Year of the Dragon (1985)

Only one Stanley White. Following the murders of Mafia and Triad leaders in NYC, Polish Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) takes it upon himself to bring down the Chinese organised crime gangs. He’s breaking the long held treaty to permit the Chinese to take care of things in Chinatown. This puts him in conflict with Tony Tai (John Lone) the ruthless leader of the organisation.  It pulls his life apart with his already crumbling childless marriage to nurse Connie (Caroline Kava) collapsing altogether when Stanley falls for the charms of ambitious journalist Tracy Tzu (Ariane). Now Tony has a major shipment coming in from Thailand and Stanley engages in wire tapping for information .. This is America and it’s two hundred years old and you need to change your clocks. This sprawling portrait of the gangs of New York was much misunderstood upon its release but it lays its cards on the table upfront: it’s all in the name (changed) because NYC’s most decorated cop is an unapologetic racist Nam vet and sexist to boot. He’s launching his own tong war. Naturally Rourke plays him as a total charmer and it works:  he has the aura of death about him, his hair is as white as his adopted name and everyone around him seems to get crushed.  As written by Oliver Stone and director Michael Cimino this adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel is remarkably discreet in some areas – and lurid in others. The major love scene between Stanley and Tracy is cleverly done as they tell each other how much they hate each other and then … Her big ‘angry’ scene when he’s moved his team into her preposterously huge loft is amusing because her acting is so poor, all stiff arms like an Irish dancer. Part of the film’s issue representationally is the obvious inexpressivity of the Chinese actors, a physical trait there’s no escaping. They make up for it by killing people. Their treatment historically in the US and their unequal immigrant experience is posited against Stanley’s veteran’s hangups, something that’s used against him.  He wants to sleep with a journalist while both he and Tony decry the media’s role in the portrayal of violence and the way ethnicity is covered. Therefore there is a balance established with Tony – that’s clever storytelling. Lone is super handsome, a great suave villain to play opposite.  The lean way in which the marital story is exposed is a good hook for Stanley’s humanity and it’s the dramatic crutch that assists the outcome. The intra-Asian racism is well dramatised and horrendously violent. Class is an issue that becomes an overriding theme. The whole thing looks incredible – shot by Alex Thomson on a set (by Wolf Kroeger and Victoria Paul) in North Carolina for NYC (except for the views from Tracy’s apartment at the top of the Clocktower Building giving a beguiling view of the city’s skyline).  There’s a fascinating and intricate score by David Mansfield with echoes of phrases from The Deer Hunter. That this is a disguised western is clarified in those final scenes on the railway track. And in this wonderful mesh of genre and tradition there is an honourable way out for one man. What a way to end. Amazingly the role of White (originally called Arthur Powers – but there’s a Stanley White credited as Police Consultant!) was intended for Clint Eastwood. Both he and Paul Newman turned it down. Just as well. Only one Mickey Rourke. He’s a good cop but he won’t stop

Victor/Victoria (1982)

 

Only a moron gives advice to a horse’s arse.  Paris, 1934. Coloratura soprano Victoria Grant (Dame Julie Andrews) fails in her audition at a nightclub where she’s seen by gay cabaret singer Carole “Toddy” Todd (Robert Preston) who has been fired from his gig at a second-rate Chez Lui. When Victoria punches out Toddy’s bisexual hustler lover Richard (Malcolm Jamieson), Toddy comes up with what he considers to be an inspired idea: to pass Victoria off as a female impersonator. Victoria. Her male alter ego could be the toast of Paris and make a lot of money as gay Polish Count Victor Grazinski. It all goes well until Chicago gangster King Marchan (James Garner) turns up with his girlfriend Norma Cassady (Lesley Ann Warren) and falls for Victor, convinced he is a she … A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. A breathtaking blend of musical comedy, gender confusion, romance, slapstick, cross-dressing and cabaret, this loose remake of 1933 German screwball film Viktor Und Viktoria  written by Hans Hoemburg and director Reinhold Schuenzel is a showcase for all writer/director Blake Edwards’ talents as well as providing wife Julie Andrews’ greatest role. Preston is a joy as her outrageous gay mentor in a warm, funny, generous performance and Garner has great fun subtly unravelling when his suspicions are proved happily correct in a scenario that takes pleasure in mocking his macho stance. Warren is also excellent as his Thirties moll with bodyguard Alex Karras surprising everyone by coming out.  And for Edwards fans there’s the prospect of Graham Stark providing his customary support in a cast alight with provocation and tolerance proving sexual orientation really is not the issue as long as you’re getting some. What great characters! With songs by Leslie Bricusse and composer Henry Mancini there’s a lot to love in an astonishingly constructed entertainment. Never mind twist endings, the entire narrative is twisted in every possible direction. A modern classic. People believe what they see

