Flashdance (1983)

It’s her social security number, asshole – she works for you! Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) is an eighteen year old juggling two odd jobs in Pittsburgh – welding by day at a steel mill, dancing by night in a working men’s club. But she aspires to become a successful ballet dancer. Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri) is her boss and he becomes her lover and he supports and encourages her to fulfill her dream; so does her mentor Hanna Long (Lilia Skala) a retired ballerina who once danced in the Ziegfeld Follies. Her best friends are Jeanie (Sunny Johnson) a waitress and an aspiring ice skater and Jeanie’s boyfriend Richie (Kyle T. Heffner) who works as a short order cook but dreams of making it as a stand up comic and going to Hollywood. Alex is afraid to push herself when she sees that fellow competitors for Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory have years of training and it takes her friends’ botched efforts and a nudge in the right direction to make her take that big step towards her future … Dreaming is wonderful but it won’t put you closer to what you want. This was a cultural phenomenon back in the day and it’s the music video dream brought to life via the extraordinary backlit cinematography (by Donald Peterman) favoured by auteur Adrian Lyne, a simple plot borrowed from the backstage musicals of Busby Berkeley and the most thumping soundtrack ever dreamed up for the screen. And it is a dream, this story of a beautiful teen who fears failure but keeps on truckin’ and despite the huge warehouse loft apartment, the amazing figure and the somewhat grave demeanour, she’s oddly relatable precisely because she lacks confidence and gets around on a racing bike. Beals is a wonderfully charismatic performer who looks good in or partly out of clothes. Her casual attitude to what she wears is disarming, particularly when she takes off her tux in front of Nouri’s ex Katie (Belinda Bauer) and we see underneath is a fake shirt and it’s backless and barely there. Somehow everything she does feels empowering and sexy. There was some controversy stirred up over the fact that the dancer who (clearly!) performs the electrifying routines for Beals, Marine Jahan, was mysteriously uncredited and she called out the producers herself but it didn’t stop this going gonzo at the box office.  Super Bowl XXI made up for it when she was the featured dancer in the half-time performance. (Sharon Shapiro did the body flips but no word on any further acknowledgement). The soundtrack is by Giorgio Moroder with the songs led by Irene Cara’s What a Feeling, doing for this what her theme for Fame did for that other sassy youthful production with a dark side and legwarmers. This is what feminism looked like in 1983 and it’s hot stuff, if you ask me.  The first collaboration between producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, this fabulous fairytale was written by Tom Hedley and Joe Eszterhas from Hedley’s story and directed by Lyne, a man who clearly loves women. Don’t you understand? When you give up your dream you die

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (2020)

