The Two-Headed Spy (1958)

The Two Headed Spy.jpg

A man cannot control the circumstances of his birth but he can make a choice. In 1939 Alex Shottland (Jack Hawkins) has been embedded as a British agent at the highest levels of the German military since WW1 and is tiring of his role but is urged to continue by his fellow agent Cornaz (Felix Aylmer) who is posing as an antiques dealer. They carry on their meetings under cover of Shottland’s purported interest in clocks. The revelatioin of Schottland’s half-British origins raises the eyebrows of the obsessive and creepy Lt. Reinisch (Erik Schumann) who works as his assistant and he alerts Schottland’s superiors about a potentially traitorous connection to the enemy. Schottland falls in love with singer and fellow spy Lili Geyr  (Gia Scala) whose melancholic songs carry coded messages across the airwaves to the Allies.  Reinisch suspects their relationship is a cover just as the Battle of the Bulge is getting underway and Schottland struggles to communicate the plans to his real superiors I’ll come to your place any time you want me to and spend the night. The amazing true-ish story was based on J. Alvin Kugelmass’ book Britain’s Two-Headed Spy and although A.P. Scotland was an adviser on the production it’s not based on his real escapades. The screenplay is notable for being written by not one but two blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson and the uncredited Alfred Lewis Levitt. Hawkins is excellent as the net seems to be closing in and he has to endure Cornaz being tortured to death;  while Scala impresses as the slinky songstress with espionage at her heart. There are some terrific scenes at Berlin’s highest table with Kenneth Griffith emoting unseen as Hitler.  Taut storytelling, excellent characteristation, glossy monochrome cinematography by Ted Scaife and an urgent score by Gerard Schurmann combine to make this an enthralling spy thriller. Look quickly for Michael Caine as a Gestapo agent while Geoffrey (Catweazle) Bayldon is Dietz. Directed by André De Toth. Truth is allegiance

Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out.jpeg

I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects.  When crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies just after his 85th birthday, inquisitive Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives at his estate to investigate despite the presence of police officers (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan). He sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind the writer’s untimely demise as each of the family members and the immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who cared for Harlan is questioned in turn. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a successful businesswoman with a an unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson) and a layabout son Ransom (Chris Evans). Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing company his father founded for his writing output, but they’ve been fighting. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is an advocate of self-help and has been helping herself to the old man’s money. His ancient mother (K Callan) never seems to die. Harlan’s devoted nurse Marta then becomes Harlan’s most trusted confidante but who hired him in the first place? … This is a twisted web, and we are not finished untangling it, not yet. The closed-room murder mystery is a staple of crime fiction and it’s not necessarily where you’d expect writer/director Rian Johnson to turn after a Star Wars episode (The Last Jedi) although it harks back to his debut, Brick, a take on Chandler/Hammett with teenagers. The touchstones are pretty clear:  Agatha Christie; the game (and film) of Clue(do); Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark; and some of the grasping familial mendacity we recognise from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If truth be told, it’s not very mysterious and barely suspenseful with two big twists a regular filmgoer or mystery reader will see through easily which means that they of course are not the point. It’s the dismantling of those hoary old tropes that provides the narrative motor. Much of the entertainment value derives from game comic playing by an established cast with a soupçon of political commentary provided by the nurse’s immigrant status which leads to a good line featuring Broadway hit Hamilton and everyone gets her native country wrong, one of the running jokes. Another is her need to vomit when telling a lie. The other one is stretching out the syllables in Benoit’s name so it sounds like Ben wa although personally I find Craig more prophylactic than sex toy and his ‘tec is Poirot X Columbo with an affected drawl. It looks quite sober and already feels like Sunday evening TV. For the undemanding viewer. CSI KFC!

