Havana (1990)

Havana theatrical

Now I want a shot. One shot. At a game I could never get in before. Christmas Eve 1958. On the eve of revolution, Navy veteran and professional high-stakes gambler Jack Weil (Robert Redford) arrives in Cuba seeking to win big in poker games. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Bobby (Lena Olin), the wife of a Communist revolutionary Arturo Duràn (an uncredited Raul Julia) and gradually becomes convinced that the anti-Batista campaign is a cause worth fighting for… Nobody should be here. Redford’s seventh collaboration with director Sydney Pollack is their final work together and is a rather uneven experience once it veers away from its inherent genre identity of romantic melodrama. Perhaps the problem is inherent in the premise linked to previous Redford characters and his meta perception as an enigma:  the lack of commitment to a cause which reeks of Casablanca.  In truth it’s a problem with the screenplay which takes too many stances too quickly. This also suffers somewhat in comparison with treatment of broadly related subject matter in The Godfather Part II with Mark Rydell making an appearance here as Meyer Lansky and that film’s outrageous sex show is in another dimension from the tame act Redford brings American tourists Diane (Betsy Brantley) and Patty (Lise Cutter) to see, the foreplay to their inevitable threesome. In fact the role of ‘Rick Blaine’ is actually split between Redford and Alan Arkin who plays Joe Volpi, Lansky’s front guy. Then Arkin gets to essay a variation on Claude Rains in the penultimate scene with Redford adopting a more straightforward heroic stance, not that that was ever in any doubt because of how the story begins. It starts out with an ill-advised voiceover by Redford and gets right into action which involves his going out on a limb for no perceptible reason to help a total stranger escape the attentions of SIM (Batista’s secret police) onboard the Cuba-bound ship, forcing the meet-cute with Olin. Olin’s character is an out of work Swedish actress who was inspired by Garbo – shouldn’t it have been Bergman?! – while her former husband, a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter got her exiled to Mexico and then marriage to Duràn, son of a well-connected Cuban family (we’re non-torturable, he explains). There’s talk about American citizenship. A lot of talk about moving to Miami. There’s a great character – a ‘fake fairy food critic’ called Marion Chigwell (Daniel Davis) and he is – what else – a CIA spook. Somewhere here there’s a great movie but it’s badly organised and the sub-plot with the journalist friend Julio Ramos (Tony Plana) seems under-explained. There are great poker scenes with the military chief Menocal (Tomas Milian) who of course is not what he appears. After Olin’s character loses her naturalistic diffidence in the first two-thirds it shifts into a different and more convincing gear. Even if we never believe Redford is in real trouble. Despite this there is an uncannily evocative atmosphere throughout and some great lines. Pollack was an inveterate messer with scripts, perhaps that explains it. There are major compensations in Owen Roizman’s cinematography (of the Dominican Republic, where this was shot) and the dreamy production design by Terence Marsh is something of a miracle. Written by Judith Rascoe (from her original idea) and Pollack’s usual collaborator, David Rayfiel. A fascinating work for students of Hollywood stardom as Redford edged into his mid-fifties. History is overtaking us

The Longest Day (1962)

