Donnie Darko

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Director

Richard Kelly

Starring

  • Jake Gyllenhaal
  • Jena Malone
  • Mary McDonnell
  • Holmes Osborne
  • Katharine Ross
  • Beth Grant
  • Patrick Swayze
  • Drew Barrymore
  • Noah Wyle
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Seth Rogen

A genuine cult film that defies being boxed into a specific genre, Donnie Darko is a mind bending film, that’s layered with thematic material, a biting edge and eerie ambience galore.

Donnie Darko(Jake Gyllenhaal) is a suburban teenager in the 1988 who is prone to sleepwalking and disturbing thoughts. He’s a charismatic, smart but troubled young man who seems to delight in challenging authority whenever he can. His parents ( Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne) and sisters (one being Gyllenhaal’s real sister Maggie) are confused by him and don’t know how to react to him. On medication to combat his anti-social behaviour towards others and what is seen as paranoid schizophrenia , he one night starts hearing a voice telling him to come outside. Once he gets there, he discovers the voice comes from a frightening looking, six-foot tall rabbit named Frank. He is informed that in twenty-eight days, six hours, forty-two minutes and twelve seconds, the world will end. After waking up far from his house, once he returns he finds that a jet engine crashed into his bedroom. This further highlights the weirdness in Donnie’s life and functions as another indicator of potential doom for everyone. Donnie starts to attend a psychotherapist(Katharine Ross), who tries to fathom what’s going on in Donnie’s mind, but has extreme difficulty opening it up. Most adults seem to act unusually around Donnie, which aids his further alienation from life. Some however seem to understand like the rebellious English teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), her boyfriend/ fellow professor of science Kenneth Monnitoff( Noah Wyle)and new girl Gretchen( Jena Malone). But then there is the over zealous and devout gym teacher Kitty Farmer(Beth Grant) who is buttoned and wants everyone to follow her lead and slimy motivational speaker Jim Cunningham( Patrick Swayze). As Donnie’s doomsday visions become more frequent and he is driven to commit violent acts by the spooky rabbit, Frank’s mention of time travel sends his mind reeling about what the visions represent. Picking up a book from his professor on the subject, Donnie dives into discovering how he fits into this apocalyptic vision. Is the world really going to end? And if so, what is Donnie supposed to do to stop it?

Richard Kelly made his debut with this film and though his output since has been mixed( though I did like the often maligned and misunderstood The Box), at least he can be remembered for creating this iconic and complex movie. Kelly transports us into the strange world of teenage years and what was going on in the 80’s, but amps it up with the theme of time travel and cause and effect. You just know from the question raising opening that you’re in store for something very unusual and far from conventional. The script, written by Kelly,  is unnerving, caustically funny and highly imaginative, which is a bonus for someone who enjoys all those things when done right . It fleshes out a mystery in the film and creates a fine character in the form of the title anti-hero. He’s disturbed there’s no doubt about it, but he speaks quite a lot of sense when others won’t. And at first we aren’t sure whether what he sees are hallucinations or not, but you definitely know they point to something extremely ominous in the future for everyone. Coming of age is a big theme here and one can view the film as an analogy of puberty and adolescence, as it’s often a time associated with change and something pulling us in a specific direction. And the countdown motif telling us how many days until Armageddon is a real nerve shaker.

Believe me, you’ll find yourself thinking about Donnie Darko a lot after viewing it. The enigmatic story which has a lot of layers and ideas on its mind engages the brain, but refuses to give cheap, easy answers. It’s too smart for that and instead functions as ambiguous and challenging. Whichever angle you want to view the film from, there is something here for everyone to sink their teeth into and think of their interpretation of it all. You can see it as a biting satire in suburbia and conformity, with the disturbed Donnie being the one who fights back against it, coupled with social drama. Or as a sci-fi flick about time travel and how events play out differently because of change. I’d say the film is both of these things and that’s partly why I love it so much. It plays by its own rules and doesn’t try to be like everything else, something which I applaud. I mean you know a film is challenging and complex when there are thousands of websites dedicated to deciphering the many meanings of it. From a visual standpoint, Donnie Darko is extremely atmospheric and immersive thanks to creative camerawork such as slow zooming shots and a gloomy yet strangely majestic colour in cinematography, occasionally punctuated by brightness. Music plays a key role in Donnie Darko; exemplified by the 80’s heavy soundtrack( filled with Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen and Joy Division) and unusual, distorted thumping of the score that keeps going with alarming intention. One of the best uses of music is the cover of ‘Mad World’ which is stripped back and haunting as it plays over panning shots of all the people impacted by Donnie in a masterful sequence.

