Code Name: Emerald (1985)

Code Name Emerald

I was expecting Peter Lorre. Augustus Lang aka Emerald (Ed Harris) is a spy for the Allies working undercover in Nazi-Occupied Paris during World War II but the Nazis believe he’s their man. With his assistance they capture Wheeler (Eric Stoltz) an ‘Overlord’ thought to know the plans for D-Day. Lang is planted as his cell mate and their conversations are monitored by Gestapo officer Walter Hoffman (Horst Buchholz) who is constantly at odds with his SS colleague Ernst Ritter (Helmut Berger) but retains friendly relations with decent Jurgen Brausch (Max Von Sydow).  Outside the cell in everyday Paris, Lang is in contact with Claire Jouvet  (Cyrielle Clair) who is trying to help him engineer Wheeler’s escape. But Wheeler is weakening under threat of torture and Hoffman suspects there might be more than one spy in the wings … Averages aren’t everything. There’s such a thing as grace. A really good premise in a terrific screenplay by Ronald Bass from his novel is largely laid waste by miscasting and some underpowered directing. That makes a change! Harris is not expressive enough to elicit our sympathy as the hero of the piece and Stoltz is unconvincing and probably too young in his role; paradoxically it’s Buchholz who has the most interesting character to play – how often do we see Nazis in civvies in WW2 films? Von Sydow is good as a vitally placed German officer and Clair does very well as the woman at the centre of the romance/resistance storyline. While the tension isn’t strictly maintained, the magnificent score by John Addison goes a long way to giving this a sense of urgency that isn’t necessarily in the dénouement – the outcome of the war is at stake but you wouldn’t know it from the way this is staged. C’est la guerre. Directed by Jonathan Sanger for NBC in their first theatrical production. One of these Krauts is on our side. Problem is, I don’t which one it is

 

Highly Dangerous (1950)

Highly Dangerous

It may not interest you technically but for a large section of humanity it could be a matter of life and death. The British government asks entomologist Frances Gray (Margaret Lockwood) to go behind the Iron Curtain and examine insects that might be used as carriers to spread disease in germ warfare. Grudgingly accepting the job, Frances goes undercover as Frances Conway, a tour director looking for potential holiday destinations and meets tough American reporter Bill Casey (Dane Clark) in the process. Unfortunately, the chief of police Razinski (Marius Goring) quickly sees through Frances’ flimsy cover. Then her contact is murdered and his body left in her hotel room and Frances is taken into custody, prompting Casey to come to her aid… A few months ago some people were shot accidentally in the woods. It was terrible. A vehicle for Lockwood after a period doing theatre, Eric Ambler loosely adapted one of his novels (The Dark Frontier), changed the gender of the protagonist and it’s a spirited adventure. The Ruritanian setting hints at the comedy style, returning Lockwood to a kind of thriller along the lines of The Lady Vanishes – enhanced by the casting of Naunton Wayne as Frances’ recruiter, Hedgerley, Wilfrid Hyde White (after The Third Man) and Goring’s performance as a comedy police chief, enlivening the playfulness. Like The Third Man, Ambler’s script makes a meta issue of storytelling, there’s a torture scene in a TV studio-like location and there are references to soap opera and a character called Frank Conway, the star of a radio serial that Frances listens to for her little nephew and for whom she is re-named. Nicely done with a good mix of intrigue, suspense and fun led by Clark as the inadvertent hero of the situation. Directed by Roy (Ward) Baker. You just can’t do things like that in real life.

Bananas (1971)

Bananas

And now, as is our annual custom, each citizen of San Marcos will come up here and present his Excellency with his weight in horse manure. Hapless New York product tester Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) desperately attempts to impress attractive social activist  Nancy (Louise Lasser). He travels to the turbulent Latin American country of San Marcos where he falls in with resistance fighters and, before long, accidentally becomes drafted as their leader replacing the crazed Castro-esque Esposito (Jacobo Morales) after foiling an assassination attempt by General Vargas (Carlos Montalbán). While Mellish’s position of authority wins Nancy over, he has to deal with the many burdens of being a dictator but being President just might impress Nancy ... Can you believe that? She says I’m not leader enough for her. Who was she looking for… Hitler? A hoot from glorious start to ridiculous finish, Allen’s hilarious homage to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup has everything: silent musicians (they have no instruments); Swedish deemed the only suitably non-decadent language appropriate for a post-revolutionary society; and a very young Marvin Hamlisch’s first ever score (funny in and of itself). A freewheeling mix of parody, satire, one-liners, sight gags and slapstick, this loose adaptation of Richard B. Powell’s novel Don Quixote USA is co-written with Allen’s longtime close friend, Mickey Rose, who also collaborated on Take the Money and Run. Featuring Howard Cosell, Roger Grimsby and Don Dunphy as themselves. Gleefully bonkers fun in the worst possible taste. Power has driven him mad!

