Movie of the Week: Marathon Man (1976)

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John Schlesinger directs Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier and Roy Scheider in this paranoid thriller about a nervy post-graduate who finds himself being chased by a Nazi in hiding and the secret government agency assisting him in smuggling his diamonds. 

Infamous for its dentistry based torture scene, Marathon Man is so much more than just that iconic moment. You get a completely frazzled central turn from Hoffman. He seems hounded by all the ills of the 20th century; Nazis, communist witch hunts, urban decay, government cover ups. He’s fantastic here as the persecuted yet resourceful Babe. But Olivier, Schieder, William Devane, Marthe Keller and James Wing Woo all put in inscrutably, oily supporting performances as the cold methodical participants in Babe’s night on the run. As chase movies go it uncommonly takes a good hour before we start our mad dash for survival. A melancholy air of inevitability hangs over us as we watch dominoes knock into each other setting up the rally. We watch the pieces fall into place with increasing speed – gripping, haunting set pieces occurs thousands of miles away from the protagonist yet are just as compelling. Schlesinger uses living city locations and refractural editing to create a sense of tumultuous chaos. The soundtrack whines ominously. We know nice, awkward Babe is eventually going to get chewed up in this whirr of backstabbing and assassinations. This is how you do it. This is how you create a dangerous atmosphere. “Is it safe?” No it is fucking terrifying. Run, Dustin, Run!

10

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Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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Kenneth Branagh directs himself, Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfeiffer in this starry Poirot whodunnit based around the classic Agatha Christie mystery. 

If you don’t already know the solution to this much adapted chamber piece then I reckon this could be a little more fun. Branagh is a daft hoot as Poirot and if he can find a way to be visually grand then he will. In fact, the first twenty minutes with Poirot energetically solving a mini crime in Jerusalem and the momentous boarding of the gorgeous steam engine I was kicking myself thinking “Wow, they are making a BIG movie here.” That enthusiasm waned. The spectacle dissipated and felt forced whenever fleetingly rediscovered. You are left with an OKish cast, looking awkward while obviously lying. Some of whom have done this stock stuff so often recently that they might as well be plucking raw chickens on a factory conveyor belt, such is their effort and relish at being there again. Dwindles into boredom then terminates.

4

Death Becomes Her (1992)

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Robert Zemeckis directs Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis in the dark fantasy comedy about two ageing rivals who discover the secret of eternal youth from a necromancer. 

I went to see this at the cinema as a kid and was unimpressed. 25 years down the line it has ironically weathered better than a lot of other blockbusters of its day. The visual inventiveness is relentless and while it is not all that gag heavy, the starry cast all lean into the cartoonish ridiculousness of the predicament with enthusiasm. That’s right! This was made during that half a decade when Bruce Willis had enthusiasm for his career. There could be a little more Goldie Hawn and the FX are very much of their time…. quibbles though. As a curious mixture of Tom & Jerry and What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? this more often than not rocks. And you get Isabella Rossellini wandering around in next to nothing for at least three scenes…

7

Scarface (1932)

99C1171D-82F0-4F52-9D46-D45CF772F6D3Howard Hawks directs Paul Muni, Osgood Perkins and Ann Dvorak in this gangster movie about the rise of a low level enforcer to mob boss. 

Gets through exactly the same plot as the infamous and overblown Al Pacino remake. But tighter. So tight. Good use of black and white shadow, “X”s visually forewarn all the deaths. Muni is imposing as the ambitious gun while Dvorak impresses in the good sister gone bad role.

7

Detour (1945)

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Edgar G. Ulmer directs Tom Neal, Ann Savage and Edmund MacDonald in this cheapo film noir where a piano player gets caught in a web of accidental death and blackmail. 

The Poverty Row noir rediscovered for its unusually unwavering pessimistic outlook, even for a genre famous for being a tad bleak. Yeah, it sure is dark and twisted. A guy thumbs cross country to reach his sweet true love only to find himself in a criminal marriage of convenience with her polar opposite. But it also plods. You feel the miles rack up. Not in a good way. Wearying. Ann Savage is all the fires of hell in a pencil skirt though. THE classic femme fatale. Fans of life imitating art might also want to google fall guy Tom Neal’s criminal record after. Oof!

6

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

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Richard Linklater directs Blake Jenner, Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch in this early Eighties retro look at a frat house settling in before college classes start by partying, playing hyper competitive games and shooting the shit. 

Linklater tries to recapture that Dazed and Confused lightning in the bottle with another mosaic period teen party movie. It is not as cool, seductive, goofily sharp and has little new to say. Whereas Dazed was littered with stars and character actors of the future, here only the evergreen Glen Powell makes an impression. I have no issue with it being all about the jocks, dudes still need their movies too. But to make them all so uniform and “meh” is the opposite of what you expect from the usually more sophisticated laid back auteur. Still a decent little one watcher.

6

The Florida Project (2017)

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Sean Baker directs Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite and Willem Dafoe in this child’s eye point of view look at poverty line living in delapidated motels just beyond Disneyland. 

