The Thing From Another World (1951)

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Do you suppose the Pentagon could send us a revolving door?  Scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) reports a UFO near his North Pole research base, the US Air Force sends in a team under Capt. Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) to investigate. They uncover a wrecked spaceship and a humanoid creature (James Arness) frozen in the ice. They bring their discovery back to the base, but Carrington and Hendry disagree over what to do with it. Meanwhile, the creature is accidentally thawed and begins wreaking havoc... That’s what I like about the Army – smart all the way to the top! Produced and closely supervised by Howard Hawks, although this is credited to editor Christian Nyby as director, it is usually categorised as a Hawks film (Tobey said Hawks directed all but one scene) and it has his usual tropes – a community of professional men on a mission, quick wit and a feisty woman (and Margaret Sheridan gets most of the best lines as Tobey’s useful love interest). I’m not your enemy – I’m a scientist! Add to this an alien accidentally defrosted and a journalist desperate to share a scoop, together with a philosophical difference between soldiers and scientists raging as a blizzard whirls outside and you have a thriller perfectly modulated in tense phases culminating in a dynamic fight that emblemises the Cold War (that setting’s no accident). Part of the narrative’s psychology derives from the horrors of Hiroshima and contemporary public scepticism about the supposed advances of science. This is a fun, smart, well-written and staged entertainment – it could only be Hawks, not that it really matters. Adapted from John W. Campbell Jr’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? by Charles Lederer with uncredited work by Ben Hecht and Hawks. Watch the skies!

The Weaker Sex (1948)

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I wish I didn’t feel so cut off.   Widowed Martha Dacre (Ursula Jeans) tries to keep house and home together for her two serving daughters Helen (Joan Hopkins) who’s involved with radio officer Nigel (Derek Bond) and Lolly (Lana Morris) who’s going out with sailor Roddy (John Stone);  and servicemen billeted on her in Portsmouth, a naval base during WW2. While son Benjie (Digby Wolfe) is away in the Navy she has chosen to stay at home as a housewife, but when she learns that his ship has been damaged during the D Day landings, she regrets not taking a more active role in the war and works in a canteen and as a fire watcher. The family story moves forward from D-Day to VE-Day, the 1945 general election and on to 1948. Martha eventually re-marries to her late husband’s colleague, naval officer Geoffrey (Cecil Parker) who was one of those billeted on her and has become a father-figure to her son and daughters…  Oh dear, who’d be a mother? This British homefront drama was released three years following the conclusion of hostilities so it has the benefit of victorious hindsight as well as expressing the postwar era when everyone was completely obsessed with the lack of food. Adapted from actress Esther McCracken’s 1944 stage play No Medals by Paul Soskin with additional scenes created by Val Valentine to bring it up to the year of shooting, it’s a witty drama filled with resigned Keep Calm and Carry On messages underscored by dissatisfaction at the dreariness of housework and the plight of women whose life is dictated by the unavailability of food which becomes a thoroughly good running joke:  The housewives’ battle cry – the fishmonger’s got fish! cackles housekeeper Mrs Gaye (Thora Hird). Intended as post-war propaganda, a kind of decent British take on Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver (minus the Nazi in the garden) with added politics, it’s smart, unfussy and fair, yet trenchant and involving.  Jeans is terrific as the middle class woman finding herself rather (class) envious of Harriet Lessing (Marian Spencer) living in a serviced flat and volunteering:  there’s humour to be had in a lovely payoff when Harriet gets her public comeuppance after the war as rationing motivates her to head the local Militant Housewives League and she gets caught up in an unholy scrimmage which fetches up on the front page of the papers. Parker is a great casting choice – the guy not ashamed of being seen decked out in his uniform doing the vacuuming who can say unabashed to Jeans, I never had a genuinely platonic friendship with a woman before. Of course we know where that leads. He digs in and gets creative when he’s sick of being starved of regular food – and milks a goat. I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life is duty. There is a great sense of warmth in the family relationships and a scene of remarkable tension when Helen and Martha play a card game awaiting a phonecall to find out whether Nigel has survived a bombing.  Jeans tells herself when awaiting more bad news, I mustn’t back down. I must try to be of some use. Parker responds, This language of ours is so completely inadequate. They are expressing the weariness of a nation almost done in yet somehow dragging itself up to cope with the inevitability of ongoing loss. There are occasional dips into newsreel montages to bring a context to the experiences as the story commences in the run up to D Day, through VE Day, the 1945 General Election, Hiroshima and after, but the footage is smoothly integrated and doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow. Hugely successful in its day it’s a really rather spiffing reminder of how and why Britain came through the war, the importance of family and sadly that tragic deaths don’t just occur in wartime. Crisply shot by Erwin Hillier amid exquisite sets by Alex Vetchinsky and this raft of wonderful performances are very well directed by Roy [Ward] Baker. Shabby perhaps, but not yet shoddy

Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)

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Information is everything  – the currency, the power. Young United Nations employee Michael Soussan (Theo James) has left his lucrative job at a bank because he wants to follow in his late diplomat father’s footsteps and travels to Iraq with his mentor Under-Secretary-General Costa ‘Pasha’ Passaris (Ben Kingsley), who is going to show him how successful the UN’s Oil-for-Food Programme has been. When Michael gets a deeper look at the organisation on the ground he listens to the concerns of local UN diplomat Christina Dupre (Jacqueline Bisset) and unveils a corruption conspiracy in which officials both inside and outside of the UN are skimming billions off the top of the aid meant for the Iraqi people. When he meets UN worker (and secret Kurdish activist) Nashim (Bilçim Bilgin) and she informs him his predecessor was murdered, he finds his head being turned yet he wants to do the right thing … There was nobody left who knew how to run the countryPitched as a political thriller, this reeks of the great Seventies paranoid conspiracy stories that Pakula and Pollack made so much their own – and even concludes in a visit to the Wall Street Journal, conjuring images of Robert Redford in his own cat and mouse chase. However this whistleblower drama is a bigger story with the bad guys less easy to identify simply because there are so many of them – thousands of global companies, some household brands, bribing Saddam Hussein, and, as we might recall from the news of 15 years ago, revolved around the United Nations. So basically everything we know is right – they’re all at it, as the overly truthful title indicates. Graft is good. Our shoulder-shrugging dismay is sealed by intermittent montages of newsreel, reminding us that we are watching, as it were, a true story, while some of the ensemble get killed in car bombs as Iraq is carved up by vested interests. Kingsley, unsurprisingly, gets all the best lines and this performance is meat and drink to him. James is more diffuse as the good guy constantly stunned into submission by the realisation that corruption is a way of life and he still scrabbles to do whatever is right, whatever that might be, at any given time as the tables are constantly turned on him in this story of a naïf’s progress.  Adapted from Soussan’s memoir by director Per Fly (isn’t that the best name ever?!) and Daniel Pyne. Admirable but not wholly effective.  What you call corruption is simply the growing pains of a new democracy

 

The Goldfinch (2019)

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We don’t say fake. It’s reproduction. Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley/ Ansel Elgort) was 13 years old when his mother Audrey (Hailey Wist) was killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He is taken in by the Upper East Side Barbour family whose mother Samantha (Nicole Kidman) understands his fragility while his estranged friendship with her younger son Andy (Ryan Houst) is rekindled.  She discovers an engraved ring in Theo’s possession and he returns it to Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) at the antiques and restoration store Hobart & Blackwell where he recognises the lovely redheaded girl Pippa (Aimee Laurence/Ashleigh Cummings) who was standing beside him just before the bomb exploded and they become fast friends. She is the niece of Welty Blackwell (Robert Joy) whose dying words to Theo were to take his mom’s favourite painting the 1654 masterpiece The Goldfinch from the bomb site and a dazed Theo puts it in his backpack and stores it at his home.  All seems on an even keel until his freshly detoxed loser father Larry (Luke Wilson) reappears and abruptly takes him to Nevada to set up house with live-in cocktail waitress girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson). Life in the desert has an alien quality and he is befriended by sun-hating Ukrainian Goth Boris (Finn Wolfhard/Aneurian Barnard) who introduces him to a supply of mind-numbing drugs and alcohol while he himself has to deal with a violent father. Theo realises his own father is trying to rip him off and use his private school funds to gamble so escapes back to NYC where we find him as a young man working for Hobie selling upscaled faux antiques and reunited with the Barbour family:  Andy and Mr Barbour (Boyd Gaines) have died in a sailing accident and Samantha is unhinged by depression but delighted to see him again.  He gets engaged to her daughter Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald) but before long finds out he is not her true love, while Pippa remains out of reach.  After a bad sale to vicious art collector Lucius Reeve (Denis O’Hare) Theo discovers that The Goldfinch has been used as collateral in a criminal deal in Miami. When he runs into the grownup Boris in a bar he finds the beloved painting is not in the safe place where he stored it after all… In Amsterdam I dreamt I saw my mother again.  Adapted by Peter Straughan from Donna Tartt’s bestselling Bildungsroman, I arrive unburdened by reading the 880-page behemoth, an overlength only deserving of Tolstoy or someone of that order. Even without that experience, this has clear affinities with Dickens and allusions to Salinger, carrying with it an understanding of the difficulties of childhood and the intensity of friendship in a narrative dominated by the symbolic qualities of guilt. This is the opposite of a fast-moving art heist movie. It has an endearing shaggy dog style only broken by the fragmented nature of the storytelling and a late slackening in pace followed by the sudden violence of the ending in Amsterdam where the titular painting is eventually located and subject of a wild shootout. Much of the pleasure is in the juxtaposing of alienating landscapes of arid desert and rinky dink city locales. Kidman and Wolfhard are rivetting, Fegley is quite impenetrable but that’s not a bad thing given the story and how it is revealed, while Elgort is rather problematic as usual. Some of these performances might have been more effective had the story been told in sequence. There’s a wonderful, sonorous score by Trevor Gureckis and, if you allow it, much of this film will bring you into a world of childhood and loss rarely portrayed on screen. This, after all, is about the look of love and the love of looking and their complementary rewards and the only mystery is why this particular painting elicits such desire.