Aka Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. I lost all sense of who I was. It’s open season on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) when her explosive breakup with the Joker puts a big fat target on her back. Unprotected and on the run, Quinn faces the wrath of narcissistic crime boss Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor)), his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), and every other vile thug in Gotham. But things soon even out when Harley becomes unexpected allies with three deadly women – Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) out to avenge the murder of her entire Mafia family as a child; club singer Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who’s forced to become Mask’s driver; and hot-tempered suspended cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who’s keen to make her mark in a hostile male environment. And then there’s the tricky street thief Cassandra Cane (Ella Jay Basco) who’s swallowed that diamond with the mob’s bank account details in its mutiple surfaces and that’s what everybody wants most of all Nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence. The sole bright spark in the otherwise execrable Suicide Squad was Robbie’s Quinn so you can see how she might have wanted to bring this powerhouse character back in a more equitable narrative. The driving force is to get the attention of the man who broke up with her, Joker, but as we know from other films, he’s kinda tied up elsewhere  and is quickly forgotten here. The idea of the girl gang that comes to fruition in the final 25 minutes is the MO but intriguingly it’s Harley who needs to be told to ‘focus’ – the other characters are more precisely delineated: the frustrated cop whose throwaway lines are from an 80s cop show, the ingenious pickpocket who unwittingly causes everything, the action babe singer, the highly creative crossbow killer with a serious revenge motive (whose name The Huntress everyone forgets, a nice running joke) which ironically leads to the whole premise being diffused, albeit for a higher feminist purpose. Each of them (bar Harley, who has a penchant for glitter) has a particular fighting style (and the stunts are real something.) McGregor’s psycho villain is thinly drawn and characterised. The fact that the penultimate sequence/showdown takes place in a fun house just exacerbates the cartoonish impact of DC’s all-women superhero squad. Yet it fizzes with antic, frantic, anarchic energy and a sense of its own ridiculousness expressed in many ways but most obviously in the title cards introducing all the characters and the batshit baby doll voiceover. Not to mention that rollerskating Harley’s pet hyena is called Bruce.  And yet it’s a story about female empowerment, diversity and righteous vengeance and is all done with effortless humour because Harley ultimately realises their talents are best deployed against their common enemies – scummy men. Robbie is charm itself and channels her inner Marilyn/Madonna with her performance of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. Written by Christina (Bumblebee) Hodson, produced by Robbie and directed by Cathy Yan. It almost makes you yearn for Tank Girl and Barb Wire, a pair of female action movies from the 90s that just missed their target. Almost. What a breakup movie – it even has a hair-pulling scene. Well what else would you expect from the fractured psyche of a PhD in Psychology? Girl Power kicks ass! You know, vengeance rarely brings the catharsis we hope for

Casino (1995)


There are three ways of doing things around here: the right way, the wrong way, and the way that I do it. You understand? Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is a Jewish handicapper asked by the Chicago Mob to oversee the day-to-day casino and hotel operations at the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas in 1973. His childhood friend, mobster Nicky Santoro (Pesci), is a made man and makes life tricky for Ace. Ace falls for call girl and chip hustler Ginger McKenna (Stone) whom he eventually marries. They have a daughter Amy (Erika von Tagen) but Ginger gets into drugs and her behaviour becomes loud and difficult. Ace has problems getting a gaming licence despite keeping local politicos happy and the skimmed money is being skimmed by people he employs. All his relationship begin to break down and the FBI are closing in when Ginger runs away with her lover and pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods) taking Amy with them … When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believed, that’s the kind of love I had.  At first glance it doesn’t seem elegiac yet this Scorsese collaboration with co-writer Nicholas Pileggi (from his Casino:  Love and Honor in Las Vegas) five years after Goodfellas operates as a long goodbye to a way of life essentially foreign, about strangers in a strange land. It’s adapted from the lives of Frank Rosenthal, Anthony Spilotro and Geri McGee. The mob were never at ease in the desert landscape and the story problem doesn’t end there because all the relationships here are uneven and mismatched:  Jewish and Italian, Ace and Nicky, Ace and Ginger, the Mob and Vegas. It starts audaciously: with a bomb. Yet the victim is one of the narrators. The competing voiceovers by Ace and Nicky are stark illustrations of the power plays beyond the gaming tables. The storytelling, spanning a decade to 1983 (and ‘many years before’) is a familiar one of bribery, corruption, murder, gambling, crooked politicians, prostitution, children, golf, drugs and great clothes, And the production design by Dante Ferretti lit up by Robert Richardson’s beautiful cinematography offers a stark contrast to the coarseness of these terrible people. It’s long and talky and horrifically violent and startling in terms of juxtapositions and acting. At the centre of the extraordinary soundtrack in this epic of marriages gone wrong is the score for Godard’s Contempt (Le mepris) by Georges Delerue, pointing our response in the correct direction. We are left to contemplate the magnificent, complete performance by Sharon Stone, one of the best in modern cinema, the cause and effect in this epic and tragic tale of the misbegotten. In the end it is a pitiless exploration of humanity. A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes

Victor/Victoria (1982)

 

