American Woman (2018)

American Woman

We’re supposed to just sit here and wait. In a small blue-collar town in Rust Belt Pennsylvania, a 32-year-old single woman Debra Callahan’s (Sienna Miller) teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes missing. Left to raise her infant grandson Jesse (Aidan McGraw/Aidan Fiske) alone, she desperately seeks the answers behind her daughter’s disappearance while her sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) and mother Peggy (Amy Madigan) lend their support but Police Detective Sergeant Morris (E. Roger Mitchell) has no leads. After years of re-training at college and abandoning her habit of sleeping with married men, indulging a horrific coercive relationship and living from hand to mouth waiting tables, she has a job in administration and a prospective younger husband Chris (Aaron Paul) whom she marries after a couple of months but eventually life comes crashing down again …You think you’re special. More than anything else, this tale of working class people concerns the pain and difficulty of single motherhood (like mother, like daughter, both teen moms) which creates a cycle of poverty, low paid work and promiscuity. The story of generational mistakes is a somewhat run of the mill and depressing exercise, not caring to particularise the different phases of femininity save in its biological underpinnings which is after all a zero-sum game:  no matter what you do, you’re wrong and you’re trapped. Melodrama is substituted for mystery and Bridget’s disappearance is all but forgotten while life is dramatised as a series of betrayals. It finally obtains a power and focus in the closing sequences when Debra achieves a meeting with her daughter’s (inevitable) killer in prison: we just see the reflection of his face on hers, before they have an unheard conversation that leads Debra to Bridget’s final resting place, buried with his other victims. She is just a number in the earth now. Ironically, Debra now looks younger than she did eleven years earlier because is no longer the trashy tramp she essayed to survive:  with an answer to what happened she has a kind of equilibrium, at last. Very well performed by a great cast – how good is it see Amy Madigan even in a small role. Miller is superb, encompassing her character’s stop-start odyssey of rage in the smallest of gestures. Written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Jake Scott. This is it Mom. The moment you’ve been waiting for for forty years

Lost (1956)

Lost film

Aka Tears for Simon. I didn’t neglect my baby. U.S. Embassy employee Lee Cochrane (David Knight) and his wife Sue (Julia Arnall), receive a shock when they discover that their 18-month-old son, Simon, has disappeared in London from Kensington Gardens. He was last seen with their nanny, and the couple seemingly have no leads that might help police Detective Inspector Craig (David Farrar) in his investigation but the pages of a popular novel might provide a useful lead that involves several staff members to look for a clue. The media sensationalises the incident, causing an unnecessary distraction as the couple prepares to confront the culprit face-to-face when they get a series of phonecalls despite warnings not to give a ransom as time is running out … Can a career woman be a mother as well? That’s the tabloid headline screaming from a newspaper article that Sue agrees to be interviewed for in order to secure publicity for her missing son – and that’s what a woman journalist writes about her. The screenplay by the estimable Janet Green never ignores the gender-baiting of the era in this punchy thriller which allows ample time for Sue to shed tears and do anything she can to save her child while she loses it psychologically too. Farrar is his usual tough and brusque character but there are some good jibes about his bachelorhood in an office boasting a female Sergeant (Meredith Edwards). Everley Gregg (a favourite actress of Noël Coward) has a great bit as a Lady who likes cars; while Thora Hird, Mona Washbourne, Joan Sims, Joan Hickson, Barbara Windsor and Shirley Anne Field all make appearances. The parallel investigation narratives – by the police and the parents – are well intertwined and converge in literally a cliff-hanging ending. Shot by Harry Waxman, edited by Anne V. Coates and directed by Guy Green. You have a genius for the obvious

November Criminals (2017)

November Criminals

I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at pretending to be okay. High school student Addison Schach (Ansel Elgort) is the only guy in class trusted by his friend Phoebe Zeleny (Chloë Grace Moretz) to take her virginity before they leave high school. While they’re engaging in sex for the first time classmate Kevin Broadus (Jared Kemp) is shot dead in the bakery where they’ve just left him.  Addison is still dealing with the trauma of his mother’s sudden death six months earlier but his father Theo (David Strathairn) doesn’t grasp the extent of his emotional problems. When the police treat the boy’s death as part of gang activity Addison can’t accept it and undertakes his own investigation with Phoebe reluctantly tagging along, knowing that her well-connected mother Fiona (Catherine Keener) is already wary of the association with Addison. They soon discover that there is more to the case than meets the eye…  I don’t want you to get involved with something that will most definitely hurt you. Adapted by Steven Knight and director Sacha Gervasi from the novel by Sam Munson this is a strangely restrained piece of work, clearly bursting with a fast-extinguished passion that doesn’t actually go anywhere, rather like the thwarted protagonist. Elgort and Moretz are sympathetic and engaging (and were previously paired in the remake of Carrie) but are not given enough with the script which already has a short running time at 85 minutes. It’s a combination of family drama and crime thriller but its generic ambitions don’t fully mesh in a story which is essentially about a naive approach to bereavement:  this boy is no private eye. There are nice scenes with the respective parents, Strathairn and Keener, and the lo-fi approach to technology (pagers, colour VHS recording) makes a nice alternative to the social media used in most contemporary teen movies, but it’s an unfulfilled premise. That’s how life is: it provides these accidental answers. Or it seems to. You have to judge by results

