Double Indemnity (1944)

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It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets roped into a murderous scheme when he falls for the sensual Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who is intent on killing her husband (Tom Powers) by arranging his ‘accidental death’ and living off the fraudulent accidental death claim. Prompted by the late Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), insurance investigator and Neff’s mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) looks into the case, and gradually begins to uncover the truth… Staggering film noir, this early masterpiece from director Billy Wilder boasts a screenplay co-written (sort of) with Raymond Chandler, adapted from the James M. Cain story Three of a Kind. Rarely has the sensibility of a filmmaker been so attuned to the material in such crystalline fashion:  in this treatise on corruption, crime, sex, adultery and murder the casting plays to all the character strengths with Wilder seeing in the light actor MacMurray something infinitely schlemiel-like, sleazy and vulnerable.  It is literally picture-perfect, offering us a visual and psychological template for noir, a story told in flashback, shot on location all over Los Angeles, from Jerry’s Market to the Chateau Marmont, Glendale Station to the Hollywood Bowl, with venetian blinds, curling cigarette smoke and tilted fedoras filling out the emotional space shot by DoP John Seitz. Did a city ever feel so lonesome? Stanwyck was never better – dolled up in a blonde wig with bangs and an ankle bracelet begging to be opened, this is one of the fatalest femmes ever on screen. Robinson is fantastic as the fatherly man who unravels this story of these blackest of hearts, while this study of behaviour is decorated with the kind of dialogue that you savour forever. How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Classsic Hollywood, in every possible sense of that term.

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Ocean’s Eight (2018)

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A him gets noticed, a her gets ignored. And we want to be ignored.  After she’s been released from prison, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) younger estranged sister of the late Danny, meets with her former partner-in-crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) to convince her to join an audacious heist that she planned while serving her sentence. Debbie and Lou assemble the rest of their team: Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter) a disgraced fashion designer who is deeply in debt with the IRS; Amita (Mindy Kaling) a jewellery maker keen to move out of her mother’s house and start her own life; Nine Ball (Rihanna) a computer hacker; Constance (Awkwafina) a street hustler and pickpocket; and Tammy (Sarah Paulson) a profiteer and another friend of Debbie’s who has been secretly selling stolen goods out of her family’s suburban home. Debbie is after a $150 million Cartier necklace, from the Met Gala in five weeks, and plans to use co-host Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), a dim-witted and snobby actress, as an unwitting mule who will wear the necklace into the gala. After the team manipulates Daphne into choosing Weil as her stylist, Weil and Amita go to Cartier to convince them to let Daphne wear the Toussaint, as well as surreptitiously digitally scan it to later manufacture a zircon duplicate but things start to unravel when the original is delivered on the day … A sequel (and spin-off) of sorts to the enjoyable Ocean’s Eleven franchise, this is produced by Steven Soderbergh who bowed out of directing duties in favour of Gary Ross who co-wrote this with Olivia Milch. Burdened perhaps by the poor reception afforded the all-female Ghostbusters, this is a far more confident and fun piece of work, tightly scripted with few lulls (maybe a short one, an hour in) and great casting, with several celebrity cameos:  even Anna Wintour makes an appearance when Tammy interns at Vogue, a nod to the films within a film (The First Monday in May, The September Issue) and of course Hathaway’s fashion film in which Wintour was played by Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada, so this is a kind of fan fiction on screen at least in part. The heist would be nothing without a revenge motif (Richard Armitage as artist/conman Claude Becker got Debbie put in the clink), an insurance investigation (my heart sank when James Corden appeared but forsooth! he doesn’t ruin it) and a twist ending. Bonham Carter’s turn as a kind of Oirish Vivienne Westwood is somewhat heartstopping but what I really want to know is where Bullock and Blanchett got their skin. Seriously.  A lot of fun, with brilliant shoplifting ideas.

