Fire Down Below (1957)

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When it runs it’s a good little boat. U.S. expatriates Tony (Jack Lemmon) and Felix (Robert Mitchum) cruise around the ocean and eke out a meager subsistence using their small tramp boat to transport cargo around the Caribbean islands in between drinking sessions. When they take on the job of smuggling illegal-immigrant beauty Irena (Rita Hayworth) to another island (from nowhere to nowhere), they find their friendship torn apart by their mutual romantic feelings toward her and a betrayal occurs. After the authorities are on his tail he takes a job on cargo ship Ulysses but gets trapped below deck following a collision and time is running out  What a country America is, everything even rebellion. Irwin Shaw’s adaptation of Max Catto’s 1954 novel is a fantastic star vehicle with sparky characters, ripe and eloquent dialogue  – there are real zingers about Americans abroad and the world of men and women. Well, Shaw knew all about all of that good stuff. Some fantastic setpieces include numerous musical sequences (the harmonica theme was written by Lemmon while the title song is performed by Jeri Southern) and a fiery conflagration to bring things to a head. He and Mitchum have a friendship that is curdled by love for the mysterious Hayworth who is as usual much better when she’s required to move rather than stand still and emote. Lemmon is fine as the cuckold but Mitchum and Hayworth have really great scenes together – after dancing in a huge crowd she returns to their table purring at him, That was wonderful. Wasn’t it, he deadpans back to her. There’s a universe of understanding between them. Herbert Lom shows up as the harbour master, Bernard Lee is a doctor, Anthony Newley is a bartender, producer Albert Broccoli makes a cameo as a drug smuggler, there’s a gunfight at sea and best of all there are three stars doing what they do best in their inimical and idiosyncratic style. Fantastically entertaining. Mitchum would not only make his next film in the Caribbean (Heaven Knows Mr Allison) he recorded a calypso album! Directed on location in Trinidad and Tobago by Robert Parrish. I’m so sad that little dogs howl in desperation when they see me

 

Noose for a Lady (1953)

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We’re all of us a little delicate these days. Margaret Hallam (Pamela Alan) is sentenced to death for murdering her manipulative husband and her cousin Simon Gale (Dennis Price) arrives from Uganda determined to prove her innocence with only seven days to clear her name. He works with her stepdaughter Jill (Rona Anderson) to investigate all lines of enquiry including everyone in Margaret’s immediate circle of family, friends and neighbours.  He encounters a situation that could implicate any one of their number because the victim knew each of their past indiscretions and was practising extortion. Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the hangman’s noose awaits but as Simon closes in on the real culprit they start tying up loose ends …  Let’s stop theorizing. A decent B-movie whodunnit, Price sleuthing Poirot-style with the theatrical touch that he gathers all possible suspects at the beginning so that we then follow each plot thread with a little foreknowledge until the twist ending. The revealing of a slew of personal secrets gives a melodramatic spin to things, making it logical that each character has skin in the killing game – except of course more lives are at stake. There’s a shifty housekeeper (Doris Yorke), a man with a sleeping pill habit (Charles Lloyd-Pack), a woman with an illegitimate child (Alison Leggatt), a nasty old gossip (Esma Cannon) and so forth. To heighten tension, the policeman (George Merritt) is given a spot of insight that you’d think would be attributed to Price, whose usual villainous edge is toned down to permit him to play decent and enjoy a spot of romance with Vanessa Lane (Melissa Stribling). The gang is assembled again at the climax, Christie-style and even if you see the outcome telegraphed in advance, it plays very well and there are some good exchanges. Adapted from Gerald Verner’s novel The Whispering Woman by Rex Rienits and stylishly directed by the prolific writer Wolf Rilla in his debut:  this was the first of four features he made in 1953 alone. Shot at Merton Park. So much for Chesterton. This is a miracle that isn’t going to happen

Knives Out (2019)

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I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects.  When crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies just after his 85th birthday, inquisitive Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives at his estate to investigate despite the presence of police officers (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan). He sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind the writer’s untimely demise as each of the family members and the immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who cared for Harlan is questioned in turn. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a successful businesswoman with a an unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson) and a layabout son Ransom (Chris Evans). Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing company his father founded for his writing output, but they’ve been fighting. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is an advocate of self-help and has been helping herself to the old man’s money. His ancient mother (K Callan) never seems to die. Harlan’s devoted nurse Marta then becomes Harlan’s most trusted confidante but who hired him in the first place? … This is a twisted web, and we are not finished untangling it, not yet. The closed-room murder mystery is a staple of crime fiction and it’s not necessarily where you’d expect writer/director Rian Johnson to turn after a Star Wars episode (The Last Jedi) although it harks back to his debut, Brick, a take on Chandler/Hammett with teenagers. The touchstones are pretty clear:  Agatha Christie; the game (and film) of Clue(do); Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark; and some of the grasping familial mendacity we recognise from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If truth be told, it’s not very mysterious and barely suspenseful with two big twists a regular filmgoer or mystery reader will see through easily which means that they of course are not the point. It’s the dismantling of those hoary old tropes that provides the narrative motor. Much of the entertainment value derives from game comic playing by an established cast with a soupçon of political commentary provided by the nurse’s immigrant status which leads to a good line featuring Broadway hit Hamilton and everyone gets her native country wrong, one of the running jokes. Another is her need to vomit when telling a lie. The other one is stretching out the syllables in Benoit’s name so it sounds like Ben wa although personally I find Craig more prophylactic than sex toy and his ‘tec is Poirot X Columbo with an affected drawl. It looks quite sober and already feels like Sunday evening TV. For the undemanding viewer. CSI KFC!

