Arena (1989)

Peter Manoogian directs Paul Satterfield, Claudia Christian and Hamilton Camp in this sci-fi action flick where a human enters an alien boxing contest.

Cheap but tremendous alien design. Everything else just tremendously cheap. Rote, painfully rote. In this world “cheating” is when the handicapping system, that means a human can match a rubbery beastie in strength, is turned off. That’s the white man’s game. It is unfair when he’s not allowed his artificial advantages. There’s no attractive reason to sit through this unless you are really into creature FX.

3

Sisters (1973)

Brian DePalma directs Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt and William Finley in this surreal thriller where a reporter investigates a murder she witnesses in a detached Siamese twins’ apartment.

A pretty deranged piece of filmmaking contains layers of Hitchcock pastiche, bravura split-screen tension tests, loopy arthouse dream sequences and a nonsense punchline ending. The chief pleasure is Kidder’s typically unhinged performance – 4 parts sexy to 1 part oddball. The thriller aspects are the least loved components and DePalma blurts them out like a hungry child forced to say grace. This is still more akin to his Sixties experimental hippie work than his slick, playful shock fests. A likeable transition.

7

The Terminal (2004)

Steven Spielberg directs Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci and Catherine Zeta-Jones in this serious comedy springboarding off from the true story of a man forced to live in an airport when his passport was no longer internationally recognised.

Hmmm… joins Hook in being a very rare duff one from the Hollywood wunderkind. You can sense Spielberg’s totalitarian delight in replicating a lifesize, living, breathing airport terminal – a playset of brand placement and vertiginous camera moves. Balletic cinematography has never been a friend to nimble humour. The script displays the ambition of a Billy Wilder-esque bittersweet bite. It just doesn’t take shape or sharpen into a defined motion. The bureaucratic antagonist seems weak willed, the romantic subplot feels superfluous and the comedy, while graceful, lacks killer laughs. The project has a good hook but no narrative. Hanks does nice work but hardly convinces as an alien. You yearn for him to give up on the fantasy accent and tell us “There’s no crying in baseball”. Now, on that thought, here’s another; Wouldn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger have been a far more fascinating casting choice?…

4

Movie of the Week: The Spanish Prisoner (1997)


David Mamet directs Campbell Scott, Steve Martin and Rebecca Pigeon in this mystery where the inventor of a valuable “Process” begins a friendship with a man who may want to con him.

The deadpan acting, the rhythmic dialogue, the maze-like plotting. One of the best thrillers ever written. Steve Martin is a seductive enigma in this. Carter Burwell’s score feels like a safe full of instruments being cracked.

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Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Edward Norton directs himself, Alec Baldwin and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in this noir mystery where a Tourette’s suffering assistant to a PI has to solve his boss’ death.

One of my biggest personal disappointments of the year. The book was fantastic. Norton has owned the rights for 20 years. And in 1999 he felt like perfect casting for Lionel Essrog – the twitching solver getting to the bottom of an underworld he had been protected from. Finally, the film is made and it is ponderous, flat. The period move to the 1950s works visually but soaks the snappy text in a prestigious death march, robbing it of its confusing poetry. It should be more frazzled, haphazard, overwhelming if it wants to capture Jonathan Lethem’s prose. Motherless Brooklyn moves so serenely you can unscramble its riddles and ranting quirk a little too easily. It looks like it is set in the right world yet very few frames have any imagination. If acting is going on then Norton wants a close-up. Only the establishing shots have the whomp of true cinema. And Norton’s performance is solid but not the homerun he must have planned for. Is his age a factor? Would the naive Essrog work better in his early 20s? Probably. A more sensible adaptor might have eyed up Baldwin’s part for their vanity showcase. Five scenes all of which leave their mark. Less screen time, more meat. Baldwin is glorious as the Titan Of Industry, Moses Randolph… and it is a part created independently from the book! I don’t want to write off Motherless Brooklyn completely. It is well acted, ambitious and often pleasing to watch in the moment. An early car chase is discombobulating in its erratic flow – fitting to Essrog’s mindset. A later stand-off has the pleasing physicality of early Coen Brothers. The deadly slapstick escape recalls Blood Simple or Miller’s Crossing in the simple kineticisms. It is hardly essential though and feels compromised by weak, diluted storytelling choice. Someone should have told Norton to have some fun with it.