Only a moron gives advice to a horse’s arse.  Paris, 1934. Coloratura soprano Victoria Grant (Dame Julie Andrews) fails in her audition at a nightclub where she’s seen by gay cabaret singer Carole “Toddy” Todd (Robert Preston) who has been fired from his gig at a second-rate Chez Lui. When Victoria punches out Toddy’s bisexual hustler lover Richard (Malcolm Jamieson), Toddy comes up with what he considers to be an inspired idea: to pass Victoria off as a female impersonator. Victoria. Her male alter ego could be the toast of Paris and make a lot of money as gay Polish Count Victor Grazinski. It all goes well until Chicago gangster King Marchan (James Garner) turns up with his girlfriend Norma Cassady (Lesley Ann Warren) and falls for Victor, convinced he is a she … A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. A breathtaking blend of musical comedy, gender confusion, romance, slapstick, cross-dressing and cabaret, this loose remake of 1933 German screwball film Viktor Und Viktoria  written by Hans Hoemburg and director Reinhold Schuenzel is a showcase for all writer/director Blake Edwards’ talents as well as providing wife Julie Andrews’ greatest role. Preston is a joy as her outrageous gay mentor in a warm, funny, generous performance and Garner has great fun subtly unravelling when his suspicions are proved happily correct in a scenario that takes pleasure in mocking his macho stance. Warren is also excellent as his Thirties moll with bodyguard Alex Karras surprising everyone by coming out.  And for Edwards fans there’s the prospect of Graham Stark providing his customary support in a cast alight with provocation and tolerance proving sexual orientation really is not the issue as long as you’re getting some. What great characters! With songs by Leslie Bricusse and composer Henry Mancini there’s a lot to love in an astonishingly constructed entertainment. Never mind twist endings, the entire narrative is twisted in every possible direction. A modern classic. People believe what they see

The Russia House (1990)

You live in a free society; you have no choice. Publisher Bartholomew ‘Barley’ Scott Blair (Sean Connery) is caught in a conspiracy when he receives manuscripts from a Russian scientist, Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) claiming that the Russian nuclear programme is a sham. Ned (James Fox) from British intelligence and Russell (Roy Scheider) and Brady (John Mahoney) of the CIA have the book intercepted en route to Blair at his Lisbon home because they consider it to contain crucial information.  They recruit him to investigate its editor, Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer) a divorced mother of two. As Blair goes to Moscow and learns the origin of the manuscript and discovers Russian military secrets, he falls in love with Katya and fights to protect her family even as he realises that Katya may have another admirer. The two intelligence agencies have a shopping list of questions to check that Dante is for real but Ned begins to wonder where Barley’s loyalties really lie … How the fuck do you peddle an arms race when the only asshole you’ve got to race against is yourself? Adapted from John le Carre’s novel by Tom Stoppard, this elegant look at Russian-British relations at the tail end of the Glasnost Eighties may have been overtaken by real events but it’s nonetheless a wittily constructed espionage story with one of Connery’s best performances as the sax playing book publisher whose heart is stolen by Pfeiffer, an atypically stunning editor with Pfeiffer turning in a really nuanced performance as the semi-tragic Russian. Only the second major American film to be shot in the Soviet Union, it’s picturesque indeed, using so many beautiful settings in Leningrad and Moscow and enhanced by the fantastic cast among whom film director Ken Russell makes a splash as Walter, the Brit spy, in his inimitable fashion; while the tension between the British and American agencies supplies much of the suspense. A superior entertainment directed by Fred Schepisi. If there is to be a hope we must all betray our country, we have to save each other because all victims are equal and none is more equal than others. It’s everyone’s duty to start the avalanche

Hollywoodland (2006)