In the role that really announced him as a major acting talent, Jake Gyllenhaal is simply put excellent as the main protagonist. He has to go through so many changing emotions, often very quickly and he does it all without missing a beat. The sly, sardonic smile that reveals his disdain for others, the intense stare of alienation and disillusionment and a certain nuance to the mercurial mood swings are all embodied to a strangely charismatic height by the greatness of Gyllenhaal. It is the definition of a star-making role that Gyllenhaal made the most of and clearly shows him as one of the best actors of his generation. Jena Malone boasts a haunting quality as his love interest, who wrestles with her own demons during the course of the movie. Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne both make impressions as Donnie’s parents who are bewildered and bemused by his behaviour, as does Katharine Ross as his psychotherapist. A major standout is the scene-stealing Beth Grant. Playing someone whose vicious, unapologetic antagonism is disguised as righteousness is both a hoot and something alarming. She scolds, lectures but never seems to be able to understand others thanks to her bigoted ways and watching her come apart, especially as a result of Donnie, is a sight to behold. And also really standing out is Patrick Swayze; filtering his natural charm offensive into something more charlatan and far from what it first appears. It’s one of the most interesting and different roles Swayze ever took and it shows off his considerable talent. Drew Barrymore has the right rebellious but dedicated attitude for her part of a teacher, persecuted for trying to engage with her students in a way that contrasts with the conservative approach of others. Ably supporting that feeling of challenging conformity is Noah Wyle, who opens Donnie up to the idea of time travel. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her present felt, with her sparring and jabs at her brother and especially in the later half in emotional fashion. Plus, look out for an early role from Seth Rogen.

A hypnotic, unusual and engaging story of creepy certainty and eerie atmosphere, twined with fine acting and ambiguity, Donnie Darko is simply a must see.

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Sorry for my absence

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I’ve been so busy lately, that I’ve neglected blogging. I’m sorry for this everyone and promise to be back soon. You know how life can get so busy at times. But I’ll be back from today and I’ll make sure to catch up on everything.

Why I Love Murder, She Wrote

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I was asked to write a piece by the lovely Gill for her blogathon on Angela Lansbury . I too adore Angela Lansbury and wanted to highlight this by writing about why I love Murder, She Wrote. I’m happy to do this tribute to such a national treasure and mainstay in movies and television.

Here are the reasons why I love Murder, She Wrote:

1. Of Course it has to be Angela Lansbury:

The biggest reason the show is so effective and entertaining is the incomparable Angela Lansbury at the centre of it. She’s the perfect choice for the role of amateur sleuth and successful crime writer Jessica Fletcher. She blends observational tendencies, gentle humour and moments of deep strength to form this beloved woman who has a nose for murder. Lansbury is so good that it’s impossibke to imagine anyone  else playing the part. I just love how radiant but firm she is and how she is a likeable character. It wouldn’t be successful without the talent of Lansbury.

2. There’s a certain level of coziness to it:

Now that may sound strange considering the show is about someone solving murders, but please let me elaborate. While the content of the show is Jessica attempting to unearth murderers, it has a lightness of touch to it. It’s not dour and overly serious, but rather. Yet it does have strong emotional moments in it, it’s the episodic nature and knowledge that Jessica will succeed in her sleuthing that really makes Murder, She Wrote.

3. The vast array of guest stars:

Sometimes watching Murder, She Wrote is like playing spot the celebrity, given the amount of famous guest stars that have featured on it. From seasoned pros of Old Hollywood to stars just on the cusp of recognition, Murder, She Wrote has them in spades. You’ll be surprised how many big stars had early roles on this show.

But the biggest reason of all is Angela Lansbury who’s incomparable.

 

The Mule

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Director

Clint Eastwood

Starring

  • Clint Eastwood as Earl Stone
  • Dianne Wiest as Mary
  • Bradley Cooper as Colin Bates
  • Michael Peña as Trevino
  • Laurence Fishburne as Head of DEA
  • Taissa Farmiga as Ginny
  • Alison Eastwood as Iris
  • Andy Garcia as Laton

Clint Eastwood directs and steps in front of the camera once more with The Mule, which takes basis from a true story of an elderly man who was an unlikely drugs mule for a cartel. With it being Eastwood there is undoubtedly talent here and good spots. The trouble is The Mule stumbles in the mid section and I can’t help but feel it could have been better than it was.

