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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The Snorkel (1958)

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You think I’m mad, don’t you? They all thought I was mad when I said he killed my daddy.  Paul Decker (Peter van Eyck) kills his wealthy wife by gassing her in the living room of their luxury Italian villa. He survives in the sealed room by hiding under the floorboards with a snorkel. The police assume it’s a suicide:  Paul has an alibi from a sojourn just across the border in France.  Paul’s stepdaughter Candy (Mandy Miller) suspects he has murdered her mother – she says she saw him hold her father underwater and kill him too. Her dog Toto agitates Paul by playing with the snorkel which he finds in his hotel room and Paul poisons him. Candy is convinced he did it deliberately but her companion Jean (Betta St John) thinks she has a psychiatric disorder. Paul starts to seduce Jean and persuade her that Candy is mad. It’s only a matter of time before Paul tries to kill Candy too … An effective thriller from the House of Hammer, adapted from the story by Anthony Dawson (the crim who gets scissored by Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder) by the man who would become a studio stalwart, Jimmy Sangster (and Peter Myers). The tension is nicely sustained in this slice of Gothic and Miller is excellent as the teen who persists with her suspicions. The dog is great! Produced by Michael Carreras and directed by Guy Green.

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.

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.

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.

Let the Sunshine In (2017)

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Aka Un Beau Soleil Intérieur.  Live what you have to live.  Divorced fiftysomething artist and mother Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) navigates a series of unsatisfying relationships with men during a week when her daughter is staying with her ex-husband François (Laurent Grévill) and afterwards, following a brief sojourn at an art exposition in the Lot.  She discusses her relationships with a female friend (Sandrine Dumas) who brags about her own happiness and a male friend Fabrice (Bruno Podalydès) who cautions her to stick with someone from her milieu. She finally consults a psychic (Gerard Depardieu) to see whom she will end up with …  The film opens on a graphic sex scene which certainly perked up my cats. Watching a beautiful woman have a horrible experience with a nasty old fat banker (Xavier Beauvois) is not an edifying experience. You are charming. But my wife is extraordinary, he declares.  Her response to his rudeness in a bar is to be super nice to everyone she encounters in the service industry. She is squirming when she feels compelled to ask her new gallerist Maxime (Josiane Balasko) if it’s true what the banker told her – that she’d had a relationship with Isabelle’s ex-husband. Then she has a one-night stand with an unpleasant actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) with whom she’s considering doing a project – she’s in love, he regrets it. She dances to At Last with Sylvain (Paul Blain) a strange guy in the Lot and sleeps with her ex who tries out a porno move. He appears to be using their daughter as a weapon and keeps the keys to the apartment so he can come and go as he pleases. We are stunned to learn that she is convinced she loves the weirdo from the Lot and another uncomfortable conversation occurs. She is unhappy and cries a lot and pleads with men to stay with her. She produces little art. She wants to be in love but is needy and demanding, but unlike all women deploying their feminine guiles to reel them in, the men are using this older woman and she is getting nothing back. This film by Claire Denis is constructed on the slimmest of threads – what does a woman of a certain age want when the men she attracts are so horrifying? (And why is she wearing thigh-high hooker boots?)  If she’s such a great artist why don’t we see any of her paintings? That’s not the point, of course.  Supposedly adapted by Denis and Christine Angot from Roland Barthes’ 1977 A Lover’s Discourse, this attempts to penetrate the female psyche but what are we to say when Isabelle herself winds up consulting a fortune teller? Only Freud claimed to know what women want but we know he was a fraud. The final twist is that we enter the fortune teller’s storyline before he meets Isabelle. Out of nowhere the narrative is disrupted. Binoche is extraordinary but the psychodrama is as unsatisfying and fascinating as the men are unpromising. Such, alas, is life for women who will of course never be emotionally satisfied by one or any man.  All talk and no trousers, this is also about all the talk about the talking and the not talking. It positions itself as an awkward comedy of manners but plays like a horribly relatable documentary about how awful it is to be female.  Hey, she slept with three men in a week.  C’est la vie, malheuruesement. Customarily rigorous cinematography by Agnès Godard. Open.

