My American Uncle (1980)

Alain Resnais directs Gérard Depardieu, Nicole Garcia and Roger Pierre in this French arthouse film following three intersecting lives that illustrate the complexities of human behavior according to theories of renowned writer/philosopher Henri Laborit (who portrays himself as a distant narrator.)

Experimental editing and moments of fantastical montage enliven this tale of humans who cannot escape their inherent behaviours. Watching their humdrum life stories expand, you are often reminded of a soap watched in fast forward. The actors carry the time skipping drama, Resnais ties it to the complex philosophies of Laborit with accessible finesse. Surprisingly engrossing for a didactic exercise.

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Maniac (1980)

William Lustig directs Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro and Abigail Clayton in this horror about a New Yorker who likes to scalp the women he kills and staple his trophies to mannequins.  

Sleazy yet solid low budget schlock. I’d say it wants to be a character study, à la Peeping Tom, yet the “character” of Joe Spinell’s killer flips from deranged loner to sweaty suitor with no obvious explanation or believability. That’s not to dismiss the lead’s spirited turn but the film really comes alive in tense stalk sequences and the Savini gore. And in all honesty that’s why we bought a ticket in the first place.

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Welcome to Marwen (2018)

Robert Zemeckis directs Steve Carell, Leslie Mann and Diane Kruger in this fantasy drama based on a true story about a man who was attacked in a hate crime, and now lives in a closed off imaginary world of WWII art installations populated by Action Men and Barbie Dolls who represent his friends and foes.

What the fuck is it? Who wants to see it? Welcome to Marwen was only ever going to work if FX sequence sold the unlikely fantasy, and found a relatable emotional truth within the injustice. Zemeckis (possibly the only director who could make this material into something populist) fails this time leaving us an experience that is neither fish nor fowl. The sexualised action figure action set pieces are too strange for those craving sentiment. The real world fallout of Mark Hogancamp‘s trauma too soft sold to justify the strange flights of WWII comic book wonder nonsense. Chances are unless you are a brain damaged, cross dressing artist with a thing for busty dolls in stereotypical national dress you are going to struggle to find much to fill your plate at this all you can eat buffet of misjudgment. Not that it is a story that shouldn’t be told, it just needed to be handled better. Focus on the hate crime, the fallout and Hogancamp‘s unique but curious fetishes and you have a great drama. Or you could have a Who Framed Roger Rabbit meets Toy Story style romp about a quiet man who escapes into a toy based world of adventure and fill it with set pieces we care about. But the Zemeckis movie it most resembles is Forrest Gump. A difficult to understand man, almost an asexual blank slate, navigating a real world that is augmented by convincing effects sequences. However you feel about Gump, it chimed with the general public. They enjoyed seeing an unlikely protagonist have awkward romances and larger than life triumphs. The opposite is true here. The bolted-on romance subplot feels creepy, a disaster waiting to happen whether it is embraced or rejected, and thankfully nipped in the bud with some dignity. So we are left with a man with no memory, turning the circle of women who are kind to him, into scantily clad plaything who desire and fight to the death for him. With the emphasis on tragedy rather than fun. Hard not to put some of the blame at Steve Carell’s dour door. Put him in an out-and-out comedy and he flies yet he clearly wants to be a serious actor. The moment a project he is in clicks past Little Miss Sunshine on the drama-o-meter and he is a negative. He was naively cloying in The Big Short and Beautiful Boy looks like a crime against humanity in its narrow sighted whinyness. Here he just cannot get us to care about a man without a past, internal awareness or a outward personality. You do have to wonder if someone with the long established likeability of Hanks or the natural vacant subtlety of Ryan Gosling would improve matters. Probably not, but their casting would at least make more sense on the poster. The package just doesn’t work but it is uncommonly strange for big budget movie and well executed enough visually that no doubt a cult following beckons. Mark my words in a decade’s time this frustrating piece of cinema will have a small but vocal fan base. They are right to embrace the unusual. But this underdog is a loser for a reason. It just doesn’t click. 

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Movie of the Week: The Illusionist (2010)

Sylvain Chomet directs Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin and Duncan MacNeil in this animated revival of an unfilmed Jacques Tati script; where an ageing magician visits Scotland looking for work when television and Rock’N’Roll empty the music halls.

A very sad film. A very funny film. A very beautiful film. There are two stories running parallel here. A platonic romance and the death of the vaudeville scene. The latter is presented mournfully. An artist struggling (refusing?) to come to terms with that. Although he lives hand to mouth and has to play disinterested houses, our illusionist doesn’t suffer as much as some of his peripheral peers. We glimpse other’s sad demises; a clown beaten in the street by wee bams, a pawned off prop that feels like the very soul of its down on his luck owner. The relationship between our beanpole gentleman vagabond and the naive girl from the Highlands who doesn’t know how the world works is sweeter. She doesn’t understand the cost of the pretty things she sees in window displays, he doesn’t want to rob her of the idea he can magic these luxuries up. He struggles with the dishonesty and brash attitudes of the real world, she gives him domesticity and regularity that means he can slowly give up on chasing a dying dream for ever decreasing returns. Both discover magic isn’t the answer to their loneliness. That feels like an unhappy ending but it is better than the tragedy that befalls those without companionship. Maybe only Edinburgh residents will appreciate this last point but it is testament to the loving craft put into the stunning design of the film. The sheer accuracy in the geography and landmarks of the Scotland they explore is mind blowing. The bus numbers, shop signs and alleyways of Edinburgh are all painstakingly researched and recreated so you could utilise the cartoon as a working map of the capital city. The Illusionist is a love letter to Edinburgh’s uneven beauty as well as conjuring and amity.

