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

Black and Blue (2019)

Just because she didn’t do it doesn’t mean she wasn’t involved. Witnessing her colleague Brown (James Moses Black)  and undercover narc Terry Malone (Frank Grillo) killing a drug dealer land rookie New Orleans PD officer Alicia West (Naomie Harris) into trouble. Falsely accused of the crime, she now has to fight both the corrupt police and evil gangsters while running through the back streets of New Orleans with body cam footage that will exonerate her from some very angry men. The victim is the nephew of one very pissed off drug dealer, Darius (Mike Coulter). She takes refuge with shopkeeper Mouse (Tyrese Gibson) who she knows from back in the day and he’s the only guy in the hood who’ll take her side and try to keep her alive as the cops close ranks and close in … Murder is murder, no matter who you are. Fantastically well performed, this is that rare thing, an action film boasting a great role for a female protagonist as a police officer (it’s thirty years since Theresa Russell and Jamie Lee Curtis had the pleasure). And boy does Harris nail it. She’s on the run practically from the first scene when she twigs that she’s witnessed a cold blooded murder by undercover narcotic cops, cleaning up those mean streets of N’Orleans in their inimitably corrupt style while pocketing their share of the goodies. In terms of race commentary, it’s a drama that demonstrates without making an issue of it that crime and corruption have no monopoly on ethnicity – what’s more important here is making the most of your particular skill set.  When it comes out that Harris was a former JD and a soldier who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan we know we’re being set up for some explosive and decent can-do action – but she’s constantly under threat and literally runs for her life.  It turns out her options are very limited indeed as her old friends including Missy (Nafessa Williams) who’s mother to a young boy can’t figure a black woman in a blue uniform. Peter A. Dowling’s screenplay doesn’t pull punches and Deon Taylor’s direction never permits the action to be distracted by the visuals which are gritty and pointed in a story that is tough and well managed. She’s a ghost

Casino (1995)


There are three ways of doing things around here: the right way, the wrong way, and the way that I do it. You understand? Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is a Jewish handicapper asked by the Chicago Mob to oversee the day-to-day casino and hotel operations at the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas in 1973. His childhood friend, mobster Nicky Santoro (Pesci), is a made man and makes life tricky for Ace. Ace falls for call girl and chip hustler Ginger McKenna (Stone) whom he eventually marries. They have a daughter Amy (Erika von Tagen) but Ginger gets into drugs and her behaviour becomes loud and difficult. Ace has problems getting a gaming licence despite keeping local politicos happy and the skimmed money is being skimmed by people he employs. All his relationship begin to break down and the FBI are closing in when Ginger runs away with her lover and pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods) taking Amy with them … When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believed, that’s the kind of love I had.  At first glance it doesn’t seem elegiac yet this Scorsese collaboration with co-writer Nicholas Pileggi (from his Casino:  Love and Honor in Las Vegas) five years after Goodfellas operates as a long goodbye to a way of life essentially foreign, about strangers in a strange land. It’s adapted from the lives of Frank Rosenthal, Anthony Spilotro and Geri McGee. The mob were never at ease in the desert landscape and the story problem doesn’t end there because all the relationships here are uneven and mismatched:  Jewish and Italian, Ace and Nicky, Ace and Ginger, the Mob and Vegas. It starts audaciously: with a bomb. Yet the victim is one of the narrators. The competing voiceovers by Ace and Nicky are stark illustrations of the power plays beyond the gaming tables. The storytelling, spanning a decade to 1983 (and ‘many years before’) is a familiar one of bribery, corruption, murder, gambling, crooked politicians, prostitution, children, golf, drugs and great clothes, And the production design by Dante Ferretti lit up by Robert Richardson’s beautiful cinematography offers a stark contrast to the coarseness of these terrible people. It’s long and talky and horrifically violent and startling in terms of juxtapositions and acting. At the centre of the extraordinary soundtrack in this epic of marriages gone wrong is the score for Godard’s Contempt (Le mepris) by Georges Delerue, pointing our response in the correct direction. We are left to contemplate the magnificent, complete performance by Sharon Stone, one of the best in modern cinema, the cause and effect in this epic and tragic tale of the misbegotten. In the end it is a pitiless exploration of humanity. A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes

Tenet (2020)

We live in a twilight world. An unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) gets kidnapped and tortured by gangsters following an opera siege in Ukraine and wakes up after he takes a fake suicide pill, is rebuilt and sent on a new mission – to find out who’s shipping inverted bullets from the future using Priya (Dimple Kapadia) as a front. He discovers through a forged Goya it’s Russian arms dealer Andrey Sator (Kenneth Branagh) whose art expert wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) is more or less his hostage, trying to keep in contact with their young son. Working with British agent Neil (Robert Pattinson) he organises an attack on the (tax- free) Freeport in Oslo Airport where art treasures are being held in an attempt to to root out the channels Sator is using and tries to avert the end of the world as Sator’s suicide mission takes hold … With a hi-vis jacket and a clipboard you can get in practically anywhere in the world. The ongoing paradox – one of many – in the latest offering from writer/director Christopher Nolan – is that in a world of special effects he does his filmmaking in camera and this has an admirably real feeling, with a lot of it shot in gloomy European cities that mostly look alike – grey, with brutalist tower blocks and dull skies. It’s the dystopic vision that J.G. Ballard satirised while predicting the future, a time when Alain Resnais was pioneering storytelling backwards and forwards through time yet the Sixties feeling is very now. The palindromic inventiveness lies in the story structure, the characterisation and the trust in the audience. Of course it helps  that this tale of a man with the power of apocalypse in his nasty Eastern European paws with the foreknowledge informing his every move is released to a Covid-19 world where people wear masks and dread the end of days, rather like here (when they’re not masked they’re bearded, which is pretty much the same thing). That it also takes the long tall Sally from TV’s espionage hit adaptation of John le Carre’s The Night Manager and puts her in a markedly similar role doesn’t go amiss. These realistic meta touches – with Branagh’s horrifying oligarch resident in London – grip the narrative to something close to recognisable quotidian newspaper headlines; while the parallel lines of future-past intersect in the ‘inverted’ nodes that splatter in all directions. It may be that after one hundred minutes when they decide to return to Oslo and they mean go back in time to Oslo that the plot becomes not just far fetched but out of reach to the ordinary pea brain, or someone who thinks in too linear a fashion, as soldier Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) chides The Protagonist. As ever, we must remember that future and past selves best not meet each other or else – annihilation. There are boys’ own fantasies writ large – joyriding an aeroplane and causing a horrifying amount of damage, an exhilarating catamaran race, an astonishing quasi-hijacking which can’t possibly go well with all that time travel inversion stuff, great military hardware for the penultimate sequence and the unpeeling of The Protagonist aka The American who starts out from a very bad place indeed and is literally reconstituted to do his worst.  The entire narrative is based on one diadic exchange:  What just happened here?/ It didn’t happen yet! It’s a different experience than Inception which was all about a built world inhabited by a featureless character – a video game, in any language. Yet we can see all the references from the Airport movies, through Terry Gilliam and The Thomas Crown Affair in this timeblender. Branagh is such an evil bad guy you expect him to tell Washington he expects him to die while twirling his comedy moustache. Pattinson might well be reprising his T.E. Lawrence  in those early sweaty linen suits. How you appear is all, as Michael Caine’s Sir Michael Crosby informs Washington – less Brooks Brothers, more Savile Row tailoring. They are men on a mission but not Men in Black. This all concludes in the abject maternal being resolved in pleasing fashion, a not unfamiliar trope in Nolan’s body of work; the opportunity to rewrite your life is presented here in key moments. There is one huge technical problem with the film that damages the plot clarity and that is the woeful sound mix, leaving much dialogue lost in the guttural music of Ludwig Goransson while revelling in the sheer kinetic drive of the action. It’s not too late in this digital age to whip up some new codes to tidy it up, is it? Maybe just ratchet up the EQs a tad. In the interim, relish the historical possibilities of film editing in this awesome mosaic of affect and attractions and heed the advice given in soothing voice early on, Don’t try to understand it – feel it. Welcome back, Cinema.