The Souvenir (2019)

You are lost and you will always be lost. London, 1980. Shy Knightsbridge-dwelling film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) gets involved with a mysterious older man Anthony (Tom Burke) who claims to work for the Foreign Office. While she starts working on a project and he disappears from time to time, she doesn’t suspect what is revealed at a dinner party by a guest – that he’s a junkie. When he steals all her belongings to score she appears to be reeled in to a deeper relationship with him. She doesn’t socialise as much with her old friends but they visit each other’s parents. Then following a trip to Venice when he realises she is aware of his habit she starts bringing him to housing estates to buy drugs and finally sees what is going on in his life until finally she sees him out of control … Don’t be worthy, be arrogant. It’s much more sexy.  Writer/director Joanna Hogg’s quasi-autobiographical tale turns on the passivity rather typical of her characters, upper middle class types stuck in situations they can’t quite recognise and then have trouble leaving.  Here it’s a story of her own youth when she fell in with a much older man who concealed his serious heroin problem from her and given the prevalence of that drug among the arty set in the era (read Will Self on the subject) her naivete is somewhat hard to credit. Realism is introduced by a very welcome soundtrack of songs by bands like The Pretenders and The Fall with those awkward dinner conversations punctuated by political talk – the IRA, the Middle Easterners holed up at the Libyan Embassy:  we even get to re-live the bomb that ended that particular siege.  There are urgent exchanges about movies. Then there are the barely comprehensible phone calls. The letters we can’t read.  It is amusing to see Swinton Sr. turning up in twinset and pearls – definitely not how she spent the Eighties, after all, with her forays in Derek Jarmanland. But it takes 83 minutes for Julie to do something active to end the relationship and it’s only when she sees Anthony’s drug paraphernalia at the flat and then he appears, strung out.  That’s a long time after he robbed all her possessions for a fix. She may be rather innocent in that sense but she has big ambitions and continues with her film: her obvious class status arises only when her Head of Production comments rhetorically, I don’t suppose you really have to think about budget in Knightsbridge, do you. Richard Ayoade gets a great scene when he obnoxiously ponders how a heroin addict and a Rotarian got together and Julie is utterly baffled:  she doesn’t know what track marks are.  The photo of Anthony in full beard in Afghanistan circa 1973 didn’t arouse any suspicions. For such a sophisticate you have to wonder, don’t you. The formation of an artist is tough to put together in the frustrating first hour but somehow in the second, it works, when you finally get intimations of an emotional undertow about to burst in a film that is chiefly of memory rather than strict narrative or depth psychology. I do what I do so you can have the life you’re having

The Assistant (2019)

