Against All Odds (1984)

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Guys are crippling themselves for you, lady. I could give a shit what you believe. Having been cut from his professional football team the Los Angeles Outlaws after sustaining a shoulder injury, ageing down-and-out athlete Terry Brogan (Jeff Bridges) is in desperate need of money. Crooked nightclub owner and bookie Jake Wise (James Woods) offers Terry a hefty sum to go to Mexico and find his girlfriend, Jessie Wyler (Rachel Ward) the daughter of team owner Mrs Wyler (Jane Greer). Terry is broke and cannot turn the offer down. When he finds Jessie on an island off Mexico, the two fall in love and he reveals to her his guilt over his points-shaving scam with Jake. Terry reports that he failed to find Jessie but Jake sends someone else – the team trainer Hank Sully (Alex Karras) who reveals that he had identified Terry and other debt-laden players to Jake to make them work for him. When a gun falls into Jessie’s hands during a struggle the twists of the plot start being revealed to Terry, the patsy of all time … You got problems now, Terry. You want trouble too? One of the great Eighties thrillers, this remake of Out of the Past (adapted from Daniel Mainwaring’s novel Build My Gallows High, its alternative title) written by Eric Hughes, this is dangerous, surprising, gorgeous to look at (shot by Donald E. Thorin) and literally drenched in sex (one scene is frequently cut from TV broadcast). The central relationship between Terry and Jessie is one of the most cunningly constructed of all movie pairings, a brilliant homage to Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, the original amoral noir girl nicely cast here in the role of Jessie’s powerful mother. Key roles are played by Saul Rubinek and Richard Widmark. The action is superb – what about that chickie race down Sunset! The plotting becomes convoluted, its neo-noir narrative nodding to Chinatown with a property/environment conspiracy backdrop but it’s the twists and turns between this sexy couple that’ll have you panting for more. A sensational film that gets better by the year with a performance by Kid Creole and the Coconuts, one of the many acts on a soundtrack distinguished by the famous title song, by Phil Collins. Directed by Taylor Hackford.  Don’t leave without saying goodbye

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The Face of Love (2013)

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Are you going to run away on me again? Five years after her artist husband Garret (Ed Harris) drowned while they were on holiday in Mexico, Nikki Lostrom (Annette Bening) sees a man at the LA County Museum of Art who is a dead ringer for him.  He’s Tom Young (Ed Harris), a divorced art teacher who takes up painting again just as they commence an affair. She pursues him, determined to resurrect Garret.  Tom’s ex-wife Ann (Amy Brenneman) asks him if he’s revealed his heart problems to Nikki:  he doesn’t want her to know. Nikki doesn’t want her neighbour Roger (Robin Williams) to see Tom because he and Garret were friends. When her adult daughter Summer (Jess Weixler) arrives on a surprise visit from Seattle she becomes hysterical in shock at Tom’s resemblance to her father and Tom leaves … Well, kids huh? They’re just one long grieving process. A characterful study of grief and deception, this is a wonderfully performed pas de deux by the leads who are both engaged in duplicitous behaviour, but we’re not sure where either of their limits might lie. Bening gives her role the expected precision and Nikki’s gamesmanship proves as damaging to herself as it is to Tom who is acted in a more diffuse way by Harris, mainly because the script leaves too many holes.  However it is resolved rather wonderfully in a final sequence conjoining art and life and in between there are metaphors galore in the ideas about architecture and designs for life – Nikki dresses houses for realtors and lives in a home that was Garret’s dream for her;  Tom’s abode is like an art museum. With excellent costuming by Judianna Makovsky, this is a splendidly shot (by Antonio Riestra) ode to Los Angeles. Directed by Arie (Chumscrubber) Posin who co-wrote with Matthew McDuffie. What are you doing?/Making new memories

