Miss Bala (2019)

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They’re all dirty. And they’re coming after me. Los Angeles makeup artist and Mexican emigrée Gloria Fuentes (Gina Rodriguez) asks the police for help when cartel hit men kidnap her friend Suzu Ramos (Cristina Rodio) from a nightclub in Tijuana, Mexico. She soon finds herself in big trouble when a corrupt cop hands her over to the same goons who shot up the place in an attempted hit on Police Chief Saucedo (Damian Alcazar). Gang leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) decides to use Gloria for his dirty work to avoid detection from the Drug Enforcement Administration one of whom Brian Reich (Matt Lauria) puts a tracking device on her to entrap the gang who get her to transport drugs across the border to San Diego where she’s met by gangster Jimmy (Anthony Mackie) who is actually an undercover CIA agent. Determined to get away, Gloria must now play a dangerous game to outwit not only the cartel but the DEA agents who now suspect her of complicity and she winds up finding out the hard way that she’s been sold out – in the middle of a shootout – and has to choose sides …  You thought I was a bad guy?  I’m just playing their game. This action thriller remake of a 2011 Spanish-language film from director Catherine Hardwicke has everything going for it except characterisation:  sometime, someone, somewhere will remember that character is also action, it’s not enough in the #MeToo era to just put a woman in the protagonist’s role and have her run from bullets (and that’s what ‘bala’ means, not that you’d know it) and sell it as a female-oriented film. And, in yet another ad for Mexico’s tourism industry – drugs, guns, cross-border crime, female intimidation, endless non-stop murders – the best thing you could possibly do on that front is to keep well away. And what on earth has that poster got to do with anything? Oh, when the plot finally kicks in after 70 minutes our heroine has to take part in a beauty pageant (Miss Baja) which leads to a rather good twist ending but it’s all too little, rather late. There is some interesting architecture however. Yawn. Written by Garrett Dunnet-Alcocer. Everyone works for us now. Play your part

The Witches (1990)

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You can never be sure if it’s a witch you’re looking at or a kind lady. Little American boy Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is holidaying with his Norwegian grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) who regales him with stories of witches, female demons masquerading as normal women but possessing undending hatred of children.  Helga’s best friend in childhood was entrapped by one of them in a painting and eventually faded from view. When Luke’s parents die his grandmother becomes his guardian and sends him to boarding school where he evades the attention of one such witch (Anne Lambton) and during the holidays at a seaside resort Luke become aware that witches are holding their annual British convention as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston).  When he and another boy Bruno (Charlie Potter) are in their midst they encounter a life-changing transformation into mice and have to avoid all sorts of predators as they try to escape to safety experiencing an actual cat and mouse chase … Real witches hate children! Adapted by Allan Scott from Roald Dahl’s darkly comic book, the biggest surprise to fans of Nicolas Roeg is that he directed it (perhaps not when you consider he had young sons at the time) but it has some of his recognisable tropes as well as a crew of his regular collaborators, including Scott, costumier Marit Allen and editor Tony Lawson in a production from Henson Studios with all that firm’s puppeteering and effects skills to the fore. The trick of balancing realism with fantasy, humour with horror, and scares for children (Roeg edited out more morbid material after seeing one of his children’s reactions) with jokes for adults, is perfectly achieved in this ambitious comic drama with Huston camping it up appositely to Zetterling’s caring grandmother. How is the room service here?/Diabolical./ Good! A third of the film is the adventure the boys have as mice, attempting to avoid becoming part of the hotel’s dinner menu, and there’s a marvellous payoff with formerly fat Bruno achieving his mother’s (Brenda Blethyn) ambition that he lose weight. The (happy) ending is different from that in the book and Dahl hated it and threatened to publicly campaign against it (Jim Henson dissuaded him) but overall it retains his casual cruelty and wit. Stanley Myers’ score is amped up with excerpts from Dies irae here and there to sound like Berlioz’ The Witches’ Sabbath. Shot in Bergen, Newquay and at Bray Studios, this was the last feature to involve the great Henson and the final one of Dahl’s books to be adapted prior to his own demise. A foolish witch without a brain, must sizzle into fire and flame! A witch who dares to say I’m wrong, will not be with us… VERY LONG!

