American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.

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Allied (2016)

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Different kinds of bad movies are bad for different reasons but we love them just the same. Sort of. Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is the French-speaking Canadian intelligence agent parachuted into occupied Morocco on a mission during WW2.  He arrives in a bar and cosies up to his fake wife Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) who introduces him to her friends. They are all speaking French. Max and Marianne are spies and have never actually met before tonight. Before you can say Operation Desert Storm they’re having it away in a swirl of sand in their car and without even a hint of jeopardy they carry out their ostensible mission to assassinate the local Nazi chief at a lovely party. Then they fetch up in London at their wedding and while the city is bombed Marianne has their baby daughter. A year later Max is working and she’s staying at home and he’s asked to look at the evidence against his beloved – his superiors in the Special Operations Executive claim that he is sleeping with the enemy and the couple are pitted against one another as Max is forced to question everything and has to figure out if he must kill his own wife….  This starts out kinda like Casablanca. Well. That’s to say it starts in Casablanca which is not the same thing at all. But it does end in an aerodrome. The first half hour is in the realm of the ludicrous – perfect design, badly paced, poorly written and wholly unbelievable. The acting is debatable. I suppose there was some.  Marianne criticises Max’s Canadian French (I know – the worst insult I ever had in Paris was that my accent was Canadian – sheesh!). Except that it was a rainy Saturday, that was me. But it actually gets better. There’s something about dull old north London burbs that has a lingering interest and wondering how wicked Jared Harris might be in planting a seed of doubt in Max’s mind about his lovely wife – not that it lasts for long. This is a turkey that mutates into something of a hybrid spy romance melodrama. It wanted to be a classic but refined its ambitions to resemble something like Hanover Street. Oh I’m too kind. More story, less sauce, next time, you naughty boys with your Lesbian antics. Written by Steven Knight and directed by Robert Zemeckis. I know! Can you believe it? Frankly, no.

Back to the Future (1985)

 

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Are you telling me you made a time machine out of a DeLorean?! Simply great storytelling here in a knotty, brilliantly constructed time travel-adventure-comedy that has a great big throbbing heart bursting with love at its centre. When you consider it came from the wickedly funny minds of Roberts Gale and Zemeckis – remember the amazing Used Cars?! – it seems an even bigger achievement. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is an average teenager in Twin Pines, a small town with a nice square boasting a clock that hasn’t worked since 1955, a cinema running soft porn, and screwed up parents with an alkie mom (Lea Thompson), a meek dad (Crispin Glover), loser sister and a thirty year old brother in a MacJob. He has a cute girlfriend, a skateboard and an eccentric friend called Doc (Christopher Lloyd) a scientist who has wasted his family’s fortune making a ‘flux capacitor’ fuelled by plutonium. Just when the nutty professor manages to prove he can travel back in time with an Eighties sports car (to die for!) the Libyans come calling and when Doc is mown down in a hail of gunfire Marty guns the engines of the DeLorean and at 88mph is catapulted back to the week the town clock stopped working in a lightning storm. He’s initially mistaken for a spaceman and finds that his housing estate is only just being constructed.  He needs to ensure that his parents get together in high school or the future will look very different as he and his siblings’ images begin to disappear from the family photo back in 1985 and Marty’s mom begins to fall for him in one of the more brilliant takes on incest in film history!  Plus he has to get back to 1985 to save Doc’s life in what is literally a race against time! … Fast, sharp-witted and brilliantly inventive, this has the kind of gleaming detail (skateboards, digital watches, Diet Pepsi, puffa jackets for 1985;  Davy Crockett, sci-fi comics, a classic diner, a Barbara Stanwyck oater at the movie theatre for 1955) that makes it almost documentary-like in resonance and relatability. The organisation of the narrative is mind-boggling when you consider the complexity of the story elements. Add in hugely likeable stars, great one-liners, and a genuine sense of fun,  this is proof that you can rewrite history and even get some very subtle revenge on the school bully!  One of the cinema’s evergreen classics, this is tonally perfect:  it just sings with joy. Brilliant.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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Raymond Shaw is the nicest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever met. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is nothing of the sort. He’s a nasty friendless well-connected Sergeant returning from the Korean War whose domineering widowed mother (Angela Lansbury) is now married to McCarthyite Senator Iselin (James Gregory) and she really is the power behind the throne:  he’s so dim he has to look at a bottle of ketchup to remember the number of Communists he says are in the State Dept. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is plagued by dreams of brainwashing and he’s not the only one. He investigates the possibility that there’s a sleeper agent in his platoon:  but what’s the plan? And when he discovers it’s Shaw, what is he programmed to do? And who could be his US control? This astonishing blend of Cold War paranoia, satire, political thriller and film noir is as urgent as it’s ever been. Brilliantly constructed visually – look at the cutting from dream to reality to TV coverage – by John Frankenheimer, in George Axelrod’s adaptation of the Richard Condon novel, this is even better tenth time around. This hugely controversial film was released during the Bay of Pigs crisis. The title has entered the lexicon and it became the go-to explanation for the major assassinations – both Kennedys and even John Lennon. This was Sinatra’s second film about a potential Presidential murder (he starred in Suddenly eight years earlier) and he stopped its distribution following the JFK assassination – but not due to personal sensitivities, moreso that his profit participation wasn’t being honoured by United Artists. His involvement was such that even a nightclub is named Jilly’s. Lansbury is simply masterful as the monster mother but the book’s incest theme is played down. What you will be left wondering in the aftermath of the film’s shocking impact is just why did Janet Leigh refer to the Chinese?! Amazing.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

