Marathon Man (1976)

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How am I to fathom your mind if you continue to hide it from me?  Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a Columbia graduate student and long-distance runner who has just enrolled in a doctoral seminar with Prof. Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver) where his focus will be the fate of his father a fellow historian driven to suicide in the McCarthy era purely on the grounds of his Judaism.  He is oblivious to the fact that his older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), is not in fact an oil executive but a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) and who is almost murdered by a blue-eyed Asian hitman in a Paris hotel. Doc visits Babe in NYC and meets his girlfriend the allegedly Swiss Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) whom he figures out immediately as one of Szell’s couriers. Babe doesn’t believe there’s a bad bone in her body.  Doc is murdered and his colleague Janeway (William Devane) tells Babe the muggers who ambushed him in Central Park are Szell’s henchmen but they won’t come for him tonight – but they do, and Babe is held at the end of Szell’s dentist’s drill constantly being asked Is it safe?  He is caught in the middle of a transaction being expedited by The Division who clean up matters arising from disagreements between Washington and the CIA ...  Director John Schlesinger reunited with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman to make this iconic paranoid thriller adaptation by William Goldman of his 1974 novel which invokes all sorts of historic nightmares not to mention the fear of unnecessary dental surgery. For a liberal pacifist you have some sense of vengeance Doc tells Babe when he realises he still has the gun their father used to blow his brains out. The last time I saw this was in the middle of another sleepless night during a three-month bout of glandular fever and the words Is it safe? made it impossible for me to recover, for, oh, probably another month at that point. There might be plotholes you could drive a truck through that not even Robert Towne’s putative and uncredited rewrite fixed but even fully conscious and in broad daylight it remains a transfixing piece of work whose echoes are still felt. The schematic structure is emblematic of a film whose many well-constructed sequences take place in famous locations – Columbia, Central Park, the diamond district, where Szell is recognised by two of his victims. Szell! Der Weisse Engel! shrieks a camp survivor as the old Nazi is ironically forced to get a price for his diamonds from the very race he tortured and executed with extreme prejudice thirty years earlier. The entire text is replete with such irony, expressed by Janeway in the line Everything we do cuts both ways after he supposedly rescues Babe only to deliver him back to the Nazi. The dialogue is biting and great:  I believe in my country/So did we all. Michael Small’s score is superb with a real feel for the emotive fraternal and familial issues underlying the narrative action whose logic turns on the notion of history itself and the versions of truth which we tell ourselves and in turn are told to keep us happy.  He did much the same job on The Parallax View, another paranoid conspiracy thriller whose similarly allusive style (and on which Towne also did some controversial rewrite work during a writers’ strike) makes it the best political film of its time. It looks incredible, thanks to Conrad Hall. Oh the Seventies really had great films. Nowadays they’d probably give Szell a sympathetic backstory. Not so much in real life for Keller whose father actually was a Nazi. History is all around us in this persistent, resonant film. Pauline Kael called it a Jewish revenge fantasy. Goy veh.


The Shape of Water (2017)

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I would say take care of your teeth and fuck a lot more. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, isolated woman who works as a cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security top secret government research laboratory in 1962 Baltimore. Her life changes when she discovers the lab’s classified asset – a mysterious, scaled amphibian creature (Doug Jones) from South America that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend, she soon learns that its fate and very survival lies in the hands of a hostile and violently sadistic government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) and a marine biologist Dimitri (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is actually a Russian spy. With the help of her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her next door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay out of work commercial illustrator, she finds a way to save him and alter her own reality … It all seems so very unlikely – plagiarism suits notwithstanding – Guillermo Del Toro’s homage to his 50s childhood fave, Creature from the Black Lagoon. However this moves like the clappers with just enough time for the very mannered Hawkins to find an appropriate character to suit her mobile features. Tonally it sits somewhere amid the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet with added masturbation and violence, and the creature – except for one appalling scene which as a cat-lover I can’t even bring myself to recall – is remarkably sympathetic. You might call it a politically correct fairytale about interracial sex for the snowflake generation – me, I liked it anywho because it portrays a yearning and an empathy that is very appealing and well played. Co-written with Vanessa Taylor.

Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983) (TVM)

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I’d left it too late. That’s the funny thing – everyone thinks they’re exempt. It’s 1974, and Barbara Dean (Judi Dench) is a British assistant manager and loan officer in a foreign bank in Saigon.  She’s something of a depressive and has to ward off the advances of her co-worker Donald (Roger Rees) while her narration informs us she has been a woman of secrets ever since having an affair with a friend of her father’s at a very young age. She meets an American Bob Chesneau (Frederic Forrest) at the end of a party one night when she’s waiting for a taxi home. She has fended off the interest of Frank (Wallace Shawn), a US Embassy officer with whom she plays bridge. She and Bob begin a relationship and she realises that he’s not a cultural attaché but he works for the CIA and knows that the fall of South Vietnam is very near because sources suggest the North Vietnamese are stepping up plans to take Saigon. Things are heating up at the bank when a member of the public comes in armed with a gun demanding all his money. Barbara delays planning her departure even when she’s helping the locals get passports for their own hasty exits. Bob tries to persuade his boss Jack Ockham (Josef Sommer) and the US Ambassador (E.G. Marshall) to evacuate the South Vietnamese who have been working for them but the Ambassador wants to appease President Thieu’s regime. Bob and Barbara’s relationship suffers under the strain …  Made for Thames TV, this is a real auteur work – an original teleplay by theatrical giant David Hare and directed by Stephen Frears the year before he made The Hit. Dench was likewise a lady of the theatre albeit with some TV in the bag but it was a long time before America discovered her properly in Goldeneye. If the direction feels a little clunky at times, and perhaps it’s due to both the low budget and the schematic constraints of Hare’s writing, there are some good elements. There’s a nice juxtaposition when the Jolly Green Giants swoop into the city and White Christmas is on the soundtrack – as Bob has said, When the radio stations play all Bing Crosby Americans know it’s the end.  This is a rather obvious trope but is used to signify that the US military are really out of their depth. There’s a nicely mounted tension and the intermittent meetings between the US Ambassador and the nervy hard-drinking Ockham, with Shawn’s character providing a kind of Greek chorus, add to the sense of fear. Spooky to think that of the cast it’s Judi Dench who went from strength to strength while the marvellous Forrest has been more or less retired for decades. I haven’t seen him since he played in John Frankenheimer’s last movie 16 years ago, coincidentally another TV movie about Nam, Path to War. Now that is a real injustice. I miss him. George Fenton’s score is nicely understated.



The Invasion (2007)

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Civilisation crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation, we are all capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this was not so, where every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence. Well, this is to imagine a world where human beings cease to be human.  In Washington, D.C. psychologist Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her colleague Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) are the only two people who are aware of an epidemic running rampant through the city. They discover an alien virus aboard a space shuttle that crashed during an unscheduled landing attempt that transforms anyone who comes into contact with it into unfeeling drones while they sleep. The government is calling it a flu virus. Carol realises her son Oliver’s (Jackson Bond) immune system holds the key to stopping the spread of the plague and she races to find him before it is too late but his father, politician ex-husband Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) has taken him out of state … The late great Jack Finney wrote some indelible sci fi that could be used to anatomise and exemplify social forces – so The Body Snatchers has had meaning for generation after generation, commencing with its first (quite brilliant) movie adaptation Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is the fourth effort and its muddled birth in some ways tarnished its critical reputation.  Written variously by David Kajganich and the uncredited Wachowski brothers/sisters and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel with uncredited reshoots by James McTeigue, the original story’s clarity is both lost and highlighted in its city setting:  the quick slide into conformity is more obvious than in the 1956 classic simply because there are so many more people whose transformation is visible on the streets.  The central irony – that a woman controlling her patients’ minds and feelings with pharmaceuticals is now objecting to a world in which by the icky expedient of vomiting on someone’s face or into their coffee (nice) everyone can live in peace minus their individuality or expressivity – is straightforwardly verbalised by Carol’s ex. But the quick running time and the conclusion – collective amnesia, luckily administered Governmentally with yet another vaccine – means the bigger picture of mind control by Big Pharma and Bigger Government (a nasty coinciding of socio-financial interests since, oh, the 1990s?) is sort of lost in a mish-mash of action with awkward acting compounding the stiff plotting. There is one really silly flash forward. Metaphor? Metonymy? How would I know? I am on Day 30 of Aussie flu and can’t get a shot to save my sniffles. But if I said I was depressed they’d be racing to inoculate, n’est-ce pas???…!!! Uneven, but relevant.



