The MacKintosh Man (1973)

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Put a bag over my head. I’ve been in prison for 15 months! Secret agent Joseph Rearden (Paul Newman) poses as an Australian jewel thief and is quickly convicted of stealing £140,000 of diamonds and imprisoned in order to infiltrate an organisation headed by Home Secretary Sir George Wheeler (James Mason) who organises Rearden’s escape along with that of MI6 intelligence officer Slade (Ian Bannen) who was gaoled as a Soviet mole … I don’t know about you, Slade; I’m not ready for death. The rest I’ll drink to. Adapted by Walter Hill (along with director John Huston and William Fairchild) from Desmond Bagley’s The Freedom Trap, this starts out quietly and continues that way for some time – tricking the susceptible viewer into believing that Rearden himself has been tricked by MI6 into taking the fall for a jewel heist and for more than a half hour it’s a prison movie. However the sleight of hand is revealed as it becomes clear Rearden has gone into deep cover to smoke out a dangerous organisation in this Cold War tale. Of course you will recognise the contours of the real-life story of George Blake, whose daring prison escape is the stuff of legend. For an action film and spy thriller this is a work of smooth surfaces and understated performances, especially by Newman, enhanced by the cinematography of the great Oswald Morris and a beautiful score by Maurice Jarre. The locations around Galway – Oranmore and Roundstone – were local to director Huston who spent much of the Fifties onwards at his house St Cleran’s. The palpable anger and keen sense of duty comes in fits and starts, usually at the conclusion of realistically staged action sequences, including a chase across an Irish bog and using banged up cars rather than Aston Martins. There are also some small gems of supporting appearances – Leo Genn as prosecuting counsel, Jenny Runacre as Gerda the nurse, Noel Purcell and Donal McCann in the Irish scenes. There are also scenes of misogyny and violence (even against a dog) that might shock in this more politically even-handed climate. The strangest character Mrs Smith, played by Une femme douce herself Dominique Sanda, gets an incredible payoff.  You might even say she has the last word. The cool, straightforward approach to treachery, duplicity in the modern state and something of a twist ending just raises more questions, making this a palpable pleasure, a film which tells one simple truth – trust nobody. Produced by John Foreman who had a company first with Newman and then made a cycle of films with Huston. Our deaths would mean little or nothing to anyone, anywhere – only to ourselves

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The Bookshop (2017)

The Bookshop

Dear Mr. Thornton, a good book is the precious distillation of a master’s spirit, embalmed and preserved for the purpose of achieving a life beyond life, which is why it is undoubtedly a necessary commodity. East Anglia, 1959. Young widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) risks everything to move into an abandoned building and open up a bookshop – the first such shop in the sleepy seaside town of Hardborough.  This soon brings her fierce enemies: she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers and also crosses Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) the town’s vengeful, embittered alpha female and doyenne of the local scene and earmarked The Old House (as it becomes known) as an arts centre. Only Mr Brundish (Bill Nighy) a reclusive bibiliophile who develops an interest in the novels of Ray Bradbury seems sympathetic to Florence’s business… In the case of biographies, it’s better, I find, if they’re about good people, whereas novels are much more interesting if they are about nasty people. Whatever delicacy or nuance Penelope Fitzgerald’s source novel (a Booker nominee) may possess is simply flattened here by an almost inert style-free interpretation from writer/director Isabel Coixet, inept barely-there directing and some terrible miscasting in a setting that doesn’t look remotely like Norfolk or Suffolk because it’s not, it’s County Down in Northern Ireland and that’s not all that’s wrong with the production design. Mortimer is heroically trying to save a poor choice of material directed with no sense of momentum or invention and the distracting narration (by Julie Christie) is utilised to strike some interest in the premise which would otherwise be almost impenetrable. Nighy has little to do except walk about looking grumpy and Reg Wilson as Clarkson’s retired General husband looks utterly incompetent far beyond the demands of his dim character. James Lance has a good role as the poisonous shop assistant toff but his serpentine ways make the outcome all too predictable; Honor Kneafsey as little Christine the girl who becomes a book lover and gives the story a decent payoff is quite effective as a plot device to explain the narration and bring it up to date. What is good but hardly well dramatised is the way every level of a community moves against a single woman and conspires to totally destroy her utterly unapologetically. A failure but a small one since so few people will have seen it and those who have will have experienced the utter misery of the protagonist for every single second of this film in a rotten adaptation that literally never gets started. How right she was when she said that no one ever feels alone in a bookshop

