The Hostage Tower 1980 ***

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Once Upon a Time, Brits used to mock American television; absolute laugh-fests like The Hostage Tower typify everything wrong with the US tv model circa 1980. A silly idea, originally from Alistair MacLean, gets the small-screen treatment for this CBS product which feels more like a broken pilot than a feature film, and forty years later, it’s the complete randomness of the casting that makes it a must-see on streaming for slumming cineastes.

Let’s kick off with Billy Dee Williams, currently riding high as Lando in the latest Star Wars film. He was a hot name in 1980, and ideal as CW/ Clarence Whitlock, a US agent who infiltrates a terrorist organisation planning to blow up the Eifel Tower. Exciting, right? Well, yes, and perhaps ahead of it’s time in this respect, although risible bad-guy Mr Smith (2001’s Kier Dullea) has a much more preposterous Plan B scheme up his sleeve, kidnapping the president’s mother (Brief Encounter’s Celia Johnson) and holding her for ransom. Fortunately another US agent Mike Graham (step forward next guest Peter Fonda) has also infiltrated Mr Smith’s group, and his hell-bent on stopping him. This involves ground forces in the unlikely form of Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Rachel Roberts causing a distraction to that Billy Dee Williams can abseil down the Eifel Tower with Celia Johnson on his back, while a series of robot-controlled lazers attempt to pick them off. Did we mention Bond girls Maud Adams and Britt Ekland are thrown into the mix, or that the film is shot largely in Paris around the tower itself?

The Hostage Tower was directed by Claudio Guzman, whose main credits were the I Dream of Jeannie tv show, but he fails to bring the same intensity or vision to Hostage Tower. What he does do is capture the strangest cast of actors gathered together in Paris to look upwards; pretty much everyone is on the skids here. There’s an unusual emphasis on how terrorists train, although these sequences don’t match the actual tower assault, which features Williams dressed as a cartoon chef pushing a massive soup-tureen past idiotic security guards.

The Hostage Tower has never been issued on DVD, and there’s a reason for that. But having admitted that this is no-one’s finest hour, this is the ideal film to watch when you want to keep investment levels low and snark high. With roller-skating bank robbers, lazers blowing up footballs and all kinds of ridiculous heroism, it’s an open invitation to gawp at the crudity of cheap entertainment. As Noel Coward put it, Kier Dullea, Gone Tomorrow…and that just about sums up the disposable quality of this fascinating relic of tv’s past.

Waves 2019 ****

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“I will not be taken down, I am a new machine!’ says aspiring athlete Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr) in this brutal yet lyrical drama from Trey Edward Shults for the A24 imprint. The writer/director’s follow-up to It Comes At Night is not typical of the A24 label, a sprawling but tightly conceived film that has lineage to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People or even the witness/victim dynamic of Amores Perros, but successfully finds its own intense voice. A curious broken-backed structure to the narrative makes it a tricky one to review, but spoilers should not be required to gain appreciation.

Waves deals with family life; Tyler is a young man with a big future, and he’s a big name on his school wrestling team. But Tyler gets bad news when he finds out he has a potentially life-changing sports injury, and simultaneously finds out that his girlfriend has missed her period. Tyler’s father (Sterling K Brown) and sister Emily (Taylor Russell) try to reach out to him, but drink, drugs, peer-pressure and depression all take a toll until a moment of violence turns their lives apart and sends Tyler’s life in a different direction. a key visual motif frames Tyler looking in mirrors; the reflection never seems to match up, indicating the disconnect between how the teen sees himself and how he is.

Waves takes place amongst the well-monied set of South Florida, and although Tyler and his family appear well-off, it’s clear that they’ve had to fight for what they have. That resilience makes a difference in the film’s final act, but until then, there’s a powerful willingness to dance with the darkness of Tyler’s rage which gives it the feel of a suburban Full Metal Jacket. Brown and Harrison are both compelling as father and son out of sync, while Russell deserves her Independent Spirit nomination in a difficult role. Waves features fluent, nimble camerawork, wild, striking, hallucinogenic visuals, and also a score with Trent Reznor’s broken-fridge fingerprints all over it; the whole film pulses with light and noise.