Move Over Darling (1963)

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Suppose Mr Arden’s wife came back, like Irene Dunne done. Did. Five years after her disappearance at sea, Nicky Arden (James Garner) is in the process of having his wife declared dead so he can marry his new fiancée Bianca (Polly Bergen) when Ellen (Doris Day) materialises and the honeymoon is delayed but Nick finds out Ellen wasn’t alone on the island after the shipwreck after all …  A remake of one of the greatest screen comedies starring two of my favourite people? You had me at hello! This got partly remade as Something’s Got To Give with Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin but got put on hold.  Her premature death led to this iteration of Enoch Arden and My Favorite Wife, which was written by Samuel and Bella Spewack and Leo McCarey (upon whom Cary Grant modelled much of his suave screwball persona for their collaboration on The Awful Truth, another ingenious marital sex comedy.) Arnold Schulman, Nunnally Johnson and Walter Bernstein reworked that screenplay for the Monroe version (she agreed to star in it because of Johnson, and then George Cukor had it rewritten which upset her greatly); and then Hal Kanter and Jack Sher wrote this.  We can blame Tennyson for the original. The set for the Arden home was the same from the Monroe version and it was based on Cukor’s legendarily luxurious Hollywood digs. We even get to spend time at the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Garner and Day are brilliantly cast and work wonderfully well together, making this one of the biggest hits of its year (it was released on Christmas Day). They had proven their chemistry on The Thrill of it All and make for a crazy good looking couple. With Thelma Ritter as Nicky’s mom, Chuck Connors as the island Adam, and Don Knotts, Edgar Buchanan and John Astin rounding out the cast, we’re in great hands. The title song, co-written by Day’s son Terry Melcher and arranged by Jack Nitzsche, was a monster. Terrific, slick, funny blend of farce and sex comedy, this censor-baiting entertainment is of its time but wears it well. Directed by Michael Gordon.

Entebbe (2018)

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How many Israelis?  How many hijackers?  Where are they going?  In July 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris is hijacked by Islamic terrorists (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) including two Baader-Meinhof supporting Germans Wilfred Böse aka Boni (Daniel Brühl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) who find out that Ulrike Meinhof has hanged herself in prison (it is rather more likely that she was murdered) and want to take their anti-fascist beliefs out on some innocent Israelis in exchange for the release of Palestinian terrorists.  They take over the plane in Athens and the Palestinians order the French pilots to land in Entebbe, Uganda, where they believe murderous maniac Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie) will influence negotiations with the Israeli government. In Israel, the tensions between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan in a hilarious wig) are played out during stalled negotiations (the Israelis do not negotiate with terrorists) while a commando unit prepares for an assault on the African airport … Germans killing Jews. Have you thought how this looks?  Playwright Gregory Burke’s screenplay teases out all the issues with on-the-nose dialogue in this historical reconstruction which perhaps does too many things at once – the dance motif which threads through the narrative because one of the commandos Zeev Hirsch (Ben Schnetzer) has a girlfriend preparing for a difficult performance of Echad Mi Yodea is perhaps a trope too far – and ends up straddled between one too many stools. The Germans are not exactly naive – their ideological struggle against their parents’ generation has itself a rather sickly unironic anti-semitic root (let’s call him Adolf Hitler or Martin Luther, whomsoever you prefer, they call it anti-fascist). However they are out of their depth with the Islamists who quickly put the Jewish hostages in one room and prepare to kill them first. French pilot Jacques Le Moine (Denis Ménochet) is the voice of reason in Boni’s ear – an engineer is worth fifty revolutionaries, he tells him. And what about dignity?  Drinking water gives people dignity, he cautions as he fixes the dirty water supply at the rear end of Entebbe Airport while the regular business goes on at the public end. It is his subtle finger wagging that gets Boni to desist from a genocidal spree. There are nice supporting performances – including Peter Sullivan as Amos Eran, Rabin’s right-hand man – and a real clunker from Pike whose conversation into a dead telephone after she’s run out of uppers gives new meaning to the term phoning it in.  The hostages’ terror is more or less ignored even when one French-Israeli is returned to the group by the Palestinians in a shambolic state after they have tortured him. Everything is defused by cutting back to the dancer girlfriend and her psychological issues with her job (boo bloody hoo). The one man killed in Operation Thunderbolt was Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yonathan (played here by Angel Bonanni) which precipitated the young man’s return from the United States and his elevation to PM for the first time in 1996, as the end credits remind us over another dance performance (why?). Rabin was eventually murdered by a Jewish extremist who didn’t want him to carry on dialogue with the Palestinians. And so it goes on. This was a fabulously daring rescue mission but you wouldn’t know it from watching this film.  It’s loose enough with the truth but one story that isn’t included is a woman hostage who choked on a bone and was sent to hospital. After the raid, Amin had her murdered. Directed by José Padilha. There are three other films on this subject and I’ll bet anything they’re all better than this. Shalom.

