Waterloo (1970)

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I am France and France is me! Napoleon Bonaparte (Rod Steiger) is being defeated at every juncture and following an enforced period of exile on the island of Elba he escapes. With the support of Marshal Ney (Dan O’Herlihy) who defects from Louis XVIII (Orson Welles in a colourful cameo) he sees a chance to reclaim his name at Waterloo in Belgium after defeating the Prussians and where he faces the Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) leading the British… The most precious quality in life is loyalty. This is a fabled war epic notable for the problematic performance by Steiger which fails to elicit the empathy that even the most ardent of his supporters (c’est moi!) requires. His competing voiceover with that of Wellington basically asks you to choose between will and grace – because he is the man under pressure and Steiger’s performance doesn’t permit you to digress from that impression. The contrast between the two military leaders is exemplified in the scene when Wellington is found dozing under a newspaper beneath a tree before battle commences on the ground of his choosing while Napoleon is pacing, sweating, dying inside. I did not usurp the crown, I found it in the gutter and picked it up with my sword.  It was the people who put it on my head This is an absolutely beautiful historical work, resplendent in its narrative and aesthetic choices but also rather smart as a quicksilver screenplay. Irish screenwriter H.A.L. Craig’s work has great clarity of construction, synoptic sequences and epigrammatic dialogue, which I can’t get enough of – there’s some brilliant byplay between Wellington and one of his Irish infantrymen, O’Connor (Donal Donnelly) especially when the man is found secreting a squealing piglet on his person:  This fellow knows how to defend a helpless position! Their irregular encounters punctuate the drama, first with humour, then with sorrow.  There’s a rousing, appropriately imperial score by Nino Rota which greatly enhances the philosophy being worked out here:  the utter futility and brutality of war. Even the poor piper gets it. And as for the unfortunate horses … Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, who along with Vittorio Bonicelli and Mario Soldati made additions to the screenplay, and produced by Dino de Laurentiis. It’s wonderfully shot by Armando Nannuzzi whose compositions allow you to see exactly how (not) to engage the enemy. Epic. Wellington. Wellington! Why is it always Wellington?


Marathon Man (1976)

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How am I to fathom your mind if you continue to hide it from me?  Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a Columbia graduate student and long-distance runner who has just enrolled in a doctoral seminar with Prof. Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver) where his focus will be the fate of his father a fellow historian driven to suicide in the McCarthy era purely on the grounds of his Judaism.  He is oblivious to the fact that his older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), is not in fact an oil executive but a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) and who is almost murdered by a blue-eyed Asian hitman in a Paris hotel. Doc visits Babe in NYC and meets his girlfriend the allegedly Swiss Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) whom he figures out immediately as one of Szell’s couriers. Babe doesn’t believe there’s a bad bone in her body.  Doc is murdered and his colleague Janeway (William Devane) tells Babe the muggers who ambushed him in Central Park are Szell’s henchmen but they won’t come for him tonight – but they do, and Babe is held at the end of Szell’s dentist’s drill constantly being asked Is it safe?  He is caught in the middle of a transaction being expedited by The Division who clean up matters arising from disagreements between Washington and the CIA ...  Director John Schlesinger reunited with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman to make this iconic paranoid thriller adaptation by William Goldman of his 1974 novel which invokes all sorts of historic nightmares not to mention the fear of unnecessary dental surgery. For a liberal pacifist you have some sense of vengeance Doc tells Babe when he realises he still has the gun their father used to blow his brains out. The last time I saw this was in the middle of another sleepless night during a three-month bout of glandular fever and the words Is it safe? made it impossible for me to recover, for, oh, probably another month at that point. There might be plotholes you could drive a truck through that not even Robert Towne’s putative and uncredited rewrite fixed but even fully conscious and in broad daylight it remains a transfixing piece of work whose echoes are still felt. The schematic structure is emblematic of a film whose many well-constructed sequences take place in famous locations – Columbia, Central Park, the diamond district, where Szell is recognised by two of his victims. Szell! Der Weisse Engel! shrieks a camp survivor as the old Nazi is ironically forced to get a price for his diamonds from the very race he tortured and executed with extreme prejudice thirty years earlier. The entire text is replete with such irony, expressed by Janeway in the line Everything we do cuts both ways after he supposedly rescues Babe only to deliver him back to the Nazi. The dialogue is biting and great:  I believe in my country/So did we all. Michael Small’s score is superb with a real feel for the emotive fraternal and familial issues underlying the narrative action whose logic turns on the notion of history itself and the versions of truth which we tell ourselves and in turn are told to keep us happy.  He did much the same job on The Parallax View, another paranoid conspiracy thriller whose similarly allusive style (and on which Towne also did some controversial rewrite work during a writers’ strike) makes it the best political film of its time. It looks incredible, thanks to Conrad Hall. Oh the Seventies really had great films. Nowadays they’d probably give Szell a sympathetic backstory. Not so much in real life for Keller whose father actually was a Nazi. History is all around us in this persistent, resonant film. Pauline Kael called it a Jewish revenge fantasy. Goy veh.