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Frederick Forsyth was my gateway drug to faction:  novels based more or less truly on historical incident. You could trust him because he had a long history as a respected and conscientious journalist. And what a way with plot! This story of a 1960s assassination attempt on the despised French President Charles de Gaulle by disgruntled members of the exiled OAS (the militant underground) would seem to have nothing much going for it on the surface:  the outcome, for one. But the trick here is brilliant.  These patriots hire a British hitman (Edward Fox) who is completely unknown to the authorities. And as he gathers the materiel required for such an audacious once-in-a-lifetime evenement and removes all the human obstacles in his path, we realise, at the foregone but nail-biting conclusion, that we know absolutely nothing about him at all.  This is narrative sleight of hand at its best. And it is crucial to the tension that the ruthless professional Jackal remains a complete enigma, a mystery at the heart of a brilliantly staged action thriller with a great supporting cast. His nemesis proves to be a Parisian police detective (Michael Lonsdale) determined to root out this threat to democracy.  Adapted by Scottish-American screenwriter Kenneth Ross who would perform the same miracle with The Odessa File. Gripping outing by director Fred Zinnemann who meshes his predilection for documentary-style realism with all the tricks of a cinema of attractions. Flawlessly executed.

Valkyrie (2008)

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WW2:  the gift that keeps on giving. I’m sure it was  more than his similarity to Claus Von Stauffenberg’s photo that persuaded Tom Cruise to make this, but that apparently was the raison d’etre for this production about a group of high-ranking German soldiers who wanted to take Hitler out in summer 1944.  Claus has lost his eye in action but he becomes the key to planting a bomb following one failed assassination attempt on der Fuhrer and enacting Operation Valkyrie. With a slew of Brit actors including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard as the High Command running the plot, this never really works in terms of tension or thrills in a conspiracy that was well laid but never got its man. Probably overshadowed by the German version Operation Valkyrie (2004) starring Sebastian Koch. Written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander and directed by Bryan Singer.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

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Hitchcock returned to the scene of his first international success, radically altered it, and put two of the industry’s biggest stars at its centre, doctor James Stewart (the Everyman of American cinema) and singer Doris Day, who gets to trill Que Sera, Sera to their young son, Christopher Olsen, who will be kidnapped. The VistaVision Technicolor action is transferred from Switzerland to Morocco (where Day was shocked by the state of animal health) and the juxtaposition with the film’s later scenes in London is well achieved. Uniquely among the master’s films this is almost entirely predicated on the notion of pure suspense, augmented by Bernard Herrmann’s innovative scoring and concluding of course in a famous concert sequence. Featuring those two chaps Ambrose Chappell and Albert Hall, this was adapted from the original (Charles Bennett and DB Wyndham Lewis) by Hitch’s regular Fifties collaborator John Michael Hayes, with an uncredited assist from Angus MacPhail, the man who had dreamed up the term MacGuffin for the meaningless Hitchcockian plot lure. Beautifully shot by Robert Burks and edited by George Tomasini, there is a nice opportunity to watch French actor Daniel Gelin at work – he was the father of the late Maria Schneider, whom he never acknowledged. And the improvised scene with the food is great!

