A Generation (1955)

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Andrzej Wajda directs Tadeusz Łomnicki, Urszula Modrzyńska and Roman Polanski in this wartime thriller about a young Polish worker who joins the communist youth resistance. 

Often a very simple piece of propaganda that is improved utterly by three things. An unsentimental, nuanced lead. A strong sense of visual poetry… especially in the sweet romance that unfolds. Thumping action sequences full of palpable risk.

8

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Hercules (1997)

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Ron Clements and John Musker direct Tate Donovan, James Woods and Danny Devito in this animated musical retelling of the greek myth. 

The beginning of the end of the Disney renaissance. There’s good… Woods and Devito’s spirited voice-work, the muses’ gospel and soul narration, a slightly more complicated love interest in Meg… but none of it is great, and it all certainly doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. The Gerald Scarfe designed characters are unusual but flatten out too much in the animation process. Woods takes aims for showstopping shtick of the genie in Aladdin but isn’t given the gags, the plot aims for Aladdin’s fluid gripping action sequences but lack the kinetic sweep that made that blockbuster bust blocks. Why not just watch Aladdin instead?

5

Apocalypse Now (1979)

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Francis Ford Coppola directs Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando and Laurence Fishburne in this Vietnam war movie following a soldier’s attempt to track down a rogue U.S. colonel in country, to “terminate with extreme prejudice”. 

“The horror. The horror.” This will always suffer from the fact I first watched it way too young and way too immature to in anyway appreciate it. That first time it was an overlong drag. Too little war, no heroic battles, dead eyed characters, no obvious narrative, eventually leading to a grim cul-de-sac where a shadowy tyrant quotes garbled poetry and a bull is slaughtered. Now as I’ve gotten older… via multiple rewatches and Reduxes, the legend of its unique production fleshed out by New Hollywood histories like Easy Riders Raging Bulls and making of documentaries like Hearts of Darkness… I truly love this sprawling beast. In its theatrical form though. The Redux just adds to the mess. The theatrical length captures the chaos and the beauty. The horror, the horror. It is a consistently iconic movie of drifting, feverish moments. Even a striptease USO show (look at those costumes – sexy, cartoonish, metaphorical… they were all just kids playing at war) ends in an misanthropic conflict, pessimistic spectacle.

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I love how viscerally real it all is. Coppola built villages in situ only to burn them… all the Hueys and explosions and signal smoke are done in camera, on site, in the shit. You can taste every frame of Apocalypse Now… it tastes ashen and salty and metallic. I love The Door soundtrack, and the electronic synth wail when there is no Doors soundtrack. I love the compelling vision of war as a purgatory… Heaven is the unseen, forgotten innocence before. Hell is to go deeper into the destruction or worse yet survive, time out, and go home. It was too much movie for a peacetime teenager. The eponymous Jarhead Anthony Swofford recounted how his platoon watched Apocalypse Now before being sent to Iraq in 1990 in order to get excited for war. I would have been watching it that first time right about then. You can get lost in this jungle, in this mindset. I was eleven, maybe twelve. I wanted to get lost in Star Wars, not real wars. This epic movie will always be playing catch-up because of little Bobby Carroll’s first gag inducing bite. Palette undeveloped, tastes unrefined. Too big a dish, a five course meal. I couldn’t finish a Big Mac then. There was no way I was ready. Not ready for the ash, salt and metal.

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I love Robert Duvall’s Kilgore, restarting the movie from scratch, re-centering it entirely around his cocksure hubris and then disappearing back off again. “This war’s gonna end someday…”

10

 

Downsizing (2017)

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Alexander Payne directs Matt Damon, Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz in this comedy parable about an average all American who shrinks himself to improve his lifestyle.

Is there any good director quite as hit and miss as Payne? He is either wonderful (see Election or The Descendants) or woeful (I refer you to About Schmidt or this). Downsizing lacks humour and form. The satire is obvious, the ultimate point and journey erratic. The only time the Friday night multiplex audience laughed was when the Vietnamese refugee love interest (easily a more intriguing character than Damon’s sad sack) said variations on the word “fuck” in a thick accent. I couldn’t join them on that but was glad they wrenched some pleasure out of this misfire.