Viceroy’s House (2017)

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History is written by the victors. The final Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) arrives with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela (Lily Travers) in 1947 British India where he is tasked with overseeing the transition to independence, but meets with conflict as different sides clash in the face of monumental change. In this vast house, new valet Jeet (Manish Dayal) a former prison officer who left due to his political leanings meets beautiful Alia (Human Qureshi) whom he knew beforehand. She tries to ignore him because he is Hindu and she is Muslim and doesn’t wish to disappoint her invalided father Ali (Om Puri). While Mountbatten tries to balance the arguments about what to do regarding the various parties’ demands – hearing out Jinnah (Denzil Smith), Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) – and Edwina causes consternation among the staff by insisting on diverse meal preparation, Mountbatten realises that Lord Ismay (Michael Gambon) has been carrying out covert work to use partition to create a buffer state between India and the Soviet Union … This was gutted by some commentators and you can see why:  a project that was years in development, culled from several books of differing provenance with a foot in both camps as it were – a heritage romance that deals sharp lessons in politicking culminating in the greatest human migration in history with a million casualties. There are two books credited as the basis for the screenplay and a few writers: the principal source was Narendra Singh Saril’s The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition which was based on secret documents discovered in the British Library;  Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and director Gurinder Chadha are credited as screenwriters. History does not look kindly on Louis Mountbatten, who was, as this film clarifies, something of a stooge for a plan that had been in the London Government’s works for some time. (Maybe). His intentions were good, his overlords’ were anything but, is the arc here. You divided India for oil. Nonetheless the (heavily beautified) portrait of the Mountbatten marriage (no hint of Edwina’s affair with Nehru) with all the attractions of soft power being exercised within and without the household plus the subplot of the below stairs romance which is the only kind of happy ending possible here, is meticulously made. It’s nicely performed, beautifully photographed by Ben Smithard, integrating some great newsreels (real and faux) and sympathetically scored by A.R. Rahman.  Chadha’s personal relationship with the material is clarified in the end credits. As you can see, there are no straight lines in India. MM #1600.


Our Man in Havana (1959)

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Everything’s legal in Havana. Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness) is an English ex-pat living in pre-revolutionary Havana with his vain teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow). He owns a vacuum cleaner shop but isn’t very successful and Milly is annoyed he’s unable to fulfill his promise of a horse and country club membership, so he accepts an offer from Hawthorne (Noel Coward) of the British Secret Service to recruit a network of spies in Cuba. Wormold hasn’t got a clue where to start but when his friend Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) suggests that the best secrets are known to no one, he decides to manufacture a list of agents from people he only knows by sight and provides fictional tales for the benefit of his paymasters in London. He is soon seen as the best agent in the Western hemisphere and is particularly happy with his new friend, the beautiful spy Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara) but it all unravels when the local police decode his cables and everything he has invented bizarrely begins to come true when they start rounding up his network and he learns that he is the target of a group out to kill him… This film is, rather like North by Northwest, a taste of things to come:  an irreverent picture of the Cold War, the assumptions of the West and of course a picture of Cuba on the verge of a revolutionary breakdown (it was shot immediately after the Batista regime was overthrown). Graham Greene was reluctant to let anyone film his novels following the near-desecration of The Quiet American but this novel (the last he would term an entertainment and based on his WW2 experiences in Portugal) survives pretty unscathed with its comic tone evident throughout the cast (albeit Greene hated Maureen O’Hara). Who doesn’t love Ernie Kovacs? Or Guinness, for that matter, who perfectly inhabits this hapless effortful beast Wormold. I particularly liked his take on a game of checkers. Beautifully photographed by the great Oswald Morris  – but in black and white – in Havana?! Why?!  Directed, not by Hitchcock, who had tried to acquire the rights from Greene, but by Carol Reed. It was their third collaboration following The Fallen Idol and The Third ManOne never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.


