Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

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You go rogue, he’s been authorized to hunt you down and kill you.  Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the IMF team (Ving Rhames is back as Luther, Simon Pegg returns as Benji) join forces with CIA assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill) to prevent a disaster of epic proportions. Arms dealer John Lark and a group of terrorists known as the Apostles plan to use three plutonium cores for a simultaneous nuclear attack on the Vatican, Jerusalem and Mecca, Saudi Arabia. When the weapons go missing, Ethan and his crew find themselves in a desperate race against time to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands but Ethan finds himself up against his number one enemy weaselly Solomon Kane (Sean Harris) the man who haunts his dreams and threatens everyone in his orbit, with Ethan’s ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) the target.  He is saved (again!) by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own mission, while the CIA believe he has forged the identity of John Lark to go rogue himself and he is literally believed to be his own worst enemy. Meanwhile, the future of half the planet is at stake …  All is well with the world, we are back under Cruise control. Nobody is who they say they are, but these days, that’s normal. Double negatives, two faces, whatever. There’s not one but four brilliant women – Rebecca Ferguson is back as the cooler than thou MI6 agent who gets to save the Cruiser again and join the team, ad hoc; Michelle Monaghan shows up, most unexpectedly, in a plot that has emotional heft but wears it effortlessly;  Angela Bassett is Erica Sloan, head of the CIA. And Vanessa Kirby is a shiny-eyed thrill seeking go-between who looks delighted with herself.  There’s an addition to the team and a heroic sacrifice.  There are two hand-to-hand combat scenes that are up there with the best of them. There are not two but three street chases – two through Paris, some of the most realistic I’ve seen since The French Connection and then – and then! – there’s a helicopter chase in the Himalayas! What’s the opposite of climbing? Falling? There’s some of that too.  Ethan Hunt is a man tormented and moral and the guy who holds it together. The arrangement of Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme by Lorne Balfe is stunning.  I don’t like some of the photography by Rob Hardy but the use of locations including London and Paris is breathtaking. And there’s the cities that are blown up … or not. It’s all written with tongue firmly in cheek until things get down and dirty and serious. Confused? Feverish? Sweaty palms? Well if you want to stay that way and then some you have got to see this. Simply sensational. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie.

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The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.

Casino Royale (1967)

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You are joke shop spies, gentlemen.  The original James Bond (David Niven) is the debonair spy, now retired and living a peaceful existence. He is reluctantly called back into duty when the mysterious organization SMERSH begins assassinating British secret agents (through the medium of sex) and he is impersonated by six impostors and his return to service includes taking on the villainous Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) and baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) who is hired by Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress, the greatest Bond girl of all!) to be yet another iteration of the great spy as she plays both ends against the middle.  Then there’s Bond’s bumbling nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen)… Producer Charles Feldman acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel in 1960 but despite protracted negotiations with Eon could never agree terms so decided to send it up – everyone else was making Bond spoofs, so why shouldn’t he?  Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers play fast and loose with the source and it’s directed variously by Ken Hughes, John Huston (who gets blown up early on in the film as M/McTarry), Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish and an uncredited Richard Talmadge. Niven has fun in the film’s early sequence overlong though it is stretching credibility at its occasionally joyless spoofing. However there are compensations – Ursula and Peter’s sidelong romance;  motormouth comic Allen becoming silenced in the presence of his famous uncle;  Welles doing a magic trick. And what about Bond finding his illegitimate daughter Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) by Mata Hari?! Meta is the word. And I love seeing Charles Boyer and George Raft (as himself!), Deborah Kerr sending up her Oirish accent from Black Narcissus playing the nun-wannabe widow of Huston, French spy spoofer Jean-Paul Belmondo, TV stars Ronnie Corbett and Derek Nimmo (and Catweazle plays Q!) with starlets Jacky (Jacqueline) Bisset and Alexandra Bastedo. Mad and quite bad it might be – there’s a flying saucer! And cowboys! – but heck it’s also a lot of fun, dated as it is. The cinematography by Jack Hildyard, Nicolas Roeg and John Wilcox is decadence itself. And then there’s the Burt Bacharach soundtrack and that song:  the desert island classic…

Subway in the Sky (1959)

