Frida (2002)

I like you this way – you’re easier to keep up with. Young Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) is a rambunctious teenager who lives riotously and has an active sex life with her teenage boyfriend Alejandro (Diego Luna). When a tram accident lays her up with potentially life-threatening and crippling injuries she fights back and during all the months encased in plaster discovers a talent for painting, beginning with self-portraits. When she tries to interest people in her paintings she seeks out Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) whom she taunted as a student. Despite his womanising ways she falls for him and they begin an affair which his wife knows about. They end up living in an apartment above hers. Rivera continues to sleep with his models and Frida paints and her surrealist work attracts attention. In New York in 1934 where Diego has been commissioned to create a mural for Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton) his work is censored and both he and Frida have affairs with Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd) and Frida suffers a heartbreaking miscarriage. Back in Mexico her sister Cristina (Mia Maestro) becomes his assistant and Frida finds them in bed together. She returns to her parents’ home and descends into alcoholism. After meeting Diego again at a Day of the Dead celebration he introduces her to Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) who falls for her when he moves into her house when he is granted political asylum and Frida leaves for Paris when Trotksy’s wife finds out. She returns to Mexico and Diego asks for a divorce then Trotsky is murdered … I should never have put you in a room with him. Adapted by Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava & Anna Thomas (and Antonio Banderas and Edward Norton, uncredited) from the 1983 book Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera, this is a beautiful, reverential and somewhat stolid biopic despite the talents, the artistry and the protagonist herself, memorably played by Hayek (who shepherded the production) especially as a teenager. However the episodic nature contrives to mitigate against momentum in this cosmopolitan tale, despite the wonderful aesthetic embellishments – with scenes melting out of Kahlo’s paintings, animations bringing still lifes to fast-moving existence and the use of costume as signifier. As is so often the case in these historical stories, it seems the people around the main character are more interesting and the circumstances more stimulating – and here it’s Diego Rivera who controls the narrative: Frida’s life and fate are basically a reaction to him and that both unbalances the characters and tilts the story in a different direction than it wants to go. It really succeeds as a portrait of a country in a kind of turmoil and exercising fascination for artists, bohemians and the international left. It’s not a failure but more a near miss that ironically really comes to life in the music scenes when Hayek is singing those mournful Mexican songs that make the hairs stand up in thrall to the passions this woman conjures. Beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto and there’s a wonderful score by Elliot Goldenthal. Directed by theatre great Julie Taymor. A communist generous enough to pay off our mortgage

Capricorn One (1978)

A funny thing happened on the way to Mars. Three astronauts Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston) and John Walker (O.J. Simpson) are about to launch into space on the first mission to Mars. But when a mechanical failure surfaces that would kill the three men, NASA chief Dr James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) removes them from the Capricorn One capsule otherwise their funding will be pulled by Washington. To prevent a public outcry, NASA secretly launches the capsule unmanned and requires the astronauts to film fake mission footage in a studio in the middle of the desert. They do so under fear of their families being killed on a plane bringing them back home. However, the plan is compromised when ambitious TV journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) starts reading deeply into a message Brubaker has broadcast to his wife Kay (Brenda Vaccaro) after his friend at NASA Elliot Whitter (Robert Walden) suddenly disappears when he detected the TV signals ahead of the capsule transmissions. When Caulfield’s brakes are tampered with he visits Mrs Brubaker at home to watch some innocuous home movies which confirm his suspicions that the mission is faked then finds the FBI in his apartment framing him for drug possession … With that kind of technology you can convince people of almost anything. Conspiracy theories ahoy! Director Peter Hyams’ screenplay exploits the story that won’t go away about the televised Apollo moon landing and extrapolates a juicy suspenser with an amiable cast. Not in the same league as the major paranoid thrillers of the era, it’s still bright and breezy and pretty plausible given the deniability factors and the political mood. Of cult value for the (non-)performance of Simpson with Karen Black along to help the wonderfully ironic Gould (whose dialogue is superior to the rest of the cast’s) get his man. And then there’s a crop dusting scene that of course recalls North by Northwest – in reverse! With Kojak at the helm! Godalmighty this is a lot of fun but there’s one horrifying scene in the noonday sun that will make you weep. It’ll keep something alive that shouldn’t die