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

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I know a sure cure for a nosebleed: a cold knife in the middle of the back. A mysterious fellow, Tim Foster (Preston Foster) contacts a trio of criminals Pete, Boyd and Tony (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef) to help with a bank heist. The four wear masks and remain strangers to each other, planning to reunite in Mexico to divvy up the loot. Joe Rolfe (John Payne), a down on his luck former GI and ex-con trying to go straight that they framed to take the heat, gets his charges dropped, and the police offer him a reward if he can help recover the cash. But only after they beat up and torture him. He agrees, and when one of the thieves meets his end, Rolfe assumes his identity to catch the crooks… What’s waiting for you, Harris? The chair, the gas chamber, or just a rope? Like all good little noirs, there are lessons to be learned and a steep moral curve is there if you’re looking for it but mainly this is a well managed, pacy heist movie with bristling dialogue. Star Payne and director Phil Karlson did uncredited work on the sharp script attributed to Harold Green and Rowland Brown (story) and George Bruce and Harry Esssex (screenplay). Payne was once famed screenwriter Robert Towne’s father-in-law and had an interesting career, mainly a song and dance man and mostly famous for appearing in Miracle on 34th Street, but then becoming an interesting character actor. This particular production was part of a seven-picture deal with Pine-Thomas Productions to which he eventually obtained the rights. He had showed his dramatic chops paired with Claudette Colbert in Remember the Day and later in The Razor’s Edge and this particular cycle of action/crime films would conclude with Technicolor noir Slightly Scarlet. He then had his own western TV series, The Restless Gun, which ran for two seasons, in which daughter Julie appeared. Her daughter Katharine Towne is now an actress too, carrying on the family tradition. This is an effective thriller, briskly directed by Karlson and performed to the hilt by an ensemble to beat the band – some of those lowlifes are among my favourite character actors, with Coleen Gray and Dona Drake in nice supporting roles. The armoured car heist is superbly simply done in a tough as nails actioner that must have inspired Reservoir DogsIt don’t take no big thinking to figure a couple of guys like us ain’t in this bananaville on a vacation!

Pancho Villa (1972)

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He doesn’t need a doctor, he needs a change of underwear. Trigger-happy Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (Telly Savalas) is on his way to his own execution when his men rescue him. He attempts to kill bitter nemesis General Goyo (Antonio Casas) and overthrow Mexico’s government. The violent endeavour brings Villa north to Columbus in New Mexico, where he battles a group of determined American soldiers led by the no-nonsense Colonel Wilcox (Chuck Connors), and endures unanticipated mishaps and bad fortune, including a double-cross by his friend and partner Scotty (Clint Walker) when they attempt retaliation in a raid… He’s got nerves of iron and rocks in his head. History through the lens of spaghetti! This comical approach to biography is an entertaining mix of action, violence, broad humour and not a little camp – that’s right because Savalas treats us to his rumbling vocal stylings on Don Black’s song in the closing credits. In between there are pitiful villagers, an episode about a fly in the army’s soup and a bit of impersonation, amid a soundtrack full of the bells and whistles of high comedy. Connors has a ball as the straight arrow colonel and Savalas just lets rip. You’ll crack up when the lizard pops out from his clothing after the doctor scratches his head wondering why Pancho’s got two heartbeats. Anne Francis has fun as the gutsy woman in his life. This is practically a mockumentary:  all history lessons should be this fast and funny, genocidal mania aside. Directed by Eugenio Martin from a screenplay by Julian Zimet. Every great man was once a bandit

 