Never sit on the couch.  Recent North Western graduate and aspiring film producer Jane (Julia Garner) just landed her dream job as a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul at a famous production company. Her day starts before dawn, making coffee, ordering lunch, making travel arrangements and taking phone messages. But as she follows her daily routine, she grows increasingly aware of the abuse that insidiously colors every aspect of her workday, an accumulation of degradations against which she decides to take a stand when she meets inexperienced waitress Sienna (Kristine Froseth) and takes her by taxi to the Mark Hotel and later her office colleagues (Noah Robbins and Jon Orsini) joke that that’s where their boss is spending the afternoon. It dawns on her what’s happening. She takes her complaint to company human resources officer Wilcock (Matthew McFadyen) who persuades her that she’s actually jealous:  Don’t worry about it, she’ll get more out of it than he will. Trust me. He is clearly well aware of his boss’ predilections as is everyone at the company while her colleagues get her to apologise by email to Him I don’t think you’ve anything to worry about. You’re not his type. The #MeToo era has finally pulled back the curtain on the raging sexist bullying of the media business, not that it was ever going to be a surprise for any woman who has ever had that particular experience. In other words you didn’t have to work for Harvey Weinstein to know that that is how things go, it’s just that he’s the most egregious example and a clear influence on this striking debut by writer/director/producer (and documentary maker) Kitty Green. It’s a small and personal work, focused on the reactions of the protagonist and the only voice that’s raised is that of her nameless boss, behind closed doors, on the phoneline, never seen directly, communicating via Non-Disclosure Agreements, the semen stains in his office, the Viagra bottles and the parade of young women leaving, eyes down, from his office which is clearly modelled on Miramax, now bust, toxicity emanating in the air from his vile presence. Garner’s face does so much of the dramatic suspense for the story – absorbing the psychological sucker punch of what she’s inadvertently arranging for her boss – assignations of rape and sexual coercion. Structured like a mystery over the course of a day in which Jane has to piece together the bigger picture from hints and clues, this is subtly shocking and impressive as an admirably controlled commentary on the abuse of power and its widespread acceptance and nurturing by fawning sexist corrupt help, the kind you find in every office. A quiet scream.  I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great

Midsommar (2019)

Midsommar

Welcome home. When her sister kills their parents in a murder-suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, psychology student Dani (Florence Pugh) tries to repair her relationship with cultural anthropology student Christian (Jack Reynor) who’s been trying to break up with her and is taking off to Sweden with classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren. He has invited Christian and their colleagues Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) for a traditional pagan festival held just once every 90 years. Dani decides to guilt trip Christian into asking her along. When they get there they are disoriented by the permanent daylight, drugged, separated from one another and gradually start to disappear, leaving just Dani to be made May Queen and Christian to perform a very special service… All of our oracles are deliberate products of inbreeding. Writer/director Ari (Hereditary) Aster was offered the opportunity to do a Swedish slasher film but chose to make this instead, a variation on The Wicker Man but with a gang of stupid students instead of one innocent policeman, succumbing to the lure of ancient rituals which are just a cover for sex, incest and murder. As in all horror movies, when people go missing nobody thinks of going for help or contacting the police. They hang around until they are murdered and disembowelled, their body parts reassembled with flowers stuck in their eye sockets. Pugh holds it together in yet another unflattering wardrobe (will someone please dress her properly in one of her films?!); while Reynor is the dumb selfish schmuck ignoring all rational ideas in favour of writing up a thesis. Undoubtedly stylish, this is pretentious and absurdly overlong at 140 minutes and an exploitation film in all but name if the nudists crowing over a copulating couple of ginger mingers are anything to go by. If this doesn’t put you off group activities, religion or Scandinavians, nothing will. I can see you possibly doing that

Advance to the Rear (1964)