The Shape of Water (2017)

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I would say take care of your teeth and fuck a lot more. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, isolated woman who works as a cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security top secret government research laboratory in 1962 Baltimore. Her life changes when she discovers the lab’s classified asset – a mysterious, scaled amphibian creature (Doug Jones) from South America that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend, she soon learns that its fate and very survival lies in the hands of a hostile and violently sadistic government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) and a marine biologist Dimitri (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is actually a Russian spy. With the help of her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her next door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay out of work commercial illustrator, she finds a way to save him and alter her own reality … It all seems so very unlikely – plagiarism suits notwithstanding – Guillermo Del Toro’s homage to his 50s childhood fave, Creature from the Black Lagoon. However this moves like the clappers with just enough time for the very mannered Hawkins to find an appropriate character to suit her mobile features. Tonally it sits somewhere amid the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet with added masturbation and violence, and the creature – except for one appalling scene which as a cat-lover I can’t even bring myself to recall – is remarkably sympathetic. You might call it a politically correct fairytale about interracial sex for the snowflake generation – me, I liked it anywho because it portrays a yearning and an empathy that is very appealing and well played. Co-written with Vanessa Taylor.


Make Mine Mink (1960)


Look at me now – holed up here with a lot of dotty females. No job. No future.  Ex-con Lily (Billie Whitelaw), a maid at Dame Beatrice’s (Athene Seyler) boarding house, steals a mink coat to give to Beatrice, the other residents of the house organize to return the coat and save Lily from arrest because she’s done her time inside already. However, the excitement is a great change from their boring lives, and they decide to start stealing coats for charity purposes. Major Rayne (Terry-Thomas) a former WW2 officer missing the cut and thrust of battle and orders, leads the otherwise female group of unlikely thieves – Nanette (Hattie Jacques), Pinkie (Elspeth Duxbury) and Beatrice. Things become very complicated indeed when the team of ‘Gangsters and Their Molls’ as the newspapers have it might be found out because Lily starts to date a policeman, Jim Benham (Jack Hedley). The gang’s last job – they raid a casino disguised as police officers – is itself duplicated by a raid by the real thing and a detective (Raymond Huntley – he was bound to show up, wasn’t he) knocks on the door … This is a typically British farce of eccentrics and implausible plotting with a wonderful cast. Jacques has a good time of it as the masculine take-charge woman who then dresses up to look rather like Diana Dors while T-T doesn’t really let rip for a while. Seyler is fun as the do-gooder Dame whose nephew (Kenneth Williams) is a well-appointed fence and Duxbury is good as a quasi-hysteric:  Noel Purcell turns up as a very helpful burglar indeed – right under her bed. You’ll recognise some other famous faces in blink-or-you’ll-miss-them uncredited bits – Clement Freud as a croupier, Peter Vaughan, Ron Moody … Written by Michael Pertwee and Peter Blackmore based on Peter Coke’s stage farce, with a jaunty sub-jazz muzak backdrop composed by Philip Green. Directed by Robert Asher. Even minor Terry-Thomas is better than none at all!


