Miller’s Crossing (1990)

 

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There’s nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is the hardman and advisor to Irish American gangster Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who’s at war with Italian Mafia boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) at the height of Prohibition. When crooked bookie Bernie (John Turturro) the brother of Leo’s mistress and Tom’s lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) is threatened by Caspar, the dark-hearted and brainy Reagan is found out by Leo and appears to switch sides in an escalating rivalry over liquor distribution that has a huge body count… It’s hard to pick out a single sequence of brilliance in this positively baroque outing but today I’m choosing the attempt on Leo’s life to the sounds of Frank Patterson warbling Danny Boy: what a stunning declaration of visual bravura (kudos to DoP Barry Sonnenfeld). Brutal, witty, dazzling, beautiful, postmodern and classic, this is a masterpiece. The dialogue is straight out of old gangster movies (and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key) and coming out of Byrne’s accented mouth sounds hilarious:  you gasp at some of the lines, they’re so stunningly written. The narrative is constructed on well known gangster tropes and turns them inside out in a film that acts as a commentary on the genre – Tom’s asides with the Irish policemen are an excruciating Greek chorus! – as well as exulting in its excesses, its ghastly violence, its humour, its morality, its sheer decadence. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen and directed by the former, this is one of the modern greats that engages the brain, the heart and the mind with Reagan’s psychology supplying Byrne with a career-defining role. Astounding.

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Live By Night (2016)

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What you put out in the world will always come back to you but never how you predict. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the WW1-weary son of Irish-American police officer (Brendan Gleeson) who tries to be good but you know how it is. He’s trying to make his way as a small-time crook in 1927 Boston but crosses paths with gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) by stealing from him and sleeping with his sassy Irish girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). He’s blackmailed by White’s rival mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to kill White or he’ll rat on the affair so robs a bank to flee to California with Emma. That was the original plan but police officers get killed and Emma apparently drowns being chased by police after White came close to killing Joe. Despite the efforts of his father he serves three years in prison for the police killings and his father is dead when he gets out so he does a deal with Piscatore to take over his rum business in Florida where he can get revenge on White. It means setting up business with Suarez (Miguel Pimentele) and he shacks up with his sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana). He and his sidekick Dion (Chris Messina) take over and then someone thought dead turns up in a photograph and Maso has a showdown with Joe and it turns into a triple cross situation  … There are a lot of admirable things in this production: the settings, the design (even if the cars are way too clean), some brilliant lines (rather than exchanges of dialogue) and a depiction of the Prohibition era in Florida that introduces the Ku Klux Klan into the mix because these gangsters are Catholic. Affleck’s commitment to bringing Dennis Lehane’s Boston Irish mythology to the screen is to be commended but his waxy inexpressiveness is central to why this doesn’t work (blank is simply not a good look in a gangster movie). Miller makes him look better than he is in their scenes together – they crackle – but she departs the story early. All the bits are here, they just don’t add up, and that usually leads us back to the screenwriter – also Affleck. There are plotlines thrown away in a photograph or a newspaper cutting. There are technical issues too – some of the sound mix particularly at the beginning is poor. A smarter filmmaker would have dropped a lot of the overhead shots and the dumb narration (look at how it doesn’t work and compare it with Goodfellas!) and cast a better actor in the lead:  just watch how Chris Cooper in his small role as police chief Figgis in Tampa wipes the floor with Affleck in his first scene and listen to him deliver the line about a fallen world. That’s when he introduces his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) who’s on her way to a Hollywood screen test:  bad move. This storyline takes a good turn paying off in a parable about evangelical Protestantism but the conclusion is just dumped for yet another newspaper story after a scene which unravels the sins of fathers who want better things for their kids. Oedipal scenarios aside, this is a guy who traffics liquor and murders people but still thinks he’s his father’s good son. Affleck looks quite laughable in his oversized suit but then you realise that he resembles legendary screen heavy Lawrence Tierney who was so incredibly nasty in days of yore.  Hmmm! What might have been. Oh! The vanity!

