Road to Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition

Where would this town be without Mr John Rooney? In 1931 Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hitman and enforcer for Irish-American mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) in the Rock Island area. His son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) hides in the car one night after the wake for one of Rooney’s henchmen and sees his Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) administer a shot in the head to the dead man’s brother Finn (Ciarán Hinds) who talked too much at the event; while he understands for the first time what his father does for a living when he witnesses the bloodshed. Rooney sends Connor to kill Michael and the boy but Connor instead kills his wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and other son Peter (Liam Aiken) in cold blood and Michael goes on the run with Michael Jr in an attempt to gain revenge for his family’s murder. He finds that he has no friends and no protection and is advised by Mafia man Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to give up. He reckons without a freelance corpse photographer Maguire (Jude Law) following him and thinks that by uncovering Connor’s theft that Rooney will accept him as the son he never had … A man of honour always pays his debts and keeps his word. I like this far better now that years have passed, Newman is gone and what I originally thought of as directorial heavy-handedness is more readily recognisable as a comfort with the excessive expressionistic qualities of the source material. Hanks’ doughy face with its deep-set eyes seems peculiarly unsuited for this kind of role but paradoxically lends the performance an unexpected quality. His six-week road trip with his son gives him an opportunity to impart lessons and learn about the boy for the first time. He makes us know that Michael Jr is not to follow him into this deadly business. His scenes with Newman are marvellous – a kind of trading off in acting styles, one legend passing on lessons to the next, borne out in the storytelling. What Michael doesn’t know is that blood means more than sympathy, no matter the horrors involved in being part of the Rooney family. Of course Connor would betray his father;  and of course his father knows. It’s a hard thing to watch Michael learn the truth. Loyalty sucks. This is a gallery of masculine roles – Craig as the ever-smiling psychotic son, Law as the rotten-toothed shooter masquerading as the photographer of death – a correlative of the film’s own morbidity; Hoechlin as the boy learning at his father’s elbow as the guns go off. Hinds impresses in those early scenes, quietly seething then mouthing off at his brother’s wake, a crime which will  not go unpunished. Dylan Baker’s accountant Alexander Rance has a decidedly old-fashioned homosexual taint of prissiness. This is a linear story of fathers and sons, cause and effect, crime, punishment and revenge in an Oedipal setting dictated by the rules of inevitability that can be traced to Greek tragedy. There are no surprises but the pleasures of the production design by Dennis Gassner, the cinematography by Conrad Hall (who earned a posthumous Academy Award) and the performances make this worth a re-viewing. Screenplay by David Self from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers

Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (1957)

Shoot Out at Medicine Bend

Aka The Marshal of Independence. Thee has to talk like them and don’t forget it. Captain Buck Devlin (Randolph Scott)and cavalry troopers Sergeant John Maitland James Garner) and Private Wilbur Clegg (Gordon Jones) all recently mustered out of the army, head to Devlin’s brother’s homestead to settle down and arrive just in time to drive off an Indian attack but just too late to save his brother. Faulty ammunition cost him his life. The three men set out for Medicine Bend to find out who sold the ammunition. The community also gives them all their funds to buy badly needed supplies. On the way however, they are robbed of everything – the money, their horses, even their uniforms. Fortunately, they happen upon a local church (who have also been robbed), and are given spare clothing. Devlin decides it would be a good idea to pretend to be Brethren while in town. They quickly connect the robbers, and later the defective ammunition, to Ep Clark (James Craig). Clark controls the mayor and the sheriff, and has his gang attack wagon trains of pioneers heading west and forces other local traders out of business. The men are up against it in their pursuit of the ruthless town boss … I prefer sour ‘bosom.’ It’s more refined. Directed by Richard Bare and amusingly written by John Tucker Battle and D.D. Beauchamp, this is standard western fare but it’s more fun than most with our leads gussied up as Quakers sorting out the decent wheat from the villainous chaff and doing the Robin Hood act.  Probably the only film you’ll ever see where that peaceable bunch do the necessary to end violence and it is of course interesting to watch Scott fulfill his contract at Warner Brothers while independently making classics of the genre under his own banner elsewhere. Garner says of the experience in his memoir, “It was always fun working with Dick Bare, and Randy Scott was an old pro, but the movie isn’t worth a damn. I was under contract, so I had to do what they put in front of me.” Angie Dickinson has a nice role as the storekeeper’s niece who is of course Scott’s love interest while Dani Crayne sings Kiss Me Quick in the saloon earning Garner’s attention. The title tells you all about how it ends. Get his partner. Give ’em a fair trial. Then hang ’em!

