Year of the Dragon (1985)

Only one Stanley White. Following the murders of Mafia and Triad leaders in NYC, Polish Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) takes it upon himself to bring down the Chinese organised crime gangs. He’s breaking the long held treaty to permit the Chinese to take care of things in Chinatown. This puts him in conflict with Tony Tai (John Lone) the ruthless leader of the organisation.  It pulls his life apart with his already crumbling childless marriage to nurse Connie (Caroline Kava) collapsing altogether when Stanley falls for the charms of ambitious journalist Tracy Tzu (Ariane). Now Tony has a major shipment coming in from Thailand and Stanley engages in wire tapping for information .. This is America and it’s two hundred years old and you need to change your clocks. This sprawling portrait of the gangs of New York was much misunderstood upon its release but it lays its cards on the table upfront: it’s all in the name (changed) because NYC’s most decorated cop is an unapologetic racist Nam vet and sexist to boot. He’s launching his own tong war. Naturally Rourke plays him as a total charmer and it works:  he has the aura of death about him, his hair is as white as his adopted name and everyone around him seems to get crushed.  As written by Oliver Stone and director Michael Cimino this adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel is remarkably discreet in some areas – and lurid in others. The major love scene between Stanley and Tracy is cleverly done as they tell each other how much they hate each other and then … Her big ‘angry’ scene when he’s moved his team into her preposterously huge loft is amusing because her acting is so poor, all stiff arms like an Irish dancer. Part of the film’s issue representationally is the obvious inexpressivity of the Chinese actors, a physical trait there’s no escaping. They make up for it by killing people. Their treatment historically in the US and their unequal immigrant experience is posited against Stanley’s veteran’s hangups, something that’s used against him.  He wants to sleep with a journalist while both he and Tony decry the media’s role in the portrayal of violence and the way ethnicity is covered. Therefore there is a balance established with Tony – that’s clever storytelling. Lone is super handsome, a great suave villain to play opposite.  The lean way in which the marital story is exposed is a good hook for Stanley’s humanity and it’s the dramatic crutch that assists the outcome. The intra-Asian racism is well dramatised and horrendously violent. Class is an issue that becomes an overriding theme. The whole thing looks incredible – shot by Alex Thomson on a set (by Wolf Kroeger and Victoria Paul) in North Carolina for NYC (except for the views from Tracy’s apartment at the top of the Clocktower Building giving a beguiling view of the city’s skyline).  There’s a fascinating and intricate score by David Mansfield with echoes of phrases from The Deer Hunter. That this is a disguised western is clarified in those final scenes on the railway track. And in this wonderful mesh of genre and tradition there is an honourable way out for one man. What a way to end. Amazingly the role of White (originally called Arthur Powers – but there’s a Stanley White credited as Police Consultant!) was intended for Clint Eastwood. Both he and Paul Newman turned it down. Just as well. Only one Mickey Rourke. He’s a good cop but he won’t stop

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (2020)

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

The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960)

The Wackiest Ship in the Army.

This hulk is commissioned?  As what?! In 1943 at the height of World War 2 Lieutenant Rip Crandall (Jack Lemmon) is conned into taking charge of a broken-down ship with a clueless crew whom he has to train up to learn the most basic elements of seagoing. The only member who knows how to work a ship with sails is eager young Ensign Tommy Hanson (Ricky Nelson) who cost Crandall a yacht race with a mistake before the war. Hanson and Crandall’s former sailing buddy Lieutenant Commander Vandewater (John Lund) wear down his resistance. Then he finds out they have a top secret mission and he has to sneak an Australian spy/coast watcher Patterson (Chips Rafferty) into enemy waters of the Pacific patrolled by the Japanese … This was a period of far-reaching decisions, desperate strategies, and incredibly daring counter-strokes – not the least of which involved two bright young naval officers. A colourful widescreen action adventure that achieves the transition from docks-bound comedy to island warfare so smoothly you won’t even notice. Lemmon is superb as the supposed schmuck who rises to the challenge of educating a bunch of crafty oddballs. Lund more or less reprises his role from A Foreign Affair 15 years earlier as the slick willy officer conniving with Nelson, who has one of his best roles here and even gets to sing while Lemmon jams on a piano. Rafferty adds serious flavour in the final scene sequence when they have to deal with some pesky Japanese soldiers, one of whom speaks English and finds common ground (then water) with Lemmon. Herb Margolis & William Raynor’s screen story was based on a story by Herbert Carlson about the real USS Echo which was requisitioned from New Zealand and the screenplay was by director Richard Murphy. A terrific comedy drama. What, aren’t you going to stay here and die for the ‘Rising Sun’?