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Reindeer Games (2000)

John Frankenheimer directs Ben Affleck, Gary Sinise and Charlize Theron in this heist thriller where a convict hooks up with his dead cellmate’s stunning lonely heart penpal only to discover her brother’s crew want him to help rob a casino. At Christmas.

A much maligned turn of the millennium Christmas film that due to reshoots somehow got released in February. It is a production with glaring problems that no quick reshoot can fix. There’s a double whammy of twists in the final act that feel implausibly forced. Affleck is in constant peril but often has his imminent death postponed for no other reason than a background character interrupts his assailant with a half hearted suggestion. And Affleck himself is far too smug and callow a screen presence at this juncture in his career to make a very ropey protagonist in any way relatable. You kinda wouldn’t mind seeing him dead by the halfway mark but those interruptions keep frustrating us, our patience and the plot’s believability. Yet if you accept this was never going to be Reservoir Dogs On Ice, it gets by as a late night schedule filler. It is dumbly watchable even at its dodgiest turns. The rest of the cast are game, for example Dennis Farina is in it as a Pit Boss and he is always a cracker. Charlize Theron looks fantastic, and is cutely convincing as the smitten siren who still wants to cuddle up to Affleck even as everyone around him is trying to end him. And the Santas rob a casino imagery is goofy and gun heavy enough that you are gripped once the talk stops and the taking starts. Reindeer Games – Let’s call it a draw.

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Superman (1978)

Richard Donner directs Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman in this superhero origins story where a Kryptonian orphan is raised on Earth and becomes the humanity rescuing embodiment of “Truth, Justice and the American Way.”

The birth of a genre that now dominates cinema. What still makes Superman such a crowd pleasing thrill is not the FX work, nor the epic scope that takes us from Krypton to the Fortress of Solitude to the New Yor…ahem… Metropolis skyline to the San Andreas fault. Not even the busy all star cast, for it is the two unknowns who make the lasting impression. Superman’s strength is the unguarded sweetness of the romance between himself and Lois Lane. Kidder and Reeve have perfect chemistry, they are unbeatable in their roles. She is full of spunk and goofy guile, he is just the epitome of natural heroism. Their first date in the skies is a sequence so full of wonder; the irony free internal monologue poem of Lois as she flies through the air, the muscular tenderness of Supes as he protects and seduces his paramour. You don’t get moments like that on the big screen anymore. They justify the goofier plot machinations of the time twisting finale. It is the resolution we want even if it makes zero sense, and if we can believe a man can fly then we can forgive a plot that rewinds itself to gift us a happy ending.

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Peeping Tom (1960)

Michael Powell directs Carl Boehm, Anna Massey and Moira Shearer in this London thriller about a serial killer who likes to film his victims fear as they realise they are at his mercy.

An unsettling experience, seedy and daring yet still set in the world of cinema where posh accents and the class system rule. It often feels like an Ealing comedy with sexual violence, child abuse, back alley fumbles and scarred perversions. This is the gateway, the “Newman’s Passage”, from a chaste and reserved form of British cinema, to an unflinching, uncensored modernity. With its nudity, fetishes and violence it actually feels more adult and risky than most modern releases. Yet it still has room for a Moira Shearer dance number and bumbling coppers. It has to have its cutting edge transgressions… it is a film that explores pornography, the desire to watch and record that that should not be seen. Powell explores this in his characters and he explores it in us. The film is a warped mirror, turned on the viewer, so we can see our leering grotesqueness. It is a film with more ideas to churn around than Hitchcock’s similar Freudian Grand Guignol Psycho, though that contemporaneous classic is still the tighter and more satisfying genre daredevil. The vivid use of colour is marvellous. Brian Easdale’s cheeky and intrusive score sticks in the memory. The casting is a little off but somehow works better for it. Carl Boehm’s thick German accent is ignored, he brings a vulnerability and inscrutability to his central turn. Massey sells her attraction to the quiet boy upstairs but you never are sure whether she desires the sweetness of the man or his mysterious perversions which are blindingly obvious from their earliest interactions. Maxine Audley is also fantastic as the bitter, housebound mother who knows more about the plot and the world than everyone else. Unevenly paced and tonally off, you can see why the film was reviled on release but it proves a rollercoaster of romance, shock, self parody and tragedy for current movie fans. A landmark.

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Bumblebee (2018)

Travis Knight directs Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. in this soft reboot of the alien robots who can camouflage themselves as everyday vehicles saga.

