The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

I found the Picasso. It wasn’t easy. I was looking for a woman with a guitar and it was all cubes. It took me two hours to find her nose. It’s the 1930s. Veteran New York insurance investigator C.W. Briggs (Woody Allen) is at daggers drawn with newly recruited efficiency manager Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt): he goes by instinct (and a few well chosen bribes) and she is all about rational thinking. It’s hate at first sight. He trades quips with and about office beauty Jill (Elizabeth Berkeley) while Betty is carrying on with married boss Magruder (Dan Aykroyd) who promises he’ll leave his wife. When they are both hypnotised by crooked nightclub magician Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) on an office outing the pair of them unwittingly carry out jewellery thefts from their own clients and wind up investigating themselves while not falling in love … Germs can’t live in your blood – it’s too cold.  A hilarious tale scripted like a Thirties newspaper screwball with rat-a-tat machine gun banter sprinkled liberally with sexist abuse being fired off in both directions and several nods to Kafka not least when Hunt repeatedly calls Allen variations on the word roach. With Double Indemnity hovering in the background, Theron a smouldering femme fatale just dying to bed Allen and Hunt giving it her best Rosalind Russell, this is sheerly brilliant escapist fare with so many laugh out loud exchanges it’s impossible to hear all the great lines. Is she kidding, talking to me like that? It’s ’cause she thinks she’s smarter… you know, ’cause she graduated from Vassar and I went to driving school

Venetian Bird (1952)

Venetian Bird

Aka The Assassin. A thousand lira should take care of your ethics. English private detective Charles Mercer (Richard Todd) is deployed by a French insurance company to find a brave Italian war hero who is to be rewarded for his assisting of the Allies in WW2. But from the moment Mercer arrives in Venice his first contact is murdered in a shop and he finds himself on the wrong side of the law – he’s the prime suspect. After enquiring about the mysterious Boldesca (Sydney Tafler) at a museum where the art department  is run by the lovely Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok) the trail leads to a glassblowing factory at Murano where he discovers he has wandered into the plot of a coup d’état run by Count Boria (Wolf Rilla) and Lieutenant Longo (John Bailey) and it turns out that the supposedly dead mystery man Uccello (John Gregson) is very much alive and well and ready for action with an important figure visiting the city the following day … There is nothing for you in Venice. Adapted by Victor Canning from his novel, this has the impression of a Third Man-lite and if it doesn’t have that film’s canted chiaroscuro angles or shooting expertise it has an interesting location and an engrossing if initially confusing scenario. Todd (who was Ian Fleming’s preferred choice to play James Bond) acquits himself well in a narrative which involves a lot of running and jumping and standing still behind statues;  Bartok is suitably enigmatic as the woman with a secret;  and Margot Grahame gets some fantastically dry lines in her role as Rosa, a woman of a certain age:  I have never kept a man under my bed in my life. There are sly laughs to be had at the wholly incongruous casting of Gregson and Sid James, of all people, as native Italians. Directed by Ralph Thomas, but one is left wondering how a film of this ambition would have turned out if a master stylist like Carol Reed had taken hold of such promising material:  instead of a nighttime chase in the sewers of Vienna, we have a daytime chase across the rooftops of Venice and there is a political theme that was groundbreaking. The score is by Nino Rota. Produced by Betty Box. Out of weakness and confusion we shall create division and strength

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

Highly Dangerous (1950)

Highly Dangerous

It may not interest you technically but for a large section of humanity it could be a matter of life and death. The British government asks entomologist Frances Gray (Margaret Lockwood) to go behind the Iron Curtain and examine insects that might be used as carriers to spread disease in germ warfare. Grudgingly accepting the job, Frances goes undercover as Frances Conway, a tour director looking for potential holiday destinations and meets tough American reporter Bill Casey (Dane Clark) in the process. Unfortunately, the chief of police Razinski (Marius Goring) quickly sees through Frances’ flimsy cover. Then her contact is murdered and his body left in her hotel room and Frances is taken into custody, prompting Casey to come to her aid… A few months ago some people were shot accidentally in the woods. It was terrible. A vehicle for Lockwood after a period doing theatre, Eric Ambler loosely adapted one of his novels (The Dark Frontier), changed the gender of the protagonist and it’s a spirited adventure. The Ruritanian setting hints at the comedy style, returning Lockwood to a kind of thriller along the lines of The Lady Vanishes – enhanced by the casting of Naunton Wayne as Frances’ recruiter, Hedgerley, Wilfrid Hyde White (after The Third Man) and Goring’s performance as a comedy police chief, enlivening the playfulness. Like The Third Man, Ambler’s script makes a meta issue of storytelling, there’s a torture scene in a TV studio-like location and there are references to soap opera and a character called Frank Conway, the star of a radio serial that Frances listens to for her little nephew and for whom she is re-named. Nicely done with a good mix of intrigue, suspense and fun led by Clark as the inadvertent hero of the situation. Directed by Roy (Ward) Baker. You just can’t do things like that in real life.

