Tenet (2020)

We live in a twilight world. An unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) gets kidnapped and tortured by gangsters following an opera siege in Ukraine and wakes up after he takes a fake suicide pill, is rebuilt and sent on a new mission – to find out who’s shipping inverted bullets from the future using Priya (Dimple Kapadia) as a front. He discovers through a forged Goya it’s Russian arms dealer Andrey Sator (Kenneth Branagh) whose art expert wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) is more or less his hostage, trying to keep in contact with their young son. Working with British agent Neil (Robert Pattinson) he organises an attack on the (tax- free) Freeport in Oslo Airport where art treasures are being held in an attempt to to root out the channels Sator is using and tries to avert the end of the world as Sator’s suicide mission takes hold … With a hi-vis jacket and a clipboard you can get in practically anywhere in the world. The ongoing paradox – one of many – in the latest offering from writer/director Christopher Nolan – is that in a world of special effects he does his filmmaking in camera and this has an admirably real feeling, with a lot of it shot in gloomy European cities that mostly look alike – grey, with brutalist tower blocks and dull skies. It’s the dystopic vision that J.G. Ballard satirised while predicting the future, a time when Alain Resnais was pioneering storytelling backwards and forwards through time yet the Sixties feeling is very now. The palindromic inventiveness lies in the story structure, the characterisation and the trust in the audience. Of course it helps  that this tale of a man with the power of apocalypse in his nasty Eastern European paws with the foreknowledge informing his every move is released to a Covid-19 world where people wear masks and dread the end of days, rather like here (when they’re not masked they’re bearded, which is pretty much the same thing). That it also takes the long tall Sally from TV’s espionage hit adaptation of John le Carre’s The Night Manager and puts her in a markedly similar role doesn’t go amiss. These realistic meta touches – with Branagh’s horrifying oligarch resident in London – grip the narrative to something close to recognisable quotidian newspaper headlines; while the parallel lines of future-past intersect in the ‘inverted’ nodes that splatter in all directions. It may be that after one hundred minutes when they decide to return to Oslo and they mean go back in time to Oslo that the plot becomes not just far fetched but out of reach to the ordinary pea brain, or someone who thinks in too linear a fashion, as soldier Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) chides The Protagonist. As ever, we must remember that future and past selves best not meet each other or else – annihilation. There are boys’ own fantasies writ large – joyriding an aeroplane and causing a horrifying amount of damage, an exhilarating catamaran race, an astonishing quasi-hijacking which can’t possibly go well with all that time travel inversion stuff, great military hardware for the penultimate sequence and the unpeeling of The Protagonist aka The American who starts out from a very bad place indeed and is literally reconstituted to do his worst.  The entire narrative is based on one diadic exchange:  What just happened here?/ It didn’t happen yet! It’s a different experience than Inception which was all about a built world inhabited by a featureless character – a video game, in any language. Yet we can see all the references from the Airport movies, through Terry Gilliam and The Thomas Crown Affair in this timeblender. Branagh is such an evil bad guy you expect him to tell Washington he expects him to die while twirling his comedy moustache. Pattinson might well be reprising his T.E. Lawrence  in those early sweaty linen suits. How you appear is all, as Michael Caine’s Sir Michael Crosby informs Washington – less Brooks Brothers, more Savile Row tailoring. They are men on a mission but not Men in Black. This all concludes in the abject maternal being resolved in pleasing fashion, a not unfamiliar trope in Nolan’s body of work; the opportunity to rewrite your life is presented here in key moments. There is one huge technical problem with the film that damages the plot clarity and that is the woeful sound mix, leaving much dialogue lost in the guttural music of Ludwig Goransson while revelling in the sheer kinetic drive of the action. It’s not too late in this digital age to whip up some new codes to tidy it up, is it? Maybe just ratchet up the EQs a tad. In the interim, relish the historical possibilities of film editing in this awesome mosaic of affect and attractions and heed the advice given in soothing voice early on, Don’t try to understand it – feel it. Welcome back, Cinema.