5

Marriage Story (2019)

Noah Baumbach directs Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Laura Dern in this longform drama looking over a divorce.

That annoying kid destroyed their beautiful marriage. They say it was career and infidelity and stifling behaviour. But that fucking kid… Lovely to see Julie Hagerty, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Merritt Weaver and especially Laura Dern in such well written support roles. Visually this has a really playful sense of space – look at the shots in Laura Dern’s office where both actress are filmed dead centre on but one seems in control of her environment, the other askew with this world. Baumbach imbues a nice humour to it all, not quite as lacerating and punchy as his early rough draft The Squid and The Whale, but certainly nowhere near as constantly miserable as Kramer V Kramer. Marriage Story stretches out and breathes a lot more, so you aren’t pummelled with negativity like it’s 40 year old influence. It is a better film, in spite of that homewrecking brat. Take home: Don’t have children!

7

Last Christmas (2019)

Paul Feig directs Emilia Clarke, Emma Thompson and Henry Golding in this Christmas romance where a screw-up who works as an elf in a gift shop puts her life in order with the help of a mysterious hunk.

Right-Ho… this is an utter mess of a movie. You can pull apart its weird anti-Brexit but homeless people should sing for their supper politics. Roll your eyes 720° at that terrible and duffly guessable twist ending. Splutter at the indulgence of Emma Thompson adding unwanted scenes of her own one-note character to the wrap-up as if she were a hit with some imagined test audience that exists only in her head and the studio mandated more grating Emma Thompson bits. Yet Emilia Clarke is unswervingly adorable – whether dressed in bright green moleskin or hungover, scoffing a burger. This will become a seasonal tradition, she guarantees that with her saviour of a starry, sparkly turn. The George Michael songs chosen to durdle away over montages aren’t the best selection but the eponymous one by Wham gets plenty of airtime too. Nice on the eyes, terrible on the head, awful on the heart. I’ll watch it again in 11 months times.

5

Holiday Inn (1942)

Mark Sandrich directs Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds in this musical where a nightclub singer opens up a country retreat that only hosts shows on holiday dates while his old partner tries to woo his newfound star attraction.

Just lovely. Apart from the blackface sequence and the toxic masculinity on display. And the montage of patriotic death machine construction. These things were not jarring back then. And in all honesty feel forgivable when snuggled up among all the niceness, warm mulled singing and pastoral razzmatazz here. Edith Head’s costuming of the ladies is spectacularly on point.

8

Minding the Gap (2018)

Bing Liu directs Keire Johnson, Zack Mulligan and himself in this skateboarding documentary that explores the life of three young working class American adults taking in their relationships, cycle of abuse, poverty of opportunity and racism.

Fucking haunting.

8

Race With the Devil (1975)

Jack Starrett directs Warren Oates, Peter Fonda and Loretta Switt in this action horror where a group of holidaymakers witness a satanic sacrifice and are pursued along the highway in their R.V..

Now THIS is a fucking movie! Warren Oates wears a sports jacket. Warren Oates looks morosely at a little dog. Warren Oates takes off a helmet after a stunt double pretends to be him on a scrambler bike. Warren Oates drinks hard on garden furniture. Warren Oates witnesses a devil worshipping ceremony and runs his top lip over his big white brick teeth when he sees a nude girl. Warren Oates is not listened to when he tells the wives to turn that R.V. light off. Warren Oates is not listened to when he tells the wives to stay in the R.V.. Warren Oates still wants to go on his skiing holiday. Warren Oates looks morosely at a nerd couple who make intrusive smalltalk at him. Warren Oates buys a shotgun. Warren Oates uses a shotgun. Warren Oates drives maruading pick-ups full of devil worshippers off the road in an all action, stunt packed finale. Warren Oates decides everyone should get some rest and parks up just outside of the city limits…

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