 

 

The Company You Keep (2012)

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We all died. Some of us came back. Decades after an ill-fated robbery in which an innocent man was killed, a former member of the Weather Underground Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is on her way to turn herself in to authorities when the FBI arrest her at a gas station after her phone is tapped. While covering the story and digging around, reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) discovers that recently widowed human rights lawyer Jim Grant (Robert Redford) was also a member of that particular group and is really a man called Nick Sloan since the real Jim Grant died in 1979. Sloan slips by the FBI led by Cornelius (Terrence Howard) who are following him when he goes on the run, from Albany through the Midwest and beyond, hoping to track down his former lover, Mimi (Julie Christie), who’s still underground and fighting for the cause. He leaves his young daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho) with his doctor brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) and his wife. Meanwhile, Ben encounters a police officer Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson) who knew Nick back in the day and meets his his adult daughter Rebecca (Britt Marling) who is a lot older than she initially seems and Ben figures she is somehow connected to Mimi and Nick ... Everybody knew somebody who was going over or somebody who wasn’t coming back.  Adapted by Lem Dobbs from the titular 2003 novel by Neil Gordon, Robert Redford directed and produced this film which of course nods to that period in his own life when he was politically attuned and making films which spoke to the zeitgeist. Partly it’s about the state of journalism and Ben’s role of the ambitious journo who isn’t looking beyond the headlines, as Nick/Jim declares to him, Well that pretty much sums up why journalism is dead. It’s a pivotal statement because this is all about ethics – Sharon’s self-justifying, his hiding away, the times in which people live and endure their families being destroyed by violence, homegrown or otherwise (and millennial corruption is everywhere evident as Ben gets information with the passing of greenbacks to everyone he encounters). LaBeouf is good as the questing young writer – and looking at his screen career perhaps it’s the company he keeps that improves his impact because he’s surrounded by a great ensemble doing very fine work, including Nick Nolte who shows up as another member of the group. This is a serious work about a complex time which clarifies why historical crimes demand more than cursory payback and jail time. It’s well-paced, a drama of conscience, guilt and retribution. Now that’s context. They did unforgivable things but you’ve got to admire the commitment.

 

 

Battle of the Bulge (1965)

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I did not lose a war to die in the back seat of a car. At the end of 1944 American Lt. Col. Dan Kiley (Henry Fonda), a military intelligence whiz and former police officer, discovers that the Nazis are planning to attack Allied forces near Belgium. Certain that the exhausted enemy can’t muster much force, General Joe Grey (Robert Ryan) isn’t convinced by Kiley’s findings, and his men pay the price when the German tanks begin their offensive in the Ardennes. In the heat of this key World War II battle, Kiley must come up with a plan when it becomes clear that the Nazis are trying to steal fuel from the Allies, there are Germans disguised as American MPs diverting traffic from the new Western Front and an ambitious German Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw) who intends keeping the war going as long as possible no matter how many are sacrificed as he leads the Panzer spearhead of the German counterattack … Having been an inspector of police does not disqualify me from thinking. Written by (formerly blacklisted) Bernard Gordon, producer Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (with contributions by John Melson), this is proper WW2 entertainment about a huge episode that involved a million men and which I once had the temerity to describe to someone as an instance of poor project management on the part of Hitler and his cronies. I love me a good war movie, better still if there are tanks (my dream vehicle, particularly the camo models in Desert Storm. So sue me!) so this is perfect Easter (or Passover!) holiday fare. Criticised for not being 100% accurate and its Spanish locations being a poor imitation of the Ardennes setting, this has a lot going for it, not least the staging and the tremendous cast. There is detail by the yard – and the weather reports are crucial. The way that the strategy and tactics are exposed is a triumph of film storytelling. Shaw is sizzling as one of the nastiest Nazis outside the Bulgarian Waffen SS and it’s a star-making role. Fonda’s doggedness is wonderfully sympathetic, especially when you have the feeling (because you’ve seen him in other movies) that he’s probably right about everything and his bozo superiors find out, soon enough. It’s the perceptive structuring of the narrative from both perspectives that makes this tick along quickly. While not setting out to be a satire (hardly, although WW2 vet Sperling was no fan of warfare) the dialogue is sparkling with zingers – aphoristic and otherwise, particularly punctuating Shaw’s scenes – and there’s one out-and-out comic scene (played straight) when Savalas returns to his business to check how things are doing. Pier Angeli pleads for some promise of marriage because this is what she understands by the term ‘business partnership’ and wants a sign. But he’s rushing back to the front so he just tells her to keep feeding the chickens (they’re looking scrawny). This amusing character sidebar is one part of a dedicated soldier and Savalas plays it to the hilt. There’s a mass execution which won’t surprise you – but someone gets away and the payoff is very satisfying indeed. There are some good map room scenes; a really funny one-word message from US Command to German Command; and a breathtaking POV section with Fonda gliding down in silence over the attack position of the German tanks on the other side of the river:  just listen to the score. Such inventive work by Benjamin Frankel. The final sequence of tank battle is suitably fiery and an injured and vengeful Savalas joins forces with James MacArthur at the fuel depot where they get to blow up more than just the gas supply. Beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard in 70mm and a fine job of direction by Ken Annakin with not a moment to spare in its 163 minutes. Never mind what Ike said – this is simply sensational. When I have a brigade of tanks – that is reality!

