the highest rating possible, but those reasons are harder to recollect as I spend more time remembering all that is great about it. So be aware that I could happily bump this up after future repeat viewings.

9/10

There's a disc available here.
The same disc can be bought here.


Monday, 18 November 2019

Mubi Monday: Murder In Mississippi (1965)

Based on a horrible true story, involving the killing of three civil rights activists (also covered in a 1990 TV movie with the same name as this, as well as Mississippi Burning), this little slice of shocking entertainment is both important commentary on a sadly typical situation and also sleazy exploitation throughout.

Sheila Britt is Carol Lee Byrd, a white woman who accompanies a number of civil rights activists to a small Southern town, with everyone intent on encouraging African Americans to sign up for their chance to vote. The local law, headed up by Sheriff Engstrom (Derek Crane), doesn't take kindly to this, leading to intimidation, violence, and death.

It's easy to dismiss Murder In Mississippi for the insensitive attempt to make a quick buck it clearly is. It may be the first of only two scripts written by Herbert S. Altman, but director Joseph P. Mawra already had a number of films under his belt, mainly focusing on "shocking, real footage" of modern women who love other women and the exploits of a madame named Olga. It's obvious that Mawra knew what he thought he could do to entertain audiences and make a profit on fairly minimal investment, and there are a number of scenes in this movie that work in that way.

Surprisingly, there are also a number of scenes that almost take the film to another level, despite the near-uniform poor standard of acting on display. Engstrom and his two main cronies, Phil and Andy, are so despicable, yet also so easy to believe in, that they always provide a sense of palpable threat, even before things get more serious at the end of the first act.

Few things scare me more than the thought of being at the mercy of people happy to abuse their position of authority, and that helps Murder In Mississippi have some power that it otherwise would lack, although that starts to ebb away during a middle section that stretches things too far and introduces a number of unnecessary supporting characters (including Richard Towers, playing the brother of Sheila Britt's character). But just when you may be ready to dismiss it, just when you think it has nothing else to deliver, there's a nightmarish sequence that uses clumsy editing and close-up camera shots to deliver a memorable helping of vicious mutilation.

I've mentioned the acting already, and there aren't any individuals I think are worth singling out. The villains of the piece - Crane, as well as Sam Stewart and Wayne Foster, playing Phil and Andy - benefit from being allowed to be so scuzzy and horrible that you almost want to give yourself a body scrub after spending some time with them. The others don't. Towers is at least fun in the way that he swans into town as the cool cat he is supposed to be, but Britt is left to play the helpless victim for most of the runtime, which is more frustrating when she finally speaks out about her original motivation for getting involved with the activists.

It's trashy, it's overlong, even at just 84 minutes, and it's in pretty poor taste, when you consider how soon it was rushed out after the real murders that inspired it. Despite that, it's also surprisingly effective when it comes to showing real evil, and how it is allowed to thrive while other people don't do enough to combat it.

5/10

Here's a R1 DVD available.


Sunday, 17 November 2019

Netflix And Chill: The Drop (2014)

Dennis Lehane adapts his own short story, "Animal Rescue", into screenplay form for a feature that allows for a number of the main actors to deliver performances to rank up there with their very best. Although it's sad to remember that this was the last film completed by James Gandolfini, it's a bittersweet pleasure to see him go out on such a high, delivering the kind of stellar supporting turn he could so effortlessly pull out from his back pocket.

He's not the focus of the film, however. The person who is front and centre is Tom Hardy, playing Bob Saginowski. Bob works in a bar that belongs to his cousin, Marv AKA . . . Cousin Marv (Gandolfini). Well, I should say that it used to belong to Marv. He lost it some time ago, and now makes money for the owners while his name remains up on display. A number of things happen in a short space of time that threaten the relatively content situation Bob and Marv have made for themselves. Bob finds a dog dumped in a bin, and meets a woman (Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace) at the same time. The bar is robbed, with the stolen money being something tbat the criminal bar owners cannot let go without someone being responsible for it. And Bob starts to be harassed by Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), who claims to be the owner of the ditched dog. Meanwhile, a Detective Torres (John Ortiz) is investigating the robbery, which makes everyone slightly edgy and looking as if they have even more to hide.

