The Old Man & the Gun 2018 ***

Robert Redford is a beloved actor who deserves a rousing send-off; director David Lowrey already have Redford a warm goodbye in the charming reboot of Pete’s Dragon, but crafts a more specific farewell with The Old Man & the Gun. Based on a true story, it’s the story of a ageing, mild-mannered bank-robber named Forrest Tucker, who just keeps on returning to the well, even though the cops (in the form of Casey Affleck) are on his trail. This is one of these films that treat beating the system as a triumph of the human spirit, and Tuckers’ exploits are presenting as a near harmless pursuit. Tom Waits and Danny Glover contribute some minor portraiture as two of the gang, and Redford has a  nice romantic line with Sissy Spacek. The Old Man & the Gun feels like it was deliberately constructed to remind audiences of Redford’s best work, from The Sting to Three Days of the Condor, and even though it ended up being overshadowed by Clint Eastwood’s The Mule at the Christmas box-office of 2018, it’s a fitting farewell to one of cinema’s titans.

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The Devil’s Rain 1976 ***

Not quite as much fun as the poster art suggest, Robert Fuest’s shambolic horror film is likely to confuse and repulse the unwary in its new life on Amazon. William Shatner brings all his acting talent to bear in the role of Mark Foster, who arrives at a small, deserted town on a mission to take on Corbis (Ernest Borngnine), a devil worshipper who may be the devil himself; a few shots of Borgnine with horns do little to blur the issue. A battle of wits ensue, with Ida Lupino, John Travolta, Edward Albert, Keenan Wynn and a number of other randoms looking unsure of their material before obliterated in a shower of special effects as the Devils Rain of the title causes everyone to melt. Fuest was a genre specialist (The Final Programme, two Dr Phibes films) but he was out of his depth with a variety of aging Hollywood stars slumming it in a C-grade movie. For cult completists, it is a lot of fun, and the mask used of Shatners face is the one later used for the killer in Halloween.

School for Scoundrels 1960 ***

While fairly tame even for 1960, School for Scoundrels is an interesting time-capsule that reveals quite a bit about British comedy and Britain before the swinging sixties got into full swing. Ian Carmichael plays Henry Palfrey, a decent chap who finishes last; Terry Thomas is ideal as Raymond Delaunay, the kind of bounder who always finishes first. Our hero attempts to learn the tricks of the trade by enrolling in the College of Lifemanship, where Alastair Sim is on hand to deal out lessons.  The contest between the men is on strictly misogynist lines; having the best car, winning at tennis and getting clothes off girls (namely Janet Scott) are the main objectives, and aside from a late and decidedly half-hearted climb-down, there’s no real analysis of whether cheating is acceptable or not. All the players are excellent, and Dennis Price has a great bit as a car salesman; if you can look past the cursory treatment of women, there’s a revealing picture of just how square a self-centred male culture could be.

Love Type D 2019 ****

‘Being unlucky in love is genetic’ runs the tag-line for Love Type D, a classy film from writer/director Sasha Collington. Her anti-rom-com tells the story of Frankie (Mauve Dermody), a young woman who is unlucky in love, or so she thinks. But an encounter with Dr Elsa Blomgren (Tovah Feldshuh) suggests otherwise; the tv specialist suggests that whether you are dumped or the dumper is a matter of genetic make-up, and with this fresh info, Frankie manages to convince the others who have been regularly dumped within her office to rise up and shake off the stigma of their genetic lottery by contacting their exes and dumping them en masse. Love Type D has the kind of simple high-concept that would suit a platform like Netflix; while not exactly probable, the light fantasy of the idea is enough to see the film through, with a few genuine laughs and none of the cringe-factor associated with low-budget rom-coms. By keeping her targets specific, and refusing to give into lazy genre clichés, Collington marks herself out as a talent to watch here.

When They See Us 2019 ****

The influence of the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three is immense; with digital film-making making it possible for true-life court cases to be examined, dramatized and even influenced through the media, it’s no surprise that true crime is almost as important to Netflix as a genre as rom-coms. Ava DuVernay’s When they See Us is a prestigious example of the form; a dramatization of events concerning the Central Park Five, it’s a glossy and compelling drama split into four sections, each roughly the length of a feature film. The first considers the night a white female jogger was raped in Central Park, and the forced confessions elicited from youths in the area that night. The second concerns itself with the court-case, with Vera Famiga contributing an awesome turn as a prosecution lawyer. The third focuses on the men trying to adjust when they get released from jail, and the fourth on the experience of Corey Wise, played with great power as both a boy and a man by Jharrel Jerome.  This is probably DuVernay’s best work to date, rarely hitting a false note and delivering a sobering account of how hidden but inherent racial prejudice can rob innocent people of their lives.  White audiences who like to imagine that race is a problem already solved may want to focus on how easily both law and media are bent out of shape by the rush to judgement here, a feeding frenzy fuelled by newspaper ads paid for by Donald Trump. But the big question is; why tell this story, and why now? Documentaries like Paradise Lost have influenced actual outcomes of court cases; the Central Park 5 were released some time ago, but the motivation behind When They See Us seems political; it’s surely no accident the June 2019 release coincides with the start of Donald Trump’s presidential re-election bid, and efforts to mobilise both black and white votes against him start here.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80200549?source=35

Sahara 2005 ***

Big-budget flops are par of the course of any cinematic season, but Sahara feels like something of a watershed moment; it might have been the franchise opener for a series of blockbusters featuring Clive Cussler’s character Dirk Pitt, played here with swashbuckling elan by Matthew McConaughey. But Breck Eisner’s film didn’t float many boats in 2015, which is a pity because it’s a fun is preposterous yarn. Presumably the books have less of the cheesy plotting here; watching Pitt rescue a damsel in distress via the World Health Organisation’s  Penelope Cruz, then spar with William H Macy over rescuing Africa from toxic waster spill, there’s a sense of white-saviour overdrive that never takes a break. But Sahara’s big action set pieces, great locations, rousing score and general old-school professionalism make it a nice alternative to the computer-generated murk that followed. If it’s the comedy relief that drags it down (Steve Zahn), Sahara has weathered the years far better than much of 2005 other offerings (Stealth, V for Vendetta, XXX State of the Union, Aeon Flux)

American Made 2017 ****

Is Tom Cruise still considered bankable in 2019 outside the Mission Impossible films? The relative box office failure of The Mummy and American Made in 2017 made it seem like Cruise had lost his touch, but while the Monsterverse entry was clearly a misfire, American Made sees the star at his best. Capably directed by Doug Liman, American Made casts Cruise as Barry Seal, an airline pilot who gets involved with drug smuggling. Liman’s film is in the vein of Goodfellas or Ted Demme’s Blow, a cautionary tale that’s brimming with enthusiasm for the details, true or false. Sequences such as Seal trying to navigate a too-short runway in a too heavy plane or a stomach-churning crash landing over a residential area are dynamically brought to life, and Cruise absolutely nails it as a cocky showman who realises he’s well out of his depth. American Made is a terrific film about crime and punishment, and never stops entertaining even as Seale’s life spirals out of control. And the politics, implicating several big names, are more direct than might be expected.