The Train (1965)

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He won’t leave the train. I’m beginning to know him. In August 1944 art connoisseur German Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is planning to take the great art works from the Jeu de Paume gallery under the curatorship of Rose Vallard (Suzanne Flon) out of Paris before it’s liberated. She approaches officials at the SNCF to stop the train crossing out of France and into Germany with some of the greatest paintings ever produced. Labiche (Burt Lancaster) and his Resistance colleagues (Michel Simon, Albert Rémy, Charles Millot, Jacques Marin) do everything possible to keep train no. 40,0444 running late, diverting it through disguised stations and interfering with the tracks but the Allies have a new plan … Keep your eyes open. Your horizon’s about to be broadened. Decades before Monuments Men came this gripping actioner, directed by francophile thriller maestro John Frankenheimer. Scofield and Lancaster are mesmerising as the men who are protagonist/antagonist to each other, with their unreeling taking very different forms. In this scenario adapted by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis and the blacklisted Walter Bernstein from Rose Vallard’s Le Front de l’art, the political just got personal. There’s a deal of portentous and pretentious verbalising about art and its meaning to the nation, but at base this is a great cat and mouse chase and you’ll learn more than you ever knew was possible about rail yards, tracks, lines and switches. Moreau has a nice two-sequence arc as a hotelier who helps out while there are really fantastic smaller roles for a marvellous lineup that includes Franco-Irish actor Donal O’Brien (as Sergeant Schwartz) who would appear the following year for Frankenheimer in Grand Prix and then enjoy a career in Italian spaghetti westerns, horrors and giallos.  Maurice Jarre’s score is intense. And the ending? Straight out of Sartre. Parfait. No one’s ever hurt. Just dead

American Animals (2018)

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You’re taught your entire life that what you do matters and that you’re special. In 2003 Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) are four friends who live an ordinary existence in Kentucky. Spencer is a budding artist and following his visit to the Special Collections room at Transylvania University in Lexington, he informs Lipka of the contents. Lipka comes up with the idea to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the school’s library:  it involves tying up the librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) and making off with the Audubon book, Birds of America, the most valuable one there. They lose their nerve at the first attempt which they prepare for by dressing up as old men. They plot a different approach for the second attempt. As one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history starts to unfold, the men question whether their attempts to inject excitement and purpose into their lives are simply misguided attempts at achieving the American dream and Spencer gave an auction house in NYC his real-life cell phone number with his dumb message on it … How can I tell you if I’m in or I’m out without telling me the first thing about what I might be in or out of.  Writer/director Bart Layton takes a true crime and spins it into something stylish but problematic, a treatise on all-American stupidity. Interviews with the real-life perpetrators, rather humbled after the fact, are interspersed with the narrative drama, which gives it a melancholy quality but the consequent issues in pacing don’t always lead to a pleasing viewing experience. It’s not set up correctly, working against any possibility of suspense. The second attempt at the heist is permitted to progress unimpeded by anything other than the protagonists’ staggering ineptitude. The outcome is inevitable and famous. The film does however blend fact and fiction and the interviews form a kind of Greek chorus, baiting us with the various points of view, Rashomon-like, and at one point even inserts Spencer into the action, albeit briefly. And it does boast Udo Kier in the cast. One day you’ll die

 

Toni Erdmann (2016)

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You have to do this or that, but meanwhile life is just passing by.  Corporate strategist Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) is busy at her job in Bucharest and reluctantly has to spend time with her estranged father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher divorced from her mother, who apparently returns to Germany but instead adopts an outrageous disguise and poses as her CEO’s life coach, Toni Erdmann …  How are you supposed to hang on to moments? A rip-roaring German comedy? Surely you jest! In a way. This comedy drama slayed all comers a couple of years back and despite overlength (you wonder at times what Billy Wilder would have done with his rapier wit, wisdom and speed with such material) this hits so many truths with such mortifying behaviour and courage that you forgive writer/director Maren Ade’s liberties and go with the mad dad – as, eventually, Ines decides to do. This after all is a guy who didn’t even tell her his beloved dog died – and we find out about it when he lies on the dog’s bed in the garden. He gatecrashes her business functions and regales assorted bigwigs with tall and taller tales in a toupee and false teeth. When she lets go of her own inhibitions (not too many of them, to be fair, as the sex and drugs scenes prove) and goes with her father’s adopted persona, unleashing the beast within, you’d cheer if it wasn’t all done in such a low key, realistic fashion. Truly the difference between business and personal in this mansplaining environment is don’t show, don’t tell the truth. The naked team building scene is jaw dropping. And the performance of a Whitney Schnuck (sorry, Houston) favourite is a high point. For some. Intriguing stuff, with an undertow of loneliness rarely explored in cinema and so relatable to anyone who’s ever been embarrassed by their parents.   I don’t want to lose my bite