A white man’s view of black family life is a hard sell in 2019/20, and Waves seems to have fallen between two stools as a potential awards darling. But despite the presence of the permanently shaggy Harmony Korine, Shults pulls off a film that is anything but a quirky indie, but a pumped-up evocation of modern life as a living hell. That Waves travels further than that, and attempts to look at what happens after the chickens come home to roost, is admirable, and even if awards voters didn’t fancy it, last year’s Beale Street crowd really should give Waves a look.

Just Mercy 2019 ****

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The American Academy acted to ensure that race and gender bias would not be an on-going issue; the lack of recognition for Destin Daniel Creton’s Just Mercy in terms of coveted Oscar nominations suggest they will have to go further.  This is a compelling drama about wrongful accusation, race and capital punishment that should be a good bet for recognition. The shunning of this, and of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us in tv/streaming awards, suggests that Just Mercy will have to settle for satisfying its own audience. It sets a bad example for the US academy to view and then not recognise strong work due to the race or gender of the film-makers; there’s considerable evidence that this happened in 2019/2020.

Michael B Jordan doesn’t have much to go on as lawyer Bryan Stevenson, but the actor’s charisma and personable approach take him a long way. He’s strip-searched on his way to Death Row, where he interviews a number of potential clients, notably Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). The temporary loss of Steven’s dignity is nothing compared to McMillian’s long terms incarceration for a crime that doesn’t have any existing evidence for. Stevenson makes contact with a number of Death Row inmates, the execution of one of whom forms a key moment here. But with the improbably glamorous Eva (Brie Larson) shuffling the papers, it’s an aspirational fight for justice that keeps dignity until a swirl of celestial choirs overwhelm the final scenes.

Miscarriages of justice make for compelling cinema, and Just Mercy gains from being based on Stevenson’s book about the real-life case. There are touches of worldly humor; when Stevenson finds cassettes relating to a false confession and asks for permission to copy them, the black woman manning the evidence desk shrugs and says ‘They ain’t paying me enough to stop you.’ Such interludes are welcome, because Just Mercy feels a little sanctimonious at times; it feels like McMillian’s cynical voice is too often left off-screen.

Such nit-picking aside, Just Mercy has a strong relevance to the black experience of America in 2020. ‘I’m just trying to help,’ says Stevenson, and the thrust of the film is that black communities will have to help themselves, because no-one else will be willing to right the wrong perpetrated against them. That’s a truth worth articulating, whether white-dominated awards bodies recognise it or not.

Bombshell 2019 ****

bombAmerican politics looks different at home from abroad; European media has a liberal outlook, and tends to play up an unconscious bias that’s permanently pro Democrat and con Republican. Thus when Donald Trump talks about the world’s media being against him, he’s got a point. Every Republican president in recent memory has been hailed as the worst thing ever, whether Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr or Jr, they all get the same treatment, characterised as power-mad imbeciles.

Jay Roach’s Bombshell’s subject is Fox News, and the goal is to dramatise well-documented sexual harassment issues. These are comparatively recent history, so recent that two of the characters featured are Donald Trump and Rudi Guiliani, the former evoked using actual footage, the latter by an actor. Both are, at the time of writing, still active and involved in the American political scene, but are casually described here as a passing demagogue and his above-the-law fixer. With US politics in a somewhat explosive mode in 2020 election year, it feels like a shame that Roach didn’t feel the time was right to address the Trump-Giuliani axis in more detail, since their contribution to American life is still a hot issue.

Instead, we’re introduced to a selection of big tv names who are completely unknown outside of America; Host Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), departing matriarch Gretchen Karlson (Nicole Kidman) and composite ingénue Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Karlson is heading out the door, but willing to bring down the Fox News channel behind her; Kayla is the audience surrogate, a young woman being rapidly brought up to date on Fox News’s style, which is described in Charles Randolph’s script as pure sensation; news deliberately described in a way that would involve an aging parent. Kayla is also brought up to date on the way her boss Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) operates, and accepts that being a victim of sexual harassment may get her what she wants. But as Kayla and Gretchen begin to understand that their experiences are similar, it’s left to Megyn Kelly to confront her own past, connect the dots and uncover a systematic cover-up of loose morals and male domination.