Holmes & Watson (2018)

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He and I co-detectives? Not I. Not here. Not even in my rapturous moments of private fantasy! Renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) join forces to investigate a mysterious murder threat upon Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) at Buckingham Palace. It seems like an open-and-shut case as all signs point to Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), the criminal mastermind and longtime nemesis of the crime-solving duo. Both men are diverted by American women – Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her companion Millicent (Lauren Lapkus) whom she insists is her electric shock treatment subject, a woman reared by feral cats. When new twists and clues begin to emerge, the sleuth and his assistant must use their legendary wits and ingenious methods to catch the killer who may have been hiding in plain sight very close to home I have the oddest feeling. Like knowing, but the opposite. Blending the steampunk approach of the Robert Downey films and the flash-forward visual detection of Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV Sherlock, this also has anachronistic shtick (Titanic in the life of Queen Vic, anyone?) and a cheeky reference to one of the more arcane Holmes incarnations in the casting of Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – TV’s House, geddit?! (That’s a scene that doesn’t work, sadly). Some of the best sequences and laughs are with Hall and Lapkus, between the misogyny and the bits about nineteenth century medical treatments, with some genuinely amusing romantic farce and bromantic jokes.  This is beautifully shot by Oliver Wood, exquisitely designed by James Hambidge and costumed by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Naturally it’s only a matter of time until someone says No shit Sherlock and it’s from the mouths of Dickensian runts straight out of Oliver!  There’s a funny passing song that occasions a joke about musicals when the film finally lets rip à la The Muppets giving it more promise than it delivers and there are some highly contemporary visual and political references. So there’s wit and invention aplenty but it’s not quite clever enough all the time. Rather like Holmes. Minus the innuendo and lewdness this could have been a marvellous comic outing for children, agreeably silly with some easy but amusing targets but you know, these guys, they just can’t help themselves, with Ferrell doing too much of what he likes as the ultimate defective detective and Reilly as his hapless foil, a Johnson in more ways than one (until the roles get switched, which happens constantly and is confusing). The ladies are fantastic and Fiennes brings that immaculate class as is his wont and manages to be the only one who doesn’t actually twirl that comedy moustache; while Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald and Steve Coogan (as a one-armed tattooist) get their moments of infamy. Written and directed by Etan Coen. No, not that Coen, obvs. Terrible and clueless but not totally awful. Go figure.  A sniff of morning cocaine always helps the brain

The Wrecking Crew (1968)