Up With the Lark (1943)

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Don’t be so effeminate. Call me Bill.  Ethel (Ethel Revnell) and Gracie (Gracie West) lose their jobs as telephone operators when the hotel where they work is burgled. They are persuaded by the police to pose as Land Girls in the countryside where the gang of black marketeers is headquartered… This is no ordinary gaol. We take pride in making people feel at home. In which the radio comedy stars play intrepid dimwits caught up in something bigger than they are and inadvertently help catch criminals.  A true relic of its time, this B flick is done on the cheap with some very strange performances albeit Ivor Barnard’s multiple roles should be seen. Directed by Phil Brandon from a story by Val Valentine and a screenplay by James Seymour. If you can’t go cuckoo go cock-a-doodle-doo!

Pancho Villa (1972)

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He doesn’t need a doctor, he needs a change of underwear. Trigger-happy Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (Telly Savalas) is on his way to his own execution when his men rescue him. He attempts to kill bitter nemesis General Goyo (Antonio Casas) and overthrow Mexico’s government. The violent endeavour brings Villa north to Columbus in New Mexico, where he battles a group of determined American soldiers led by the no-nonsense Colonel Wilcox (Chuck Connors), and endures unanticipated mishaps and bad fortune, including a double-cross by his friend and partner Scotty (Clint Walker) when they attempt retaliation in a raid… He’s got nerves of iron and rocks in his head. History through the lens of spaghetti! This comical approach to biography is an entertaining mix of action, violence, broad humour and not a little camp – that’s right because Savalas treats us to his rumbling vocal stylings on Don Black’s song in the closing credits. In between there are pitiful villagers, an episode about a fly in the army’s soup and a bit of impersonation, amid a soundtrack full of the bells and whistles of high comedy. Connors has a ball as the straight arrow colonel and Savalas just lets rip. You’ll crack up when the lizard pops out from his clothing after the doctor scratches his head wondering why Pancho’s got two heartbeats. Anne Francis has fun as the gutsy woman in his life. This is practically a mockumentary:  all history lessons should be this fast and funny, genocidal mania aside. Directed by Eugenio Martin from a screenplay by Julian Zimet. Every great man was once a bandit

 

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

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Oh, come on. If I’ve got to watch my language just because they let a few broads in, I’m going to quit. How the hell can you run a goddamn railroad without swearing?  In New York City, a criminal gang disguised as Groucho Marx and led by the ruthless Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), all boarding the NYC subway at different stations, hijacks a subway car and threatens to start shooting one passenger per minute unless they receive a million dollars in cash from the city within an hour.  They separate the front car from the remainder of the train. On the other end of the line, crusty veteran transit policeman Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) has his hands full dealing with the mayor’s office and his hotheaded fellow cops, while also trying to deliver the ransom before the deadline expires and they start killing the 18 hostages … Look, I got my rights! This is my home! I just want a little peace and quiet. Now, just do me a favor, willya? Get the hell out of here!  Adapted by Peter Stone from the novel by John Godey (aka Morton Freedgood), this is one of the most sensational thrillers from the Seventies. Stone fillets and fries the story so that we have the bare bones, a race against time, two blistering characters in the shape of Mr Blue and Zachary, plus a cross-section of that fabled city’s great and good heightening the drama. With Martin Balsam as Green, Hector Elizondo as Grey and Earl Hindman as Brown, the fast-moving stage is set for internecine trouble. James Broderick as the conductor lends his customary gravitas while under pressure. Brilliantly written by Stone who was in his element here in the realm of identity, an ongoing theme throughout his oeuvre (he liked a pseudonym or three himself.) The action is perfectly paced and this literally doesn’t let up until the chaotic crew runs out of track. Screw the goddamn bastards. What do they expect for their thirty-five cents, to live forever? Made entirely without the assistance of the NYC Transit Authority and directed by Joseph Sargent with superlative photography by the great Owen Roizman and a stonking score by David Shire. Matthau is fantastic and his hangdog look was never so adeptly deployed. Shaw is equally good as the villain du jour.  Ladies and gentlemen, it might interest you to know that the City of New York has agreed to pay for your release