1917 (2019)

1917

If you fail, it will be a massacre. During World War I in the trenches close to the front line, two British soldiers Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) receive seemingly impossible orders. In a race against time, they have to cross over into enemy territory to deliver a message to the Devons Regiment – not to go over the top, in a change of plan that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades including Blake’s own brother from falling into a German trap... Brimming with award season nominations, already garlanded with some and its director and co-writer Sam Mendes (with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) pronouncing on the virtues of pacificism, this is chiefly noted for the supposed virtuosity of its being an apparently seamless one-take drama shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Newsflash:  it is a dull and irritating exercise entirely lacking in character development, boasting minimal plot, cursory and random dialogue, little forward propulsion until the 75th minute and thereafter it continues to play out in real time, with a wholly foreseeable ending. What is the problem? The script, the script, the script. It’s unthinking, immature and poorly conceived. The camera has a perspective, the script lacks a point of view. World War 1 was a senseless slaughter of boys led by blinkered generals. There are images of bodies both human and animal. Death was in the trenches and in the air. We know. There are great war films, and not just about World War 1, although La Grande Illusion, All Quiet on the Western Front, Gallipoli and Paths of Glory immediately come to mind when that subject arises. World War 2 has a plethora, most recently, Saving Private Ryan, which sensibly – necessarily – pulls back from its extraordinarily immersive half-hour opening sequence at the Normandy Landing to give the audience a breather from the shockingly unleashed violence and drive towards death and to establish characters, context and narrative.  It is a classic of modern cinema. Dunkirk attempts to converge three stories in parallel without having a scintilla of memorably comparable affect because it seems, like another of Christopher Nolan’s films, Inception, to derive from a gamer’s sensibility, visor firmly clamped around the viewer’s eyes to prevent any kind of peripheral vision (like this). Elem Klimov’s Come and See is an astonishing – almost incomparable – film that lingers long in the memory for its brutal tale of a teenager on the Russian front lines. Hamburger Hill tells the ‘Nam story from the perspective of grunts and it’s devastating; Apocalypse Now takes a literary exercise and converts it to cinematic hallucination. I could go on. This? A cameraman tracks back for ten minutes in an unaltering medium two-shot in a trench making for a queasy opening, and then follows the pair of protagonists until two inevitably become one; then he enters a nightmarish world of a (finally) changing landscape and the dreary grey palette of northern France (actually Wiltshire) gets some studio lighting at last. The idea of presenting the story in real time derives from a mistaken sensibility that has a paradoxically theatrical affect preventing any level of deep character engagement:  and on that subject, it would help to have an attractive protagonist. MacKay communicates precisely nothing but he is given very little to work with. Ordinariness has its own rewards, just not for an audience. There is an old saw that goes, Don’t shoot the messenger. Well, if they had shot the right one, they might have had a film. Ostensibly, this is a film about war. Actually, it’s a film about avoidance. Hope is a dangerous thing

Zelig (1983)

Zelig

All the themes of our culture were there. In this fictional documentary set during the 1920s and 1930s a non-descript American called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) achieves notoriety for his ability to look, act and sound like anyone he meets. He ingratiates himself with everyone from the lower echelons of society to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Pope becoming famous as The Changing Man. Even Hollywood comes calling and makes a film about him. His chameleon-like skill catches the eye of Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychiatrist who thinks Zelig is in need of serious cognitive analysis as someone who goes to extremes to make himself fit into society. Their relationship moves in a direction that’s not often covered in medical textbooks as she hypnotises him I’m certain it’s something he picked up from eating Mexican food. A formally and technically brilliant and absolutely hilarious spoof documentary that integrates real and manipulated newsreel footage with faked home movies, a film within a film, period photographs of the leads and interviews with contemporary personalities, real and imagined, from Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to ‘Eudora Fletcher’ (Ellen Garrison) in the present day. Even Bruno Bettelheim shows up to declare the subject the ultimate conformist. The sequence on the anti-semitism Zelig experiences as a child (his parents sided with the anti-semites, narrator Patrick Horgan informs us mournfully) is laugh out loud funny. Of course it has a payoff – in Nazi Germany. The editing alone is breathtaking, there is not a false moment and the music is superlative, forming a backdrop and a commentary as well as instilling in the audience a realistic feel for the time in which this is set. There are moments where you will not believe your eyes as Allen transforms into everyone he meets – regardless of race, shape or colour. An original and funny mockumentary that’s actually about the world we live in, an extreme response to childhood bullying and what we do to make ourselves fit in and where that could lead. You just told the truth and it sold papers – it never happened before!