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Baxter Grant (Van Johnson) an American military doctor in West Berlin, deserts and goes on the run from the Military Police when faced with false drug trafficking and murder charges. He takes shelter in the apartment his wife rented not realising it’s been sublet – so he finds himself hold up with cabaret singer Lilli Hoffman (Hildegarde Knef) who he manages to persuade to help prove his innocence. He is being hunted down by the military, his wife (Katharine Kath) is the sole person to be able to help but he suspects her of black market involvement while his estranged son (a soldier) wants to hang him out to dry … Directed by the estimable Muriel Box this is of interest principally as a Cold War tale but it’s hamstrung by the lack of location filming (it was shot in Shepperton and the only exteriors look like North Kensington). Essentially it’s a chase movie that mostly takes place in the apartment. Knef comes off best here and while she’s no Dietrich she’s no slouch either in her nightclub singer role with that gravelly voice coming into its own.  There’s a nice supporting performance by Albert Lieven as Carl, her lawyer. Adapted from Bruce Birch’s book and Ian Main’s play by Jack Andrews.

Houdini (1953)

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Pay a dollar to see a man in love with death! Watch Tony Curtis saw Janet Leigh in two! From his start at the Coney Island sideshows to London, Paris and Berlin, the career of legendary escapologist Harry Houdini is charted in a screenplay by Philip Yordan adapted from the book by Harold Kellock which plays fast and loose with the facts, including his tragically early death. Houdini (Tony Curtis) meets Bess (Janet Leigh) while trying out his early magic acts and they marry quickly and move in with his mother (Angela Clarke). He takes a regular job in a locksmith factory but tries to escape from a safe and Bess finally agrees to go to Europe with him instead of putting a downpayment on a house with prize money earned when he escapes from a straitjacket at a Halloween show for magicians. That’s when he becomes obsessed with Otto von Schweger, the only other man to have done so. (He develops a fatalistic belief that good things happen to him on Halloween). Bess joins him on the road as his assistant and becomes a star attraction. He becomes infamous after escaping a police cell at Scotland Yard but is too late arriving at von Schweger’s home to meet the man, who had just died. He left him a miniature of a man in a glass case and it becomes Houdini’s obsession. When his mother dies he wants to make contact with her and loses himself for two years. A journalist persuades him to expose fake spiritualists and then he returns to the one trick that remains … Curtis and Leigh were husband and wife and Hollywood’s darlings when they made this and they’re utterly charming together – she’s beguiling, practical and loving, he’s obsessive, devoted and brilliant:  they practically sizzle on screen.  Director George Marshall stages this beautifully in a production that is a triumph of design, colour and performance with great costumes by Edith Head. Demonstrating Houdini’s focus using a bauble on a chandelier as an objective correlative is a brilliant example of how this is visualised. A splendid, tense, thrilling, witty and romantic biography from the Golden Age of Hollywood with wonderfully imagined tricks and illusions.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

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You can’t unfuck what’s been fucked. Women are always getting in the way. Aren’t they? Berlin 1988. The Cold War. Protesters are gathering to break down the Wall. Super spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed in an MI6 bunker back in London about an impossible mission that’s gone horribly wrong. She relates the sorry saga to her boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA honcho Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) as their uber chief observes behind the usual glass wall. She was deployed to retrieve a dossier of double agents following the murder of their man Gascoigne.  Her meeting in Berlin with station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) is put in jeopardy by the KGB in the first sequence which has the most innovative use of stilettos since Rosa Kleb. The comparison is not for nothing. This is a rollicking non-stop who’s-working-for-what-agency action thriller with an astonishing array of gruesome encounters.  The list everyone wants ends up becoming a Hitchcockian McGuffin because the fun is in the execution (quite viscerally).  It wouldn’t be a Cold War thriller without a double cross-cross-cross complete with a twist ending.  You want it? You got it! This is a postmodern delight with tongue firmly embedded in cheek: from the amazing soundtrack (that’s an audacious thing, using Bowie’s Cat People theme over the titles!), Stalker is playing at the cinema on Alexanderplatz, to a KGB villain called Bakhtin (if you’re into cultural theory) and a neat inversion of the Basic Instinct interrogation scenario with the men defused (literally) by Lorraine’s recollection of Lesbian sex with neophyte French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella). There’s a double agent called Merkel (ha!) and there’s even someone called Bela Balazs on the credits (film theorists will appreciate this…). The songs in some scenes are laugh out loud appropriate and the clothes … the clothes! Talk about on the money!  The action is horribly violent but balletic and believable and Theron is super-likeable in what might well be an audition for Jane Blonde. I want to be her when I grow up. Great fun. Adapted by Kurt Johnstad from the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart and directed by David (John Wick) Leitch, who knows a good action sequence and how to use it.

