Downhill (2020)

It wasn’t nothing – at all. It was something. Pete Stanton (Will Ferrell) and his lawyer wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are holidaying in Ischgl, Austria with their young sons Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford) when a close call with an avalanche brings all the pre-existing tensions in their relationship to the fore after Pete runs with his mobile phone instead of ensuring his family’s safety. Publicly, Billie says it’s because Pete is mourning his father, dead eight months earlier. Their sexually forthright tour guide Lady Bobo (Miranda Otto) makes them uncomfortable but Billie starts to feel the seven year itch. Pete is in contact with his colleague Zach (Zach Woods) who’s on a whistlestop, country-a-day trip to Europe with girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao) and he invites them both to visit without informing Billie who promptly tells them about how he left the family in the lurch when he thought the avalanche was going to kill them. Then she has an assignation with a very forward ski instructor … Dad ran away. The American remake of Swedish filmmaker’s Ruben Ostlund’s fantastic 2014 black comedy Force Majeure is that rare thing – it works of itself, it’s subtle, funny, striking and just the right duration. If its sketchiness occasionally lacks the dark dynamism of the original and doesn’t capitalise on Ferrell in particular, it replaces it with some obvious sexual jokes but never loses the central conceit – the total failure of communications between two grown ups who cannot face the truth of their relationship. We’re in a stock image right now. Louis-Dreyfus’ outburst in front of Zach and Rosie is astonishing – and using the kids to back her up is a step even she eventually concedes is a bit de trop. Ferrell’s riposte – going apeshit in a nightclub off his head – doesn’t play the same but he’s a simpler, selfish beast. This is real battle of the sexes territory. The conclusion – when Billie tries to make Pete look good in front of their sons – suggests that this icy marriage might not even last to the end of the credits. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash who co-wrote the screenplay with Jesse Armstrong. Every day is all we have

Like a Boss (2020)

My head isn’t little. It’s just that my breasts are humongous. Mia Carter (Tiffany Haddish) and Mel Paige (Rose Byrne) are friends since they were teenagers and manage a small cosmetics business despite their conflicting ideals. When they run into financial difficulties and need an investor they are persuaded by industry magnate Claire Luna (Salma Hayek) to allow her take a large stake but it involves firing their employee and chief cheerleader Barret (Billy Porter) and his colleague Sydney (Jennifer Coolidge) is rightfully angry on his behalf. Mia and Mel’s friendship is tested to the limit and they realise their ambitions and their relationship are about to rupture when they regroup … You’re not fierced! This light comedy wastes the grand talents of its ostensible leads who are mired in a drama about their unequal friendship while Hayek wins the day with a set of enviable buck teeth and a penchant for golf – unlike most people in business she doesn’t waste time going to the course, she tees off on her desk with predictable breakages. Sentimental, silly and feel good with some nice bursts of song from Mia and Mel this is barely passable as entertainment but you’ll not forget those dentures in a hurry and Lisa Kudrow makes a welcome entrance at the eleventh hour. Written by Sam Pittman & Adam Cole-Kelly from a story by them and Danielle Sanchez-Witzel. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Thank God I’m not alone. I’m glad you’re here

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

Crossfire (1947)

