Air Force (1943)

Air Force

Don’t talk – shoot! On December 6, 1941 nine B-17 bomber sets off on a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii en route to the Philippines. The Mary Ann is commanded by pilot ‘Irish’ Quincannon (John Ridgely). Bombardier Tommy McMartin (Arthur Kennedy) has a sister living in Hawaii and his co-pilot Bill Williams (Gig Young) is sweet on her. Cynical rear-gunner Joe Winocki (John Garfield) is intent upon leaving the air corps. They arrive at Hickam Field on the morning of December 7, just as the Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor and other military facilities. As Roosevelt announces the US’ entry into the war, all of the men prepare to face the enemy, including Winocki whose bitter attitude changes quickly in the course of combat in the Pacific … What kind of lunatics do I have in this air corps anyhow? Don’t any of you know what’s impossible? With a screenplay by Dudley Nichols (and a deathbed scene written by an uncredited William Faulkner), this Howard Hawks film is an indelible picture of a cross-section of American society at the helm of a bomber, made at the height of WW2 and based around an actual incident when a flight of B-17s journeying to reinforce the defence of the Philippines flew into the attack on Pearl Harbour. The characters are based, more or less, on people Hawks met while consulting with Lt. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, Commander of the Army Air Force, in Washington DC and the production was made in conjunction with approval of the War Dept. Originally scheduled by producer Hal Wallis to be released on Pearl Harbour’s first anniversary, the shoot was repeatedly delayed and WW1 aviator Hawks’ insistence on altering dialogue led to him being temporarily replaced by Vincent Sherman who then remained as assistant when Hawks returned. Garfield’s outsider character is the barometer for everything that occurs as he becomes integrated into the group and he is paid tribute by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction. There are historical inaccuracies but it packs an emotional punch in its vivid, electrifying violence and humour and Jeanine Basinger says it is “perhaps the purest combat film ever about the air service … It is like some hideous wagon train west, with problems of supplies and hostile forces constantly attacking the wagonload of heroes. It fits perfectly with the tradition of American films, and yet it is a unique and original film, not quite like any other.” Shot by James Wong Howe, Elmer Dyer and Charles A. Marshall, this is a bona fide classic. We’re gonna start a war, not a fight!

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

The Grass is Greener (1961)

The Grass is Greener green

Our love for each other is founded on mutual distrust. In order to maintain their crumbling and damp stately home, Earl Vincent Rhyall aka Victor (Cary Grant) and his wife Lady Hilary (Deborah Kerr) reluctantly open it to coach parties of tourists, one of whom, American oil millionaire Charles Delacro (Robert Mitchum), falls for the lady of the manor. Feeling rather neglected, she begins to return his advances and spends four days with him at the Savoy in London. In order to win her back, the Earl has to call on the services of his old flame, Hattie Durant (Jean Simmons) and his very laconic, very English butler Trevor Sellers (Moray Watson) who’s really looking for material for a novel. When Hilary and Charles return to the manor, Victor decides there’s only one way to settle things and it’s straight out of the eighteenth century... That’s the way the world wags. It’s the third time Grant was paired with Kerr following Dream Wife and An Affair to Remember; ditto for Mitchum and Simmons after Angel Face and She Couldn’t Say No; and Mitchum had been memorably cast opposite Kerr in Heaven Knows Mr Allison and more recently in The Sundowners, also released in December 1960. Director Stanley Donen knew what he was doing with this immaculately polished stage adaptation by Hugh Williams and Margaret Vyner of their West End success. Yes, it’s theatrical but it’s beautifully mounted, the setting is fabulous and the Dior costumes wonderful (particularly Simmons’) and the cast really get their teeth into the smart dialogue. There are good in- jokes – including about Rock Hudson (originally intended for Mitchum’s role), a mutual friend of both men called ‘Josh Peters’ (a nod to Donen’s two young sons) and Paramount Studios. A class act, in every sense of the term, this was shot by Christopher Challis at Osterley Park, just outside London and the interiors were by Felix Harbord. There’s no honour where there’s sex

