My Cousin Rachel 2017 ****

Rachel Weisz is the obvious and perfect candidate for the subject of Daphne du Maurier’s classic story, she’s perfected her wicked fairly god-mother routine in a number of films, and Roger Michell’s adaptation puts her centre stage. Phillip (Sam Clafin) has been raised by his older cousin, but when Ambrose dies overseas, his new wife Rachel returns to his country mansion. There’s ambiguity about Rachel’s’ intentions, does she desire Phillip, the estate, or both?  Clafin does a great job here as Phillip, managing to pin down the various stages of desire and denial as her wrestles with his feelings for his cousin, while Weisz delights in subverting expectations of who Rachel is and how she will act; the whole premise demands she maintains her ambiguity until the tragic ending,  and Weisz makes it stick. The production is suitable handsome but also atmospheric and deliberately dank; as Rachel’s scheme unwinds, the walls seem to close in on the innocent Phillip, and Michell milks the situation for every drop of cold-blooded drama.

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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.

Daphne 2017 ***

Peter Mackie Burns has long been one of the UK’s most interesting directors; his award-winning shorts promised much, but his first feature Come Closer had the most limited release possible.  From a script by Nico Mesinga, Daphne is an abrasive, telling portrait of a young woman, Daphne, as played by Emily Beecham. Working in a London restaurant, it’s clear that Daphne is capable of more, but turbulent relationships with men and drugs don’t help, and she feels stuck in a rut until witnessing a violent event changes her view on life. With strong support from Geraldine James as her mother, Beecham creates a vivid portrait of Daphne that sticks in the mind; she’s not without energy or ideas, but she’s short of the agency required to achieve them, and watching her wake up to her predicament makes for a gripping 90 mins.  This kind of character study used to be a regular feature of UK film and TV, but it’s become a lost art and Mackie Burns deserves credit for keeping the flag flying for observational, reality-based film-making that was a key part of the social resence of the BBC in the 70’s and Channel 4 in the 80’s.

Wise Blood 1979 *****

John Huston’s final film was one of the best of a legendary career; The Dead was a brilliant adaptation of James Joyce’s short story. But 1979’s Wise Blood, an adaptation of one of Flannery O’Connor’s two books, is every bit as well-drawn, and considerably more ambitious. A young man named Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) arrives in a Deep South city from an unspecified war, only to be identified by his hat and neat clothes as a preacher. Motes is anything but holy, shacked up with a prostitute and without much love for his fellow man. After meeting a fake-preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter (Amy Wright), Motes decides to become a self-styled evangelist, and forms his own Church of Christ without Christ. Dan Shor (Ram from Tron) is a devotee of Motes’ teaching, but a chance encounter with a mummified museum piece and a man in a gorilla suit send him in a different direction. Wise Blood is an allegory, but of a wry and intelligent kind that’s peppered with memorable moments and scenes, impeccably played and with a terrific score by Alex North. Huston’s later output is often seen as self-indulgent, but Wise Blood is a great film for the ages.

Maniac 2018 *****

maniac-netflix-e1537802469399Netflix’s promotional campaign for Maniac didn’t make much of it being based on a Norwegian tv show; indeed, despite the star power of Jonah Hill and Emma Stone in the leads, it’s pretty hard to describe Maniac at all; it’s a multiple-story drama that slips in and out of different realities in a way that’s reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s metafictional If On A Winter’s Night, a Traveller. The set up is that Annie (Stone) and Owen (Hill) meet when taking part in a pharmaceutical experiment into dreams; run by the untrustworthy Dr Mantleray (Justin Theroux) the motives of the Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech are hard to discern, but Annie and Owen have little time for looking at the bigger picture when they are thrust into different scenarios, including a shaggy dog story about a missing lemur, a fantasy sequence in a Game of Thrones style, and a 1940’s adventure in which they are con-artists at a séance attempting to discover a magical missing chapter from Don Quixote. Surprisingly erudite and literary, Patrick Somerville’s creation is constantly entertaining, and is given a wonderfully modern sheen by Cary Fukunega, making him an ideal choice to shake up a stale Bond franchise. Everyone concerned with Maniac, down to support from Gabriel Byrne and Sally Field, aces their contribution in an innovative, revolutionary television show that puts most films to shame and is the best reason for a permanent Netflix subscription to date.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80124522?source=35

Hearts Beat Loud 2018 ***

Nick Offerman has plenty to offer as an actor; his character in Parks and Recreation had a layer of officious stiffness that he shrugs off nicely as the cool and funky dad of Sam (Kiersey Clemons), a teenage girl about to go to college. Her dad’s life is music, owning and closing Red Hook’s best record shop and playing the guitar at home. He’s still in mourning for Sam’s mother, killed in a cycling accident. The gentle pace is key here, allowing the music in the film to breathe, as do support turns from Toni Collette, Ted Danson and Blythe Danner. Hearts Beats Loud deals cautiously and lightly with bigger topics, before doubling down on the father-daughter relationship. Creating music that fits the story well is Keegan deWitt, who makes the characters’ enthusiasm for music feel understandable. Hearts Beat Loud has got the simplicity of a good short film, and the music fills the cracks and makes it fly.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80240679

Song of Sway Lake 2017 ****

Rory-Culkin-and-Robert-Sheehan-in-the-Song-of-Sway-Lake.tif-832x350Writer and director Ari Gold fashions an excellent, thoughtful indie flick in Song of Sway Lake, a melancholy but sweet rumination on life, love and death. Ollie (Rory Culkin) and his unpredictable assistant Nikolai (Robert Sheehan) head to Ollie’s family home in the hope of liberating a rare record with a high resale value. Nikolai’s presence disturbs something in Charlie (The Good Wife’s Mary Beth Peil), and revives some family secrets. Brian Dennehy also features in some flashback scenes; Gold’s film isn’t nostalgia, but a consideration of the complex relationship between past and future. The performances are uniformly strong, and the film’s mood of poetic and lyrical at times. Song of Sway Lake is the kind of minor indie film that lacks a sensational selling point; it’s also the kind of adult fare that’s increasingly rare and well worth seeking out on streaming services.