He’s just one guy. We don’t get them very often. But he grows out of all the rest.  When he is called in to investigate the brutal murder of Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene), who was found dead at his home, police investigator Captain Finlay (Robert Young) discovers there may be a murderer among a group of demobilized soldiers, who had been seen with Samuels and his female friend at a hotel bar that night. Meanwhile, Sergeant Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum), concerned that his friend Mitchell (George Cooper) may be the prime suspect, decides to investigate the murder to clear his friend’s name. To both investigators, each suspected soldier relays his version of that night through flashback. The first to step up is Montgomery (Robert Ryan) who reveals himself to be anti-semitic; the others are Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie), Mitchell and a potential witness, Ginny Tremaine (Gloria Grahame). While Finlay and Keeley slowly piece together the fragments of that night, there is one possible motive that may have driven the killer to beat an innocent to death, which prompts Finlay to set up a trap to expose the killer…. You can tell a lot about a man by how he don’t respect the service. Adapted from future writer/director Richard Brooks’ controversial novel The Brick Foxhole but of course anti-semitism wasn’t the book’s subject – that would be homophobia, unmentionable as a perversion in those heady days of the Hays Code, as was the issue of inchoate violence among demobbed GIs. John Paxton’s exemplary screenplay still tells a great story with flashbacks used to illuminate the mindset of the killer on the run, with Ryan brilliantly embodying the murderer and Mitchum’s outwardly dozy persona deployed to good effect:  Instead of the purple heart we get purple ink. Brodie makes a good impression as the fall guy. It wears its politics on its sleeve with plenty of on-the-nose dialogue particularly from Young:  Hating is always the same. Always senseless. Yet it falls right. He gets a great speech about how there’s always a minority targeted for hatred and regales a story about his own ancestor, an Irish Catholic murdered for emigrating from the Famine and establishing a home in the US. Effectively a pursuit film – a disguised western, if you will – everyone knows whodunnit and the chase just gives him time to talk himself into a hangman’s noose. Made at a turbulent time for the industry, this B movie astonished many by being nominated for an Academy Award. An outstanding example of the message movie, dealing with the thorny issue of what GIs yet to be discharged from WW2 service were up to with tensions running high in the changing post-war world, every woman potentially a femme fatale:  Grahame excels as the tough lady men want to have ruin them. We’re too used to fightin’ but we just don’t know what to fight. Produced by Adrian Scott (the son of Irish Catholics) and directed by Edward Dmytryk both of whom suffered differently in the wake of the HUAC hearings that this film ironically helped bring about – both were blacklisted among the Hollywood Ten, but in 1951 Dmytryk gave people up in order to work again. They had previously collaborated with Paxton on Murder My Sweet, Cornered and So Well Remembered.  After this landmark production, RKO fired them. Scott moved to Europe and wife Anne Shirley wrote him a ‘Dear John’ letter, marrying another screenwriter, Charles Lederer. Scott’s next wife, Joan, provided a front for him to get work pseudonymously, mainly in British TV. He died at the age of 61. Ryan would star for Dmytryk in the wonderful western The Professionals 19 years later. Dmytryk died at the age of 90 in 1999. I don’t like Jews and I don’t like nobody who likes Jews

 

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Wilfrid the Fox! That’s what they call him, and that’s what he is! When Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) approaches ailing veteran London barrister Sir Wilfrid Roberts (Charles Laughton) to defend him on a charge of murdering a wealthy widow who was enamored of him, going so far as to make him the main beneficiary of her will. Strong circumstantial evidence all points to Vole as the killer. Sir Wilfrid’s nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) objects on the grounds of her client’s ill health. Vole’s former wife Christine Helm (Marlene Dietrich) a German refugee provides an alibi for him. But then she turns up in court to testify against him and Sir Wilfrid is contacted by a mysterious woman, who (for a fee) provides him with letters written by Christine to a mysterious lover named Max  …  I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders. Adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1953 stage play (based on her 1925 short story) by Larry Marcus with the screenplay by Harry Kurnitz (who had written whodunnits pseudonymously) and director Billy Wilder, who chose this project because he so admired its construction. Essentially, this is his Hitchcock film, a brilliantly made comic suspenser with rat-a-tat dialogue to die for and what an ending! And what stars! In a film which hugely improved on Christie’s characterisation, Dietrich smothers the screen with charisma in both her (dis)guises while Power is superb as the smooth charmer he made his own. Lanchester is gifted as many good lines as anyone in the cast including,  Personally, I think the government should do something about those foreign wives. Like an embargo. How else can we take care of our own surplus. Don’t you agree Sir Wilfrid? Her real-life husband of course plays the wily lawyer and he is magnificent: his expressions and business are masterful. There are some welcome familiar faces – John Williams (a Hitchcock regular), Henry Daniell and Una O’Connor, the only original member of the Broadway cast to reprise her role. Beautifully staged and paced, shot by Russell Harlan on sets by Alexandre Trauner with Dietrich costumed by Edith Head, this breathtaking entertainment is a classic film, an object lesson in adaptation with wit and ingenuity to spare. Both Dietrich and Power sing I May Never Go Home Anymore (uncredited) and this is his last completed film. But this is England, where I thought you never arrest, let alone convict, people for crimes they have not committed