Laura (1944)

Laura

I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom. Manhattan Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder by shotgun blast to the face of beautiful Madison Avenue advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) in her fashionable apartment. On the trail of her murderer, McPherson quizzes Laura’s arrogant best friend, acerbic gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) who mentored the quick, ambitious study; and her comparatively mild but slimy fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), the kept man of her chilly society hostess aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). As McPherson grows obsessed with the case, he finds himself falling in love with the dead woman, just like every other man who ever met her when suddenly, she reappears, and he finds himself investigating a very different kind of murder... I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes.  A rough around the edges cop falls in love with a dead woman who isn’t dead at all. What a premise! Vera Caspary’s novel (initially a play called Ring Twice for Laura) is the framework for one of the great Hollywood productions that started out under director Rouben Mamoulian who was fired and replaced by the producer, Otto Preminger. The screenplay is credited to Jay Dratler and Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt while Ring Lardner Jr. made uncredited contributions. I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor’s children devoured by wolves. The haunting musical theme complements the throbbing sexual obsession that drives the narrative, a study of mistaken identity on every level with a sort of necrophiliac undertaste. It’s a great showcase for the principals – Webb as the magnificently scathing epicene Lydecker (a part greatly expanded from the source material);  Tierney in the role that would become her trademark, a woman who couldn’t possibly live up to her reputation;  and Andrews, who would collaborate many times with his director as the schlub who refers to women as ‘dames’.  Few films boast this kind of dialogue, and so much of it: I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm. So many scenes stand out – not least McPherson’s first encounter with Lydecker, resplendent in his bathtub, typing out his latest delicious takedown; and, when McPherson wakes up to find Laura’s portrait has come to life, as in a dream. In case you’re wondering, in a film that should have a warning about exchanges as sharp as carving knives, this is where Inspector Clouseau got his most famous line: I suspect nobody and everybody. The portrait at the centre of the story is an enlarged photo of Tierney enhanced by oils; while the theme by David Raksin (composed over a weekend with the threat of being fired by Twentieth Century Fox otherwise) quickly became a standard and with lyrics by Johnny Mercer a hit song by everyone who recorded it. The cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is good enough to eat. A film for the ages that seethes with sexuality of all kinds. Simply sublime. You’d better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll finish up in a psychiatric ward. I doubt they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse

Down Three Dark Streets (1954)

Down Three Dark Streets

I kept asking myself, all night long, who would want to such a thing? FBI agent John Ripley (Broderick Crawford) inherits three cases his murdered partner Zack Stewart (Kenneth Tobey) has been investigating, hoping one of them will turn up his killer. Glamourpuss Connie Anderson (Martha Hyer) can be connected to gas station killer Joe Walpo (Joe Bassett). Fashion buyer Kate Martell (Ruth Roman) is getting phonecalls extorting insurance money that she received following her husband’s death and her young daughter is being threatened.When boxer Matty Pavelich (Claude Akins) beats up blind Julie Angelino (Marisa Pavan) her husband Vince (Gene Reynolds) agrees to testify, so another case is tied up … I don’t like men staring at me before lunch. Adapted by The Gordons (Mildred and Gordon) from their novel Case File FBI, this serves as something of a Valentine to that agency although J. Edgar Hoover reputedly objected to the early draft scripts. It’s enlivened by the shift between documentary-style realism, great location shooting and a conventional thriller mode boasting some terrific female performances, particularly Hyer (once touted as the new Grace Kelly) giving it the full Marilyn Monroe as the sexpot link to a mysterious criminal. Roman is her customarily intense self with a problematic household, an aggressive romantic interest (Max Showalter) and a job as a fashion buyer to contend with; while Crawford’s gruff persona suits the no-nonsense lead role. There is some especially piquant dialogue and a gloriously funny moment when an inventor tries to sell him on a Geiger counter for spies (it has a light that comes on when a taxman is in the vicinity). The stories are well put together and it ends (happily, for the viewer at least) at the Hollywood sign in a Los Angeles that is still notably rural, with the freeway almost empty of the traffic to come. Directed by Arnold Laven. Sometimes you meet some nice people in this business