Holmes & Watson (2018)

Holmes and Watson.png

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

Clockwise (1986)

Clockwise.jpg

The first step to knowing who you are is knowing where you are and when you are. Comprehensive school headmaster Brian Stimpson (John Cleese) is obsessed with timeliness, order and discipline. He tends to add the word ‘Right’ to everything he says, which inadvertently gives people misdirections and wrong impressions.  After meticulously preparing a speech for a Headmasters’ conference, Brian misses his train. With no one else to turn to, he asks student Laura Wisely (Sharon Maiden) for a lift to Norwich. Laura, upset over a break-up with what turns out to be a married colleague of Brian’s, impulsively agrees to drive him in her parents’ car – which alarms her mother (Pat Keen) and father (Geoffrey Hutchings), who worry that she has run away with a married man so they alert the police. Brian and Laura forget to pay for petrol; crash into a squad car; run into an old college friend of Brian’s (Penelope Wilton) who gets the impression that Brian is having an affair with this schoolgirl; get stuck in the mud; and then find themselves in a monastery – all the while unaware that a growing number of people are chasing them who wind up at the conference long before Brian ever manages to get there … We can’t go forwards so we’ll go backwards instead. Novelist and playwright Michael Frayn wrote this on spec as an experiment in screenwriting and John Cleese agreed to it the moment his agent sent it to him. In his tour de force performance of a man gradually unravelling as his scheme is destroyed by one simple mistake, you can see that it’s a perfect fit for the man who made Basil Fawlty part of the lexicon. Mild-mannered English comedy it may be but at times it’s supremely funny and as well constructed as, well, a clock. Superb support from Alison Steadman as his disbelieving wife, Maiden as the worldly sixth-former eager to use her study period on an away day to make her lover jealous, and a cast of more or less familiar faces, all winding Brian up even while he tries to re-run that all-important speech in his head. Highly amusing. Directed by Christopher Morahan. It’s not the despair. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope

Labyrinth (1986)

Labyrinth.jpg

You remind me of the babe.  Bratty 16-year old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) must find her young brother Toby (Toby Froud) whose crying is driving her crazy and whom she has wished away to the Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), a character in the play she’s rehearsing. To find him she has to enter a maze and has just 13 hours to do so or have her baby brother transformed into a goblin at midnight. With the help of a two-faced dwarf called Hoggle she negotiates all the tests and obstacles including a talking worm, creatures called Fireys who try to remove her head, and a goblin army on the march…  I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave. Nutty enchantment in a musical fantasy collaboration between puppetmaster Jim Henson and illustrator Brian Froud with Monty Python’s Terry Jones providing the screenplay (although other writers were involved:  George Lucas, Laura Phillips, Dennis Lee, Elaine May… and it owes a deal to both Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak) which got a roasting upon release but has proven its credentials with the passing of time and is now a determined cult and kids’ classic. Beautifully imagined and executed with a wicked stepmother, a baby in peril and toys that come to magical life in an ancient labyrinth and wicked creatures in the woods, this is just a perfect film fairytale, a story enabling a child to do battle with the grown ups in her life, a darkly romantic and dangerous outside world never far from her door. Bowie’s performance is of course something of legend, while Connelly and the puppets are the mainstay of the ensemble. Do you dare to eat the peach in this phallic kingdom of the subconscious?! Puppetry:  puberty. Discuss. Quite wonderful. You have no power over me!

Nobody Runs Forever (1968)