Year of the Dragon (1985)

Only one Stanley White. Following the murders of Mafia and Triad leaders in NYC, Polish Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) takes it upon himself to bring down the Chinese organised crime gangs. He’s breaking the long held treaty to permit the Chinese to take care of things in Chinatown. This puts him in conflict with Tony Tai (John Lone) the ruthless leader of the organisation.  It pulls his life apart with his already crumbling childless marriage to nurse Connie (Caroline Kava) collapsing altogether when Stanley falls for the charms of ambitious journalist Tracy Tzu (Ariane). Now Tony has a major shipment coming in from Thailand and Stanley engages in wire tapping for information .. This is America and it’s two hundred years old and you need to change your clocks. This sprawling portrait of the gangs of New York was much misunderstood upon its release but it lays its cards on the table upfront: it’s all in the name (changed) because NYC’s most decorated cop is an unapologetic racist Nam vet and sexist to boot. He’s launching his own tong war. Naturally Rourke plays him as a total charmer and it works:  he has the aura of death about him, his hair is as white as his adopted name and everyone around him seems to get crushed.  As written by Oliver Stone and director Michael Cimino this adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel is remarkably discreet in some areas – and lurid in others. The major love scene between Stanley and Tracy is cleverly done as they tell each other how much they hate each other and then … Her big ‘angry’ scene when he’s moved his team into her preposterously huge loft is amusing because her acting is so poor, all stiff arms like an Irish dancer. Part of the film’s issue representationally is the obvious inexpressivity of the Chinese actors, a physical trait there’s no escaping. They make up for it by killing people. Their treatment historically in the US and their unequal immigrant experience is posited against Stanley’s veteran’s hangups, something that’s used against him.  He wants to sleep with a journalist while both he and Tony decry the media’s role in the portrayal of violence and the way ethnicity is covered. Therefore there is a balance established with Tony – that’s clever storytelling. Lone is super handsome, a great suave villain to play opposite.  The lean way in which the marital story is exposed is a good hook for Stanley’s humanity and it’s the dramatic crutch that assists the outcome. The intra-Asian racism is well dramatised and horrendously violent. Class is an issue that becomes an overriding theme. The whole thing looks incredible – shot by Alex Thomson on a set (by Wolf Kroeger and Victoria Paul) in North Carolina for NYC (except for the views from Tracy’s apartment at the top of the Clocktower Building giving a beguiling view of the city’s skyline).  There’s a fascinating and intricate score by David Mansfield with echoes of phrases from The Deer Hunter. That this is a disguised western is clarified in those final scenes on the railway track. And in this wonderful mesh of genre and tradition there is an honourable way out for one man. What a way to end. Amazingly the role of White (originally called Arthur Powers – but there’s a Stanley White credited as Police Consultant!) was intended for Clint Eastwood. Both he and Paul Newman turned it down. Just as well. Only one Mickey Rourke. He’s a good cop but he won’t stop

Flashdance (1983)