City That Never Sleeps (1953)

City That Never Sleeps

I could make a big man out of you. Disillusioned Chicago cop Johnny Kelly (Gig Young) wants to quit the force and make a new life with strip tclub performer Sally ‘Angel Face’ Connors (Mala Powers), leaving wife Kathy (Paula Raymond) who tells her father-in-law, Sgt. John Kelly Senior (Otto Hulett) she suspects Johnny might be planning on leaving the Chicago PD and believes he can’t stand being outearned by her. Johnny meets big wheel corrupt DA Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold) who blackmails him into transporting former magician now thief Hayes Stewart (William Talman) after a setup later that night across state lines into Indiana because Johnny’s little brother Stubby (Ron Hagerthy) a former bellboy is now involved in his rackets. What Biddel doesn’t know is that his wife Lydia  (Marie Windsor) and Stewart are having an affair and he is being set up instead with Stubby being used as his accomplice in that night’s theft. When John Sr takes Johnny’s call he ends up getting caught in the crossfire …. What he needs is a lesson in ethics. An awesome cult item full of bruised poetry, astonishing camera setups by John (Psycho) Russell, surprising plot twists and pleasurable performances. There are self-conscious references to The Blue Angel; a voiceover out of Dragnet from Chill Wills, Young’s insightful partner for the evening; and Young’s own ‘sour’ character tipping into masochism and creating a bristling set of disarming consequences for all concerned. The screenplay by Steve Fisher has the tropes of a police procedural but it reaches into the gutter and exposes the viscera of desire in the most amazing ways with a Mechanical Man (Wally Cassell) bearing witness to murder from a nightclub window and a chase to the death along the Chicago El. What a film! Directed by John Auer. Restored by Martin Scorsese and shown by that invaluable channel, Talking Pictures. You are sick inside Johnny. Something inside you is all fouled up

Appointment in Berlin (1943)

Appointment in Berlin

That’s the whole point of Secret Service – to prevent people suspecting. In 1938 disillusioned and recently disgraced RAF officer Wing Commander Keith Wilson (George Sanders) risks his life in Berlin by broadcasting pro-Nazi propaganda as a cover for counter-espionage. His broadcasts have a military code enabling British manoeuvres. He falls in love with Ilse (Marguerite Chapman) sister of a high-ranking Nazi Rudolph von Preising (Onslow Stevens) and forges links with journalist Greta van Leyden (Gale Sondergaard) who is actually a spy as well and when a message needs to be taken to Holland he’s the only one left standing … If you are going in at the deep end you may as well do it for England. In a rare tragic role, Sanders scores as the officer whose disgust at Britain’s politically neutral stance prior to WW2 leads him to become a pariah – lending him handy cover when England expects. The question of identity hovers over every scene here as Ilse’s transformation is nicely nuanced whereas Sondergaard’s situation is more extreme and her ending is well staged. There’s an amusing double act from a pair of American neutrals whose constant haranguing of supposedly treacherous Wilson adds humour to proceedings – inevitably they assist in his time of need. Nice references to Goebbels and his role in the manufacturing of truth. An interesting propaganda picture of pre-war problems and the reason why cross-border co-operation was required. Michael Hogan and Horace McCoy wrote the screenplay based on B.P. Fineman’s story.  Directed by Alfred E. Green. It’s finally happened

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

 

 

Gunman’s Walk (1958)

Gunmans Walk

Come on – let me brand her! In the West, Davy Hackett (James Darren) and his hot-tempered, arrogant older brother Ed (Tab Hunter) are about to assist their rancher father Lee (Van Heflin) on a cattle drive to Wyoming. Lee has been trying to bring them up in his own image but has failed, with Ed determining to be a gunfighter. The brothers meet Cecily ‘Clee’ Chouard (Kathryn Grant [Crosby]) a beautiful half-French, half-Sioux woman, and when Ed makes unwanted advances toward her, Davy intervenes. Clee’s brother Paul (Bert Convy) is invited to join the cattle drive. Ed, obsessed with capturing a white mare, resents Paul’s interference and pushes him off a cliff to his death. It is witnessed by two Indians, but when the case comes to court, Ed is released because Lee has bribed a man named Jensen Sieverts (Ray Teal) to lie that the death was an accident. Lee learns that Davy is in love with Clee and disowns him. Sieverts is given ten horses in exchange, but when he selects the white mare, Ed shoots him. Jailed once again, Ed shoots a deputy and escapes. Lee is finally forced to hunt him down … Lee, you and I grew up in our own times – Ed’s got to learn to grow up in his, and times have changed! Phil Karlson’s immensely sympathetic directing benefits greatly from a wonderful, measured screenplay by Frank S. Nugent (adapting an original script by Ric Hardman), the veteran writer responsible for eleven of John Ford’s westerns. The complexities of race are simply expressed by dint of deception and the good son/bad son trope is effectively dramatised.  It’s well played (even by Hunter!), with a standout performance by Heflin, finally forced to confront the fact that he has not managed to tame a bad ‘un. As a portrait of a society evolving it’s a surprise package.  Beautifully shot by Charles Lawton Jr with a spellbinding score by George Duning. Hunter sings I May Be a Runaway, co-written by Hollywood director Richard Quine.  Isn’t that an amazing poster?! Times don’t change in this country where you breed a man soft. Without any spirit, a man’s like a horse: if he don’t buck the first time you put a saddle on him he ain’t worth having – you know that!

