Queen & Slim 2019 ****

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Landing something between Thelma & Louise and Badlands, Queen and Slim is an American road odyssey featuring two characters who have no desire to run away; both Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) are thinking of other things when they go on a tentative Tinder date in an Ohio restaurant. The date itself is inconclusive, and yet Queen and Slim’s paths are now firmly and forever interlocked by fate, or at least the attentions of an overzealous lawman.

Recent features like The Hate U Give have attempted to bring BlackLivesMatter issues to the fore with a heavy hand; Queen & Slim, written by Lena Waithe, and directed by Melina Matsoukas, makes a clear statement about how flashpoints of violence emerge from distrust, then steps nimbly aside to focus on the human cost as Queen and Slim try to register their new predicament. He has a family, but she is a lawyer, and it says something about the growing chasm between races that her immediate plan is to go on the run. Justice, in court, in the media, of any kind is the preserve of a monied elite and if you’re black, it’s hard to trust that the authorities will deal with you fairly, so Queen surmises. Changing cars, haircuts and clothes, Queen and Slim set off in the hope of finding new lives and identities far from their Ohio home.

Their journey has echoes of the Underground Railroad, and Queen and Slim’s story gains power from the ease with which the two characters drop into a criminal world. The resolution is less powerful than the set-up, but Queen & Slim is bolstered by some great character work by Turner-Smith and Kaluuya in particular, building on his electrifying turns in Get Out and Widows.

As a voting Academy member, I’ve yet to meet another voting member who has seen Queen and Slim, despite plenty of public and critical raves. Before suggesting overt racism, it’s worth pointing out that watching 140 films in a solitary month is a impossible task in terms of viewing every film. But Queen & Slim’s failure to gain mainstream recognition confirms the film’s underdog status; like Just Mercy and Waves, it’s a nominee from a year in which carelessly built and outdated voting platforms accidentally squeezed out all but the front-runners.

 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood 2019 ****

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For once, comparisons are useless; no one outside the US has ever heard of Fred Rogers, and even a popular documentary didn’t change much about that. Children’s tv presenters of the past are remembered with great passion and enthusiasm, but the medium of nursery rhymes and bedtime stories is not a subject that’s troubled the cinematic world much until recently. Those left cold with the idea of bringing Mr Rogers back to life may feel more enthusiasm for another outing from Tom Hanks, the James Stewart of his generation, a loved, respected and treasured star. Hanks has twice as much screen-time here as Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, which won him a best actor Oscar; it probably seemed like a good steer to nominated Hanks as supporting actor here, although that category seems locked for Brad Pitt at the time of writing.

Nevertheless, this is a supporting performance, and a good one; those who don’t recognise the style of Mr Rogers may, in fact, find it easier to get into Hanks here. Marielle Heller’s slight yet profound drama is about a journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who is struggling with his own family life, and specifically with his father (Chris Cooper). A chance to write a profile piece on Rogers develops into a tentative friendship, but Vogel doesn’t find is easy to heed the star’s advice until tragedy appears on the horizon.

A Beautiful Day In the Neighbourhood is a film in a minor key; the evocations of childhood are warm and fuzzy, the interaction between Vogel’s problematic life and Rogers’ homespun philosophy runs smoothly; there’s a stand-out moment when Vogel is requested to enjoy a moment of silence in a busy restaurant. In fact, given the happiest of centres featured here in terms of Hanks, it’s perhaps frustrating that A Beautiful Day doesn’t go any deeper into Vogel’s issues.

Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe-voters alike have indicated that films directed by women can only be recognised for their performances, with the cast presumably directing themselves. So Hanks is the only name from the production to feature on ballot-papers; a ridiculous state of affairs given the need to recognise on an equal plateau the best work by all sexes, creeds and colours. One wonders what the main character would have said about this kind of failure; half holy-fool, half Jedi-mentor, Rogers is an amusing character who glues this gentle, controlled drama tightly to a heartfelt, feel-good task.

 

Golden Rendezvous 1977 ***

goldenThere are reasons for liking something other than it being ‘good’; this 1977 thriller based in a 1962 book by Alistair MacLean is perfectly awful in many ways, but somehow these flaws only make it more endearing. “Everyone was drinking on that movie, we were all so f**king miserable’ explained star Richard Harris in a magazine article, defending his consumption of a bottle of vodka every day while re-writing the script. If you want to understand what drinking a bottle of vodka every day does to your writing process, try watching Golden Rendezvous; director Freddie Francis and Christopher Lee abandoned ship while the film was in production.

