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 the 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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Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

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I could throw a stick across the river and hit fifty grieving fathers.  Following an Isis suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) as Mexican drug cartels are starting to smuggle terrorists across the U.S. border. The war escalates when Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug kingpin’s thirteen-year old daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to deliberately increase the tensions. When the young girl is seen as collateral damage, the two men will determine her fate as they question everything that they are fighting for, with Alejandro and the girl left on the wrong side of the border when the corrupt Mexican police upset the staged return of Isabel.  At the same time a teenaged Mexican in Texas Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is recruited to move people illegally and the Government drop Alejandro in it  … Sicario was my top film of 2015 and I was pretty surprised that it would become a victim of sequelitis. This is  a far more conventional action outing but steadily winds itself around you with a vise-like grip even if it entirely lacks the deep pulsating strangeness of the original and its fabulously formal widescreen compositions by director Denis Villeneuve and DoP Roger Deakins and the amazing, visceral score of the late great Jóhann Jóhansson, to whom this is dedicated. Crucially it also lacks Emily Blunt’s character, something of a passive protagonist who also functioned as moral compass. What an unusual setup that was! It punched you in the solar plexus, kicked you in the abdomen and grabbed you by the throat. And all the time you wondered who everyone really was. The formerly silent and mysterious Alejandro has achieved his revenge so why does this even exist? Better ask Taylor Sheridan, who is revisiting the border territory he seems to have made his own, writing some of the best screenplays of recent years. There has been a lot of guff about the timing of this and the fact that there’s a girl ‘separated’ from her (lovely!) family here but this is a film that shows us exactly why the US or the POTUS at least wants a wall:  it’s a portrait of ruthless people trafficking poor people with the resultant evolution of drug lords, gangs and murderers. You can leave the pity party at the door especially when you look at the murder rates in Mexico last year alone. Chaos streams from that part of the world, lest we forget. And the answer is a slew of dirty tricks and disavowed ops.  Alejandro is almost forced to question his actions, with Isabel figuring out his relationship with her father:  he’s the attorney whose wife and kids Daddy had murdered. Moner is fantastic, a real find. She is extraordinarily self-possessed as the narco whore! administering beatings in the school yard where the principal is shit-scared of expelling her for fear of reprisals. Brolin returns to the fray dealing out fear in Somalia trying to trace the Isis loonies but back on US soil he’s dealing with the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) and his immediate superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) who wants everything off the books when two dozen Mexican cops are killed (they unleash the firepower first) and the Oval Office can no longer be officially seen to sanction any cross-border activities. The clever aspect is parallel teenage stories – the Tex-Mex boy killer and the kingpin’s girl even if they are rather replete with clichés, no matter the shock value. The conclusion has been set up to deliver another movie with del Toro – a long way from the money laundering (literally) in Licence to Kill – still in the druggie violent territory to which he so frequently returns. Directed by Stefano Sollima. 

Three Violent People (1956)

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You can’t kill your brother – he only has one arm! Confederate officer Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston) returns to his Texas ranch the Bar S after the war to find his lands wanted by carpetbaggers and by corrupt provisional government commissioners Harrison (Bruce Bennett) and Cable (Forrest Tucker). When he marries former dance hall girl Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter) he gets more than he bargains for and his brother Beauregard aka ‘Cinch’ (Tom Tryon) turns up to make trouble and side with the opposition … There’s tension aplenty in this occasionally striking post-Civil War western, with some very good scenes between the top-liners. Baxter’s revelation to save a man’s life because she feels forced to admit her past as a prostitute when confronted by a former client is a standout, so too her scenes with the charismatic Tyron, whom Heston didn’t want cast. Heston and Baxter have a great meet cute, he’s unconscious and she robs him but when he comes to it’s in bed and he literally unpicks her voluminous undergarments to retrieve his gold (and that’s not a euphemism). It ends badly for one of the three, as you’d expect, but not before Gilbert Roland, as long-time family friend Innocencio Ortega, helps in the final shootout.  Spot Robert Blake and Jamie Farr down the cast list with Elaine Stritch given a good supporting role as a saloon hostess. A nice mix of soap and oats. Written by James Edward Grant from a story by Leonard Praskins and Barney Slater and directed by Rudolph Maté.