The Post (2017)

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We have to be a check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable, who will? Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is the first female publisher of The Washington Post. With help from editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Graham races to catch up with The New York Times who are publishing Neil Sheehan’s explosive stories to expose a massive cover-up of Government secrets that spans three decades and four U.S. presidents. Together, they must overcome their differences as they risk their careers and freedom to help bring long-buried truths to light with the Attorney General acting on orders from Nixon to injunct The Times.  A source known to journalist Ben Babdikian (Bob Odenkirk) hiding out in a motel on the other side of the country is sitting with a 4,000 page file from Bob McNamara’s office which demonstrates that the Government knew Vietnam would be lost as early as April 1965… It was all Nora Ephron’s idea. She suggested to Liz Hannah that she should adapt Graham’s memoirs. She wrote a screenplay. Then Josh (Spotlight) Singer rewrote it and it became a reporter’s movie. Why don’t we suppose you’re a writer not a novelist?  As much about sexism as political conspiracy (on that it differs from All the President’s Men, its father superior in the paranoid thriller stakes) this is about a woman making a decision to publish the Pentagon Papers with or without the permission of her all-male board with the shareholders anxious not to upset President Nixon or his cohorts and lower their share value. Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe her advisor has a ball as the man who knows to expect the unexpected and his laugh at the conclusion is as much relief to us as to him. Much of the tension derives from Streep’s inculcating of Graham’s society dame and her realisation that what was acceptable years earlier – her ‘great’ father leaving his legacy to her husband – is no longer necessary and she is a middle aged grandmother finally coming into her own. Her mingling with the upper echelons of Washington society is intrinsic to the process of the story – both the gathering and the telling. Hanks’ interpretation of Bradlee takes a totally different approach than Jason Robards in the earlier film – he is another man entirely, and it’s to the benefit of the text. He is also a society man. The sentimentality of his friendship with JFK literally blinded him to the corruption of the office. Now he needs to kick Government ass. The journalism is fun but not remotely as engaging as ATPM even if it’s entertaining to watch people dropping coins at the phone kiosk and to hear the real recordings of Nixon’s phonecalls which narrate some of the segments. This is a message movie and it has a cliffhanging ending at Watergate! That it finishes on a horribly scored triumphalist note instead of the more pleasing sonorousness of hot metal and type is an aesthetic flaw I find quite unforgivable. Like anyone cares! Jefferson must be rolling in his grave.


Say Anything … (1989)

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– Diane Court is a Brain. – Trapped in the body of a gameshow host. Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) is an underachieving eternal optimist who seeks to capture the heart of Diane Court (Ione Skye) an unattainable high-school beauty and straight-A student who’s been hot-housed by her Dad and barely knows anyone else at high school. She delivers the class valedictorian speech to no appreciative laughs – Dad got it, they don’t. It surprises just about everyone when she goes out with Lloyd to a party where she meets her classmates properly. And it goes much further than even he had dared hope. But her divorced father (John Mahoney) doesn’t approve and it will take more than love to conquer all…  Yup, the one with the boombox!  And what a surprise it was, and remains. A heartfelt, funny and dramatic tale of adolescent love and a first serious relationship after graduation. She’s gorgeous and serious and can Say Anything to her desperately ambitious dad, He’s a kickboxing kook with zero parental obligations (they’re in Germany in the Army) and his only close family in the neighbourhood is his divorced sister (Joan Cusack, his real-life sis) and her little son whom he’s educating early in the martial arts. Cameron Crowe’s debut as writer and director hits a lot of targets with wit, smarts and real empathy for his protagonists who live complex lives in the real world where people go to prison for tax evasion. Lili Taylor has a great role as the semi-suicidal songwriting friend who finally sees through her beastly ex after writing 63 songs about him. Growing up is tough but there’s so much to recognise here not least the fact that every guy in the Eighties had a coat like this! I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen. With lines like this you know you’re not in an ordinary teen romance. This is human, charming and utterly cherishable.


Never Say Never Again (1983)

