Venetian Bird (1952)

Venetian Bird

Aka The Assassin. A thousand lira should take care of your ethics. English private detective Charles Mercer (Richard Todd) is deployed by a French insurance company to find a brave Italian war hero who is to be rewarded for his assisting of the Allies in WW2. But from the moment Mercer arrives in Venice his first contact is murdered in a shop and he finds himself on the wrong side of the law – he’s the prime suspect. After enquiring about the mysterious Boldesca (Sydney Tafler) at a museum where the art department  is run by the lovely Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok) the trail leads to a glassblowing factory at Murano where he discovers he has wandered into the plot of a coup d’état run by Count Boria (Wolf Rilla) and Lieutenant Longo (John Bailey) and it turns out that the supposedly dead mystery man Uccello (John Gregson) is very much alive and well and ready for action with an important figure visiting the city the following day … There is nothing for you in Venice. Adapted by Victor Canning from his novel, this has the impression of a Third Man-lite and if it doesn’t have that film’s canted chiaroscuro angles or shooting expertise it has an interesting location and an engrossing if initially confusing scenario. Todd (who was Ian Fleming’s preferred choice to play James Bond) acquits himself well in a narrative which involves a lot of running and jumping and standing still behind statues;  Bartok is suitably enigmatic as the woman with a secret;  and Margot Grahame gets some fantastically dry lines in her role as Rosa, a woman of a certain age:  I have never kept a man under my bed in my life. There are sly laughs to be had at the wholly incongruous casting of Gregson and Sid James, of all people, as native Italians. Directed by Ralph Thomas, but one is left wondering how a film of this ambition would have turned out if a master stylist like Carol Reed had taken hold of such promising material:  instead of a nighttime chase in the sewers of Vienna, we have a daytime chase across the rooftops of Venice and there is a political theme that was groundbreaking. The score is by Nino Rota. Produced by Betty Box. Out of weakness and confusion we shall create division and strength

Bananas (1971)

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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!

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

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John Wick, Excommunicado. In effect, 6:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. After gunning down Santino d’Antonio, a member of the shadowy international assassins’ guild the High Table, hit man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself stripped of the organisation’s protective services. There’s a $14 million bounty on his head and he is on the run in New York City, the target of the world’s most ruthless killers and he tries to locate the Elder (Said Taghmaoui) the only person above the High Table empowered to take the price tag off his head … He shot my dog/I get it. Starting quite literally from the last shot of the second film in the trilogy about the world’s calmest hitman, this is breathless action fare that starts in New York Public Library of all places setting things in motion with a crucifix necklace and a medallion. What better storage facility for your jewels? Then things get seriously international and move to Morocco and the desert as this violent quest for a kind of redemption gets underway while John reconciles with his origins: he is actually Jardani Jovonovich of Belarus, which we learn courtesy of a drop in at Anjelica Huston’s ballet school. Reeves is as Zen-like as ever even when offing everyone in sight and his dog is the dog’s, as they say, although he mostly keeps out of trouble by residing at the Hotel Continental. A sinuous exercise in ultraviolence, this is actually very beautiful to watch. With Ian McShane back as John’s dubious caretaker Winston, Halle Berry sharing his love canines and Laurence Fishburne giving this a Matrix-y feeling, this has a lot of good moments bookended by two extraordinary sequences of skillfully choreographed action with – what else – a cliffhanging ending. Written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams, based on a story by Kolstad. Directed by Chad Stahelski. It wasn’t just a puppy

Nobody Runs Forever (1968)