 

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Crimes and Misdemeanours.jpg

Everybody got honourable mention who showed up. Opthamologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) wants to preserve his marriage to Miriam (Claire Bloom), and his dangerous brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) comes up with what appears to be the only viable solution – murder. Initially he is plagued with guilt about his infidelity and confides in his Rabbi client Ben (Sam Waterston) whom he is treating for sight loss. However when he becomes certain that his neurotic and hysterical mistress Dolores (Anjelica Huston) is about to tell his wife about their four-year long affair, Judah agrees to Jack’s plan. Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) is a documentary maker whose films make no money and he spends his afternoons at the movies with his orphaned niece. His wife Jenny (Joanna Gleason) chides him for his failure and refuses to have sex with him but things seems to be resolved when her brother, horribly successful TV comedy producer Lester (Alan Alda) says he can make a film about him, which introduces him to associate producer Halley (Mia Farrow), who shares his love of movies Without the law it’s all darkness. A film of two halves in which Allen tries to unite the ideas of tragedy and comedy – happily Alda is at hand to illustrate it via Oedipus Rex using the hoary saying, Comedy is tragedy plus time. It’s a wholly ironic work in which Huston’s death should trigger guilt in Landau but he escapes scot-free while his rabbi advisor ends up with sight loss; and Allen’s character who wisely advises his orphaned niece about life through daily trips to the movies doesn’t see what’s clear to his wife – that the object of his affection Farrow is in lust with the obnoxious Alda. Meanwhile his philosophical hero Professor Louis Levy (Martin S. Bergmann) whose interviews form a Greek chorus of morality for a proposed film commits suicide. That the entire tragicomedy is concluded in a wedding is the greatest irony of all in a work which balances like the finest of high wire acts. God is a luxury I can’t afford

 

 

 

Play It Again, Sam (1972)

Play it Again Sam.jpg

All we ever do is go to the movies. Movie critic Allan Felix (Woody Allen) is freshly divorced from dreamgirl waitress Nancy (Susan Anspach) who mocked his sexual inadequacy and is inconsolable, feeling that he’ll just never measure up to Rick Blaine in Casablanca, played by his movie hero Humphrey Bogart. His friends businessman Dick (Tony Roberts) and his neurotic model wife Linda (Diane Keaton) try to introduce him to dates with disastrous results.  The ghost of Bogart (Jerry Lacy) advises him on the sidelines but after a dreadful night out with Sharon (Jennifer Salt) from Dick’s office culminates in a fight with bikers even his ex-wife shows up to have a word and shoots Bogart. Meanwhile, Allan becomes convinced that he has so much in common with fellow neurotic Linda and she has feelings for him, they spend the night together … My sex life has turned into The Petrified Forest. Allen’s 1969 stage play was adapted by him for the screen but directed by Herbert Ross and it’s a smoothly funny combination of parody and pastiche that Hollywood had been making since Hellzapoppin’ years before anyone dreamed up the term postmodern. Perfectly integrating the themes and action of Casablanca which kicks off the story as Alan watches sadly at the cinema, this is totally of its time, rape jokes ‘n’ all (but to be fair Allen’s script acknowledges it’s not an ideal situation for women). Keaton is a delight in their first film together, a work that cunningly exploits the gap between movies and real life and if it’s rather more coherent at that point than the edgy films Allen had already directed it’s still very funny. There are some awesome lines and the yawning chasm between Bogart’s cool and Allan’s chaos is brilliantly devised with the ending from Casablanca inventively reworked to satisfying effect. The San Francisco and Sausalito locations look great courtesy of the marvellous work of Owen Roizman. It’s the first Allen film I ever saw and it introduced me to the music of Oscar Peterson who was also on TV a lot in those days and I like it as much now as I did when I was 9 years old and that’s saying something. You felt like being a woman and I felt like being a man and that’s what those kinds of people do

Catch-22 (1970)