The Leopard (1963)

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We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us – leopards, lions, jackals and sheep – will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth. As Garibaldi’s troops begin the unification of Italy in the 1860s, an aristocratic Sicilian family grudgingly adapts to the sweeping social changes undermining their way of life. The proud but pragmatic (yet feline) Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) allows his fickle war hero (who changes sides) nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), to marry Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the beautiful daughter of gauche, bourgeois Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa) in order to maintain the family’s accustomed level of comfort and political clout when the fighting approaches their summer home in Sicily but the Prince is himself enchanted with her …  Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s masterful novel by director Luchino Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Enrico Mediloi, Pasquale Festa Campanile and Massimo Franciosa, rarely have the obsessions of a novelist coincided so fortuitously with those of a filmmaker. The Marxist aristocrat Visconti had an intimate acquaintance with the notion of a society in transition and the magnificent central performance by Lancaster anchors the affect in nuance and specificity as he questions his identity and relevance.  The battle scenes that open the film are sunny, stunning and violent, shot almost entirely wide which gives them an appropriately epic quality. The final forty-five minute ball sequence during which the Prince dances with Angelica and Tancredi and the Prince’s daughters look on in variously anguished forms is tantalising:  there are shot choices that make you squeal with delight, almost as gloriously as Cardinale’s devastating laughter at the dinner table. Was there ever a more beautiful or seductive couple than Delon and Cardinale, reunited after Rocco and His Brothers? Not a lot happens:  the Prince realises his way of life (‘leopards and lions’) is changing and he is experiencing history as it unfolds. He discusses his ridiculous marriage with his priest Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli);  he observes a rigged plebiscite;  goes on holiday and a picnic;  hunts;  arranges Tancredi’s marriage to Angelica; walks home from the ball in the early hours of the morning and recognises the shabbiness of the decaying district over which he presides. The novel is wonderful and it is shocking to realise Di Lampedusa died before he could see it become a phenomenon in 1958. A magnificent, bewitching, bittersweet film adaptation made when cinema was great with an immersive score by Nino Rota that perfectly encapsulates a world in love with death. For the ages. We’re just human beings in a changing world.

Dave (1993)

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I’m the President, and as they say, the buck stops here. So I take full responsibility for each one of my illegal actions. But that’s not the whole story. I think the American people are entitled to the real truth. Shifty White House chief of staff Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) hatches a scheme to use a double for the president Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) at a public photo opportunity. Smalltown temp agency owner Dave Kovic (Kline) fits the bill, but after the president suffers a debilitating stroke having extra-marital sex, opportunist Alexander arranges for Dave to step in full time without even informing the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) when a scandal threatens to engulf the Presidency. It doesn’t take long before the press, the nation and the president’s wife realize something is wrong because this is a nice conscientious guy and not the lying distant philanderer they all know and dislike  … Practically a White House take on The Prisoner of Zenda, this is an opportunity for some very pleasant if hardly ground-shaking political satire with perfectly timed performances by an engaging cast.  Gary Ross’s screenplay gets nice mileage out of the identical-impersonator scenario but it feels a little dated in the wake of House of Cards not to mention reality. Ivan Reitman makes the most out of the visual jokes.