For a great bad movie, several things have to go wrong at once, and replacement director Ashley Lazerus’s film hits the wrong note from the opening scene with a fabulously inappropriate swirling synth score by Jeff Wayne, one which mimics his War of the Worlds hit. Meanwhile John Carter (Richard Harris) stands around on an quay with a clipboard, bad hair-cut and milk-bottle spectacles looking about as officious as a lolly-pop man while various characters scuttle on-board the liner and floating casino Caribbean Star. These characters include the ancient John Carradine, sporting the look of a man freshly embalmed, the comparatively youthful Burgess Meredith hamming it up as a gambler, old favourites Dorothy Malone and Robert Beatty, David Janssen, who appears to have a glass of whiskey glued to his hand, Harris’s real-life wife Susan Beresford (Ann Turkel), and John Vernon as Luis Carreras, a man with a nuclear bomb. Vernon left the set to play Dean Wormer in Animal House, and was probably not the ideal casting to portray genuine menace, but that’s just one of the problems here.

Many films have issues with consistency, but Golden Rendezvous suggests that Harris’s idea of a rewrite was to throw the script in the air and re-arrange the pages where they fell. Carreras’s men take the ship over and brutally machine gun the crew, and yet Carter and Beresford are more preoccupied with whether to re-ignite their relationship. ‘I was wondering, should we bury the hatchet?’ he muses coyly while the bloody corpses pile up on deck and the clock on a nuclear bomb ticks down; it’s the kind of narrative dissonance that Team America nailed, but no less funny to discover in latent form here.

Given the film’s preoccupation with money, specifically gold bullion, it’s also notable that court cases subsequently proved that Golden Rendezvous was largely financed by South African government with money that was intended to be used to help black film-makers. Certainly, the acting, action, music and the entire production are verging on criminal, and yet there’s some fun in a film written and performed by practicing alcoholics on peak booze-cruise. There’s something admirable in characters who, on discovering that terrorists have boarded their ship, take action by throwing a cocktail party to flush them out via social chit-chat. Ideally seen with a glass of something 40 per cent proof in one hand, Golden Rendezvous’ hackneyed heroism and jauntiness in the face of terrorism make it a classic re-watch for those who love the idiocy of bad movies. This film was never issued on DVD in the US, but was broadcast on Scottish television on what seemed to be a continual loop during my childhood.

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Treadstone 2019 ****

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“This is war, and the human mind is the new battlefield,’ explains one character in Treadstone, which takes its name from the sinister black-ops operation featured in Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels and films. After being brought to the screen as Richard Chamberlain in some 1980’s tv movies, Jason Bourne was successfully rebooted in the form of Matt Damon for The Bourne Identity, before Paul Greengrass took things to another level for Supremacy and Ultimatum. Things flagged when few of the creative team returned for the shonky Bourne Legacy, and even the re-teaming of Damon and Greengrass couldn’t spark life into the redundant reprise Jason Bourne.

It’s obvious that audiences dig the Jason Bourne universe, though, and this USA Network tv show, now steaming widely, manages to expand the universe without making much use of Bourne himself, mentioned in the opening scene-setter and discussed once. Tim Kring’s ten-episode thriller wraps around the original story by showing the roots of Treadstone in a 1973 narrative that features Jeremy Irvine as a spy who has his mind thoroughly messed with, and a number of 2019 stories in which various sleepers awake in Korea, Greece, Kentucky and Moscow. Most of these narratives are compelling enough; the notion of activation, as featured in The Manchurian Candidate, makes for some good twists, and the level of action, whether fights or car chases, is efficient and effective, if not quite rising to the operatic heights of the original trilogy of movies.

The titles of each episode are amusingly retro; The Berlin Proposal, The Paradox Andropov and, cheekily, The Seoul Asylum, as is arguably the central character, Petra, played in older and modern timelines by Emilia Schüle and Gabrielle Scharnitzky. A veteran operative who survived the deadly games, she makes a different kind of focus to Jason Bourne, and a morally ambivalent one; the universe is a reassuringly complex one, and pulling in big name directors like Brad Anderson helps to keep the diverse threads alive.

Treadstone doesn’t blow the Bourne films away, but doesn’t try to; as an act of universe expansion, it’ll provide fans of the franchise with some welcome service in the form of tit-bits of information, as well as filling in some fringe narratives in a way that’s far more stimulating than the treading water featured in the last two movies.