Advance to the Rear

My wife wouldn’t believe half the things that go on around here. In 1862, during the American Civil War, a company of Union infantrymen, commanded by Colonel Claude Brackenbury (Melvyn Douglas) who has a comfortable arrangement with his opposite number to exchange a round of gunfire for an agreed amount of time each morning to avoid any real conflict. However the status quo is disrupted when his junior Captain Jared Heath (Glenn Ford) captures some of the enemy. When he receives an order to attack the Confederate positions. his horse stampedes toward the rear of the front by accident. The confused soldiers, deployed in assault formation, follow their colonel in a rush. The consequent Board of Inquiry sees this as plain cowardice in the face of the enemy and Colonel Brackenbury is demoted to the rank of Captain while his executive officer,, is demoted to Lieutenant. As further punishment, together with a few of their NCOs they are deployed west to Fort Hooker where they are to take charge of a company of misfits and rejects. The new company is designated as Company Q (army slang for ‘sick list’). On the way, the demoted officers travel on a river-boat. Among the passengers there are several prostitutes, led by Madam Easy Jenny (Joan Blondell) being run out of town by the decent townsfolk. But it’s saucy Martha Lou Williams who tickles Heath’s fancy, particularly when he figures she’s got a scam going. It turns out she’s a spy for the other side but he decides to do nothing except keep her out of trouble because he wants to marry her. Then things come to a head when they arrive at their destination and the unit is required to escort a gold shipment and are captured by Thin Elk (Michael Pate) an Indian chief West Point graduate who’s in league with Hugo Zattig (James Griffith) of the Confederates …  I ain’t never seen no troops that looked quite so defeated. A period variation on the service comedies so popular in the post-war era, this Civil War gang could serve as a model for The Dirty Dozen, minus the violence or cynicism. Ford had starred in a series of military comedies since The Teahouse of the August Moon but this is the first one to be set in the Civil War. It’s mild material but Douglas scores as the unruffled General who believes in not fighting like a West Point gentleman when tea can be enjoyed instead. Jack Schaefer’s non-comedic 1957 novel Company of Cowards was adapted from a Saturday Evening Post story by William Chamberlain and the screenplay is by Samuel A. Peeples and William Bowers with uncredited work by Robert Carson. It’s a rather thin piece of work, lacking focus on the main event and coasting on Ford’s easy personality and Stevens’ charm with some nice scenes featuring Alan Hale and Whit Bissell while Blondell is fun as the blowsy madam. There are some interesting sound effects and songs by the New Christy Minstrels. Directed by George Marshall. When are we going to stop doing all this?

 

Bad Therapy (2020)

Bad Therapy

Aka Judy Small. I want a break from all the drudgery. I want my life to expand. Nature TV editor Bob Howard (Rob Corddry) and his realtor wife Susan (Alicia Silverstone) are enduring some financial issues. It’s her second marriage and she has a daughter Louise (Anna Pniowsky) from her first marriage which ended with her husband’s accidental death. They see marriage counselor, Judy Small (Michaela Watkins) to improve their relationship. However, Judy’s insistence that all three of the family see her separately reveals dark impulses that will bring Bob and Susan’s marriage to the breaking point as she manipulates them into losing trust in each other. And Judy’s former colleagues have discovered that she is practising two years after being barred due to the suicide of a client and what’s that mannequin she talks to in a back room?…  It was an unfortunate instance of counter-transference enactment. Nancy Doyne adapts her novel Judy Small with the tone shifting unevenly from comedy to thriller and back, an unsettling portrait of what therapists can do to their clients and a worrying insight into how the industry is governed (David Paymer ends up at the bottom of a staircase and not in a good way). Ironically while this film enjoys pushing its protagonists’ buttons it doesn’t sensibly explain the reason for the chaos caused by this disturbed psycho(therapist) and the fact that the couple continues seeing her makes it a little silly. The women are terrific in this throwback yuppies in peril-style thriller. Directed by William Teitler. Let me help you now

Zee and Co. (1972)