The Comfort of Strangers (1990)

My father was a very big man. And he wore a black moustache. When he grew older and it grew grey, he coloured it with a pencil. The kind women use. Mascara. English couple Mary (Natasha Richardson) and Colin (Rupert Everett) are taking a return holiday in Venice in an attempt to repair their relationship. They are befriended by suave Robert (Christopher Walken), a British-Italian bar proprietor, unaware that he has been stalking and photographing them. When he brings them to his palazzo apartment and introduces them to his wife Caroline (Helen Mirren) they become enmeshed in a game of psychological and erotic roleplay and wind up experiencing a terrifying drama of decadence in which nothing and nobody is as they appear … I mean that you’d do absolutely anything for the other person, and you’d let them do absolutely anything to you. Anything. Adapted by Harold Pinter from the 1981 Ian McEwan novella, this picturesque exploration of perverse relationships practically wallows in morbidity. Teetering on the verge of horror and luridness at all times, this never tips into typical genre expectations, always erring on the side of suggestiveness, surprise and eerieness. Until a swift end is brought to proceedings. The irony replete in the story is all in the title and in creepy Walken who declares, They want to destroy everything that’s good between men and women. It’s expertly directed by Paul Schrader with densely beautiful cinematography by Dante Spinotti, permitting the full strangeness of the city to express the moistly malevolent mystery, sinister and lustrous, terrifying and thrilling, all at once, inhabited by just the right performers in wondrous sets by Gianni Quaranta. Some people don’t like the ending. As in life, etc. Although if you’ve read Thomas Mann or seen Don’t Look Now you’ll have a justifiably familiar feeling of foreboding. A sensual nightmare of innocents abroad. I knew that fantasy was passing into reality. Have you ever experienced that? It’s like stepping into a mirror

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

There is no whole thing. You have to make it work. Divorced thirtysomething recruitment agent Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson) begins a romantic relationship with glamorous sculptor Bob Elkin (Murray Head), aware that he’s also intimately involved with lonely middle-aged Jewish doctor Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch).  Bob takes off from the weekend babysitting for Alex’s friends the Hodsons (Vivian Pickles and Frank Windsor) in order to spend time with Daniel. The younger man represents a break with the pasts of both Bob’s older lovers, and neither is willing to let go of the love and vitality he brings to their mundane lives although he’s planning to leave for New York … I know you’re not getting enough of me but you’re getting all there is. Film critic Penelope Gilliatt’s screenplay, suggested by material she plumbed in her novel One by One, is a deep delve into the compromises and deceptions people make in order to have a little happiness. The North London setting with its population of slightly boho middle class types conceals the fact that the story is told rather cleverly, through the shared answering service, tales that Daniel is told by his patients, the insights of the precocious children Alex is minding and her mother’s truisms about marriage. The autumnal scenes carving out a season of political unrest hint at the melancholy truth that these are people who live in fear of rejection, hesitant about commitment, afraid to make a permanent display of emotion in a film which wears its protagonists’ pathology on its shirt sleeve, a patina of loss.  It’s amusing to see both Alex and Daniel cruise past Bob’s flat late at night, fearful there might be yet another person claiming his affection. Alongside the brilliant performances of the leads, with Finch a standout, there’s legendary silent actress Bessie Love as an answering service operator; Tony Britton in search of a job and winding up with a one night stand; and a very young Daniel Day-Lewis as a car vandal. How apposite for Jon Finch to be hustling his namesake, narrowly avoiding a late night arrest in Piccadilly Circus. Directed by John Schlesinger, whose best film this is, about a world he fully inhabits. He also contributed to the screenplay for this landmark in gay representation, along with David Sherwin and Ken Levison, who are thanked for their assistance in the credits. Some people believe something is better than nothing, but I’m beginning to believe that nothing can be better than something