Earl Stone is a 90-year-old horticulturist who has seen better days. He’s become bitter and out of sync with society. His business is approaching foreclosure and after being so neglectful of his family, most of them have shunned him and his wife Mary has divorced him. His granddaughter Ginny hasn’t turned her back on him and invites him to her engagement party. It’s at the party that someone gives Earl a tip-off of a job where all he needs to do is drive. Desperate, Earl accepts, little realising that he’s becoming a drugs mule. Even when he does discover what he’s transporting, he asks no questions as he is so in need of the cash. With the money he gets from each job, he tries to make amends with people he’s wronged in the past and attempts to build more bridges with his estranged family. This goes very well and his efficiency in the job earns him some respect in the cartel community, particularly the head honcho. But the DEA is trying to crack down on drug smuggling and a transportation in Illinois and as headed by the purposeful Colin Bates, they aren’t going to stop until they reach the source of the illegal acts. Earl keeps going with the job, slowly coming to see the darkness he has put himself in. Yet as the DEA closes in and the cartel start to fight amongst each other, Earl is stuck firmly in the middle of what could be a very dangerous situation.

Clint Eastwood brings his usual professional sheen to the film and focuses on characters, primarily Earl. Character development of the titular mule is what this film does well. I especially though there was poignancy to the fact that Earl feels so out-of-place in a technical, modern world that he doesn’t understand. That was one thing that came through loud and clear when watching The Mule. Not all of Eastwood’s decision behind the camera pay off, for starters the film runs too long and falters in the middle part. But his sophistication and handling of the main narrative is excellent and provides at least some emotional tie. If anything’s to blame for The Mule not being an overall excellent movie, it’s the script. Although it does bring out moments of dramatic worth, I need felt it all came together clearly or pleasingly enough. Having the other story of the DEA dragged a lot and didn’t feel not nearly as compelling as watching Earl slowly make attempts at redemption while he goes along on this dangerous ride . And though The Mule has its share of humour and lightness, the middle part where Earl sees the corrupt but intriguing wealth of drug dealers doesn’t quite sit right with the rest of the film. It only is really there to show what while he’s old, he’s still got some rascal about him with the ladies and can still have a good time. This isn’t to say that The Mule is a terrible movie( it’s actually quite good but flawed in execution), I just expected a bit more from it. I’m firmly on the fence with this offering from Eastwood, but his undeniable talent is still alive which I’m grateful for. Once seriousness kicks in, the last half of The Mule redeems quite a number of the foibles that so ruined the earlier parts. It’s here when we get the weight and emotional heft of a man coming to terms with what he’s done and these are the best moments. Eastwood’s love of jazz is prevalent too, using any opportunity he can to indulge us with melodies.

Clint Eastwood can do the grumpy, old guy act in his sleep and he portrays something akin to that here. But being Eastwood, it’s not just cut and dry. He inserts charm, humour and sadness into the character often with just a look or movement of eyes. The character is morally complex and flawed, which Eastwood is adept at bringing forth here and throughout his career. And credit to the guy, he’s 88 and still going strong, even if he’s made to look more frail and weathered here than he actually is. He’s one of the biggest assets going in The Mule and of the best things in it. In yer,s of acting, Eastwood is given the most to do. Dianne Wiest makes the most of her role as the ex-wife who still can’t shake him, despite vehement arguments that she is fine alone. Her scenes with Eastwood really have an emotional hook to them that both play beautifully. On the other hand Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña and Laurence Fishburne are all underused as DEA agents closing on the cartel. All three are great actors, but they aren’t provided with sufficient meat to savour on and make them memorable in this flick. Taissa Farmiga does what she can with her role as the only person who seems to see the good in her flawed Grandfather, while Alison Eastwood(Clint’s actual daughter) has her moments reconnecting with her estranged father that hit hard. In a brief part, Andy Garcia is highly entertaining as the cartel boss with flamboyant style.

Immensely uneven but definitely watchable, The Mule is a mixed offering from Clint Eastwood. I’m firmly in the middle in my opinion, but I can’t deny that Eastwood’s still got it, even when the work is minor and not quite a pitch on his more successful films.

R.I.P Albert Finney

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I just saw the sad news that actor Albert Finney has passed away at the age of 82. One of cinema’s original angry young men, he went on to have an illustrious and variety filled career, highlighted by work in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘Tom Jones’. I always found him to be a fine presence on screen and the news of his death saddens me. May the great Albert Finney rest in peace.

Xena: Warrior Princess Season 2

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‘Following on from the successful first season, Season 2 of Xena: Warrior Princess expands on the building blocks created and crafts more mythology and eventfulness for us all to enjoy. It’s safe to say that Season 2 is full of quality and more opening up of narrative

Xena(Lucy Lawless) continues journeying through Ancient Greece with loyal best friend Gabrielle(Renée O’Connor). She is still on her quest for redemption for the bloody actions she caused and the suffering she inflicted on others. On her journey this time, the past is opened up once more as we learn about Xena’s past and why she did what she did. We see that she gave birth to a son named Solan, who she gave to the centaurs to raise and the difficulty she has to live with in letting her child go. Joxer(Ted Raimi), the wannabe warrior is back and journeys with the duo with his own mix of bumbling misfortune and complete lack of understanding that he isn’t skilled at all in combat. Callisto( Hudson Leick) returns to wreck vengeance on Xena and undergoes a number of transformations while destroying all she can around her. Many more enemies and familiar faces return, along with some newer ones. Let’s just say it’s eventful for Xena and company in their testing travels.

