Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

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Robert Longo directs Keanu Reeves, Takeshi Kitano and Dolph Lundgren in this rubbish adaptation of William Gibson’s cyberpunk thriller about a future courier with too much dangerous data in his head. 

The mid 90s were a weird time for Hollywood futurism. Either you got visions of tomorrow where the production was so detailed and persuasive it overwhelmed all the humanity (Judge Dredd, The Fifth Element, Tank Girl or Waterworld) or where such little effort was put in, you finally wondered why bother setting it in the future at all? Johnny Mnemonic joins the likes of Escape From LA and Soldier as movies that literally seem to think the next century would all be dank alleyways, disused subway tunnels and junkyard full of banks of boxy tellies. Worst still, directorial debuting artist Robert Longo is so cinematically incompetent (or embarrassed) that nearly every shot is an actor centred, straight-on midshot. Maybe there were exciting eye candy innovations going on behind the leads or below their waists, we’ll never know. The plot should be a techno-Speed with Keanu racing to dump the explosive overload from his head. Every few scenes we are reminded that this is his goal but for most of the film he ambles along, getting distracted by dull characters monologuing about some pointless conspiracy bobbins. His hero should either be pursued more vigorously, face some seemingly insurmountable obstacles or have rival couriers trying to hack his head or deliver the same data before him. The stakes are there, the tension just isn’t. So instead we rely on weak, uncommitted performances lacking humour or believability, often spouting dialogue that has nothing to really add. No one walks away clean, a nadir for everyone involved.

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Brimstone (2016)

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Martin Koolhoven directs Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce and Kit Harington in this fractured timeline western centred around the life of a mute woman who is pursued relentlessly by a violent preacher. 

There are two films at play here. One is quite a pleasurable Pulp Fiction-esque anthology transplanted into the West, as your standard separate western stock plots are tweaked and well delivered yet also collide into each other to create a satisfying whole. The second is an unflinching allegory about how the sexual abuse a young woman suffers follows her throughout her life. This often borrows the incredulity and nasty exploitation of a full on slasher horror film, which clashes discomfortingly with the strong western elements. A film about sex abuse should make you shift in your seat, wrench your gut, but this crosses into exploitation a little too often. From an entertainment point of view there’s four really good mini cowboy adventure over seasoned with real life grimness. Fanning is as strong as ever, having now completely shaken off her child prodigy origins. Pearce is brutally compelling in a role that would be rote in the hands of a less skilled actor or a less confident B-genre star. And despite the fact that Koolhoven has made some distasteful and indulgent decisions, his mastery of the western side of things does make we want to catch up with his previous work.

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Trance (2013)

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Danny Boyle directs James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel in this psychological thriller where a sexy hypnotherapist messes around in a gang of art thieves heads to find a missing stolen masterpiece. 

Danny Boyle is one of my favourite directors but since his Oscar blitz of 10 years ago, his adaptation of Frankenstein at the National and his orchestrating of Olympic opening ceremony his work has lacked his distinctive passion. Steve Jobs, T2 and this have all been competent and visually exciting but none have felt like more than placeholder projects, made while waiting for a script he can get really excited about to fall into his lap. Partly that might have to do with the surprisingly cool reception this enjoyable thriller got on release. Released off the back of “his Oscar blitz of 10 years ago, his adaptation of Frankenstein at the National and his orchestrating of Olympic opening ceremony” (you see what I’m saying) and the British public shrugged their shoulders and didn’t really bother with it. It is a captivating little one watcher, whose twists don’t stand much further scrutiny, but has enjoyable blasts of explicit sexuality and explicit gore. It will never be as good again as its first viewing but for fans of the Danny Boyle who gave us the macabre thrills of Shallow Grave or 28 Days Later… it hits a sweet spot. Rosario Dawson sparks beautifully against her male leads, relishing a well written role where she isn’t just a romcom prize. And it ends on joyously open ended, trancey high note.

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Jawbone (2017)

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Thomas Q. Napper directs Johnny Harris, Ray Winstone and Michael Smiley in this drama where an alcoholic boxer puts his life back together in the build up to a brutal unlicensed fight. 

A Ronseal movie. Does exactly what it says on the tin. All the leads are strong, playing to type, the cinematography captures working class South London well, while the final fight is energetically bloody and exciting. Doesn’t reinvent the wheel, doesn’t aim to.

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Pretty Baby (1978)

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Louis Malle directs Brooke Shields, Keith Carradine and Susan Sarandon in this period drama about a child growing up in a New Orleans cathouse, matter of factly becoming a prostitute. 