Sunset (1988)

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Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Rod Amateau’s unpublished manuscript about the friendship between movie cowboy Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) and real life Wyatt Earp (James Garner) had the potential to be something quite brilliant:  it doesn’t carry it off due to inconsistencies of tone (never quite slapstick, never quite thriller) and performance (Willis didn’t heed his director to take his role seriously) but it retains its interest. Hollywood’s well-preserved 1920s villas provide a magnificent backdrop to a story set in 1929 just when the industry was getting to grips with the transition to sound. Earp in real life had moved to Los Angeles in 1910 but here he’s newly arrived and hired on a silent movie set to advise Mix and they get embroiled in a murder at the Kit Kat Club, a high class brothel where the whores are movie star lookalikes (shades of LA Confidential) run by the cross-dressing Cheryl (Mariel Hemingway.) Earp tries to help his old girlfriend Christina (Patricia Hodge) who happens to be married to studio boss Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell), a thinly disguised version of Chaplin, and her son, who is in constant trouble and goes missing. The mystery at the story’s heart involves police corruption with those reliable villains M. Emmet Walsh and Richard Bradford and Warhol stud Joe Dallasandro showing up as a gangster. There’s a scene at that year’s Academy Awards (not anatomically correct, but still fun) and lots of really interesting performances in the wings including John Fountain playing his grandfather, the legendary John Gilbert. Willis’ unpreparedness made for a difficult time and Garner (a gentleman) commented on it, a rare instance of his speaking out against a colleague and his own performance really saves the film. Garner had of course worked with Edwards before – on Victor/Victoria. His interpretation of Earp is markedly lighter than his earlier one in Hour of the Gun.  There’s a cute running joke about his inability to drive a car – he does it a lot and in real life Garner was an accomplished racer and stunt driver particularly on The Rockford Files. In a neat nod to that, Dermot Mulroney makes his debut – he would play (my beloved!) Rockford in a TVM reboot. The other pluses are the LA locations used including the Ambassador Hotel, the Roosevelt Hotel, Melody Ranch, Bell Ranch and Orange Empire Railway Museum. Not great Edwards but worth a watch for the idea and Garner, with the usually reliable score from Henry Mancini as well as delectable photography by Anthony B. Richmond. A missed opportunity to make a satisfying Hollywood murder mystery but heck with all that talent I’ll take this anyhow.

Baby Driver (2017)

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Ansel Elgort is the super speedy getaway driver with tinnitus and a soundtrack to beat the band as he works his way through a debt to heist mastermind Kevin Spacey and there’s the One Last Job that must be carried out. How much you like this depends on your identification with the leading man (it took me a while since I don’t like the actor);  your tolerance for minimal characterisation but some snappy one-liners (even if you can’t comprehend the poor delivery of one Jamie Foxx); the use of a sub-Freudian scenario (aspiring singer Mom was killed in a car crash and love interest Debora sings B-a-b-y when he first sees her in a diner);  and your capacity to take a story that more or less falls apart in a big-budget Kenneth Anger dream blowout (weelllllll……!!!) at the conclusion. Jon Hamm is the psycho banker turned Satanic cokehead robber but that’s as much development as you’ll find here in this fabulously OTT car chase of a movie from Edgar Wright who’s finally almost living up to expectations and even aspires to doing a Jacques Demy in those street scenes in this musical wannabe. Makes me want to see The Driver all over again and you can’t say fairer than that.

  1. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – ‘Bellbottoms’
  2. Bob & Earl – ‘Harlem Shuffle’
  3. Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers – ‘Egyptian Reggae’
  4. Googie Rene – ‘Smokey Joe’s La La’
  5. The Beach Boys – ‘Let’s Go Away For Awhile’
  6. Carla Thomas – ‘B-A-B-Y’
  7. Kashmere Stage Band – ‘Kashmere’
  8. Dave Brubeck – ‘Unsquare Dance’
  9. The Damned – ‘Neat Neat Neat’
  10. The Commodores – ‘Easy (Single Version)’
  11. T. Rex – ‘Debora’
  12. Beck – ‘Debra’
  13. Incredible Bongo Band – ‘Bongolia’
  14. The Detroit Emeralds – ‘Baby Let Me Take You (in My Arms)’
  15. Alexis Korner – ‘Early In The Morning’
  16. David McCallum – ‘The Edge’
  17. Martha and the Vandellas – ‘Nowhere To Run’
  18. The Button Down Brass – ‘Tequila’
  19. Sam & Dave – ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby’
  20. Brenda Holloway – ‘Every Little Bit Hurts’
  21. Blur – ‘Intermission’
  22. Focus – ‘Hocus Pocus (Original Single Version)’
  23. Golden Earring – ‘Radar Love (1973 Single Edit)’
  24. Barry White – ‘Never, Never Gone Give Ya Up’
  25. Young MC – ‘Know How’
  26. Queen – ‘Brighton Rock’
  27. Sky Ferreira – ‘Easy’
  28. Simon & Garfunkel – ‘Baby Driver’
  29. Kid Koala – ‘Was He Slow (Credit Roll Version)’
  30. Danger Mouse (featuring Run The Jewels and Big Boi) – ‘Chase Me’