It’s her social security number, asshole – she works for you! Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) is an eighteen year old juggling two odd jobs in Pittsburgh – welding by day at a steel mill, dancing by night in a working men’s club. But she aspires to become a successful ballet dancer. Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri) is her boss and he becomes her lover and he supports and encourages her to fulfill her dream; so does her mentor Hanna Long (Lilia Skala) a retired ballerina who once danced in the Ziegfeld Follies. Her best friends are Jeanie (Sunny Johnson) a waitress and an aspiring ice skater and Jeanie’s boyfriend Richie (Kyle T. Heffner) who works as a short order cook but dreams of making it as a stand up comic and going to Hollywood. Alex is afraid to push herself when she sees that fellow competitors for Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory have years of training and it takes her friends’ botched efforts and a nudge in the right direction to make her take that big step towards her future … Dreaming is wonderful but it won’t put you closer to what you want. This was a cultural phenomenon back in the day and it’s the music video dream brought to life via the extraordinary backlit cinematography (by Donald Peterman) favoured by auteur Adrian Lyne, a simple plot borrowed from the backstage musicals of Busby Berkeley and the most thumping soundtrack ever dreamed up for the screen. And it is a dream, this story of a beautiful teen who fears failure but keeps on truckin’ and despite the huge warehouse loft apartment, the amazing figure and the somewhat grave demeanour, she’s oddly relatable precisely because she lacks confidence and gets around on a racing bike. Beals is a wonderfully charismatic performer who looks good in or partly out of clothes. Her casual attitude to what she wears is disarming, particularly when she takes off her tux in front of Nouri’s ex Katie (Belinda Bauer) and we see underneath is a fake shirt and it’s backless and barely there. Somehow everything she does feels empowering and sexy. There was some controversy stirred up over the fact that the dancer who (clearly!) performs the electrifying routines for Beals, Marine Jahan, was mysteriously uncredited and she called out the producers herself but it didn’t stop this going gonzo at the box office.  Super Bowl XXI made up for it when she was the featured dancer in the half-time performance. (Sharon Shapiro did the body flips but no word on any further acknowledgement). The soundtrack is by Giorgio Moroder with the songs led by Irene Cara’s What a Feeling, doing for this what her theme for Fame did for that other sassy youthful production with a dark side and legwarmers. This is what feminism looked like in 1983 and it’s hot stuff, if you ask me.  The first collaboration between producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, this fabulous fairytale was written by Tom Hedley and Joe Eszterhas from Hedley’s story and directed by Lyne, a man who clearly loves women. Don’t you understand? When you give up your dream you die

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (2020)

Aka Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. I lost all sense of who I was. It’s open season on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) when her explosive breakup with the Joker puts a big fat target on her back. Unprotected and on the run, Quinn faces the wrath of narcissistic crime boss Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor)), his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), and every other vile thug in Gotham. But things soon even out when Harley becomes unexpected allies with three deadly women – Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) out to avenge the murder of her entire Mafia family as a child; club singer Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who’s forced to become Mask’s driver; and hot-tempered suspended cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who’s keen to make her mark in a hostile male environment. And then there’s the tricky street thief Cassandra Cane (Ella Jay Basco) who’s swallowed that diamond with the mob’s bank account details in its mutiple surfaces and that’s what everybody wants most of all Nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence. The sole bright spark in the otherwise execrable Suicide Squad was Robbie’s Quinn so you can see how she might have wanted to bring this powerhouse character back in a more equitable narrative. The driving force is to get the attention of the man who broke up with her, Joker, but as we know from other films, he’s kinda tied up elsewhere  and is quickly forgotten here. The idea of the girl gang that comes to fruition in the final 25 minutes is the MO but intriguingly it’s Harley who needs to be told to ‘focus’ – the other characters are more precisely delineated: the frustrated cop whose throwaway lines are from an 80s cop show, the ingenious pickpocket who unwittingly causes everything, the action babe singer, the highly creative crossbow killer with a serious revenge motive (whose name The Huntress everyone forgets, a nice running joke) which ironically leads to the whole premise being diffused, albeit for a higher feminist purpose. Each of them (bar Harley, who has a penchant for glitter) has a particular fighting style (and the stunts are real something.) McGregor’s psycho villain is thinly drawn and characterised. The fact that the penultimate sequence/showdown takes place in a fun house just exacerbates the cartoonish impact of DC’s all-women superhero squad. Yet it fizzes with antic, frantic, anarchic energy and a sense of its own ridiculousness expressed in many ways but most obviously in the title cards introducing all the characters and the batshit baby doll voiceover. Not to mention that rollerskating Harley’s pet hyena is called Bruce.  And yet it’s a story about female empowerment, diversity and righteous vengeance and is all done with effortless humour because Harley ultimately realises their talents are best deployed against their common enemies – scummy men. Robbie is charm itself and channels her inner Marilyn/Madonna with her performance of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. Written by Christina (Bumblebee) Hodson, produced by Robbie and directed by Cathy Yan. It almost makes you yearn for Tank Girl and Barb Wire, a pair of female action movies from the 90s that just missed their target. Almost. What a breakup movie – it even has a hair-pulling scene. Well what else would you expect from the fractured psyche of a PhD in Psychology? Girl Power kicks ass! You know, vengeance rarely brings the catharsis we hope for