 

A View to a Kill (1985)

A View to a Kill

A typical Reds to riches story. Bond (Roger Moore)returns from his travels in the U.S.S.R. with a computer chip. This chip is capable of withstanding a nuclear electromagnetic pulse that would otherwise destroy a normal chip. The chip was created by Zorin Industries, and Bond heads off to investigate its owner, Max Zorin (Christopher Walken), first encountering him at Ascot where despite the form of competitors his horses win against the odds. Zorin is really planning to set off an earthquake along the Hayward and San Andreas faults, which will wipe out all of Silicon Valley, the heart of the world’s microchip production. As well as Zorin, Bond must also tackle his sidekick, hit woman May Day (Grace Jones) and equally menacing companion of Zorin, while dragging State Geologist Stacy Sutton (Tanya Roberts) along for the ride… Well my dear, I take it you spend quite a lot of time in the saddle. Written by Richard Maibaum and producer Michael G, Wilson, this is the fourteenth Bond and the seventh and final to star Moore and is adapted from Ian Fleming’s story From a View to a Kill. Unusually violent for the series, with Walken machine-gunning large groups of people in a mass slaughter, albeit his origins as the product of a Nazi experiment explains the high body count. It’s more than redeemed by an awesomely staged pre-titles ski chase and another genuinely impressive chase through Paris, commencing on the Eiffel Tower and continuing with Moore following Jones in a parachute but on the ground, in a car gradually broken up (literally) in traffic before he jumps onto a bateau mouche, only to watch Jones escape in a speed boat piloted by Walken: David Bowie and Sting were first offered the role of Zorin who is perhaps a little too light although his sinister laugh paradoxically suggests the requisite insanity. In a Freudian touch the scientist responsible for him is his in-house scientist. It’s nice to see Walter Gotell returning as Soviet General Gogol while Lois Maxwell makes her final appearance as Moneypenny. The weakest acting link is Roberts but you can blame the screenplay for her shortcomings. There’s a great role for Patrick Macnee as 007’s sidekick (for a while!) Sir Godfrey Tibbett and Patrick Bauchau makes an appearance as Zorin’s security chief, Scarpine.  Dolph Lundgren makes a brief appearance, his debut, as Venz, one of Gogol’s KGB agents. There’s a welcome appearance by David Yip as the CIA agent who assists Bond in a return of the action to the US and the climax at the Golden Gate Bridge is well done. All in all it’s a bright and colourful outing for our favourite spy. The stonking title song is performed by Duran Duran who co-wrote it with John Barry. Directed by John Glen, his third time at the series’ helm. What would you be without us? A biological experiment? A physiological freak?

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

Alvarez Kelly (1966)

Alvarez Kelly

I’m a reasonable man. If I weren’t I might go over to the other side. In 1864 Alvarez Kelly (William Holden) is a Mexican-Irish cattle rancher who is doing his best to stay out of the Civil War. He has no interest in which side may win or lose being more concerned about his own survival, and about making money, supplying cattle to the Union side via Major Tom Stedman (Patrick O’Neal). He soon finds himself in the middle of the conflict, however, when a confederate colonel Tom Rossiter (Richard Widmark) captures him and forces Kelly to help his soldiers steal a nearby herd of cattle, which they desperately need for food. Kelly is blackmailed into doing it by alluring and very well-named treacherous widow Charity Warwick (Victoria Shaw) but is really attracted to a madam in peril Liz Pickering (Janice Rule) whose escape he engineers. However on the trail of the rustlers is Stedman and it becomes a battle of wits as Kelly has to decide whose side he really does belong to God deliver me from dedicated men. A dynamic story that somehow doesn’t get justice which you can probably put down to the stylings of director Edward Dmytryk. The screenplay by Franklin Coen (with uncredited rewrites by Daniel Taradash and Elliott Arnold) certainly has all the elements required for a frequently comic western, albeit the humour is rooted in darkness and male sexuality. The casting is of course key:  Widmark is playing to his Tommy Udo reputation while you can see why Peckinpah wanted hyper-sexed renegade Holden in The Wild Bunch a few years later. The combination of fruity exchanges and violence creates a particularly potent admixture even if you would never credit Dmytryk with an ability to indulge humour. The scenes between Holden and Rule are especially pleasurable:  Pity is the real empty room I despise, she deadpans. They’re a sure thing. Until they’re not. The rivalry with Widmark is extremely well played, with an edge of nastiness that tips into threat and violence on many occasions. Save for a few obvious process shots it looks very well courtesy of Joseph MacDonald and gets rebalanced at the end with a tremendous pairing of stampede and shootout in a slick robbery that even impressed Lincoln. The virtuous Irish lord wasn’t able to stop his son from becoming a pirate