Scarlet Thread (1951)

An East End spiv. A 1950s wide boy with cinema accent. Petty thief Freddie(Laurence Harvey) likes to talk jive in an American accent in London’s Soho where he hangs out trying to impress the ladies. He joins forces with suave gangster Marcon (Sydney Tafler) to commit a jewel heist in the University town of Cambridge with (Harry Fowler) driving their getaway car. But loses his never, fires his gun and the victim, an elderly man gets dragged away in the car. When the men are chased through the streets of Cambridge by students they take refuge in the garden of the Master’s house and are greeted by his daughter Josephine (Kathleen Byron) who takes them for graduates and invites them in. Marcon introduces himself as an old student – Aubrey Bellingham – and passes himself off to a visiting vicar but Josephine’s romantic interest Shaw (Arthur Hill) is suspicious and then her aunt (Renee Kelly ) arrives – the woman the men ran into as they escaped their pursuers. And womanising Freddie then takes a fancy to Josephine, then it transpires the man he shot was her father – and the radio news reports the man has died … This university is packed with young men who talk in inverted commas. Lewis Gilbert’s early noirish film provides a great opportunity to see a callow pulpy youthful Laurence Harvey, learning which side of his face was more photogenic and doing the old cheap romance thing with (bizarrely enough) charismatic Byron, she of Black Narcissus with the crazy lipsticked mouth – and the clue to his real British identity recalls that film. How bizarre it is to see these gangsters come a cropper in the rarefied setting of Cambridge University, chased by students in flapping gowns. There’s some genuinely interesting cinematography by Geoffrey Faithfull – over the shoulder tracking behind Tafler (Gilbert’s brother-in-law) and Harvey after the heist goes wrong; point of view shots in the getaway car piloted by Harry Fowler alongside a policeman on a motorbike making good use of the rear view mirror as he sweats at the wheel. The contrast between these surprising crims and the fish out of water setting is jarring but also pleasing, the early Soho scenes with Dora Bryan and the presentation of Harvey as spiv quite fascinating. Not great but it is has its moments, not least when Harvey’s mask (and fake American accent) slips and Tafler’s act as the ancient graduate is very convincing. Adapted by A.R. Rawlinson and Moie Charles from their play. You dance too well. It makes me think of all the women you’ve danced with

Evil Under the Sun (1982)

Even in those days, she could always throw her legs up in the air higher than any of us… and wider. Private detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) goes to an exclusive island that is frequented by the rich and famous. Fabulous actress Arlena Stuart (Diana Rigg) has alienated her latest husband Kenneth Marshall’s (Denis Quilley) young daughter (Emily Hone); is in an adulterous relationship with married gadfly Patrick Redfern (Nicolas Clay) whose jealous wife Christine (Jane Birkin) doesn’t even want to go out in the sun; and she is probably the culprit over a very valuable jewel stolen from her former husband Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakeley) that Poirot was hired to locate by the insurance company when he presented them with a fake. Gossip columnist Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall) can’t get Arlena to sign off on a tell-all biography; while theatre producers Odell Gardener (James Mason) and his wife Myra (Sylvia Miles) lost their shirts when Arlena walked off their last stage show with a fake medical cert. The hotel’s proprietress, failed actress and former rival Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith) meanwhile is still brooding over their comparative successes and her isolation from the world of showbiz. When Arlena is found murdered everyone has an alibi. Except Poirot … I have a big fat motive but no alibi. Adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel by Anthony Shaffer (with uncredited work by Barry Sandler) this takes a decidedly camp approach to the material, aided and abetted by wonderfully playful costuming, classic Cole Porter songs (arranged by John Lanchbery) and an exotic location in the Adriatic in contrast with the original’s island off Devon. It plays fast and loose with the content replacing the original’s dialogue with some very amusing wisecracks and barbed exchanges, viz. Rigg’s comment about her awkward teenage stepdaughter, She runs like a dromedary with dropsy. It’s not Christie but it is funny. Ustinov had replaced Albert Finney (from Murder on the Orient Express) in the preceding adaptation Death on the Nile and delivers a different variety of flamboyance with all kinds of nice touches and humour. It gathers itself back into the author’s original mode for the last half hour with everything accounted for in a very pleasing conclusion. Great fun. Directed by Guy Hamilton in Majorca and shot beautifully by Christopher Challis. You mean nobody did it. MM #3100