Extremely Wicked (2019)

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I’m not a bad guy. Law student Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) is in prison receiving a visit from long time girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) but she leaves upset. We flash back to how they met, set up home together with her baby daughter Molly and how news reports of the assaults and murders of young women across swathes of the United States result in his being apprehended as his photo fit is widely published. But Liz appears not to believe that Ted is capable of such evil.  Police Detective Mike Fisher (Terry Kinney) crosses state lines to leave an envelope of horrifying information at their house to try to persuade her that they have the right guy but she doesn’t open it for years. In the meantime, Ted starts to defend himself before Judge Edward Cowart (John Malkovich) in Florida, the first such trial to be televised … You know this didn’t start with a Stop sign. This biographical drama could have gone badly wrong but it’s far from a hagiography and a lot is left to the grisly imagination. Joe Berlinger’s feature follows from his documentary series on the subject, adapted from the book The Phantom Prince:  My Life With Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall.  It’s cannily structured, starting with that flashback meeting cute with Liz so that the entire narrative feels like a seduction of sorts, giving Efron an opportunity to create a complete personality. We feel the impact of that fatal charisma and because he establishes a home life including as stepfather to Liz’s young daughter Molly, the disconnect is all the more alarming, especially interspersed with reports of serial murders from those locations where we know him to have been and shots of him with girls in bars. When we see Ted and Liz together we are imagining how he would kill her – those hands around her little neck suggest so much of what is not shown about his murderous spree. Collins doesn’t have a lot to do but the final scene between them has a big reveal – they both have something to confess. How much did she know? What did he do, exactly? Efron is utterly compelling as this beacon of toxic masculinity:  it’s all about him, as with all narcissistic serial killers. We don’t know any more, even the extent of his slaughter. You know the rest. When I feel his love I feel on top of the world, when I don’t I feel nothing

 

 

Strangers When We Meet (1960)

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Kiss me. Please don’t kiss me. Californian architect Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) yearns to create adventurous designs, but his pragmatic wife, Eve (Barbara Rush), is determined to make her husband focus on more marketable, straightforward work instead of the unconventional work he craves. Maggie Gault (Kim Novak), a neighbor of the Coe family who is trapped in a loveless marriage and who Larry hits on at their kids’ school bus stop, believes in Larry’s creative impulses, and the pair eventually strike up a love affair while he builds the house of his dreams on his ideal coastal site for wealthy writer Roger Altar (Ernie Kovacs). However, they’re interrupted by the nosy, lecherous Felix (Walter Matthau), who has eyes for Eve and turns to blackmail… Alright, Larry, I wanted him. That’s what you really wanted to hear, isn’t it. I wanted him. One of the most brutally beautiful scrutinies of love in the burbs and middle class meltdown ever committed to the silver screen, this has Novak at her beguiling best, reunited with lover Richard Quine, who directed her in Bell, Book and Candle alongside co-star Kovacs. Novelist Evan Hunter adapted his book and it’s treated lushly, the carefully designed house on the perfect cliff-edge site operating as a metaphor for the dangerous relationship that sates the love-lorn pair lonely in their respective marriages and looking for a satisfying sexual encounter that matches their romantic expectations. The supporting performances are fantastic – Matthau as the vicious neighbour, Rush as the wisely restrained wife, Virginia Bruce as Novak’s suspicious mother – but it’s the compelling sexual attraction between Douglas and Novak that’ll have you coming up for air as you reach for a gin martini. The score by George Duning is a thing of majesty and it’s one of the most gorgeous portraits of Los Angeles you will ever see with locations masterfully shot by Charles Lang at Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Santa Monica and Malibu. Any place you’ve got a housewife, you’ve got a potential mistress

A Woman in Berlin (2008)