Harlow (1965)

Harlow

Everything about me is real.  Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) arrives in Los Angeles as a teenager, pushed into showbiz by her sex-mad mother Mama Jean (Angela Lansbury) and grasping stepfather Marino Bello (Raf Vallone). Kindhearted agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons) becomes Jean’s mentor and rescues her from glamour shots and the casting couch, while a devious Howard Hughes-like mogul Richard Manley (Leslie Nielsen) grows infatuated with the beautiful young actress. Harlow herself falls for writer/producer Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) before tragedy strikes right after their marriage and her efforts to get together with fellow studio star Jack Harrison (Mike Connors) come to nothing …  You have the body of a woman and the emotions of a child!  The big-budget version of the screen icon’s life was beaten to it by a cheaper experimental film starring Carol Lynley that barely scraped into theatres so this is the one that people remember, if at all. Adapted in part from Landau and Irving Shulman’s pulpy biography of the sex goddess by John Michael Hayes, this skips and jumps through Harlow’s life, eliminating altogether any direct reference to her relationship with William Powell (Connors plays a variation on him) or her co-star Clark Gable, more or less fabricating whole sequences and introducing an element of wantonness involving her stepfather that seems excessive even in this version of events. It’s rather lurid and seems to deviate from what is known of Harlow’s true character but it’s rather interesting to see the platinum blonde in vivid Technicolor with Edith Head making the most of the opportunity to create some stunning gowns. Baker had featured in the controversial Hayes adaptation of Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers a year earlier and shot a famous nude scene in the role of Rina, a thinly veiled version of Harlow – so her casting here is no surprise given that Paramount produced both pictures. Effectively, then, this is a remake in part of part of a year-old film. Baker is a decade older than Harlow at the time of her death but her performance is tender and appealing, capturing some of the spirit of Harlow’s great characters against a melodramatic backdrop that nonetheless plays fast and loose with the facts including the circumstances of her demise. Lansbury and Vallone are extremely impressive as the lusty parental figures while Buttons is very good as the kind man who remains her one true friend. A fascinating insight into how Hollywood saw itself at one time. Welcome to the velvet prison. Hayes deserves his reputation as a great writer of dialogue and he manages to invest showbiz clichés with the ring of truth especially when uttered venomously by Connors. Julie Parrish appears uncredited as Connors’ wife and would make a couple of appearances opposite him on Mannix five years later. The production design by Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira and James W. Payne is jaw dropping. The theme song Lonely Girl is sung by Bobby Vinton. Directed by Gordon Douglas. There’s nobody deader than I am right now. Oh, I guarantee all of you I won’t be by tomorrow

Dr No (1962)

