True Romance 1992 *****

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The late Tony Scott was something of a cinematic powerhouse, whose work was consistently underrated; a note on his Wikipedia page says that after The Hunger, he stopped reading the vitriolic reviews his film inspired. Most of these critics are long gone now, but Scott’s canon endures; hits like Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State are all better than average blockbusters, but his other works are remarkable in their consistency; Revenge, The Last Boy Scout, Man on Fire or Unstoppable would be highlights in any director’s resume, whether they appeased the public or not. His best film was a flop; 1992’s True Romance gave Scott a super-hot script, and he did it proud; Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are ideal as Clarence and Alabama, young newly-weds who scram from snowy Detroit to sunny LA after he romantically murders her pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman under dreadlocks and prosthetics). All kinds of talent are shown to their best advantage here, from Bronson Pinochet’s coke-addled flunky to Brad Pitt’s avuncular stoner Floyd via James Gandolfini’s memorable thug. Scott creates the requisite tension, but also creates two vibrant, dynamic worlds for his characters to inhabit. And at the centre is one of cinema’s greatest scenes; a confrontation between Clarence’s cop father Clifford (Dennis Hopper) and mobster Cocotti (Christopher Walken). Two experienced actors with some great dialogue; Scott gets the best out of them as Cocotti’s threats raise Clifford’s awareness of his predicament. From the moment Clifford accepts his last cigarette, the dynamics of the scene change and it becomes a meditation on defiance in the face of death. Ridley Scott has given interviews regarding the family history of cancer which throw some light on his brother’s suicide; Scott’s elegiac handling of True Romance’s highpoint throws further illumination. Unfairly derided as a man who placed style over content, Tony Scott was in the deep end while most directors were just splashing in the shallows.

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The Unbelievable Truth 1989 ***

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Hal Hartley is an American auteur whose best work deserves better than being dropped into a dusty oubliette. Before the highs of Amateur and Henry Fool, his debut The Unbelievable Truth features a simple story, careful performances, a delicate air of comedy and drama, and a number of other elements rarely seen in US indie cinema until the rise of mumblecore. Audry (Adrienne Shelly) lives in a small town, and she’s just broken up with her boyfriend. Josh (Robert John Burke) arrives with charm to burn, but also a dubious reputation; he’s just out of jail, and various whispers suggest he not only killed his girlfriend, but her father too. The truth, of course, is rather more believable than that, but Hartley’s film neatly dovetails the stripping away of the lies about Josh with Audry’s modelling career, which seems to involve fewer clothes with each gig. Popping up on Amazon streaming services might bring Hartley’s offbeat approach to a new audience; his use of space and silence is somewhat refreshing in today’s post MTV world, and The Unbelievable Truth shows the strength of the US indie scene before the Tarantinos and Soderberghs arrive to shake things up.

Driven 2018 *****

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History has probably judged John DeLorean harshly; by 2019’s standards of corrupt behaviour, he looks like he had an integrity that today’s business leaders lack. Most industrialists, faced with a loss-making plant going bankrupt, automatically drain the pension fund into their personal accounts and set sail on the nearest yacht with a bevy of idiot models. DeLorean’s response was to try and save his Northern Ireland plant, and the workers’ jobs, by engineering a massive cocaine deal; not good behaviour, but it’s hard to argue that the great man didn’t put himself on the line big time to keep the dream alive. The delayed release of Nick Hamm’s drama on the subject doesn’t suggest good things, but it’s more likely that that comedy/drama tone has flummoxed bean-counters; Jason Sudeikis plays Jim Hoffman, a dubious character who finds himself living next-door to DeLorean, played with charisma levels set to overload by Lee Pace. DeLorean dreams of making a wonder car; ‘Your flying car doesn’t fly,’ someone unhelpfully points out, and Hamm’s film makes a point of exposing DeLorean as a fraud, but also refashions him as a hero. This is a Great Gatsby for the 1980’s, with Jim as a venal Nick Carraway, swept to the side-lines in the wake of DeLorean’s passage. ‘You’re not a bad man, you’re just an idiot,’ says Jim’s wife Ellen (Judy Greer), and Sudeikis correctly plays Jim broadly as a buffoon. Meanwhile, Pace does a phenomenal job of bringing DeLorean to life, railing about the detail of business copyrights, sulking about losing Ping Pong matches and generally being the man-child that most men aspire to be. The famous car is largely left off-screen, apart for a perfect, wry coda; Driven is a very entertaining film that should find a big audience on streaming; Back to The Future fans, petrol-heads and true-crime aficionados will find plenty here to draw them in, not lead Pace’s mesmerising performance.

https://www.amazon.com/Driven-Jason-Sudeikis/dp/B07VY9VY1T/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=driven&qid=1566234502&s=gateway&sr=8-1