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Aka  Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin/The Downfall of Berlin. Find a single wolf to keep away the pack.  In April 1945 the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrives in Berlin defeating the last German defence. Its soldiers rape women of any age as they occupy the city. After being gang raped by a number of Soviet soldiers, the film’s anonymous woman, German journalist Anonyma (Nina Hoss), petitions the battalion’s commanding officer, for an alliance and protection to control the terms of her rape. From now on I will decide who gets me After initially rejecting her, married Ukrainian Lieutenant Andrei Rybkin (Eugeny Sidikhin) is seduced by the beautiful battered German woman. She manifests a cool, practical approach to her life, part of an informal community that develops among survivors in her apartment building. The officer subsequently protects, feeds and parties with her and her neighbours. Other women also take particular officers or soldiers for protection against being raped by soldiers at large which works until their husbands return. Rybkin comes under suspicion and is reassigned, who knows where …  My name doesn’t matter. The book by Anonymous (Marta Hillers) wasn’t published until 1959 and even then the account of the mass rapes (2 million plus) by the Russians was hard to bear so this adaptation has a twofold problem:  not turning it into an exploitation fest; and not being so melodramatic as to remove the nature of the horror and the pragmatic decision that women took to try to survive.  On that front at least it’s a success, a clear-eyed depiction of how life was. Watching rape used as a weapon in the rubble-strewn ruins of Berlin in revenge for what the Germans did in Russia is an unedifying experience. We step over the corpses of women to get a jar of jam. Hoss is superb as the worldly woman who has travelled and lived abroad yet also been a committed Nazi who is forced to use the only means she has to keep alive – a complex portrait of ambiguity proving she’s one of the best actors around. There are moments of humorous irony – her neighbour the widow has it away for a bit of salami, as she wryly observes. Hillers died in 2001 after which the book was republished and she was identified. She didn’t live to see this, which is a great pity. It’s a tough and grim story, brilliantly constructed and performed. Adapted by Catharina Schuchmann and director Max Färberböck. War and dying used to be men’s business. That’s all over

In The Cut (2003)