Dr No

You are carrying a double 0 number. It means you are licensed to kill, not get killed. British agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) by head of the Secret Service M (Bernard Lee) is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow British agent, Strangways (Timothy Moxon) to determine if it is related to Strangways’ decision to co-operate on a CIA case involving the disruption of rocket launches from NASA’s base at Cape Canaveral in Florida by radio jamming. When Bond arrives in Jamaica, he is immediately accosted by a man claiming to be a chauffeur sent to collect him who is really an enemy agent sent to kill him. Before Bond can interrogate him, following a struggle, the agent kills himself with a cyanide capsule. After visiting Strangways’ house, Bond confronts Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) a boatman who was collecting mineral samples from Crab Key for Strangways and who reveals that he is aiding the CIA, introducing Bond to agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), who is also investigating Strangways’ disappearance. Local geologist Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) claims the samples are normal but Bond is not convinced. Dent travels to the underground base of megalomaniac Dr Julius No (Joseph Wiseman) a Chinese-German with prosthetic metal hands who is the operator of a bauxite mine on the Caribbean island of Crab Key (and a reclusive member of SPECTRE) who is plotting to disrupt the US space programme … Cyanide in a cigarette? Fantastic! The first in the series, based on Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel (the sixth in the book series) this really introduced Connery to the world. Shot with a relatively low budget, it’s fast-moving, whip smart and set the tone for a secret agent trend that has never really ceased. Fleming originally came up with the idea for the story as a screenplay for a film called Commander Jamaica with Dr No a riff on the character of Fu Manchu. That film never got made so Fleming adapted it into a novel. The screenplay for this was based on that as well as several other strands of Fleming’s work: Richard Maibaum and Wolf Mankowitz did the original draft which the producers rejected then Maibaum did one while Mankowitz removed his name; Irish writer Johanna Harwood who worked for Harry Saltzman rewrote that draft with thriller writer Berkely Mather. SPECTRE wasn’t mentioned until Thunderball, the 1961 novel that the producers had originally wanted to adapt first before legal issues complicated that plan. This may not have the bells and whistles of later films in the series but it has many of the iconic elements that became part of the identity of this long-running franchise including Ken Adam’s production design, Bond being introduced to the Walther PPK and an undertow of S&M. Connery’s performance is nigh-on perfect, a combination of violence, suave intelligence and droll wit; while shell diver Honey Rider’s (Ursula Andress) arrival like Venus on the beach is for the cultural ages. Directed by Terence Young. I do not like failure

Octopussy (1983)