One of the biggest things to discuss with Season 2 is how everything seems a little more crisp and you can see that the budget has been upped and that every bit of money is on screen to relish. Some effects have lost a bit of edge, but the vast majority handsomely hold up. But most importantly is something that happened behind the scenes that had the greatest impact on Xena. Lucy Lawless, while filming a skit for the Jay Leno Show, fell from a horse and fractured her pelvis. With the second season in production, the producers and writers had to think of a way to accommodate the main star. They settled on a body swap between Xena and Callisto, which worked surprisingly well. Also there are episodes where Xena is incapacitated. It all could have been a jumble, but thankfully it is quite seamlessly done and the improvisation and quick thinking on the producer’s part is ace. Watching Lucy Lawless and Hudson Leick play versions of the other as is the return of Kevin Smith as the smooth Ares.

My further discussions of main standout  episodes is next and there are a good few to discuss. The opener entitled ‘Orphan of War’ delves into Xena’s internal scars as we witness her protecting the son she gave up years before, but doesn’t tell him that she is his mother for fear of something bad befalling him. It is an episode that really shows the woman underneath the warrior and how she is human after all, when not being the fierce fighter we all know her as. A fun episode and one of the best that blends both a creepiness and campiness are ‘Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun’. In it, Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer search for missing girls who have been kidnapped by Bacchae; bloodthirsty followers of the God Bacchus. They bite the necks of victims and seductively lure them to the catacombs of their master, where the victim must drink his blood to become an irreversible Bacchae. Gabrielle is pulled into this and is turned into a temporary Bacchae, which results in her biting Xena( pushing the subtext of them being romantically linked in a very suggestive way). It’s a very intriguing and atmospheric episode with a slinky techno score and a highly kinetic visual style. This involves frantic point of view shots, fast motion followed by slow motion and multitudes of overlapping images. It all culminates in a darkly sexy and tongue in cheek episode to really sink your teeth into.

‘Return of Callisto’ is another highlight as it brings back a fine nemesis. She kills the man who Gabrielle marries, who she could have been happy with. If anything, Callisto does us a favour as  it allows us to see that Gabrielle when pushed could have a darker side to her than expected. Although she comes to her senses, it sets up that maybe Gabrielle could be swayed to evil just as Xena is tempted often. Added to this is a brutal chariot race and Callisto seemingly dying by being pulled under by quicksand. Obviously, she isn’t dead and comes back even more vengeful later, setting the stage for much drama. A very meta episode appears in ‘The Xena Scrolls’, which has 1940’s descendants of the main characters searching for the fabled title artefact.  It’s hugely entertaining as it has fun the mythology of the show and has the actors portraying varying personas. It’s like an Indiana Jones adventure twinned with cheeky humour for extra, knowing measure.

Of special mention is ‘Destiny’, which stands as one of my favourite episodes so far. In it, Xena’s life hangs in the balance after being injured in battle. As she hovers precariously between life and death, she is reminded of her past and we finally get some answers on what made her who she was. We’ve heard parts about what lead her to be the destroyer of nations, but now we get the full picture. After her home village was butchered by a ruthless warlord, Xena took to fighting. But even though it started good, she grew evil from all the power she had. After becoming a feared warrior, she entered into a relationship with the brash Julius Caesar(a sneering Karl Urban). He accommodated Xena and their collective desires for power grew. But crafty Caesar betrayed and had her crucified, her legs broken and left to die of malnutrition. Luckily Xena was saved and learned her trademark sleeper hold from a woman who sacrificed her life to save the warrior. She continued to be evil until her renouncing into the pillar of good she attempts to be in the present. It’s one excellent episode that has everything you want in Xena; fun, darkness and revealing adventure. Plus it’s fantastic to finally grasp more about Xena herself and what lead her to this moment. 

