Busting 1974 ****


Peter Hyams is a director with quite a body of big-budget studio work behind him, from Capricorn One to Outland; a hit tv movie sent him on a six month research spree at the LAPD and led to his writing and directing this early work, a strikingly small-scale and down-at-heel view of police-work. Elliott Gould, sporting a handlebar moustache, and Robert Blake are the cops who shake-down various low-lives on their way to confrontation with gangster Rizzi (Allen Garfield). An early scene in which the cops enjoy the beating up of men in a gay bar sets the unpleasant tone, but that scabrous honesty is what Busting is about; post MASH and throughout the 70’s, there was a general enthusiasm for depicting the moral confusion and general squalor of life, and the nihilistic workings of the police force made an ideal cross-section in films like Fuzz or The Choirboys. Hyams supercharges his story with a couple of stunning foot-chases, one leading into a brutal market gunfight, and the leads are just right for the abrasive feel. Busting was the kind of US import the BBC used to cheerfully show on a Sunday evening; in portraying life as a steaming cess-pit of prostitution, homophobia and general degradation, Busting lays the old, familiar story out before television and Starsky and Hutch in particular, could sanitize it for resale.



The Mule 2018 ***

Clint Eastwood’s illustrious career deserves several swan-songs; both Gran Torino and Trouble With The Curve purported to be goodbyes, but The Mule, which sees Eastwood produce, direct and star at the age of 88, gets the job done. It’s astonishing to think that the actor seen in 1955’s Revenge of the Creature is till going strong enough in 2019 to pull a project like this together, and make $100 million Stateside to boot. The Mule cannily plays off the Eastwood legend; there is violence here, but not instigated by Eastwood’s character Leo Sharp, a widower with a penchant for gardening and flowers, and need of a few bucks for his family. Nick Shrenk (Gran Torino) turns in a spry script that plays down the morality of a WWII vet running drugs, and plays up the ‘can-you-believe-this?’ angle, with Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena ideal as the incredulous lawmen on Sharp’s trail.  Throw in a couple of threesomes into the mix, plus having his camera ogle some of the female characters feel unnecessary, but at his age, it’s hard not to indulge Eastwood such grace notes; The Mule is quite a way to go.

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.

Diego Maradona 2019 ***

Asif Kapadia returns to the super-doc format that brought us Senna and his Amy Winehouse film; football fans who saw the infamous 1986 Argentina-England ‘hand of god’ game couldn’t be blamed for thinking Maradona was more twit than talent. As a prostitute-banging, coke-snorting egomaniac cheat, Maradona doesn’t offer much as someone to hero-worship; this film starts with him heading to Naples in 1984, wowing the locals and crime-bosses alike, and then Kapadia positions the Argentina vs Italy 1990 World Cup match in the same city as the moment that the Italian public, and much of the world, turned against him. It’s interesting to see Maradona sporting a ‘man fur’ ie a Doris Day-style fur coat, and there’s some slabs of vapour-wave music to capture the 80’s theme. But it’s not a complete picture, nor a particularly deep one, and there’s also a big problem. Football isn’t filmed, it’s captured on tv, and when you blow tv footage up to cinema screens, it looks like dirt. If Maradona has any fans left, this doc may be an eye-opener, but in lieu of any new information, the unfortunate fact remains that Maradona is best known today as an unscrupulous cheat rather than a sporting god.

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.


Inherent Vice 2014 ***


Like an episode of The Rockford Files directed by surrealist master Alexandro Joderowsky, PT Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s book makes a good fist of bringing a very tricky narrative to life. In a performance along the same tracks as Elliot Gould’s shambling Phillip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, Joaquin Phoenix plays Larry Doc Sportello, a detective on the trails of the Golden Dragon crime ring in 1970’s California, running across oddballs including Reece Witherspoon as a socialite, Martin Short as a perverted dentist and Josh Brolin as a policeman who moonlight as an actor and goes spectacularly off the rails when Sportello dodges a series of lethal situations. As wonderfully all-over-the-place as its hero, Inherent Vice is arrestingly slow, atmospheric in counter-culture detail and will induce meltdowns for anyone looking for a good story, briskly told. A running joke in which Sportello’s notes are revealed as amusingly deficient quickly drops the hint that the fun is in the salty details, not what they add up to.