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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Nightcrawler (2014)

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What a character Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is – petty thief turned news stringer, a hollowed out husk of a ghoul, shooting pictures of the grisliest crime scenes in LA, an autodidact with a taste for death trying to impress a news director (Rene Russo) on the vampire shift competing with all the other TV outlets in the area. This modern day Taxi Driver goes even further in Dan Gilroy’s screenplay, providing a window into the colluding audience’s bloodlust for murder and suffering. The scene-setting is extraordinary, the performances utterly committed and brilliant. Compelling, horrible, wonderful and probably a modern classic.

Juggernaut (1974)

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In 1972 the QE2 was subjected to a bomb hoax and Royal Marines were deployed to deal with the situation:  this is an adaptation of that incident, with writer/producer Richard Alan Simmons (writing under the nom de plume Richard De Koker) moving events to the North Atlantic and a cruise liner tellingly christened Britannic. An Irish-accented man telephones the owner of the line Ian Holm with the information that seven drums of amatol (an explosive) are rigged in the hold. He wants a half million ransom.The seas are too stormy to save the 1200 passengers and while the police led by Anthony Hopkins (whose wife and son are on board) race against time to track the phonecalls, Navy bomb disposal expert Richard Harris and his team including David Hemmings are winched to the ship to try and defuse everything. This came out at the height of the Arab oil crisis and the IRA’s mainland Britain bombing campaign – and – crucially – the disaster movie genre. Yet it has a rare degree of realism and character definition, probably because after the original directors Bryan Forbes and then Don Medford abandoned ship (!) Richard Lester took over and rewrote it with Alan Plater, demonstrating that he is as adept at action/adventure as slapstick comedy, with regular Roy Kinnear along for the ride, supplying some morbidly funny lines as the entertainer while the clock ticks. While Captain Omar Sharif sweats and looks a little red around the eyes, even with Shirley Knight providing his kicks, Harris smokes his pipe and gets on with the job.  He does some really great character work given that most of his acting takes place in quite literally a tiny frame – head and shoulders. The revelation of the bomber’s identity – he’s not foreign – provides some thought-provoking context. Free of contemporary technology and with some telling lines about refugees, this is an unusually watchable genre exercise, driven by something deeper than just explosions and with a really great ending.

Women of Twilight (1952)

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Sylvia Rayman’s startling 1951 play about unmarried mothers became the first British film to receive the new ‘X’ certificate. Adapted by Anatole de Grunwald and directed by Gordon Parry, we enter with a very young and beauteous Jerry Nolan (Laurence Harvey) singing to his lady love fellow nightclub performer Vivianne Bruce (Rene Ray).  When she discovers she’s pregnant he’s arrested for murder and she finds herself looking for a home to sit things out during his court case. She winds up living under the sadistic Mrs Alistair  (Freda Jackson) who runs a somewhat sleazy Hampstead establishment which turns out to be a baby farm where she’s aided and abetted by a slovenly housemaid, Vida (Jessie Smithson). Vivianne rejects a newspaper offer of £500 for her story and is unable to deal with the illness accompanying her pregnancy. Vivianne’s only real friend is room mate Chris (Lois Maxwell) who supports her when Jerry is hanged, but whose child she neglects and he dies in her care when Chris is away for a few days to be reunited with her fiance.  The singular Ray  (later a novelist and the Countess of Midleton!) plays Vivianne half-distracted, half-deranged by grief. Then the half-wit kitchen girl confesses to her that she’s had a deformed child whom Mrs Alistair killed and buried in the garden behind the house. Mrs Alistair overhears Vivianne’s plans to tell the police and throws her down a staircase, bringing on the birth of Jerry’s illegitimate child … This was groundbreaking stuff and it boasts an array of very vivid performances, making this a thoroughly gripping experience. Harvey’s big scene before his death is really something but all the roles are so well written – including Dora Bryan as Olga, a streetwise ‘slut’ as Alistair calls her, Dorothy Gordon as Sally the mad one, and Joan Dowling as the giggler (she would commit suicide two years later when she found husband Harry Fowler was having an affair). Jackson really lets loose in her final scenes and Ray is so odd that she’s quite unforgettable. Extraordinary stuff.

