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.

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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.

The Two Jakes (1990)

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We’re approaching Jack Nicholson’s landmark 80th birthday and he’s not very far from our minds anyhow, is he? Nobody dislikes this guy, a Seventies superstar whose offscreen life never threatened his essential abilities to act better than most anyone else. Two Jakes is the continuing story of Jake Gittes whom Nicholson inhabited so memorably in the classic Chinatown, a mythos of Los Angeles created by Robert Towne as part homage, part interrogation of that great city and its wobbly foundations. Now it’s post-WW2 and Gittes is hired by another Jake, Berman (Harvey Keitel) to do a routine matrimonial job. Gittes leads Berman to his wife’s lover, whom he murders. He’s Berman’s business partner. We return to the world of deceit and conspiracy that characterises film noir, albeit we are in living colour with a fabulously feline Madeleine Stowe as a very fatale femme.  It isn’t always a success and while the voiceover narration is true to the style it’s not always satisfying in a plot which might have been tightened a tad had screenwriter Robert Towne been around to finish it, an issue that caused trouble for Nicholson, who directed this outing. However there’s a lot to savour – it looks amazing and there’s a flavoursome soundtrack by Van Dyke Parks. It makes me wish we could finally have the last part of Towne’s projected LA trilogy. For more on this see my book about Robert Towne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1492610518&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

The Firm (1993)

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Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) is the hotshot Harvard grad hired by Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an established law firm run by Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) but he soon discovers that beneath the outward trappings of success there’s a very dark side and a price to be paid for that nice car and condo (well, they’re lawyers, whatcha expect but corruption?). When Mitch travels to the Caymans to hide client funds, he’s seduced by a woman on the beach – and the resulting photos compromise his marriage (to Jeanne Tripplehorn) and he’s now under the cosh to do as he’s told because as he finds out previous associates were murdered when they uncovered the firm’s mafia tax fraud. He’s approached by the FBI to wear a wire … There are tremendous performances here in this super-efficiently told thriller, especially by Holly Hunter who has a whale of a time as Gary Busey’s secretary/ lover – he’s the private eye who shared a prison cell with Mitch’s brother, whose existence made Mitch vulnerable to exploitation. The John Grisham thriller was originally adapted by David Rayfiel who had been working with director Sydney Pollack since the mid-Sixties however a major rewrite and restructuring (and removal of some) of the book’s elements by Robert Towne made it a far pacier piece of work.  (There was a draft by David Rabe but Towne supposedly never saw it.) It’s a fantastically suspenseful entertainment, with a great performance by Cruise and he is matched by the peerless Hackman. You can read more about all of this in my book ChinaTowne in the chapter detailing Towne’s collaborations with superstar Cruise:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1489868389&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

Bullitt (1968)

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Steve McQueen. A Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback. The greatest car chase ever filmed (until The French Connection). Jacqueline Bisset as the beautiful and intelligent love interest.  A fairly routine police procedural adapted from the novel Mute Witness was elevated to something approaching mythic precisely because McQueen’s innate cool transforms the material by virtue of his being allowed to be himself under Peter Yates’ careful direction. He’s up against a senator (Magnificent Seven co-star Robert Vaughn) with an agenda to shut down a Mafia investigation while Steve has to keep his witness hidden and find out what’s really going on. Adapted by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner from the novel by Robert L. Fish (or Pike!). Just listen to Lalo Schifrin’s score! Truly iconic.

State of Play (2009)

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Paul Abbott’s 2003 BBC series was a little bit legendary and it gets a nice big screen interpretation here as a cracking conspiracy thriller set in the world of Washington DC and newspapers, you know, those old-fashioned bits of paper that report facts and not ‘alternative facts’. Adapted by Tony Gilroy, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Billy Ray, Russell Crowe is the old school Saab-driving longhair who likes Irish rebel songs and whiskey when his old college roomie Congressman Ben Affleck (when his forehead still moved) gets mired in scandal as an assistant dies in front of a subway train. She’s widely rumoured to have been his romantic interest. When he approaches Crowe for help as the body count mounts, his committee looking into the doings of a security organisation with government contracts hoves into view. Meanwhile, Crowe takes on his blogging counterpart at the newspaper, Rachel McAdams, as his co-investigator, while editor Helen Mirren is under pressure from the new owners. This is a taut, pacy, tense workout with everyone at the top of their game and the issues of Homeland Security, reporting and the threat to newspapers from the worldwide web interlaced into nice character studies, as Affleck’s estranged wife, Robin Wright Penn, who has had an adulterous relationship with Crowe, complicates and diverts his attention from the bigger picture. An astonishingly timely piece of work. Terrific direction by Kevin Macdonald.

Touch of Evil (1958)

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Newlywed Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas  (Charlton Heston) arrives with wife Susan (Janet Leigh) in his part of the world in the most famous travelling shot in cinema history and a car explodes ahead of the border checkpoint. That’s the audacious start to one of the best films Orson Welles ever made, in this tale of police corruption, gangs and drug running along the Mexican border. An unrecognisable Welles himself plays the crooked cop Quinlan, Marlene Dietrich shows up as trampy but honourable Tana and we have a preview of Psycho when Janet checks into a motel where a twitchy Dennis Weaver admits her as his only guest … Look out for Joi Lansing and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Mercedes McCambridge makes a very welcome appearance. A classic that took far too many years to restore to its intended version.