Cafe Society (2016)

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Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood straight outta the Bronx  c.1935 to work with his movie agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and falls for his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Everything looks beautiful, bathed in magic moment sunshine and swoony evening light and people talk about Irene Dunne and Willie Wyler but it turns out Vonnie is Phil’s mistress and he leaves his wife to marry her leaving Bobby brokenhearted and back in his beloved Bronx working front of house for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in a glamorous nightclub. He marries divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively) whom he promptly rechristens Vonnie. She has a baby and her time is taken up caring for her. Then Phil and Vonnie visit while passing through NYC and a romance of sorts recommences but as Bobby realises, Vonnie (this Vonnie) is now his aunt … This is a film of two halves, which do not mesh.  The leads are in their third film together but Stewart is much too modern to play her role, Eisenberg is quite weird – that hunched-shouldered look doth not a schlub make – and the good performances are in supporting roles:  Jeannie Berlin and particularly Ken Stott as the Dorfman parents, Stoll, who is literally criminally underused and Stephen Kunken as the brother in law who inadvertently causes Bobby’s sister Evelyn to have Ben murder their neighbour. Despite the episodes of violence, the talk about what is reality and what is cinema, and the central idea about marriage and what people do to keep relationships going despite clear incompatibility – and there’s a strange (self-?) reference to a man with a teenaged mistress… – this just doesn’t work. The faraway looks in the leads’ eyes at the unsatisfying and inconclusive climax, a country apart, merely highlight the vacuum at the story’s centre. Minor Allen to be sure. It looks great though, so thank you Vittorio Storaro.

Carlito’s Way (1993)

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My heart, it don’t ever stop.  How much do I love this film? Apparently it’s now a cult but some of us were on it from the first day of release. Al is Puerto Rican gangster Carlito Brigante, fresh out of the clink after a deal struck by his lawyer Dave Kleinfeld, played by Sean Penn. Carlito and his mangled language in the courtroom in front of Judge Edwin Torres (actor/director Paul Mazursky) has to be seen to be believed. Penn was persuaded out of his early retirement to do this and shaved his hairline, permed his hair and dyed it red: truly a sight to make your eyes sore (Alan Dershowitz sued for defamation). Carlito is persuaded into a drugs deal and has to shoot his way out. His part of the take enables him to buy a nightclub. He meets old friend Lalin (Viggo Mortensen) who unbeknownst to him is carrying a wire for the DA. This was the first time I really noticed Mortensen and Carlito’s opening line is killer: Lalin, my standup guy! Lalin is a paraplegic in a wheelchair. He turns down the offer of a business partnership with Benny Blanco from the Bronx (John Leguizamo):  a very bad idea, as it turns out. He romances dancer Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), is persuaded by Kleinfeld to assist him in a mob boss client’s prison escape (another bad idea) and winds up in a truly stupendous shootout in a pool room.  Turns out a lot of people are bailing and talking to the DA. Then there’s nothing for it but make a break as Kleinfeld’s coke-addled paranoia and the trouble on the streets can mean only one thing … There’s more, of course, but this is the bones of it. Beautiful cinematography, by Stephen H. Burum, an astonishing score by Patrick Doyle (it’s what I want played at my funeral, natch) this is a stylish but not overdone tour de force from director Brian De Palma, working from a screenplay by David Koepp adapting one of two books, but mainly After Hours, by Judge Edwin Torres. There’s nothing about this I can’t love. Al is simply great in what amounts to a Shakespearean performance and it’s a wonderful, blessed event in moviedom. Here comes the magic. See it and die happy.