Jackie (2016)

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Did I really see this film?! That’s an appropriate afterthought given its hallucinatory quality, a narcotised morphine fever dream about a woman with a flip haircut, boiled wool suits and a voice from the Marilyn playbook. Natalie Portman doesn’t remotely resemble the upperclass journalist who married into the crass Kennedy family and wound up First Lady with her husband’s brains spattered into her lap on an ill-judged trip to Texas, home to LBJ. Yet that doesn’t matter because after a half hour of her narration you are sucked into this Warholesque meditation on fame and public approval. She lies constantly to journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) interviewing her for Life after the assassination and then tells him things she insists cannot possibly go to print. She will edit the image and control the myth – which she calls Camelot. That record spins as she cascades into a vortex of desperation and disbelief. This will be her version of events. She crashes around the White House, drunk; argues with Bobby and Jack Valenti about the funeral and changes her mind back and forth about how much of Lincoln’s leavetaking should be imitated, while the clodhopping Kennedy sisters try to manipulate the situation;  when her husband’s casket is put on public view she sympathises with LBJ that this should be the terrible beginning of his Presidency. One suspects it is precisely the beginning he desired. Real footage of her White House restoration tour for TV is intercut with a grainy impressionistic copy where she is coached and cheered from the sidelines by Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). Suddenly Portman’s embodiment doesn’t seem as mad. She retracts all the truthful statements from her account to White – what she did with her husband’s skull, the sound of the bullet – but it is to Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt) that she speaks about her loveless marriage, her insecurities, her need to have her dead children interred with their father. Their burial in the rainy hillside at Arlington feels like the ultimate cruelty. Archive footage is impeccably interwoven with this recreation of events in which we all have an investment, even those of us born long after they occurred. As she leaves the White House for the final time she passes Hamiltons department store and sees rows of window mannequins wearing her wigs and two-piece Chanel imitations. What is real? What is performance? she muses. One gets the distinct impression she knew more than most. And off she goes, homeless, to an unknowable, husbandless future. Written by Noah Oppenheim with a visceral arrest of a soundtrack created by Mica Levi, undercutting the sense of camp that this sad and crazy brilliance otherwise imparts. Andy Warhol is alive and well and still making movies. There is just one word for this: astonishing. Directed by Pablo Larrain. Oh!

Love and Death (1975)

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I fell over laughing when I first saw this on TV aged about 13 so I thought it was time to revisit and see if it holds up. With a screenplay by Allen, Donald Ogden Stewart and Mildred Cram you’d have a high expectation of this satire of Russian literature and the Napoleonic war being extremely funny and it is! Cram was a very popular short story writer and got the Academy Award for  perenially popular Love Affair (1939) which most of us know better from its modern iteration, Sleepless in Seattle. DOS of course was a famous humorist and wit, a member of the Algonquin Round Table and had a slew of movie credits to his name. He is immortalised as Bill Gorton in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A member of the Anti-Nazi League prior to WW2, he was nailed by HUAC and had to abandon the US for the UK. Let’s just say he was a lot funnier than any of the censorious goons who hounded him out. Allen? He takes the concept of Monsieur Beaucaire and puts himself in the Bob Hope role, a coward running through swathes of Tolstoy with a disrespectful pitchfork in pursuit of real-life lady love Diane Keaton, playing the helpless trampy cousin he adores, and it’s an amuse-bouche for Annie Hall, that other devoted homage to anti-heroic schmuckery, sex and all-round meaninglessness in the face of egotistical slaughter. This is the film that birthed the exchange, Sex without love is an empty experience/As empty experiences go, it’s one of the best:  not necessarily what you’d expect in a piss-take of War and Peace. Supremely silly with screamingly witty lines and an abundance of hilarious sight gags – even the bloody battlefield scenes are a hoot. Gotta go watch it again and pretend I’m still 13. With Harold Gould, Olga Georges-Picot, Jessica Harper, and Death.

Zoolander 2 (2016)

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Adam, Eve and … Steve. It’s a long time since we first met Derek and tried Blue Steel and social media appears to have radically filtered our narcissistic reality in the interim but this isn’t exactly Chanel No. 5 no matter how you cut the advertising. Justin Bieber never did anything to me but a lot of people enjoyed watching him getting machine gunned to death in the first few minutes. The setting in Rome is delectable. The cast are game. It’s a supremely silly satire about fashion vanity and everyone you have ever heard of is in it. YOU are probably in it. The story is about Fashion Interpol – run by Penelope Cruz – who get Derek and Hansel to help uncover the villain behind the assassination of pop stars. Derek finds his son in an orphanage and is horrified by his obesity. Hansel has fathered a bunch of children in Malibu (presumably an in-joke). Sting meets the irrelevant pair at St Peter’s and tells them an alternative tale of models’ origins which has a vague similarity to Christianity. Mugatu is back attempting world domination. Funny, daft, utterly inane. What did you expect?! Written by John Hamburg, Nicholas Stoller, Justin Theroux and Ben Stiller, who also directed.