The follow-up in ‘The Quest’ is further goodness featuring Xena’s spirit attempting to get back to the mortal world as it isn’t her time to go. Comedy and drama ensue as she takes control of both Gabrielle and returning Autolycus(returning favourite Bruce Campbell) in order to reclaim her body and stop the power crazed sadism of new Amazon Queen Velasca(a nasty and sexy Melinda Clarke). Subtext here is stronger and the kiss between the girls in ‘The Quest’ is a leading example, along with the aforementioned Bacchae episode. The kiss is in a sort of dreamscape so whether it counts is up for debate, but it’s certainly memorable in how it continues to tease the audience. On the goofy side of things we have ‘A Day in the Life’ which takes the form of an amusing reconstruction of what a day for Xena and Gabrielle consists of. The humour wisely makes fun of some of the show’s staples, like men always falling for Xena upon first meeting her and the banter between both girls. It’s very jaunty and effortlessly engaging in laughing at itself and I loved what it did. Darkness abounds in ‘The Price’ which is unusually stark and ferocious as Xena comes to the aid of a depleted army fighting The Horde. The trouble is Xena gets back in touch with her more disturbing impulses that she has repressed and it spills over into the present. Whenever Xena gets tempted back to the side of evil, it’s always fascinating to watch as she could easily sway back into it or return to good. The main crux of the show is Xena attempting to right her wrongs but also the fact that some darkness may still lie in her soul. All it takes is something to stir it, even though it’s been dormant for a long time. 

One can witness things going up for Xena and it becoming the cult show we all know. The producers really went for it on the action and expanding on story, which paid off handsomely. This accounts for the long run of high quality episodes in here, as you’ll see in my rankings. There’s a bit more cohesion here and you generally feel that the Xena hit its stride here. Not that the first season wasn’t a success( it was a resounding one), but Season 2 is the show at its best in terms of what it gets from the past and its elaboration on the building blocks. You can sense that this was the high water mark of the show and while not every episode was a hit( some new additions like Aphrodite don’t work), it was still mightily fun.The general score is a further impressive one that gets to the heart of action and atmosphere, while being a fine way to compliment beautiful scenery. And the action set pieces are upped with fierce style, adding another sheen to a high quality season.

Lucy Lawless once more makes a steely and formidable impression as Xena. Lawless navigates the physicality of the role and the general understanding of wanting to change. She’s tough and spiky, but possesses a genuine heart and growing selflessness. Plus, she’s one hell of a kick ass heroine who continues to evolve with fun, seriousness and attitude. It’s hard to picture someone else playing the role quite as well as Lucy Lawless, who is ace as our Warrior Princess. Renée O’Connor is excellent as an ever-growing Gabrielle. She has ideas of decency that are frequently challenged in a world of war, but sticks to her guns as well as learning s lot along the way. Plus, she’s toughened up a lot but doesn’t scrimp on emotion as it’s one of her defining trademarks. Lawless and O’Connor continue to display the closeness of their friendship in excellent ways, while suggesting that there is more to their bond than meets the eye. Ted Raimi is on goofy form as the returning Joxer, whose completely deluded but strangely lovable. Joxer is a character that divides many, but I like his addition to the show. Hudson Leick rocks it again as Callisto, relishing the despicable, damaged and disturbed nature of the vengeful woman. Her scenes with Xena sizzle with anger and resentment, culminating in some exciting scenes. Kevin Smith is on charismatic, burning form as the returning Ares. He has this wicked grin and appeal to him that are hard to resist and despite the fact we know he’s mainly bad news, Kevin Smith does it in style.

And now to my episode rankings, which are as follows:

  1. Orphan of War – A
  2. Remember Nothing – B+
  3. The Giant Killer – C
  4. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun – A+
  5. Return of Callisto – A
  6. Warrior … Princess … Tramp – B+
  7. Intimate Stranger – A
  8. Ten Little Warlords – B+
  9. A Solstice Carol – D
  10. The Xena Scrolls – A+
  11. Here She Comes … Miss Amphipolis – B-
  12. Destiny – A+
  13. The Quest – A
  14. A Necessary Evil – B
  15. A Day in the Life – A
  16. For Him The Bell Tolls – C-
  17. The Execution – C+
  18. Blind Faith – B+
  19. Ulysses – B
  20. The Price – A
  21. Lost Mariner – C-
  22. A Comedy of Eros – C

A fine sophomore season with darkness, humour and always supplying action, Season 2 of Xena provides many thrills and fun as it uses the template set up and moulds it into its own creative and divergent thing.

No Man of Her Own

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I was asked by the lovely Maddy and amazing Crystal to take part in a blogathon honouring the one of a kind Barbara Stanwyck. Naturally I jumped at the chance to write about this powerhouse of an actress.

Director

Mitchell Leisen

Starring

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Helen Ferguson/ Patrice Harkness
  • John Lund as Bill Harkness
  • Lyle Bettger as Steve Morley
  • Jane Cowl as Mrs Harkness
  • Henry O’Neill as Mr Harkness

A drama about a desperate mother taking on another identity, No Man of Her Own is tinged with a film noir style atmosphere which is largely beneficial. And even if the story has moments you have to take with a pinch of salt, Barbara Stanwyck and some nice, efficient direction are two major assets to the film and ones that aid it.