The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (2020)

Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in. As Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) ages and has a place of respect in society having divested himself of his casinos, he finds that being the head of the Corleone crime family isn’t getting any easier. He wants out of the Mafia and buys his way into the Vatican Bank but NYC mob kingpin Altobello (Eli Wallach) isn’t eager to let one of the most powerful and wealthy families go legit. Making matters even worse is Michael’s nephew, Vincent (Andy Garcia) the illegitimate son of his late brother, hothead Sonny. Not only does Vincent want out from under smalltime mobster Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) who’s now got the Corleones’ New York business, he wants a piece of the Corleone family’s criminal empire, as well as Michael’s teenage daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola) who’s crushing on him. Ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton) appeals to Michael to allow their son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) quit law school to pursue a career as an opera singer.  A trip to Sicily looms as all the threads of the Corleone family start to be pieced together after a massacre in Atlantic City and scores need to be settled … Why did they fear me so much and love you so much? Francis Ford Coppola revisited the scene of arguably his greatest triumph, The Godfather Saga, with writer Mario Puzo and yet he viewed it as a separate entity to that two-headed masterpiece. That was thirty years ago. Now he’s felt the need to re-edit it and it holds together better than the original release. The beginning is altered and it’s all the better to direct the material towards the theme of faith. Pacino is doing it all for his children and it’s his legacy he cares about more than money or respect: the symbolism writ large in the concluding sequence, a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana in which the weakness of our own central Christ figure is punished with the greatest violence – the death of close family.  This story then mutates from a pastiche of its previous triumphs to a a pastiche of an opera. The shocking and intentional contrast with the Cuban sex show in Part II couldn’t be starker yet it’s there for the comparison as Michael does penance for the death of Fredo, his dumb older brother who betrayed the family. He is physically weak from diabetes and the accompanying stroke;  his efforts to go totally legitimate have angered his Mafia rivals from whose ties he cannot fully break and they want in on the deal with the Vatican where Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) is the contact with Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti) who has a strange way of getting to everyone in the manner of old school Sicilians.  The Christ analogy is also about family sacrifice as his brother Sonny’s bastard son Vincent is nipping at his heels while sleeping with his own besotted daughter; he finds he is still in love with a remarried Kay, whom he finally introduces to Sicily when Tony is set to make his opera debut;  he is in bed with God’s own gangsters and the one good man Lamberto (Raf Vallone) is revealed as the short-lived Pope John Paul I. The references to the cinema of Luchino Visconti (and The Leopard) are rendered ever clearer while Carmine Coppola’s musical phrasing even drops in a bit of a spaghetti western music. It’s a sweeping canvas which gradually reveals itself even if the setup is awkward:  we no longer open on the windows at the Lake Tahoe house with their inlaid spider webs, instead we’re straight into the Vatican deal. It takes us out of the world of Godfather II. But we still see that sister Connie (Talia Shire) is the wicked crone behind the throne in her widow’s weeds, her flightiness long behind her but her song at the family celebration echoes her mother’s song at the wedding in the earlier film. The same acting problems remain in this cut. Like Wallach, her performance is cut from the finest prosciutto as she encourages Vincent in his ruthless ride to the top of the crime world. Mantegna isn’t a lot better as Joey Zasa. The Atlantic City massacre at the Trump Casino isn’t particularly well done – we’re reminded of a cut price Scarface. Wrapped into real life events at the Vatican in the late 70s/early 80s which give Donnelly, Raf Vallone and Helmut Berger (another nod to Visconti) some fine supporting roles, with an almost wordless John Savage as Tom Hagen’s priest son Andrew, this has the ring of truth but not quite the touch of classicism even with that marvellous cast reunited, something of a miracle in itself:  it feels like the gang’s almost all here. I cheered when I saw Richard Bright back as Al Neri! So sue me! And good grief Enzo the Baker is back too! Duvall’s salary wouldn’t be met by Paramount sadly and he is replaced by George Hamilton as consigliere. Even Martin Scorsese’s mother shows up! That’s Little Italy for ya! Pacino is filled with regret in this unspooling tragedy. And there we have it: the coda to a form of Italian American storytelling, the parallels with the earlier films expressed in flashbacks, as if to say, This was a life. Scorsese’s work is acknowledged but the narrative is forced forward to the inevitable tragedy. Life as opera – filled with crazy melodrama, betrayals, love, violence and murderous death. Garcia’s role makes far more sense in this version – we meet him quicker, his relationship clearly cultivated by Connie to ensure a passing of the guard. Yet what this cut also reinforces is that Coppola’s filmmaking wasn’t as confident, there are too many close ups – where is that surefooted widescreen composition? There are some awkward transitions and frankly bad writing. It’s long but it’s a farewell to a kind of cinema. And the death of Sofia Coppola as Mary was the price she had to pay for being her father’s daughter, non e vero? Now she’s the film world’s godmother. Gangster wrap. Finance is the gun, politics is the trigger.

