Journey Into Fear (1943)

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I’m not indispensable! There are plenty of men with my qualifications! Howard Graham (Joseph Cotten) an American gunnery engineer in Istanbul becomes the target of a Nazi assassination due to his involvement in improving the Turkish navy. With the help of the chief of the Turkish secret police Colonel Haki (an underplaying Orson Welles) who doesn’t want the Germans killing him on his watch, Graham escapes from his hotel where he’s booked in with his wife Stephanie (Ruth Warrick) to board a ship to safety, leaving his wife behind. On board, he encounters a number of passengers, including the dancer Josette Martel (Dolores del Río). However, the passenger Peter Banat (Jack Moss) is not who he appears to be and as we know from the opening scene he’s in Istanbul to carry out an assassination…You’re a ballistics expert and you’ve never fired one of these things?! Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten adapted Eric Ambler’s transeuropean spy novel (with uncredited contributions by Richard Collins) and Welles also co-directed the film (uncredited) with Norman Foster. The protagonist is altered from the novel and there are as many blind alleys as there are red herrings in this confusing mélange but it’s still what Graham Greene would call an entertainment with the Mercury Theater/Citizen Kane crew augmented by the stunning Dolores Del Rio in pussycat headgear. Ah, you have this advantage over the soldier, Mr. Graham. You can run away without being a coward.  There’s a level of wit (including some amusing sound edits and the song I’d Know You Anywhere) in the enterprise which you’d expect from all concerned and a nice role for Everett Sloane as Kopeikin – whoever he might be! Despite its being butchered by RKO (Ambler reportedly didn’t even recognise the story as his own at a screening) and its original narration being removed (restored for a screening at Locarno some years back) there are still enough flourishes to flatter Welles in his detective/thriller-directing incarnation and a very enjoyable high stakes finale. You are going to hospital. You are going to have typhus!

 

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The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

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I killed someone! I killed someone! Thirty-year old Audrey Stockton (Mila Kunis) is a drab woman living in LA who has just been dumped – by text! – by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux).  Best friend Morgan Freeman (Kate McKinnon) is trying to cheer her up on a night out. They vow to burn the shit he left behind in the apartment the women share. Drew calls her while he’s on a job – which involves killing people. He reappears and admits to Audrey that he’s CIA, it emerges he is a secret agent as bullets fall around them, and with his dying breath after being shot by a Ukrainian that Morgan picked up at the bar, he asks that Audrey go to Vienna to fulfill his mission and save countless lives. He gives her a Fantasy Football trophy and instructs her to meet someone called Verne at the Cafe Schiel in Vienna. The women have never been to Europe and when another secret agent, the dashing English Sebastian (Sam Heughan), gets involved it becomes less clear who the goodies and baddies really are. But the gals have been bitten by the spy bug, and are determined to save those countless lives all the same especially since it means travelling to Prague, Budapest, Paris and Berlin. Inadvertently they find they have skills that come in handy when they’re being tortured by deranged criminals. They are tagged by hitwoman/model/gymanst Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno) who’s umbilically attached to her balance beam and winds up looking like The Terminator … What can I say? I didn’t even know this existed before yesterday and I just saw one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a while. And that includes the slowest getaway in movie history (it’s a stick shift…)  followed by a brilliant car and bike chase that just might the wackiest since … Wacky Races. This starts with a chase in Lithuania and after dirty tricks in LA plays out in Eastern Europe before swiftly migrating to safer soil in France and Berlin – so we’re back in comfortable old Cold War territory. There’s a double-double cross with that suspect but super-handsome English agent and his co-worker Duffer (Hasan Minhaj) and some straight up objectifying adoration of their boss Wendy (Gillian Anderson) by hero-worshipping Morgan who realises she is ‘a little much’. Mother, did you get the two dick pics I sent you? This knows its spy tropes but it also knows female friendship and they’re a contrasting pair: McKinnon is the OTT over-sharing feminist actress (who’s trained in trapeze at the New Jersey Circus School!) to Kunis’ organic food store worker straight woman and she’s kinda great. She gets to act out in a zany way that wasn’t visible in the Ghostbusters retread and makes this work. The more honed script here lets her loose in a controlled and satisfying form that pays dramatic dividends – her action finale is fabulous. Kunis’ role suffers somewhat as a result of the climactic sequence but there’s a payoff in the credits (stay to watch them).  With Jane Curtin and Paul Reiser at the end of a phone to offer endless support to their needy daughter Morgan, an extraordinarily good ‘Edward Snowden’ scene (he had a thing for Morgan back in camp), this has comic chops, a lot of rude elements, actual toilet humour and some very dodgy songs on the soundtrack. It may be a spoof and follow in the big boots left by Melissa McCarthy in the hilarious Spy but it’s the most violent one I can recall and is like the souped-up Interrail trip you really wish you had taken the year you did Yerp. With, y’know, grenades and guns and thumbs and stuff. Completely daft and occasionally hilarious and never, ever dull! Written and directed by Susanna Fogel, with David Iserson on co-writing duties.  Oh my God, it’s a stick shift! Do you know how to drive a stick shift? / No!  / How do you change gear?  / What’s a gear? / Abort! Abort Mission! Go!