Directed by Michaël R. Roskam, as trite as this might sound, The Drop is a film that excels simply because it has a quality cast working with a solid script. Lehane doesn't do anything exceptional here (there's nothin on a par with some of the dialogue in Mystic River, for example), but he has taken the time to craft a quintet of characters who feel fully-formed, and who make you care about the cinematic journey in varying ways. Roskam puts his faith in these characters, and rightly so, which allows him to concentrate on simple and unfussy shot choices throughout. The emphasis is always on the geography and proximity of various characters, and every scene works within that remit.

Although I started this review by mentioning, and praising, Gandolfini, that's slightly unfair to his co-stars. Hardy gives a performance that, even for him, counts as one of his absolute best. And his scenes with Rapace work brilliantly, largely thanks to the fact that she is also on top form. She's arguably playing the most innocent character of the main group, but even she has a darkness in her past that is revealed in due course. Schoenaerts is an excellent pain in the ass, Ortiz does well as the familiar kind of cop who just knows that there's more going on than he can see, even if he suspects he also may never see it. Even the much smaller roles are cast perfectly, with fine little turns from people who at least completely look the part.

Is there anything that doesn't work? Very little. Perhaps Roskam could have done a bit more to make this feel a bit more cinematic (it's not hard to envision this being adapted into a stage play) and things come together in the finale in a way that isn't at all surprising. There's a chance that it's not meant to be, considering how large and unsubtle the signposting is, but things play out as if viewers are supposed to need to take a moment to process the information they have been fed, which most will have already figured out for themselves by the end of the first act.

Overall, this is a great piece of work. I especially recommend it to anyone who likes ANY of the main stars, but also just to anyone who likes a flawless acting ensemble.

8/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.


Saturday, 16 November 2019

Shudder Saturday: A Bluebird In My Heart (2018)

Interestingly enough, looking to pick my usual Shudder choice for the week, I saw some comments mentioning the fact that A Bluebird In My Heart had a certain noir quality to it. Hmmmmmm, having now watched the film, I am not sure I would agree. It comes close though, and considering that nothing is necessarily set in stone when it comes to the conventions, and the way various elements are used and reworked, I would say that it comes close enough to count for anyone trying to maintain a streak of constant noir for the month.

Roland Møller plays Danny, a man just out of prison and hoping to keep himself to himself while he starts to build his life again. He's staying in a motel, run by Laurence (Veerle Baetens), who is struggling to keep up with things while also dealing with her daughter, Clara (Lola Le Lann). Clara is intrigued by the new tenant, befriending him and then bombarding him with a number of questions while she reveals the main cause of her current unhappiness. As much as he tries not to be involved with those around him, Danny ends up having to take control of a very bad situation when Clara is assaulted, threatening his plans for peace and quiet.

Written and directed by Jérémie Guez, who adapted the novel by Dannie M. Martin, A Bluebird In My Heart is a difficult film to get a proper handle. It's very good, and very well put together, but it's also structured in such a way that you never really feel any sense of tension or urgency. Danny is a character who you quickly surmise will always be able to handle himself, whether out of prison or back inside, and therefore the film being about him being dragged into a sticky situation means the ending doesn't really matter. The other main characters (Laurence, Clara, and a woman named Nadia, played by Lubna Azabal) never feel endangered by the actions of Danny, making the journey essentially his and his alone, although it is Clara who goes through the biggest trauma.

That's not enough to drag the film down too far though, and Guez does a good enough job as writer-director to ensure that patient viewers will enjoy the journey he takes you on. There may be few surprises here, and there's at least one horrible unearned moment within the last few scenes, but the pleasure comes from seeing people awkwardly connect with one another, sometimes while discussing personal and unique perspectives and sometimes while discussing some universal truths.

Møller is excellent in the lead role, quietly spoken and quietly caring about those who end up within his orbit. Le Lann is also very good, moving through the usual range of teenage highs and lows, and Baetens is convincing as the woman struggling to make the best of a difficult situation she has been landed in thanks to an absent partner. Almost every other male character onscreen is trouble, to say the least, but the acting is solid from everyone involved, and Azabal also does well, despite the fact that she is landed with a role that sadly contributes little to the main plot of the film.

Good, not great. It's especially hard to keep thinking of this favourably after it's all over and you remember the many films that have wandered through similar territory, with better end results (the two that came to mind for me were Blue Ruin and Cut Snake, although that's not to say that others would automatically compare this title to those).