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I wanna get married once… just for my mom. Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan), a middle-class lecturer in New York City, witnesses a sexual incident that could have been the prelude to a murder by a killer roaming the city. Detective Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) arrives to interview her following the murder of a young woman in her neighbourhood which he’s investigating with his partner Ritchie Rodriguez (Nick Damici) but their relationship soon moves from personal to passionate.  Soon she comes to suspect that he is the serial killer he claims to be hunting down so who can she really trust? …  You know what your problem is? You’re fucking exhausting. Fuck this, you know, I was doing just fine before I met you, just fine. Susanna Moore’s novel was a new take on the subject matter of that controversial exercise in female masochism Looking for Mr Goodbar and Nicole Kidman spent five years shepherding the adaptation by Moore and director Jane Campion (with co-writer Stavros Kazantzidis) only to bail on the lead role when her marriage to Tom Cruise ended abruptly. Thus it was that America’s romcom sweetheart Ryan stepped into the dark heart of this voyeuristic thriller in a performance that seemed to frighten critics even after her impressive turn in the earlier Courage Under Fire. This is a formally beautiful, graphic and stunningly shot (by Dion Beebe) analysis of female sexual desire and as such twists the usual misogynistic genre tropes even as the body count mounts. Some of Ruffalo’s scenes may grate but Jennifer Jason Leigh has a fantastic role as Ryan’s tragic, romantically obsessed sister and Kevin Bacon has a terrific (unbilled) part as a man with whom Ryan has had relations and he is now stalking her. Ryan is superb, not just technically, but emotionally, and this is intense on every level, an intelligent slasher film with things to say about what women really want and how dangerous that can prove. The final sequence, when she contemplates the scene of her intended death, is outstanding, a masterpiece of empathy. I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister… and you murder your queen!  Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Catholic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne with the aim of also taking the English throne which is her birthright, guided by her adviser Bothwell (Martin Compston). However, Scotland and England fall under the rule of her cousin, the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Each young Queen beholds her ‘sister’ in fear and fascination. Mary has to deal with the ambitions of her bastard half-brother James Murray (James McArdle) and succumbs to the charms of the bisexual Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) in order to become a mother but his father (Brendan Coyle) has designs on power. Her reign attracts the hatred of Protestant reformer John Knox (David Tennant) who stirs up the natives against their tolerant Catholic ruler and calls her a whore. Elizabeth’s adviser Henry Cecil (Guy Pearce) carries out her bid to assist in driving a civil war designed to remove Mary from the throne… Do not play into their hands. Our hatred is precisely what they hope for. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you. Adapted from John Guy’s biography by Beau Willimon, it may seem hasty to declare that despite its raft of historical inaccuracies this still has a lot to recommend it, even if its PC multiverse of many races and choose-your-own-perversion plays into the right-on millennial world rather than the well documented dour backdrop of sixteenth-century Scotland (things are ever thus there…). Willimon is of course responsible for Netflix’s House of Cards and knows his way around politics and other games of thrones so the focus on the women struggling against the counsel of conniving men drives the drama forward while the plotting literally gallops apace. With Tennant doing Knox as the Comical Ali of fundamentalist Protestantism the odds of us supporting the bastard English Queen are low to zero, despite the crosscutting suggesting links both emotional and physical between these young rivals. The Virgin Queen is in fact more in touch with the reality of both of their situations, surrounded by controlling men, as the fabricated meeting between them (a liberty also taken in the 1971 version) clarifies: she recognises that Mary’s beauty, bravery and motherhood are both her greatest assets and her deepest flaws and have led to her downfall. She herself is more man than woman, she declares – her reign has made her thus. Ronan plays Mary as a variation on Joan of Arc – a sharp military mind with a conscience as transparent as her pallor and bright blue eyes (albeit Willimon writes her as a feckless Marie Antoinette a lot of the time), while Robbie’s Queen is the one beset with the miseries of the pox and a devious court craven by her power. They are both tremendous but this is really Ronan’s show, as the title suggests. Pearce, Lowden and Compston are particularly good in their treacherous sideshows. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see two of the best young actresses in the world leading a film of such affecting performances.  The final contrasting shots of Mary’s meeting with destiny and Elizabeth’s costumes and cosmetics literally solidifying into a stony inhuman edifice linger in the mind.  Directed by Josie Rourke. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you

Mary Magdalene (2018)

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Are they willing to give up everything to follow God? A young girl (Rooney Mara) from the village of Magdala in Judaea resists the traditional roles of women in society, and takes the opportunity to rebel by following the newly famous Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and his disciples which causes division among the men. Meanwhile, Jesus is arousing the ire of the Roman Empire in the form of Herod … It’s easy to be cynical about a film which takes a realistic approach to a two thousand-year old story about an unkempt guy with issues running around all over the shop saving people who didn’t ask for it and performing unbelievable miracles. But at a time of year when the message of peace and goodwill is what it’s all about and when Christians and Jews are being driven from their homelands by the steady vise-like grip of Islamic terror which is simultaneously spreading through white countries beset by irresponsible secularisation and uncontrolled immigration, this is a characterful and necessary representation of the old story. Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett’s feminist interpretation of a much-maligned woman might be too paradoxically reverent for some, but it’s a compelling study and director Garth Davis paces it so that the crescendo of intimidation until the Resurrection feels natural. Jesus is troubled, Mary is serene. She’s kind of a miracle all on her own, as the opening scene demonstrates, in a tale of a woman trying to break free from those men who would exorcise her demonic wish to be an individual and an apostle.  Johann Johannsson’s final score (with Hildur Guonadottir) is marvellous. You have not weakened us but you weakened Him

Toni Erdmann (2016)

