Movie of the Week: Tess (1979)


Roman Polanski directs Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth and Leigh Lawson in this prestige adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic about an innocent Wessex lass whose life is destroyed by the men around her.

On a purely qualitative level I struggle with Polanski as for every masterpiece like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby or Chinatown; there is a dud like The Tenant or The Ghost. Partly his problems come with the limitations imposed by his exile from the Hollywood studio system. If he wanted to work at the scale he was accustomed to at any point in my lifetime he would have to return to the US and face statutory rape charges for which everyone agrees he is guilty.  It explains why nearly all his recent movies are compromised or limited. You couldn’t say that about Tess though. It is a glorious production, elegantly paced. Yes, it deals with a young girl being raped, and the rapist is sympathetically dealt with and somewhat charming… but Polanski doesn’t shy away from the grim inevitablity of the act, its prolonged unavoidable consequence for his heroine nor look for any forgiveness for her transgressors. What happens in the act itself is desexualised, the gory details lost in the fog, both figuratively and literally. Beyond what Polanski’s grim personal history forces on the viewer, his Tess is a superior period piece. It looks lush with Geoffrey Unsworth’s heavenly, bucolic exterior shots capturing the magic hour light perfectly. Kinski struggles with the accent but when silent and physical she is wonderful. Watching her whistle at caged bird is a moment of ironic horror for her fate, seeing her crucify herself by stubbornly perusing more and more gruelling work as she slips through society’s cracks is very affecting. There is also the slowly unwinding exploration of civilisation versus pagan traditions, references to which often wangle their ways into the proceedings. We end up stranded on Stone Henge surrounded by the newly formed police force. But with ancient stones and ways chafing against closed church doors and graffitied scripture much earlier, it feels like this destination was predetermined long before Tess innocently states she’d much rather work than pursue the life of a D’Uberville.



My Top 10 ‘Most Beautiful’ Movies

1. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
2. Dances With Wolves (1990)

3. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
4. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
5. A Matter Of Life And Death (1946)
6. Amelie (2001)
7. Ghost in the Shell (2017)
8. Days of Heaven (1979)
9. Barry Lyndon (1975)
10. Tess (1979)

Unsane (2018)


Steven Soderbergh directs Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard and Juno Temple in this thriller about a stalked woman who finds herself committed in the very asylum where her attacker is working. 

It is a solid hook for a thriller and a perfect showcase for Foy who impresses as the flinty, unsympathetic survivor. No wallowing for her – she is rude, aggressive and self centred. Pleasing so. It is a cracking performance in an OK thrill ride. Like Emily Blunt’s brave turn in The Girl on the Train, a complex lead working hard for a lacklustre film. Unsane is a bit more involving than that movie, even if it never goes anywhere particularly shocking, the threat that it might is at least constantly impressed on the viewer. Soderbergh’s gimmick of using an IPhone to film his feature works. It gives the image a burnt out, flat air matching our protagonist’s world view. The lack of focus means everything in frame is weighted with equal importance to our eyes, meaning shots are often busy rather than swiftly processable. And it is a film about perception and self image, so what better tool than the icon of how we as a society now distribute our projected lives. While Unsane doesn’t match the high standard of his best work, it is in keeping with an unwritten theme he explores in nearly all his movies. Criminal love. Whether it be fetishes of sex, lies and videotape or Full Frontal, the outlaw romances of Out of Sight or the Ocean’s Trilogy, the monetised sexualisation of Magic Mike or The Girlfriend Experience, or even the world where touch is forbidden like Contagion, Soderbergh is fascinated in making human contact impermissible and illegal. Joshua Leonard’s pleasant but controlling monster here is just another aspect of Soderbergh’s view that humans will break all manner of barriers to fulfill their needs – even consent.


Proud Mary (2018)


Babak Najafi directs Taraji P. Henson, Billy Brown and Danny Glover in this action thriller about a mob enforcer who takes in an orphan from one of her hits, creating a gang war.

Taraji P. Henson is a star I cannot get a fix on. Like Nicolas Cage, her acting style seems to suggest a whole different performance is being restrained under her skin, a schizophrenia that often wriggles free in her expressions and emoting. And also like Cage it means you can never tell if she is lazily overacting or doing something incredibly unique. I’d give her some leeway if this wasn’t such a chore. More interested in homilies than shoot-outs, it struggles with scenes where morally we are to supposed to view some characters as good, others evil, when by action they are all cut from the same dubious cloth. Danny Glover gets some meaty screentime. That improves matters a tickle. But if you’ve come for exploitation or thrills, you’ll leave utterly bereft.


