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 these 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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Ocean’s Eight (2018)

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A him gets noticed, a her gets ignored. And we want to be ignored.  After she’s been released from prison, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) younger estranged sister of the late Danny, meets with her former partner-in-crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) to convince her to join an audacious heist that she planned while serving her sentence. Debbie and Lou assemble the rest of their team: Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter) a disgraced fashion designer who is deeply in debt with the IRS; Amita (Mindy Kaling) a jewellery maker keen to move out of her mother’s house and start her own life; Nine Ball (Rihanna) a computer hacker; Constance (Awkwafina) a street hustler and pickpocket; and Tammy (Sarah Paulson) a profiteer and another friend of Debbie’s who has been secretly selling stolen goods out of her family’s suburban home. Debbie is after a $150 million Cartier necklace, from the Met Gala in five weeks, and plans to use co-host Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), a dim-witted and snobby actress, as an unwitting mule who will wear the necklace into the gala. After the team manipulates Daphne into choosing Weil as her stylist, Weil and Amita go to Cartier to convince them to let Daphne wear the Toussaint, as well as surreptitiously digitally scan it to later manufacture a zircon duplicate but things start to unravel when the original is delivered on the day … A sequel (and spin-off) of sorts to the enjoyable Ocean’s Eleven franchise, this is produced by Steven Soderbergh who bowed out of directing duties in favour of Gary Ross who co-wrote this with Olivia Milch. Burdened perhaps by the poor reception afforded the all-female Ghostbusters, this is a far more confident and fun piece of work, tightly scripted with few lulls (maybe a short one, an hour in) and great casting, with several celebrity cameos:  even Anna Wintour makes an appearance when Tammy interns at Vogue, a nod to the films within a film (The First Monday in May, The September Issue) and of course Hathaway’s fashion film in which Wintour was played by Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada, so this is a kind of fan fiction on screen at least in part. The heist would be nothing without a revenge motif (Richard Armitage as artist/conman Claude Becker got Debbie put in the clink), an insurance investigation (my heart sank when James Corden appeared but forsooth! he doesn’t ruin it) and a twist ending. Bonham Carter’s turn as a kind of Oirish Vivienne Westwood is somewhat heartstopping but what I really want to know is where Bullock and Blanchett got their skin. Seriously.  A lot of fun, with brilliant shoplifting ideas.

Entebbe (2018)

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How many Israelis?  How many hijackers?  Where are they going?  In July 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris is hijacked by Islamic terrorists (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) including two Baader-Meinhof supporting Germans Wilfred Böse aka Boni (Daniel Brühl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) who find out that Ulrike Meinhof has hanged herself in prison (it is rather more likely that she was murdered) and want to take their anti-fascist beliefs out on some innocent Israelis in exchange for the release of Palestinian terrorists.  They take over the plane in Athens and the Palestinians order the French pilots to land in Entebbe, Uganda, where they believe murderous maniac Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie) will influence negotiations with the Israeli government. In Israel, the tensions between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan in a hilarious wig) are played out during stalled negotiations (the Israelis do not negotiate with terrorists) while a commando unit prepares for an assault on the African airport … Germans killing Jews. Have you thought how this looks?  Playwright Gregory Burke’s screenplay teases out all the issues with on-the-nose dialogue in this historical reconstruction which perhaps does too many things at once – the dance motif which threads through the narrative because one of the commandos Zeev Hirsch (Ben Schnetzer) has a girlfriend preparing for a difficult performance of Echad Mi Yodea is perhaps a trope too far – and ends up straddled between one too many stools. The Germans are not exactly naive – their ideological struggle against their parents’ generation has itself a rather sickly unironic anti-semitic root (let’s call him Adolf Hitler or Martin Luther, whomsoever you prefer, they call it anti-fascist). However they are out of their depth with the Islamists who quickly put the Jewish hostages in one room and prepare to kill them first. French pilot Jacques Le Moine (Denis Ménochet) is the voice of reason in Boni’s ear – an engineer is worth fifty revolutionaries, he tells him. And what about dignity?  Drinking water gives people dignity, he cautions as he fixes the dirty water supply at the rear end of Entebbe Airport while the regular business goes on at the public end. It is his subtle finger wagging that gets Boni to desist from a genocidal spree. There are nice supporting performances – including Peter Sullivan as Amos Eran, Rabin’s right-hand man – and a real clunker from Pike whose conversation into a dead telephone after she’s run out of uppers gives new meaning to the term phoning it in.  The hostages’ terror is more or less ignored even when one French-Israeli is returned to the group by the Palestinians in a shambolic state after they have tortured him. Everything is defused by cutting back to the dancer girlfriend and her psychological issues with her job (boo bloody hoo). The one man killed in Operation Thunderbolt was Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yonathan (played here by Angel Bonanni) which precipitated the young man’s return from the United States and his elevation to PM for the first time in 1996, as the end credits remind us over another dance performance (why?). Rabin was eventually murdered by a Jewish extremist who didn’t want him to carry on dialogue with the Palestinians. And so it goes on. This was a fabulously daring rescue mission but you wouldn’t know it from watching this film.  It’s loose enough with the truth but one story that isn’t included is a woman hostage who choked on a bone and was sent to hospital. After the raid, Amin had her murdered. Directed by José Padilha. There are three other films on this subject and I’ll bet anything they’re all better than this. Shalom.