I can see the pieces. How they should fit. How I want them to fit. When Hollywood superstar, TV’s Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck) dies in the bedroom of his home by a single gunshot to his head during a party in June 1959, private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is hired by Reeves’ mother Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith) to investigate his death. He gets caught in a web of lies involving MGM general manager Eddie Mannix’s (Bob Hoskins) and his wife Toni (Diane Lane) with whom Reeves was having an open if adulterous relationship until he took up with younger woman Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) as he is trying to make his own films as a director …. An actor can’t always act – sometimes he has to work. Easily one of the most pleasurable throwback movies made in (relatively) recent times, this is based on one of Tinseltown’s more notorious unsolved crimes. It’s told in classical Hollywood fashion, a romance revealed in parallel with an investigation, the latter of necessity post mortem, the former in flashback, the biography of a rather disappointed self-loathing actor who despises the role responsible for his fame at a time when the film business was in flux. Affleck is superb as the small screen incarnation of the archetypal super hero in what is still his best performance. Lane matches him every step of the way as the ageing starlet cheating on the studio’s most dangerous fixer. Beautifully put together, gorgeously shot by Jonathan Freeman and nicely resolved even if the private eye’s own travails rather detract from the movement of the narrative which posits an alternative ending to that proposed by Kashner and Schoenberger’s book Hollywood Kryptonite. Murderous Mannix is portrayed here by Hoskins whose screen wife Lane was married in real life to Josh Brolin, who played him for the Coen Brothers in Hail, Caesar! and was up for the role of Batman that went to … Affleck! Written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter. I hope you’ve discovered the meaning of justice

The Lighthouse (2019)

 

Bad luck to kill a sea bird. Two lighthouse keepers Ephraim Winslow akaThomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Defoe) try to maintain their sanity while living on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s. A storm strands them on the remote location and they turn on each other …  Tall tales. A two-hander co-written by Max Eggers with his brother, director Robert, leaving only Poe’s title from what was originally supposed to expand on his short story, this is verging on the unwatchable, an overly long student short truly better talked about than seen.  And I don’t want to talk about it. This makes you feel like you’re there and not in a good way. Exhausting, with these big performances and the  often impenetrable maritime lingo. Good grief. But it’s over now. How long have we been on this rock? Five weeks? Two Days? Where are we? Help me to recollect

Ordinary Love (2019)

How do you say to someone, Don’t die? Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) Thompson are a happy, long-married couple who enjoy a quiet life until she discovers a mass in her breast and makes an appointment to see a doctor who confirms she has a lump. When it is removed along with many lymph nodes she then proceeds to have chemotherapy. Her recovery is difficult and painful and she befriends the terminally ill teacher Peter (David Wilmot) of her late daughter. Her hair falls out, her temper frays and she and Tom have a major argument when she is at a low point and taunt each other.  They have a nice night together and make love before her double mastectomy. After Peter’s death they prepare for Christmas and decide to invite Peter’s boyfriend to join them … Putting sick people together:  how is that going to make anybody feel better? Even a marriage of kindness and vulnerability can hit a rocky patch. Facing up to a cancer diagnosis can bring out the worst in anyone, even briefly. Asking tough questions of a doctor when it’s not your illness makes you the rude guy; likening your bystander role to that of the person being mutilated and burned in operating theatres and treatment rooms makes you intolerable. For a while. This is also a story about bereavement and a Sixties Modernist house empty of personal touches because a child died, we’re not sure when. Even the goldfish dies. Death is contagious, it seems. And in the midst of that atmosphere somehow a marriage of true friends carries on, through hospital appointments, surgeries, horrific medical solutions and the deaths of other people in the ward. Manville and Neeson are tremendous in a subtle piece of writing by Owen McCafferty. Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn and filmed in Northern Ireland, with a score co-written by producer David Holmes.  A triumph of intimacy, in the best sense. You’d rather be worse than better

The Assistant (2019)