Branded to Kill (1967)


Seijun Suzuki directs Joe Shishido, Koji Nanbara and Annu Mari in this pop art thriller about the Number 3 hitman’s lusts, paranoia and rivalry. 

Surreal, sexy, kinky, inventive, nonsensical. This one of those movies that often is wildly unique but also occasionally frustrating. You are never more than a few seconds away from a fantastic shot or an almost parodic, hardboiled bit of business.


The Square (2017)


Ruben Östlund directs Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss and Terry Notary in this art world satire about a vain modern art museum curator whose life spirals out of control. 

At times rattlingly smart, other times a bit obvious and dull. There’s a brilliant five star 90 minutes film here padded out with an hour of OKish extras. Claes Bang is fine as the square – an immaculate middle aged man who raves with his underlings and elderly patrons, while struggling to do the right thing even while doing the right thing. Moss has a brilliant scene involving a tug of war over a used condom. Notary steals the show as a performance artist who wrecks a stuffy ballroom dinner with his wild, aggressive antics. “Help me.” Everyone, but he, says it at some point. Visually there are lots of squares too. The kinda experience that feels as much a psychological test paper, as much as a high brow comedy. You can tell why it did so well at Cannes. The world of impenetrable works, ligging galas and shock tactic media campaigns probably felt very familiar at a film festival known for its pomp, controversies and industry focus over artistic celebration.


Voyeur (2017)


Myles Kane and Josh Koury direct Gay Talese, Gerald Foos and Anita Foos in this documentary following the release of the New Journalism writer’s book about Foos’ life as a motel owner who elaborately spied on his guests.

This underrated documentary is gripping, personality packed and uncovers subtle truths concurrent with its big controversies. Gay Talese is a big flamboyant figure of the late 20th century writing tradition that also gave us Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Tom Wolfe. Personalities who were self consciously bigger than their subject matter. Impeccably dressed and beautifully spoken, his previous bestsellers made him a talk show regular decades ago. Gerald Foos is a gregarious man, in a happy marriage, who for years owned a motel built specifically so he could spy on his guests, nightly and unnoticed. Both men keep basements full of notes and mementoes of their past, both have a fascination with overseeing the lives of others. Hoarders with god complexes, speculators on what they witness and how it will have value to the general public. Broken mirror images of each other in many aspects. Foos, spotting a kindred spirit on TV, even invited Talese over to peep through his hidden vents with him back in the eighties. Now that the statute of limitations has passed, he seems happy for Talese to expose him and write his story. And from there a mini hell breaks loose. A lot of reviews seem to focus on the criminal aspect of this, the salacious part about a man who watched his guest engage in secret, sometimes violent acts and kept shtum. They focus on the power struggle between Talase and Foos when new, contradictory information comes suddenly to light and reputations are left in tatters. And all that stuff to me is incredibly watchable, inventively recreated and compellingly stitched together. Far too fascinating a pairing to deserve the snide scorn Voyeur seems to have garnered in the press. But where the documentary comes truly alive is in watching two men of the past realise they are now out of time. Both had an inflated idea of where their story would take them. Gay would have another bestseller. Foos would become a celebrity from his notoriety. That doesn’t happen and that is where Voyeur makes it real gains. It is a portrait of two elderly men realising the jig is up. Look at the scene where Foos watches out of his porch blinds, expecting a media circus when his story hits the papers. No such attention arrives. Look at Talese realising his book isn’t selling but his reputation is permanently diminished when he gives the Washington Post one unwise, but mass circulated, quote when reacting to the veracity of Foos’ story. There’s a lot going on in Voyuer… it is an ethical buffet about truth, morality and the media… but at its heart it is the sad tale of two complex men who thought they were above everyone, seeing all the angles, who now no longer understand how the modern world works.



American Pie (1999)


Paul and Chris Weitz direct Jason Biggs, Eugene Levy and Seann William Scott in this raunchy teen comedy about four inept boys trying to lose their virginity before high school ends. 