Zee and Co

Aka X, Y and Zee. Quite frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a shit! Middle-aged London architect Robert Blakeley’s (Michael Caine) angry wife Zee (Elizabeth Taylor) finally gets even with him for his affair with young widowed boutique owner Stella (Susannah York) by first attempting suicide and then having a go at seducing the woman herself. And Stella’s past threatens to engulf them all … Come back here, you! I haven’t dismissed you yet! This is Irish novelist Edna O’Brien’s first original screenplay and it was published in advance of the film’s release, with some evident alterations to the source material. Worth watching as an incredible time capsule of the ageing Swinging London set hiccoughing their way into the new decade and with gems of performances from the cast.  Taylor’s flamboyant bisexual complete with Cleopatra makeup flames into violence when provoked by her sly puss of a husband, recalling the best moments of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in this raunchy iteration of the woman scorned. She’s dressed horribly, matched only by fag hag Gladys (Margaret Leighton in an astonishing pink frightwig) who shows up in a gold see-through number. Caine excels as the man who finds himself cuckolded by his victim and goes off the rails pondering whether it’s possible men have nervous breakdowns, chastened by reminders of his wideboy background;  while York gets to have another tilt at the kind of  plaything part from The Killing of Sister George but with a taint of something else – as she says, I’m sick of serenity. It often tips into camp particularly in the with-it party scenes but there’s a truth about the relationships that shears through the trashy affect and all three rise to meet the perversity that haunts them. It’s nicely shot around London by Billy Williams and there’s a sharp score by Stanley Myers which acknowledges the slide back and forth from uxorious romance to self-parody. Look out for a young Michael Cashman as Gavin, York’s design assistant. Filled with sex and spite, this is highly entertaining. Directed by Brian G. Hutton, if you can believe it, in a total change of pace from Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes. But of course! I think I know what she is. She practically told me herself

The Carpetbaggers (1964)

The CarpetbaggersThe Carpetbaggers cast poster

Living up in the air like a rich seagull. When playboy Jonas Cord (George Peppard) inherits his father’s industrial empire based on an explosives factory, he expands it by acquiring an aircraft factory and Hollywood movie studio. His rise to power during the 1920s and 1930s is ruthless. He sets aviation records and starts a passenger airline. He marries and then quickly abandons sweet, bubbly Monica Winthrop (Elizabeth Ashley) the daughter of a business rival and provokes their divorce before she gives birth to their daughter; turns his young, gorgeous stepmother, Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker), who was his girlfriend originally before his father Jonas Sr. (Leif Erickson) married her, into a self-destructive movie star; and manages to disappoint even his closest friend and surrogate father, cowboy movie star Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd) whose concealed background he uses for a movie script. Then he falls for a prostitute Jennie Denton (Martha Hyer) whom he wants to turn into the movie star of America’s dreams… If that woman ran an immoral house she’d have to pay me. Despite the lurid and sadistic content of Harold Robbins’ sensational 1961 bestseller, a roman à clef which mines the contours of a Howard Hughes-type protagonist, and censorship issues aside, this is a strangely muted adaptation by John Michael Hayes and Edward Dmytryk’s stilted direction doesn’t help. The real shocker is the fight scene between Peppard and an ageing Ladd which looks properly dangerous and finally explores Cord’s psychology but it’s truly disturbing because it feels real, unlike much of the drama. As a portrait of the Thirties movie-making scene it’s certainly got a nose for the Hollywood casting couch mentality and its general air of seedy decadence and corruption. In that light it’s an interesting take on the career of the Harlow rip off played by Baker (and she made the biopic the following year). Robert Cummings is properly horrifying as Dan Pierce, the smooth agent who is a pimp in all but name; and Martin Balsam scores as Bernard B. Norman, a dastardly studio head; but in many ways, including performance, with Peppard the main culprit, this is all trash, all surface. Ladd’s character is a mélange of Tom Mix, William Boyd and Ken Maynard:  the prequel, Nevada Smith, would be directed by Henry Hathaway from a John Michael Hayes script with Steve McQueen in the lead. Ladd died before this was released. Only you know how all the pieces fit

Rio Bravo (1959)

