A Simple Favour (2018)

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Are you going to Diabolique me?  Perky smalltown single mom and vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is swept away by her new friendship with the glorious Emily (Blake Lively) PR director to obnoxious NYC fashion maven Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend), too busy in her professional life to do anything but show up occasionally to collect her little son from school. While fellow moms inform Stephanie that she’s just a free babysitter she’s convinced she and Emily are best friends because they bond over a daily martini at Emily’s fabulous glass modernist house until one day she gets a call from Emily to look after her kid and Emily doesn’t return. Stephanie’s daily vlogs get increasingly desperate as the days wear on. After five days she can’t take it any more. She gets embroiled in a search along with Emily’s husband, the blocked author Sean Townsend (Henry Golding) for whom she has a bit of a thing until she decides to dress up and play Nancy Drew when she discovers Emily had a very good life insurance policy… She’s an enigma my wife. You can get close to her, but you never quite reach her. She’s like a beautiful ghost.  While the world gets its knickers in a twist about female representation along comes Paul Feig once again with an astonishing showcase for two of the least understood actresses in American cinema and lets them rip in complex roles that are wildly funny, smart and pretty damned vicious.  This adaptation by Jessica Sharzer of Darcey Bell’s novel has more twists and turns than a corkscrew and from the incredible jangly French pop soundtrack – which includes everyone from Bardot & Gainsbourg and Dutronc to Zaz – to the cataclysmic meeting between these two pathological liars this is bound to end up in … murder! Deceit! Treachery! Nutty betrayals! Incredible clothes! Lady parts! Revelations of incest! Everything works here – from jibes about competitive parenting and volunteering, to the fashion business, family, film noir, Gone Girl (a variant of which is tucked in as a sub-plot), heavy drinking, wonderful food, electric cars.  And again, the clothes! Kudos to designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus who understands how to convey personality and story. Never wear a vintage Hermès scarf with a Gap T-shirt. If you were truly Emily’s friend, you would know that It’s wonderfully lensed by John Schwartzman, one of my favourite cinematographers and the production design and juxtapositions sing. This is an amazing tour of genres which comes together in two performances that are totally persuasive – in another kind of film Kendrick and Lively might have to tell each other You complete me:  the shocking flashbacks to their pasts (which are both truthful and deceitful) illuminate their true characters. This is that utter rarity – a brilliantly complicated, nasty and humorous tale of female friendship that doesn’t fear to tread where few films venture. It’s an epic battle of the moms. Film of the year? I’ll say! I am so glad that this is the basis of my 2,000th post. Brotherfucker!  MM#2000

 

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The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)

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By the way – I’ve brought you the announcement of your death. South African engineer visiting London, Richard Hannay (Robert Powell) gets caught up in an intricate spy plot when a British secret agent Scudder (John Mills) takes shelter in his apartment after witnessing a political assassination. When the spy is killed by a secret organisation, Hannay becomes its next target, and must flee to Scotland, where he may be able to uncover the mystery by locating a black book lost by Scudder.  He is pursued by the police and the killers and it is only when Chief Superintendent Lomas (Eric Porter, Soames from TV’s The Forsyte Saga) gets bona fides from Hannay’s employers that the Government tries to save him – by using him as lure. Aided by the lovely Alex Mackenzie (Karen Dotrice), Hannay figures out the organisation’s sinister scheme to launch WW1 and attempts to halt it… John Buchan’s classic novel has such good bones that any alteration merely enhanced its reputation, as Hitchcock’s adaptation proved. This, the third version, is a different proposition – more straightforwardly faithful and dramatic, less comedic, and very suspenseful indeed. Michael Robson’s interpretation cleaves to the novel and it’s still an exercise in tension using trains, boats, planes, taxis and bikes in a travelogue that spans from London to the Scottish moors. Hannay is a bit of a cold fish to begin with but defrosts when the bullets start skimming his legs and he meets Alex. It’s tautly told and acted and ironically there is a fantastically Hitchcockian climax on the face of Big Ben concluding a literal race against time. Directed by Hammer veteran Don Sharp, with a very tasteful score by Ed Welch.