Private’s Progress (1956)

The enemy does not play cricket. He abides by no rules. In 1942 university student Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) is conscripted into the British Army where his uncle Brigadier Bertram Tracepurcel (Dennis Price), himself more interested in art than army, believes he will easily graduate to officer class. Instead upon landing at Gravestone Barracks in Kent for basic training alongside Egan (Peter Jones) a far more apt pupil, he is hopeless, failing officer selection and winding up at a holding unit commanded by Major Hitchcock (Terry-Thomas) where he meets up with several miscreants. They include workshy wide boy Cox (Richard Attenborough) who skives off work regularly and Blake (Victor Maddern) who runs away regularly and is caught in Scotland trying to join the Navy. Windrush is sent to train as a Japanese interpreter and is assigned to his uncle’s raid behind German lines by mistake but the Brigadier just tells him to keep his mouth shut, We don’t want any of that Where Is The Pen of Me Aunt stuff. The real purpose of retrieving art treasures is to sell them to crooked dealers. When Windrush is left behind following an unfortunate episode with a German General he is captured by the British and has a hard time persuading them he’s one of them with all his Nazi regalia and ID card … The producers gratefully acknowledge the official cooperation of absolutely nobody. Adapted by John Boulting and Frank Harvey from Alan Hackney’s autobiographical novel, this service comedy from the Boulting Brothers is equal parts farce and satire with the usual winsome act from Carmichael as the utterly unsuitable university prof shoved into the Army during WW2. Very funny without being outrageous, there are some great exchanges and the antics in Germany (which feature Christopher Lee as a Nazi!) are extremely funny indeed. And yes, Terry-Thomas says many, many times, You’re an absolute shower! The topper is worth waiting for. The delightful score is by John Addison. Being educated sort of limits you, doesn’t it

The Informer (2019)

It’s happening. New York.  Recruited by the FBI, ex-con and former special operations soldier Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) uses his covert skills to try and take down Polish gangster Klimek aka the General (Eugene Lipinski) who happens to be the most powerful crime boss in New York. When a sting results in the death of an undercover cop, Pete suddenly finds himself caught in the crossfire between the mob and the FBI with a five-year jail sentence part of the deal for the General to be sated following the loss of his drugs business with the Feds closing in. Forced to return to Bale Hill Prison, Koslow must now come up with a plan to escape from the clutches of the law and the General to save himself and his family, relying on Erica Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) to do a deal but then he discovers she is compromised by her boss Montgomery (Clive Owen). When the dead cop’s colleague Edward Grens (Common) surveils activity at  Pete’s house he realises the truth is anything but a plain picture and contacts Pete’s wife Sofia (Ana de Armas) to offer help when Wilcox burns Pete and he’s at the mercy of the General’s enemies behind bars …  You go back inside, you’ll never get out. A no-fuss, no-frills fast-moving yet characterful and tough thriller that hits all the spots with a great cast doing fine work? A story that makes sense and tilts at institutional windmills, corruption and the truth behind the headlines?  What really happens in prison? A family under threat? Some horrifically realistic scuzzy Polack crims and double-crossing Feds? This delivers and how, with Kinnaman giving a career-best performance as the betrayed soldier who can barely conceal his justifiable rage in an adaptation of Roslund/Hellstrom’s novel Three Seconds by Matt Cook and Rowan Joffe and director Andrea Di Stefano. You’ll get angry at the women for different reasons until they both turn out to be far more useful than is originally suspected. Brilliantly set up with no-holds-barred violence and a stunning prison set piece. Explosive and superb. Burn him

