Graduation (2016)

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Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a middle-aged doctor in a small Romanian town and father of a teenage daughter Eliza (Maria Victoria Dragus) who needs good results in a written exam to take up her place on a scholarship to Cambridge. He finds out from his mistress Sandra (Malina Malovici) who teaches at Eliza’s school that the girl has been assaulted on a building site at the school entrance where he drops her off every day. She’s narrowly avoided being raped but her wrist is injured and the headmaster wants to stop her taking part in the exam because she could have notes written on it – until Sandra intervenes. Then the police inspector investigating the attack suggests to Romeo that his daughter’s results might be improved if Romeo can find a liver for a corrupt customs inspector Bulai. Romeo discusses the situation with his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) who doesn’t want him embroiled in the national disease of corruption. When he suggests the plan to Eliza she listens but doesn’t give him any response.  Eliza finds out about her father’s mistress and threatens to tell her mother – who already knows. While he tries to pursue her attacker and she attends a lineup in the police station during which one suspect shouts at her through two-way glass, prosecutors turn up at the hospital and start asking questions about Bulai …  Cristian Mungiu’s film is mundane in its detail (and its star) but nonetheless compelling as he traces an almost Kafkaesque story of a more or less regular guy dealing with a sequence of horrible events which he has worked so hard to help his young daughter avoid as he has plotted her escape to a more civilised life since she was born. She persists in taking her own path as he can’t even persuade her that her handsome older boyfriend Marius (Rares Andrici) who openly admits to having cheated at his own final exams watched as she was attacked  – he got a screenshot from surveillance cameras to prove it.  The lack of reaction when he finds out his teenage girl is not a virgin following the attempted rape is a lesson to showier filmmakers. This is an unexpectedly gripping family drama that moves with the relentlessly grinding pace of the ghastly bureaucratic society it depicts.

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Union Pacific (1939)

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First time I’ve discarded aces for a queen! President Lincoln signed off on the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act to authorise pushing the Union Pacific Railroad west across the wilderness toward California. However now that Lincoln is dead financial opportunist Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) hopes to profit from obstructing it. Chief troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) has his hands full fighting Barrows’ agent the gambler Sid Campeau (the wonderfully devilish Brian Donlevy). Campeau’s partner veteran Dick Allen (Robert Preston) is Jeff’s war buddy and rival suitor for Irish rail engineer’s daughter Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck). Who will survive the effort to push the railroad through at any cost? And who will win Molly? Cecil B. DeMille’s rousing, sprawling western was in the vanguard of historical tales bringing together the rival attempts at forming a national history – and this all culminates at Promontory Point Utah when Leland Stanford drove a ceremonial spike to unite this with the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. Filled with great starry performances this is history on a human scale. Despite Stanwyck’s typical luminosity and McCrea’s decency and likeability,  it’s probably Preston who comes off best, even photographically, in his showy role. Filled with fighting, shooting, murder, building and dismantling, Indian attacks, drinking, gambling, love and death, with one killing from the window of a train that is shocking to this day, this is truly a film for the ages. A splendid, zesty example of the power of classical Hollywood. Written by Walter DeLeon, Jack Cunningham and C. Gardner Sullivan, adapting Ernest Haycox’ novel Troubleshooter. This is the first ever winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes – awarded in 2002 due to the debut Festival’s cancellation following the outbreak of WW2!

The Spoilers (1942)

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A woman doesn’t run out on the man she loves, she sticks with him through thick and thin. It’s 1900 and Flapjack (Russell Simpson) and Banty (George Cleveland) arrive in Nome, Alaska to check up on their claim to a gold mine. Saloon owner Charry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) knows that Bennett (Forrest Taylor) and Clark (Ray Bennett) are plotting to steal their claim. The new gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott) is part of the corrupt scheme as is the territory’s judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S. Hinds) whose niece Helen (Margaret Lindsay) has a thing for Cherry’s old flame Roy Glennister (John Wayne), fresh from a trip to Europe. Roy makes the mistake of siding with McNamara which damages his relationship with longtime partner Al Dextry (Harry Carey).  Roy realizes he’s been deceived as McNamara and Stillman prepare to steal at least $250,000 while the mine’s case awaits appeal. Helen is now in love with Roy, who begs Dextry’s forgiveness and persuades him to rob a bank to take back the wealth stolen from them. Both Glennister and Dextry don black faces to disguise themselves during the heist. The Bronco Kid (Richard Barthelmess) kills the sheriff but Roy gets the blame. He is arrested and a plot forms to kill him – permitting him to escape then murdering him on the street – but Cherry comes to his rescue, breaking Roy out of jail. A spectacular train derailment occurs during his fight for freedom. Then a fierce fistfight with McNamara results in Roy getting back his mine and his girl. A great starry cast play brilliantly off one another in this spirited adaptation of the novel by Rex Beach, adapted by Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed. The tone is set from the start with a shootout in this muddy town and Dietrich beats a path to the dock to greet old love Wayne. She doesn’t sing but wears several sparkly numbers in this monochrome delight. Her byplay with romantic rival Lindsay is a wonderful contrast in performing styles and her scenes with Wayne positively crackle The frequent references to Robert Service’s works are done with a nod and a wink to his own appearance as The Poet. Directed by Ray Enright who brings everything to a rousing conclusion with one of the longest fistfights ever filmed – and it’s all over the saloon! Wonderful fun.