Nobody Runs Forever horizontal.jpg

Aka The High Commissioner. He’s got to back to Australia and straighten a few things out. Australian outback police detective Scobie Malone (Rod Taylor) arrives in London to arrest the Australian High Commissioner Sir James Quentin (Christopher Plummer) for the murder of his first wife and return him to Sydney, but his task does not go as planned. The lawman finds himself acting as a bodyguard when assassins start to appear with alarming regularity in this world of international men of mystery.  Quentin’s foreign-born wife Sheila (Lili Palmer) is curious about why Malone is there, while Dutch secretary Lisa Pretorius (Camilla Sparv) is protective of the man she respects above all but it’s beautiful Madame Cholon (Daliah Lavi) who entices him into her bed … Use your own passport and get out. I don’t know you. Taylor produced and did some writing on this adaptation of Jon Cleary’s novel The High Commissioner which is attributed to Wilfred Greatorex. Presumably it’s an attempt to get in on the Bond craze and the settings in London are splendid – all that neon and nightlife and a shootout at Wimbledon and we don’t mean tennis (rather, we do), albeit director Ralph Thomas hardly brings Hitchcockian technique to a scenario reminiscent of The Man Who Knew Too Much. The fish out of water situation is nicely set up – we meet Scobie in the midst of a sheep farm only for him to be swiftly deposited in London to do the political will of the Prime Minister of New South Wales, Flannery (an uncredited Leo McKern) widely believed to be based on real-life politico Sir Robert Askin.  He soon figures this is a setup of sorts and develops a quick empathy with Quentin – triggered by an assassination attempt as soon as they set foot outside the embassy’s front door. His character occupies a position oddly close to a spoof, emphasising his difference from anyone in the diplomatic scene, from his Aussie deadpanning to the beatings he takes and the jibes at London bobbies; while the number of beautiful European ladies points us in their direction even if we don’t know precisely what anyone is spying about or why anyone would try to kill Quentin, who seems to be brokering discussions at a peace conference. Quite why the final scene is left for Quentin to get there first is anyone’s guess. It’s good to see Burt Kwouk in a supporting role and it all makes for some pretty pictures and there’s a good score by Georges Delerue. Produced by Betty Box.

Any Given Sunday (1999)

Any Given Sunday.jpg

You will not take this from me baby!  The Miami Sharks, a once-great American football team are struggling to make the 2001 Associated Football Franchises of America (AFFA) playoffs.  They are coached by thirty-year veteran Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino), who has fallen out of favour with young team owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) who inherited the team from her father, and offensive coordinator and D’Amato’s expected successor Nick Crozier (Aaron Eckhart). In the thirteenth game of the season, both starting quarterback and team captain Jack “Cap” Rooney (Dennis Quaid) and second-string quarterback Tyler Cherubini (Pat O’Hara) are injured and forced to leave the field. The desperate Sharks call on ambitious third-string quarterback Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) to replace them. A nervous Beamen makes a number of errors and fails to win the game for the Sharks, but he plays well and gains confidence. Rooney vows to make it back by the playoffs, with D’Amato promising to not give up on him….  Holy mackerel now that’s what I call football!  Adapted from the book On Any Given Sunday by NFL defensive  end Pat Toomay, this gets a typically robust treatment by writer/director Oliver Stone, who appears in the small role of TV commentator, giving a running narrative on the moves. There are lots of other big names including Jim Brown (what a second act!). If Pacino is a highly unlikely coach, he gets his boo ya moment with more than one big speech which is such a part of his repertoire (since Dog Day Afternoon and latterly in Scent of a Woman) but this was a role that should have been Burt Reynolds’ (Florida! Football!).  Pacino gets his Pacino moments, loud and soft, and a halfhearted romance with a prostitute (Elizabeth Berkeley) who wants to talk football post-coitally with this man who’s given up wife and family for the game, but she deflects his relationship overtures and always charges. However it’s a great ensemble:  Diaz is fine as the young woman trying to make her mark in a sport where her father’s rule was firmly based on friendship but times have changed; her mother’s (Ann-Margret) a lush; Christina wants the Sharks leading again, even if that means giving up Cappy, who gets another chance to be the hero leading the team – down on his luck after a horrible accident in the first sequence. With Willie breaking the rules to get ahead and butting heads with Tony, Dr Mandrake concealing the extent of Cherubini’s head injury, Cappy battling his wife (Lauren Holly) who wants him to keep playing, and Christina planning on offloading the team, this conforms to the playbook of most sports movies with all the storylines converging in Tony and how he responds to the pressures exerted in every direction. The medical subplot with internist Ollie Powers (Matthew Modine) discovering that unscrupulous team physician Dr Mandrake (James Woods, reuniting with Stone long after Salvador) is concealing the extent of Cherubini’s head injury and with Christina’s collusion raises the issue of concussion in sport and its long-term outcomes.  Either we heal now as a team or we will die as individuals.  That’s football. That’s all it is.  Beneath all the gut-busting aggression, the injuries, the quarrels, the deceptions, the betrayals and the on-field activities, this long loud movie has a great structure, with wonderful exchanges exhibiting the different philosophies. Willie goes against the playbook to achieve victory;  Tony is loyal to Cappy who knows he’s had it but plays along;  Christina is in it for money, having forgotten the roots of the team and she has a sharp learning curve that she cannot anticipate.  All the plot threads unite in those final seconds in the brutal race against time on the countdown clock. How apposite that the film within a film when Tony is serving Willie home-cooked dinner should be Ben-Hur:  the following year John Logan would write Gladiator.  The editing and sound mixing is second to none:  the gloss and wham bam and contrasting musical choices (Tony’s cool jazz vs Willie’s rap) eventually give way to something unified, as the theme of team building suggests. If this doesn’t entirely play fair – that twist ending unwinds over the lengthy credits sequence – the gamesmanship does leave a certain satisfaction and don’t say you weren’t warned by the dialogue which plants the ultimate payoff:  When a man looks back on his life he should be proud of all of it