Palm Beach (2019)

Palm Beach

It’s what they’ve dreamed of for themselves is not what they’ve turned out to be. Frank (Bryan Brown) is flying in his lifelong friends for his big birthday at his beautiful home overlooking the bay at Palm Beach, north of Sydney. Now retired from his tee-shirt business which made him very wealthy, he and his wife Charlotte (Greta Scacchi), feckless son Dan (Charlie Vickers) and medical student daughter Ella (Matilda Brown), are hosting the remaining members of The Pacific Sideburns, the band he managed in the Seventies who made the cover of Rolling Stone back in 1977 when they had their one big hit song. Now Leo (Sam Neill) is a journalist based in New Zealand, married to teacher Bridget (Jacqueline MacKenzie) and stepfather to her teenage daughter Caitlyn (Frances Berry). Billy (Richard E. Grant) is an ad man married to actress Eva (Heather Mitchell) who thinks at 60 she’s too young to be cast as Nicole Kidman’s mother. Holly (Claire van der Boom) is the daughter of their late lead singer Roxy and she arrives with her lover, an older man called Doug (Aaron Jeffery) in tow. Tensions erupt over money, career, cars and homes and then there’s a secret which has been niggling at someone’s conscience … The Pacific Sideburns go down as the voice of adult incontinence. Directed by that lovely actress Rachel Ward (who is of course married to leading man Brown), who co-wrote the screenplay with Joanna Murray-Smith, in her second theatrical outing behind the camera, this is a kind of Big Chill for a different generation and at a different stage of their lives. Fans of Australian cinema will be thrilled with the cast (which also includes blow-ins Grant and Scacchi), with Neill and Brown co-starring for the fifth time. This time out they’re in a production about rites of passage among friends (and frenemies) which isn’t afraid to be tough on its characters, none of whom is without baggage or post-60 year old issues. There are all kinds of relatable tensions over ageing, health and money with the added frisson of questionable DNA. The issue of whether Dan might be fathered by Leo becomes the main plank of the narrative particularly since Frank and Dan are permanently at daggers drawn. But Billy – who has made an ad for adult diapers in France using the band’s big hit – is envious of Frank’s money and taunts him about the chimneys on a neighbouring property blocking the view so often that Frank does something about it, leading to the film’s comic high point:  retirement is not for chickens, as his anti-depressants prove. Bonding over building a pizza oven is no picnic. It’s pretty hard to bond with the Gestapo, growls Sam Neill. The women have their own problems but try to get them out of their system with some therapeutic white wine-assisted yoga by the pool and tough conversations with their terminally self-obsessed men. The father-son relationship between Frank and Dan results in a terrible accident and it finally brings them all to their senses in a well managed conclusion to the comedy drama. This family affair also involves Brown and Ward’s real-life daughter as Frank’s daughter; while the film within a film is Ward’s 2001 short, The Big House. The songs are by the band The Teskey Brothers in a soundtrack peppered with great tunes. An extremely winning production with fantastic performances and smart writing, this is an amazing showcase for New South Wales in a location familiar to viewers of TV’s Home and Away. Very easy watching indeed. I’m on my way ASAP, especially if I can stay in that magnificent beach house. I call it uninvited clarity

 

A Touch of Larceny (1959)

A Touch of Larceny

I was implying I might be a matrimonial hazard if I were wealthy. Rakish former Naval submarine Commander Max ‘Rammer’ Easton (James Mason) realises he needs plenty of cash to win the heart of American widow Virginia Killain (Vera Miles) currently the companion and soon to be wife of his Naval colleague Sir Charles Holland (George Sanders). Max disappears after faking treachery as a Soviet spy, planning to reappear and sue all the tabloids which libelled him so as to win the hand of Virginia but his plans go awry when he really does get into trouble in the Western Isles … One of the hardest lessons in life is to accept defeat gracefully. Adapted by Roger MacDougall, director Guy Hamilton and producer Ivan Foxwell from Andrew Garve’s (a pseudonym for Paul Winterton) novel The Megstone Plot, this sees Mason at his best as the breezy playboy and former WW2 hero who has finally met a woman he can see himself living with – and the sparks fly between him and Miles in a comedy that has wit, guile and surprising wisdom. He sets himself up and then spends a third of the film as a raffish beachcomber listening to rumours of his supposed defection. Sanders feasts on the prospect of revenging the man who appears to have compromised his fiancée, whose intentions are far from clear. You’ll recognise Martin Stephens the creepy boy from The Innocents as Sanders’ nephew. There are good jokes about newspapers and that year’s current scandalous novel, The World of Suzie Wong. Perhaps its occasional moments of true feeling guy the comedy’s intent so that the tone shifts but in the main it’s an impressive production and the performances are terrific. An interesting syncopated beat to Mason’s other Cold War movie that year – North By Northwest. You know Max, one of these days somebody may take you seriously

Dr No (1962)