Duffy (1968)

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That stinking operation of yours gets on my wick. Half-brothers playboy Stefane (James Fox) and useless businessman Antony (John Alderton) despise their father, callous and aggressive millionaire Charles Calvert (James Mason) who appears to have made all of his money off their respective mothers. Because Charles refuses to share his wealth with them they ask hip enigmatic American thrill-seeker the piratical Duffy (James Coburn) to help steal the money they believe is their birthright when Stefane’s girlfriend Segolene (Susannah York) recalls his name during a hairdressing appointment. When Charles decides to move a million pounds of his savings from Morocco to France on one of his ships Duffy has an opportunity to stage a daring burglary at sea but he takes some convincing and then it transpires that indeed all is not as it seems …  A crime caper featuring members of the Swinging London set that permits Coburn to do his shit-eating grin seems like a good idea on paper but director Robert Parrish doesn’t really time things as well as he might despite the superficial attractions of the settings and cast.  With a screenplay by Donald Cammell you would think this might be a deal weirder than it actually is, but that would come in a couple of years when he re-teamed with Fox for the penetrating counterculture examination that was Performance.  For now we have to make do with pretty people scamming their pop with an independent-minded outsider in exotic locales and a loopy soundtrack to underline the hip fun in an outing that seems to herald the end of Mod as events take a tricky turn in that destination of decadence and dilettantism, Morocco. Quirky fun.

The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.

Let the Sunshine In (2017)

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Aka Un Beau Soleil Intérieur.  Live what you have to live.  Divorced fiftysomething artist and mother Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) navigates a series of unsatisfying relationships with men during a week when her daughter is staying with her ex-husband François (Laurent Grévill) and afterwards, following a brief sojourn at an art exposition in the Lot.  She discusses her relationships with a female friend (Sandrine Dumas) who brags about her own happiness and a male friend Fabrice (Bruno Podalydès) who cautions her to stick with someone from her milieu. She finally consults a psychic (Gerard Depardieu) to see whom she will end up with …  The film opens on a graphic sex scene which certainly perked up my cats. Watching a beautiful woman have a horrible experience with a nasty old fat banker (Xavier Beauvois) is not an edifying experience. You are charming. But my wife is extraordinary, he declares.  Her response to his rudeness in a bar is to be super nice to everyone she encounters in the service industry. She is squirming when she feels compelled to ask her new gallerist Maxime (Josiane Balasko) if it’s true what the banker told her – that she’d had a relationship with Isabelle’s ex-husband. Then she has a one-night stand with an unpleasant actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) with whom she’s considering doing a project – she’s in love, he regrets it. She dances to At Last with Sylvain (Paul Blain) a strange guy in the Lot and sleeps with her ex who tries out a porno move. He appears to be using their daughter as a weapon and keeps the keys to the apartment so he can come and go as he pleases. We are stunned to learn that she is convinced she loves the weirdo from the Lot and another uncomfortable conversation occurs. She is unhappy and cries a lot and pleads with men to stay with her. She produces little art. She wants to be in love but is needy and demanding, but unlike all women deploying their feminine guiles to reel them in, the men are using this older woman and she is getting nothing back. This film by Claire Denis is constructed on the slimmest of threads – what does a woman of a certain age want when the men she attracts are so horrifying? (And why is she wearing thigh-high hooker boots?)  If she’s such a great artist why don’t we see any of her paintings? That’s not the point, of course.  Supposedly adapted by Denis and Christine Angot from Roland Barthes’ 1977 A Lover’s Discourse, this attempts to penetrate the female psyche but what are we to say when Isabelle herself winds up consulting a fortune teller? Only Freud claimed to know what women want but we know he was a fraud. The final twist is that we enter the fortune teller’s storyline before he meets Isabelle. Out of nowhere the narrative is disrupted. Binoche is extraordinary but the psychodrama is as unsatisfying and fascinating as the men are unpromising. Such, alas, is life for women who will of course never be emotionally satisfied by one or any man.  All talk and no trousers, this is also about all the talk about the talking and the not talking. It positions itself as an awkward comedy of manners but plays like a horribly relatable documentary about how awful it is to be female.  Hey, she slept with three men in a week.  C’est la vie, malheuruesement. Customarily rigorous cinematography by Agnès Godard. Open.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