Helen Ferguson is pregnant by her louse of a man, Steve Morley. He cruelly discards her even though she barely has any money and will be left an unwed mother. All Steve does is give her a ticket from New York to San Francisco, which is Helen’s original home. With nowhere to turn, Helen who is eight months pregnant, boards to the train to an uncertain future. She is shown kindness on the train by recently married couple, Hugh and Patrice Harkness. Patrice is also pregnant and shows great mercy to the struggling Helen. While they are getting ready for the next stop, the train is involved in a catastrophic crash. Helen survives and is taken to hospital, where her baby is delivered. Patrice and Hugh die almost immediately after the train crashes. As she is wearing the wedding ring of Patrice(which she was minding while the real Patrice was washing) and is pregnant, Helen is mistaken for the dead woman. And as her affluent in-laws never met her, they assume that Helen is in fact their new daughter in law. Delirious, she tries to explain the truth, but everyone thinks she is still suffering from trauma and is not aware of what she is saying. Although she feels guilty and torn about taking her place in the family by lying, she’s so desperate that she can’t help but accept the open arms of the loving family. The mother and father are so very kind and Hugh’s brother Bill takes an almost immediate liking to her. As time goes on, life turns good for Helen as she assumes the place of Patrice and finally feels welcome somewhere, possibly for the first time in her life. But her happiness takes a turn when the twisted Steve shows up in her life again. He plots to blackmail her and asks for money to secure his silence. Helen is once more thrown into another predicament that could have terrible ramifications, just as her life was becoming comfortable and she was feeling accepted. Desperate times it seems call for even more desperate measures.

No Man of Her Own is  a combination of the woman’s picture and film noir. Though that may sound like a strange hybrid, with the deft hand of Mitchell Leisen at the helm, it largely coalesces well and has some fine atmosphere. From the opening of a peaceful middle class street, accompanied by the ominous voice over from Stanwyck, it captures the attention a lot as you aren’t sure which way No Man of Her Own will go. As darkness grows, a noir atmosphere of dread and desperation is never far behind Helen, with shadows and plays of light helping to show her in a very hard predicament. But you’re with her every step of the way and aligned with her attempts for a better life and to improve that of her child. Some leaps of faith need to be taken with some elements of the story and how neatly they fall in place. In the second half, the pace hits a bit of a lull but is thankfully rescued by watching Helen formulate a plan to rid herself of the loathsome. It’s only when the ending arrives that some of the greatness was supplanted as it feels a little too wrapped up and cheery for such a serious story. But despite these flaws, No Man of Her Own is immensely watchable in my eyes. A grand musical score compliments the atmosphere and emotion of the piece in that special way it seems only old movies can do.

Holding everything together is the powerful Barbara Stanwyck. Always someone who 100% to any role, No Man of Her Own is no exception. Exhibiting pain, relief, desperation and doubt, often within seconds of the other, Stanwyck is never short of compelling here. It’s all there in her face and we feel every ounce of emotion to it, and just how expressive it is. Even when the story stretches credulity, it is the determined Barbara Stanwyck that brings everything back together and worth watching. Stanwyck is a powerhouse no matter what she does. John Lund is a tad wooden as a possible suitor for Helen, but he gets better as the movie progresses. Exuding weasel tendencies and a nasty glimmer in his eye, Lyle Bettger is superbly cast as the main antagonist who could jeopardise what Helen has tried to do in order for a better life. Believe me, he’s one nasty piece of work. Rounding out things are Jane Cowl and Henry O’Neill as two lovely and welcoming in-laws.

Though it’s far from a perfect film, No Man of Her Own survives via the committed work of Barbara Stanwyck and the stylistic look of the film. These are elements that you will remember after viewing this movie.

Stan & Ollie

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Director

Jon S. Baird

Starring

  • Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel
  • John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy
  • Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy
  • Nina Arianda as Ida Kitaeva Laurel

A warmly bittersweet film about the last hurrah of legendary comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, Stan & Ollie is a film that invests you with the double act with just how involving, funny and poignant it is.