Wild Oats (2016)

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Shirley MacLaine is the beloved retired schoolteacher whose husband dies and her insecure unhappily married fusspot daughter Demi Moore (looking about 30 – sheesh!) brings a realtor to the funeral to assess her home for post-mortem sale. MacLaine insists upon staying there and is mistakenly sent a life insurance cheque for $5 million instead of $50,000.  Best friend Jessica Lange encourages her to make off with it and the pair of them embark on the adventure of a lifetime – fetching up in the Canary Islands where they enjoy very different romances. Divorced Billy Connolly hits on MacLaine but all is not what it seems when she wins nearly half a million euros on blackjack and a US insurance investigator turns up to ask about the unfathomably large cheque, encouraging her to bribe him and bolt while Connolly disappears. Is he a conman?! Meanwhile Lange gets involved with a younger man with a Mrs Robinson fixation. Back in the US, another company rep, the wonderfully sentimental Howard Hesseman, pairs off with Moore to bring Mom back home and face justice. It all winds up in a shootout at a winery with the island’s biggest gangster. You have to be there! For armchair tourists – this looks gorgeous and the ladies are quite the heroines. The gray dollar audience is being well catered for. This is better than assisted living! Directed by Andy Tennant from a screenplay by Gary Kanew and Claudia Myers.

Another Day in Paradise (1998)

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Another controversial work from auteur Larry Clark, this is a 1970s-set tale of junkies whose crime spree goes horribly wrong. Young Vincent Kartheiser (unrecognisable as Mad Men‘s weaselly Pete) carries out a disastrous vending machine robbery and girlfriend Natasha Gregson Wagner gets his mentor and friend James Woods to help fix up his injuries. Woods trains him in safe-cracking and they all go on the road with his girlfriend Melanie Griffiths and get embroiled in a series of terrible robberies which wind up with death and destruction all around them. Woods and Griffiths are re-teamed for the third time and work well in this febrile situation even if her wig sometimes outacts him. Kartheiser and Wagner do okay in this sordid story with full-frontal sex scenes but it’s the bizarre and uncredited (why?!) performance by Lou Diamond Phillips as a bejewelled feminised gay co-conspirator that fascinates. Adapted from Eddie Little’s novel (allegedly plagiarised by James Frey…) by Stephen Chin and Christopher B. Landon. A very alternative, nasty road movie. Not for all tastes, as they say.

Ball of Fire (1941)

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Superb screwball comedy, based on a Billy Wilder story he co-wrote with Thomas Monroe subverting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Adapted by Wilder and collaborator Charles Brackett it becomes the tale of innocent grammarian Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) holed up in a NYC brownstone for four years with six other experts compiling an encyclopaedia who finds himself stumped when it comes to contemporary slang. A conversation with a delivery man leaves him at a nightclub where burlesque dancer and singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) performs with the Gene Krupa Orchestra and he enters a world of boogie woogie and moolah. Her gangster boyfriend Dana Andrews is on the lam and she needs to hide out to stop being forced to testify against him so feigning a cold takes up residence with the experts whereupon her illness is proclaimed “a slight rosiness in the laryngeal area” to which she retorts “It’s as red as The Daily Worker and just as sore!” Dialogue to die for, fabulous dresses (by Edith Head), a winning and unlikely romance (all the ‘dwarfs’ love her – the housekeeper, not so much), all are sublimated in a very odd shootout with Dan Duryea proving a patsy. Extremely funny indeed. Directed by Howard Hawks, this would eventually be remade by him as the musical A Song is Born.

My Friend Irma Goes West (1950)

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The famous radio sitcom gets another big screen go-round in this diverting entertainment whose principal attraction is the Lewis-Martin team, sidekicks to wannabe card sharp John Lund, Hollywood actress Wilson and singer Lynn. Lewis’ goofy scenes with a chimp are very funny and even the PC crowd will forgive him for redding up as an Indian. (Lewis, that is.) With gangsters, kidnapping, a loony tunes fake producer, TV stardom, and a typically good music track by Leigh Harline. Written by Cy Howard and Parke Levy, directed by Hal Walker.