Catch 22.jpg

Help the bombardier. Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) an American pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II attempts to cope with the madness of armed conflict. Convinced that everyone is trying to murder him, he decides to try to become certified insane but that is merely proof that he’s fully competent. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian has to resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation... All great countries are destroyed, why not yours? Not being a fan of the rather repetitive and circular source novel aids one’s enjoyment of this adaptation by director Mike Nichols who was coasting on the stunning success of his first two movies (also adaptations), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, which was also adapted by Buck HenryThe critical reception for this resisted adulation instead focusing on a flawed construction which really goes back to Joseph Heller’s book and does not conform to the rules of a combat picture as well as contracting the action and removing and substituting characters. But aside from the overall absurdity which is literally cut in an act of stunning violence which shears through one character in shocking fashion, there is dialogue of the machine gun variety which you’d expect from a services satire and there are good jokes about communication, following orders, profiteering and stealing parachutes to sell silk on the black market.  There are interesting visual and auditory ways of conveying Yossarian’s inner life – in the first scene we can’t hear him over the noise of the bombings, because his superiors are literally deaf to what he’s saying, a useful metaphor. The impressionistic approach of Henry’s adaptation is one used consistently, preparing the audience for the culmination of the action in a surreal episode worthy of Fellini. I like it a lot, certainly more than the recent TV adaptation and the cast are just incredible:  Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen and Orson Welles among a large ensemble. Even novelist Philip Roth plays a doctor. It’s shot by David Watkin, edited by Sam O’Steen and the production is designed by Richard Sylbert. Where the hell’s my parachute?

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

The Thomas Crown Affair wide.jpg

Play something else. Bored Boston millionaire Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) devises and executes a brilliant scheme to rob a bank on a sunny summer’s afternoon without having to do any of the work himself. He rolls up in his Rolls Royce and collects the takings from a trash can without ever meeting the four men he hired to pull it off. When the police get nowhere fast, American abroad Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), an investigator hired by the bank’s insurance company, takes an interest in Crown and the two begin a complicated cat-and-mouse game with a romantic undertone although Vicki is also assisting police with their enquiries via Detective Eddy Malone (Paul Burke) who stops short of calling her a prostitute due to her exceedingly unorthodox working methods. Suspicious of Anderson’s agenda, Crown devises another robbery like his first, wondering if he can get away with the same crime twice while Vicki is conflicted by her feelings and Tommy considers giving himself up I’m running a sex orgy for a couple of freaks on Government funds. Dune buggies. Gliders. Polo ponies. Aran sweaters. The sexiest chess game in cinema. Those lips! Those eyes! Those fingers! Has castling ever seemed so raunchy?! Super slick, witty, rather wistful and absurdly beautiful, this classic caper is the epitome of Sixties cool, self-consciously clever, teeming with split-screen imagery, bursting with erotic ideas and boasting a brilliant if enigmatic theme song Windmills of Your Mind composed by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman. The breeziest, flightiest concoction this side of a recipe for soufflé, it benefits from both protagonists’ identity crisis where everything comes easily to Tommy and life is a game, and yet, and yet … while Vicki is genuinely hurt when Detective Malone hands her a file on Tommy’s nightlife affairs with another woman. Written by Alan Trustman, also responsible for Bullitt. The production is designed by Robert Boyle, shot by Haskell Wexler and directed by Norman Jewison while the editing is led by future director Hal Ashby.  This is deliriously entertaining.  And did Persol shades ever look as amazing? It’s not the money, it’s me and the system

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything. New Jersey in the 1930s. Unhappily married Depression-era waitress Cecilia (Mia Farrow) earns the money while her inattentive husband, Monk (Danny Aiello), blows their measly income on getting drunk and gambling. To deal with her loneliness, Cecilia escapes to the cinema and becomes transfixed with the RKO movie The Purple Rose of Cairo and especially its lead character, archaeologist Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels). When Tom notices this is her fifth time to see it he literally steps out of the black and white screen and into her life in full colour.  Both of their realities are thrown into chaos as he is confused by his actor’s identity of Gil Shepherd and the character he plays onscreen where he is indulged by Manhattan high society. Cecilia has to choose between Tom and Gil. Then the film’s producers discover that other Tom Baxters are attempting to leave the screen in other movie theatres ... You make love without fading out? Perfectly capturing the fantasy life of a moviegoer at the height of Thirties Hollywood, Allen blends Depression-era realism with the escape valve of Deco cinema against the backdrop of marital discord and domestic violence. The real ones want their lives fiction and the fictional ones want their lives real. The performances are pitch-perfect and the tone admirably sustained, Farrow enormously touching in capturing the bittersweet situation of a woman caught between what she has and what she wants:  When you kissed me, I felt like my heart faded out. I closed my eyes, and I was in some private place. In a role originally played by Michael Keaton until he and Allen agreed it wasn’t working ten days into production, Daniels has an existential crisis at the centre of his performance:  I don’t get hurt or bleed, hair doesn’t muss; it’s one of the advantages of being imaginary. The conceit is brilliant and it’s intelligently played out in one of Allen’s best screenplays with the film within the film wonderfully imagined and Gil’s belief that he created the character of Tom is an arrow across the parapet for screenwriters. I don’t wanna talk any more about what’s real and what’s illusion. Life’s too short to spend time thinking about life. Let’s just live it! Shot in shades of wistfulness and regret by Gordon Willis, this remains a classic interrogation of cinema’s power. I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what’s life all about anyway?