The Eiger Sanction (1975)

The Eiger Sanction

Why am I the only one that can perform the sanction? Art professor and collector Dr. Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) a retired assassin for C2 a secret Government organisation run by albino Dragon (Thayer David), is blackmailed into returning to his deadly profession and do one more ‘sanction,’ a euphemism for killing. Duped by C2 operative Jemima Brown (Vonetta McGee), he agrees to join an international climbing team in Switzerland planning an ascent north face of the Eiger Mountain in order to complete a second sanction to avenge the murder of old friend, Wormwood aka Henri Baq who fought with him in the Green Berets back in Indochina.  He trains with another friend from his climbing days, Ben Bowman (George Kennedy) who runs a school in the desert where another Indochina ally, flamboyant gay hit man Miles Mellough (Jack Cassidy) turns up and tries to kill Hemlock. Ben is leading the Eiger team and when Hemlock is tracking the killer, he finds himself on a treacherous mountain passage, unable to identify his target … You’re getting religion a little late. A barmy enterprise for Clint Eastwood to star in and direct but not without its consolations – a deal of wit; awesome photography (by Frank Stanley) of the locations in Monument Valley, the southwest and Switzerland; and terrific characterisation – but that all depends on caricature, homophobia and race stereotyping typical of the era.  So it goes in a text that was fatally misunderstood:  the novel on which it was based by the pseudonymous ‘Trevanian’ was a spoof – and in a later book he called it ‘vapid’ in a footnote! Eastwood did his own stunts, training for months and it is actually astonishing to see a star of his magnitude defying death at such extreme heights. One of the experienced mountaineers employed on the team wasn’t so fortunate:  British climber David Knowles died on the second day of filming in what was a very dangerous shoot. It’s good to see Kennedy and Eastwood working together again after Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and the romance with blaxploitation star McGee is certainly progressive but it’s Cassidy as the unbelievably dangerous cissy who steals the show in an unforgettable performance. Adapted by Trevanian (actually film scholar Rodney Whitaker) and mystery novelist Warren Murphy. Wish-fulfilment writ large, this is a lot of stylish fun. Here’s to the selfish killer and patriotic whore

Bad Education (2019)

Bad Education

You were always the guy in the suits. Long Island, New York, 2002. Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is the superintendent of Roslyn School District which oversees Roslyn High School. Frank, along with his assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) have overseen major improvements in the district, with Roslyn becoming the 4th ranked public school in the country under their watch. This in turn stimulates the local economy, reaping rewards for school board head and real estate broker Bob Spicer (Ray Romano). Frank is beloved by students and parents alike, and sought after by women; Frank claims to have lost his wife several years ago, but is in fact gay, living with Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella) in NYC. While attending a conference in Las Vegas, Frank begins an affair with former student Kyle Contreras (Rafeal Casal) who has given up his dream of writing sci fi for waiting tables and dancing. While writing an article for the Roslyn school paper about an $8m sky bridge the school is planning to construct, student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) begins to discover discrepancies in the district’s finances. Unbeknownst to anyone at the school, Frank and Pam are co-conspirators in a massive embezzlement scheme that has cost millions of taxpayer dollars and her steady research leads all the way to the top and when Frank gives up Pam there will be hell to pay ... We come in here at the crack of dawn because we’re good people.  We want you to have a good life. Adapted from Bad Superintendent, a story by Robert Kolker in New York magazine by Mike Makowsky, who was a middle school student in that school district when Tassone was arrested for grand larceny.  Viswanathan isn’t a particularly interesting performer but she does what all journalists have done since watching All the President’s Men – she follows the money. It’s dogged old-school reporting stuff, looking at purchase orders, not finding receipts and then questioning everyone concerned.  It’s fun to see those moments with her doubtful student paper editor Nick Fleischman (Alex Wolff) doing a junior Ben Bradlee. The moment one hour in where she finds the so-called offices of the school’s pamphlet producer and realises it’s Tassone’s plush apartment where he’s co-habiting with a man is brilliantly done – capped when Tassone arrives and sees her desperate to leave the building. Jackman is superb as a charismatic man with many secrets, utilising his ability to psychoanalyse everyone around him to get the better of them since he seems to care so much about them. For the longest time we don’t even know the extent of his involvement as information is drip fed slowly through the narrative. His vanity is reflected in the scenes with him attending to his cosmetic routine, culminating in surgery. Jackman finds ways to plumb the breadth of the character and elicit empathy, stealing our hearts as easily as expensing first class flights to London with his boyfriend and deflecting come-ons from women in the parents’ association book club. Janney is superb in a chewy role – able to talk her way out of trouble, trying to buy her children’s affections even when her son is a total loser and ultimately choosing the path of revenge. Erring more on the dramatic rather than the comedic side of genre, this gives a rare insight into white collar crime – the quotidian corruption that afflicts cosy cartels running public bodies leading to those occasional stupefying headlines when you see something has gone bust yet all the admin people are living high on the hog while their workplaces are falling apart with damp. The sidebars about food intake, digestive issues, cosmetics, clothes, jewellery, pushy parenting and spoiling wrong ‘uns are well judged subplots amplifying the drudgery of the teaching environment and the desire to rise above the mere plebs. It’s wordy, it’s smart, it’s filled with people covering their asses and it’s called the ring of truth. Directed by Cory Finley. I am not the sociopath here