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

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Close your eyes. Traumatised war veteran Joe Rogers (Joaquin Phoenix) tracks down child traffickers for a living. He lives a small life with his mom (Judith Roberts) in between assignments. When he’s hired to find Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) the kidnapped thirteen-year old daughter of a senator he finds himself engulfed in a violent conspiracy and he vows to get the child back after she’s snatched from their hideout. But can he hold it together long enough to find her?… I want you to hurt them. No synopsis can capture or justify the sonorous strangeness of this film.  Lynne Ramsay’s gimlet eye for observation and composition was present in her first short films twenty years ago. Now her images remind one of Bresson, Kubrick, Melville. But scuzzy Phoenix is not the beautiful Delon – he’s a former soldier traumatised by PTSD and  haunted by the abuse he and his mother suffered at the hands of his father. (It’s not everyone whose safe place is in the closet with a polythene garment bag around their head.)  Nina’s numbed silence matches his flashbacks to terror – as more unspools in front of him. This is a chance for a kind of redemption, especially when the unknown thugs hurt his beloved mother who happens to have been watching Psycho when we first meet her. Some of the action is just avoided – we see Joe exit rooms via close circuit camera. We see what is absolutely necessary to understand his perspective – including snapshots of his life in the war zone which blurt into the action when he’s driving, struggling to stay conscious. It denies us the usual thrill of the chase. Who is Sandy, whose name chain figures largely at the beginning? Where were those other dead girls? His point of view is everything:  it simply propels us forward as the superfluous is jettisoned. We are left to imagine the sexual violence perpetrated:  it’s a refined approach to action which has its own reasoning, contrasting deeply with the beautifully drawn domesticity of Joe’s life with his mom. There are no explanations as to the sex slavery ring run at the higher echelons of public office.  If this doesn’t quite attain the levels of poetic one expects it packs a hell of a wallop. Ramsay adapted the book by Jonathan Ames and it’s shot by Thomas Townend with a score by Jonny Greenwood and despite the many ironic songs used in an inspired auditory experience courtesy of Paul Davies, nobody thought of If I Had a Hammer, Joe’s weapon of choice.  Sparse and sinewy, this tightly wound paean to suffering inhabits the mind. Hey Joe, wake up. Let’s go. It’s a beautiful day

John Wick Chapter Two (2017)

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He once killed three men in a bar with a pencil. Who the fuck can do that? John Wick, that’s who. They killed his wife, his puppy and stole his Mustang last time out. It’s four days later and he’s got his car back (John Leguiziamo tells him it’ll be fixed by 2030). Then the Camorra burn his house down because he won’t do as they ask. So he very reluctantly takes a marker to kill the guy’s sister in Rome before she takes a seat at the top table of gangsters. He’s taken care of at the Continental by the most accommodating hotel manager you’ve never met, Franco Nero. There’s an incredible bathtub scene with a woman in a pool of blood like a suicided angel. Then the chase through the catacombs by a rapper (Common) with a grudge on behalf of his dead employer… And revenge will swiftly follow. After an operatic orgiastic surrender to extraordinary violence Ian McShane puts every hitman on the planet on his tail. Them’s the breaks! I will kill them all, vows Wick. He’s got an hour – what a cliffhanging ending! A perfect setup for the next installment with the impressively inexpressive Keanu Reeves, the angriest widowed hitman on the planet, now injured, in trouble, waiting for the insurance company to pay up on his house and his new puppy padding at his heels with 59 minutes to go and running for his life as even the homeless killers in NYC are booked for the next job … What an awesome exercise in kinetic action, coupled with extraordinarily beautiful visuals (kudos to DoP Dan Laustsen) constituting an ode to blood-letting and architecture and the odd nod to religion (his home is referred to as The Priest’s Temple) and perhaps secret societies. With an old school Commodore and typists putting out the word for his head on a stick (or a pencil) in a very elaborate Heath Robinson contraption, this has oodles of style and savoir faire with a fair bit of swagger to spare and just the correct amount of terse, witty dialogue. The bleed is in the aorta. Pull it out and you will die. Consider this a professional courtesy. The perfect antidote to Christmas! Written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Chad Stahelski.