Geostorm (2017)

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I worked on this day in and day out, week after week, for years. What did they do? They turned it into a gun.  A few years after 2019 following an unprecedented series of natural disasters that threatened the planet, the world’s leaders’ intricate network of satellites to control the global climate and keep everyone safe is acting strangely.  Dutch Boy’s inventor Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) is stroppy and a Senate Committee takes him off his own project and installs his younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess) in his place. But now, something has gone wrong: the system built to protect Earth is attacking it, and it becomes a race against the clock to uncover the real threat before a worldwide geostorm wipes out everything and everyone along with it. Jake has to go to back to outer space and Dutch Boy to try and suss out what’s gone wrong and finds himself in a political web with devastating outcomes as the machine designed to protect Planet Earth has become weaponised to destroy it and Max is the only person he can trust to get the POTUS to help as there’s a traitor in the crew … I don’t know about you but I’ve spent the last three weeks baking and I don’t mean cookie dough. Three months ago I was snowbound for a week and three months before that a huge storm nearly blew my house away. So even a trashy eco-disaster thriller with shonky FX, sibling rivalry, a barely-there political conspiracy and slim father-daughter story arc, compounded by some of the worst acting on the planet (take a bow, Mr Sturgess!) is somehow comforting in an era when some seriously smart people are arguing against climate change. Is it me?! Thank goodness the great Abbie Cornish is around to help save the world. Co-written by Paul Guyot with producer/director Dean Devlin. Batten down the hatches! And get me some ice…

Elle (2016)

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Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all. Believe me. Perverse, funny, strange, blackly comic and at times surreal, this is a film like few others. It opens on a black screen as Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped by a masked man. She gets up, cleans herself and bathes and carries on as though nothing has happened. At work she is the one in control – it’s her company and she deals in the hyper-real, trying to make video games more experiential, the storytelling sharper, the visuals more tactile. She is attacked in a cafe by a woman who recognises her as her father’s lure – as a child she her dad murdered a slew of people and he’s an infamous serial killer, turned down for release yet again at the age of 76 and it’s all over the news:  there’s a photo taken of her as a blank-eyed ten year old which haunts people. Her mother is a plastic surgery junkie shacked up with another young lover. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is broke and tries to pitch her an idea for a game. Her loser son has supposedly knocked up a lunatic girlfriend (the eventual baby is not white) and needs money for a home. Elle is sleeping with the husband of her partner Anna (Anne Consigny). She likes to ogle her neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). Now as she gets text messages about her body she tries to figure out who among her circle of acquaintances could have raped her – and then when it happens again she unmasks him and starts a relationship of sorts following a car crash (a deer crosses the road, not for the first time in a 2016 film).  This is where the edges of making stories, power, control, reality, games and the desire for revenge become blurred. Adapted from Patrick Dijan’s novel Oh by David Birke and translated into French by Harold Manning, this is Paul Verhoeven’s stunning return to form, with Huppert giving a towering performance as a wily, strong, vulnerable, tested woman – she owns her own company and handles unruly employees using a sympathetic snitch but cannot control her family members and their nuttiness. You can’t take your eyes off her, nor can the camera.  While she tries to figure out how to regain her composure (she rarely loses it, even while she’s getting punched in the face) she also sees a way in which she might obtain pleasure.  In some senses we might see a relationship with Belle de Jour: Michèle is the still centre of a world in which crazy is normal. It’s shot to reflect this, with the video game and the animation of her made illicitly by one employee the only visual extremes:  the assaults (there’s more than the first, when she gets the taste for it) are conventionally staged. She has turned the tables on her rapist – he is undone by her desire for sex. This is all about role play.  When Michèle finally decides to cut the cord on all the loose ends in her life it brings everything to a satisfying conclusion as she regains her balance – her role as CEO assists her manage her own narrative minus any generic tropes. Now that’s clever. Oh! The audacity! What a great film for women in a very contemporary take on noir and the notion of the femme fatale. Big wow.  I killed you by coming here.