The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

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He was vulnerable and weak.  It was all I ever wanted and now I had no desire for it. In 1976 San Francisco, a precocious 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) embarks on an enthusiastic sexual odyssey, beginning with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) current lover the handsome Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). He’s a feckless sort who enjoys their affair with a recklessness to match the girl’s while her distant mother and goofy younger sister Gretel (Abigail Wait) remain somewhat ignorant. The far from pretty Minnie has sex with whomever she chooses to sate her desires, including her BFF Kimmie (Madeleine Winters) who has a penchant for giving blowjobs to black men. When her mother finds her tape recorded diaries she goes underground with cool girl druggie Tabatha (Margarita Levieva) who presents her with a situation that’s too far out even for her and she goes home to face the music …  Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s somewhat autobiographical novel is full of problems, many of which are resolved through the sheer brio and bravery in Minnie’s voice.  Despite my misgivings – which lasted for, oh, maybe the first hour? More? This is ultimately an artistic success. My misgivings have to do with the depiction of a child having a full-on sexual affair with a man twice her age who happens to be her mother’s boyfriend (feel free to contribute your own Woody/Soon-Yi reference but at least we are spared the full-frontal genital photographs of her daughter that greeted Mia Farrow). When he takes her virginity we share the bloodletting but that’s the last suggestion of physical discomfort in the whole sordid tale – a rather unlikely outcome in this scenario. As her story (complete with effects, animations and voiceover) progresses it’s clear that she is the one in charge and finally the most mature person in this massively dysfunctional and promiscuous tribe, documenting her experiences through her chosen artform of cartooning and tape recordings – which out her to her betrayed mother. Gifting this intelligent girl with so much agency is an achievement in itself and perhaps in the context of the times it’s a safer move than it would be in a contemporary story.  There is a point at which you surmise that all the hearts and flowers animations are there to distract from the horrors  – Minnie is so hot to trot she asks, Does everyone think about sex as much as I do? She’s a pederast’s wet dream. This is a film which isn’t afraid to confront the audience. When her stepfather Pascal (Christopher Meloni) returns for a visit with the girls there’s a flashback to a time when he asked their mother (it’s unclear as to who the younger daughter’s father might be) if she didn’t think Minnie’s intense need for physical contact wasn’t sexual.  It’s he who thinks something is awry in this screwed up shacked up situation. This is a comedy drama which never strays from its serious subject matter despite the graphic novel form in which it is presented, reminding us of Ghost World. Minnie’s artistic heroine Aline Kominsky appears in cartoon form and writes her a letter of encouragement. However it is a relentlessly adult story and a cautionary one about growing up much, much too soon in an out of control family where sex is permanently on the menu and the mother admits to her own teenage horniness. Their relationship  is clearly abnormal but the film sidesteps this problem by presenting Monroe not so much as the erotic devil but rather a harmless moron who takes what he can get when it’s presented to him. Minnie doesn’t care, she just wants sex. This is never less than disturbing but it is also a necessary corrective to the male patriarchal perspective about female experience. What’s the point of living if nobody loves you?