Road to Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition

Where would this town be without Mr John Rooney? In 1931 Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hitman and enforcer for Irish-American mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) in the Rock Island area. His son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) hides in the car one night after the wake for one of Rooney’s henchmen and sees his Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) administer a shot in the head to the dead man’s brother Finn (Ciarán Hinds) who talked too much at the event; while he understands for the first time what his father does for a living when he witnesses the bloodshed. Rooney sends Connor to kill Michael and the boy but Connor instead kills his wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and other son Peter (Liam Aiken) in cold blood and Michael goes on the run with Michael Jr in an attempt to gain revenge for his family’s murder. He finds that he has no friends and no protection and is advised by Mafia man Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to give up. He reckons without a freelance corpse photographer Maguire (Jude Law) following him and thinks that by uncovering Connor’s theft that Rooney will accept him as the son he never had … A man of honour always pays his debts and keeps his word. I like this far better now that years have passed, Newman is gone and what I originally thought of as directorial heavy-handedness is more readily recognisable as a comfort with the excessive expressionistic qualities of the source material. Hanks’ doughy face with its deep-set eyes seems peculiarly unsuited for this kind of role but paradoxically lends the performance an unexpected quality. His six-week road trip with his son gives him an opportunity to impart lessons and learn about the boy for the first time. He makes us know that Michael Jr is not to follow him into this deadly business. His scenes with Newman are marvellous – a kind of trading off in acting styles, one legend passing on lessons to the next, borne out in the storytelling. What Michael doesn’t know is that blood means more than sympathy, no matter the horrors involved in being part of the Rooney family. Of course Connor would betray his father;  and of course his father knows. It’s a hard thing to watch Michael learn the truth. Loyalty sucks. This is a gallery of masculine roles – Craig as the ever-smiling psychotic son, Law as the rotten-toothed shooter masquerading as the photographer of death – a correlative of the film’s own morbidity; Hoechlin as the boy learning at his father’s elbow as the guns go off. Hinds impresses in those early scenes, quietly seething then mouthing off at his brother’s wake, a crime which will  not go unpunished. Dylan Baker’s accountant Alexander Rance has a decidedly old-fashioned homosexual taint of prissiness. This is a linear story of fathers and sons, cause and effect, crime, punishment and revenge in an Oedipal setting dictated by the rules of inevitability that can be traced to Greek tragedy. There are no surprises but the pleasures of the production design by Dennis Gassner, the cinematography by Conrad Hall (who earned a posthumous Academy Award) and the performances make this worth a re-viewing. Screenplay by David Self from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers

Mr Jones (2019)