100 Rifles (1969)

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Every time four Mexicans get together one of them makes himself a General.  In 1912 Sonora Mexico, Arizona lawman Lyedecker (Jim Brown) chases Yaqui Joe (Burt Reynolds), a half-Yaqui, half-white bank robber who has stolen $6,000. Both men are captured by the Mexican general Verdugo (Fernando Lamas). Lyedecker learns that Joe used the loot to buy 100 rifles for the Yaqui people, who are being repressed by the government and he regards them as his people. Lyedecker is not interested in Joe’s motive, and intends to recover the money and apprehend Joe to further his career. The two men escape a Mexican firing squad and flee to the hills, where they are joined by the bandito’s sidekick Sarita (Raquel Welch) a beautiful Indian revolutionary. Sarita has a vendetta against the soldiers, who murdered her father. The fugitives become allies. Leading the Yaqui against Verdugo’s forces, they ambush and derail the General’s train and overcome his soldiers in an extended firefight… My daddy was a Yaqui Indian and my mamma was from Alabama. Adapted from Robert MacLeod’s 1966 novel The Californio first by Clair Huffaker and then by director Tom (Will Penny) Gries, this spaghetti western occasioned a great meeting of male and female puchritude recently recalled by Welch:  “The first time I laid eyes on him, he came strolling across the tarmac towards the plane and, well, he had a walk that was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. He was somewhere between a jock and a cowboy, which was just about perfect. I was thinking he’s just the hottest thing. And I haven’t even seen his face!” She was of course referring to Reynolds, who walks away with the picture, macho, moustachioed, sardonically amused when he isn’t fighting, he just oozes charisma and carries the acting and physical duties with ease. Half of it I spent on whisky and women, the other half I wasted! Welch wasn’t happy on set as Brown stated: “[Burt Reynolds] was usually a stabilising influence [between the stars]… He’s a heck of a cat. He had various talks with Raquel and tried to assure her that nothing was going on, that we weren’t trying to steal anything.” I admire a man who dies well  Reynolds himself wrote of the experience:  “I was playing Yaqui Joe, supposedly an Indian with a moustache. Raquel had a Spanish accent that sounded like a cross between Carmen Miranda and Zasu Pitts. Jimmy Brown was afraid of only two things in the entire world: one was heights, the other was horses. And he was on a horse fighting me on a cliff. It just didn’t work… I play a half breed but… I send it up, I make it seem like the other ‘half’ of the guy is from Alabama. I play it nasty, dirty, funky. I look like a Christmas tree — wrist bands, arm bands. At the beginning I even wore these funky spurs. But every time I walked I couldn’t hear dialogue.” He said of the problems with Welch and Brown:  “I spent the entire time refereeing fights between Jim Brown and Raquel Welch…  It started because they were kind of attracted to each other. After a while they both displayed a little temperament, but don’t forget we were out in the middle of the bloody desert with the temperature at 110. Of course, I don’t think they’ll ever work together again. The critics have really been knocking those two — murdering them — but as far as I know no one ever said they were Lunt and Fontanne. Jim is the most honest man I know… And Raquel — one of the gutsiest broads I know, physically. She did all her own stunts. There’s also a performance in there somewhere.”  He and Brown make a great, funny double act. Weirdly, they were born just 6 days apart and of course Brown had the football career Reynolds had dreamed of having. Welch said later: “Jim was very forceful and I am feisty. I was a little uncomfortable with too much male aggression. But — it turned out to be great exploitation for the film, now as you look back. It broke new ground.” She told Variety Reynolds was  “one of my favorites. Nobody did — or does — quite what Burt does. And he has a darker edge, which made the scenes sexy.” It’s beautifully shot by Cecilio Paniagua and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is rousing, compensating for some deficiencies in the action choreography. Lamas is fun as Verdugo and Dan O’Herlihy offers typically good support as villain Grimes with Hans Gudegast (aka Eric Braeden) as the German advisor to Verdugo. Some might see elements of The Wild Bunch and even Blazing Saddles;  one way or another it’s underrated. Cult value lies in the presence of Soledad Miranda as the prostitute with Joe in the opening scenes at the hotel. She is best known for her collaborations with Jess Franco, particularly Vampyros Lesbos. She died aged 27 a year after this was released. I think with a little bit of luck we might be able to get out of this

 

The Wild Bunch (1969)

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If they move… kill ’em! In 1913, ageing outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) prepares to retire after one final botched robbery on the Mexican border. Joined by his gang, including Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) and brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), Bishop discovers the heist is a setup orchestrated in part by his old partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) now a ruthless mercenary. They’ve wound up with washers, not silver. As the remaining gang cross the Rio Grande and take refuge in Mexican territory, Thornton trails them, resulting in their taking on a suicide mission if ever there were one – as they are engaged by double-crossing Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to hijack a stash of guns from a train while he fights Pancho Villa under the military guidance of a German Commander (Fernando Wagner) on the eve of WW1 … This was going to be my last.  Sublime filmmaking from one of the iconoclasts of American cinema, Sam Peckinpah, who wrote the screenplay with Walon Green, the writer of the original story with Roy N. Sickner.  The titles sequence with scorpions tells us that this will be so much more than your regular western:  it’s a meditation on masculinity, ageing, violence, warfare and revenge.  Like all of Peckinpah’s genre work its focus is on the male in a hostile environment and it abounds in visual style with Peckinpah and cinematographer Lucien Ballard using multiple camera setups and different film speeds to accentuate the conflict between the old and the new, mythology and modernity. They demonstrate that there can be honour among thieves, if it is of a singularly macho variety. There is also friendship, pragmatism, humour and resignation.  The final shootout is glorious. This is one of the crowning achievements in cinema. Walk softly, boys