The Russia House (1990)

You live in a free society; you have no choice. Publisher Bartholomew ‘Barley’ Scott Blair (Sean Connery) is caught in a conspiracy when he receives manuscripts from a Russian scientist, Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) claiming that the Russian nuclear programme is a sham. Ned (James Fox) from British intelligence and Russell (Roy Scheider) and Brady (John Mahoney) of the CIA have the book intercepted en route to Blair at his Lisbon home because they consider it to contain crucial information.  They recruit him to investigate its editor, Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer) a divorced mother of two. As Blair goes to Moscow and learns the origin of the manuscript and discovers Russian military secrets, he falls in love with Katya and fights to protect her family even as he realises that Katya may have another admirer. The two intelligence agencies have a shopping list of questions to check that Dante is for real but Ned begins to wonder where Barley’s loyalties really lie … How the fuck do you peddle an arms race when the only asshole you’ve got to race against is yourself? Adapted from John le Carre’s novel by Tom Stoppard, this elegant look at Russian-British relations at the tail end of the Glasnost Eighties may have been overtaken by real events but it’s nonetheless a wittily constructed espionage story with one of Connery’s best performances as the sax playing book publisher whose heart is stolen by Pfeiffer, an atypically stunning editor with Pfeiffer turning in a really nuanced performance as the semi-tragic Russian. Only the second major American film to be shot in the Soviet Union, it’s picturesque indeed, using so many beautiful settings in Leningrad and Moscow and enhanced by the fantastic cast among whom film director Ken Russell makes a splash as Walter, the Brit spy, in his inimitable fashion; while the tension between the British and American agencies supplies much of the suspense. A superior entertainment directed by Fred Schepisi. If there is to be a hope we must all betray our country, we have to save each other because all victims are equal and none is more equal than others. It’s everyone’s duty to start the avalanche

A View to a Kill (1985)

A View to a Kill

A typical Reds to riches story. Bond (Roger Moore)returns from his travels in the U.S.S.R. with a computer chip. This chip is capable of withstanding a nuclear electromagnetic pulse that would otherwise destroy a normal chip. The chip was created by Zorin Industries, and Bond heads off to investigate its owner, Max Zorin (Christopher Walken), first encountering him at Ascot where despite the form of competitors his horses win against the odds. Zorin is really planning to set off an earthquake along the Hayward and San Andreas faults, which will wipe out all of Silicon Valley, the heart of the world’s microchip production. As well as Zorin, Bond must also tackle his sidekick, hit woman May Day (Grace Jones) and equally menacing companion of Zorin, while dragging State Geologist Stacy Sutton (Tanya Roberts) along for the ride… Well my dear, I take it you spend quite a lot of time in the saddle. Written by Richard Maibaum and producer Michael G, Wilson, this is the fourteenth Bond and the seventh and final to star Moore and is adapted from Ian Fleming’s story From a View to a Kill. Unusually violent for the series, with Walken machine-gunning large groups of people in a mass slaughter, albeit his origins as the product of a Nazi experiment explains the high body count. It’s more than redeemed by an awesomely staged pre-titles ski chase and another genuinely impressive chase through Paris, commencing on the Eiffel Tower and continuing with Moore following Jones in a parachute but on the ground, in a car gradually broken up (literally) in traffic before he jumps onto a bateau mouche, only to watch Jones escape in a speed boat piloted by Walken: David Bowie and Sting were first offered the role of Zorin who is perhaps a little too light although his sinister laugh paradoxically suggests the requisite insanity. In a Freudian touch the scientist responsible for him is his in-house scientist. It’s nice to see Walter Gotell returning as Soviet General Gogol while Lois Maxwell makes her final appearance as Moneypenny. The weakest acting link is Roberts but you can blame the screenplay for her shortcomings. There’s a great role for Patrick Macnee as 007’s sidekick (for a while!) Sir Godfrey Tibbett and Patrick Bauchau makes an appearance as Zorin’s security chief, Scarpine.  Dolph Lundgren makes a brief appearance, his debut, as Venz, one of Gogol’s KGB agents. There’s a welcome appearance by David Yip as the CIA agent who assists Bond in a return of the action to the US and the climax at the Golden Gate Bridge is well done. All in all it’s a bright and colourful outing for our favourite spy. The stonking title song is performed by Duran Duran who co-wrote it with John Barry. Directed by John Glen, his third time at the series’ helm. What would you be without us? A biological experiment? A physiological freak?