Rio Bravo

A game-legged old man and a drunk. That’s all you got? In the American west, small-town sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) enlists the help of Stumpy, a cripple (Walter Brennan), Dude, a drunk (Dean Martin), and Colorado Ryan, a young gunfighter (Ricky Nelson) in his efforts to hold in jail the brother Jack (Claude Akins) of the local bad guy, Nathan Burdette (John Russell) until the marshal arrives, while dealing with card sharp Feathers (Angie Dickinson) who swears she’s leaving town on the next stage. Then the outlaws arrive … Let’s get this straight. You don’t like? I don’t like a lot of things. I don’t like your men sittin’ on the road bottling up this town. I don’t like your men watching us, trying to catch us with our backs turned. And I don’t like it when a friend of mine offers to help and twenty minutes later he’s dead! And i don’t like you, Burdette, because you set it up. Producer/director Howard Hawks had been in Europe for four years and came back to find that US TV now boasted several filmed TV series each night, mostly westerns, one even starring The Thing (James Arness), Gunsmoke. He didn’t like the politics of High Noon or 3.10 to Yuma so took the scenes he disliked and turned them around, inverting their meaning and attitude, in this story starring a man called Chance (named for the 20 year old Chanel model Hawks met in Paris and who would remain with him until his death twenty years later). Written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, this is one of the most relaxed yet keenly felt chamber westerns, so laid back and laconic in its reversals you nearly don’t notice how little people say, because what they do, even the simplest gesture, is replete with meaning, especially when it involves cigarettes. Furthman and Brackett had both worked on The Big Sleep but never actually met. He had more or less retired and she had become a sci-fi novelist. He didn’t like to do any writing per se so he and Hawks would discuss ideas while Brackett would type them up, rework them and make her own contributions, so that the first draft screenplay bore her name alone. Furthman was on set and helped Hawks rewrite while the director encouraged the cast to improvise, a speciality of Brennan’s; Wayne preferred to have his lines given to him and he was a quick study. Nelson was given some of Montgomery Clift’s tics from Red River so he would have something to do with his hands. Hawks was so in tune with what the TV audience wanted that he cast Ward Bond (from Wagon Train) in his final role as Chance’s friend Pat Wheeler, Russell (Lawman), Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as hotel proprietor Carlos Robante (from You Bet Your Life), Dickinson had recently appeared in a Perry Mason episode directed by Christian Nyby and of course Brennan (The McCoys). Hawks noticed The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was hugely popular and cast 17-year old Nelson, believing he could do the kind of box office numbers that Elvis was doing.  His 18th birthday happened on set and the hard-drinking Big Guy cast (all the principals plus Hawks himself stood over six feet)  gave him 300lbs of steer manure which they duly threw him into. Hawks trusted Martin to produce the goods when the singer arrived for a meeting at 8.30AM on the lot in LA after performing a midnight show in Vegas because he wanted the part so badly. The script reworked several ideas, characters, relationships and plot points from Hawks’ previous films (mainly with Furthman) in recycling Underworld, Gunga Din, To Have and Have Not and Red River. And what an entrance Dickinson has – inviting Wayne to disrobe her when he suspects her of hiding three missing cards after fleecing a friend of his at the table. Their sparring is really something, her teasing leaving him at sixes and sevens. Brennan is simply adorable as Stumpy, the ol’ toothless guy that can, while hotshot Nelson and cleaned up drunk Martin even get to sing a couple of songs in between firing off those six-shooters – music is particularly important here with Dimitri Tiomkin (hired despite working on High Noon!) reworking De Guello as the haunting melody from the Alamo (and Wayne would use it in his own take on The Alamo the following year). Wayne is more himself than ever, ambling through the sequences, always doing the right thing, taking care of people, using that pump action rifle to even the score as he walks back and forth up and down the main street of the Old Tucson set (from Arizona) to see to things in the jail and see to his girl in the hotel, back and forth, back and forth. Sheer genius. A hugely influential American classic that is not just expressive filmmaking, it is also entertainment of the highest order. If I ever saw a man holdin’ a bull by the tail, you’re it. MM#2900