The Longest Day theatrical

Tonight. I know it’s tonight. In the days leading up to D-Day, 6th June 1944, concentrating on events on both sides of the English Channel the Allies wait for a break in the poor weather while anticipating the reaction of the Axis forces defending northern France which they plan to invade at Normandy. As Supreme Commander of Supreme Headquarters of Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (Henry Grace) makes the decision to go after reviewing the initial bad weather reports and the reports about the divisions within the German High Command as to where an invasion might happen and what should be their response as the Allies have made fake preparations for Operation Fortitude, to take place in a quite different landing position:  are the Germans fooled? Allied airborne troops land inland.The French Resistance react. British gliders secure Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal. American paratroopers launch counter-attacks at Manche in Normandy. The Resistance carries out sabotage and infiltrate the German ranks. The Wehrmacht responds ….  He’s dead. I’m crippled. You’re lost. Do you suppose it’s always like that? I mean war. Funny, intense, jaw-dropping in scale, this landmark war epic produced by D-Day veteran Darryl F. Zanuck, whose dream project this was, is a 6th June commemoration like no other, a tribute to the armed forces who launched the magnificent amphibian assault. The screenplay is by Cornelius Ryan (who did not get along with DFZ) who was adapting his 1959 non-fiction book, with additional scenes written by novelists Romain Gary and James Jones, and David Pursall & Jack Seddon. DFZ knew the difficulties of such a mammoth undertaking which included eight battle scenes and hired directors from each of the major participating countries/regions: Ken Annakin directed the British and French exteriors, with Gerd Oswald the uncredited director of the Sainte-Marie-Église parachute drop sequence; while the American exteriors were directed by Andrew Marton; and Austria’s Bernhard Wicki shot the German scenes. Zanuck himself shot some pick ups. There are cameos by the major actors of the era, some of whom actually participated in the events depicted: Irish-born Richard Todd plays Major Howard of D Company and he really was at Pegasus Bridge and is wearing his own beret from the event; Leo Genn plays Major-General Hollander of SHAEF; Kenneth More is Acting Captain Colin Maud of the Royal Navy at Juno Beach and is carrying his shillelagh; Rod Steiger plays Lt. Commander Joseph Witherow Jr., Commander of the USS Satterlee; Eddie Albert is Colonel Lloyd Thompson, ADC to General Norman Cota (Robert Mitchum) of the Fighting 29th Infantry Division; Henry Fonda plays Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Assistant Commander of the 4th Infantry Division. The all-star cast also includes John Wayne (replacing Charlton Heston), Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Mel Ferrer, Tom Tryon, Stuart Whitman, George Segal, Jeffrey Hunter (who’s probably got the best role), Sal Mineo, Robert Wagner; Peter Lawford, Richard Burton and Roddy McDowall (who both volunteered to appear for nothing out of boredom on the Cleopatra set in Rome), Sean Connery,  Leslie Phillips, Frank Finlay; Christian Marquand, Georges Wilson (Lambert’s dad), Bourvil, Jean-Louis Barrault, Arletty;  Paul Hartmann, Werner Hinz (as Rommel), Curd Jürgens, Walter Gotell, Peter van Eyck, Gert Fröbe, Dietmar Schönherr. An astonishing lineup in a production which does not shirk the horrors of war, the number of casualties or the overwhelming noise of terror. It’s a stunning achievement, measured and wonderfully realistically staged with the co-operation of all the forces organised by producer Frank McCarthy who worked at the US Department of War during WW2.  The key scene-sequences are the parachute drop into Sainte-Mère-Église; the advance from the Normandy beaches; the U.S. Ranger Assault Group’s assault on the Pointe du Hoc; the attack on the town of Ouistreham by Free French Forces; and the strafing of the beaches by the only two Luftwaffe pilots in the area. The vastness of the project inevitably means there are flaws:  where’s the point of view? Where are the Canadians?! But it is a majestic reconstruction made at the height of the Cold War of one of the biggest events of the twentieth century. Or, as Basil Fawlty said before he was muzzled by the BBC yesterday, Don’t Mention The War. Yeah, right. Or maybe do like Hitler did – take a sleeping pill and pretend it’s not happening. Thank God for common sense, great soldiers and DFZ, come to think of it. Spectacular.  You remember it. Remember every bit of it, ’cause we are on the eve of a day that people are going to talk about long after we are dead and gone

Europa (1991)