Mr Jones

The Soviets have built more in five years than our Government has in ten. In 1933, Gareth Jones (James Norton) is an ambitious young Welsh journalist who has gained renown for his interview with Adolf Hitler. Thanks to his connections to Britain’s former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), he is able to get official permission to travel to the Soviet Union. Jones intends to try and interview Stalin and find out more about the Soviet Union’s economic expansion and its apparently successful five-year development plan. Jones is restricted to Moscow where he encounters Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) a libertine who sticks to the Communist Party line.  He befriends and romances German journalist Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) who reluctantly sees him follow the path of murdered journalist Kleb in pursuit of a story. He jumps his train and travels unofficially to Ukraine to discover evidence of the Holodomor (famine) including empty villages, starving people, cannibalism, and the enforced collection of grain exported out of the region while millions die. He escapes with his life because Duranty bargains for it on condition he report nothing but lies. On his return to the UK he struggles to get the true story taken seriously and is forced to return home to Wales in ignominy … They are killing us. Millions.  Framed by the writing of Animal Farm after a credulous commie-admiring Eric Blair aka George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) expresses disbelief that Stalin is anything but a good guy, this is an oddly diffident telling of a shocking true story that’s art-directed within an inch of its life. Introducing Orwell feels like a disservice to Jones. Norton has a difficult job because the screenplay by Andrea Chalupa is too mannerly and the film’s aesthetic betrays his intent. Director Agnieszka Holland is a fine filmmaker but the colour grading, the great lighting (there’s even a red night sky shot from below as Jones and Brooks walk through Moscow) and the excessive use of handheld shooting to express Jones’ inner turmoil somehow detracts from the original fake news story. It happens three times during food scenes including when he realises he’s eating some kids’ older brother. Shocking but somehow not surprising and amazingly relevant given the present state of totalitarian things, everywhere, in a world where Presidents express the wish to have journalists executed and some of them succeed. Some things never change. Chilling. I have no expectations. I just have questions

The Party’s Just Beginning (2018)

The Partys Just Beginning

Fuck you for leaving me. Liusaidh (pronounced Lucy) (Karen Gillan) is a 24-year-old woman from Inverness in Scotland. Stuck in a dead-end job selling cheese at a supermarket, she spends her evenings binge drinking and having sex in the alley with strangers. She is coping with the suicide of her best friend, Alistair (Matthew Beard) who died by jumping off a bridge in front of a train almost a year earlier after struggling with his homosexuality and decision to transition to female due to his unrequited love for door to door evangelist Ben (Jamie Quinn). Liusaidh keeps flashing back to the previous year with Alistair. She meets a stranger (Lee Pace) at a bar and has sex with him in his hotel room. He tracks her down and the two have a few more sexual encounters before he informs her that he is returning home and takes a call from his young daughter who lives with his ex-wife. Walking home at night after another night out, Liusaidh passes the bridge where Alistair committed suicide. She is surprised to see the stranger there, apparently about to kill himself, and she manages to talk him down. The two spend time together and though Liusaidh asks him to stay, he decides to leave, this time for real. Before he does Liusaidh tells him her name, and he tells her that his name is Dale. She is fired from her job after she misses several days of work, and spirals further out of control. On Christmas, the anniversary of Alistair’s death, she blacks out and is gang raped by three men after she’s blacked out following a boozy night. She goes home to see her mother (Siobhan Redmond) still socializing with her friends (including Daniela Nardini – so good to see her again). On the phone she talks to the unnamed old man she has been talking to throughout the film, who abandoned his children after his wife died. She opens up about what happened and cries. Her estranged father overhears the conversation, and when she tries to leave for the night he tries to talk to her but she is suicidal … You are literally changing your gender to be with this guy. This occasionally ugly ode to self-harm has echoes of the French New Wave and its focus on the female protagonist specifically reminds one of Agnès Varda’s work but it has a lot of flaws in tone and the lack of plot clarity and spatial distinction reinforces this (I misunderstood the concluding twist which has to do with the house phone being supposedly mistaken as a help line – I think).  Actor Karen Gillan is making her writing and directing debut and she is a fearless performer whose Scottish origins call to mind that great contemporary author Alan Warner who has similarly dealt inventively with bereavement and hedonism in the story of a Scottish shop assistant in Morvern Callar, filmed with Samantha Morton. Gillan is matched by the wonderful Pace as Dale and there are some interesting scenes with Redmond and some ‘amusing’ ones with Liusaidh’s friend Donna who is a truly atrocious stepmother. The pitch from drama to black comedy doesn’t work, but the comedy works better than the drama. However overall it’s let down by a terrible sound mix which is an affliction shared by many recent low budget productions and makes it tough to endure beyond the confused treatment of the subject matter and Alastair’s tragic gay character with Pepijn Caudron’s score blasting us all over the shop and into kingdom come, millennial style.  It’s time to wake up now

 

Happy 60th Birthday Psycho (1960) 16th June 2020!

Psycho theatricalJanet Leigh in PsychoPSYCHO shower scene stills

The film that changed everything premiered on this day at the DeMille Theater in New York City sixty years ago. From its mordant premise to its stunning performances and exquisite mise-en-scène, the cod Freudianism and the cutting – culminating in the shower scene, that masterpiece of montage, this is Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. Happy birthday to Psycho!