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

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Play something else. Bored Boston millionaire Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) devises and executes a brilliant scheme to rob a bank on a sunny summer’s afternoon without having to do any of the work himself. He rolls up in his Rolls Royce and collects the takings from a trash can without ever meeting the four men he hired to pull it off. When the police get nowhere fast, American abroad Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), an investigator hired by the bank’s insurance company, takes an interest in Crown and the two begin a complicated cat-and-mouse game with a romantic undertone although Vicki is also assisting police with their enquiries via Detective Eddy Malone (Paul Burke) who stops short of calling her a prostitute due to her exceedingly unorthodox working methods. Suspicious of Anderson’s agenda, Crown devises another robbery like his first, wondering if he can get away with the same crime twice while Vicki is conflicted by her feelings and Tommy considers giving himself up I’m running a sex orgy for a couple of freaks on Government funds. Dune buggies. Gliders. Polo ponies. Aran sweaters. The sexiest chess game in cinema. Those lips! Those eyes! Those fingers! Has castling ever seemed so raunchy?! Super slick, witty, rather wistful and absurdly beautiful, this classic caper is the epitome of Sixties cool, self-consciously clever, teeming with split-screen imagery, bursting with erotic ideas and boasting a brilliant if enigmatic theme song Windmills of Your Mind composed by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman. The breeziest, flightiest concoction this side of a recipe for soufflé, it benefits from both protagonists’ identity crisis where everything comes easily to Tommy and life is a game, and yet, and yet … while Vicki is genuinely hurt when Detective Malone hands her a file on Tommy’s nightlife affairs with another woman. Written by Alan Trustman, also responsible for Bullitt. The production is designed by Robert Boyle, shot by Haskell Wexler and directed by Norman Jewison while the editing is led by future director Hal Ashby.  This is deliriously entertaining.  And did Persol shades ever look as amazing? It’s not the money, it’s me and the system

Knives Out (2019)

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I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects.  When crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies just after his 85th birthday, inquisitive Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives at his estate to investigate despite the presence of police officers (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan). He sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind the writer’s untimely demise as each of the family members and the immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who cared for Harlan is questioned in turn. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a successful businesswoman with a an unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson) and a layabout son Ransom (Chris Evans). Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing company his father founded for his writing output, but they’ve been fighting. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is an advocate of self-help and has been helping herself to the old man’s money. His ancient mother (K Callan) never seems to die. Harlan’s devoted nurse Marta then becomes Harlan’s most trusted confidante but who hired him in the first place? … This is a twisted web, and we are not finished untangling it, not yet. The closed-room murder mystery is a staple of crime fiction and it’s not necessarily where you’d expect writer/director Rian Johnson to turn after a Star Wars episode (The Last Jedi) although it harks back to his debut, Brick, a take on Chandler/Hammett with teenagers. The touchstones are pretty clear:  Agatha Christie; the game (and film) of Clue(do); Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark; and some of the grasping familial mendacity we recognise from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If truth be told, it’s not very mysterious and barely suspenseful with two big twists a regular filmgoer or mystery reader will see through easily which means that they of course are not the point. It’s the dismantling of those hoary old tropes that provides the narrative motor. Much of the entertainment value derives from game comic playing by an established cast with a soupçon of political commentary provided by the nurse’s immigrant status which leads to a good line featuring Broadway hit Hamilton and everyone gets her native country wrong, one of the running jokes. Another is her need to vomit when telling a lie. The other one is stretching out the syllables in Benoit’s name so it sounds like Ben wa although personally I find Craig more prophylactic than sex toy and his ‘tec is Poirot X Columbo with an affected drawl. It looks quite sober and already feels like Sunday evening TV. For the undemanding viewer. CSI KFC!

