Eyewitness (1981)

Peter Yates directs William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and James Woods in this thriller where a janitor discovers a murder and uses his insider knowledge on the crime to leverage dates from a hot and hungry newshound.

A very strange Friday night throwaway thriller. Mossad people smugglers, Vietnam vets, affairs, disabled dads and dosed up pet dogs are piled on top of what should be quite a simple genre entertainment. The romance is icky (Hurt plays a manipulative weirdo… one who certainly wouldn’t be the hero in this current century’s cinema), the action sequences crop up randomly. It just never settles into anything consistent. Which is not to say barely connected scene to barely connected scene, this isn’t passable.


Dumbo (2019)

Tim Burton directs Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton and Colin Farrell in this remake of the flying elephant circus soap.

Whisper it but I think Tim Burton might be getting his mojo back. This is chaotic, maudlin and distracted yet it hits a visual authenticity that harks back to the bubblegum gothic that established him. A nostalgic cast, a trace of heart and soul. Like Miss Peregrine this isn’t a classic but it feels just a little more wholemeal than recent remakes and retreads by the former wunderkind. Circus freaks and and theme park satires, Burton’s touchstones and strengths find a home in a film that seems openly critical of Walt Disney-esque figures. Keaton’s otherworldly entertainment tycoon is a Satan in a luxury car. Strange for a remake of a Mousehouse property paid for, produced and put out by the corporation that bears his name to make their own figurehead the big bad?


My Top 10 Michael Keaton Movies

1. Out of Sight (1998)

2. Batman (1989)

3. Batman Returns (1992)

4. The Paper (1994)

5. Toy Story 3 (2010)

6. Birdman (2014)

7. Beetlejuice (1988)

8. Jackie Brown (1997)

9. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

10. Spotlight (2015)

Everybody Knows (2018)

Asghar Farhadi directs Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darín in this psychological thriller where a wedding reunion becomes a kidnapping mystery.

Watchable due to the talent involved, though only Javier Bardem’s star power is satisfyingly utilised throughout the lengthy running time. The set-up for an intense hostage negotiation gets sidelined by soapy revelations and crippling grief. By no means a bad film yet one that doesn’t stretch itself in any aspect.


Lost Horizon (1937)

Frank Capra directs Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt and Edward Everett Horton in this fantasy adventure where a plane full of Westerners discover Shangri-La hidden in the Tibetan mountains.

This has dated poorly. The utopia is creepy. The politics racist. We never recover from the all action opener. The first 15 minutes have an on-location chaos and scale that is impressive. You can see the influence on the entire Indiana Jones series in these sequences. Everything else that follows is overly talky and naive in comparison. Just when we threaten to get back to derring-do two hours later, the film is tied up by a new character, a stuffy official, recounting the excitement of a final act we never get to see for ourselves.


The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

Sara Colangelo directs Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak and Rosa Salazar in this drama where a frustrated teacher begins to exploit one of her 5 year old’s uncommon talent for poetry.

A complex and captivating central performance by the ever gorgeous Gyllenhaal motors this small scale affair. What starts as a twee and sunny character study lurches into darker places, the filmmakers intelligently pull the plug on the narrative as the bad choices become almost unbearably tragic.


Too Late (2015)

Dennis Hauck directs John Hawkes, Crystal Reed and Dichen Lachman in this romantic neo-noir where a private detective looks for a missing girl he has history with around an L.A. filled with beautiful, sad women.

The trick, the hook, to Too Late is that it is just five scenes told out of sequence, each a long (seemingly unbroken) take where a little more of the mystery is clarified but more importantly the characters shift from being stock genre creations to something deeper. The opposite of Mystic River, then! In fact it would easy to be put off by the first and last five minutes. We meet a couple of rote drug dealers, straight out of the copycat Tarantino handbook. The kinda weak characters and rip-off dialogue that blighted the 1990s indie crime thriller in QT’s successful wake. Once they move out of focus though you forget them and even the formal trick of the movie. It is almost as the creative here is acknowledging on first glance that to be co-existing in the same hyper-aware, self-reflective City of Angels setting as Pulp Fiction at least needs referencing. “Here’s two mopes from Reindeer Games or The Last Days of Frankie the Fly… now let me do what I do that isn’t that or even what Quentin does!” What plays out is much richer. We essentially watch Hawke’s crumpled detective (he’s brilliant here as always) seduce a different beautiful woman in a little one act play. Times five. The dialogue has that hard boiled rat-a-tat poetry of a Chandler novel or a Bogart movie. The women seem embolden by having such richly written, deftly subtle parts. Hauck likes a certain type of actress… legs, rubbing up against middle aged, flinty, happy to have a camera follow their arse for endless periods. He gives these certain types the roles of their lives though. Their encounters with Hawkes dogged, sarcastic PI are crackling with attraction, tinged with loneliness and brutal in their witty power plays. It makes for a very stylish, gripping, gorgeous throwback of a mystery. Well worth tracking down. An underrated gem.


Mystic River (2003)

Clint Eastwood directs Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon in this American crime drama about three childhood friends reunited by the murder of one of their daughters and the dark history that tragedy dredges up.

I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane’s writing – the authentic tours he gives of Boston’s neighbourhoods and organised crimes mundane workings, the unforced deconstruction of machismo, revenge and history repeating itself he achieves in nearly all his page turners. When adapted for the big screen, they feel like prestige projects rather than neo- noirs. Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone and The Drop attract A-List casts and sophisticated directors. All cinematic translations focus on his rich ensemble of characters and deep, brooding emotion, the mystery elements often take the back seat as we watch criminals and victims, detectives and conspirators play out their lives. Mystic River is the finest film based on his writing. Clint directs it like an essay on America. He has a pitch perfect cast. Both Sean Penn and Tim Robbins turn in their very best work – large, broad, unrestrained performances that modulate between bellowing grief and seething threat. And the visuals are sublime, not least of which the iconic scene where Penn has to be swamped by uniform cops to restrain his rage. Then we have that ambiguous ending. Where America resets itself after all the doubt, violence and retribution… where the nuanced characters we met at the start have somehow reduced themselves back into stock roles. Gangster, cop, red herring. You can’t allow people to escape their past, not if you want the present to keep on marching.