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Are you normal?  What is normal?  Harvard psychologist and inventor Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) has the good fortune of having two women in his life – his eventual wife and colleague Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) who is denied her PhD because of her gender and their mutual lover, student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) the niece of the birth control activist, Margaret Sanger, whose feminist mother Ethel, Sanger’s sister, abandoned her to the care of nuns. Marston creates the DISC theory of Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance which he lectures on to besotted female students.  In addition to helping him perfect the lie detector test, they form a ménage à trois which leads to the academics being fired from their University jobs and moving to the burbs where the two women inspire him to create one of the greatest female superheroes of all time, beloved comic book character Wonder Woman as their unconventional lifestyle and penchant for S&M causes problems for the legitimate and illegitimate children they raise together…  This sly old dissertation on American values is told in a series of flashbacks as Marston is forced to defend his comic book’s content to Josette Frank (Connie Britton) inquisitor in chief at the Child Study Association of America in the post-war era as comic books were literally burned, Hitler style, in the streets. No fool she as she knows all the moves, BDSM or no.  It’s amusing to see the trio’s relationship revealed first with the lie detector machine and then in the den of iniquity lorded over by Charles Guyette, the G-string king (JJ Feild) while outwardly life in the burbs goes on as per usual. This is an origins story with a difference and if it plays rather fast and loose (or restrained, whichever you’d prefer) with the lasso of truth, then it’s fun and imaginative and very well performed – interpreted, written and directed by Angela Robinson. Produced by Amy Redford.

The Wilde Wedding (2017)

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Retired film star Eve Wilde (Glenn Close) is marrying at her beachside home for the fourth time, to an acclaimed British novelist Harold (Patrick Stewart) and invites her three sons to attend:  Jimmy (Noah Emmerich), fellow actor Ethan (Peter Facinelli) who wants her to co-star in a movie and nusician Rory (Jack Davenport) whose ex-wife rock star Priscilla (Minnie Driver) shows up with their children, one of whom is recording everything on video. When the boys’ father, stage actor Laurence (John Malkovich) shows up things start to unravel and the air of civility changes as Harold’s daughters set their sights on possible sexual assignations in the family circle,  male and female …  Damian Harris’ writing/directing effort was clearly attractive to Close and Malkovich who last appeared together in Dangerous Liaisons and executive produced here. There are so many ill-defined people in it it’s confusing. The interior of the house looks frequently like a convent – all that panelling. The dialogue is weak and all the scenes on the sunny beach and around the garden don’t enhance the lack of compelling central action.  Makes me hanker for the days when Robert Altman’s A Wedding could be seen on BBC.  Or Bergman, for that matter. Days of yore. Lazy but pretty with Stewart and Close’s respective hairpieces giving the outstanding performances.

Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

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Sinners is my business. You and that hip-slinging daughter of Satan. You know there’s the smell of sulfur and brimstone about you. The smell of hellfire.  In the 1930s Texan Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) hits the road to search for his long-lost sweetheart Hallie Gerard (Capucine). On the road he meets free-spirited Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda) and she joins him on his trip to New Orleans, where the two find Hallie working at the Doll House, a brothel. When Dove tries to take Hallie away with him, he is confronted by the brothel’s possessive madam, the sapphically-inclined Jo Courtney (Barbara Stanwyck), who is unwilling to give up her favorite employee without a fight and resorts to devious means to keep control … Fabulously pulpy, lurid melodrama that steams up the screen. The female pulchritude and the whiff of perversion make for a pleasing concoction. And then there’s Harvey! There was trouble on set when he said Capucine (producer Charles Feldman’s girlfriend) couldn’t act. He had a point. (I always thought she was a tranny, but now I can’t remember why). Stanwyck is masterful as the Lesbian madam, Fonda oozes sex and Anne Baxter is fantastic in a supporting role (rendered problematic when production had to resume as she was heavily pregnant). John Fante and Edmund Morris adapted Nelson Algren’s novel with an uncredited contribution by Ben Hecht. Edward Dmytryk conducted proceedings, with a score by Elmer Bernstein and the famous song over classic titles by Saul Bass. A fetishistic, campy indulgence.