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You have to do this or that, but meanwhile life is just passing by.  Corporate strategist Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) is busy at her job in Bucharest and reluctantly has to spend time with her estranged father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher divorced from her mother, who apparently returns to Germany but instead adopts an outrageous disguise and poses as her CEO’s life coach, Toni Erdmann …  How are you supposed to hang on to moments? A rip-roaring German comedy? Surely you jest! In a way. This comedy drama slayed all comers a couple of years back and despite overlength (you wonder at times what Billy Wilder would have done with his rapier wit, wisdom and speed with such material) this hits so many truths with such mortifying behaviour and courage that you forgive writer/director Maren Ade’s liberties and go with the mad dad – as, eventually, Ines decides to do. This after all is a guy who didn’t even tell her his beloved dog died – and we find out about it when he lies on the dog’s bed in the garden. He gatecrashes her business functions and regales assorted bigwigs with tall and taller tales in a toupee and false teeth. When she lets go of her own inhibitions (not too many of them, to be fair, as the sex and drugs scenes prove) and goes with her father’s adopted persona, unleashing the beast within, you’d cheer if it wasn’t all done in such a low key, realistic fashion. Truly the difference between business and personal in this mansplaining environment is don’t show, don’t tell the truth. The naked team building scene is jaw dropping. And the performance of a Whitney Schnuck (sorry, Houston) favourite is a high point. For some. Intriguing stuff, with an undertow of loneliness rarely explored in cinema and so relatable to anyone who’s ever been embarrassed by their parents.   I don’t want to lose my bite

Magnolia (1999)

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What am I doing? I’m quietly judging you.  In the San Fernando Valley, a dying father, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), his guilty young wife Linda (Julianne Moore), his male nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his famous estranged son the sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), Jim, a police officer (John C. Reilly) in love, Stanley Spector (Neil Flynn) a boy genius on TV’s What Do Kids Know? who’s bullied by his thug father (Michael Bowen), an ex-boy genius Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) whose parents robbed his winnings in 1968, the dying game show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) and his estranged cokehead daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), each becomes part of a dazzling multiplicity of plots, but one story, over the course of one day when it’s raining cats and dogs… Respect the cock! Paul Thomas Anderson was inspired to create this mosaic of intersecting lives by the songs of Aimee Mann and they dominate the audio to the point (occasionally) of overwhelming the dialogue. It commences with a documentary prologue of chance and coincidence, a kind of Ripley’s about life and gosh-darns that hints at an epic concluding event (and boy does it deliver). At its core this is an analysis of the father-son relationship and the trade-offs that are made throughout life until finally … you just gotta let it go. There is a raft of immense performances in a story which has an epic quality but thrives on the specificity of character in a plot revolving around child abuse in various iterations. We may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us.  The double helix structure finds natural convergence at the point where the protagonists each sings a line from one of Mann’s songs, It’s Not Going to Stop (Until You Wise Up):  this astonishing directing flourish starts with Claudia which is logical because here is a narrative about being generous to damaged people and as we find out, she’s the most damaged of all. Hence her gargantuan cocaine consumption. It’s about what fathers do to their children and sometimes their spouses too. And how mothers can raise children back up, even from their own terrible depths. In the aftermath of Burt Reynolds’ death it’s appropriate to consider that the role for Robards was conceived for Reynolds:  his troubled relationship with Anderson and his dislike of the content of Boogie Nights (for which he received the Golden Globe) led him to decline the part. Which is ironic because he had joked that he would wind up playing Tom Cruise’s father one day (and Cruise is absolutely tremendous here as the fraudulent motivational leader, a lying Tony Robbins for sexist brutes). Anderson saw in Reynolds a kind of darkness and humanity to add to his array of multiply-talented actors – most of the people here were the repertory from Boogie Nights and it’s such a conscious re-assembling of types it still surprises. It’s a shame because when one looks at the totality of Reynolds’ career it’s clear that his loyalty to friends led him to make oddly destructive choices:  while Redford had Pollack and De Niro had Scorsese, Reynolds had … Hal Needham, the stuntman living in his pool house for 11 years. If he had spent those few necessary days on this set and well away from Thomas Jane, who knows what way his career might have swerved in the Noughties?! Goodness knows what made him turn down Taxi Driver, a film that has sway here. Perhaps Anderson is paying tribute to Reynolds by giving Claudia the debilitating condition that he got on City Heat when a stunt went wrong – the excruciating jaw injury TMJ that crippled him for over a decade. This may have started as a series of overlapping urban legends, an operatic disquisition on the damage that men do; it concludes with some tweaked endings and a Biblical purging of shame. How apt that it should be Claudia to break the fourth wall. With a smile. But it did happen