Black Christmas (2019)

Aren’t you tired of fighting against your true nature? With holidays around the corner, Riley Stone (Imogen Poots) and her friends Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) and Marty (Lily Donoghue) prepare for a Christmas party at their sorority house at Hawthorne College. But when a masked stalker targets girls and goes on a killing spree following a series of threatening direct messages to the girls’ phones purportedly from the school’s slave-owning founder, they decide to fight back – but he’s in the house. Then they realise there’s more than one masked man to deal with and a girl is missing …Something doesn’t feel right. The woke millennial remake of Bob Clarke’s brilliant 1974 Canadian slasher, this plugs into campus stories from the past decade involving unwholesome fratboy rituals and a rape culture targeting female students. It ups the ante by also unpicking the masculinist backlash against women and the idea of safe spaces – all that and with a supernatural undercurrent too. Written by director Sofia Takal and April Wolfe, adapting the original screenplay by A. Roy Moore, the Final Girl narrative is therefore stunningly contemporary in its politics but that means the thrills take a bit of a back seat. There really is no room in the story for the geeky romantic Landon (Caleb Eberhardt) who might or might not help the girls but Cary Elwes is good as the lecturer whose misogyny rules the roost. Riley is a good character but she never rises to the occasion, as it were, and needs help – so you might say that this heroine’s journey is very much a group endeavour as she is forced to come to terms with a past sexual assault. Truly a tribute to the notion of sorority. You used to be a fighter. It’s time to be a fighter again. If not for yourself for your sisters

Pixie (2020)