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Aka The High Commissioner. He’s got to back to Australia and straighten a few things out. Australian outback police detective Scobie Malone (Rod Taylor) arrives in London to arrest the Australian High Commissioner Sir James Quentin (Christopher Plummer) for the murder of his first wife and return him to Sydney, but his task does not go as planned. The lawman finds himself acting as a bodyguard when assassins start to appear with alarming regularity in this world of international men of mystery.  Quentin’s foreign-born wife Sheila (Lili Palmer) is curious about why Malone is there, while Dutch secretary Lisa Pretorius (Camilla Sparv) is protective of the man she respects above all but it’s beautiful Madame Cholon (Daliah Lavi) who entices him into her bed … Use your own passport and get out. I don’t know you. Taylor produced and did some writing on this adaptation of Jon Cleary’s novel The High Commissioner which is attributed to Wilfred Greatorex. Presumably it’s an attempt to get in on the Bond craze and the settings in London are splendid – all that neon and nightlife and a shootout at Wimbledon and we don’t mean tennis (rather, we do), albeit director Ralph Thomas hardly brings Hitchcockian technique to a scenario reminiscent of The Man Who Knew Too Much. The fish out of water situation is nicely set up – we meet Scobie in the midst of a sheep farm only for him to be swiftly deposited in London to do the political will of the Prime Minister of New South Wales, Flannery (an uncredited Leo McKern) widely believed to be based on real-life politico Sir Robert Askin.  He soon figures this is a setup of sorts and develops a quick empathy with Quentin – triggered by an assassination attempt as soon as they set foot outside the embassy’s front door. His character occupies a position oddly close to a spoof, emphasising his difference from anyone in the diplomatic scene, from his Aussie deadpanning to the beatings he takes and the jibes at London bobbies; while the number of beautiful European ladies points us in their direction even if we don’t know precisely what anyone is spying about or why anyone would try to kill Quentin, who seems to be brokering discussions at a peace conference. Quite why the final scene is left for Quentin to get there first is anyone’s guess. It’s good to see Burt Kwouk in a supporting role and it all makes for some pretty pictures and there’s a good score by Georges Delerue. Produced by Betty Box.

Berlin Express (1948)

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That’s right – the dove of peace was a pigeon. A dead pigeon. In Allied-occupied post-war Germany a group of passengers of various nationalities travels by train from France to Berlin. One of them, Dr. Bernhardt (Paul Lukas), is an influential peacemaker who wants to mend the war-torn continent. Nazi conspirators aboard the vehicle are determined to keep Bernhardt quiet – they set off an explosion on the train but it kills a man who turns out to have been Bernhardt’s decoy. Other passengers – Bernhardt’s assistant Lucienne (Merle Oberon), American agricultural expert Robert J. Lindley (Robert Ryan), Frenchman Perrot (Charles Korvin) and British teacher James Sterling (Robert Coote) seek the doctor for an explanation, but deception is all around and danger awaits Bernhardt at the next station when the train stops … I do sleight of hand. We’re supposed to make 1,500 calories look like an eight-course meal – and prevent things like plague and starvation. Curt Siodmak’s original story might have allegorical qualities but Harold Medford’s screenplay is an efficient genre work, a tense thriller with aspects of film noir and the procedural:  The German Vanishes, perhaps. Aside from the real-life echoes and the international cast, this is fascinating as a production shot on location in Europe right after the war, with all the spare psychology that Jacques Tourneur can bring to this atmospheric film, sorting out the wheat from the chaff in a briskly paced search through bomb-damaged Frankfurt.  The sharp dialogue really suits Ryan, who gives an excellent performance. It’s nice too to see Merle Oberon in a contemporary film which was shot documentary-style by her husband, Lucien Ballard:  producer Bert Granet spent 6 weeks in Germany in 1946 shooting 16mm film for reference. Friedrich Hollaender’s score is very effective for a story about the ongoing Nazi threat to peace in the aftermath of the war and the film is notable for not translating French and German dialogue, adding to the film’s frisson of danger in a landscape filled with the rubble of WW2 as the trans-Europe express speeds to Berlin. Due to currency fluctuations the interiors intended for France had to be shot in Culver City. We don’t have any more German enemies, do we?/  No authorised ones, anyway

The Tamarind Seed (1974)

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She could be one of our most important agents over here. On holiday from her job in the civil service at the Home Office, Judith Farrow (Julie Andrews) heads to the Caribbean after ending a love affair with married Government minister Richard Paterson (David Baron). On Barbados she is befriended by debonair Russian Feodor Sverdlov (Omar Sharif). The two quickly fall in love despite his married status, but Judith’s feelings are tested when Sverdlov is revealed to be a Russian agent eager to win her over to his cause. Back in London, intelligence officer Jack Loder (Anthony Quayle) is aware of a mole in the Government and is convinced Sverdlov is trying to recruit Judith as a Soviet spy.  She is instructed never to see him again, but can’t shake the attachment and soon finds that both of their lives are in danger … With titles by Maurice Binder and a resonant piano-based score by John Barry, you’d almost think you were in a James Bond film. Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Evelyn Anthony’s 1971 novel is true to its sense of high romance, urgent drama and deep-seated tensions stemming from the clash of ideologies pulsing beneath the lust. Andrews and Sharif are extraordinarily well-matched in this stylish epic, with gorgeous photography by Freddie Young in what is a charged if relatively well-heeled and glossy depiction of the Cold War, with betrayal and assassinations and embassy parties. Perfect for a dull September evening. A few days to convince her that she is doing it for love