Did You Hear About The Morgans? (2009)

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Those two are worse then Pete the Butcher. Recently separated NYC couple realtor Meryl (Sarah Jessica Parker) and lawyer Paul (Hugh Grant) have a civilised dinner and on the way home witness a murder. They have to leave their busy lives and go in the Witness Protection Programme, winding up in rural Ray, Wyoming with wily sheriff Clay (Sam Elliott) and his gun-toting wife Emma (Mary Steenburgen). Not only do they have to sleep under the one roof with just Clint Eastwood and John Wayne dvds, they get to experience life without traffic noise, cashmere and learn about each other, all over again, in between getting to shoot and ride. Because there isn’t a lot else to do.  She’s going nuts. And Paul finds out that he wasn’t the only one to be unfaithful after they had fertility issues. But they look up at the sky and see the stars – a view you can only get in the Planetarium! And then they win at the local Bingo game. What’s not to like?! Back in NYC their assistants (Elisabeth Moss and Michael Kelly) argue about whether they should call them and the hitman who saw them do his day job has the line bugged … Comic auteur Marc Lawrence reunites with his favourite leading man and mines the heck out of this fish out of water scenario with Grant giving an enjoyably droll performance even when he’s getting bear-sprayed in the eye. Very amusing indeed with some hilarious lines.

The Accountant (2016)

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I have no idea how to interpret why people do what they do. That makes two of us, bub. Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is the autistic number cruncher working out of a strip mall south of Chicago. But he’s being hunted down by a T-man (JK Simmons) whose pursuit has some personal impetus. Is it possible that Wolff – who likes target practice – is laundering money for the Mob? And is a decent hitman to boot? There are flashbacks to a troubled child whose mom walks out and whose military dad takes him and his brother all over the world to learn fight techniques. When Christian is hired to look at the books of a robotics technology firm run by Lamar Blackburn  (John Lithgow) his mathematical genius uncovers a plot nobody thought he would uncover and the eccentric accountant Dana (Anna Kendrick) at the firm could wind up as collateral damage as a string of hits is carried out. There’s a hard man Brax (Jon Bernthal) who is being deployed to off awkward embezzlers – and is currently including Christian in his sights. … What a weird idea. An autistic assassin-accountant. And yet the DNA of this is so tightly wound around parallel plots – the psychodrama of a mentally ill child genius combined with a government hunt for money launderers and it gets tighter as  it progresses. Bonkers, with an astutely cast Affleck (line readings were never his thing) in a thriller like no other. Adding up, with more bodies. That’s mental illness for ya. If you can see the end coming you are a better man than I. You might even BE a man. Written by Bill Dubuque and directed by Gavin O’Connor.

American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

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Frederick Forsyth was my gateway drug to faction:  novels based more or less truly on historical incident. You could trust him because he had a long history as a respected and conscientious journalist. And what a way with plot! This story of a 1960s assassination attempt on the despised French President Charles de Gaulle by disgruntled members of the exiled OAS (the militant underground) would seem to have nothing much going for it on the surface:  the outcome, for one. But the trick here is brilliant.  These patriots hire a British hitman (Edward Fox) who is completely unknown to the authorities. And as he gathers the materiel required for such an audacious once-in-a-lifetime evenement and removes all the human obstacles in his path, we realise, at the foregone but nail-biting conclusion, that we know absolutely nothing about him at all.  This is narrative sleight of hand at its best. And it is crucial to the tension that the ruthless professional Jackal remains a complete enigma, a mystery at the heart of a brilliantly staged action thriller with a great supporting cast. His nemesis proves to be a Parisian police detective (Michael Lonsdale) determined to root out this threat to democracy.  Adapted by Scottish-American screenwriter Kenneth Ross who would perform the same miracle with The Odessa File. Gripping outing by director Fred Zinnemann who meshes his predilection for documentary-style realism with all the tricks of a cinema of attractions. Flawlessly executed.

Collateral (2004)

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Michael Mann took digital to a new level with this limpid portrait of nighttime LA in a story of taxi driver Max (Jamie Foxx) whose latest ride is hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise) carrying out a clutch of killings. His last mark is a prosecutor (Jada Pinkett Smith) whom the driver gave a ride and wants to save. Stylish, lean and beautifully written by Stuart Beattie, this is a perfect mesh of star performance and genre, heading for a climax almost out of Jean-Pierre Melville with two contrasting characters struggling with the fallout from their occupations. Made with care, this is a pretty perfect film.

Bullitt (1968)

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Steve McQueen. A Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback. The greatest car chase ever filmed (until The French Connection). Jacqueline Bisset as the beautiful and intelligent love interest.  A fairly routine police procedural adapted from the novel Mute Witness was elevated to something approaching mythic precisely because McQueen’s innate cool transforms the material by virtue of his being allowed to be himself under Peter Yates’ careful direction. He’s up against a senator (Magnificent Seven co-star Robert Vaughn) with an agenda to shut down a Mafia investigation while Steve has to keep his witness hidden and find out what’s really going on. Adapted by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner from the novel by Robert L. Fish (or Pike!). Just listen to Lalo Schifrin’s score! Truly iconic.