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Faster! You’re an awful driver! Matt Helm (Dean Martin) is assigned by his secret agency, ICE, to bring down an evil count named Contini (Guy Green) who is trying to collapse the world economy by stealing a billion dollars in gold. Helm travels to Denmark, where he is given a guide, Freya Carlson (Sharon Tate)  a beautiful but bumbling woman from a Danish tourism bureau. Two of Contini’s accomplices, the seductive Linka Karensky (Elke Sommer) and Yu-Rang (Nancy Kwan) each attempt to foil Helm’s plans. The former is killed in an ambush intended for Helm, the latter in an explosion. On each occasion, Freya’s clumsy attempts to assist Matt are helpful, but not particularly appreciated…  My hat’s not broken! Dean Martin returns in the fourth (and final big-screen) outing for Donald Hamilton’s spy, taken out of retirement. It’s all day-glo, great locations and slapstick with Tate an utter joy as the klutz, a Stella Stevens role in the original The Silencers, with her girlfight opposite Nancy Kwan a particular highlight (and as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood acknowledges, Bruce Lee was her martial arts trainer). Dino makes out to his own songs – asking Elke when she wants her dress zipped, Which way – up or down?  – there’s a runaway train with the bullion, combat scenes galore and lots of bombs. Go-go boots ahoy for groovy girls and boys! Directed by Phil Karlson, making a welcome return to the series. Screenplay by William P. McGivern. If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her bed, you’d do better sleepin’ with your uncle Fred

Otley (1968)

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If they are the cowboys we’re supposed to be the Indians. Gerald Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) is a petty crook and wannabe antique dealer mistaken for a British secret agent when he sleeps on a couch belonging to his friend Eric Lambert (Edward Hardwicke) who’s really a suspected influence pedlar and document smuggler and who is found murdered while Otley wakes up two days on the runway at Gatwick. Otley trails double agents and double martinis at a posh cocktail party before discovering the villains have the cooperation of top government officials. He’s pegged to pose as a possible defector to oust the criminal mastermind who plans to sell stolen documents vital to national security to any enemy agent with the most money. British secret agent Imogen (Romy Schneider) first has Otley beaten up by her thugs before combining forces to go after the real villains …  I was last year’s winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Award for Lethargy. Directed by Dick Clement and co-written with his regular collaborator Ian La Frenais, this adaptation of a novel by Northern Irish author Martin Waddell is funny and characterful, laced with real wit and a bright British cast including James Bolam (from Clement and La Frenais’ The Likely Lads), Alan Badel as MI5 overlord Hadrian, James Villiers as the resurrecting spy Hendrickson, Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mum and you can see the shared mannerisms), Geoffrey Bayldon as a police superintendent, Freddie Jones as an epicene gallerist, the dulcet tones of radio DJs Pete Murray and Jimmy Young, and Leonard Rossiter – as a hitman! Great mileage is got out of the mistaken identity scenario, everyone changing sides constantly, with Courtenay wonderfully charismatic as the feckless cheeky chappie protagonist street trader in way over his head between teams of rival spies who believe everyone has a price, while Schneider has fun as the perky intelligence agent. With fantastic location shooting (by Austin Dempster), the action scenes are atypical of the spy genre although the golf course sequence will remind you of a certain Bond movie, a titles sequence in Portobello Road market shows uncooperative shoppers staring into the camera as it tracks back from Courtenay strolling among the stalls and shops, there’s a rumble among the houseboats at Cheyne Walk, a sequence at the Playboy Club and a disastrous driving test that turns into a nutty car chase. This comic approach to the wrong man spy thriller is uniquely entertaining. Damian Harris, Robin Askwith and Kenneth Cranham play kids and the music and theme song are by Stanley Myers. I’m Gerard Arthur Otley and I’ve had enough

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

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They told me I’d have control over it but they lied. Fired from the National Security Agency, Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) recruits infamous computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) to steal FireWall, a computer programme he has created that can access codes for nuclear weapons worldwide and he wants to disable it before it falls into the wrong hands. The download soon draws attention from an NSA agent Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) who traces the activity to Stockholm where he’s warned off interfering on arrival by Gabriella Grane (Synnove Macody Lund) deputy director of the Swedish Security Service. Further problems arise when Russian thugs take Lisbeth’s laptop and kidnap a math whiz who can make FireWall work. When Frans is murdered and his young autistic son August (Christopher Convery) is kidnapped Lisbeth must race against time to save the boy and recover the codes to avert disaster but a series of violent obstacles lead her to ask journalist ally Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) for help and he understands that the roots of her problem lie within her own family and the sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks) whom she says is dead I think you are scared of what would become of Mikael Blomkvist if there was no Lisabeth Salander. It’s not really about Mikael, actually, because it’s about family and the violence within and what Lisbeth left behind. Adapted by director Fede Álvarez, Steven Knight and Jay Basu from the eponymous novel by David Lagercrantz, a sequel to the Millennium Trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson, this forms a sequel of sorts to David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo whose audience reception apparently caused him to lose interest in continuing the series and there’s a total change in casting and emphasis. It starts with a flashback to sex abuse in Lisbeth’s family, with a pervert father and an abused sister who cannot reconcile Lisbeth’s crusade against men who harm women:  Lisbeth left her behind and Camilla has pursued her father’s career with Russian gangsters. The jeopardy with the kidnapping of August produces emotional resonance but everything else is rather by the numbers considering the depth of backstory and Foy’s performance, supplanting earrings and bodily markings with characterisation in what is a kind of origin story. The sisters’ face off (literally – involving S&M and stopping Lisbeth breathe) is one of the film’s highlights, another is a motorcycle escape across an icy Swedish lake and there’s a nice turnaround featuring techie expert Plague (Cameron Britton) working in cahoots with Edwin, but otherwise it’s quite a muted and unenergetic thriller with a rather silly plot, seemingly shot in Stockholm’s yellowy grey mornings at dawn, and not exactly an advert for the tourism business.  I bet you can’t wait to write a story about all this