6/10

A Bluebird In My Heart is currently playing on Shudder.


Friday, 15 November 2019

Noir-vember: Dark City (1998)

A man wakes up. He's confused. He has no memory of how he got wherever he is. And there's the corpse of a woman uncomfortably close to him. The man immediately goes on the run, trying to piece things together while a cop pursues him, as well as some individuals who seem much further removed from the law. It's a standard noir set-up, all very familiar, until we start to see the sci-fi elements also incorporated here. A group of people with the power to change the environment, to uproot individuals from their lives and place them elsewhere, with all new memories implanted.

Surprisingly influential (The Matrix and Inception being the most obvious examples that spring to mind), and as intriguing to watch now as it was back when it was first released in 1998, Dark City is a thought-provoking piece of work that also never forgets to keep audiences entertained. It's a genre mash-up that could easily be fumbled, playing with some of the classic tropes before a major shift in tone as the sci-fi aspect of the plot becomes clearer, but director Alex Proyas does a great job of keeping the various plates spinning.

The cast are a big help, with Rufus Sewell used well in the lead role, all anxiety, panic, and confusion for most of the runtime. William Hurt is the Inspector pursuing him, and he's a man capable of taking a step back and trying to see some bigger picture that is somehow evading him. Kiefer Sutherland is amusing enough as a devious doc, Richard O'Brien is as spooky as he often can be, playing one of the other individuals chasing Sewell, and you also have solid turns from Ian Richardson, Bruce Spence, and one or two others. Melissa George and Jennifer Connelly are the two main female cast members. George, making her cinematic feature debut, somehow makes the stronger impression, despite having the "lesser" character, but I'll never pass up any opportunity to enjoy Connelly onscreen, even when she's left slightly adrift by the script.

Based on the story idea by Proyas, the screenplay is credited to him, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer. It's not exactly full of the best dialogue, and seems almost too wary at times of making things as hard-boiled as they could be, but it works very well when bringing together the characters and the ideas at the heart of the plot, providing answers during the finale that can also lead to some more questions in a way that should satisfy sci-fi fans.

There are some moments that feel restricted by the tech of the time, but not nearly as many as you would think. Overall, it's easy to believe that you're watching a film about a city being manipulated and experimented upon by powerful strangers who can alter buildings, fixtures, and entire cityscapes, in minutes. The design work throughout is excellent, as are the practical effects, and all of the visuals are accompanied by a fine score from Trevor Jones.

Although I don't dislike the more recent films from Proyas as much as other people (having not yet seen Gods Of Egypt, but I really liked Knowing), it's always a pleasant surprise that he began his feature film career with the one-two combo of The Crow and this. Both of which have stood the test of time better than, for example, the slick blockbuster entertainment of I, Robot.

8/10

Get the director's cut here.
Americans can buy it here.


Thursday, 14 November 2019

Noir-vember: Shock (1946)

Director Alfred L. Werker may not be a name all that familiar to you, but you may know some of his work. He directed 50 movies, and most people who enjoy exploring the annals of cinema will have heard of at least two of them (The Reluctant Dragon and It Could Happen To You).  Having seen only one of those films myself, the Disney one, I can only say that this fun little thriller has made me keen to seek out more of his filmography.

Anabel Shaw plays Mrs. Janet Stewart, a loving wife who suffers a major shock while waiting for the long-overdue return of her military husband (Lt. Paul Stewart, played by Frank Latimore). She witnessed the murder of a woman by her husband, Dr. Cross (Vincent Price), and this causes her to become unconscious. When others discover her in this position, they want her to get better as soon as possible. And the best person to hand is the skilled . . . Dr. Cross.

Fairly predictable from the opening scenes, mainly because of the baggage that the wonderful Price brings to every role, Shock still manages to keep viewers slightly on their toes as things move towards the expectedly tense finale. Mrs. Stewart may be struggling to extricate herself from a very bad situation, and nobody believes her when she finally starts to tell them what she saw, but the good doctor finds himself equally wriggling on the end of a hook, with the investigation into the death of his wife turning up one too many details and coincidences to allow everything to be brushed under the carpet and forgotten about.