She won’t just break you she’ll take a Kalashnikov to your heart. Sligo, Ireland. Wannabe photographer Pixie O’Brien (Olivia Cooke) uses her ex-boyfriends Fergus (Fra Fee) and Colin (Rory Fleck Byrne ) to stage an elaborate drug heist on gangster priests which winds up with the men of the cloth murdered, and Colin kills Fergus with a bullet to the head. Two smitten local boys Frank (Ben Hardy) and Harland (Daryl McCormack) join her on the run from the hit man Seamus (Ned Dennehy) her gangster stepfather (Colm Meaney) has set on them when they try to sell 15kg of MDMA back to the priest Father Hector McGrath (Alec Baldwin) who runs the drug scene on the west coast. It turns out Pixie has a very personal motivation beyond money – revenge for the death of her mother who was helped along by her psycho step brother Mickey (Turlough Convery) … These guns won’t shoot themselves. Father and son team Barnaby and Preston Thompson direct and write respectively and this road trip down Ireland’s west coast (rechristened the Wild Atlantic Way to attract tourists) is bloody and violent and very funny, played by a well cast ensemble who revel in the opportunity to get up to Tarntino-esque antics in a picturesque setting shot rather niftily by John de Borman. There are some zingers but they’re often let down by the sound which prioritises a crazily effective set of songs curated by David Holmes and punch lines get lost in the mix (which does not include any songs by Pixies …). Cooke is fantastic in what is likely her best role to date as the amoral (not manic) pixie dream girl but there is also effective characterisation by Meaney and Baldwin as well as her companions Hardy and McCormack whom she seduces into a homoerotic scene that definitely was not on their cards. It’s got references from all over the shop, it’s rackety and fun with a very spirited tone. Dylan Moran appears as a very nasty piece of work indeed. You’ll cheer when you see what Pixie does to him. Naturally there’s a shootout that features nuns with guns. A great bit of craic altogether. I’m sorry we didn’t fucking cover body disposal in our economics course

Silver River (1948)

I’ve got news for you – I think you’ve just gone into the gambling business. Unfairly cashiered from the Union Army Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) heads to Nevada and after running some card games gets into the silver business following an encounter with Georgia Moore (Ann Sheridan) whose husband Stanley (Bruce Bennett) is a mining engineer convinced that the nearby hills are full of silver. McComb lets him go out to the territory despite knowing the Shoshone Indians are on the warpath and his lawyer Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell) cannot persuade him of the wrong he is doing – McComb is smitten with Georgia. By the time guilt overwhelms him he is too late to save Moore and ends up marrying Georgia and getting rich off the proceeds from the mine. His bank is using vouchers from the miners but when Plato shows up drunk at a housewarming dinner and tells the truth about McComb’s faults, the townspeople end up taking their savings from the bank, rival owners open other mines and he loses everything … His name marks our schools and our banks – and one day, maybe, our finish. Raoul Walsh liked both Flynn and Sheridan and this has a fantastically sparky script by Harriet Frank adapted from a story by Stephen Longstreet. He was a friend of Flynn’s and knew that by 1947 the star’s looks and acting were deteriorating, mainly from drink, possibly drugs and definitely from the financial and marital hurt inflicted by some wives. He says that both Flynn and Sheridan were drinking heavily on set and that director Raoul Walsh told him, ” ‘Kid, write it fast. They’re not drinking.’ It soon became clear that they were even if we didn’t see how. [Later on set] I went over and tasted the ice water. It was pure 90-proof vodka.’ ” What a shame. Because there are some great lines and exchanges here and the performances by the leads are sluggish, muted and dead on arrival for most of the film. The humour and ribaldry are fine, it’s the delivery that’s the issue. The irony that it’s about a man whose ability to lead is ruined by some intrinsic flaw cannot have been lost on Flynn. The references to King David, Bathsheba and the serpent’s egg by Mitchell are very clear Biblical analogies that point this up as a morality tale. What might have been, alas, in a film that is rather stillborn from such a paradoxically lively cast and a gifted director. Don’t let’s have a lynching

Nothing But the Night (1973)

