Fences (2016)

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Denzel Washington directs himself, Viola Davis and Stephen Henderson in this faithful adaptation of the August Wilson play following a black family in the 1950’s coming up against their own thwarted ambitions and emotional compromises.

A tough one this. There are at least a half a dozen sequences of dialogue and monologue so masterfully acted, painting emotions and unspoken truths so raw, that Fences should really be a five star classic. But more often than not the clumsy attempts to open the play out, plus some of the more lyrical and idiom heavy writing, remind you you are watching a fish be fowl. It does not help that a few characters are out and out walking metaphors rather than flesh and blood humans either. Watching something that works better, would be more involving and takes risks more forgivable in a live theatre environment than on the multiplex screen 8, Wednesday evening showing. (Walkouts galore at my screening… the plebs.) Something that needed to be adapted more to be a good movie rather than a play with a real sky instead of painted backdrop behind it. Still Denzel the actor brings it, when was the last time Denzel brought it? Man on Fire? Training Day? The Hurricane? Viola Davis, who always brings it, is more than a match for him. #OscarSoWon.

6

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The Founder (2016)

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John Lee Hancock directs Michael Keaton, Laura Dern and John Carroll Lynch in this period biography of the man who franchised McDonalds from one busy takeaway into a global brand. 

Like last week’s Gold this latest colourful adventure in capitalism is an interesting story well told rather than anything special in terms of moviemaking craft or risk. And likewise it is elevated from solid to spectacular by a pitch perfect central performance by a well loved star. The irrepressible Micheal Keaton keeps his foot on the gas so you get caught in the whirlwind of a man who will stop at nothing to be a success. He inhabits the mania of someone who zealously knows what needs to happen to make the idea fly, the intense charm of a seasoned salesman and the cold calculation of a man who can’t share his success, as it needs to be solely his success. And after the strong but subdued comebacks in Birdman or Spotlight, suddenly we have the devil eyed, motormouth warrior that stood out in movies as diverse as Mr Mom, Beetlejuice, Pacific Heights or The Paper back, front and centre. The positive credit Keaton’s entire oeuvre cashes in on here means you cannot help to be conflicted by Ray Kroc’s distasteful blitzkrieg victory in business. You leave troubled about whether you have seen a success story or a tragedy even though Hancock essentially presents his all out war on anyone who may hold the brand back with a warm even-handed, matter of factness. Keaton brings the sweet to wash down all the hidden salt of the true tale. And as milkshake flavours go, a supersize Michael Keaton flavour shake is one you wish was available with every meal.

7

 

20th Century Women (2016)

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Mike Mills directs Annette Benning, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning in this amusing drama about a single mother who wants to open up her son to strong feminist influences in 1979.

A pleasant surprise this. Though Mills’ Beginners was equally smart, affecting and full of subtle visual experiments so I don’t know how this sneakily snuck up on me quite so well. A humanist meditation that celebrates everything that influences us from the people who inhabit our lives, our choice of music, the movies, books and news we pay attention to… to even medical and social advances. All modernising factors are presented as part of a relaxed but all encompassing crosssection of the last century. All within the guise of an accessible, hip domestic dramedy à la The Squid and the Whale or The Ice Storm. The calmly ambitious movie somehow spins many plates at once. Scene by scene it acts as a people’s history of feminism, a soapy coming of age and a delivery system for a completely on-point punk soundtrack all at once (whether you are an Art Fag or into Black Flag.) Gerwig and Fanning continue to impress and charm, Benning belts out a brilliant lead turn and if only it wrapped up 20 minutes early then we might have a new literate, visually vibing classic on our hands. Sadly it gets a little stuck in the mud by the last act with little to do but repeat cool images and moments, robbing them of their earlier power. If you run out of things to say then there’s nothing wrong with an elliptical fade. Punk songs last two minutes for a reason. On the whole though, this feels like an important movie for young men to experience, something that might guide the more sensitive and intelligent teenaged male in how they approach and understand the opposite sex.

7

 

 

Cherry 2000 (1987)

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Steven de Jarnatt directs Melanie Griffith, David Andrews and Pamela Gidley in this sci-fi satire about a man who enters a futuristic wasteland to find a replacement robot girlfriend with a tough, sexy salvage tracker. 

Daft, cheap, inspired but also inconsistent, predictable and lacking much in the way of action or laughs. All the pieces are in place for a far better cult experience but instead this merely makes for a good painted VHS cover.

5

 

The Great Wall (2016)

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Zhang Yimou directs Matt Damon, Jing Tian and Andy Lau in this fantasy epic where the Great Wall of China faces a barrage of hungry mega lizards. 