3

Julius Caesar (1953)

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz directs Marlon Brando, James Mason and Louis Calhern in this stodgy adaptation of Shakespeare’s epic Roman Empire tragedy. 

I had high hopes for this “classic.” The play is my favourite Shakespeare but Mankiewicz is way too beholden to abridgement. When he does linger faithfully, we stay on the same sets for so long, with no instinct to open the play out, so that it all feels constrained and unambiguous. Brando is adequate as Marc Anthony but given little screen time, Mason’s Brutus is sweaty and broken from the off, only Louis Calhern’s Caesar breathes any true vitality into the text. And I say that knowing Gielgud (surely a duck to the Bard’s waters) is in the cast. Unambitious and underwhelming.

5

Phantom Thread (2017)

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Paul Thomas Anderson directs Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville in this 1950’s fashion world drama observing the whispering power struggle between a renowned designer and his latest muse. 

A lush movie – everything from the plonking score to the generous breakfasts to the measured pace (and obviously the convincing and gorgeous standout costumes) screams quality. Gripping yet bitingly funny. Kubrickian in both its sly wit, care of manufacture and glum view of humanity. Day-Lewis’ “last” performance may just be his finest. Reynolds Woodcock is a refined beast, timid yet definite in his words and movements and look, so that when his voice raises, when he curses, the invective is truly felt. The spoilt ogre appears from behind the beautiful masquerade, the shock is devastating and knowingly amusing, each and every time. His is among the most quotable of characters, a new cinematic icon. And yet DDL doesn’t walk away with the movie. Our protagonist is newcomer Krieps. She more than holds her own, the ingenue next to the towerhouse. Seducing him, and us, by refusing to be merely another disposable, discardable mannequin for him to pin his designs and fleeting affections on. You see her moving against the tide of the long established Woodcock cycle, overcoming the whirling pull through strength and guile. Just as Day-Lewis’ impeccable tyrant never loses his essential mystery to us, Krieps never succumbs into a stock femme fatale. Yes, she proves manipulative, deadly even, but we still root for her to carve out a new place in this long finished and varnished set. She utterly won me over, it is the first time I remember seeing an actor blush on screen. Her character’s, Alma, gambit of realising the outwardly strong man needs to be weakened, mothered, babied is risky but successful. A pessimistic summary of all relationships perhaps, you have to kill a bit off of the other person to make room for yourself to become a part of them? Is Phantom Thread a gothic romance? A satire on creativity? Or a decadent celebration of monogamy? Or even a ghost story… one appears in a fever dream, for sure. And doors open of their own accord, something undefined often lingers in the background. Like the finest movies, these layered secrets and the wilfully enigmatic finale, open it up for repeated viewings. PTA seems at his strongest when he gives up on his Altman inspired shaggy meanders and narrows in on one core pair of lovers… see also Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood.

9

My Top 10 Daniel Day-Lewis Movies

1. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

2. Phantom Thread (2017)

3. In the Name of the Father (1993)

4. The Age of Innocence (1993)

5. There Will Be Blood (2007)

6. My Left Foot (1989)

7. The Crucible (1996)

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8. Gangs of New York (2002)

9. A Room With a View (1985)

10. Lincoln (2012)

 

 

 

The Maze Runner (2014)

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Wes Ball directs Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario and Will Poulter in the YA sci-fi mystery about a tribe of kids dumped in the middle of a killer maze.

Cube for twinks. The bland chosen one survives and completes in a few days, what no else could manage after years of trying. The end? No… a cliffhanger. We have two sequels waiting in the wings. The arena is well designed, and the maze sequences have a brittle stalk and dash energy to them.

5

The Driver (1978)

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Walter Hill directs Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern and Isabelle Adjani in this crime thriller about a getaway driver trying to stay ahead of the maverick cop who sets up a heist to catch him. 