The Chase (1966)

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He never stole that $50.  I did.  When “Bubber” Reeves (Robert Redford) escapes from prison, it upsets the folks in the nearby town of Tarl, Texas. A man has been killed because Bubber’s companion is dangerous and Bubber is being blamed for the death.  While he’s on the run, Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) wants to capture Bubber alive, which puts him in opposition to many of the townspeople who have resorted to mob justice. Businessman Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall) wants Calder to apprehend Bubber quickly since he fears the criminal will come after Val’s son, Jake (James Fox) who is sleeping with Reeves’ wife (Jane Fonda).  The townspeople believe that Calder is Rogers’ puppet but Calder is his own man who wants to put things right for Bubber, framed for something he didn’t do … Famously problematic production because of on-set conflicts between powerhouse producer Sam Spiegel, director Arthur Penn and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, this adaptation of Horton Foote’s play and novel remains a lesson in star power even if the overall look of the film (grey-green) disappoints. Miriam Hopkins plays Bubber’s mother as a guilt-ridden paragon;  Marshall has the town’s power but knows it is corrupting and he’s surrounded by vicious thugs, including Richard Bradford;  Angie Dickinson is the soft maternal wife to Brando’s canny sheriff but she wants children they can’t have;  Fonda is unfaithful but Bubber can’t really blame his friend Jake:  Jake is basically a good guy, the son of the terrible father. Brando has a range that extends beyond many of his roles:  good husband, put-upon lawmaker, victim of a senseless and bloody assault.  He is the film’s conscience.  Bubber’s friend Lester (Joel Fluellen) is black and that plays into the margin notes of the film’s text as a political work. The straightforward depiction of smalltown corruption, mob rule and violence is constructed against a miasma of soap operatics:  Shoot a man for sleeping with someone’s wife?  That’s silly. Half the town would be wiped out! Janice Rule has a ball as the good time girl cheating on deceitful Robert Duvall;  Martha Hyer is partied out.  Redford is a relatively minor character, imprisoned for something he didn’t do, the pivot of most people’s actions, the litmus test for their humanity. His journey through the countryside as he marvels at nature provides the thread of possibility that the rest of the narrative denies. He plays Bubber with decency and clarity;  the scene sequence of terrible violence culminating in a Jack Rubyesque conclusion still has the power to shock.  It’s a confounding work:  a terrible indictment of the United States, the Deep South and complacency, eventually a rumination on the Kennedy assassination.  I was coming to the end of me.  I don’t  know how I knew. But I knew.

Knight of Cups (2015)

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For optimal sound reproduction the producers of this film recommend that you play it loud. Screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) tries to make sense of life in Hollywood. We follow him on an odyssey through Los Angeles and Las Vegas as he undertakes a series of adventures with colorful figures, identified by eight tarot cards, with Rick as the Knight of Cups who sleeps with a half dozen women, leaves his own wife and impregnates another man’s…  Or as I like to call it, another episode in an occasional series known as When Good Auteurs Go Bad. See also:  Phantom Thread. Terrence Malick disappeared up his own fundament a while back:  if anyone thought To the Wonder was anything other than nonsense then they never saw real art house films.  This latest version of Hollywood Eats Itself functions as allegory:  of what, we don’t know, because it’s unnecessary.  All those years of living the life of someone I didn’t even know These movies have been around almost as long as Hollywood itself – but this is the experimental version. Cate Blanchett is Judgment, Natalie Portman is Death, Antonio Banderas is the Hermit, Brian Dennehy is the Hanged Man, and oh, for goodness’ sake, it looks wonderful. There are situations that almost approach coherence, particularly in the (only developed?) scenes with Portman;  an excursion to that simulacrum of plasticity in the desert, Vegas, in the company of a stripper; and the apartment burglary when the thieves bemoan Rick’s lack of possessions. Rick is haunted by the death of his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) who brings him on a tour of LA’s homeless. There are some insights amid the dissociative witterings and fragmentary musings and overheard bites of conversation inspired by The Pilgrim’s Progess but for the most part you won’t believe your ears as Christian’s character thinks he’s Christ wandering through his midlife crisis. Pity the actors, who had no script. Peter Mathiessen tells Rick that a man living in a cave eating nettles doesn’t concern himself with this sort of thing. Those desert monks had a point. This was in an edit suite for two years. After a cold compress go watch Sunset Blvd. Or 8 1/2. Whatever happened to visionary filmmaker Terrence Malick? We are too media-savvy not to understand the metaphors. We know that not all narratives are ordered or complete. But it’s a filmmaker’s job to get us at least some of the way there. And why squander the talents of these marvellous actors?  Presumably their best work wound up on the cutting room floor, as is Malick’s wont. Just to, you know, show them. As Forster would counsel, Only connect.  Woulda coulda shoulda. Begin