Dr No (1962)

Dr No

You are carrying a double 0 number. It means you are licensed to kill, not get killed. British agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) by head of the Secret Service M (Bernard Lee) is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow British agent, Strangways (Timothy Moxon) to determine if it is related to Strangways’ decision to co-operate on a CIA case involving the disruption of rocket launches from NASA’s base at Cape Canaveral in Florida by radio jamming. When Bond arrives in Jamaica, he is immediately accosted by a man claiming to be a chauffeur sent to collect him who is really an enemy agent sent to kill him. Before Bond can interrogate him, following a struggle, the agent kills himself with a cyanide capsule. After visiting Strangways’ house, Bond confronts Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) a boatman who was collecting mineral samples from Crab Key for Strangways and who reveals that he is aiding the CIA, introducing Bond to agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), who is also investigating Strangways’ disappearance. Local geologist Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) claims the samples are normal but Bond is not convinced. Dent travels to the underground base of megalomaniac Dr Julius No (Joseph Wiseman) a Chinese-German with prosthetic metal hands who is the operator of a bauxite mine on the Caribbean island of Crab Key (and a reclusive member of SPECTRE) who is plotting to disrupt the US space programme … Cyanide in a cigarette? Fantastic! The first in the series, based on Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel (the sixth in the book series) this really introduced Connery to the world. Shot with a relatively low budget, it’s fast-moving, whip smart and set the tone for a secret agent trend that has never really ceased. Fleming originally came up with the idea for the story as a screenplay for a film called Commander Jamaica with Dr No a riff on the character of Fu Manchu. That film never got made so Fleming adapted it into a novel. The screenplay for this was based on that as well as several other strands of Fleming’s work: Richard Maibaum and Wolf Mankowitz did the original draft which the producers rejected then Maibaum did one while Mankowitz removed his name; Irish writer Johanna Harwood who worked for Harry Saltzman rewrote that draft with thriller writer Berkely Mather. SPECTRE wasn’t mentioned until Thunderball, the 1961 novel that the producers had originally wanted to adapt first before legal issues complicated that plan. This may not have the bells and whistles of later films in the series but it has many of the iconic elements that became part of the identity of this long-running franchise including Ken Adam’s production design, Bond being introduced to the Walther PPK and an undertow of S&M. Connery’s performance is nigh-on perfect, a combination of violence, suave intelligence and droll wit; while shell diver Honey Rider’s (Ursula Andress) arrival like Venus on the beach is for the cultural ages. Directed by Terence Young. I do not like failure

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

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?

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

Knight and Day (2010)

Knight and Day

Sometimes things happen for a reason. June Havens (Cameron Diaz) is a car fanatic preparing to board a flight back home for her sister’s wedding when she bumps into Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) in the middle of a busy airport. A few minutes later, they’re making small talk on the plane when June excuses herself to the bathroom, and all hell breaks loose in the fuselage. By the time June emerges with her makeup fixed and ready for some romance, Roy has killed everybody on board, including the pilots. After crash-landing the plane in a darkened cornfield, Roy tells June that she should expect a visit from government agents, but warns her that by cooperating with them she risks almost certain death. He drugs her and she wakes up at home the following day, and his prediction comes true when June is confronted by a group of CIA agents who come under heavy fire while bombarding her with questions about her mysterious companion who it transpires is a lethal CIA operative who is to be feared. Suddenly, Roy is back, whisking June away to safety and away from her ex, fireman Rodney (Mark Blucas).  Before long the girl who never travelled far from home and doesn’t even possess a passport is off on an impromptu global adventure that takes her from the Azores to Austria, France, and Spain. Somewhere in all of the confusion and gunfire, June begins to forge a bond with Roy, a disgraced spy who’s trying to clear his name while trying to avoid being murdered. Unfortunately, it’s never quite clear whether he’s one of the good guys and by the time he reveals that he’s attempting to protect a valuable new energy source, a never-ending battery hidden in a toy knight and created by an autistic wunderkind called Simon Feck (Paul Dano), he’s got to protect him from not just his former colleague Fitz (Peter Sarsgard) but also a gang keen to get it for themselves … Nobody follows us or I kill myself and then her. A completely nutty action comedy with thrills, spills and mayhem is just what the doctor ordered so here it is, a star vehicle perfectly tailored to the respective talents of Cruise and Diaz, previously paired in the rather (in)different Vanilla Sky and taking place on planes, trains, automobiles and motorbikes. And yet they weren’t meant to be the stars when this was originally mooted and of the twelve writers – you read correctly, twelve – only one, Patrick O’Neill, gets credited. It takes some narrative shortcuts – every time June might pose a problem, Roy drugs her – but he doesn’t take advantage (no, really!) and she has some skills, and she gets to use them in the wittiest way possible no matter that she might fire off in all directions. Totally left field, barmy fun with amazing stunts, a stunning car-bike chase in the middle of a bull run and a nice twist ending. That’s Gal Gadot as a spy in a restaurant. Directed by James Mangold. Who are you?