Grey Gardens (2009) (TVM)

Grey Gardens 2009

Everyone thinks and feels differently as the years pass by. Long Island, the mid-70s. The documentary filmmakers Albert (Arye Gross) and David Maysles (Justin Louis) are showing some of the footage they’ve shot about former members of NYC high society 79-year old Edith Bouvier Beale (Jessica Lange), the sister of Black Jack Bouvier, father of Jackie Kennedy (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her daughter 57-year old Little Edie (Drew Barrymore) to the pair. The women are living in a decrepit dirty house in East Hampton filled with cats and other stray animals and we learn how they wound up in poverty without electricity and running water, starting in the Thirties when Little Edie refused to marry any pig-headed momma’s boys bachelors and wanted a career on the stage. When her father Phelan (Ken Howard) divorces her mother she lives in the city and tries out for shows and models and falls into an adulterous relationship with Julius ‘Cap’ Krug (Daniel Baldwin) a married member of Truman’s administration. Her father tries to end it but it’s Cap who finishes with Edie and she retires to the beach house effectively replacing the attentions of her mother’s former lover, children’s tutor Gould (Malcolm Gets) and never leaves …  I don’t think you see yourself as others see you. In 1975 Albert and David Maysles released their eponymous documentary about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin and people were horrified. It was deemed tasteless and exploitative, its stars clearly not fully compos mentis and their sad lives in a state of utter disarray and poverty. What it lacked was context and that sin of omission is repaired here as we enjoy a series of flashbacks starting in 1936 when Little Edie is such a loser on the husband-hunting trail that would settle her for life while her parents’ marriage falls apart – a situation that would eventually leave her mother and herself penniless and isolated. It’s rare to see a TV movie made with such care and complexity; the word apoplectic appears at key points and has a different resonance on each occasion. Perhaps the makers understood the term palimpsest. This certainly fills the gaps the initial documentary leaves but it also restages certain scenes from Grey Gardens (1975) and the framing story as the women watch clips of their lives unspooling on the wall of the decaying house elicits some priceless reactions by the mother and daughter. This is really a story of women who are left behind and the limited options available even to the supposedly fortunate daughters of the very wealthy:  a priest reporting to Phelan Beale about Little Edie’s behaviour at a party sets the ball rolling disastrously. It’s a deeply felt film about performance on several levels and Barrymore is quite astonishing playing Little Edie in different phases of her life. Her failed debutante, girl about town and finally recluse are brilliantly developed. Her devastation and consequent alopecia when Krug tells her she has naïvely mistaken their sexual escapades for a special relationship is heartbreaking. The possibilities for misunderstandings multiply over the decades and Barrymore masters that flat affectless Boston brahmin drawl, offsetting the emotions in counter intuitive fashion. The final performance for a gay crowd at a NYC club before she leaves the State for good is good natured. Maybe she was in on the joke – at last. Throughout she seems to drift in and out of different kinds of consciousness. We know she definitely can’t stand another winter in the freezing cold of Long Island. She is matched in a different register by Lange whose role requires quite a different set of nuances not to mention a love of cats. There’s a very enlightening sequence when the newspapers break the shocking story about Jackie O’s sad cousins living in squalor and the woman herself visits and promises to have the place redecorated. Little Edie delights in lying to her that she should have been First Lady instead if Joe Kennedy Jr had lived despite having only seen him once at a party. Jackie sadly agrees:  not the anticipated reaction. The Edies enjoy the deceit, setting the scene for their final reconciliation when they finally forgive each other for the destruction of their lives. Perhaps justice is finally done for these eccentrics whose destinies were dictated by men. Written by Patricia Rozema and director Michael Sucsy. Grey Gardens is my home. It’s the only place where I feel completely myself