Childless 2008 ****

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Another entry in the growing file of vanished films; writer/director Charlie Levi’s film Childless gained some traction on the film festival circuit and won a few friends in 2018. In 2015, it snuck out on limited release, yet somehow there’s no actual reviews on the imdb page from professional critics or members of the public. Barbara Hershey leads an impressive cast including Mamet regular Joe Mantegna, Diane Verona and James Naughton; the subject is dark, sure, not for everyone, but the acting is top notch in this depiction of parents struggling to deal with the loss of daughter Katherine (Natalie Dreyfuss). Hershey in particular is blistering; when given the chance (The Entity, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Last Temptation of Christ), she rules the screen, and the straight-to-camera styling here allows her and all the actors the chance to shine. Levi dares to find dark humour in this situation; coming from one of the producers of In The Bedroom, this is a fresh and original take on superficially similar material. Childless now pops up on Amazon Prime in the US, essentially free to view for anyone with a subscription. It’s a minor gem of a film that had little or no fanfare, but is deserving of both an audience and a critical reassessment. Attempting to plug films like this into an audience is one of the purposes of this blog; how else are viewers going to know these films exist?

https://www.amazon.com/Childless-Barbara-Hershey/dp/B010O7UXU0/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=childless+film&qid=1564832003&s=gateway&sr=8-2

The Last Photograph 2017 ****

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Danny Huston’s CV runs from cigar-chewing villain in the first Wolverine spin-off to his outstanding performance in Bernard Rose’s Ivans Xtc. He’s hardly a prolific director, but his work in front of and behind the camera in The Last Photograph is impeccable. What’s near criminal here is that aside from a handful of festival screenings, his 2017 film The Last Photograph is pretty much invisible; there’s no user reviews on imdb, and not even a single-line Wikipedia entry for it. Perhaps there are reasons, but it’s not any reflection on the film-making. Huston plays Tom Hammond, a book-shop owner struggling to forget the death of his son, one of many casualties of the terrorist attack on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1998. When a book is stolen from his shop, containing a photograph that connects Hammond to his son, it awakens memories of the night in question, and a search for justice that’s been suspended. Huston is immense in this role, angry, grieving, but without an outlet; as a director, he’s sensitive to the portrayal of a complex, nuanced character. The real-life tragedy referenced here is well-handled, with newsreel footage mixed with the film’s narrative in a non-exploitative way. The subject of The Last Photograph appears taboo; few dramas have explored Lockerbie, and perhaps that’s why The Last Photograph appears to have been obliterated by market forces; this is the kind of film that deserves a second wind through streaming services, and it’s a shame that it’s so hard to locate. Maybe Huston’s pay the rent job in –yikes- the unanticipated Angel Has Fallen will cash him up for self-distribution and get this worthwhile film out there.

The Best of Dorien B 2019 ****

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The title comes from a ancient mix CD that Dorien (Kim Snauwaert) plays in her car to her children, who are none too impressed by their mother’s music. It’s one of a number of caustic scenes in this accomplished first feature from Anke Blondé, a Belgian film with dialogue in Dutch. Dorien’s problems are recognisable enough; her husband Jeroen (Jelle De Beule) is charming, but he’s had an affair and enjoys the company of other women in his workplace. Infidelity is an issue; Dorien’s mother has been cheating on her father, and moves in with Dorien’s family, to her distress. Dorien herself is contemplating an affair with an old acquaintance. And her veterinarian practice, which she inherited from her father, pushes her in directions she doesn’t want to do; she doesn’t like dealing with horses. Dorien is in need of a change; things just aren’t working out for her as they stand. All these problems are dealt with in some way by the narrative here; the screenplay is acerbic, and there’s a few blistering scenes, such as a parents evening that takes an unexpected turn. And Dorein’s martial arts ability takes another scene in an unexpected direction. The Best of Dorien B. is the kind of thoughtful, intelligent film that critics are keen to describe as promising, or that Blondé is ‘one to watch’; the point here is that The Best of Dorien B. is an excellent film in its own right, and not just as a harbinger of something better to come. Snauwaert is terrific in a film that gets right under the skin of the central character, and the punch-line is uncontrived. This kind of careful, observational film is increasingly rare; watch Dorien B. and ask yourself when you last saw a British or American film so in tune to a female central character. British audiences might hark back to Carla Lane’s much loved 1980’s tv show Butterflies, which had a similarly sympathetic, acerbic view of motherhood, but Blondé’s film doesn’t need comparisons; like the central character, it’s got a vibe of its own.

White Dog 1981 ***

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A late entry in Samuel Fuller’s resume, White Dog is a film about racism that doesn’t shirk tricky issues; questions of nature versus nurture are raised and not easily dismissed. Based on a book by Romain Gray, a French writer who once challenged Clint Eastwood to a duel (Eastwood declined), this project was adapted by Fuller and Curtis Hanson with fairly explosive results. White Dog is the story of a black dog trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) who tries to retrain a stray dog that has been trained to attack black people. Whether it’s possible for the animal to overcome it’s racially-based training or not, Fuller advances a strong metaphor for the dog representing racial hatred, and Keys obsessively trying to break down ingrained programming. For various reasons, White Dog was barely seen on release, and a welcome return on streaming should allow cineastes the chance to enjoy the photography of Bruce Surtees and the score by Ennio Morricone. White Dog has begun to amass some critical momentum as an controversial and original take on a hot subject, and hopefully it’s availability on streaming for the price of a cup of coffee may lead it to the audience it deserved but didn’t get back in 1981. Kirsty McNichol and Burl Ives provide strong support.