Europa theatrical

Aka Zentropa. I thought the war was over. Just after World War II Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American of German descent takes a job on the Zentropa train line in US-occupied Germany to help the country rebuild. He becomes a sleeping-car conductor under the tutelage of his drunken uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård). He falls under the spell of the mysterious Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa) daughter of Zentropa railway magnate Max (Jørgen Reenberg) whose friendship with US Colonel Harris (Eddie Constantine) has raised hackles. Her gay brother Lawrence (Udo Kier) is the family embarrassment because like Leopold he didn’t serve his country. Leopold inadvertently becomes embroiled with a pro-Nazi fascist organisation known as the Werewolves who are conspiring to overthrow the state. Simultaneously being used by the US Army, Leopold finds neutrality an impossible position … I understand unemployment in Germany a lot better now. It costs too much to work here. Danish auteur Lars von Trier made this great train thriller long before he became a trying controversialist down the Dogma 95 rabbit hole. It plugs into that febrile post-war atmosphere which we already know from films of the late 40s like Berlin Express as well as sensational character-driven pre-war comedy thrillers like The Lady Vanishes. It’s the final part of the director’s first trilogy (following The Element of Crime and The Epidemic) and it gained a lot of kudos upon release, particularly for its visual style, principally shot in black and white with rear projections in colour (photographed by Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski and Jean-Paul Meurisse) lending an eerie aspect to what is already an innovative production, shifting tone as surely as it shifts pigments. The hypnotic (literally) narration by Max von Sydow lulls you into submission like the mesmerising shuffle of the carriages along the tracks; while the charm of the leading man on his journey which is physical, emotional and political, all at once, carries you through a sensitive yet experimental scenario.The miraculous editing achievement is by Hervé Schneid. It feels like a new kind of film is being born, reformulating the grammar of the language with its surrealist nods and noir references. A cult item from the casting of Kier and Constantine alone, with Sukowa’s role harking back to her Fassbinder films, this is a classic of modern European cinema. Written by von Trier (who appears as a Jew) & Niels Vørsel with a shooting script by von Trier & Tómas Gislason. You have carried out your orders. Now relax

 

 

’71 (2014)

71 poster

Why aren’t you out there looking for him? Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) a new recruit to the British Army is sent to Belfast in 1971 at the beginning of The Troubles. Under the leadership of the inexperienced Second Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid) his platoon is deployed to a volatile area where Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists and Loyalists live side by side. The unit provides support for the local police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary) as it inspects homes for firearms, shocking Hook with their rough treatment of civilians. A crowd gathers to protest and provoke the British troops who, though heavily armed, can only respond by trying to hold the crowd back. Abandoned inadvertently by his military unit, Gary has to survive the riot alone and make his way back to the barracks through unknown territory, taken to a pub that’s a front for Loyalists until a bomb being built in a back room by the Army’s counter-insurgency unit explodes. Local IRA factions don’t know it’s a mistake and blame each other while a Catholic father Eamon (Richard Dormer) and his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy) rescue Gary when they find him injured by shrapnel, contacting the Official IRA’s officer Boyle (David Wilmot) for assistance and he is offered up to the Military Reaction Force led by Captain Sandy Browning (Sean Harris) in exchange for murdering IRA leader James Quinn (Killian Scott) … Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cuntsThat’s the army for you It’s all a lie. A film whose notion of patriot games is ratcheted up a poetic notch by taking its inspiration from the classic Belfast film  Odd Man Out minus its sense of tragic romance (nor is this a symbolic rendering of that troubled locale:  it’s definitely Belfast).  This time the drama of entrapment centres on a wide-eyed British squaddie who is alternately running around the city and hiding wherever he can in a race against time and a contemplation of innocence versus harsh experience. Breathlessly shot and paced, this is the best Northern Irish film since the Carol Reed masterpiece, its genius perhaps deriving in part from the cold eye of strangers in a strange land – Scottish playwright Gregory Burke and French-Algerian director Yann Demange – but also because it cleaves to the rules of the best thrillers as well as loosely recalling the 1970 Falls Curfew, making a complex situation comprehensible by a never-ending series of kinetic events. This is about someone running for his life and he is brilliantly played by O’Connell who quickly learns that there are black ops and bad guys on both sides in this dirty war. Harris is terrifying as the brutally treacherous player Browning. This is no country for young men but there’s an awesome array of them here – Sam Reid, Barry Keoghan, Paul Anderson, Jack Lowden, Martin McCann, among others. It’s a rites of passage movie dialled up to 11 and then some;  politics are almost an afterthought until you remember they’re everything and nobody and nothing is as they appear. Brilliantly controlled and utterly gripping. For God’s sake will you never leaves us alone?