Down Three Dark Streets (1954)

Down Three Dark Streets

I kept asking myself, all night long, who would want to such a thing? FBI agent John Ripley (Broderick Crawford) inherits three cases his murdered partner Zack Stewart (Kenneth Tobey) has been investigating, hoping one of them will turn up his killer. Glamourpuss Connie Anderson (Martha Hyer) can be connected to gas station killer Joe Walpo (Joe Bassett). Fashion buyer Kate Martell (Ruth Roman) is getting phonecalls extorting insurance money that she received following her husband’s death and her young daughter is being threatened.When boxer Matty Pavelich (Claude Akins) beats up blind Julie Angelino (Marisa Pavan) her husband Vince (Gene Reynolds) agrees to testify, so another case is tied up … I don’t like men staring at me before lunch. Adapted by The Gordons (Mildred and Gordon) from their novel Case File FBI, this serves as something of a Valentine to that agency although J. Edgar Hoover reputedly objected to the early draft scripts. It’s enlivened by the shift between documentary-style realism, great location shooting and a conventional thriller mode boasting some terrific female performances, particularly Hyer (once touted as the new Grace Kelly) giving it the full Marilyn Monroe as the sexpot link to a mysterious criminal. Roman is her customarily intense self with a problematic household, an aggressive romantic interest (Max Showalter) and a job as a fashion buyer to contend with; while Crawford’s gruff persona suits the no-nonsense lead role. There is some especially piquant dialogue and a gloriously funny moment when an inventor tries to sell him on a Geiger counter for spies (it has a light that comes on when a taxman is in the vicinity). The stories are well put together and it ends (happily, for the viewer at least) at the Hollywood sign in a Los Angeles that is still notably rural, with the freeway almost empty of the traffic to come. Directed by Arnold Laven. Sometimes you meet some nice people in this business

Bananas (1971)

Bananas

And now, as is our annual custom, each citizen of San Marcos will come up here and present his Excellency with his weight in horse manure. Hapless New York product tester Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) desperately attempts to impress attractive social activist  Nancy (Louise Lasser). He travels to the turbulent Latin American country of San Marcos where he falls in with resistance fighters and, before long, accidentally becomes drafted as their leader replacing the crazed Castro-esque Esposito (Jacobo Morales) after foiling an assassination attempt by General Vargas (Carlos Montalbán). While Mellish’s position of authority wins Nancy over, he has to deal with the many burdens of being a dictator but being President just might impress Nancy ... Can you believe that? She says I’m not leader enough for her. Who was she looking for… Hitler? A hoot from glorious start to ridiculous finish, Allen’s hilarious homage to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup has everything: silent musicians (they have no instruments); Swedish deemed the only suitably non-decadent language appropriate for a post-revolutionary society; and a very young Marvin Hamlisch’s first ever score (funny in and of itself). A freewheeling mix of parody, satire, one-liners, sight gags and slapstick, this loose adaptation of Richard B. Powell’s novel Don Quixote USA is co-written with Allen’s longtime close friend, Mickey Rose, who also collaborated on Take the Money and Run. Featuring Howard Cosell, Roger Grimsby and Don Dunphy as themselves. Gleefully bonkers fun in the worst possible taste. Power has driven him mad!

How Awful About Allan (1970) (TVM)

How Awful About Allan

It’s not your ordinary family reunion. Years after being blamed for the fire that killed their father Raymond (Kent Smith) and suffering from psychosomatic blindness, Allan Colleigh (Anthony Perkins) is released from a mental hospital to stay with his disfigured sister Katherine (Julie Harris) and begins to hear voices when mysterious boarder Harold who has throat problems moves in. Meanwhile his ex-fiancée Olive (Joan Hackett) resumes contact and reports that Katherine’s ex-boyfriend Eric (Trent Dolan) is in town, something Katherine denies.  Allan believes Eric and Harold are one and the same …  The home and the property are both valuable and they’re half mine. We’re in true cult territory here with a collaboration between novelist Henry Farrell (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? etc) and director Curtis Harrington with Farrell adapting his 1963 novel which was complimented by none other than Dorothy B. Hughes in The Washington Post. Both men can be considered auteurs in their own right while Perkins of course gave one of the greatest performances in cinema under the direction of Hitchcock but arguably never escaped the shade of Psycho and in truth is replaying some of its more emotive notes here. The cinematography has not aged well but the individual elements and Perkins’ presence compensate in this rather sub-par suburban Gothic with his tape recording of his suspicions the inner voice that drives the narrative. Perkins and Hackett would be reunited three years laster for The Last of Sheila, an intricate shipboard parlour game mystery which he co-wrote with Stephen Sondheim. An ABC Movie of the Week from Aaron Spelling Productions.  We’ll have our afflictions in common, won’t we

Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)

Smillas Sense of Snow.jpg

Aka Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.  The devil assumes many forms. Copenhagen police say otherwise, but amateur scientist Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond) who studies ice crystals in a university lab thinks her young Inuit neighbour Isaiah (Clipper Miano) was chased by an adult before he fell to his death from the roof of their apartment block. The daughter of an Inuit who spent her childhood in Greenland, Smilla learns that the boy’s father died while working for Dr. Andreas Tork (Richard Harris) in Greenland who heads a mining company and she is directed by former accountant Elsa (Vanessa Redgrave) to get an Expedition Report from the firm’s archive.  She asks her father Moritz (Robert Loggia) for help interpreting the information but has to deal with his young girlfriend who resents her interference in their life. After sharing her murder theory with a mysterious neighbour called The Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne) who never seems to go to work, she pursues her suspicions and her life is endangered as the impact of a meteorite hitting Greenland in 1859 is revealed in a reanimated prehistoric worm which proves toxic to human organs Why does such a nice woman have such a rough mouth? Peter Høeg’s novel was very fashionable in the Nineties and encompasses so many issues – identity, language, snow and ice, ecology and exploitation, friendship and bereavement, medical issues, astronomy, being far away from home, being motherless … that you can quite see how difficult it would be to fillet from this a straightforward thriller which is what the cinema machine demands. Ann (Ray Donovan) Biderman does a good job streamlining the narrative threads which form an orbit around Ormond who has a tremendous role here but director Bille August doesn’t really heighten the tensions  sufficiently quickly that they materialise as proper threats. What works as a literary novel seems rather far-fetched on screen when stripped of all those beautiful words. Nonetheless it’s a fascinating story and it’s a shame Ormond’s feature career never had the momentum it once seemed to possess. Costuming by Marit Allen. The way you have a sense of God I have a sense of snow

Zelig (1983)

Zelig

All the themes of our culture were there. In this fictional documentary set during the 1920s and 1930s a non-descript American called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) achieves notoriety for his ability to look, act and sound like anyone he meets. He ingratiates himself with everyone from the lower echelons of society to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Pope becoming famous as The Changing Man. Even Hollywood comes calling and makes a film about him. His chameleon-like skill catches the eye of Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychiatrist who thinks Zelig is in need of serious cognitive analysis as someone who goes to extremes to make himself fit into society. Their relationship moves in a direction that’s not often covered in medical textbooks as she hypnotises him I’m certain it’s something he picked up from eating Mexican food. A formally and technically brilliant and absolutely hilarious spoof documentary that integrates real and manipulated newsreel footage with faked home movies, a film within a film, period photographs of the leads and interviews with contemporary personalities, real and imagined, from Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to ‘Eudora Fletcher’ (Ellen Garrison) in the present day. Even Bruno Bettelheim shows up to declare the subject the ultimate conformist. The sequence on the anti-semitism Zelig experiences as a child (his parents sided with the anti-semites, narrator Patrick Horgan informs us mournfully) is laugh out loud funny. Of course it has a payoff – in Nazi Germany. The editing alone is breathtaking, there is not a false moment and the music is superlative, forming a backdrop and a commentary as well as instilling in the audience a realistic feel for the time in which this is set. There are moments where you will not believe your eyes as Allen transforms into everyone he meets – regardless of race, shape or colour. An original and funny mockumentary that’s actually about the world we live in, an extreme response to childhood bullying and what we do to make ourselves fit in and where that could lead. You just told the truth and it sold papers – it never happened before!

 

Instant Family (2018)

Instant Family.jpg

Is it a problem, the whole white saviour thing? Building contractor Pete Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) and his interior designer wife Ellie (Rose Byrne) have a perfect life, flipping houses and making money. However their child-free status is starting to get to Ellie and she persuades Mark to think about fostering. They train under the supervision of social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) and get overwhelmed when they encounter wisecracking 15-year old Lizzie (Isabela Moner) but she has a little brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz) and the couple don’t want to break up the family, whose crack addict mom is in jail.  The honeymoon period is followed by serious tantrums and disruption … If I chatted to a random kid in the park I could get arrested.  A film constructed on such a hideously sentimental premise you might not look beyond the awesome shabby chic interiors and hear some very shrewd and witty observations about race, parenting and family.  But what the hell were they thinking to deploy the great Joan Cusack as the weirdo in the last scene? Cringe! Must be the flu meds. Ahem. Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders. I never get tired of watching white people fight