A well made film, full of convincing visual detail and relaxed natural performances. Obviously the subject matter is troubling. A pubescent girl embracing life as a whore for that is all she knows. It is done casually, with little fanfare. Any nudity with the 12 year old Shields is shown away from a sexualised context (yet there is then unnecessary nudity) and during the first act her corruption is so subtly played out so that you fool yourself into thinking it won’t happen… and then later that it has but we will not witness it. Eventually she is sold off into auction, happily. Malle treads a high wire act, never showing his hand. His assessment of the small microcosm of the cathouse as a friendly, warm environment where residents once they are of age want to earn their keep is well essayed. The moral issues of this are not really explored, the emotional issues are presented from the johns perspective. Most are presented as lucidious but polite and respectful, any kink or rough proclivities seen as part of the menu on offer, for behind closed doors. Carradine’s photographer named Bellocq makes the mistake of falling for the child sex worker and this is seen as the transgression… not his desire to fuck the underage human, but in wanting to form a lasting, domestic relationship with her. The only directorial judgment explicitly made is it is wrong to apply adult emotions to our eponymous protagonist. As someone who sees the exploitation and destructiveness of selling a child into sex slavery (should I really need to type that), I can take Pretty Baby as a non-manipulative recreation of a case that agrees with my viewpoint. But I could also see how a paedophile could view Pretty Baby as a titillation or even justification of their perversion. Operating within a narrow margin, managing to be both cinematic exploitation and sensitive exploration. A litmus test as to whether the viewer needs ominous music, tragic third act consequences or tearful Oscar speeches to know whether the situation they are being presented with is “wrong”. Malle cleverly and provocatively presents everything from the child’s point of view, she knows no other world than this, and from that limited perspective sees no issue with it. And within that context he creates a film of strong cinematic technique, surprising  affection and good humour.

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Knife in the Water (1962)

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Roman Polański directs Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka and Zygmunt Malanowicz in this psychological drama about a couple who take a hitchhiker on a boat trip with the intention of creating tension. 

Dead Calm in reverse, here the interloper with the knife is under threat from the couple as they toy with him. It makes for a sexy, brutal and gripping 24 hours on the lake which announced Polanski as a major talent. I was utterly hooked throughout.

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Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

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Sydney Pollack directs Robert Redford, Will Geer and Delle Bolton in this true tale about a Western frontiersman who tries to live the life of a hermit until the army, relationships and the natives intrude. 

Fine when it is just Redford against the elements or warming to the makeshift family he acquires by accident. A near silent extravaganza of beautiful scenery and hunting skits for a long old ways. Once the revenge plot is introduced Pollack attempts to jazz up his solid direction, especially of the violence, so it becomes a mesmerising kaleidoscope. I’m not entirely sure that works. Also noteworthy is the film has a symmetry, with character and locations from the first half reappearing in reverse order in the second. Evidence of the smart tricks at play. Not sure the tricks are of any true value though. Watch The Revenant instead if you want superior pretty boys in harsh nature yucks.

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The Pink Panther (1963)

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Blake Edwards directs David Niven, Peter Sellers and Claudia Cardinale in this bedroom farce about a gentleman thief trying to steal a diamond from a beautiful princess under the watchful eye of a clumsy inspector. 

I’m not sure it makes a lick of sense but I like Niv and Cardinale, and loves Sellers. Too much time is restricted to one hotel room set, too much of Robert Wagner’s pointless young buck is inflicted upon us. Take half an hour of those elements out and you’d have a perfect slapstick pleasure full of froth and beauty.

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Four Weddings and A Funeral (1994)

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Mike Newell directs Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell and Kristin Scott Thomas in this romantic comedy that takes place over…. yep. 

Even though this is the antithesis of everything I stand for cinematically (posh luvvies, Andi MacDull, poshy poshness poshness, honky hell, cucumber sandwiches, poshos) it is submitted quite attractively. The vapid loves of annoying people who control the country retains some of the barbed wit of Richard Curtis’ earlier best (Blackadder and The Tall Guy), and proves a decent vehicle for Grant and Scott Thomas, who I guess cannot help the distasteful privilege they were raised in and that is glorified here.

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The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

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Brian De Palma direct Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffiths and Bruce Willis in this big budget adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s tome about Eighties New York tearing itself apart. 

I have just finished reading The Devil’s Candy, Julie Salamon’s unparalleled look at the making of this commercial flop. She had unprecedented access to the production of a blockbuster only to see all the compromises. It is an excellent book letting you in on the Hollywood movie production process from pitch to premiere and the psychology of the team who work their ambitious butts off to make a movie; whether it proves to be a masterpiece or a disaster. Is Bonfire of the Vanities as bad as its reputation suggests? No. Imperfect but quite watchable. The pluses are nearly all in the visually opulent choices made, thanks to the stunt direction of De Palma. He may not be able to imbue wit or intelligence to the endeavour but fuck me can the dude muck around with a steadicam, a split screen and a time lapse camera. The script cannot decide whether it is drama or a satire and succeeds as neither. Any adaptation really needed to ramp up its cartoonishness to Dr Strangelove levels of confidence to get away with its tasteless grotesque plot. It is miscast – Tom Hanks has the comic chops to make Sherman the sacrificial stockbroker fly but seems neutered, Willis is out of place and it is hard to see what real significance his weak turn has on the proceedings, but Griffiths gets “it” and has breathy, manipulative larks. To compare it to Strangelove again, you cannot help but imagine the fun Sellers and George C Scott would have with this material, keeping Griffiths still in there too. Anachronistic fantasy perhaps, but Bonfires is an experience as much about what it could have been as what it is. We would have to wait another decade for Mary Harron’s American Psycho to get the cinematic lampooning the yuppie era deserved. We are left with a film that is part visually dazzling, woefully straight faced and often clunkily racist. While we are playing “What if…?” Spike Lee as director would have shared all of De Palma’s bravo techniques with a more intriguing grip on lacerating the white chattering classes. Oh well…

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