Perhaps the most recent film I will feel nostalgic about. I remember it being one of the first movies I went to see after moving to Edinburgh (at the ABC Lothian Road) back when I could only really afford to go see one film a month. That barren period, while waiting to find a job, saw me ration myself to just Big Daddy, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense and this over the end of 1999. So all absolute classics then… apart from The Sixth Sense. But here’s the thing, each time I rewatch American Pie it holds up remarkably well. Partly it marks the end of my teen years in an idealised way. Those check shirts and that post punk soundtrack of Harvey Danger / Barenaked Ladies / Blink-182 are very familiar. The weird mix of pent up frustration and romantic yearning shown in the lads was rarely depicted on screen then and feels truer than a lot of more serious teen dramas. So an emotional connection probably elevates it. And Pie has its flaws; there is a visual flatness that feels unambitious even for a teen comedy, one or two scenes have dated horribly (I guess broadcasting a girl stripping on the internet without her knowledge didn’t have the permanency or emotional harm attached to it as revenge porn does these days). But even in those awkwardly ickier moments, the joke is eventually turned on the boys. They end up either improved or the butt of their crass actions after every single transgression. And they are purposely a likeable, sensitive bunch… a million years more emotionally mature and aware than the soulless lunks who smirked and winked and groped through the Eighties equivalents (see Porkys, Police Academy, Ski Patrol etc). American Pie’s real strength is in a strong cast. Biggs has a natural gangly slapstick desperation that he sadly grew out of. Eddie Kaye Thomas is memorable as the pretentious long game player. Seann William Scott isn’t even part of the core group and he kills as the utterly comfortable in his own skin arsehole jock. The girls are given more to do than just be mindless conquests… maybe not quite the shading gifted to the lads… but Alyson Hannigan and Natasha Lyonne get moments and lines that suggest a concerted effort has been made not to have them all be mere nubile trophies to be won. Most importantly though, there are more than a half a dozen killer set pieces. Sure, some are dumbly gross (the infamous pie fuck nowadays actually feels rather tame) but many have an internal tension and patient build-up that show expert timing and a crucial understanding of how to milk a good gag. Just watch the scene where a beer and spunk cocktail is unwittingly passed back and forth, bought to the lips and interrupted constantly by Scott and his nervy prey. All it lacks is the overkill of the ominous Jaws theme to emphasise the prolonged horror unfolding. American Pie is packed deep with such strong sequences making it still a laugh-out-loud hoot while also now a warm and sweet blast from the past.


Bad Day For the Cut (2016)


Chris Baugh directs Nigel O’Neill, Józef Pawlowski and Susan Lynch in this Northern Irish revenge thriller where a mild mannered farmer tracks down the criminals who murdered his mammy.

A bog trotter Taken. Actually very gripping, following a similar pattern to The Foreigner… yet tighter, on a tenth of the budget and with none of the star power. There are enough pleasing moments to make this a gritty beer and crisps Friday night filler. Nigel O’Neill (perfectly costumed as a middle aged Irish mammy’s boy) and Susan Lynch impress in parts that feel bigger than their cookie cutter shapes initially suggest. There’s no real complexity to all this revenge violence, it’s just nice to see an independent genre film satisfyingly surpass its own slim ambitions.


Tomb Raider (2018)


Roar Uthaug directs Alicia Vikander, Walton Goggins and Dominic West in this action adventure where a young heiress tries to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance on a ‘lost’ island.

There is a 3 second moment where Alice Vikander bodychecks a small Hong Kong bag snatcher. Using her full 12oz weight to bring him to the ground. This is less believable than all the chasm leaping, bullet dodging and sexy grunt enducing collisions with rock, metal or trees. I wasn’t bored while watching Tomb Raider, it moves at a tremendous clip, but equally I can hardly remember anything but that fantasy take down a few days later. I’m certainly not desperate for a second instalment or reboot.



Movie of the Week: Snake in Eagle’s Shadow (1978)


Yuen Woo-ping directs Jackie Chan, Hwang Jang Lee and Yuen Siu-tien in this martial arts classic about an orphan who learns a forbidden fighting style. 

Martial arts movies are still a novelty to me. I’ve seen about thirty in my life, so I’m no expert. But I know a good un when I see one. Chan is unashamedly entertaining in Snake in Eagle’s Shadow. Lending his fluid movements, his impressive strength, his laid back physical timing and his boyish exuberance to a classic tale of training montages, wise masters, despicable villians and demented duels. The soundtrack is a seventies collage of stolen samples and the sound effects play like you are dubbing them in with your mouth on the sofa . There’s nothing wrong with that. It adds to the thrills. Adds to the charm. A comedy sequence involving footprints and a cloth has to be seen to be believed. A brilliant sustained visual gag. Old school perfection.