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They don’t make ’em like they used to. An aging James Bond (Sean Connery) makes a mistake during a routine training mission which leads M (Edward Fox) to believe that the legendary MI6 spy is past his prime. M indefinitely suspends Bond from active duty. He’s sent off to a fat farm where he witnesses SPECTRE member Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) administering a sadistic beating to a fellow patient whose eye she then scans. She and her terrorist colleagues including pilot Jack Petachi (Gavan O’Herlihy) successfully steal two nuclear warheads from the U.S. military for criminal mastermind Blofeld (Max Von Sydow). M must reinstate Bond, as he is the only agent who can beat SPECTRE at their own game. He follows Petachi’s sister Domino (Kim Basinger) with her lover and SPECTRE agent Maximillian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) to the Bahamas and then befriends her at a spa in Nice by posing as a masseur. At a charity event in a casino Bond beats Largo at a video game where the competitors receive electric shocks of increasing intensity. Bond informs Domino Largo’s had her brother killed … There’s an incredible motorbike chase when Blush captures Bond and a really good stunt involving horses in a wild escape from the tower at the top of a temple in North Africa but this isn’t handled as well as you’d like and some of the shooting looks a little rackety:  inexperienced producer Jack Schwartzman had underestimated production costs and wound up having to dig into his own funds. (He was married to actress Talia Shire who has a credit on the film – their son is actor Jason;  his other son John is the film’s cinematographer).  With Rowan Atkinson adding comic relief as the local Foreign Office rep,  Von Sydow as the cat-stroking mad genius and Brandauer giving his best tongue in cheek as the neurotic foe, this is not in the vein of the original Bonds. It’s a remake of Thunderball which was the subject of litigation from producer Kevin McClory who co-wrote the original story with Ivar Bryce and Ian Fleming who then based his novel on the resulting screenplay co-written with Jack Whittingham before any of the films were ever made. (This is covered in Robert Sellers’ book The Battle for Bond). It thereby sideswiped the ‘official’ Broccoli machine by bringing the original Bond back – in the form of a much older Connery in a re-run of his fourth Bond outing which had been massively profitable. Pamela Salem is Moneypenny and is given very little to do;  while Bernie Casey turns up as Felix Leiter. With nice quips about age and fitness (as you’d expect from witty screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. but there were uncredited additions by comic partnership Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais), good scene-setting, glorious women and terrific underwater photography by the legendary marine DoP Ricou Browning, this is the very essence of a self-deprecating late entry – particularly in the wake of Roger Moore’s forays and he wasn’t even done yet: Octopussy came out after this. Fun but not particularly memorable, even if we’re all in on the joke.


The Remains of the Day (1993)


There are times when I think what a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life. In 1930s England James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) serves as butler to the doltish Lord Darlington (James Fox). Stevens is so dedicated that he forgoes visiting his father (Peter Vaughan) on his deathbed in order to serve a bunch of blackshirts dinner. He overlooks Darlington’s Nazi sympathies and growing anti-Semitism even dispensing with the service of two young Jewish refugees who he knows will be returned to Germany. Twenty years after the disgraced Darlington’s death and in the wake of the Suez Crisis Stevens tries to make contact once again with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), Darlington’s head housekeeper who married their former colleague Benn (the late and lamented Tim Pigott-Smith). He travels to see her in the West Country and in the course of his trip begins to regret his blind loyalty and servitude to his former master who pursued a libel case to the detriment of his reputation and whose American critic Congressman Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve) now owns Darlington Hall. Stevens now works for him and his life is utterly unfulfilled. He must make up for lost time. The Merchant Ivory team regroup with their Howards End stars and the amazing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prize winning novel ponders class relations, political naivete and the lack of wisdom in relationships at every conceivable level. A friend of mine commented caustically on it at the time of its release, The fireplaces are wonderful. And it’s true, they are, but that is much too reductive of a project which  cannot translate the more subtle nuances of the novel instead transmitting through performance on a sometimes barely perceptible register of glances or a slight movement what mere writing cannot – the affect of loss and its immense impact on the totality of a life. Hopkins has one of the most difficult roles of his career – the stubborn butler who simply cannot accept the limitations of his boss or his father’s revelation. His refusal to admit emotionality is devastating. His humiliation at the pleasure of his lordship’s house guests makes you squirm on his behalf. Thompson is heartbreaking as the woman who loves him but hurts him rather than tell him directly. Their final leavetaking is horrifying in its simplicity and tragedy. There are two other exquisite scenes and they both predominantly feature fingers:  when Stevens finds his father collapsed and must wrench his fingers from a trolley after the old man has had a stroke;  and when Miss Kenton prises with great difficulty a novel from his own hand to declare rather disbelievingly that it is only a sentimental romance. The fear of embarrassment is all over this epic tale of a country’s honour in microcosm. It is an achievement that seems much larger in retrospect than a quarter of a century ago. A stylish, intelligent, immensely moving drama.