Fletch (1985)

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Are you putting a whole fist up there Doc? Irwin Fletcher (Chevy Chase) is an undercover reporter doing a drugs story while disguised as a homeless junkie on the beach when he’s approached by businessman Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson) to kill him for $50,000 because he’s got bone cancer. Fletch identifies himself as Ted Nugent. He then investigates this fascinating proposition, donning a myriad of disguises and identities (we particularly like the 49c teeth), getting mired in Stanwyk’s marital disarray, property deals, police corruption involving Chief of Police Karlin (Joe Don Baker) – and murder. And he gets to know Alan’s LA wife Gail (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) in a mutually satisfying fashion. Win! Gregory Mcdonald’s novel gets a fast-moving adaptation from Andrew Bergman, a director in his own right (there was some additional uncredited work by fellow writer-director Phil Alden Robinson.)  Chase gives the performance (or performances) that you’d expect – droll and deadpan, always amiable (yet plucky!) and the running joke about his bizarre expense claims is well done. Fine, funny lighthearted fare handled with his customary aplomb by director Michael Ritchie, energised by a typically zippy plinkety-plonk score from Harold Faltermeyer, the go-to composer for zeitgeisty mid-Eighties entertainment. Chase even dons an Afro to play basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There’s a wonderful supporting cast including Geena Davis in the newsroom, David Harper (of The Waltons!) as ‘teenager’ and Kenneth Mars:  we are thrice blessed!

F/X – Murder By Illusion (1986)

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We’re talking about a very special effect here. Movie effects man Rollie Tyler (Bryan Brown) is persuaded by vanity to take on a secret assignment by FBI agents Lipton (Cliff De Young) and Mason (Mason Adams). It means pretending to carry out a hit on a Mafia boss Nicholas DeFranco (Jerry Orbach) in a witness protection programme to ensure he makes it to trial. When Tyler ‘kills’ DeFranco in a restaurant it appears he really does kill him with a gun supplied by Lipton – and he narrowly escapes being killed by Lipton himself in a double-cross. When his actress girlfriend Ellen (Diane Venora) is murdered in front of him he goes on the run with his co-worker and uses his special skills to get to the bottom of the setup. At the same time, Manhattan homicide detective Leo McCarthy (Brian Dennehy) is suspicious about the mob killing and starts sniffing around the FBI offices to try to figure out what’s really going on … The screenplay by novice scripters Gregory Fleeman (an actor) and Robert T. Megginson (a documentary maker) is slick and smart but always rooted in character with some terrific, sharp exchanges that propel the action sequences. This is very well balanced, extremely well performed by engaging actors and tautly handled by stage director Robert Mandel. Watch for Angela Bassett making her screen debut in a small role as a TV reporter. Hugely enjoyable with a brilliant payoff! Produced by Dodi Fayed.

American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.

Sunset (1988)

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Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Rod Amateau’s unpublished manuscript about the friendship between movie cowboy Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) and real life Wyatt Earp (James Garner) had the potential to be something quite brilliant:  it doesn’t carry it off due to inconsistencies of tone (never quite slapstick, never quite thriller) and performance (Willis didn’t heed his director to take his role seriously) but it retains its interest. Hollywood’s well-preserved 1920s villas provide a magnificent backdrop to a story set in 1929 just when the industry was getting to grips with the transition to sound. Earp in real life had moved to Los Angeles in 1910 but here he’s newly arrived and hired on a silent movie set to advise Mix and they get embroiled in a murder at the Kit Kat Club, a high class brothel where the whores are movie star lookalikes (shades of LA Confidential) run by the cross-dressing Cheryl (Mariel Hemingway.) Earp tries to help his old girlfriend Christina (Patricia Hodge) who happens to be married to studio boss Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell), a thinly disguised version of Chaplin, and her son, who is in constant trouble and goes missing. The mystery at the story’s heart involves police corruption with those reliable villains M. Emmet Walsh and Richard Bradford and Warhol stud Joe Dallasandro showing up as a gangster. There’s a scene at that year’s Academy Awards (not anatomically correct, but still fun) and lots of really interesting performances in the wings including John Fountain playing his grandfather, the legendary John Gilbert. Willis’ unpreparedness made for a difficult time and Garner (a gentleman) commented on it, a rare instance of his speaking out against a colleague and his own performance really saves the film. Garner had of course worked with Edwards before – on Victor/Victoria. His interpretation of Earp is markedly lighter than his earlier one in Hour of the Gun.  There’s a cute running joke about his inability to drive a car – he does it a lot and in real life Garner was an accomplished racer and stunt driver particularly on The Rockford Files. In a neat nod to that, Dermot Mulroney makes his debut – he would play (my beloved!) Rockford in a TVM reboot. The other pluses are the LA locations used including the Ambassador Hotel, the Roosevelt Hotel, Melody Ranch, Bell Ranch and Orange Empire Railway Museum. Not great Edwards but worth a watch for the idea and Garner, with the usually reliable score from Henry Mancini as well as delectable photography by Anthony B. Richmond. A missed opportunity to make a satisfying Hollywood murder mystery but heck with all that talent I’ll take this anyhow.