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991)

Dont Tell Mom the Babysitters Dead

I’ve had a very rough thirty-seven years and I need a break. Sue Ellen Crandell (Christina Applegate) has just graduated high school and her plans to join friends on vacation in Europe are ruined when her divorced mom (Concetta Tomei) decides to take off for two months to Australia leaving an elderly woman Mrs Sturak (Eda Reiss Merin) in charge of Sue Ellen and her twin Kenny (Keith Coogan) a stoner and slacker, 14-year old romantic Zach (Christopher Pettiet), 13-year old tomboy Melissa (Danielle Harris) and 11-year old TV addict Walter (Robert Hy Gorman). However Mrs Sturak dies of shock at the state of Kenny’s bedroom and after disposing of her at the local mortuary they realise she has taken the money for the summer. Sue Ellen draws the short straw and has to find a job. After failing miserably at a fast food place where she hits it off with co-worker Bryan (Josh Charles) she fakes her age and her way into an admin position at General Apparel West where designer boss Rose Lindsey (Joanna Cassidy) thinks she’s found an heir apparent.  While waiting for a paycheque she has to use petty cash to make the grocery bills and conceal her identity from office rival Carolyn (Jayne Brook) because she’s Bryan’s sister. Then the company runs into trouble and Sue Ellen’s unique (and recent) insights into teen fashion might just save the day … Did he just finish reading Dianetics or something? In which a grisly black comedy premise mutates into a tale of an accidental teenage career woman and her stoner brother who turns house husband chef, this is a feast in more ways than one:  the Nineties fashion, the role reversal whereby the kids assume adult roles more convincingly than the grown ups, and there’s a hilarious scene when Kenny chastises Sue Ellen for acting like an ungrateful spouse, home late after he’s spent the day cooking using Julia Child’s TV show to tutor him. Cassidy is outstanding as Sue Ellen’s boss who regresses to a candy-guzzling kid when her job is on the line, and an attractive cast of kids give spirited performances but it’s Applegate all the way. The imaginative use by David Newman of the Psycho score to see off Mrs Sturak is highly amusing. Written by Neil Landau and Tara Ison and directed by Stephen Herek. A relic of its era, in the best possible sense. Babysitters suck

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?

Ray & Liz (2018)

Ray and Liz

They can do anything nowadays. In England’s Black Country in the Thatcher era, Ray (Justin Salinger) and Liz (Ella Smith) raise their two sons Richard (Jacob Tuton/Sam Jacobs) and his younger brother Jason (Callum Slater/Joshua Millard-Lyon) on the margins of society in a Dudley council flat… A horrifying and virtually unwatchable portrait of the underclass with gruelling depictions of heavy drinking, parental neglect and familial dysfunction on a fathomless scale, told over a period of eight years as Richard becomes a teenager.  It’s framed within a flashback when Ray (Patrick Romer) is now an alcoholic separated from Liz (Deirdre Kelly) and neighbour Sid (Richard Ashton) is vying for his welfare benefits by keeping him drunk. Made by photographer and artist Richard Billingham about his impoverished upbringing and developed from a short film, this unsentimental fragmentary narrative is not without the odd millisecond of humour – perhaps when Jason runs away and meets his mother the following day wheeling a rabbit in a pram in a local park we are in the realm of Lewis Carroll. Her maintenance of a menagerie in their squalid surroundings is given a correlative in a visit to a zoo. Spot the difference between that and council accommodation. Then the social workers intervene, as you might expect but only Jason gets to go to a foster family: Richard is told he is almost old enough to leave and his coping mechanism to record and photograph his family throughout his childhood is the key to his freedom. It’s his recording that proved the nasty lodger Will (Sam Gittins) forced drink down the throat of retarded Uncle Lol (Tony Way) but tattooed drinker and smoker Liz destroys the evidence after she’s inflicted mindless violence. And returns to her jigsaw puzzles. Stylistically it’s slow, disconnected, anti-dramatic for the most part and pitiless and may remind you of Terence Davies’ work but other than feeling gutted for feral children born into such gob smacking fecklessness, when you look away from a work that refuses all possibility of empathy you’ll wind up thinking perhaps eugenics isn’t such a rotten idea after all – because bad people do bad things to the children they should never be permitted to have. Perhaps not the appropriate reaction. Kitchen sink realism for a new era, it’s a staggering if emotionless indictment of the kind of Britain that still exists for millions of people. This is what happens when you enact official policies of social isolation, austerity and poverty. It really is Grim Up North. Brutal.