We begin in 1937 when Laurel and Hardy are at their peak, but even here they are still paid less than the other stars. Stan wants to get out of his contract with producer Hal Roach, as he doesn’t feel appreciated by him. Oliver wants to keep things as they are and not rock the boat anymore than it needs to be. This instance will be one that plays an important part later in the film. Fast forward to the 1950’s, neither man is at their height of fame anymore. But each has been persuaded to go on a music hall tour in the United Kingdom. Stan, who is the one behind the jokes and material of the routines, hopes what they ear in money can be used to finance a picture Stan wants to do. Oliver is in bad shape and not really a well man, but agrees to reform again. As they soon discover, it’s hard getting back out there because new talent has come along and captured the imagination of the public. The shows begin with not many people showing up in the audience, which doesn’t go unnoticed. Plus, various issues that have long remained dormant threaten to overshadow the tour and tear apart a friendship. But over time, the old magic comes back and the road looks set for a return to form, aided by the support of two sparring wives . Though spanners are thrown in the works, like Oliver’s failing health and with the history of the two, it could just be one last hurrah for the legends of comedy that are Laurel and Hardy.

Jon S.Baird is clearly crafting an affectionate but also revealing portrait of the legends and boy does he ever deliver. Along with the clever script that deftly mixes humour and pathos from Jeff Pope, Baird really dazzles with his warm-hearted but still bittersweet approach to behind the scenes of the lives of the beloved team. Of particular note is the virtuoso opening sequence in one shot of the team in their prime walking through the backlog of a studio, while they deliberate their contract with the slimy Hal Roach . Once the cameras roll, they are the Laurel and Hardy of legend, but there’s more going on behind the stage. The balance between the two elements of emotion and laughs is held neatly and makes the film flow amazingly. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the public argument between the duo which is filled with personal feelings of anger, but mistaken by onlookers as just part of their humorous act. In fact there are many instances of Stan and Ollie slipping into the public image that everyone knows in order to save face or escape from the harshness of life. The humour mingles with the melancholy and has you glued as Stan and Ollie realise that they need the other, despite buried grievances from the past. Credit must go to the staging, editing and make up, that make both lead actors the image of the great comedic duo. The recreation scenes from the movies of the stars is also a stroke of genius and is so precise and well realised. It leaves you smiling and with a lot of feeling, like all good movies should. A music score that is by turns deep and by others light, perfectly embodies what Stan & Ollie is going for in terms of audience feeling. I must admit in finding any fault with this movie as it was the definition of a fantastic cinema experience.

What really makes this movie soar is the lead work from Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as Laurel and Hardy. Both get all the public mannerisms just right, like Hardy’s exasperated facial expressions and Laurel’s passive simpleton tics. It’s really uncanny as Coogan and Reilly have really done their homework and put their all into it. But it’s watching them reveal the behind the scenes nature of each. Coogan splendidly dives into the brains of Stan Laurel( which ironically go against the role of lovable idiot that he was in the public image) and the underlying sadness of someone wanting to succeed, but is also bitter by events of the past. It’s the fantastic mix of humour and emotion that also transfers to John C. Reilly, whose his equal as Oliver Hardy. Reilly has this sunny disposition that’s set against the alternating feeling of fatigue and hope.  The chemistry between the two works beautifully, much like the men they are portraying and paying tribute to. You never doubt for a minute that you’re witnessing two stellar performances that have great nuance. Sometimes with just a look, they say everything they need to. And while they form the centrepiece of Stan & Ollie, two other supporting members of the cast show they are no slouches either. They are Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda. Both spark off the other as the spouses of the title characters, leading one person to say ‘two double acts for the price of one’. Both ladies are forceful, funny and entertaining in their own ways and they two contribute largely to the film as the supportive but firm wives.  It’s excellent casting all around for Stan & Ollie.

A wonderfully entertaining biopic that manages to sidestep the usual histrionics and over the top nature of the genre, Stan & Ollie weaves a warm picture that is bolstered by the spot on performances of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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Director

Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring

  • Colin Farrell as Steven Murphy
  • Nicole Kidman as Anna Murphy
  • Barry Keoghan as Martin
  • Raffey Cassidy as Kim Murphy
  • Sunny Suljic as Bob Murphy
  • Alicia Silverstone as Martin’s Mother

An unsettling psychological horror with the trademark Yorgos Lanthimos touch and reference to Greek myth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is very disturbing but impossible to turn away from.

Cardiologist Steven Murphy has it all; a great career, a beautiful ophthalmologist wife Anna and two young, well-behaved children, Kim and Bob. His picture perfect life in the suburbs is seemingly here to stay, but there is a tiny and disturbing hitch too it. He has a friendship with a 16-year-old boy named Martin, who he meets and showers gifts upon. Although is friendly with Martin and introduces him to his family, there is something decidedly off about the whole arrangement that you can’t shake. And soon enough, the demanding Martin, when he’s not trying to set up Steven with his mother, becomes a thorn in side. He becomes more dependent and doesn’t seem to understand that his presence is not always needed. His obsession grows and starts to worry Steven, who mainly took interest in the boy after his father, who he treated earlier, died . Then, out of nowhere, Bob loses the use of his legs and is hospitalised. This is soon followed by Kim, which begins to have an impact on Anna who is in the dark on what is happening. Steven starts to unravel too as things turn worse for his idyllic family and he’s thrown into a tailspin. Yet as illness sets in, an increasingly menacing Martin reminds Steven of a past mistake of his that links to the young boy’s life. Soon everything is under crisis and  Steven’s existence is torn apart by his past actions and the boy who wants to even what he sees as the score.