Dr No

You are carrying a double 0 number. It means you are licensed to kill, not get killed. British agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) by head of the Secret Service M (Bernard Lee) is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow British agent, Strangways (Timothy Moxon) to determine if it is related to Strangways’ decision to co-operate on a CIA case involving the disruption of rocket launches from NASA’s base at Cape Canaveral in Florida by radio jamming. When Bond arrives in Jamaica, he is immediately accosted by a man claiming to be a chauffeur sent to collect him who is really an enemy agent sent to kill him. Before Bond can interrogate him, following a struggle, the agent kills himself with a cyanide capsule. After visiting Strangways’ house, Bond confronts Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) a boatman who was collecting mineral samples from Crab Key for Strangways and who reveals that he is aiding the CIA, introducing Bond to agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), who is also investigating Strangways’ disappearance. Local geologist Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) claims the samples are normal but Bond is not convinced. Dent travels to the underground base of megalomaniac Dr Julius No (Joseph Wiseman) a Chinese-German with prosthetic metal hands who is the operator of a bauxite mine on the Caribbean island of Crab Key (and a reclusive member of SPECTRE) who is plotting to disrupt the US space programme … Cyanide in a cigarette? Fantastic! The first in the series, based on Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel (the sixth in the book series) this really introduced Connery to the world. Shot with a relatively low budget, it’s fast-moving, whip smart and set the tone for a secret agent trend that has never really ceased. Fleming originally came up with the idea for the story as a screenplay for a film called Commander Jamaica with Dr No a riff on the character of Fu Manchu. That film never got made so Fleming adapted it into a novel. The screenplay for this was based on that as well as several other strands of Fleming’s work: Richard Maibaum and Wolf Mankowitz did the original draft which the producers rejected then Maibaum did one while Mankowitz removed his name; Irish writer Johanna Harwood who worked for Harry Saltzman rewrote that draft with thriller writer Berkely Mather. SPECTRE wasn’t mentioned until Thunderball, the 1961 novel that the producers had originally wanted to adapt first before legal issues complicated that plan. This may not have the bells and whistles of later films in the series but it has many of the iconic elements that became part of the identity of this long-running franchise including Ken Adam’s production design, Bond being introduced to the Walther PPK and an undertow of S&M. Connery’s performance is nigh-on perfect, a combination of violence, suave intelligence and droll wit; while shell diver Honey Rider’s (Ursula Andress) arrival like Venus on the beach is for the cultural ages. Directed by Terence Young. I do not like failure

Beautiful But Dangerous (1954)

Beautiful But Dangerous

Aka She Couldn’t Say No. I do a lot of thinking when I’m driving and sometimes I just don’t notice small towns. Wealthy Corby Lane (Jean Simmons) returns to the American hamlet of Progress, Arkansas, whose residents had paid for a critical medical operation for her when she was a child. Now her father has died and she has returned from being educated in England, she decides to express her gratitude by giving them money anonymously but her goodwill bumps up against the homespun locals. The headstrong heiress clashes with the local doctor, Robert Sellers (Robert Mitchum), a confident type who foresees the resulting chaos and tries to woo her himself … I only got two ways of feeling. I either feel bad or I feel awful bad. A good cast wrestles with a dull script and the liveliest scenes are when Simmons goes fishing with little Jimmy Hunt who wises her up to the local scene. The score by Roy Webb fills in the gaps that the screenplay by D.D. Beauchamp & Williams Bowers and Richard Flournoy doesn’t reach. Lloyd Bacon’s final film. Is there anyone you’d care to marry?

 

Action in the North Atlantic (1943)

Action in the North Atlantic

Aka Heroes Without Uniforms. We’ve run into a wolfpack. Merchant Marine sailors First Mate Joe Rossi (Humphrey Bogart) and Captain Steve Jarvis (Raymond Massey) survive the sinking of SS Northern Star by German U-boat U-37 en route from Halifax. After 11 days drifting they are rescued. Steve spends time with his wife Sarah (Ruth Gordon), while Joe meets and marries singer Pearl O’Neill (Julie Bishop). At the union hall, merchant seamen, including the Northern Star survivors, spend their time waiting to be assigned to a new ship. Over a round of poker, Johnnie Pulaski (Dane Clark) jokes about getting a shore job and reveals his fear of dying at sea. The others shame him into signing along with them on another ship. Alfred “Boats” O’Hara (Alan Hale, Sr.) is tracked down by his wife, who has apparently not seen him since he was rescued. She angrily serves him with a divorce summons. O’Hara, knowing he is headed back to sea, gleefully tears it up, saying Them ‘Liberty Boats’ are sure well named! When they are charged with getting supply vessel Seawitch to Russian allies in Murmansk as part of a sea convoy and the group of ships comes under attack from U-37 again, Rossi and Jarvis are motivated by the opportunity to strike back at the Germans but now have to dodge Luftwaffe bullets too  For a sailor’s wife this war is just another storm.  Tremendously exciting action adventure paying tribute to the men of the US Merchant Marine. The evocation of a group under pressure with their particular avocations and tics is expertly done and the characterisation is a model for war movies. There are all kinds of devices and diversions, from an onboard kitten and his successor; to envy of a Naval officer Cadet Ezra Parker (Dick Hogan); and the usual carping about the quality of the nosh. With a screenplay by John Howard Lawson (from a story by Guy Gilpatric) and additional dialogue by A.I. Bezzerides and W. R. Burnett you can be sure there are some riproaring lines: A trip to perdition would be like a pleasure cruise compared with what we’re going into. Wonderfully shot by Ted McCord with marvellous effects, you would never guess that this was shot on the studio lot due to wartime restrictions. Directed by Lloyd Bacon with uncredited work by Byron Haskin and Raoul Walsh. I’ve got faith – in God, President Roosevelt and the Brooklyn Dodgers – in the order of their importance!