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.

A Foreign Affair (1947)

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When tightly wound Iowa Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) arrives in rubble-strewn Berlin on a fact-finding mission about GI morals she doesn’t reckon on falling for smooth-talking black marketeer Captain Pringle (John Lund) or indeed his mistress Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich) whose ex is a former Nazi high commander… Billy Wilder was stationed in his favourite city for the US military in 1945, years after he’d fled when Hitler came to power. He was shocked by everything he saw and was charged with reorganising the entertainment industry and editing footage from the camps. He shot film of the city and instead of going to a mental hospital when he discovered what the Nazis had done to his only family, returned to Hollywood where he made a crazed Bing Crosby movie about interspecies breeding in the Tirol called The Emperor Waltz. Then he returned to this subject – post-war Berlin and how diplomacy was a thin veneer over a lot of mucky surviving and blind eyes being turned to the reality – via a story by David Shaw. It caused a lot of censorship problems for Paramount, where the interiors were shot, while locations filming took care of the exteriors. Dietrich is the only possible person to be Erika, the slinky seductive songstress who winds everyone around her finger delivering louche songs by Frederick Hollaender that speak to her own background on the cabaret scene in the city. She and Arthur are cannily deployed against one another and this led to serious frostiness on the set. The politics of occupation and accommodation and the pointlessness of reeducating the shameless were never so hilariously depicted and this wasn’t even screened in Germany until 1977. Nobody gets out of this unscathed. Adapted by Robert Harari and written by Wilder and Charles Brackett. You can read more about this in my article on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/billy-wilders-a-foreign-affair.

The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

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Writer/producer/director George Seaton’s penchant for realism and drama-documentary style gets a full airing here in an adaptation of Alexander Klein’s titular nonfiction book. The great (and prematurely aged – he was 44 and looks 64 at least) William Holden plays the American born oil man Eric Erickson, resident in Sweden and doing his usual cross-border deals – including with Germany – who is blackmailed into espionage for the Allies in the form of the smirking Hugh Griffith. In Germany he becomes involved with a religiously inclined agent Marianne Moellendorf (Lilli Palmer) who ends up being found out in a confessional, and Erickson then struggles to escape Berlin after betrayal by his friend’s son, a member of the Hitler Youth. This morality tale is long and engrossing and Holden gets the opportunity to play a whole range of emotions under Seaton’s careful direction. The camerawork (by Jean Bourgoin) is mostly static in keeping with this realistic mode but there are some great shots of the rubble of Berlin and the encounter in the church confession box is particularly well staged. It’s great to see these post-war cities in colour, another boon to an involving story. And the startling Klaus Kinski is key to the conclusion. If you ever want the dogs that torment you to take a walk on the wild side well away from you, try a combo of blood and cocaine. It’s amazing what tips you pick up in movies. Co-written by Charles Grenzbach.

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

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What’s weird watching this again today is the realisation that it’s now longer since this was made (40 years…) than it was between the end of WW2 (or the Emergency, as the Irish like to call it – still not lifted, BTW) and this going into production. Northern Irish writer Jack Higgins (aka Harry Patterson) had quite a run back in the day but this was really the peak attraction – a fictitious attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill, “for a negotiated peace,” as one-eyed Nazi Radl (Robert Duvall) puts it. He deploys IRA ‘soldier’ lecturer Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland with the requisite eye-watering Oirish accent) and he turns up at the home of sleeper agent Jean Marsh in Norfolk and attempts to put the plan into action … With Michael Caine as anti-Nazi Kurt Steiner (an homage to Cross of Iron, vielleicht?) leading the mission this is really quite an unlikely mouthwatering actioner, but there you go. Caine had been offered the role of Devlin but didn’t want to be associated with the IRA, ditto Richard Harris. Adapted by Tom Mankiewicz, crisply shot by the great Anthony B. Richmond, and scored by Lalo Schifrin, this was the last film helmed by the marvellous John Sturges but Mankiewicz said Sturges didn’t bother making it properly and that editor Anne V. Coates rescued it in post-production. Great fun.