Red Sparrow (2018)

Red Sparrow

The Cold War did not end, it merely shattered into a thousand pieces.  Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) faces a bleak and uncertain future after she suffers an injury to her leg that ends her performing career. Her uncle Vanya(!) (Matthias Schoenaerts) is deputy director of the SVR and has photos which incriminate her dance partner and rival at the Bolshoi and she inflicts terrible injuries on the pair of them, as he predicted.  He then makes her a deal and she becomes a witness to a state-sponsored killing and either has to die or do what he says.  She needs her sick mother (Joely Richardson) to be cared for. She is sent to Sparrow School, a secret intelligence service set up by Khrushchev, that trains exceptional young people to use their minds and bodies as weapons under the watchful eye of Matron (Charlotte Rampling). Egorova emerges as the most dangerous Sparrow after completing the sadistic training process which turns her into a prostitute for the State, with killer abilities. As she comes to terms with her new job, she encounters CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in Budapest and he tries to convince her that he is the only person she can trust as her mission threatens to undo the security of the US and Russian alike and she agrees to become an agent for the US – or does she? … As the world moves back to Cold War positions, this throwback to that era aims to be a tough sexy thriller but Jason Matthews’ novel adapted by Justin Haythe abounds with clichés which no amount of nudity (gratuitous or otherwise) convince us that this belongs with the great espionage films we all know and love. Long and violent, there are some amusing exchanges, particularly with Putin lookalike Schoenaerts such as when his niece hisses  You sent me to whore school! I thought all Russian women went, but there you go. There are twists upon twists and ultimately they play well, with Lawrence very good in a role which is truly abject and horrible in parts. This is a fast-moving travelogue with a conclusion that is planted well in advance and you don’t need to be a master in spycraft to figure it out. It’s not Graham Greene, but what are you going to do? Lawrence is reunited with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for this walk on the wild side and it looks splendid:  even the torture is shot prettily.

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

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I could throw a stick across the river and hit fifty grieving fathers.  Following an Isis suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) as Mexican drug cartels are starting to smuggle terrorists across the U.S. border. The war escalates when Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug kingpin’s thirteen-year old daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to deliberately increase the tensions. When the young girl is seen as collateral damage, the two men will determine her fate as they question everything that they are fighting for, with Alejandro and the girl left on the wrong side of the border when the corrupt Mexican police upset the staged return of Isabel.  At the same time a teenaged Mexican in Texas Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is recruited to move people illegally and the Government drop Alejandro in it  … Sicario was my top film of 2015 and I was pretty surprised that it would become a victim of sequelitis. This is  a far more conventional action outing but steadily winds itself around you with a vise-like grip even if it entirely lacks the deep pulsating strangeness of the original and its fabulously formal widescreen compositions by director Denis Villeneuve and DoP Roger Deakins and the amazing, visceral score of the late great Jóhann Jóhansson, to whom this is dedicated. Crucially it also lacks Emily Blunt’s character, something of a passive protagonist who also functioned as moral compass. What an unusual setup that was! It punched you in the solar plexus, kicked you in the abdomen and grabbed you by the throat. And all the time you wondered who everyone really was in that rather Homeric setup. The formerly silent and mysterious Alejandro has achieved his revenge so why does this even exist? Better ask Taylor Sheridan, who is revisiting the border territory he seems to have made his own, writing some of the best screenplays of recent years. There has been a lot of guff about the timing of this and the fact that there’s a girl ‘separated’ from her (lovely!) family here but this is a film that shows us exactly why the US or the POTUS at least wants a wall:  it’s a portrait of ruthless people trafficking poor people with the resultant evolution of drug lords, gangs and murderers. (You can leave the pity party at the door especially when you look at the murder rates in Mexico last year alone. Chaos streams from that part of the world, lest we forget. And the answer is a slew of dirty tricks and disavowed ops.)  Alejandro is almost forced to question his actions, with Isabel figuring out his relationship with her father:  he’s the attorney whose wife and kids Daddy had murdered. Moner is fantastic, a real find. She is extraordinarily self-possessed as the narco whore! administering beatings in the school yard where the principal is shit-scared of expelling her for fear of reprisals. Brolin returns to the fray dealing out fear in Somalia trying to trace the Isis loonies but back on US soil he’s dealing with the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) and his immediate superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) who wants everything off the books when two dozen Mexican cops are killed (they unleash the firepower first) and the Oval Office can no longer be officially seen to sanction any cross-border activities. The clever aspect is parallel teenage stories – the Tex-Mex boy killer and the kingpin’s girl even if they are rather replete with clichés, no matter the shock value. The conclusion has been set up to deliver another movie with del Toro – a long way from the money laundering (literally!) in Licence to Kill – still in the druggie violent territory to which he so frequently returns. Directed by Stefano Sollima. 