Thunderball (1965)

Thunderball

A poker in the hands of a widow.  Two of NATO’s atomic bombs are hijacked by the criminal organisation SPECTRE, which holds the world to ransom for £100 million in diamonds, in exchange for not destroying an unspecified city in either the United Kingdom or the United States (later revealed to be Miami). The search leads James Bond (Sean Connery) to the Bahamas, where he encounters Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) the card-playing, eye patch-wearing SPECTRE Number Two whom he bests at the tables. Backed by CIA agent Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter) and Largo’s mistress Domino Derval (Claudine Auger) Bond’s search culminates in an underwater battle with Largo’s henchmen but time is running out … What strange eyes you’ve got. The one that caused the franchise a whole lot of legal issues in the ensuing years, this was also the one the audiences went bonkers for with Widescreen shooting, seriously glossy production values and slick underwater sequences that take up about a quarter of the overall running time which at two hours ten minutes was by far the longest in the series thus far. The legal issues arose because Ian Fleming’s 1961 novel was based on a story by producer Kevin McClory and was intended as the first in the series with a screenplay by them with Jack Whittingham. The new screenplay is by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins and it commences with an ingenious escape from a surprising funeral. The cat and mouse relationship between Bond and Largo is consistently surprising and satisfying; Celi is particularly good in the role. The production design by Ken Adam is quite breathtaking, the women are among the most beautiful of the era – Auger (Miss France, voiced by Nikki van der Zyl), Luciana Paluzzi as femme fatale Fiona Volpe, Martine Beswick as Paula Caplan, Bond’s tragic CIA ally, Molly Peters as physiotherapist Patricia Fearing – and Bond is actually saved by a woman. The gadgets include water-firing cannon affixed to the rear of the Aston Martin, a jetpack and a handbag-friendly Geiger counter. It all looks glorious and the incredible underwater work is shot by Ricou Browning although it’s not always clear what’s going on. The theme song by composer John Barry (returning to the franchise) with lyrics by Don Black is performed by Tom Jones who fainted in the recording booth as he sang the final note. What’s not to like? Directed by Terence Young in his third and final Bond outing. Remade 18 years later as Never Say Never Again, with Connery once more taking the lead in what was his final Bond film. Was ever a man more misunderstood?

Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger theatrical

I must be dreaming. MI6 agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is holidaying in Miami when his opposite number in the CIA Felix Leiter (Cec Linder) asks him to keep an eye on a fellow hotel guest – so he winds up investigating a gold-smuggling ring run by businessman Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe). As he delves deeper into his activities, he uncovers a sinister plan to attack Fort Knox’s gold reserves to destroy the world’s economy… Do you expect me to talk?/No, Mr Bond. I expect you to die! The third in the series, this is where everything came right – action, humour, thrills, villain, style, ingenious gadgets,  great set design by Ken Adam, doubles entendres, devilish mute Korean hitman Oddjob (Harold Takata), Goldfinger’s persuasive personal pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) with her Flying Circus and the notorious death by gold paint of Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) which still startles today. Adapted by Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn (with suggestions by Wolf Mankowitz) from Ian Fleming’s eponymous seventh novel, the character of Auric Goldfinger is a very specific kind of nemesis, with his psychopathic obsession the Achilles heel of the man: This is gold, Mr. Bond. All my life I’ve been in love with its color… its brilliance, its divine heaviness. That’s what makes him a perfect crazed criminal but also a great pivot into Cold War politics and economic ideas, a kind of double bluff à la Hitchcock. This is a narrative where sex and danger and death are combined symbolically in the iconic title sequence (by graphic artist Robert Brownjohn) with all those dead painted girls providing a backdrop of morbidity and Connery freely imbues his performance with fear particularly when he’s about to get his by an artfully directed laser beam. The chase and action sequences are brilliantly managed with the modified Aston Martin DB5 in a class of its own. Then of course there’s the legendary theme written by composer John Barry with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Tony Newley and performed by Shirley Bassey, creating a siren song of sass. Smartly directed by Guy Hamilton, a colleague of Fleming’s in Britain’s wartime intelligence operations, this is totally thrilling entertainment that provided the blueprint for the films that followed.  Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He’s fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavour… except crime!