I haven’t been to see a Transformers film since the first one. That moneymaker suffered from unloveable leads and FX driven action that was way too visually cluttered to follow. The sequels all looked like more of the headache inducing same but with bonus tasteless jokes and dafter evolutions. I saved some time and sanity and decided it all wasn’t for me. Yet Bumblebee felt different. Hailee Steinfeld is front and centre – an actress with buckets of natural magnetism and far more acting talent than her part needs. The retro 1980’s vibe isn’t just a gimmick to get a solid upbeat vintage soundtrack into the mix. This intentionally, rather shamelessly, feels and plays like a forgotten Amblin flick from my youth. The relationship between the child and the fantastical robot, the awkward teen romance, the goofy family who pitch in, the ethereal lighting… like every day is the last week of a summer holiday… it all recreates the formula. Simplicity, warmth, adventure. What a family blockbuster used to promise. The action is clean and clear, Knight’s animation background means he can marshal many moving parts without ever losing you in the geography and stakes. And the construct of Bumblebee himself retains a winning personality so you care whether he is saving the world, fighting for his life or causing chaos in the domestic setting. A self consciously old school treat, not life changing but franchise reviving.

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John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (1997)

Francis Ford Coppola directs Matt Damon, Danny Devito and Claire Danes in this courtroom drama about a just graduated ambulance chaser whose first trial sees him take on a massive insurance corporation.

I have typed this sentence before. We got a couple of Grisham adaptations a year in the 1990s. That’s neither a lament nor a call for a revival. All were starry affairs, filmed with golden brown autumnal palettes and containing bursts of physical jeopardy that seemed to have very little significance to the final outcome. Competent, mature entertainment that never threatened to be classics. The Rainmaker was somehow the best of these. Almost by accident. It actually feels like a trial drama rather than a thriller featuring lawyers which helps massively. Gun-for-hire director Francis Ford Coppola wrings some genuine pathos from the glum subject matter, jazzily approaching the busy ensemble and intelligent dialogue with a skilled confidence. There are some beautifully framed shots and personal moments that other directors would have carelessly edited out for studio pleasing slickness. The fact that such a fine cast (one that has the likes of Virginia Madsen and Roy Schneider as the twentieth billed names in the credits) is so well utilised must be down to him. If not a perfect film, it is, at the very least, his last great one… and considering the airport novel origins, that’s admirable. Damon makes a fine stab at his first lead role, Hollywood must have eyed him as a Cruise replacement in waiting but he actually harks back to a Jimmy Stewart or a Robert Redford brand of decency here. There’s something genuine and committed about him in a part not as automatically showy or testing as say Good Will Hunting or The Talented Mr Ripley. It helps he is surrounded by such a rogue’s gallery. Mickey Rourke is a smiling wolf, Devito a bottom feeding schlub, Jon Voight the oily personification of corruption. Among these fiends with Filofaxes, anyone could come away looking like the last bastion of All American pluck.

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My Top 10 Francis Ford Coppola Movies

  1. The Godfather (1972)
  2. Apocalypse Now (1979)
  3. The Conversation (1974)
  4. The Godfather Part 2 (1974)
  5. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
  6. The Rainmaker (1997)
  7. The Godfather Part 3 (1990)
  8. Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
  9. The Outsiders (1983)
  10. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Free Solo (2018)

E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin direct Alex Honnold in this documentary about his attempts to achieve the first free solo climb of famed El Capitan’s 3,000-foot vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park.

One of the best reviewed documentaries of the year suffers from my regular issue with most docs. Feature length is a bad fit. 45-60 minutes keeps a tight focus, mini series length allows you to explore far reaching ideas gracefully. 90 minutes though nearly always results in dull faff after the facts are established and before the conclusions are reached. Unlike fiction features, documentaries don’t lend themselves to sub plots or multiple character arcs. Here, we are sold on the idea that Alex Honnold’s near autistic approach to relationships and spartan existence give him the focus to achieve the near impossible within the climbing community. The daunting fatality of the El Captain rock face is essayed so that even a couch potato like me can understand the difference between this and other unassisted climbs. We look over Honnold’s shoulder as he processes the climb, studies and experiments with it with ropes and partners in advance. We see the positives and negatives of the new girlfriend in his life, creating comedy and tension. We see the film crew and his lover’s dismay as they discuss the deadly challenge they are about the be a party too. We feel their fear, their compromised feelings about enabling him in such a risky endeavour. Then the film grinds to a halt for twenty minutes. Alex postpones his climb but we can’t truly explore his internal monologue directly as he still needs to psychologically gear himself up for the task again. So we are left in limbo. When we eventually do get going, the achievement to celebrate feels more like his new found agency to go for it, rather than witnessing the actual arduous slog up the mountain. If it were 40 minutes of scene setting then a 20 minutes of climb you’d savour every grip and jump without losing any information or telling moments. At 90 his superhuman trial feels like lengthy punctuation point to a sentence already long finished. Well made but not nearly as intense as its subject deserved.

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