Bombshell works as an expose of what happens when men call the shots; these women all look and sound like ball-breakers, but they’re denied anything but the illusion of agency by slavering men. Roach has a rep for this kind of work, with Recount and Game Change both managing a similar ripped-from-the-headlines approach. As an awards contender, Bombshell is pretty much hobbled by being a film written and directed by men about the importance of listening to women’s voices; one of the best lines mentions a Fox News harassment hotline, which is described as being as useful as a complaints-box in Nazi occupied France. But even if the punches are muted, there’s tonnes going on here and most of it is interesting, from Kate McKinnon’s suppressed lesbian to Malcolm MacDowell’s Rupert Murdoch, channelling late period Mick Travis as a journeyman who has travelled too far from his comfort zone.

Bombshell isn’t boring, but neither is it as explosive as yesterday’s news; the asides are more stimulating than the main plot, which is too schematic to fully land. A gross of nearly $30 million domestic proves that the public are interested, although whether minds are changes is a different matter. There will be better films about sexual-harassment, Fox News, Trump and Giuliani, but Bombshell is salacious enough to be going on with for now.

The Gentlemen 2020 *****

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As a critic, it’s always a surprise when the class clown turns good; Guy Ritchie has so far only troubled this blog in terms of the so-bad-it’s-good file of awful films, where King Arthur: Legend of the Sword sits proudly. Otherwise, there’s little to say about his dated brand of mockney gangster rubbish; Lock Stock and Snatch both had energy and style but haven’t stood the test of time since the Britpop era, while pastiches Rocknrolla and Revolver are beneath contempt. Otherwise, it’s anonymous journeyman stuff like Sherlock Holmes and Aladdin, so a new Guy Ritchie film is simply not an event for me.

Except The Gentlemen is Guy Ritchie’s best film by a long chalk. Perhaps the world has caught up with him; gentrification is very much a central theme here, and the flat-cap wearing new aristocrats featured are a far more convincing milieu that the jolly Dickensian street-urchins previously favoured. Crime, and knife-crime in particular, became part of British life as society has stratified along the fissures of class division, and The Gentleman manages to evoke both ghetto-ised council estates and posho country-house crims with some success.

Casting-wise, The Gentleman also sees Ritchie step up a few leagues. Mickey Pearson is the protagonist, attempting to sell off his cannabis-farming operation before it becomes legal under changing British law, and he’s played with genuine verve by Matthew McConaughey. As friends and enemies are drawn to Pearson’s attempted metamorphosis, his right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) finds himself blackmailed by tabloid hack Fletcher (Hugh Grant, no fan of the tabloid himself). Fletcher presents his proposition in the form of a film-screenplay, and this elegant device provides Ritchie with prime real estate in terms of switching the narrative goal-posts in an amusingly meta way. Henry Golding also makes an impression as Dry-Eye, and Colin Farrell brings in 50 shades of Martin McDonagh as a boy’s club mentor with a violent side. These are big name turns, introduced with some neat soundtrack flourishes, and pretty much all of them hit the mark, especially Grant’s funny, funny riff on Pinter-esque threat.

The Gentleman has been derided as Guy-Ritchie-by-numbers, but it’s anything but. For the first time, Ritchie has convincingly evoked several different echelons in the class system, and his ear for vernacular doesn’t let him down. This is a mature, amusing, deftly plotted and politically subversive film that has the narrative nous to have its cake and eat it. There are a few moments where Ritchie pushes the outrageous tone too far, but such gambles can be forgiven when the film just works, and The Gentleman purrs long like a vintage Jag on a crisp, asphalt driveway.