The Gauntlet (1977)

The Gauntlet

On a scale of one to ten, I’d have to give her a two, and that’s because I haven’t seen a one before. Hard-living ageing cop Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood) is recruited to escort Augustina ‘Gus’ Mally (Sondra Locke), a key witness in a Mob trial, from Las Vegas to Phoenix. But far from being a nothing witness in a nothing trial as Commissioner Blakelock (William Prince) insists, Gus is a lovely, well-educated if coarse call girl who claims to have explosive information on a significant figure that makes the two highly expendable targets. Ben starts to believe her story after numerous attempts are made to kill them and they have to travel across the unforgiving desert without official protection, pursued by angry bikers and corrupt police officers and he contacts his direct boss Josephson (Pat Hingle) to try to rearrange the outcome  ... Now, the next turkey who tries that, I’m gonna shoot him, stuff him, and stick an apple in his ass. Chris Petit remarks elsewhere that this in its own way is as significant to the Eastwood screen persona as Annie Hall is to Woody Allen’s – and that’s true, insofar as it examines masculinity (and it’s shown up in elemental form), quasi-feminist principles and gut-busting hardcore action and thrills based on the first formal rule of movie making – people chasing people. Written by Michael Butler and David Shryack, they were working on a screenplay originally intended for Brando and Streisand (can you imagine?) and Brando withdrew in favour of Steve McQueen and Streisand then walked – leading to Eastwood coming on board to direct and star so the self-deprecating humour took on a new edge as he challenges institutional corruption and general stupidity (mostly his own) once again. Locke is great as the prostitute with a planet-sized brain, a heart of gold and a mine of information and she’s every bit as resourceful as you’d expect when the two hit the road running. Fast, funny and occasionally quite furious, this is a key film in both of the stars’ careers. Shryack would go on to write Pale Rider (1985) for Eastwood and it was that decade’s biggest grossing western. There are some marvellous jazz solos from Art Pepper and Jon Faddis. Smart, rip roaring fun, a pursuit western in all but name. I can go anywhere I please if I have reasonable suspicion. Now if I have suspicion a felony’s been committed, I can just walk right in here anytime I feel like it, ’cause I got this badge, I got this gun, and I got the love of Jesus right here in my pretty green eyes

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)

The Pink Panther Strikes Again

Do you know what kind of bomb it was?/The exploding kind. Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) escapes from a mental hospital and determines to commandeer a Doomsday machine invented by Dr Hugo Fassbender (Richard Vernon) in order to wipe out the entire world if necessary – just as long as he can kiss his bête noire Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) farewell. He kidnaps Fassbender and his daughter Margo  (Briony McRoberts) and holds them captive in his Bavarian castle but not willing to take any chances, he also hires a series of hitmen (Eddie Stacey, Herb Tanney, Terry Maidment) to help out. Meanwhile, Clouseau is diverted by the attentions of alluring Russian spy Olga (Lesley-Anne Down) …  Now we’ll see who has the last laugh. They’ve all betrayed me, and now they will have to pay. What shall I destroy? Buckingham Palace? Too small. How about London? Not big enough. England! Yes, England. In which Dreyfus becomes a kind of Blofeld-styled criminal mastermind crossed with Count Dracula, the animated titles pastiche so many genres it’s just a shame they don’t get to pay homage to them all (including Edwards’ wife Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music!). Not as well constructed as the preceding films, this genre mashup does pay dividends in the expertly engineered sight gags and one extended action sequence involving Lom, Sellers and the redoubtable Burt Kwouk as Cato. Some might take issue with the scene in the gay club and the crossdressing performers but this is a scenario that Edwards would plunder to astonishing effect in the later Victor/Victoria. There’s a packed ensemble of English actors and it’s only a shame that the great Leonard Rossiter hasn’t more to do as Clouseau’s shocked opposite number. Look quickly for Omar Sharif as an Egyptian hitman while Byron Kane does a Kissingeresque Secretary of State. Lots of fun but not for the purist – even though it had me from the moment Lom’s eye twitched. Written by Frank Waldman and director Blake Edwards. I thought you said that your dog didn’t bite!/That is not my dog