Pain and Glory (2019)

Aka Dolor y gloria. I don’t recognise you, Salvador. Film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is ageing and in decline, suffering from illness and writer’s block. He recalls episodes in his life that led him to his present situation – lonely, sick – when the Cinematheque runs a film Sabor he made 32 years earlier with actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) and they haven’t spoken since due to the performer’s drug use. But now Salva is in pain and following the reunion with Alberto prompted by his old friend Zulema (Cecilia Roth) will take anything he can including heroin to ease his pain from multiple disabling illnesses. He recalls his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) working hard to put food on the table;  moving into a primitive cave house; his days as a chorister whose voice was so beautiful he skipped class to rehearse and got through school knowing nothing, learning geography on his travels as a successful filmmaker. Now he is forced to confront all the crises in his life and his mother is dying … Writing is like drawing, but with letters. Pedro Almodovar’s late-life reflectiveness permeates a story that must have roots in his own experience. His protege Banderas gives a magnificent performance as the director pausing in between heroin hits and choking from an unspecified ailment to consider his path. The stylish visuals that often overwhelm Almodovar’s dramas are used just enough to textually express the core of the film’s theme – love, and the lack of it. Life is just a series of moments and they are recounted here with clear intent, plundering the past in order to reclaim the present. A triumph. Love is not enough to save the person you love

The Souvenir (2019)

You are lost and you will always be lost. London, 1980. Shy Knightsbridge-dwelling film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) gets involved with a mysterious older man Anthony (Tom Burke) who claims to work for the Foreign Office. While she starts working on a project and he disappears from time to time, she doesn’t suspect what is revealed at a dinner party by a guest – that he’s a junkie. When he steals all her belongings to score she appears to be reeled in to a deeper relationship with him. She doesn’t socialise as much with her old friends but they visit each other’s parents. Then following a trip to Venice when he realises she is aware of his habit she starts bringing him to housing estates to buy drugs and finally sees what is going on in his life until finally she sees him out of control … Don’t be worthy, be arrogant. It’s much more sexy.  Writer/director Joanna Hogg’s quasi-autobiographical tale turns on the passivity rather typical of her characters, upper middle class types stuck in situations they can’t quite recognise and then have trouble leaving.  Here it’s a story of her own youth when she fell in with a much older man who concealed his serious heroin problem from her and given the prevalence of that drug among the arty set in the era (read Will Self on the subject) her naivete is somewhat hard to credit. Realism is introduced by a very welcome soundtrack of songs by bands like The Pretenders and The Fall with those awkward dinner conversations punctuated by political talk – the IRA, the Middle Easterners holed up at the Libyan Embassy:  we even get to re-live the bomb that ended that particular siege.  There are urgent exchanges about movies. Then there are the barely comprehensible phone calls. The letters we can’t read.  It is amusing to see Swinton Sr. turning up in twinset and pearls – definitely not how she spent the Eighties, after all, with her forays in Derek Jarmanland. But it takes 83 minutes for Julie to do something active to end the relationship and it’s only when she sees Anthony’s drug paraphernalia at the flat and then he appears, strung out.  That’s a long time after he robbed all her possessions for a fix. She may be rather innocent in that sense but she has big ambitions and continues with her film: her obvious class status arises only when her Head of Production comments rhetorically, I don’t suppose you really have to think about budget in Knightsbridge, do you. Richard Ayoade gets a great scene when he obnoxiously ponders how a heroin addict and a Rotarian got together and Julie is utterly baffled:  she doesn’t know what track marks are.  The photo of Anthony in full beard in Afghanistan circa 1973 didn’t arouse any suspicions. For such a sophisticate you have to wonder, don’t you. The formation of an artist is tough to put together in the frustrating first hour but somehow in the second, it works, when you finally get intimations of an emotional undertow about to burst in a film that is chiefly of memory rather than strict narrative or depth psychology. I do what I do so you can have the life you’re having