Written by Eugene Ling, with some additional dialogue from Martin Berkeley (developing the story by Albert DeMond), Shock is a perfect balance of silly and sharp. Even the title itself sums this up. It's wonderfully simplistic, considering the state of our lead, but also comes up again as Price suggests a radical treatment of insulin shock therapy to help "cure" his patient.

Werker bounces from scene to scene with an energy and sense of fun that, given some more room to breathe, could have easily been described as Hitchcockian at times. Indeed, this is one of those thriller in which the viewers know the bomb has been placed and are simply kept on tenterhooks while they wait for it to explode.

Price is, in case you ever doubted it, excellent in his role. He may be someone who feels that he was pushed into his actions, as opposed to a proper moustache-twirling villain, but that doesn't make him any less evil once he resolves to do whatever is necessary to keep himself safe. Shaw may spend most of the movie in a relatively prone state, but she's good in her role. Latimore is the dependable and caring husband, although he's not quite caring enough to believe the word of his wife over that of a trained professional feeding him a line of BS (ahem, oh well, thrillers have to often be based upon such conceits), and Lynn Bari is very good as Elaine Jordan, the colleague and cohort of Price.

It's as unpretentious as so many other noirs are, clocks in at a very acceptable 70 minutes, and has some moments that could easily have been dressed up in gothic robes and pushed from the realm of thriller into outright horror. In other words . . . this is a little gem. It's the sort of title I would love to see get polished up, nicely packaged, and presented to film fans who take to it as quickly as I did.

8/10

There's A disc here.
And A disc here, for Americans.


Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Prime Time: Panic In The Streets (1950)

When I dive deep into the muddy waters of noir, as I do almost every November nowadays, it is with two main aims. First of all, I love to discover the little gems that I'd never heard of before (which is a lot easier to do with the many noirs that were churned out cheaply enough back in their heyday). Second, I like to catch up on the titles I know by reputation, but have somehow not yet seen. Panic In The Streets was one of the latter titles. Part of me thinks that I may well have seen it many years ago, before I had the advantage of various internet sites and apps to help me keep track, but my memory was coming up with nothing when I read the title and synopsis, so I figured it would be worth my time. And it certainly was.

The plot is quite simple. A man is killed by some criminal types, but officials are put on red alert when it is discovered that the man had a terminal case of pneumonic plague. The important thing is to find anyone who has been infected by the man, and that's what Lt. Cmdr. Clinton Reed M. D. (Richard Widmark) and Capt. Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) set out to do. Unfortunately, that's not an easy task when they are dealing with a network of criminals used to avoiding the authorities whenever possible.

Directed by Elia Kazan, with the final screenplay credit given to Richard Murphy, from the numerous people listed (and unlisted), Panic In The Streets is a nice little race-against-time thriller with a decent smattering of main characters helping to distract from the unbalanced tone. Why is it unbalanced? Well, others may disagree, but it feels a bit too cosy to me, plays things a bit too safe when it could have simply continued to ratchet up the tension all the way to almost unbearable levels. I understand that the film was released in different times, yet it still feels a bit lighter than it needed to be. One or two more victims would have helped, although that may have possibly affected the plot too much, with more bodies meaning all hope of containing the outbreak lost.

Widmark and Douglas work well together, one being a smart man becoming increasingly desperate and tired, the other being someone non-plussed by the situation until it starts to become more and more tangible around him, at which point he fully steps up to do whatever needs done. And Barbara Bel Geddes does well to make a good impression in the rather thankless role of Nancy Reed aka the good little lady waiting to look after her husband when he comes home from his tough job. But film fans will have more fun with the crooks here. One minor criminal is played by Zero Mostel, more famous for his lighter roles, and the main villain of the piece is played by Jack Palance, billed here as Walter Jack Palance. Palance is as tough and intimidating as he would be in many other roles, and does well at showing the vicious nature of his character as he is put on the defensive while feeling the law closing in around him.

The polar opposites of Widmark and Palance make this work, with Douglas and Mostel both proving themselves superb supporting cast members, and this remains an enjoyable and strange little thriller, classed as a film noir (although that is more down to the central idea and characters being focused on than any other main noir tropes you can think of). It's not an unmissable classic, but I'm certainly not disappointed that I prioritised it as a viewing this week.

7/10

There's a disc here.
Americans can buy this copy.