 

 

Seberg 2019 ****

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‘America is at war with black people,’ says activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) in Benedict Andrews’s Seberg, but he’s in the wrong movie here; on the evidence presented here, American was, and probably still is, at war with women. Jean Seberg’s life was not a happy one, and it’s a career that’s been lacking in prominence until now. Jean Seberg decided to use her fame for political ends, and came a cropper of the intelligence services, a series of events which makes her story well worth exhuming in 2020.

And the big news here is Kristen Stewart, an excellent actress and full-blown movie star, who puts everything into making Seberg, the character, into a three-dimensional, complex being. A seemingly chance encounter with Jamal on a flight encourages Seberg to use some of her pin-money for financing the Black Panthers, something that the film equates rather too easily with building children’s playgrounds. To allow us to see the complications of her actions, we have two FRI men on her tail, one a sexist, misogynist lump (Vince Vaughn), then other a younger, more impressionable figure (Jack O’Connell). Through the schism between the two men, we see how the issues divided Seberg’s tormentors; bugging her, harassing her and generally gas-lighting the star, it’s clear that their efforts get under her skin, and some kind of break-down seems inevitable.

Seberg had a distinctive look, and Stewart captures that. But what Stewart also goes after is a sense of agency in Seberg’s action, a longing for meaning and a frustration that her actions precipitate public humiliation in a way that, say, Marlon Brando’s did not. Like Harry Caul in The Conversation, Seberg is driven to distraction, destroying her own life in order to uncover the manner in which she’s being interfered with by the authorities. Stewart nails all this effectively; it’s a great performance in a film that reins in potential histrionics.

The presence of Margaret Qualley links Seberg to Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, another film dealing with an actress circa 1069. Those who squealed with disapproval at the lack of dialogue for Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate would so well to apply here; Seberg shows an actress full of complaint, and angry enough to articulate. The result, of course, is that the treatment of a hot topic means that Seberg will be one of the least seen of 2020’s awards hopefuls; Hollywood likes the idea of women more than it does the idea of listening to what they might have to say.

1917 **** 2019

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Sam Mendes dedicates his Golden Globe-winning epic war movie to a relative who told him stories of life on the front line; it’s a tribute aimed to stoke the flames of credibility. 1917 is a big, expansive war epic that doesn’t always work, but the final effect is substantial, exhausting and pretty effective.

Two Lance Corporals are summoned for a debrief; they’re to be sent on a mission to call off a military advance at a key moment in the trench warfare of WWI. George MacKay is Schofield, Dean-Charles Chapman is Blake, and Colin Firth barks out he orders that they have to follow. Blake’s brother is amongst the men who will be heading to certain death if the message doesn’t get through; the stakes are higher still, with thousands of lives potentially lost. The two soldiers are determined to get through, but obstacles are many and varied, and the odds increase as conditions deteriorate.

1917 lifts the one-shot aesthetic from ground-breaking German film Victoria, where the story was enacted in front of an unblinking camera-lens. 1917’s complex set-ups, with crashing planes and changes of light, entails a wealth of trickery to achieve a less substantial effect; it’s easy to see where passing figures wipe the frame. There’s also an issue whereby the technique seems to detract from the content; at times, 1917 resembles a thrill-ride, or at least a Call of Duty-style video game, toggling between cut-scene exposition and action on a number of distinct planes. Freedom of movement, fast, dramatic action and epic panoramas are all cool visuals, but it’s hard to imagine that many of those who died in WWI will have their stories encapsulated by such cinematic flourishes.

Dunkirk this is not; the you-are-there intensity does not return. And yet, Roger Deakins is a world-class cinematographer, and some of the images are truly arresting; a village reduced to the shells of buildings, glistening trip-wires, deadly to touch, a plane falling from the sky. And the film’s final sequence packs an enormous punch, as time runs out in intense style, leading to a dreamlike confusion. Whatever it’s flaws, and the roll-call of big-name British actors works against the realism of the film rather than for it, 1917 does emerge as a great war movie on the scale of All Quiet on the Western Front or The Longest Day. At a time when acts of war are seen as politically expedient get-outs, it’s worth taking one more sobering look at the obscenity of war.