Live and Let Die (1973)

Live and Let Die

Whose funeral is this?/Yours. James Bond (Roger Moore) is sent to New York to investigate the mysterious deaths of three British agents. The Harlem drug lord known as Mr. Big plans to distribute two tons of heroin for free to put rival drug barons out of business and then become a monopoly supplier is also in New York, visiting the United Nations. Just after Bond arrives, his driver is shot dead by Whisper (Earl Jolly Brown) one of Mr. Big’s men, while taking Bond to meet Felix Leiter (David Hedison) of the CIA. Bond is nearly killed in the ensuing car crash. Mr. Big is revealed to be the alter ego of Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) a corrupt Caribbean dictator, who rules San Monique, a fictional island where opium poppies are secretly farmed. Bond encounters voodoo master Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) and tarot card reader Solitaire (Jane Seymour) who soon becomes a romantic interest. Bond’s fight to put a stop to the drug baron’s scheme takes him to New Orleans … What are you? Some kinda doomsday machine boy? Well WE got a cage strong enough to hold an animal like you here! A jazz funeral in New Orleans. Voodoo. Tarot cards. A crocodile farm. A shark tank. An underground cave. An awesome car and boat chase across the bayou. A cast of black villains worthy of a blaxploitation classic. A villain who is less megalomaniacal than usual who would really like to be James Bond’s friend. A redneck sheriff (Clifton James) to beat all redneck sheriffs, as director Guy Hamilton bragged. A morning ritual cappuccino preparation instead of a martini, a little nod to Harry Palmer, perhaps. And this was Roger Moore’s debutante appearance as the suavest double Oh! of them all, entering the picture in the arms of a beautiful brunette spy in dereliction of her own duty. And his only weapon? A magnetic watch! Come on! It starts in Jamaica, home of Goldeneye, author Ian Fleming’s long-time residence, where he wrote a novel between January and March every year between 1952 and 1964 and it concludes on a train, in homage to Dr No. That’s before we even mention the incredible song composed by Paul and Linda McCartney and performed by Wings. McCartney was so thrilled to do it he paid for the orchestra himself and hired George Martin to do the arrangement. It’s breathless escapism with action sequences moving seamlessly one unto the other, interrupted only by some hilariously silly lines uttered by the urbane agent. Effortlessly performed. Written by Tom Mankiewicz, who even remembered to include some of the original novel’s elements. It made its UK TV premiere in 1980 and remains the most viewed film on British TV . He always did have an inflated opinion of himself

The Double (2011)

The Double 2011

He trained us all – his way. Decades after the ending of the Cold War, retired CIA operative Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere) is persuaded by his former boss Tom Highland (Martin Sheen) to return to the fray to hunt down a mysterious and legendary Soviet assassin known as ‘Cassius’ presumed to be behind the assassination of a Senator yet thought to be long dead:  the victim’s throat was slit, his trademark. Shepherdson is teamed up with rookie FBI agent Ben Geary (Topher Grace) who wrote his Master’s thesis on Shepherdson’s long pursuit of his nemesis. Eventually, their investigations uncover disturbing secrets, which lead them to suspect each other even as Shepherdson’s motives are rendered complicated by some very personal business… Respect is the last thing I have for an animal like him. A dull-looking retro action thriller puts a twist upon a twist, using Gere’s established cool persona to aid a plot that ultimately manages to surprise.  When the initial revelation after thirty minutes about a sleeper agent seems like sloppy storytelling but then registers later as irony, it serves to enhance the enigmatic Shepherdson (it’s in the name, actually) as a kinder more benign individual whose otherwise impenetrable obsession with family is revealed in a rather satisfying conclusion. Grace is not as expressive as one would wish particularly given the subplot involving Shepherdson’s care and concern for Geary’s wife Natalie (Odette Yustman) but we find out why in the final sequence. The risk taken structurally (it’s in the title) is quite audacious – buy into it it or not. With Stephen Moyer as a really nasty prisoner called Brutus and Tamer Hassan as an even nastier cove called Bozlovski and an intriguing Mexican border prologue. Written by Derek Haas and director Michael Brandt. What if that’s what they wanted – a more visible alter ego