The Whole Truth (1958)

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I almost wish it had been me who killed her. I’d have enjoyed doing it.  Film producer Max Poulton (Stewart Granger) is on location on the French Riviera shooting a film starring his lover, troublesome Italian actress Gina Bertini (Gianna Maria Canale). When he ends their fling to return to his loyal wife, Carol (Donna Reed), the jilted actress threatens to reveal details of their affair to Carol. Later, at a party at Max’s villa, Scotland Yard investigator Carliss (George Sanders) arrives with news that Gina has been killed and that Max is a murder suspect. Then Carol tries to prove her husband is innocent of a crime with a twist … Philip Mackie’s play had been recorded for BBC TV and is given a smart adaptation by Jonathan Latimer with a superb cast – Sanders in particular is viciously good. A neat British thriller, directed by John Guillermin (with an uncredited assist by Dan Cohen) and produced by Jack Clayton.

Duffy (1968)

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That stinking operation of yours gets on my wick. Half-brothers playboy Stefane (James Fox) and useless businessman Antony (John Alderton) despise their father, callous and aggressive millionaire Charles Calvert (James Mason) who appears to have made all of his money off their respective mothers. Because Charles refuses to share his wealth with them they ask hip enigmatic American thrill-seeker the piratical Duffy (James Coburn) to help steal the money they believe is their birthright when Stefane’s girlfriend Segolene (Susannah York) recalls his name during a hairdressing appointment. When Charles decides to move a million pounds of his savings from Morocco to France on one of his ships Duffy has an opportunity to stage a daring burglary at sea but he takes some convincing and then it transpires that indeed all is not as it seems …  A crime caper featuring members of the Swinging London set that permits Coburn to do his shit-eating grin seems like a good idea on paper but director Robert Parrish doesn’t really time things as well as he might despite the superficial attractions of the settings and cast.  With a screenplay by Donald Cammell you would think this might be a deal weirder than it actually is, but that would come in a couple of years when he re-teamed with Fox for the penetrating counterculture examination that was Performance.  For now we have to make do with pretty people scamming their pop with an independent-minded outsider in exotic locales and a loopy soundtrack to underline the hip fun in an outing that seems to herald the end of Mod as events take a tricky turn in that destination of decadence and dilettantism, Morocco. Quirky fun.

The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

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Are you normal?  What is normal?  Harvard psychologist and inventor Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) has the good fortune of having two women in his life – his eventual wife and colleague Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) who is denied her PhD because of her gender and their mutual lover, student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) the niece of the birth control activist, Margaret Sanger, whose feminist mother Ethel, Sanger’s sister, abandoned her to the care of nuns. Marston creates the DISC theory of Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance which he lectures on to besotted female students.  In addition to helping him perfect the lie detector test, they form a ménage à trois which leads to the academics being fired from their University jobs and moving to the burbs where the two women inspire him to create one of the greatest female superheroes of all time, beloved comic book character Wonder Woman as their unconventional lifestyle and penchant for S&M causes problems for the legitimate and illegitimate children they raise together…  This sly old dissertation on American values is told in a series of flashbacks as Marston is forced to defend his comic book’s content to Josette Frank (Connie Britton) inquisitor in chief at the Child Study Association of America in the post-war era as comic books were literally burned, Hitler style, in the streets. No fool she as she knows all the moves, BDSM or no.  It’s amusing to see the trio’s relationship revealed first with the lie detector machine and then in the den of iniquity lorded over by Charles Guyette, the G-string king (JJ Feild) while outwardly life in the burbs goes on as per usual. This is an origins story with a difference and if it plays rather fast and loose (or restrained, whichever you’d prefer) with the lasso of truth, then it’s fun and imaginative and very well performed – interpreted, written and directed by Angela Robinson. Produced by Amy Redford.

Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

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Sinners is my business. You and that hip-slinging daughter of Satan. You know there’s the smell of sulfur and brimstone about you. The smell of hellfire.  In the 1930s Texan Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) hits the road to search for his long-lost sweetheart Hallie Gerard (Capucine). On the road he meets free-spirited Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda) and she joins him on his trip to New Orleans, where the two find Hallie working at the Doll House, a brothel. When Dove tries to take Hallie away with him, he is confronted by the brothel’s possessive madam, the sapphically-inclined Jo Courtney (Barbara Stanwyck), who is unwilling to give up her favorite employee without a fight and resorts to devious means to keep control … Fabulously pulpy, lurid melodrama that steams up the screen. The female pulchritude and the whiff of perversion make for a pleasing concoction. And then there’s Harvey! There was trouble on set when he said Capucine (producer Charles Feldman’s girlfriend) couldn’t act. He had a point. (I always thought she was a tranny, but now I can’t remember why). Stanwyck is masterful as the Lesbian madam, Fonda oozes sex and Anne Baxter is fantastic in a supporting role (rendered problematic when production had to resume as she was heavily pregnant). John Fante and Edmund Morris adapted Nelson Algren’s novel with an uncredited contribution by Ben Hecht. Edward Dmytryk conducted proceedings, with a score by Elmer Bernstein and the famous song over classic titles by Saul Bass. A fetishistic, campy indulgence.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

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You see a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal.  Five teenagers enduring Saturday detention in a Chicago high school bond over their enmity of their supervisor (Paul Gleason). Yawn. Except this was probably the most audacious film of its year, courtesy of auteur John Hughes who got teens like nobody did. Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) is the nerd from the academic clubs,  Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) is the champion wrestler bullied by his folks, Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) is the strange outcast, Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is daddy’s little girl who bunked off to go to the mall, while John Bender (Judd Nelson) is the tough guy whose father beats him.  They are all from completely opposing school cliques with nothing in common and they hate each other and everything they believe each other stands for. Then they realise that they all have major issues at home and that they could have some fun even if they never speak to each other after the bell rings … Party like it’s 1984. You know you want to.

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.