True as a Turtle (1956)

True as a Turtle

You’re in a taxi rank, skipper! Newly married Tony Hudson (John Gregson) offers his young wife Jane (June Thorburn) a cruise on a yacht as a honeymoon trip with his rich industrialist friend Dudley Partridge (Cecil Parker) who is sailing with his family, insurance man Harry Bell (Keith Michell) and his wealthy landlubber girlfriend Ann (Elvi Hale). Jane suffers from chronic seasickness but agrees and they go on board the Turtle, a fine ketch which initially has difficulty leaving port. A lot of misadventures await – including Partridge’s niece Susie (Pauline Drewett) catching German measles, crossing paths with a counterfeit gaming chip scam when they arrive at the French port of Dinard and then dealing with a real pea-souper fog that just might scupper their return … I hate boats. Don’t you? Jack Davies, Nicholas Phipps and John Coates adapted Coates’ novel, a marital comedy involving a lot of messing about in boats while the newlyweds really navigate their relationship. Gregson’s casting tips the wink that this is a kind of reworking of the beloved Genevieve, with Kay Kendall’s role being taken by Hale; while there are more than a few riffs on the plot of Brandy for the Parson but director Wendy Toye has a light touch and the intrigue and setting give this its own particular charm. It’s nicely shot on location in Dorset, Hampshire, London and France by Reginald Wyer. Look out for Clement Freud playing a croupier. You’ll soon get used to things being wet

Cairo Road (1950)

Cairo Road

Aka El Tariq ela el Qâhirah. They’re alive – but they’re dead. New assistant narcotics agent Lieutenant Morad (Laurence Harvey) gets the jump  on a hashish deal following the murder of a local big shot. The team is led by a rather sceptical Colonel Youssef Bey (Eric Portman) the chief of the Anti-Narcotic Bureau who is forced to indulge the new guy’s enthusiasm. Morad has recently relocated from Paris with his wife Marie Maira Mauban) who has to adjust to the new city and worries her husband is putting himself on the line. The team tries to prevent shipments of drugs crossing the southern Egyptian border. They are constantly on alert as even camel caravans are suspect in smuggling narcotics. The agents are investigating the murder of a rich Arab businessman named Bashiri. Raiding a berthed ship in the harbour of Port Saïd leads them to the trail of heroin smugglers, including Rico Pavlis (Harold Lang) and Lombardi (Grégoire Aslan). One of the police agents, Anna Michelis (Camelia) is targeted by the smugglers on board the ship. Eventually Pavlis turns on his partner, killing Lombardi, but Youssef sets a trap for the Pavlis brothers… You’ve started something today. Surely not corruption in the veddy British Egyptian police force? No, Portman is just tacking his usual dyspeptic swerve through the drama while Harvey is the neophyte whose intentions are good but whose deeds wind up being somewhat misbegotten although he gets to prove his worth at the end. It’s quite something to see Portman bullying a camel-owner pleading for the animal he reared from calfhood. He’s a bad ‘un, though. Poor camel! A wonderful opportunity to see the way that region around Suez is perceived in the post-war era and Oswald Morris’ photography has real depth. There’s also a great international cast with a rare chance to see local film star Camelia (born Lilian Victor Cohen) at work, be it ever so briefly. This was the last film of the socialite turned actress whose life swirled with rumour and gossip (particularly regarding a possible relationship with King Farouk) and whose mysterious death in a TWA flight after this film was made remains the subject of speculation. Watch out for familiar names like John Gregson, Eric Pohlmann, Peter Jones and Walter Gotell has a bit part. An intriguing action movie with car and camel chases and a strong pro-police, anti-drugs message, with the bizarre waiver at the credits’ conclusion, ‘Distributed throughout the world. Except the Middle East.’ Directed by David Macdonald from a screenplay by the estimable Robert Westerby. I trust no one