Miss Sloane (2017)

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Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.  Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) remains one of the most sought-after lobbyists in Washington, D.C. She will do or say anything to get ahead of the competition. When asked to help oppose a bill that imposes regulations on firearms, she instead joins a scrappy boutique firm led by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) that represents the backers of the law. Her defiant stance and determination to win now makes her the target of powerful new enemies who threaten her career. We find her facing a congressional hearing headed up by Senator Ronald Sperling (John Lithgow) where the needling gets to her and she breaks legal advice to plead the Fifth to respond to a petty point about Indonesia and opens the door to an onslaught of past crimes in the name of getting ahead on Capitol Hill … This wordy worthy drama is hard to take:  Chastain is as we have come to expect – technically adept, capable of delivering very prolix speeches but essentially unsympathetic (not that she cares) in spite of this being about a very current hot button topic – gun control and the powerful lobby that comes out to vote no matter what. Written by Jonathan Perera and directed by John Madden, this is literate, middle of the road social consciousness drama only rendered tolerable by performance and ultimately some finessed construction and screw-tightening towards the conclusion. But like Chastain’s other film this year, Molly’s Game, the stakes aren’t high enough to make us do anything more than yawn at these horrible people.

All the President’s Men (1976)

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Where’s the goddamn story? There’s a break in at the Watergate building and a laidback and very green Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is suspicious when the Cuban-American burglars appear in court with high-level representation. Boss Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) teams him up with chippy Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to help out  – Bernstein writes better copy. Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) is not convinced that there’s much there but reluctantly gives the go-ahead.  With the help of a mysterious source, code-named Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), the two reporters make a connection between the burglars and a White House staffer. They encounter dirty tricks, ‘rat-fucking’ and an organisation known as CREEP. Follow the money Despite dire warnings about their safety, the duo follows the money all the way to the top… Part conspiracy thriller, part detective story, part newspaper flick, this only errs on the forgivably smug side that you’d expect if you’d been one of the hacks who’d (mistakenly) stumbled on an Oval Office-level conspiracy in the early 1970s. Part of director Alan J. Pakula’s unofficial paranoid trilogy (along with Klute and The Parallax View) this was adapted from Woodward and Bernstein’s book by William Goldman in the first instance – or actually four – before it was rewritten by Bernstein and Nora Ephron and then by Pakula and Redford, albeit those claims have been debunked. It’s a film that shows you the process of how to get and write the story – the sheer drudgery of sitting at desks, making phonecalls, being fobbed off, meeting strange men in car parks, going to libraries to borrow books, boredom, fear, anticipation, surveillance, and typing, typing, typing, the whole kit and caboodle. But when it’s played by two of the world’s biggest film stars at the time and they make calling someone on the phone so unbearably tense, you know you’re in good hands. As Redford’s biographer Michael Feeney Callan clarifies, Redford’s mind was already elsewhere during production despite the project being his and he was permanently distracted, yet we are carried on this tidal wave of information that started as a local story and became a national scandal – despite knowing the rather fabled outcome. What a way to make your name. Katharine Graham’s role was excised entirely from the action, to be resurrected in the preceding scandal of the Pentagon Papers dramatised in the recent The Post. Remarkable on every level, with the characters becoming at times functionaries of a cannily authentic production design by George Jenkins and a shooting style by Gordon Willis that emphasises light – its presence and absence, its curtailment and its blazing power – amid an ensemble of brilliant players in roles large and small, thrillingly brought to life. Classic.

 

 

Our Man in Marrakesh (1966)