T2 Trainspotting (2017)

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You’re a tourist in your own youth. That’s how I felt too, when I sat down in an empty cinema for this – a far cry from the wild reaction that I expressed and experienced when the Godhead of Nineties movies made its debut. Wow! What a rush that was! Twenty years ago. Which is the real shocker. And age is what this is all about – age and betrayal and memory (or nostalgia) and payback. Renton is back – after making away with all that dosh in London. Sickboy – call him Simon now – ain’t too happy and beats him up. He rescues tragic Spud from certain death. Franco’s just had himself stabbed in prison so he can escape and lure his teenage son away from hotel management and into a life of crime … Revenge? Yes, please. There’s tragedy, fun and kickbacks to spare in this blackly comic outing with portions of Porno mixed up with a narrative carved from the original novel and several flashbacks to the old action and new-old footage of the guys as kids. Edinburgh like the rest of the British Isles is now afloat in Eastern European whores, one of whom has her claws into Simon but whom Renton fancies. Then there’s a scheme to set up Simon’s pub as a rival brothel to a chain of ‘saunas’ which invites interest from the proprietor. And in between bizarre music videos – check out Your Dad’s Best Friend by Rubberbandits! – a hilarious excursion picking pockets at a Loyalist club and digressions on George Best at Hibs, the rhythm section of director Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge and the superb cast (with the obvious exception of Tommy) is reassembled with a sense of style and a closing of the book, as it were. Spud gets a great storyline and there’s a nod to his precursor when Irvine Welsh turns up as chief car booster. Stick to the day job, dude. And there’s a brilliant payoff with a toilet bowl. Whew, it’s okay then. All is right with the world. Choose this.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

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If you put one foot in front of the other you have less chance of losing both feet when we hit an IED. That’s one of the pearls to take away from Robert Carlock’s adaptation of Kim Barker’s embed memoir of her time in Kabul from 2003. We catch up with Kim Baker (inventive!) (Tina Fey) as an unmarried childless TV news producer which makes her obvious fodder to drop into the danger zone. It feels somewhat bitty, even though the mainly comic (if pretty low key) first hour is entertaining and Fey’s whip smart retorts to her situation and Billy Bob Thornton’s comments in a supporting role as a marine general are pointed. Margot Robbie is the sex-starved Ozzie BBC reporter who knows her way around and Martin Freeman is the lecherous Scots photographer with whom the newly single Kim becomes embroiled whilst fending off her sexy security guy. That’s when she’s not dealing with the incoming Attorney General (Alfred Molina) running the Talibanesque Interior Ministry who shows her the bed behind a curtain when he learns of her boyfriend’s cheating back home: Fey’s reaction is great. She gains the trust of the soldiers who share their stories onscreen and she gets the stories the channel needs. There’s a really good sequence when she dons a full mailbox rigout to shoot material at a Taliban gathering in Kandahar. The going gets tougher in the second hour and we’re really not very prepared for an affecting drama so while on one level it’s a fascinating insight into the addiction to chaos that drives war reporters it never gets to be the real McCoy. WTF indeed.  Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.

The Naked Truth (1957)

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Aka Your Past Is Showing.The wonderfully smooth Nigel Dennis (Dennis Price) is a London tabloid magazine publisher who makes a fortune blackmailing his subjects to stop horrible stories about them going to press. After a couple of his targets expire – naturally and by suicide, he goes after a new lot of slebs:  TV star and fake Scot, Sonny McGregor (Peter Sellers), Lord Henry Mayley (Terry-Thomas), novelist Flora Ransom (Peggy Mount) and model Melissa Wright (Shirley Eaton). After some very funny schemes taken independently to tackle this noxious man (who drives a very neat car), they team up to try and take him down rather than pay him off. Sellers gives his first truly comic feature performance, with an array of impersonations which would be a preview of later work, including an almost Behan-like trip to a Dublin pub looking for gelignite, as you do. There’s a very amusing sendup of Agatha Christie by Joan Hurley. Written by Michael Pertwee and directed by Mario Zampi, who gets an amusing shoutout by Terry-Thomas prior to the ill-fated conclusion. A product of its time but gives you a clue as to why some of those cleaner-than-thou names appear with alarming regularity at the Daily Mail‘s annual yacht party at Cannes, hmm???