Movie of the Week: Us (2019)

Jordan Peele directs Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke and Elisabeth Moss in this horror satire where a family find themselves pursued by warped look-a-likes of themselves: The Tethered.

***Possible Spoilers***

“What has 12 million eyes, 50 million fingers and stretches all the way from the Statue of Liberty to the Pacific Ocean?” We open on a terrifying question one that is answered twice in Jordan Peele’s Us. The period setting advert we are watching on the fade-in is for the mid 80s charity / promo event Hands Across America, a PR stunt to raise money for the richest nation in the world’s poor. The second answer is drip-fed to us throughout the film. A baffling, awe inspiring, satirically loaded answer that conjures up tantalising further questions and consistent threat and peril. For the monsters in Us are explored but never fully explained, looked at in detail but never neutered or demystified by the spotlight. They say “We’re Americans”, Peele lets us glimpse a hidden, less valued society. It is not giving anything away to say they are the true embodiment of an underclass. Aping the lifestyles of the wealthy, a way of living they can only access if they violently take it back. There are slavery references jotted about the film; underground tunnels, prominent books on intellectual shelves, workers uniforms. America is built on the sweat of the less fortunate, all countries are. Peele imagines what would happen if this violent shadow class took over from the elite, a reparations uprising more organised and marshalled than Watts riots or LA’92. He even winkingly depicts the surviving protagonists, “the good family”, slowly acquiring their slightly richer, white friends’ wealth… by the end the likeable, convincing Wilsons have sat at the Tyler’s dining table, been in their jealousy inducing boat and escaped in their new car… all upgrades from how they started. I’ve read a lot of impatient reviewers say Us isn’t as politically astute or motivated as Get Out which wore its racial arguments more obviously. I think Us is the fuller, more denser allegory. But here’s the best thing… it can be taken completely straight faced as a pure piece of genre entertainment. The thrills and set pieces are clenched and playful, violent and unnerving. There are at least a dozen simple yet impressive iconic moments. Get ready for a Halloween of Red Boilersuits and Brass Scissors… there were already a few kids Tethered up at Comicon this month. Marvel at the final dancing battle of the duelling N’Yongos. Watch as the brilliant Lupita (affecting in both roles) breaks the horror genre curse and gets nominated for acting Oscars next year. Prepare for every version of Luniz half-forgotten ominous banger “I Got 5 On It” to become a household favourite this summer. My one criticism of Get Out always was the intelligent horror and the broad comedy didn’t blend particularly well, here Peele modulates his two preferred genres better… you’ll be gripped, you’ll be shocked and you will laugh. The flare gun pay off in particular is a highlight and the mark of a true entertainer. Hitch and Spielberg would be proud. They’d be proud of all of this… the visual confidence, the perfectly paced cliffhangers. Our local multiplex is being refurbed, so daytime showings vanished for this after the first weekend. I kinda held off reviewing it before a second watch. That probably won’t happen now but the below score of 8 could easily rise once I can repeat view it at home. Us is a bit special, the Tethered have boiled away in my brain since opening night.


My Top 10 Satires

1. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
2. Network (1974)
3. Trading Places (1983)
4. Festen (1998)
5. Election (1999)
6. Sweet Smell Of Success (1957)
7. Falling Down (1993)

8. The Apartment (1960)
9. Do The Right Thing (1988)
10. Duck Soup (1933)

Fighting With My Family (2019)

Stephen Merchant directs Florence Pugh, Nick Frost and Jack Lowden in this true tale wrestling comedy drama following the rise to WWE fame of a shy Norwich girl and the effect her success has on her family’s small scale wrestling business back at home.

Coarse yet effective. Closer to The Full Monty or Brassed Off in tone than Rocky or The Wrestler. At its best when being a foul mouthed British sitcom and gifting Frost his strongest cinematic role yet as a reformed thug dad. Admirably it focuses on lows rather than highs, or brother Zak’s acceptance of lowering his sights after a rejection, as much as we follow the lead’s difficult but inevitable climb to the glamorous top. In Florence Pugh’s Paige we see the loneliness of following your dream, in her brother (Lowden) we see the shaky transition from ambition to accepting reality. The two plots run parallel with each other; one sibling has to overcome self doubt, the other accept it as a new viewpoint. Merchant doesn’t pull punches or go for quick fixes when charting his leads’ psychological journeys. For a film that often feels bluntly naive, this juxtaposition of emotional struggles carries surprising heft. Merchant’s script also nimbly sidesteps the awkward ‘victory in the ring’ paradox (if wrestling is fixed or ‘rehearsed’ then how can winning a bout be seen as a satisfying conclusion) by making the finishing line for Paige to be her earning the self confidence to address the massive crowds. Not a must see but accessible and fun.


Ginger and Rosa (2012)

Sally Potter directs Elle Fanning, Alice Englert and Christina Hendricks in this 1960s coming of age drama about two teenage girls who fall apart under the shadow of CND, intellectualism and free love.

Elle Fanning, by my maths, was only 13 or 14 years old here when playing a 17 year old lead. She convinces and this is an intelligent piece of filmmaking but one that looks better than it plays out. Somehow sacrificing its strong sense of time and place / loss of friendship with histrionics and over emoting. Truth gives way to cliche.