CHiPS (2017)


Aka CHiPS:  Law and Disorder. If you haven’t been fucking your wife in over a year then somebody else has! Jon Baker (writer/director Dax Shepard) and Frank ‘Ponch’ Poncherello (Michael Peña) have just joined the California Highway Patrol in Los Angeles, but for very different reasons. Baker is a former pro-motorbike rider who’s trying to put his life and marriage to Karen (Kristen Bell aka Mrs Shepard) back together. He’s utterly hopeless at everything else and has to score in the top 10% in citations amongst other criteria just to keep his head above water.  Poncherello is a cocky undercover FBI agent who’s investigating a multimillion dollar armoured car heist that may be an inside job. Forced to work together, the inexperienced rookie and hardened veteran begin clashing instead of clicking while trying to nab the bad guys. Baker is phobic and allergic with a history of extraordinary injuries and whose motorsickle skills are literally lifesaving. Ponch is a sex maniac who has a history of shooting at his partners to save thugs. They literally complete each other  … In contrast with a lot of quasi-parodic TV show sendups this adaptation of the beloved show actually has a life of its own – deftly utilising the contrasting buddy structure to tackle racism, homophobia, marriage, locker room behaviour and sex in the most outrageously downbeat and self-deprecating way possible which can only be a good thing and it’s relentlessly good-natured even when the junkie son of villainous corrupt cop Ray Kurtz  (Vincent D’Onofrio) is being decapitated. Even so, it still revels in sexism but it’s hard to dislike.  Peña and Shepard play extremely well off each other and with Mrs S in the cast alongside another Veronica Mars alum (Ryan Hansen) in the large ensemble plus Jane Kaczmarek as a randy Captain and Maya Rudolph (uncredited) as a recruiter there’s a lot of fun to be had.  There’s fantastic use of Los Angeles as location and overall it’s an enjoyable if lowbrow entertainment. Shepard can act and write and direct. Triple threat! Good to see Erik Estrada in the concluding scene. Memories are made of this… 


John Wick Chapter Two (2017)


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.


The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

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Appears to me you’ve been seventeen kinds of damned fool. Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) has been abandoned to die by fellow failed prospectors Taggart (L.Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin) in the Arizona desert. When he finds a water source he digs a ditch and determines to settle there and charge passers by for a drink at his way station. When fake priest Rev. Joshua Sloane (David Warner) – minister of a church of his own revelation – stops and introduces him to photos of some fresh female flesh and enquires about ownership Hogue races to file a land claim at nearby Dead Dog where he takes a fancy to feisty prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens). She joins him after being run out of town. They take leave of each other when she sees he isn’t committed to her. When Taggart and Bowen return in his absence they see an opportunity for prospecting. Then he comes back and takes charge but there’s a car on the horizon … Hogue is one of Peckinpah’s most empathetic characters, a rounded individual and funny with it and is embodied wonderfully wryly by Robards who has rarely been better. Stevens is equally at home with the material and their scenes together are remarkably tender (not for nothing did she get the Reel Cowboys’ Silver Spur award for her contribution to the western). This is a highly unconventional exercise in genre with marvellous characters adorning a story that is – as the title suggests – a kind of elegy to frontier life, with songs (by Richard Gillis) playing a large role in the narrative whose tragicomic end can be inferred. The end of the Old West is symbolised by the arrival of the motor car (or ‘horseless carriages’ as they call them here) when all at once Hogue’s little oasis is out of date. Too subtle to be a comedy western, too sweet to be lumped in with Peckinpah’s more violent fare (particularly his previous film, The Wild Bunch), this is quite a mellow and reflective essay on what a man needs to confront in his life:  change, loss and obsolescence. Written by John Crawford and Edmund Penney and beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard with split screens and speeded up scenes to remind us when it originated.



Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)