A Study in Terror (1965)

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The poster says it all:  the great literary detective versus the notorious serial killer of women in this Sixties fantasy chiller set in Victorian London. Adapted by Derek Ford and Donald Ford from their story which takes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters played here by John Neville and Donald Houston, with John Fraser as the aristocratic lunatic terrorising the East End. Produced by those exploitation experts Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger, this could easily have slid into the realms of the lurid but thanks to the great handling by director James Hill, costumes by Motley, delicate cinematography by Desmond Dickinson and an elegant score by John Scott it skirts the edges of taste to produce a gripping, entertaining thriller. The theory presented here is perfectly viable but one that might be scotched by more recent findings (even director Bruce Robinson has spent a decade on this trail). Still, it’s always been fun to speculate about this most horrifying of murderers. The cast is fantastic and just look down the ensemble:  Barbara Windsor, Anthony Quayle, Robert Morley, Adrienne Corri, Judi Dench, Cecil Parker, Kay Walsh, and my beloved Frank Finlay! You had me at hello!

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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What a colourful poster for a movie whose heart is as black and enamelled as the shiny falcon at its story’s centre. This was one of my favourite movies when I was 11 and I’ve seen no reason since to alter my opinion even if there are times when different elements stand out. It’s now 75 years since it was released and it was immediately appreciated as a masterpiece of the hard-boiled style, yet to be christened film noir (a few years later, in Paris, bien sur).  It marked writer John Huston’s directing debut and Humphrey Bogart’s finding an extraordinary avatar in the character of Sam Spade. Dashiell Hammett’s novel had been filmed twice before but this is the Real McCoy, with Huston making very few alterations and giving the ensemble of bizarre characters a chance to shine – the effete Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) making an admirable sidekick to the Fat Man, Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet); Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr) is the perpetually useless hitman and Mary Astor gives it her all as the astonishingly duplicitous femme fatale Ruth Wonderly aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Yes it’s all about a caper concerning a black bird but does it matter?! There are so many great scenes but the cinematography (Arthur Edeson) and editing (Thomas Richards) constantly reveal new levels of aesthetics – dontcha love the scene when Sam moves in on Brigid during her confession and the net curtain blows open to reveal Wilmer standing at the ready under the street light down below? Oh! There’s nothing fake about this. I can practically smell the gardenias! Unforgettable.

Casablanca (1942)

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Round up the usual suspects. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she has to walk into mine. Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  Play it, Sam. We’ll always have Paris. Here’s looking at you, kid. I stick my neck out for nobody. Sometimes you have to go back to the source to remind yourself that there was a time when mainstream cinema produced work with remarkable, quotable dialogue and not every film was a comic book rehashed  for a market where people boil dogs as a pre-prandial treat. Romantic thriller Casablanca is notorious for being rewritten on the set, nobody knew what was going to happen next and certainly nobody concerned thought it would be the embodiment of all that was great about Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart is Rick Blaine, one of the great screen protagonists, an apparently jaded uncommitted man of the world and a dedicated ex-patriate pragmatist who is in fact a passionate, patriotic and loyal friend who sticks his neck out for absolutely everyone. Ingrid Bergman is the woman he loved in Paris, showing up at his cafe in occupied Morocco, unaware that he is there. And we flash back to their coup de foudre and realise she is now the other half of famed Resistance fighter Paul Henreid, who needs to escape the Nazis on his tail. Rick’s friendship with local police chief Claude Rains smooths a lot of issues regarding his backroom business in supplying refugees with Letters of Transit but this new situation is brimming with complications.The writers who adapted and altered the unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s were Howard Koch (maybe), the Epstein brothers (definitely) and Casey Robinson (whose rewrites were uncredited), Michael Curtiz directed a cast made in heaven and the music is just perfection! The character of Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid, was based on a Jewish activist who allegedly fathered Marlene Dietrich’s daughter back in Berlin (her marriage was very happily open.) After WW2 he became persona non grata in exile and was executed by the Czech government with his remains used for surfacing a road. Not a Hollywood ending. The film that he inspired is sublime.