Smashing Time (1967)

Smashing Time large

I do love your accent. It’s so tuned in. Selfish Yvonne (Lynn Redgrave) and her best friend frumpy Brenda (Rita Tushingham) leave the drab North of England and head for London with dreams of hitting the big time, their ideas of the place dominated by what they read in trendy magazines. But when they arrive and quickly lose their savings to a robber, they find that city life is tougher than expected and success may be more elusive than they planned. Yvonne hits Carnaby Street where she encounters trendy photographer Tom Wabe (Michael York) and then lucks her way into TV and achieves celebrity when she unexpectedly turns a bad song into a hit single.  She begins to wonder about the cost of fame, and the whereabouts of her old friend who has become Tom’s modelling muse and is now the face of a cosmetics campaign including the perfume Direct Action which uses footage from protests in its TV advertising … Ain’t she smashing when she gets the needle! Screenwriter George Melly (yes, the same jazz hero) has a ball making fun of the Swinging London scene with ‘Brenda’ and ‘Yvonne’ which were the nicknames given to the Queen and Princess Margaret by Private Eye magazine. Director Desmond Davis had previously directed Tushingham and Redgrave in The Girl With Green Eyes and they clearly have a rapport – their burning charisma has a lot to contend with in a narrative that is essentially ten slapstick scene-sequences (including a pie fight) so there’s a lot of wide-eyed mugging as well as some nifty lingo. Effectively our lovely ladies are turned into a distaff Laurel and Hardy. Tushingham’s A Taste of Honey co-star Murray Melvin makes an appearance, Ian Carmichael does a kind of class throwback as a nightclub lech who gets his back at his, Anna Quayle scores as posh shop-owner Charlotte who doesn’t want to sell anything, Arthur Mullard and Sam Kydd have a knockabout in a greasy spoon and Irene Handl seems to appear with one of her own chihuahuas in the vintage clothes shop. The last scene is literally set to overload and the pair see the ludicrousness of the cool gang for themselves even if they’ve briefly been their icons. The garish glare of the ‘happening’ places is physically some distance from the rest of London, which is shot in several tracking shots, revealing its true grimy drabness. The songs are a lot of fun in a pastiche score by John Addison. A time capsule that might even have been too late by the time it was released but a must for fans of the appealing stars whose sheer exuberance lights up the screen.  Watch out for the psychedelic group Tomorrow. Thanks to Talking Pictures for putting this on their schedule.  I may be green but I’m not cabbage-coloured

The Girl With a Pistol (1968)

The Girl With a Pistol

Aka La Ragazza con la Pistola. Her you should kill – not you! In a small village in Sicily, Assunta (Monica Vitti) is seduced by Vincenzo (Carlo Giuffré) after he kidnaps her thinking she’s her fat cousin and takes her to his remote country home. He plans to dishonour her and thereby win her hand in marriage. However she likes sex so much it frightens him and he runs away the day after they become lovers. According to the local traditions Assunta and her sisters are unable to marry unless someone in the family kills the offender and restores the family’s honour. She leaves for England where Vincenzo has fled. Assunta finds herself intimidated by the different culture, but transforms herself into a Swinging Sixties mod and resolutely travels to Edinburgh, Sheffield, Bath, and London in search of Vincenzo in order to kill him. She befriends rugby player John (Tony Booth) in Sheffield and tries to locate Vincenzo in Bath where hospital staff cover for him. After an accident, Assunta is hospitalised; she meets a cute and lovelorn failed suicide Frank Hogan (Corin Redgrave) who takes her blood donation and who advises her to forget about Vincenzo, and to devote herself to him. Dr Osborne (Stanley Baker) takes her to a gay pub and shows him Frank’s cheating ex – a man. She falls for divorced and soon she creates for herself a new and wonderful life in England but there’s still the matter of Vincenzo … The ones who cut their wrists always remember to bring their blood group. Directed by Mario Monicelli, a name not really remembered now but he was a masterful comedy auteur and this was nominated for an Academy Award. Vitti previously performed in his 1964 film High Infidelity and 1966’s Sex Quartet (aka The Queens). Luigi Magni and Rodolfo Sonego’s script capitalises on Vitti’s top comic talent and her glorious beauty:  we really don’t believe she’s a dowdy country girl, do we? Her transformation into a London fashionista is very amusing and her deadpan delivery really works. It’s nice to see some familiar British faces like Redgrave and Booth (with Johnny Briggs making a small splash) and it all looks like a terrific jaunt with good jokes about translation and kilts. And, she gets hers, just not in the way she planned. It’s an interesting companion piece to view alongside her other British film, Modesty Blaise and there’s plenty of nutty, good looking fun even if Vincenzo’s parting comments leave a sort of nasty aftertaste. My aim was not good!