I dislike being put in my placefor you or anyone else. Three wealthy trustees of the Van Traylen fund, which supports a school for orphans on the Scottish island of Bala, are murdered but their deaths are clearly staged as suicide or accident. Three other trustees are on a bus carrying children from the school when the driver suddenly catches on fire, but he is the only one to die. One of the girls Mary Valley (Gwyneth Strong) is taken to a London hospital where she has strange seizures and recounts stories which she couldn’t possibly have experienced. Psychiatrist Dr Haynes (Keith Barron) and tabloid journalist Joan Foster (Georgia Brown) interview the girl’s mother Anna Harb (Diana Dors), a prostitute who’s done ten years in Broadmoor for murdering three people. They hope to enlist the aid of the hospital’s senior member, Sir Mark Ashley (Peter Cushing). When Haynes is brutally murdered following a visit from Harb, Ashley enlists the aid of old friend and police inspector Colonel Charles Bingham (Christopher Lee). They take their investigation to Bala where precautions have been taken to protect the children and the remaining trustees by the local police headed by Cameron (Fulton Mackay). In the meantime, Anna Harb travels secretly to Bala, hoping to find Mary, although she is now suspected of the murders and an explosion on a boat that apparently kills several others of the trustees. Ashley and Bingham then uncover the sinister truth behind the murders … Blasted reporters – never let you get on with your work. An intriguing premise rather undone by a sloppy screenplay from Brian Hayles adapting John Blackburn’s novel. It’s wonderful to see Lee and Cushing uniting in a contemporary story that doesn’t involve vampirism and it’s certainly odd that by the end of that year Lee would be ensconced in another Scottish island folk horror shocker, The Wicker Man. He produced this under his own company banner Charlemagne Films which he formed with producer Anthony Nelson Keys – their only production as it didn’t make money. What a shame that Dors is reduced to so little dialogue and spending half the film grubbing about in the undergrowth – then getting the old pyro treatment. And yes, that is Michael Gambon playing Inspector Grant; Kathleen Byron (the mad nun from Black Narcissus) plays Dr Rose; while young Strong is making her screen debut and would go on to become a much loved TV performer in shows like Only Fools and Horses. The ending is literally a cliffhanger but it’s practically thrown away: you might find similarities with the recent Get Out. Directed by Peter Sasdy. You burned your own mother alive!

Red Joan (2019)

Socialists can have glamour. Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is a widow living out a quiet retirement in the suburbs when, shockingly, the British Secret Service places her under arrest. The charge: providing classified scientific information – including details on the building of the atomic bomb – to the Soviet government for decades. As the interrogation gets underway, Joan relives the dramatic events that shaped her life and her beliefs. As a physics student at Cambridge in the Thirties, young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is befriended by beautiful Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes) who grew up together after Sonya was orphaned and their relationship is more like that of a brother and a sister than cousins. Joan falls in love with the intense intellectual Leo. He goes to Russia in 1939 and is stuck there when war breaks out. Joan takes a job as assistant to married scientist Prof. Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) at the wartime Tube Alloys project planning an atomic bomb for Britain. Leo returns from the Soviet Union and asks her to pass information but she refuses. She starts sleeping with Max on a trip to Canada where an encounter with Leo (now based in Montreal) sees her refusing once again to be a spy. Back in England she watches horrified the newsreel footage of the bombing of Hiroshima and finds herself sympathetic to the Soviet cause. But she accuses Leo of using her and then finds him dead, an apparent suicide. She tries to make contact with Sonya again … We’re not on the same side any more. Adapted from Jennie Rooney’s titular novel (based on the life of Melita Norwood) by Lindsay Shapero, this spy drama is meticulously made and attractively played by a talented cast. (If Tom Hughes isn’t the next James Bond I’ll eat one of the extravagant hats on display here). However some crucial plot points and revelations are played down in a badly mismanaged script which effectively diffuses any suspense into two near-identical scenes of the police staging a search of the Alloys department to find evidence about the supply of information to the Soviets. The flashback structure doesn’t always come off, the passage of time isn’t demarcated well and the relationship between Dench and her barrister son Nick (Ben Miles) doesn’t hit the dramatic point required: in fact his father’s identity isn’t clear in a parallel plot with Sonya’s pregnancy in the 1930s. The real culprit recruiting people to the Russian side is far too obvious, the tension is flat and it’s paced poorly. Not what you expect from a director of the calibre of Trevor Nunn but the story is intriguing nonetheless and Cookson does well with the role. Beautifully shot by Zac Nicholson. Is anything you ever told me actually true?