An undemanding romp which owes as much to old westerns as it does to say Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings or Yimou’s own House of Flying Daggers. I’ll admit I dozed and napped in the early stretch but what I woke up to was visually exciting and pulse quickening. Large scale action sequences of increasing stakes where the objectives are well defined and accomplished. Proper old school, big screen, popcorn storytelling. So the character roster comes straight out a toy tub, Jing Tian still shines as the tough young General who has to marshall a cast of thousands and figure out what to do with Damon’s untrustworthy older warrior (think Glenn Ford in 3:10 to Yuma). There is some stunningly colourful imagery unlike anything you’ve seen throughout; from the battalion’s shimmering armour, to two valkyrie like soldiers pumping the bellow of a makeshift hot air balloon as Tian makes a graceful escape or even the closing chase through a stained glass pagoda that paints its survivors in ripples of day glow hues. The Great Wall won’t change your life but there are far worse ways to kill a Sunday afternoon.

6

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

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Miloš Forman directs Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love and Edward Norton in this biography of the moonshine runner turned Hustler porn magnate and his battles against censorship.

As a drama this drags its feet in the last act (Norton’s excellent final speech to the Supreme Court notwithstanding) but in the main it crashes and barges through the life of a detestable man who finds himself fighting on the frontline for the freedoms of the permissive society. All this is thanks to Harrelson’s blistering central turn, managing to add a twinkle and much wit to a belligerently obnoxious predatory millionaire and yet smartly avoid mawkishness when Flynt’s unlikely stance ripples out into further and further personal tragedies. Ably supported by Norton, Love, Crispin Glover and his own brother (playing Flynt’s brother no less) it is an undeniably powerful and seductive movie even if you turn it off not entirely sure whether celebrating a pornographer’s lashing out at the people attacking his profit line was quite such admirable civil rights battle in reality. Luckily Forman’s skill at satire rides that slippery rail tightly and successfully.

8

Swamp Thing (1982)

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Wes Craven directs Adrienne Barbeau, Louis Jordan and Ray Wise in this comic book movie about a scientist who falls for a man turned into a vegetating monster.

Made before comic book genius Alan Moore got his reinventing hands on the character this relatively straight adaptation amps up the A-Team style action, tits & ass and has some fun with the tongue-in-cheek henchmen. Possibly the least intriguing movie Wes Craven has made, yet both in its constant childish energy and admirably never over analysing what it is, this throwaway cheapie still somehow manages to hit similar notes to the old, better Universal horror movies. Even now in 2017 Swamp Thing proves equally as watchable.

6

I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)

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Osgood Perkins directs Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss and Bob Balaban in this very relaxed and pretentious arthouse chiller.

Hmmm… the kinda film you want to be better than it is. It looks handsome, the ensemble is diverting and the trap should work but it is never triggered. Preferring to be puzzling rather than gripping, deathly slow rather than seductive. I guess it takes more than occasional unseen hand pulling a phonecord to make a decent Shirley Jackson-esque horror. For a better stab at a shocker where nothing happens try The House of the Devil instead.

3

The Wages of Fear (1953)

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Henri-Georges Clouzot directs Yves Montand, Charles Vanel and Peter van Eyck in this intense existential actioner of hobos who drive trucks packed with nitroglycerin across the rocky roads of South America for a massive payday.  

Utterly engrossing. The first hour following the stranded itinerant workers left bumming around a jobless town, too broke to buy a ticket home, establishing the grizzled characters and the desperate motivation that fuel the concept is masterful enough but once we hit the road where every bump is a catastrophe waiting to happen then we, the viewer, is transformed into God. Casually observing but unwilling to intervene with the tragedy unfolding. A series of nail biting, ambitious set-pieces made all the more unpredictable due to Clouzot’s casual pessimism at the the pointless struggle of survival. Tough guy adventure doesn’t come any darker.

10

Film of the Week: Working Girl (1988)

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Mike Nichols directs Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver in this comedy of a working class secretary who takes over her untrustworthy boss’ office when her proposal might become lost in the shuffle, business and romantic complications ensue. 

I have introduced my wife to many, many movies over the years. I can proudly say she now loves Die Hard and likes Adam Sandler and I’ll just have to accept I’m never going to win on neither Predator nor Michael Caine. But one film she has opened my eyes to was Working Girl. I must have watched it and dismissed it in my teens as just another average yuppie romantic comedy… but after many watches over the past few years the perfection of its witty screenplay, the unparalleled beauty of the New York location shoot and Nichol’s magisterial harnessing of three stars’ illuminating power (plus Joan Cusack) have almost completely turned me around on it. Nichols has always been a cold and glossy, sometimes even snide, observer of messy modern sexual politics (see The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, Wolf or Closer) but here he injects warmth and glamour into the interplay of career advancement hungry assistants and redundancy fearing investment brokers. The equally sexy Griffith and Ford have great chemistry together, both showing previously untapped wells of vulnerability, while Weaver walks off with it in a falsely flouncy yet mischievously hard as nail turn as the villian. Working Girl is still a little too adult and a little too barbed a fantasy at times to truly seduce romantically like say When Harry Met Sally… but as a heroic triumph of a grafter over the privileged it warms the cockles endlessly. Get caught up in it and you’ll be punching the air with a tear in your eye and grin on your face by the final, deftly extravagant shot. And Carly Simon’s theme song is an absolute banger.

9