With a catalogue of films that revel in dark subject matter, unusually black humour and an all round weirdness, Yorgos Lanthimos has really made a name for him. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Yorgos Lanthimos working fluently and creatively to fashion a story of deep-seated revenge and culpability. He has this bubbling intensity and creeping eeriness that happens right from the startling opening of an open heart surgery. You know from that point on it’s going to be a disturbing movie, but what a movie it is. Lanthimos is in control here; cold and calculating in the style of Stanley Kubrick whose work clearly has an imprint. And while Martin is what seems to be the main antagonist of the piece, the other characters also sport unusual tendencies that mark them out as not as innocent or polished as they outwardly appear. For example, Steven is an arrogant man who can’t handle not being able to exercise control over things. This extends to his love life with his wife, who he has pretend to be under anaesthetic when getting intimate. The deadpan, almost robotic way of talking that has come to populate the work of Lanthimos is here, but does also allow for shadings of emotion and drama in there. And the uneasy and uncomfortable humour further sears itself on to the mind, as characters behave in ways that seem at once alien and yet so ordinary. It’s the kind of humour that you don’t know whether to laugh at or question, and is all the better for it. It sure keeps you on your toes as you navigate another weird world from the mind of Yorgos Lanthimos. And though some of it might sound familiar to lovers of psychological horror, it’s the execution that truly counts and Sacred Deer delivers with its own twist on things.

With long corridors of scrubbed white, cavernous interiors and a zooming, voyeuristic camera, The Killing of a Sacred Deer also deserves praises for what it visually gets across to the viewer. It’s a sinister and slithering atmosphere of increased dread as evil and retribution combine and you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Credit must go to the cinematographer that is Thimios Bakatakis for imbuing The Killing of a Sacred Deer with such an impending aura of doom and inevitable woe. We often observe characters from a distance or from a looming height; neatly edited and giving the impression of spying on events as they take shape.  The whole psychological aspect of having to make a horrifying decision for something you’ve done is creepy and more than makes its mark on you as the gears of tension continue turning. Discordant strings telegraph that something is not right from the word go and the addition of opera accentuates the tragedy here. The film is influenced by a Greek myth that gives the movie its title and accordingly, the swelling and rumbling of music heralds the approaching agony of loss and blame. Those looking for a comfortable viewing experiences better check those expectations at the door as The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not one for the easily frightened or spooked.

Colin Farrell, who was so good in The Lobster, plays someone spineless and full of themselves here. His character’s  life is so meticulous and to his liking that it’s given a royal kicking when horror unravels. Sporting a bushy beard and his real accent, Farrell is extremely watchable as the cardiologist haunted by the past. Equally as good is the ever dependable Nicole Kidman, who’s been on a roll recently with her performances. With her face that silently projects inner turmoil and frazzled intensity, she’s ideal for the role here that could have easily just been a throwaway part. With Kidman in it, it’s impossible for it to be anything less than stellar, particularly when she comes into her own in the latter half of the film and everything gets laid bare. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is my first introduction to young actor Barry Keoghan. And if the rest of career is as good as his work here, great things await him indeed. He has this naturally mysterious and sinister presence, complimented by how he speaks the dialogue in a halting but intimidating way. It’s enough to set you on edge and Keoghan knocks it out the park as a vengeful teen, dishing out his brand of justice to an idyllic family. Raffey Cassidy plays the daughter of Steven and Anna; who is drawn to Martin even though he’s the one out to ruin her family. Young Sunny Suljic portrays the son, who is the first to fall ill and crank up the eeriness. And it’s nice to see Alicia Silverstone back on screen again with a very memorable one scene performance. She gets the movie’s best line after she is rejected by Steven for putting the moves on him. Everyone gets in to the mindset of the film and the unusual demands of it.

A spine-chilling, deeply unnerving and memorable horror/thriller with psychological terror at the centre, The Killing of a Secret Deer is a haunting movie that is hard to shake off.

Who Are Your Favourite Divisive Directors?

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You all know the kinds of directors I mean. The ones whose output is regularly under a critical eye of reviewers and public and provoke wildly different reactions with each person. But which directors who fit into this category are your favourites? Lately, the output of Yorgos Lanthimos has really captured my attention. But who is it for you?