The Operative (2019)

The Operative

We do not execute at any cost. If something is not according to plan you have the right to call it off.  British-Jewish Mossad agent Thomas (Martin Freeman) who is based in Germany is summoned to try and figure out the whereabouts of an agent he recruited following her father’s funeral in London because she is a valuable asset who has vanished without trace.  He met and persuaded this mysterious woman Anne/Rachel (Diane Kruger) to become an agent, sending her to Tehran on an undercover mission where she falls in love with Farhad (Casvar) whose business Mossad are hoping to use as cover for a nuclear weapons exchange to destabilise the national programme. When her missions become more dangerous and Farhad is kidnapped by her colleagues, she decides to quit, forcing her boss to find her before she becomes a threat to Israel… You should visit Israel. To connect to the place. The people. Adapted from the Hebrew novel The English Teacher by former intelligence officer Yiftach Reicher-Atir, writer/director Yuval Adler has made a smartly told, nuanced story benefitting from a defining performance by an almost unrecognisable dressed-down Kruger. The Tehran section is as educative as it is narrative, with Rachel’s love story an echo of her real feelings about the city and its people. Her enigmatic persona – she persists in telling people she’s adopted even though she isn’t – is not properly explored which suggests a hinterland the film doesn’t entirely reconcile. The letdown is Freeman, who apparently replaced Eric Bana as Rachel’s handler. Refreshing mainly because of its insights into the region’s geopolitics from a new perspective. I can’t believe I’m here. Doing this

Appointment in London (1953)

Appointment in London

It’s time you stopped flying. In 1943 Wing Commander Tim Mason (Dirk Bogarde) is stationed at RAF Bomber Command and wants to conclude his third tour of 30 operations but he’s been working too hard and he’s too valuable to the team. He assists widowed WREN Eve Canyon (Dinah Sheridan) at the roadside and she accompanies him and the crew to the pub. It turns out she’s working with them and she is romanced by American pilot Mac Baker (William Sylvester). Losses are mounting and missions are failing. Crew members Brown (Bill Kerr) and The Brat aka Greeno (Bryan Forbes) believe there’s a jinx on them. Mason finds Greeno has been sending telegrams off-station that could be a security risk but they turn out to be to his wife Pam (Anne Leon) who asks to meet Mason when Greeno goes missing. A bombing load falls off a plane injuring crew just before a crucial mission over Germany and Mac steps in at the eleventh hour while Tim boards too in order to assuage the men’s fears of a jinx and their return prompts his realisation that he can now fulfill his appointment at the Palace in the company of a woman he loves … Everything seemed to go wrong from the start. John Wooldridge’s story is based on his own wartime experiences and he shares screenplay credit with Robert Westerby, managing a well-paced narrative that ratchets with tension and anticipation. It culminates in a wonderfully satisfying night-time firefight. The eagle-eyed will spot that navigation officer Sandy is played by one Anthony Forwood, one-time husband of Glynis Johns who became Bogarde’s other half in real life. Wooldridge composed the score and died prematurely in 1958. Made with the assistance of Bomber Harris, planespotters will be thrilled with all the Lancasters. Directed by Philip Leacock. Steady. Steady. Steady. Bombs go!