John Wick Chapter Two (2017)

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He once killed three men in a bar with a pencil. Who the fuck can do that? John Wick, that’s who. They killed his wife, his puppy and stole his Mustang last time out. It’s four days later and he’s got his car back (John Leguiziamo tells him it’ll be fixed by 2030). Then the Camorra burn his house down because he won’t do as they ask. So he very reluctantly takes a marker to kill the guy’s sister in Rome before she takes a seat at the top table of gangsters. He’s taken care of at the Continental by the most accommodating hotel manager you’ve never met, Franco Nero. There’s an incredible bathtub scene with a woman in a pool of blood like a suicided angel. Then the chase through the catacombs by a rapper (Common) with a grudge on behalf of his dead employer… And revenge will swiftly follow. After an operatic orgiastic surrender to extraordinary violence Ian McShane puts every hitman on the planet on his tail. Them’s the breaks! I will kill them all, vows Wick. He’s got an hour – what a cliffhanging ending! A perfect setup for the next installment with the impressively inexpressive Keanu Reeves, the angriest widowed hitman on the planet, now injured, in trouble, waiting for the insurance company to pay up on his house and his new puppy padding at his heels with 59 minutes to go and running for his life as even the homeless killers in NYC are booked for the next job … What an awesome exercise in kinetic action, coupled with extraordinarily beautiful visuals (kudos to DoP Dan Laustsen) constituting an ode to blood-letting and architecture and the odd nod to religion (his home is referred to as The Priest’s Temple) and perhaps secret societies. With an old school Commodore and typists putting out the word for his head on a stick (or a pencil) in a very elaborate Heath Robinson contraption, this has oodles of style and savoir faire with a fair bit of swagger to spare and just the correct amount of terse, witty dialogue. The bleed is in the aorta. Pull it out and you will die. Consider this a professional courtesy. The perfect antidote to Christmas! Written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Chad Stahelski.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

 

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There’s nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is the hardman and advisor to Irish American gangster Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who’s at war with Italian Mafia boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) at the height of Prohibition. When crooked bookie Bernie (John Turturro) the brother of Leo’s mistress and Tom’s lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) is threatened by Caspar, the dark-hearted and brainy Reagan is found out by Leo and appears to switch sides in an escalating rivalry over liquor distribution that has a huge body count… It’s hard to pick out a single sequence of brilliance in this positively baroque outing but today I’m choosing the attempt on Leo’s life to the sounds of Frank Patterson warbling Danny Boy: what a stunning declaration of visual bravura (kudos to DoP Barry Sonnenfeld). Brutal, witty, dazzling, beautiful, postmodern and classic, this is a masterpiece. The dialogue is straight out of old gangster movies (and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key) and coming out of Byrne’s accented mouth sounds hilarious:  you gasp at some of the lines, they’re so stunningly written. The narrative is constructed on well known gangster tropes and turns them inside out in a film that acts as a commentary on the genre – Tom’s asides with the Irish policemen are an excruciating Greek chorus! – as well as exulting in its excesses, its ghastly violence, its humour, its morality, its sheer decadence. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen and directed by the former, this is one of the modern greats that engages the brain, the heart and the mind with Reagan’s psychology supplying Byrne with a career-defining role. Astounding.