Octopussy

Englishman. Likes eggs, preferably Fabergé. Likes dice, preferably fully loaded. British MI6 agent 009 drops off a fake Fabergé jewelled egg at the British embassy in East Berlin and is later killed at Octopussy’s travelling circus. Suspicions mount when the assistant manager of the circus who happens to be exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), outbids 007 James Bond (Roger Moore) for the real Fabergé piece at Sotheby’s. Bond follows Kamal to India where Bond thwarts several ingenious attacks, kidnapping by Kamal and encounters Kamal’s ally, the anti-heroine of the title (Maud Adams), an international smuggler who runs the circus as a cover for her illegal operations. It seems that Orlov (Steven Berkoff), a decidedly rank and belligerent Russian general is planning to raise enough money with the fake Fabergés to detonate a nuclear bomb in Europe and then defeat NATO forces once and for all in conventional warfare… The West is decadent and divided. The thirteenth in the series and Moore’s seventh appearance as the sexy superspy as well as the first to feature Robert Brown as M following Bernard Lee’s recent death, this is derived from a number of Ian Fleming’s stories: the title is from his 1966 short story collection and there is a scene inspired by another story, The Property of a Lady (included in 1967 and later editions of Octopussy and The Living Daylights), as well as one brief bit of characterisation lifted from Moonraker; while the events of the titular story Octopussy form a part of the title character’s background which she relates herself; but the bulk of the narrative is original, the screenplay credited to novelist George MacDonald Fraser who suggested that it be set in India, series regular Richard Maibaum & producer Michael G. Wilson. In fact Moore had intended retiring from the role but was deemed the most profitable actor for the part when the rival production Never Say Never Again with former Bond Sean Connery was up and running at the same time: James Brolin was apparently due to take over from Moore – can you imagine! The perception of this as the weakest of Moore’s particular Bond films doesn’t hold up despite its apparently problematic heroine (her MO is a bit slight) but Bond’s seduction of a woman who is his equal is particularly well observed –  in fact they both have a death to avenge. The narrative is especially prescient – to have a nuclear bomb planned for Germany, at the time the centre of Cold War fears (see the TV show Deutschland 83 for a dramatic interpretation of the time), feels utterly relevant and Moore is given great space for both humour and action, pitched at a perfect balance here and decidedly lacking in camp. It’s probably the best written of all his Bond iterations. The chases (and there are quite a few) are brilliantly mounted, including trains, planes automobiles and elephants and there’s a great homage to The Most Dangerous Game when our man is the jungle prey. The climactic aerial stunts are some of the most astonishing you’ll ever see – utterly thrilling. Legendary tennis player Vijay Amritraj has a great supporting role as Bond’s MI6 ally in India and even Q (Desmond Llewelyn) gets in on the action with a fabulous hot air balloon! Jourdan makes for a suitably insidious villain and Berkoff (almost!) has a blast as the nutty military man who makes the KGB’s Gogol (Walter Gotell) look sane. There is a terrific performance by Kristina Wayborn as Kamal’s stunning henchwoman Magda – her exit from a night with Bond has to be seen! Adams had of course appeared opposite Moore in previous Bond outing The Man With the Golden Gun as Scaramanga’s doomed mistress and she gets to flex more muscles here albeit her entrance is not until the film’s second half. Watch out for former Pan’s People dancer Cherry Gillespie as Midge, one of Octopussy’s bodyguards.  It’s wonderfully paced, with each sequence superseding the action of the previous one and the flavourful locations are beautifully captured by Alan Hume’s cinematography: this has undergone a pristine restoration. Among the very best Bonds, an episode whose influence can clearly be seen in both the Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible franchises.  The theme song, All Time High is written by John Barry and Tim Rice and performed by Rita Coolidge. Directed by John Glen, the second of his five outings at the helm. Perfect escapism. Mr Bond is indeed a very rare breed, soon to be made extinct

 

The Beach Bum (2019)

The Beach Bum

He may be a jerk, but he’s a great man. Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) is a fun-loving, pot-smoking, beer-drinking writer who lives life on his own terms in Key West, Florida. Luckily, his wealthy wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) loves him for exactly those qualities. She lives further up the coast in Miami and cavorts about with Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) courtesy of their open marriage. Following his daughter Heather’s (Stefania LaVie Owen) wedding, a tragic accident brings unexpected changes to Moondog’s relaxed lifestyle. Suddenly, putting his literary talent to good use and finishing his next great book is a more pressing matter than he would have liked it to be and he embarks upon a life-changing quest, encountering all kinds of freaks en route including a dolphin tour guide Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence), a sociopathic roomie Flicker (Zac Efron) in rehab and Southern friend and good ol’ boy Lewis (Jonah Hill) I gotta go low to get high. An extraordinary looking piece of auteur work from Harmony Korine, courtesy of the inventive and beautiful shooting of cinematographer Benoît Debie, this is a nod to McConaughey’s arch stoner credentials and the persona he established back in Dazed and Confused. And what about this for an example of his poetry:  Look down at my penis./ Knowing it was inside you twice today/Makes me feel beautiful.  He is convinced the world is conspiring to make him happy no matter what happens. There’s little plot to speak of once the main action is established in the first thirty minutes but what unspools is so genial and unforced and funny that you can’t help but wish you were part of the woozy hedonistic bonhomie. Jimmy Buffett appears as … Jimmy Buffett in a film that’s so Zen it’s horizontal. Bliss. We can do anything we want or nothing at all