 

Eureka (1983)

Eureka poster.jpg

Aka River of Darkness. Once I had it all. Now I have everything. After 15 years of searching on his own, Arctic prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men when he literally falls into a mountain of gold in 1925. Twenty years later in 1945, he lives in luxury on Luna Bay, a Caribbean island that he owns. His riches bring no peace of mind as he feels utterly besieged:  he must deal with Helen (Jane Lapotaire), his bored, alcoholic wife; Tracy (Theresa Russell), his headstrong daughter who has married Claude Van Horn (Rutger Hauer) a dissolute, philandering, narcissistic social-climber; and Miami mobsters Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci), who want the island to build a casino off the Florida coast but Jack is resistant to gambling and their frontman Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) cannot persuade him to do a deal with them. I never made a nickel off another man’s sweat. When Jack is brutally murdered, his son-in-law, Claude, is arrested for the crime and put on trial … One of Nicolas Roeg’s most underrated achievements, this pseudo-biography is a fascinating portrayal of perversion and power, obsession and dread. The texture of the film, contained in lush colour coding, symbols of the occult and the ever-present stench of sex, oozes corruption and greed, decay and desire. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Marshall Houts’ book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? an account of that real-life murder in the 1940s, in which the author suggests that Meyer Lansky had Oakes killed [Pesci’s role is based on the gangster albeit this carries the conventional disclaimer], this exhibits all the familiar Roegian tropes. It also has echoes of Orson Welles as character, a director who hit the cinematic motherlode first time off the blocks and spent the remainder of his life in a kind of desperation (or so people would like to think). Hence McCann feels larger than life and is dramatised as such with Wagner soundtracking his great – almost psychedelic – discovery and Yukon poet Robert Service’s words Spell of the Yukon amplifying its myth. It isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold The allusions to Citizen Kane are clear and the portentous character of prostitute/fortune teller Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes) would appear to have at least superficial similarities with Oja Kodar, Welles’ last companion. One moment of rapture followed by decades of despair. The first line of dialogue we hear is Murder! and there is a structure which suggests destiny is being fulfilled. This is a story about disparate characters connected by blood and a morbid wish for ecstasy which suggests life but actually propels towards death. Russell’s testimony in court is gripping and Hauer as the playboy driven by the Kabbalah and other elements of the supernatural is just as good. Hackman is Hackman – he totally inhabits Jack, this man whose greatness is envied by all but whose happiest time was in the wastes of Alaska so long ago, basking in heat and light now but longing for snow.  It is this man’s ability to function as a totally singular individual that creates the chasm between himself and others, gangsters or not.  Internally he knows it is Frieda who led him to the gold that made him the richest man in the world but he decries notions of luck or superstition. His murder is an accurate depiction of what happened to Oakes and it’s terribly gruesome – sadistic and heartless. The first part of the film could be from silent movies – and the bizarre aphoristic dialogue is laughable except that it sets up the sense of supernature which dominates the narrative. Shot by Alex Thomson, edited by that magician of jagged mosaic Tony Lawson, and scored by Stanley Myers (including wonderful double bass solos composed and performed by Francois Rabbath), if this sometimes feels that it has not fully committed to the melodramatic mode (there are a lot of genres at work), the threads of gold and blood make it a satisfying and disturbing watch, with some extraordinary performances bolstering the overall effect. This is all about signs and meaning.  A mystery. The end of the beginning

Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa.jpg

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a failed love affair in Denmark the aristocrat Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) sets out for the white highlands of Kenya where she marries her lover’s brother Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer).  She is intent on dairy farming, Bror instead spends their money on a coffee plantation. After discovering Bror is unfaithful when she contracts syphilis, Karen develops feelings for British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) but he prefers a simple lifestyle compared to her upper class affectations. She separates from Bror and sets about remaking her home to his taste. The two continue their relationship until a series of events force Karen to choose between her love life and her personal growth as an individual … Like a lot of people, I imagine, I first heard of Isak Dinesen (or Karen Blixen) courtesy of The Catcher in the Rye. If it was good enough for Holden Caulfield, I figured, I’ve got to check it out. And that was my introduction to a great writer whose life is immortalised here in the form of La Streep while the less than glamorous Finch Hatton is personified by Redford. History is rewritten right there! But their chemistry is so right. Streep is wonderful as the woman who finally finds herself, Redford is great as a hunter who simultaneously deplores environmental destruction – these are fantastic star performances.  So the school, the farm, that’s what I am now Director Sydney Pollack later regretted that he didn’t shoot this in widescreen and you can see why. This is a film of big emotions in a breathtaking landscape that dwarfs the concerns of the little people, aristos or not. There are fabulous, memorable scenes:  when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair; when they play Mozart on the gramophone to monkeys and Denys remarks that it’s their first exposure to humans; when he takes her flying; when she begs for land for the Kikuyu. And when she leaves.  If you like me at all, don’t ask me to do this Altering the focus of Dinesen’s writing somewhat to the personalities rather than the issues that actually drove Dinesen and the contradictions within Finch Hatton, it’s a glorious, epic and tragic romance sensitively performed, with a meticulous score by John Barry. Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay was adapted from three sources:  Dinesen’s Out of Africa;  Judith Thurman’s biography Isak Dinesen:  The Life of a Story Teller;  and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski. He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast

 

Cries and Whispers (1972)

Cries and Whispers English larger.jpg

It is early Monday morning and I am in pain.  At the turn of the twentieth century, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) slowly and painfully dies of cancer in the family’s country home. Her sisters are so immersed in their own problems that they can’t offer her the support she needs as she goes through a nightmare of torture. Shallow Maria (Liv Ullmann) is wracked with guilt at her husband’s suicide following his discovery of her  affair. Self-loathing, suicidal Karin (Ingrid Thulin) seems to regard her sister with revulsion. Only Anna (Kari Sylwan), the deeply religious maid who lost her young child, seems able to offer the solitary dying Agnes solace and empathy as her condition deteriorates and her sisters are helpless in their eternal feuding … Ingmar Bergman went as far as he could in Persona to explore identity:  here he holds up a mirror to the pain we cause each other even as death stares us in the face. It is so stark a confrontation and so formal a construct that it shocks. He described it simply as a chamber play in red about a dying woman and her sisters. The colour scheme devised with cinematographer Sven Nykvist seems to ooze life and threaten death and the filtered photography has a quality that niggles the brain. This is pessimistic and filled with dread, certainly, but it is also haunting and unforgettable, a master at work in a film that excited global audiences and earned multiple Academy Award nominations.

.