Everybody’s got a right to be a sucker once. When Budd Boetticher wrote this story he thought it would be a perfect return to Hollywood after his near-decade long Mexican odyssey when the subject of his bullfighting documentary died and he nearly bought the farm himself. But his career was effectively over and this was rewritten by Albert Maltz, another (blacklisted) resident of Mexico and instead of his hoped-for Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr starring, it was supposed to have Elizabeth Taylor in the lead. She gave the script to Clint Eastwood on the set of Where Eagles Dare (in which he co-starred with Richard Burton) and the whole game changed when it wasn’t going to be shot in Spain. In fact it became a Mexican co-production.  Eastwood is Hogan, a mercenary en route to assist Mexican revolutionaries against the French who were then engaged in an invasion of the country, with the promise of enough gold to set up a bar in California. He rescues nun Sara (MacLaine) who has had her clothes ripped off her by a bunch of marauding cowboys and he shoots them dead. She proves to be much more resourceful than he expects and enjoys drinking, smoking and helps him stop an ammunition train in its tracks as they make their way to a French fort on behalf of the Juaristas.  It turns out that the nun’s garb is just a costume that covers up her real vocation, that of prostitute … Gorgeously shot by Gabriel Figueroa (assisted by Bruce Surtees) this is a sensational comedy western with two gripping star performances. Don Siegel didn’t like MacLaine whom he declared unfeminine because she had too many balls. It was the last time Eastwood got second billing and also the last time that he would agree to an actress of stature as his co-star until Meryl Streep acted opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County. Siegel takes a spaghetti-style story and gives it some nicely sardonic twists with some terrific scenes – when MacLaine is giving a former client the last rites; and playing for time with General LeClaire (Albert Morin) while children dump a dynamite-filled pinata at the fort, to name but two. Boetticher was appalled at the alterations to his original story and when Siegel said he woke up every day to a paycheque, Boetticher responded he woke up every day and could look at himself in the mirror. Nonetheless this is engaging, smart and funny and a really great acting masterclass. Ennio Morricone’s insistent, brutally repetitive score is a plus.


It (2017)


Aka It:  Chapter One. Go blow your dad you mullet-wearing asshole. Stephen King’s 1986 novel gets the big screen treatment here after a 1990 TV two-parter that has a fond place in many people’s memories.  It sticks with the first part of the novel – the kids’ experiences, and moves them forward, to the late Eighties. In 1988 Derry, Maine, little Georgie sails his  paper boat and it floats down a drain in a rainstorm and he is pulled in by Pennywise the Clown, becoming one of the town’s many missing kids. When school’s out next summer his older brother Bill sets out to find him with a bunch of other kids who all have their issues:  big mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, germophobe Stan, overweight newbie Ben, pretty Bev (the subject of false sex rumours) and black home-schooled Mike.  They are the Losers Club and have various problems with the parental figures in their lives. Ben’s research in the library proves that Derry has a very high mortality rate particularly when it comes to kids and every 27 years this demonic shapeshifting character manifests through their fears when he reappears to feed. But in the midst of their search they have to avoid the Bowers Gang, horrible greasers who violently terrorise them as they search the area’s sewers to find the centre of Pennywise’s hellish underground activities … Part of why this works so well is that the kids are taken seriously and their problems in the world are immense:  we’re talking child abuse and Munchausen by proxy, to name but two. We feel for them because they are fully rounded characters who have legitimate reason to fear grown ups. A clown in the sewers is as nothing compared to Dad waiting in the hallway to feel you up. It’s a perfectly judged drama. Another reason this works is because it inhabits familiar territory for many of us who recall Spielberg films of the era – the sight of a squad of boys on bikes recalls ET – and the King drama Stand By Me which was so iconic and one that also treats its protagonists respectfully. We also think about The Goonies:  the spirit of adventure is overwhelmingly attractive despite the dangers to this bunch of nerds and scaredy cats.  The Netflix show Stranger Things is an overt homage to all of these, mixing up the paranormal, horror and nostalgia for thirty years ago and the presence of cool girl Winona Ryder is such a plus.  Adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman;  directed by Andy Muschietti who gives the scenes equal weight and doesn’t give into the massive temptation to exaggerate the horror element, allowing each character to fully blossom. This is a coming of age story with panache and clowns and a wonderful ensemble of wholly believable kids and Bill Skarsgard donning the whiteface. Personally I can’t wait for part two set 27 years from 1989 when It reappears: wouldn’t it be really meta to cast Molly Ringwald as the adult incarnation of the Molly Ringwald lookalike? Awesome idea!