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

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I could throw a stick across the river and hit fifty grieving fathers.  Following an Isis suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) as Mexican drug cartels are starting to smuggle terrorists across the U.S. border. The war escalates when Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug kingpin’s thirteen-year old daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to deliberately increase the tensions. When the young girl is seen as collateral damage, the two men will determine her fate as they question everything that they are fighting for, with Alejandro and the girl left on the wrong side of the border when the corrupt Mexican police upset the staged return of Isabel.  At the same time a teenaged Mexican in Texas Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is recruited to move people illegally and the Government drop Alejandro in it  … Sicario was my top film of 2015 and I was pretty surprised that it would become a victim of sequelitis. This is  a far more conventional action outing but steadily winds itself around you with a vise-like grip even if it entirely lacks the deep pulsating strangeness of the original and its fabulously formal widescreen compositions by director Denis Villeneuve and DoP Roger Deakins and the amazing, visceral score of the late great Jóhann Jóhansson, to whom this is dedicated. Crucially it also lacks Emily Blunt’s character, something of a passive protagonist who also functioned as moral compass. What an unusual setup that was! It punched you in the solar plexus, kicked you in the abdomen and grabbed you by the throat. And all the time you wondered who everyone really was in that rather Homeric setup. The formerly silent and mysterious Alejandro has achieved his revenge so why does this even exist? Better ask Taylor Sheridan, who is revisiting the border territory he seems to have made his own, writing some of the best screenplays of recent years. There has been a lot of guff about the timing of this and the fact that there’s a girl ‘separated’ from her (lovely!) family here but this is a film that shows us exactly why the US or the POTUS at least wants a wall:  it’s a portrait of ruthless people trafficking poor people with the resultant evolution of drug lords, gangs and murderers. (You can leave the pity party at the door especially when you look at the murder rates in Mexico last year alone. Chaos streams from that part of the world, lest we forget. And the answer is a slew of dirty tricks and disavowed ops.)  Alejandro is almost forced to question his actions, with Isabel figuring out his relationship with her father:  he’s the attorney whose wife and kids Daddy had murdered. Moner is fantastic, a real find. She is extraordinarily self-possessed as the narco whore! administering beatings in the school yard where the principal is shit-scared of expelling her for fear of reprisals. Brolin returns to the fray dealing out fear in Somalia trying to trace the Isis loonies but back on US soil he’s dealing with the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) and his immediate superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) who wants everything off the books when two dozen Mexican cops are killed (they unleash the firepower first) and the Oval Office can no longer be officially seen to sanction any cross-border activities. The clever aspect is parallel teenage stories – the Tex-Mex boy killer and the kingpin’s girl even if they are rather replete with clichés, no matter the shock value. The conclusion has been set up to deliver another movie with del Toro – a long way from the money laundering (literally!) in Licence to Kill – still in the druggie violent territory to which he so frequently returns. Directed by Stefano Sollima. 

Coco (2017)

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A minute ago I thought I was related to a murderer! You’re a total upgrade! Despite his family’s generations-old ban on music, young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Great-grandmother Coco (Ana Ofelia Marguía) was abandoned by her musician father to pursue his career and her daughter Mama (Sofia Espinosa) doesn’t want to hear or see anyone with musical inclinations in this multi-generational household. Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead after he plucks de la Cruz’s guitar from the wall of his mausoleum on the Day of the Dead. After meeting a charming trickster named Héctor (Gael García Bernal) the two new friends embark on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history involving murder, theft and a misbegotten career … Disney’s Mexican quest narrative has proved hugely popular critically and commercially and it’s easy to see why even if like most contemporary animated features it could have been twenty minutes shorter. It’s a wildly colourful ride, beautifully realised as an explanation of death as a parallel universe where existence is run with just as much pettiness and bureaucratic nonsense (spewing information from an Apple Mac in what looks like a nineteenth century railway station). Mapping Miguel’s desire to find out the truth about his mysterious great-grandfather while being teamed up with Héctor who hasn’t completely crossed over because his photograph hasn’t been memorialised is a clever trope, typical of the Hero’s Journey model which revolutionised the studio’s animation output thirty years ago. There are some good jokes for the adults featuring unibrows and Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) with a nod to Game of Thrones via a spirit guide that resembles a dragon. It may be based on the preceding short Dante’s Lunch but many people will recall The Book of Life from Fox a few years agoThis occasioned an eye-wateringly bad rendition of the song Remember Me at the Oscars, along with the other unutterably under-rehearsed Best Song nominees. Ah, Hollywood. The original story is by director Lee Unrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina while the screenplay is by Aldrich and Molina and the score is by Michael Giacchino.

Through the Repellent Fence (2017)

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A metaphor that acts as a suture.  Three Native American artists known as the collective Post-commodity create a 28-balloon installation across 2 miles of US/Mexico border land in a tribal context. Sam Wainwright Douglas’ film takes a political issue and turns it into a fascinating entertainment in this tract about land art which takes no prisoners.  It follows the evolution of the project interspersing some very pointed discussions about race and borders and featuring interviews with authors Lucy Lippard and Chris Taylor, who escorts students on his Texas Tech Land Arts of the American West course on an annual two-month pilgrimage around 6,000 miles of desert. The beautiful photography by David Layton emphasises the historical aspect of the late 60s/early 70s Land Art movement with coverage of Spiral Jetty and Double Negative – phenomenal works of monumentality which Post-commodity nonetheless term destructive acts similar to the actions of the Department of the Interior. The wound of geography is straddled with a line of indigenous predator eyes emblazoned on ephemeral inflatable spheres originally intended for pest control in a searing statement about society, politics, race and community. It’s quite a sight.