A very vivid and energetic slice of ghetto tourism. A kinda Cathy Come Home mashed with The 400 Blows in a candy floss churner. I liked the strong child performances, the sense of chaotic fun in their imaginations, pantomime street attitudes, petty scams and vandalism. Their parents ain’t all that much more maturer or older than them. Dafoe is excellent as the firm but friendly, ever watching out for harm motel manager Bobby. The scene where he cajoles a pathetic nonce away from the unsupervised kids is a masterclass of restraint and everyday heroics. Give him Best Actor, Mr Woody Best Support, I’ve solved all your probs this award season Hollywood. Done. I’m not sure it is quite the completely uncyncical, unexploitative exercise that the critical praise seems happy to overlook. This is breadline tragedy made palatable for the Instagram age. And the fantasy dash finale left a hollow, bitter taste in my mouth personally. But as a kaleidoscope of tough living and kiddie bad behaviour it works well and affects.

7

Babette’s Feast (1987)

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Gabriel Axel directs Stephane Audran, Birgitte Federspiel and Bodil Kjer in this decade spanning tale of two devout sisters who devote themselves to spiritual goodness in their community and their French refugee housekeeper who prepares a banquet for them.

Sometimes it is harder to create a film with no obvious stakes in its plot. And equally it is difficult to put into words why such a gentle movie as this works quite so well. Unlike Lawrence of Arabia, this is unshowy and restrained in it magisterial sweep. Unlike Scanners, the most transgressive and exciting things gets is when Babette pleasantly barters with a shopkeeper over prices. Cinema doesn’t need to be confrontational, or spectacular, or even relatable, to work. And Babette’s Feast is one of the best movies I have watched in months but its qualities and pleasures are subtle at best. A simple tale of two ageing religious sisters, and their French housekeeper who decides to reward them for their kindness by cooking an extravagant meal. The period setting and cloistered lifestyle of eighteenth century coastal Denmark are captured with a warm, lyrical lens. A hard and unseasoned life of graft, altruism and praying is presented very seductively. We meet (in flashback) a reckless soldier and a famous Parisian baritone, both of whom are presented as the lost loves of the sisters’ youth. But “lost” is not the right word, so much as unpursued. In other, more didactic, movies, we’d take these romantic interludes as mere entertainment. Little tragedies that might suggest the pure sisters could not find true happiness in their circumstances and sacrifices. In the deceptively unsophisticated context of this film however, the dashing men are choices not taken, the sisters silently decide life together helping the poor is more attractive to them than separation, worldly lust and male companionship. Who are we to say they are wrong? But their brief dalliances with these men, personification of a changing Europe, echo further into their life. One sends them Babette, the other returns at an opportune moment to realise just how rare and valuable Babette’s epic meal truly is. In fact, there is a perpetual sly humour to the last act – the sisters and townsfolk feel the impending feast might be sinful or even exotically inedible so make a pact not to comment on it in anyway. Meanwhile our worldly soldier who has experienced all the finer things cannot understand why these simple folk are not effusive in their praise for what would be the finest dining in anyone’s life. Suffice to say it all culminates on a less ironic note than that wryly amusing running gag suggest. But like other uplifting films (let’s say It’s a Wonderful Life or Harold and Maude) Babette’s Feast has sharper edges hidden within it than more supposedly intellectually challenging works. It presents a different take on life and heroism than cinema generally lends itself to, while still managing to be as rich, tasty and fulfilling an entertainment as one of Babette’s decadent courses. Spoil yourself with this modern Danish classic.

9

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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David Lean directs Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif and Alec Guinness in this World War One epic about the eccentric English officer who united the Arab tribes against the Turks. 

Another one of those “greats” that always bored me on the small screen. Maybe I needed the expansiveness of the 70mm print and the distraction forbidding atmosphere of a front row cinema seat to finally be overwhelmed by its charms. Still, I contend that the last 90 minutes are very baggy. You could end on the intermission and know all the corruption and downfall that does transpire will transpire without seeing it rumble along until the end credits. There is a majesty in seeing the desert campaign be zoomed in on a few charismatic individuals though. Place holders so you don’t get lost in the melee of exotic war. Lean truly puts you in the wastelands and camel calvary dashes, never letting you get trampled among the extras. The scale is authentic, unlike other so called “cast of thousands” blockbusters, you never feel as though the shots end just outside the camera’s frames. There is a lost patience in just letting the viewer stare at swathes of yellow and blue, waiting for the specks of humanity to emerge from within them. A patience missing from modern tentpoles, an awe we are depriving ourselves of. And as specks go both O’Toole and Sharif make their marks as men trying to come to terms with their historical destinies. Even in optimum viewing conditions though, that second half does drag, anchoring the entire experience from entering into my own high esteem, even if the general consensus disagrees and adores it.

7

Scanners (1981)

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David Cronenberg directs Steven Lack, Michael Ironside and Jennifer O’Neill in this sci-fi conspiracy thriller about corporations trying to control weaponised psychics. 

One of Cronenberg’s most iconic and popular nightmare visions, yet it always leaves me cold. Ironside is distracting as the messiah like villian but more often than not it is dull and uninvolving. Stranger Things has shown this plot can be handled much more warmly and with a sense of play. These days you can have heads explode while keeping a little heart.

4