Richard Jewell 2019 ****

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Although he’s an awards darling, from Unforgiven to Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood has shunned the nominations circuit for recent efforts like The Mule or 15.17 to Paris; Richard Jewell turns up for UK release a good six weeks since an initial US release won mixed reviews, slender takings at the box office, and a successful campaign for an Oscar nomination for Kathy Bates. It also provoked considerable controversy over the way Eastwood represented the true story involved here, and although that brouhaha didn’t sell tickets, it’s a film with details worth unpicking.

Eastwood seems to see Richard Jewell’s story has something of a parable for our times; a humble security guard (Paul Walter Hauser) discovers and alerts authorities to a rucksack loaded with pipe bombs during a Jack Mack concert at the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta. His actions save lives, and his lauded as a hero, until government officials start looking into his eccentric behaviour, and wondering if Jewell might have planted the bomb to enhance his own reputation. A key scene has reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) using sex to wheedle Jewell’s name out of federal agent Shaw (Jon Hamm).

Despite being a product of the star system, Eastwood wisely doesn’t cast an established star in his main role, and gets an unaffected, sincere performance from Hauser,  a notable heavy in films like I Tonya. An actors’ director, Eastwood also does well with Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s anti-authority lawyer Watson Bryant; a poster on his wall reads ‘I’m more afraid of government than I am of terrorists’ and the whole film narrows down on the dangers of the media and the law colluding to be judge, jury and executioner (Jewell faced the death penalty if convicted). And best of all, Bates has a subtle turn with a big pay-off as Jewell’s mother, who advised the film-makers and provides another sympathetic route into the story.

It’s impressive that a film-maker like Eastwood would choose to tell such an egalitarian story, with real sympathy for the downtrodden. But his sympathy doesn’t seem to extend to Scruggs, who unlike the fed she gets the info from, is not a fictional character. A film about the truth has to deal in hard facts, and the fictionalisation of such a key element lets the sensitivity out of the argument. Many films are weakened by playing fast and loose with the truth; Richard Jewell has one such moment, yet offers an otherwise absorbing, engaging look at a world gone mad in a rush to judgement. It feels like Eastwood wants to address the worst excesses of MeToo, but the casual treatment of Scruggs ruins the balance of his argument.

The idea of trials without evidence, witnesses or justice is a topical one in January 2020, and double-standards cast a long shadow. ‘When the government arrest you, that’s when we know you’re innocent’ says Bryant’s caustic Russian wife Nadya, and Eastwood’s complaint about the scarcity of justice has urgent merit. Whether your sympathies line up with Republicans or Democrats, America would do well to avoid setting a template for a new era of Russian ‘show-trials’ with predetermined outcomes.

Callan 1974 ****

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One piece of intellectual property that’s positively begging for rediscovery is Callan, a tv show, a book, a franchise beloved in the UK in the 1970’s, and the jumping-off point for Edward Woodward’s starring role in The Equaliser, which has become a Denzel Washington signature role. Each of these off-shoots is more ridiculous than the next, but boiled down to its origin story, James Mitchell’s kitchen sink spy-craft has a studious zing that would be well-worth recapturing.

Having already launched a popular tv show, Mitchell had adapted the pilot into a novel, A Red File for Callan, and this provides the basis for this 1974 film by Don Sharp. David Callan (Woodward) is a polite and friendly man who has violent tenancies, some of which seem to link to his service in the Malayan war. His handler, Hunter (Eric Porter) offers Callan a wet job, to murder a prominent businessman, but Callan takes his time about this to an almost existential degree, frustrating his bosses as he sources a gun and prepares himself by thrusting his hands into bowls of hot, wet sand.

Callan took The Ipcress File’s drab riposte to James Bond and took it a stage further; although there’s a Range-Rover chase and some cinematic action, it’s the tiny details of trade-craft that work best here, like the casual way the government sweeper-ups are disguised as ambulance-men. If you’re expecting Mission Impossible-style stunts, look elsewhere; Callan stealing a postman’s bicycle outside a High Street John Menzies is the limit of the athleticism here. And fans of 70’s dowdiness will enjoy the large cardboard boxes of Ryvita that form a backdrop to a dramatic scene.

Marked by an excellent performance by Woodward, no brooding Rambo but a well-disciplined man with still waters running deep in his psyche. The way his shunning of alcohol hardens his resolve is one of the details that give Callan such strength; espionage rarely goes out of fashion, but Callan is one forgotten name that really deserves to be brought back from the dead. And Dave Prowse, sporting an unfamiliar moustache, has a brief but memorable bit as a heavy who is no match for our hero’s dour strength.