From Here to Eternity (1953)

You should know that in the Army it’s not the individual who counts. 1941. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is transferred to Schofield Barracks on Hawaii where his commanding officer Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober) promotes boxers but Prewitt blinded a man in a fight and won’t co-operate. He is bullied until Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) suggests he is given extra duties but gets hazed by non-comm officers. Supported by friend Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), the men go carousing to a private club where Prew falls for Lorene (Donna Reed), a ‘hostess’. Maggio gets into a row with stockade Sergeant ‘Fatso’ Judson (Ernest Borgnine) but Warden intervenes. Warden begins an affair with the neglected wife Karen (Deborah Kerr) of Captain Holmes whose promiscuous reputation hides a tragedy. Maggio leaves guard duty and gets atrociously drunk, ultimately leading to a sadistic beating from Fatso which kills him. Prew decides upon revenge on the eve of Pearl Harbour … A man don’t go his own way he’s nothing. Despite some decidedly uninspired directing from Fred Zinnemann, this tightly scripted adaptation of James Jones’ classic novel by Daniel Taradash skirts a fine line between outright travesty and censor-baiting in a bid to stay more or less faithful to the themes and the melodramatic aspects are saved before the concluding scenes when the Japanese bombers arrive. Clift gets the best of the pithy truisms, which fits the story’s construction, given that he and Sinatra are the doomed pair who have to make the tragic sacrifices and both give stunning performances. The entire cast shines and there are many great scenes, with the usual one on the beach with the crashing surf between Kerr and Lancaster excerpted as an instance of classic Hollywood romance but it’s one with an undertow of sadness, The first-rate expressive acting is what makes this special.  A man should be what he can do

Victor/Victoria (1982)

 

Only a moron gives advice to a horse’s arse.  Paris, 1934. Coloratura soprano Victoria Grant (Dame Julie Andrews) fails in her audition at a nightclub where she’s seen by gay cabaret singer Carole “Toddy” Todd (Robert Preston) who has been fired from his gig at a second-rate Chez Lui. When Victoria punches out Toddy’s bisexual hustler lover Richard (Malcolm Jamieson), Toddy comes up with what he considers to be an inspired idea: to pass Victoria off as a female impersonator. Victoria. Her male alter ego could be the toast of Paris and make a lot of money as gay Polish Count Victor Grazinski. It all goes well until Chicago gangster King Marchan (James Garner) turns up with his girlfriend Norma Cassady (Lesley Ann Warren) and falls for Victor, convinced he is a she … A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. A breathtaking blend of musical comedy, gender confusion, romance, slapstick, cross-dressing and cabaret, this loose remake of 1933 German screwball film Viktor Und Viktoria  written by Hans Hoemburg and director Reinhold Schuenzel is a showcase for all writer/director Blake Edwards’ talents as well as providing wife Julie Andrews’ greatest role. Preston is a joy as her outrageous gay mentor in a warm, funny, generous performance and Garner has great fun subtly unravelling when his suspicions are proved happily correct in a scenario that takes pleasure in mocking his macho stance. Warren is also excellent as his Thirties moll with bodyguard Alex Karras surprising everyone by coming out.  And for Edwards fans there’s the prospect of Graham Stark providing his customary support in a cast alight with provocation and tolerance proving sexual orientation really is not the issue as long as you’re getting some. What great characters! With songs by Leslie Bricusse and composer Henry Mancini there’s a lot to love in an astonishingly constructed entertainment. Never mind twist endings, the entire narrative is twisted in every possible direction. A modern classic. People believe what they see