The Leisure Seeker (2017)

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It’s just something I really need to do with your father.  Retired English teacher John Spencer (Donald Sutherland) and wife Ella (Helen Mirren) take off in their RV without telling anyone in order to escape a probable nursing home (him, with Alzheimer’s) and a punishing chemo regime (her, for cancer). They abandon grown up son Will (Christian McKay) who cares for them each day, despite knowing it’s his sister Jane (Janel Moloney) who’s the favoured offspring and college professor a comfortable couple of hours away. The siblings are up the walls about the disappearance. Even neighbour Lillian (Dana Ivey) is out of the loop. The couple negotiate the Seventies vehicle down the east coast via camp sites, diners, the world’s slowest police chase, historical re-enactments, a stint in a home and occasional beaches, to their eventual destination, the home of John’s hero, Ernest Hemingway, in Key West.  En route their journey has revelations, massive doses of forgetfulness, a holdup, a posh hotel, a terrible (unconscious) admission, illness and phonecalls home… Michael Zadoorian’s novel is adapted by Italian director Paolo Virzi, making his English language feature debut, with Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi and Francesco Piccolo, and it bears up considerably better than you might think. This isn’t just down to the playing of the leads, who are brilliant, although Mirren’s Savannah accent slips a lot.  There are lovely moments particularly when Sutherland is regaling waitresses with lines from his favourite books and when one confesses she’s done her thesis on it he’s in hog heaven. Ella prefers the movie adaptations. They are a joy to watch, sparking off one another and falling into old habits and new ideas.  Their life together is recalled in tranquil bouts of watching slides on a sheet outside the RV at night when they’re camping. Their days are about coping and how exhausting it is to be a carer and to be ill but also how genuinely in love they have been and how that materialises in their concern for one another. Sutherland’s recurring obsession with Mirren’s first boyfriend from fifty years earlier has a funny payoff.  How she deals with his husbandly failing is hilarious.  His physical response to one medication is … unexpected! But its success is also to do with the deep understanding of Alzheimer’s which causes bouts of memory loss and bullying all too familiar to anyone with a relative suffering its predations – I laughed aloud with recognition far too many times.  While this is concerned with ageing in a semi-comic context it’s a very pointed narrative about the ways in which older people are made feel lousy about their right to exist, how they are treated when they are beginning to become infirm and the radical element here is how one couple choose how to live and exit gracefully when they take the opportunity (even if one of them doesn’t really know what in hell is going on). Immensely enjoyable.

 

The Snowman (2017)

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You could save them you know… gave you all the clues and everything.  Norwegian detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is back from a week on a bender and he is looking for a woman who has disappeared after her scarf is found on a snowman.  He is accompanied by newly drafted detective Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) who unbeknownst to him has a mission to find out who her father is. Meanwhile, as a serial killer dismembers women who have an abortion and fertility clinic in common, Harry has to deal with his responsibilities to his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her teenage son Oleg while her boyfriend Mathias (Jonas Karlsson) appears to broker a peace between them … Jø Nesbo’s beloved Harry Hole novel (the first of a projected series – nope, I don’t think so!) was adapted by Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan and Søren Sveistrup and directed by Tomas Alfredson and boy is it an unholy mess – apparently they just cobbled it together as they went, production schedules being unstoppable once the money starts to flow.  Fassbender is passable as the drunken cop but gifted he ain’t and things are just daft in the improbable office with Ferguson on her own bizarre mission. The story is illogical which doesn’t work when you’re doing a police procedural. Some of the shot choices and edits are laugh-out-loud bad due to the lateral implications.  In fact it starts with a flashback that in terms of the story construction is clearly supposed to suggest that Harry is the killer. Without that intro the text is even more nonsensical. A film that is not just stupid and wretched it is totally dense and tasteless – frankly this is a narrative about fatherless bastards and their supposedly whoring mothers and the dismemberment the women have coming to them for their sins.  Somebody should remind filmmakers to actually think about their subject matter before they lose the run of themselves and it all goes to hell in a handcart. I started to giggle every time I saw a snowman no matter what the killer did – I didn’t care.  This is quite literally misconceived. Mad, bad and dreadful. Oh joy!