Never sit on the couch.  Recent North Western graduate and aspiring film producer Jane (Julia Garner) just landed her dream job as a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul at a famous production company. Her day starts before dawn, making coffee, ordering lunch, making travel arrangements and taking phone messages. But as she follows her daily routine, she grows increasingly aware of the abuse that insidiously colors every aspect of her workday, an accumulation of degradations against which she decides to take a stand when she meets inexperienced waitress Sienna (Kristine Froseth) and takes her by taxi to the Mark Hotel and later her office colleagues (Noah Robbins and Jon Orsini) joke that that’s where their boss is spending the afternoon. It dawns on her what’s happening. She takes her complaint to company human resources officer Wilcock (Matthew McFadyen) who persuades her that she’s actually jealous:  Don’t worry about it, she’ll get more out of it than he will. Trust me. He is clearly well aware of his boss’ predilections as is everyone at the company while her colleagues get her to apologise by email to Him I don’t think you’ve anything to worry about. You’re not his type. The #MeToo era has finally pulled back the curtain on the raging sexist bullying of the media business, not that it was ever going to be a surprise for any woman who has ever had that particular experience. In other words you didn’t have to work for Harvey Weinstein to know that that is how things go, it’s just that he’s the most egregious example and a clear influence on this striking debut by writer/director/producer (and documentary maker) Kitty Green. It’s a small and personal work, focused on the reactions of the protagonist and the only voice that’s raised is that of her nameless boss, behind closed doors, on the phoneline, never seen directly, communicating via Non-Disclosure Agreements, the semen stains in his office, the Viagra bottles and the parade of young women leaving, eyes down, from his office which is clearly modelled on Miramax, now bust, toxicity emanating in the air from his vile presence. Garner’s face does so much of the dramatic suspense for the story – absorbing the psychological sucker punch of what she’s inadvertently arranging for her boss – assignations of rape and sexual coercion. Structured like a mystery over the course of a day in which Jane has to piece together the bigger picture from hints and clues, this is subtly shocking and impressive as an admirably controlled commentary on the abuse of power and its widespread acceptance and nurturing by fawning sexist corrupt help, the kind you find in every office. A quiet scream.  I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great

The Carpetbaggers (1964)

The CarpetbaggersThe Carpetbaggers cast poster

Living up in the air like a rich seagull. When playboy Jonas Cord (George Peppard) inherits his father’s industrial empire based on an explosives factory, he expands it by acquiring an aircraft factory and Hollywood movie studio. His rise to power during the 1920s and 1930s is ruthless. He sets aviation records and starts a passenger airline. He marries and then quickly abandons sweet, bubbly Monica Winthrop (Elizabeth Ashley) the daughter of a business rival and provokes their divorce before she gives birth to their daughter; turns his young, gorgeous stepmother, Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker), who was his girlfriend originally before his father Jonas Sr. (Leif Erickson) married her, into a self-destructive movie star; and manages to disappoint even his closest friend and surrogate father, cowboy movie star Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd) whose concealed background he uses for a movie script. Then he falls for a prostitute Jennie Denton (Martha Hyer) whom he wants to turn into the movie star of America’s dreams… If that woman ran an immoral house she’d have to pay me. Despite the lurid and sadistic content of Harold Robbins’ sensational 1961 bestseller, a roman à clef which mines the contours of a Howard Hughes-type protagonist, and censorship issues aside, this is a strangely muted adaptation by John Michael Hayes and Edward Dmytryk’s stilted direction doesn’t help. The real shocker is the fight scene between Peppard and an ageing Ladd which looks properly dangerous and finally explores Cord’s psychology but it’s truly disturbing because it feels real, unlike much of the drama. As a portrait of the Thirties movie-making scene it’s certainly got a nose for the Hollywood casting couch mentality and its general air of seedy decadence and corruption. In that light it’s an interesting take on the career of the Harlow rip off played by Baker (and she made the biopic the following year). Robert Cummings is properly horrifying as Dan Pierce, the smooth agent who is a pimp in all but name; and Martin Balsam scores as Bernard B. Norman, a dastardly studio head; but in many ways, including performance, with Peppard the main culprit, this is all trash, all surface. Ladd’s character is a mélange of Tom Mix, William Boyd and Ken Maynard:  the prequel, Nevada Smith, would be directed by Henry Hathaway from a John Michael Hayes script with Steve McQueen in the lead. Ladd died before this was released. Only you know how all the pieces fit