Holmes & Watson (2018)

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He and I co-detectives? Not I. Not here. Not even in my rapturous moments of private fantasy! Renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) join forces to investigate a mysterious murder threat upon Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) at Buckingham Palace. It seems like an open-and-shut case as all signs point to Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), the criminal mastermind and longtime nemesis of the crime-solving duo. Both men are diverted by American women – Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her companion Millicent (Lauren Lapkus) whom she insists is her electric shock treatment subject, a woman reared by feral cats. When new twists and clues begin to emerge, the sleuth and his assistant must use their legendary wits and ingenious methods to catch the killer who may have been hiding in plain sight very close to home I have the oddest feeling. Like knowing, but the opposite. Blending the steampunk approach of the Robert Downey films and the flash-forward visual detection of Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV Sherlock, this also has anachronistic shtick (Titanic in the life of Queen Vic, anyone?) and a cheeky reference to one of the more arcane Holmes incarnations in the casting of Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – TV’s House, geddit?! (That’s a scene that doesn’t work, sadly). Some of the best sequences and laughs are with Hall and Lapkus, between the misogyny and the bits about nineteenth century medical treatments, with some genuinely amusing romantic farce and bromantic jokes.  This is beautifully shot by Oliver Wood, exquisitely designed by James Hambidge and costumed by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Naturally it’s only a matter of time until someone says No shit Sherlock and it’s from the mouths of Dickensian runts straight out of Oliver!  There’s a funny passing song that occasions a joke about musicals when the film finally lets rip à la The Muppets giving it more promise than it delivers and there are some highly contemporary visual and political references. So there’s wit and invention aplenty but it’s not quite clever enough all the time. Rather like Holmes. Minus the innuendo and lewdness this could have been a marvellous comic outing for children, agreeably silly with some easy but amusing targets but you know, these guys, they just can’t help themselves, with Ferrell doing too much of what he likes as the ultimate defective detective and Reilly as his hapless foil, a Johnson in more ways than one (until the roles get switched, which happens constantly and is confusing). The ladies are fantastic and Fiennes brings that immaculate class as is his wont and manages to be the only one who doesn’t actually twirl that comedy moustache; while Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald and Steve Coogan (as a one-armed tattooist) get their moments of infamy. Written and directed by Etan Coen. No, not that Coen, obvs. Terrible and clueless but not totally awful. Go figure.  A sniff of morning cocaine always helps the brain

Happy 89th Birthday Clint Eastwood 31st May 2019!

The guy in the lab. Rowdy Yates. The Man With No Name. Dirty Harry Callahan. Clyde’s friend. The musician, composer, actor, producer and director and Hollywood superstar Clint Eastwood turns 89 today. Entering his eighth decade in the industry where he paid his dues in uncredited roles in movies and bit parts before regular work on TV and the spaghetti genre made him a worldwide figure, this year’s The Mule (practically a musical!) proves he’s still got the chops and the pull to make box office gold with something to say about the way we live now. Widely recognised as an icon of American masculinity, he found his particular space with the assistance of Don Siegel but exploited his personal brand in cycles of police procedurals, comedic takes on folklore and the country and western sub-genre as well as tough westerns. Unforgiven marked his coming of age as a great director, an instant classic and a tour de force of filmmaking. While some might think he has feminist sympathies he has rarely risked acting opposite a true female acting equal – a quarter of a century separated him from Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara and Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County. It took another decade for him to make the stunningly emotive Million Dollar Baby with Hilary Swank, which marked a different kind of turning point:  he has transformed his cinematic affect from what David Thomson calls his brutalised loner to bruised neurotic nonagenarian in one of the most spectacular careers in cinema. Many happy returns, Clint!

Lured (1947)

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Would it be against Anglo-American tradition to tell a girl when the next audition is?Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball) is a London-based dancer who is distraught to learn that her friend Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) from the nightclub where she’s working has disappeared. She’s approached by Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), a Scotland Yard investigator who believes her friend has been murdered by a serial killer who uses personal ads to find his victims. The lure is poetry along the lines of Charles Baudelaire. Temple hatches a plan to catch the killer using Sandra as bait, and Sandra agrees to help. But complications arise when the mystery appears to be solved and Sandra becomes engaged to a nightclub owner and man about town Robert Fleming (George Sanders) with whom she’s already become acquainted and who shares his home with his business and legal partner Julian Wilde (Sir Cedric Harwicke) …  I’m not interested in references as much as character/I can see that for myself. Director Douglas Sirk commands this gamy mystery with verve, making a total entertainment from Leo Rosten’s screenplay, peopled with performers right in their characterful element delivering edgy lines with great wit. From the opening titles – a torch shining on the names – the mystery is driven with pace and style with running jokes (including a crossword filled in by H.R. Barrett, played by George Zucco) and enormous style.  Boris Karloff has a great supporting role as a formerly successful fashion designer living in a fantasy world while Sanders is suave as you like and Ball is … ballsy! Annette Warren, who dubs blonde club singer Ethelreda Leopold here, would also provides Ball’s singing voice in Fancy Pants and Sorrowful Jones. Gorgeously shot by Billy Daniels, this is a remake of a 1939 French film (Pieges) directed by Robert Siodmak. She’s won her spurs, she deserves to be happy