Perennially underrated action auteur Walter Hill doing urban car chases. Scruffy Bruce Dern as a cocksure, brinkmanship playing, major crimes dick. Isabelle Adjani in loose suits and massive brimmed hats. It should be perfection. It isn’t. The middle hour stalls with nowhere near enough plot in the tank. The dialogue and the characters just loop over the same scenes in different locations and costumes. Considering a lot of it is already obviously retrofitted spare parts, recycled from Walter Hill screenplay adaptation of The Getaway, this feels especially creatively cheap. As a mood piece The Driver just about slips through the dragnet, and as showcase vehicle for Dern it rocks. But he ain’t the protagonist. A vacant Ryan O’Neal is.

6

Movie of the Week: The Post (2017)

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Steven Spielberg directs Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Bob Odenkirk in this political thriller about the Washington Post’s 1971 tribulations in publishing some top secret White House documents, and their female owner facing opposing pressure from her editorial staff, investors and Nixon himself. 

Look who’s back, Spielberg’s back! He’s been treading water with decent if unfussy cinema ever since War of the Worlds back in 2005, but now the wunderkind has recaptured his masterpiece mojo. This is the sorta mechanically elegant, playfully engaging drama he made his name on. While it lacks sharks and close encounters it takes us to another world (the lost analogue printing press rooms and pay phone based, lead chasing research that feels foreign in this age of digital media and “press release” cut and pasting) and relates the stakes to us with a sense of nimble magic. The verbal battles between a persuasive Hanks and an embattled Streep are edited with verve. As the power between editor and owner ebbs and peaks, the shots lose their natural flow and the cuts become increasingly obvious, as fractious as the relationship is under this new strain. The whole Spielberg team is back on form here really with the grainy yet rich cinematography by Janusz Kamiński catching those beams of blinding light emanating from a illicit photocopying session, the brutal maze of highway on and off ramps that frame Odenkirk’s story hound as he goes off grid along a series of payphones. John Williams’ triumphantly jaunty score guides our emotions and energies, the Amblin crew is nothing if not expertly manipulative. It is his first standout soundtrack in years. And stock player Tom Hanks brings his usual star powered humble charm. There’s something so welcoming about his classy Americana and he adds an adult mischievousness – a thrill of the chase- to the barking editor role that showier thesps would no doubt overlook… he now even evokes John Wayne occasionally in his chunky, square saunter and confidence. Who expected that from the kid from Dragnet? I’m usually not a massive fan of Streep but here she shines as the flustered grand dame stepping up to the plate in the male dominated world of executive decisions. She essays an intelligent yet thoughtfully cautious woman very well. The moment when she breaks free from the bullying men, leaning heavily on her, visually and figuratively, is a triumphant use of both directorial framing and acting. She, like Indiana Jones, Oskar Schindler and most Spielberg protagonists is the positive face of capitalism: striving hard against the grip of corruption and oppression but with a healthy profit margin still in sight. Sure, there are schmaltzy moments overemphasising Katharine Graham’s feminist import to the times and contrasting just what a stuffy sausage party seventies’ business and politics were. But if you haven’t come for schmaltz and clean, obvious optical storytelling then you shouldn’t have bought a ticket for a Spielberg film. He’s never been afraid to ram a point home with his camera. At the very least the points he makes so effusively and entertainingly here, points about the freedom of the press and how hard our women have to work to garner equal respect in the workplace, are currently more than worth emphasising and re-emphasising.

9

12 Strong (2018)

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Nicolai Fuglsig directs Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and Michael Peña in this modern war movie reimagining the first boots on the grounds in Afghanistan after 9/11 – their mistrust of the local allied warlords and their use of horses to travel the inhospitable terrain. 

Dusty patriotism and familiar action. Watchable but forgettable, more a tribute than an entertainment. Lacks the chicken sweat, chemical burn intensity of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and the smirking humanity that so elevated the long forgotten Three Kings. Michael Shannon spends an inordinate amount of the narrative laying down. I wonder if that was in his contract.

5