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Aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!  I just came here to build a hotel.  One of six travellers who catch the bus from Casablanca airport to Marrakesh is carrying $2 million to pay a powerful local man Mr Casimir (Herbert Lom) to fix a vote at the United Nations on behalf of an unnamed nation. But not even the powerful man knows which of them it is – and his background checks reveal that at least three of them aren’t who they claim to be. As agents from other nations may be among them, he and his henchmen have to be very careful until the courier chooses to reveal himself – or herself. One of them is Andrew Jessel (Tony Randall) who is in Morocco to finance a hotel but he seems the most likely prospect. On the bus, he encounters the lovely Kyra Stanovy (Senta Berger) who soon appears to be another dubious individual. When Jessel’s briefcase gets mixed up with Casimir’s the chase is on across rooftops and through bazaars and Jessel and Kyra are thrown together when a corpse materialises in his wardrobe – but what is she really up to aside from being a rather too lovable mod femme fatale? … The mid-Sixties spy spoof sub-genre or Eurospy movie continues apace with this picturesque travelogue, boasting some of my fave film faces including Klaus Kinski as the white-suited Jonquil, Casimir’s creepy little henchman, who gets a great entrance in the titles sequence, Grégoire Aslan as Achmed, a Moroccan trucker, Wilfred Hyde-White as Arthur Fairbrother, a likely courier for Red China and of course the indubitable Terry-Thomas as the Oxbridge educated El Caid, a very useful intermediary. There’s even John Le Mesurier as another would-be go-between for the Communists and Burt Kwouk, who has the tiny role of hotel clerk. Margaret Lee appears as the goofy lover of Casimir. Randall is an unlikely love interest and a hapless hero – don’t let the poster fool you – there’s no attempt to portray him as James Bond, he’s much more James Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but this is a lot of fun with a corpse repeatedly turning up at the most inopportune moments. Berger is adorable as the compulsive liar. There’s a colourful score by Malcolm Lockyer. From producer Harry Alan Towers, this was co-written by him with Peter (The Liquidator) Yeldham and directed by Don Sharp.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

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Personally I prefer a girlfriend not to have a husband. An Irish-American seaman Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) becomes involved in a complex murder plot when he is hired by renowned criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan) to work on a yacht after rescuing the man’s wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth) from a disturbing attack in Central Park NYC. He soon finds himself implicated in the murder, despite his innocence. The film is best remembered for the climactic hall of mirrors scene with a shoot out amidst shards of shattering glass…. Orson Welles’ adaptation (with uncredited help from William Castle, Charles Lederer and Fletcher Markle) of a novel by Sherwood King was so confusing that Columbia boss Harry Cohn offered a reward to anyone who could make head or tail of it. Somebody please tell me what it’s about! But the plot of this murder mystery pastiche is hardly the point:  it’s a gorgeously shot tongue in cheek meditation on the games men and women play. Sometimes they wind up in murder. The narration is crucial. The hall of mirrors scene is justly famous. Shot by Charles Lawton (and Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker) with the yachting scenes done on Errol Flynn’s Zaca, this is the one where Hayworth’s fiery locks were shorn into a shockingly short blonde bob and Welles sports a cod Oirish accent presumably culled from his days at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Mad, strange and blacker than black, this is all about shadows and deception and imagery and set-pieces. Stunningly edited by Viola Lawrence. I never make my mind up about anything until it’s over and done with.

Baywatch (2017)

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I’m oceanic motherfucker.  The legendary Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) leads his elite squad of lifeguards on a beautiful California beaach. Joined by a trio of hotshot recruits (well, two, plus Jon Bass as Ronnie) including former Olympian Matt Brody (Zac Efron) aka The Vomit Comet and Summer (Alexandra Daddario), they ditch the surf and go deep under cover to take down ruthless businesswoman Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) whose devious plan to use Emerald Bay as a port for her drugs empire threatens the area… There’s a lot of fun to be had here, not least the fact that Efron is effectively playing a (brighter!) version of Ryan Lochte, whose antics made him notorious after the last Summer Olympics. There’s no ‘i’ in ‘team’ but there is a ‘me’ he declares – so we know his journey is to become a team player. Gurn … There’s a very funny scene in a morgue plus some graphic nudity courtesy of Ronnie’s inability to keep his togs on whenever a beautiful girl is in the vicinity. The Hoff makes an appearance but really, after the good guys do the right thing, this is all about hot bodies (male and female) in skimpy clothing and tribute is paid to the most famous TV slo-mo shot of all time.  The screenplay is by Damian Shannon & Mark Swift, from a story by Jay Sherick & David Ronn and Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant, based on the TV series which was created by Michael Berk & Douglas Schwartz and Gregory J. Bonann. Whew. Directed by Seth Gordon. Not as bad as you think it could be …