Europa (1991)

Europa theatrical

Aka Zentropa. I thought the war was over. Just after World War II Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American of German descent takes a job on the Zentropa train line in US-occupied Germany to help the country rebuild. He becomes a sleeping-car conductor under the tutelage of his drunken uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård). He falls under the spell of the mysterious Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa) daughter of Zentropa railway magnate Max (Jørgen Reenberg) whose friendship with US Colonel Harris (Eddie Constantine) has raised hackles. Her gay brother Lawrence (Udo Kier) is the family embarrassment because like Leopold he didn’t serve his country. Leopold inadvertently becomes embroiled with a pro-Nazi fascist organisation known as the Werewolves who are conspiring to overthrow the state. Simultaneously being used by the US Army, Leopold finds neutrality an impossible position … I understand unemployment in Germany a lot better now. It costs too much to work here. Danish auteur Lars von Trier made this great train thriller long before he became a trying controversialist down the Dogma 95 rabbit hole. It plugs into that febrile post-war atmosphere which we already know from films of the late 40s like Berlin Express as well as sensational character-driven pre-war comedy thrillers like The Lady Vanishes. It’s the final part of the director’s first trilogy (following The Element of Crime and The Epidemic) and it gained a lot of kudos upon release, particularly for its visual style, principally shot in black and white with rear projections in colour (photographed by Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski and Jean-Paul Meurisse) lending an eerie aspect to what is already an innovative production, shifting tone as surely as it shifts pigments. The hypnotic (literally) narration by Max von Sydow lulls you into submission like the mesmerising shuffle of the carriages along the tracks; while the charm of the leading man on his journey which is physical, emotional and political, all at once, carries you through a sensitive yet experimental scenario.The miraculous editing achievement is by Hervé Schneid. It feels like a new kind of film is being born, reformulating the grammar of the language with its surrealist nods and noir references. A cult item from the casting of Kier and Constantine alone, with Sukowa’s role harking back to her Fassbinder films, this is a classic of modern European cinema. Written by von Trier (who appears as a Jew) & Niels Vørsel with a shooting script by von Trier & Tómas Gislason. You have carried out your orders. Now relax

 

 

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)

The Pink Panther Strikes Again

Do you know what kind of bomb it was?/The exploding kind. Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) escapes from a mental hospital and determines to commandeer a Doomsday machine invented by Dr Hugo Fassbender (Richard Vernon) in order to wipe out the entire world if necessary – just as long as he can kiss his bête noire Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) farewell. He kidnaps Fassbender and his daughter Margo  (Briony McRoberts) and holds them captive in his Bavarian castle but not willing to take any chances, he also hires a series of hitmen (Eddie Stacey, Herb Tanney, Terry Maidment) to help out. Meanwhile, Clouseau is diverted by the attentions of alluring Russian spy Olga (Lesley-Anne Down) …  Now we’ll see who has the last laugh. They’ve all betrayed me, and now they will have to pay. What shall I destroy? Buckingham Palace? Too small. How about London? Not big enough. England! Yes, England. In which Dreyfus becomes a kind of Blofeld-styled criminal mastermind crossed with Count Dracula, the animated titles pastiche so many genres it’s just a shame they don’t get to pay homage to them all (including Edwards’ wife Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music!). Not as well constructed as the preceding films, this genre mashup does pay dividends in the expertly engineered sight gags and one extended action sequence involving Lom, Sellers and the redoubtable Burt Kwouk as Cato. Some might take issue with the scene in the gay club and the crossdressing performers but this is a scenario that Edwards would plunder to astonishing effect in the later Victor/Victoria. There’s a packed ensemble of English actors and it’s only a shame that the great Leonard Rossiter hasn’t more to do as Clouseau’s shocked opposite number. Look quickly for Omar Sharif as an Egyptian hitman while Byron Kane does a Kissingeresque Secretary of State. Lots of fun but not for the purist – even though it had me from the moment Lom’s eye twitched. Written by Frank Waldman and director Blake Edwards. I thought you said that your dog didn’t bite!/That is not my dog