 

Erik The Viking 1989 ***

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The recent demise of both Terry Jones and Neil Innes provides an opportunity to consider one of the least beloved entries in the sub-Monty Python canon, 1989’s Erik the Viking. Although it re-unites Jones as writer/director with John Cleese, who replaced Jack Lemmon at short notice, Erik the Viking feels like a feature script developed by Jones as a Python project, but rejected by the others; Michael Palin’s diary suggests dissatisfaction with the script. Jones seems to have recast each role with name players, but unfortunately these are not like-for-like substitutions, and without the usual Python ability to work over a script to provide a variety of accomplished comic set-pieces, the results are patchy.

And yet Erik the Viking is infused with Jones’s ability to take his area of expertise (medieval history) and riff on it to comic effect, and the structure of the film is solid. Erik (Tim Robbins) is a Viking who rejects the carnal, violent excesses of his fellows warriors and seeks something higher. He sets off on a voyage that takes his crew to Valhalla and beyond, with a central stop-off on the island of Hy Brazil, ruled over by King Arnulf (Jones) where a developed spiritual philosophy means no killing is allowed. Erik and his crew are pursued by Hafdan the Black (Cleese), who has a spy in Erik’s camp in the form of Loki (Anthony Sher).

Norse legends provide some familiar set-ups, with Loki, the age of Ragnorok and the rainbow bridge all coming into play, but Jones neatly dodges clichés; the Vikings have no horns on their helmets, and Jones’s patented gift for giving medieval characters 20th century vocabulary and pre-occupations provides some laughs. The Vikings argue in petty fashion about who sits where on their boat, and one character witheringly notes ‘You don’t even believe in Asgard!’. The timing isn’t always what it should be; when you replace a comedy troupe with randoms like Eartha Kitt, Michey Rooney and John Gordon Sinclair, consistency of vision takes a nose-dive.

Erik the Viking kicks off with an unwise rape joke (involving Jim Broadbent and Jim Carter) that doesn’t sit well with the generally genial nature of the comedy; without the usual team, Jones seems to have over-reached in terms of tone and content here, and there’s a few tumble-weed moments as gags go awry. But with a few smart sequences, like how the Hy Brazilians argue philosophically but to no effect as their island sinks around them, there’s tantalising evidence of a potentially great Python film that never came to fruition. And Innes creates a splendid mock-heroic score that keeps the rather ramshackle proceedings on point.

Death Train 1993 ***

deathThe Alistair MacLean cycle of blockbuster action/espionage movies had well and truly run its course by the time 1993’s Death Train came along, dropping this thriller into the dustiest distribution hole imaginable until the internet came along and offered salvation. The YouTube copy of Death Train under review has a cool 4 million viewers; using Netflix’s famously shonky calculator, on a $20 a ticket multiplier, that’s equal to an $80 million opening, bigger than Bad Boys for Life or any 2020 release so far. Presumably your friends, workmates and family have been sneaking off and covertly watching this engagingly hokey film without telling you. Either way, it’s time for you to take a free ride on the Death Train, also known by the equally duff title Detonator.

A tv movie with a script based on a novel based on a screenplay sounds less-than-promising; this is a vague sequel to 1980’s laughable Hostage Tower, and features UNACO, the United Nations Anti-Crime Organisation, on the trail of a stolen nuclear bomb held by terrorists on a German train. No longer played by Billy Dee Williams, CW (Clarke Peters) is left to interrogate the scientist who built the bomb for a rogue Russian General (Christopher Lee). Centre-stage are Malcolm Philpott (Patrick Stewart) and his old chum “Mike’ Graham, played by Pierce Brosnan and introduced sympathetically throwing a motorbike-race to avoid running over a bunny-rabbit.

The terrorists in David Jackson’s thriller are led by The Silence of the Lambs’ Ted Levine who plans to smash his way through to Iraq and force the Russians to invade, creating a new adversary for the US. There’s a quite exciting action scene about twenty minutes in when Graham and his team try and board the moving train; MacLean never saw a helicopter he didn’t like, and the lack of CGI leaves space for some decent stunts. The plot is kind of ridiculous, and resolves itself rather predictably; Maclean seems to have enough access to imagine a nuclear crisis, but the mechanics by which things are resolved are Boys Own stuff.

Death Train is no masterpiece, but it’s undemanding, slump-in-your-chair stuff. It just about manages to entertain, mainly by casting a few well-kent faces most of which went on to bigger things, and also by dint of some decent sub-Bond second unit action. If nothing else, the Siberian locations, hopefully labelled either Kentucky, Germany or Russia, provide some mirth, as does the glimpse of LaGuardia airport in New York, which looks remarkably like an empty stretch of Eastern European airstrip. And the title on the version reviewed comes up as ‘Death Train Hollywood Action Movie Action Thriller Hollywood Cinema’, which is probably an apt description of the shenanigans contained.