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)

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Tom Buchanan (Randolph Scott) is a mercenary returning from Mexico to West Texas intending to start up a ranch of his own. He stops in a community run by a family called Agry – they own everything. When a young Mexican (Manuel Rojas) kills one of them in revenge for raping his sister the brothers wreak their own revenge while Buchanan winds up killing the villain and helping the young man whose wallet has been emptied and his life spared. Then the three Agry brothers cross and double cross each other by alternately threatening to hang and ransom him for their own ends.  Buchanan attempts to manipulate the situation … This is the fourth Scott collaboration with Budd Boetticher and the second written by Charles Lang (adapted from a novel The Name’s Buchanan by Jonas Ward). It’s perhaps not as iconic as the first two in the cycle, which were written by Burt Kennedy, and it stands out for its drama taking place in a settlement, but it has many of the tropes and shares some of the settings in the series (typically, Lone Pine and its environs). This skirts the edges of comedy – maybe even satire! – as it grapples with the western form. Scott is good in this wittier than usual entry. Beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard, a regular part of the team.

The Wizard of Lies (2017)(TVM)

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Do you think I’m a sociopath? I’m not a psychiatrist, Bernie Madoff, but I do know you’re a thief who committed larceny on a grand scale that specifically targeted Jewish retirees, most of whom ended up living hand to mouth in trailer parks as a result of your actions – if they were lucky.  You can understand the attraction of this project – looking at the man behind the biggest Ponzi scheme in history – and the family structure behind him. This after all is the guy whose own sons turned him in. When it happened it was at the height of the financial ‘mismanagement’ that caused the world’s economy to crash.  When Madoff pleaded guilty nobody  – certainly not the POTUS – wanted to see his friends in the major institutions jailed. Diana Henriques is the New York Times journalist who had access to Madoff and interviewed him in prison and her book provides the basis for a screenplay by Sam Levinson, Sam Baum and John Burnham Schwartz, with Henriques playing herself, opposite Robert De Niro. This is a despicable man with absolutely no redeeming features. There is no explanation as to what drove him. His behaviour to everybody is horrendous, rude, arrogant and nasty, even to waiters. The narrative chooses to focus not on the bigger context – or the horrors inflicted on his victims – but on the humiliation meted out to his sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andy (Nathan Darrow) who apparently didn’t know what went on on the 17th floor – a destination that has almost horror-story significance. In reality it was a crowded office populated by undereducated sleazes who kept the accounts of all the little people whom they sandbagged and robbed blind, led by Frank DiPascali (Hank Azaria) an utterly reprehensible character. Wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer, looking a little different again, as is her wont…) is another supposed innocent, whose relationships with her sons suffer because she keeps visiting one-dimensional Bernie in jail. Bernie simply refuses to offer any explanation for any of his actions and Mark trawls the web to find offensive comments (the one called ‘Weekend at Bernie’s was blackly ironic) while Andy’s wife urges distance between the brothers. Nobody sees Mark’s suicide coming. Then Andy succumbs to lymphoma. Ruth simply changes her phone number. Confining the drama to a dysfunctional family dynamic may have seemed like clever writing – even an attempt to make it some sort of Shakespearean allegory – but in doing so it totally misses the bigger picture:  not on the scale of fiscal destruction purveyed by the Madoff Advisory of course but it seems irresponsible and kind of pointless storytelling with nothing new that we all don’t know.  Look at The Big Short for a really stylish and shocking interrogation of this scenario;  or The Wolf of Wall Street:  this can be tour de force filmmaking in the right hands.  What a shame. Directed by Barry Levinson.

Jaws (1975)

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Ibsen by way of a Peter Benchley bestseller and an adventurous and gifted director called Steven Spielberg. I got caught up in this again late last night and was gripped, as ever, by this visceral tale of beachside terror which hasn’t aged a day and in many respects remains my favourite Spielberg movie. There is so much to relish. The atmosphere, aided immeasurably by John Williams’ stunningly suggestive score – which was the soundtrack in the bathroom of the late lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London – utterly terrifying!. The performances:  who doesn’t love Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist? Roy Scheider as the seaside town police chief who’s scarified of water? Robert Shaw as the drunken shark hunting Captain Quint? And those hellishly cute kids. And what about the titles sequence? There’s the politics of the summer season and the mayor who doesn’t want word to get out. The anger of the bereaved mother. The bloodied water and beach toys. The track-zoom of realisation. The clear storytelling. White sharks got a bad press out of this epic battle but there has rarely been a better exploration of the ecology of man and beast. Quite literally sensational. Classic, brilliant, the original of the species. Written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with a little assist from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, and John Milius.