The Equalizer 2 (2018)

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A piece of advice: always be nice to anyone who has access to your toothbrush.  Retired elusive ex-CIA operative, widower Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), is whiling away his time driving a taxi and delivering vigilante justice on behalf of neighbours and customers in Boston. However his past cuts close to home when thugs kill Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) – his best friend and former colleague. Now out for revenge, McCall has to take on a crew of highly trained assassins who’ll stop at nothing to destroy him and he suspects their leader is a former colleague…  There are no good or bad people any more. No enemies. Just unfortunates. Per the law of diminishing returns, the more of these actioners Washington makes the less effective he becomes as a leading man, doesn’t he? In the first of these films, adapted from the Edward Woodward TV series, he was outshone by the astonishing Marton Csokas, who was the villain par excellence, albeit for obvious reasons he’s not back here. McCall is still working out his grief by helping out anyone he can like some kind of Fury or ninja empath. You’ll spot the troublemaker a mile off and the final shootout is inevitable and tedious. Director Antoine Fuqua has now made sadism a part of his aesthetic brand without any especially redeeming features other than the resolution of an underdeveloped subplot – care home resident Orson Bean trying to find a painting stolen from his family by the Nazis, a line of narrative mirrored in the aspiring artist who McCall is trying to direct back to the straight and narrow starting with remaking a piece of Islamic street art. Written by Richard Wenk. You died

A Woman in Berlin (2008)

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Aka  Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin/The Downfall of Berlin. Find a single wolf to keep away the pack.  In April 1945 the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrives in Berlin defeating the last German defence. Its soldiers rape women of any age as they occupy the city. After being gang raped by a number of Soviet soldiers, the film’s anonymous woman, German journalist Anonyma (Nina Hoss), petitions the battalion’s commanding officer, for an alliance and protection to control the terms of her rape. From now on I will decide who gets me After initially rejecting her, married Ukrainian Lieutenant Andrei Rybkin (Eugeny Sidikhin) is seduced by the beautiful battered German woman. She manifests a cool, practical approach to her life, part of an informal community that develops among survivors in her apartment building. The officer subsequently protects, feeds and parties with her and her neighbours. Other women also take particular officers or soldiers for protection against being raped by soldiers at large which works until their husbands return. Rybkin comes under suspicion and is reassigned, who knows where …  My name doesn’t matter. The book by Anonymous (Marta Hillers) wasn’t published until 1959 and even then the account of the mass rapes (2 million plus) by the Russians was hard to bear so this adaptation has a twofold problem:  not turning it into an exploitation fest; and not being so melodramatic as to remove the nature of the horror and the pragmatic decision that women took to try to survive.  On that front at least it’s a success, a clear-eyed depiction of how life was. Watching rape used as a weapon in the rubble-strewn ruins of Berlin in revenge for what the Germans did in Russia is an unedifying experience. We step over the corpses of women to get a jar of jam. Hoss is superb as the worldly woman who has travelled and lived abroad yet also been a committed Nazi who is forced to use the only means she has to keep alive – a complex portrait of ambiguity proving she’s one of the best actors around. There are moments of humorous irony – her neighbour the widow has it away for a bit of salami, as she wryly observes. Hillers died in 2001 after which the book was republished and she was identified. She didn’t live to see this, which is a great pity. It’s a tough and grim story, brilliantly constructed and performed. Adapted by Catharina Schuchmann and director Max Färberböck. War and dying used to be men’s business. That’s all over