Dumbo 2019 ****

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Disney didn’t bother mounting any kinds of awards campaign for Dumbo, arguably the runt of the litter of live action re-enactments of classic animations that dominated the box office of 2019. In the UK, there’s not yet been a chance to view Andrew Bujawski’s Lady and the Tramp, but Tim Burton’s superior Dumbo stands aside from the rest of the pack by dint of revising and remodelling the original rather than just a shot-for-shot remake.

In fact, the only thing wrong with Dumbo is Dumbo himself: the CGI elephant, like most photo-realistic creatures, lacks the charm of the way that Dumbo was originally drawn. Story-wise, there’s more going on that just censoring songs (When I See an Elephant Fly) or situations (Dumbo getting hammered), with strong elements of corporate and business satire via crooked businessmen Vandevere and Remington (Michael Keaton and Alan Arkin), who lock horns as they try and figure out the best way to exploit the flying elephant in the room.

Danny DeVito makes a sympathetic ringmaster, and the moppet kids are fine as these things go; Burton creates a package that’s ideal in terms of putting new wine in old bottles, but also doesn’t let up on the darkness. ‘Everything is going to be like it was before’ offers one character soothingly, but this Dumbo doesn’t coast by on nostalgia. Several close-ups of elephant dung on the sanded floor of the circus hardly lend themselves to warm and fuzzy feelings, while the death of an audience member is lingered on, even down to a follow-up shot of a stretcher being loaded into a coroner’s van.

Given that Dumbo kicks off with children discovering that their father (Colin Farrell) has lost his arm in the war, it’s clear that Burton’s mind was on something more here than flogging toys; the animals may be photorealistic, but the Dreamland amusement park which ends up on fire could only come from Burton’s Gothic imagination, and the same goes for Eva Green’s trapeze vamp. Like Dark Shadows or Big Eyes, Dumbo may not please it’s target audience with it’s feeling for both light and shade, but it provides plenty of evidence of Tim Burton’s genuine acumen and showmanship as a director.

Ultimately, Max Medici’s aphorism feels relevant to Burton’s wrestling act with his studio; ‘Never do anything I tell you without checking with me first.’ With directors and other talent seemingly falling in and out of popular franchise projects, Burton is one of the few who can bend a studio to his vision. Presumably the dismal $350+ million box office take for Dumbo will put a stop to such original thinking in future family films. But Tim Burton’s failure brings back memories of the 1980’s, when Disney couldn’t get arrested, and films like The Black Cauldron, Tron, Dragonslayer and Something Wicked This Way Comes went rapidly down the tubes. In retrospect, these failures are often better than most successes, and there’s far more of interest in Tim Burton’s Dumbo than The Lion King and Aladdin put together.

When Eight Bells Toll 1971 ****

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The title is from a sea-faring term; Alistair MacLean’s adaptation of his own novel makes appropriately salty use of the author’s own experience in the navy. Filmed in and around the Scottish coastal village of Tobermory, here fictionalised as Torbay, Etienne Perier’s actioneer was intended to spark a new series to rival if not succeed the James Bond films, which were in mid Connery/Lazenby contractual free-fall when this was being made. Alas, no other film featuring Phillip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) were made, but this gives a good flavour of what a potential franchise might have been like.

Calvert is introduced storming a hi-jacked ship; he’s a professional secret agent for the British Treasury, and clearly knows his stuff. MacLean gives Calvert plenty of animosity against his London-based superiors, notably Robert Morley as Uncle Arthur, Calvert’s handler and a man who seems more consumed with the availability of egg sandwiches than solving the mystery of the missing gold bullion. The nearby boat of shipping magnate Sir Anthony Skousas (Jack Hawkins) suggests who might be responsible, but Skouras’s wife Charlotte complicates things by getting attached to Calvert.

There’s a couple of duff-process shots, but for a film made in 1969, When Eight Bells Toll looks amazing today, with great location work in and around the Isle of Mull, terrific use of boats and Westland helicopters, and action that derives directly from the narrative, rather than feeling tacked on. The way Calvert attaches a live grenade to a rope and swing-balls it backwards into his enemies during the final confrontation is genius; without being a super-hero, he’s an ingenious, likeable hero.

When Eight Bells Toll is surprisingly modern in outlook and scope, and the presence of Hopkins, a versatile and thoughtful leading man, lends it a real sense of gravity. This is derring-do and Queen and Country stuff, but leavened with a healthy air of cynicism; enjoy a grand old action movie that still works in 2020.