 

Rules Don’t Apply (2017)

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A girl can get in trouble for having a case of the smarts. 1964 Acapulco:  a decrepit and isolated Howard Hughes is on the verge of making a televised phonecall from his hotel hideout to prove he doesn’t have dementia to dispute a claim by the writer of a book who may never actually have met him. Flashback to 1958, Hollywood:  Small-town Virginia beauty queen and devout Baptist Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), under contract to the infamous Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) arrives in Los Angeles with her mother (Annette Bening) to do a screen test for a film called Stella Starlight. She is picked up at the airport by her driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) only two weeks on the job and also from a religiously conservative background. He’s engaged to his seventh grade girlfriend. He drives them to their new home above the Hollywood Bowl where the sound of evening concerts wafts their way. She’s earning more than her college professor father ever did. The instant attraction between Marla and Frank not only puts their religious convictions to the test but also defies Hughes’ number one rule: no employee is allowed to have an intimate relationship with a contract actress and there are 26 of them installed all over Hollywood. Hughes is battling TWA shareholders over his proposals for the fleet as well as having to appear before a Senate sub-committee;  Marla bemoans the fact that she is a songwriter who doesn’t sing – so what kind of an actress can she be? And Frank wants to become a property developer and tries to persuade his employer to invest in him but Hughes is talking about a new birth control pill to him and when he meets Marla he talks to her about this thing called DNA that some English people discovered a few years back … It’s quite impossible to watch this without thinking of all the references, forwards and backwards, that it conjures:  that Beatty was tipped to play Hughes by Time after the mogul’s death, a decade after he had already espoused an interest in the mysterious billionaire who also lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a spell;  that he himself arrived in Hollywood at the end of the Fifties (via theatre) from Virginia and liked to play piano and got by with help from the homosexuals he impressed and the actresses like Joan Collins he squired about town;  Ehrenreich might be another aspect of Beatty as a youngster on the make, keen to impress mentors like Jean Renoir and George Stevens;  the motif of father and son takes a whole meta leap in his casting Ashley Hamilton, a Beatty lookalike who might well be his son (I think this is an inside joke, as it were), as a Hughes stand-in;  the dig at Beatty’s own rep for having a satyr-like lifestyle with the quickie Hughes has with Marla which deflowers her after she’s had her first taste of alcohol. It’s just inescapable. And if that seems distasteful, Beatty is 80 playing 50, and it has a ring of farce about it, as does much of the film which telescopes things like Hughes’ crash in LA for dramatic effect and plays scenes like they’re in a screwball comedy. There’s a lovely visual joke when he orders Frank to drive him somewhere at 3AM and they sit and eat fast food (after Frank says a prayer) and eventually we see where they’re seated – in front of Hughes’ enormous aeroplane (and Frank has never flown). This is too funny to merit the lousy reviews and too invested in its own nostalgia to be a serious take on either Hollywood or Hughes but it has its points of interest as another variation on the myth of both subjects. In real life it was long rumoured that Hughes had a son by Katharine Hepburn who allegedly had him adopted at the end of the Thirties. Timewise it picks up somewhere after The Aviator ends, but not strictly so. All it shares with that film is the banana leaf wallpaper. Tonally, it’s shifting from one generic mode to another (all that Mahler from Death in Venice is pointing to tragedy and age and decay, not youth and beauty and promise) but it’s difficult to dislike. It’s extremely well cast: Collins is terrific as the gauche naive young woman in the big city who’s given up her music scholarship and Ehrenreich is very good as the ambitious and conflicted guy who wants a mentor; Matthew Broderick does well as Levar, the senior driver jaded by long years of service to this eccentric and Oliver Platt (who did the great Bulworth with Beatty twenty years ago) has fun in a small role but Candice Bergen is wasted in the role of Nadine, the office manager. Bening is really great as Mrs Mabrey but she just … disappears. Beatty plays Hughes sympathetically, even unflatteringly (he knew him, albeit very slightly) and these young people’s relationship is ultimately played for its future potential despite its signposting as evidence of the hypocrisy lying directly beneath a church-led society. Written by Beatty with a story credit to him and Bo Goldman, and directed by Beatty, his first film in two decades.