 

She Played With Fire (1957)

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Aka Fortune is a Woman.  I don’t suppose she’ll stay a widow very long.  Insurance detective Oliver Branwell (Jack Hawkins) uncovers a shifty art dealer’s ingenious scheme but is unable to do anything about it because the crook Tracey Moreton (Dennis Price) has married the investigator’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Arlene Dahl) and he fears that she may be involved. The detective’s dilemma continues until the dealer gets careless one day and Branwell wonders if Sarah has anything to do with a series of arson attacks when he starts being blackmailed …  With a screenplay by director Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder and Val Valentine, working from a novel by Winston (Poldark) Graham, a splendid cast (including Greta Gynt, Bernard Miles, Ian Hunter and Christopher Lee!) and a great setting, you know you’re in for a good if complex noirish melodrama. Why let a little fraud get in the way of romance? Would you believe the preternaturally beautiful Arlene Dahl capable of murder? She’d been quite naughty in the previous year’s colour noir Slightly Scarlet, so you never know. Watch and wait … with a terrific score by William Alwyn.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

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Maybe Chicago’s got a heart but I ain’t found one.  Young Italian-American Rocky Barbella (Paul Newman) endures abuse from his father (Harold J. Stone) and despite his mother (Eileen Heckart) and her constant efforts to intervene he messes with small-time crime with his streetwise friend Romolo (Sal Mineo).  His consequent run-ins with the law lead him in and out of detention centers and prisons. When it seems he has it together, Rocky is drafted into the wartime Army but can’t stick the regime and goes AWOL. He takes up boxing to earn quick money with coach Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane), but when he discovers he has a natural talent in the ring, he builds the confidence to pursue his love interest, Norma (Pier Angeli), and fulfill his potential as a middleweight fighter. Pressured to take a bribe, his reputation takes a major hit.  He doesn’t know how to redeem himself except by fighting …  Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Rocky Graziano’s autobiography is full of clichés – but they’re good ones because they’re true. Filled with big, dramatic performances and great action which is what you want from a gutsy story of an abused child through his spells in juvie and prison and the Army, this is a wonderful portrait of NYC and its denizens and the final bout is heart-stopping. The right hooks aren’t confined to Rocky, Lehman’s dialogue is ripe with zingers:  The trouble with reading the phonebook is you always know how it’s going to come out.  Gleaming monochrome cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and a song by Perry Como add to a magnificent movie bio experience but one is forced to ask what Paul Newman’s career would have looked like if its intended lead James Dean hadn’t died before this went into production:  his Rebel co-star Mineo (who looks altogether lustrous) bolsters the teen crim story and the beautiful Angeli was engaged to Dean for a while (as well as doing The Silver Chalice with Newman). His ghost is everywhere. Look for Steve McQueen, Robert Loggia and Dean Jones down the cast list.  Directed by Robert Wise.

Knife in the Water (1962)

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You’re just like him… only half his age, and twice as dumb.  On their way to an afternoon on the lake, husband and wife sportswriter Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) nearly run over a young unnamed hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz). Inviting the young man onto the boat with them, Andrzej begins to subtly torment him; the hitchhiker responds by challenging his masculinity and making overtures toward Krystyna. When the hitchhiker is accidentally knocked overboard, Andrzej panics and leaves the boat to go to the police. The hitchhiker appears from behind a buoy where he’s been concealing himself and has sex with Krystyna who’s alone on the deck.  Then she reunites with Andrzej … Roman Polanski’s debut was nominated for the Best Foreign Film at the 1963 Academy Awards and announced a major talent. The imaginative direction of a limited cast in such a confined space led to it being chosen as the still on a Time cover story about international cinema. Tense, psychologically challenging and boasting a pervasive sense of danger and violence, this is a remarkable and occasionally audacious piece of work with a wonderful jazz score by Kryzsztof Komeda. Co-written by Polanski with Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski.

Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958)

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aka Sleep No More. Kimberley Prescott (Anne Baxter) is the heiress of a South African diamond company and grieving after her father’s recent suicide at the family’s villa outside Barcelona.  She is shocked by the arrival of a man (Richard Todd) claiming to be her brother Ward, believed to have died in a car accident in South Africa a year earlier. Kimberley had identified his body.  He insinuates his way into her home accompanied by a woman claiming to be a housekeeper, Elaine Whitman (Faith Brook) after giving the Spanish maid the weekend off.  Kimberley has trouble convincing her friends and family and the local police inspector Vargas (Herbert Lom) that a complete stranger has taken her deceased brother’s identity and appears to know events of their shared childhood and suspects he is after her father’s estate … Written by David D. Osborn and Charles Sinclair, this highly efficient B thriller is a convincing mix of the paranoid woman’s film and murder mystery, with an enormous stash of diamonds at the centre of the plot. Baxter offers a pleasingly vivid performance as the woman being driven to the edge of sanity with nice guy actor Todd playing it sinister and clearly enjoying himself.  The guitar score by Mátyás Seiber is performed by Julian Bream. Produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and directed by Michael Anderson with cinematography by his usual collaborator, Erwin Hillier.

The Big Combo (1955)

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First is first. Second is nobody.  Police lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde)  comes under pressure from a gang headed by a vicious mobster Brown (Conte) but his superiors don’t want him to follow the case due to lack of evidence. He is helped by the gangster’s supposedly dead wife Alicia (Helen Walker) who is mentally ill and jealous at her husband’s affair with another woman, the suicidal Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), with whom Diamond becomes obsessed and who supplies him with information to help him close the net on his foe.  In the meantime a gangster presumed still alive turns out to have been murdered and Brown’s cohorts are planning upheaval … An astonishing gangster film, a fetid fever dream of sadism, sexual obsession and suicidal tendencies (moreso than an exploitation flick about the mob). Philip Yordan’s screenplay is as tough as they come and Conte’s incarnation of the vicious Brown is a performance for the ages. But it is a film of striking performances and Wallace (Wilde’s real-life wife) had herself tried to commit suicide a couple of times so this co-production between their company and Yordan and producer Sidney Harmon’s must have hit a number of home truths. The women here are a diverse and fascinating bunch:  Helene Stanton as dancer Rita has a brief appearance but she looks so different from other actresses of the era you won’t forget her. Brown’s handicapped mentor Brian Donlevy’s point of view of experiencing being shot (minus sound) is mesmerising and the cinematography by John Alton is jaw-dropping:  the use of light in the final sequence is historic [you’ll find some of these shots on the covers of film noir studies].  David Raksin’s music sets the scene with his innovative jazz-influenced bursts underscoring the key movements – but the music in the torture scene is from Shorty Rogers and His Giants (with the deafening drum solo by Shelly Manne). Directed with his usual unforgiving pace by Joseph H. Lewis. Extraordinary.

The Tin Drum (1979)

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There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eat to much fish. There was once a credulous people… who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really… the gas man! There was once a toy merchant. His name was Sigismund Markus… and he sold tin drums lacquered red and white. There was once a drummer. His name was Oskar. There was once a toy merchant… whose name was Markus… and he took all the toys in the world away with him. Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is a very unusual boy born in Danzig in 1924, after the city has been separated from Germany following WW1. Refusing to leave the womb until promised a tin drum by his mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), Oskar is reluctant to enter a world he sees as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and vows on his third birthday to never grow up as he watches his mother take her cousin Jan for a lover and she becomes pregnant – but by who? Miraculously Oskar gets his wish when he throws himself down a staircase.  His talent for breaking glass when he screams garners him attention. As the Nazis rise to power in Danzig, Oskar wills himself to remain a child, beating his tin drum incessantly and screaming in protest at the chaos surrounding him as his mother dies, his father takes a new wife who has a baby Oskar is convinced he has fathered and Hitler takes over while Oskar decides to join a travelling circus and entertain the Nazi troops in Paris … Günter Grass’ stunning 1959 novel was adapted by Volker Schlöndorff (and Jean-Claude Carriére and Frank Seitz Jr.) and he became the first German director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this transgressive, arresting and surreal impression of Nazism and the breakup of Europe. It’s mesmerising, brilliantly conceived and performed – Bennent is one of a kind – and once seen can never be forgotten. It is the blackest of comedies about the darkness in Germany and the way in which Polish people handled the transition to Nazism. The coda in real life – that Grass was found to have been in the Waffen-SS as a teenager after a lifetime of denial –  somehow just gives this greater heft. Amazing.