Destroyer (2018)

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Silas is back. As a young cop, Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) went under cover with colleague Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate a gang in the California desert – with tragic results. Sixteen years later, a prematurely aged, alcoholic and divorced Bell continues to work as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, but feelings of anger and remorse leave her worn-down and consumed by guilt. She has to deal with her trampy truanting 16-year old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) shacked up with a hoodlum (Beau Knapp) while in the custody of her ex-husband Ethan (Scott McNairy). When Silas (Toby Kebbell) the leader of the old gang suddenly re-emerges, Erin embarks on a quest to find his former associates, bring him to justice and make peace with her tortured past but the implications for everyone connected with her could prove terminal ... I’ve got good news and bad news. There’s nobody fucking watching. But I see who you are. Kidman is absolutely rivetting in a narrative that is all about backstory and how it plays into the present – great writing by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi with a marvellous reversal of the usual gender expectations, Kidman giving us her version of Bad Lieutenant. This is relentlessly tense but also touching – who couldn’t feel desperately sad when Shelby shows up for an attempt at conciliation by her mother – accompanied by the twentysomething junkie gangster who’s having sex with her? Dreadful. Emma’s demons are internal but they’re also familial, professional, external. It’s probably Kidman’s greatest performance but it’s brilliantly conceived and executed in terms of how it looks (shot by Julie Kirkwood), how it feels and how it plays, with a raft of detailed, memorable character performances by a cast that includes James Jordan, Bradley Whitford and Tatiana Maslany. A tour de force by director Karyn Kusama, and all who sailed with her. Outstanding. What if I know who did it?

 

The Irishman (2019)

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It is what it is. In 1975 mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives are on an east-west roadtrip, their ultimate destination Detroit for the wedding of Russell’s niece. An elderly Sheeran tells the story of their association as a meet-cute when he was driving a meat truck in the 1950s and his rise through the ranks, his appointment to a Teamster position under Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the union supremo with deep Mafia ties. It becomes apparent that there is an ulterior motive to the journey and their role in America’s evolution particularly with regard to the Kennedy family is traced against a series of hits Sheeran carries out that reverberate through US history… What kind of man makes a call like that. Not so much Goodfellas as Oldfellas, a ruminative journey through midcentury America via the prism of a violent hitman who allegedly befriended and later murdered infamous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. This is toned-down Scorsese, with muted colours to match the readjusted and very mature framing of Mafia doings in terms of the impact it has on family, chiefly Sheeran’s sensitive daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult) whose mostly silent presence functions as the story’s moral centre:  her horror of Bufalino is a constant reprimand. Steven (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses is not for the fainthearted:  its overlength is sustained mainly by performance with a powerhouse set of principals (plus Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale et al) battling against a lot of unmemorable and somewhat repetitive dialogue (but when it’s good, it’s great), under-dramatised setpieces and a fatally bloated midsection (as in life, so in narrative), much of which is spent in courtrooms. Every time there’s a lull in the action someone needs Frank to off the source of their discontent and sometimes this is handled with straightforward exposition, sometimes in a montage of Frank disposing gun after gun off a bridge. That’s the story punctuation. Mostly however the issue is with DeNiro’s dull and wearying voiceover. This is not the funny jive kick of Ray Liotta in the aforementioned 1990 classic, it’s a man utterly comfortable in his killer’s skin who doesn’t defend himself because it’s who he is and he is not given to introspection, a flaw in the anchoring perspective. If we’re seeing it, we don’t need to be told too. The de-ageing effect is jarring because we don’t see the DeNiro of Mean Streets, rather a jowly preternaturally middle-aged man who shuffles in an old man’s gait. While Pesci is calm and chillingly content in his own position as a capo, it’s Pacino (in his first collaboration with Scorsese) who lifts the mood and fills the air with punchy, positive ions, giving the movie a much-needed burst of energy. But even he seems to be circling the wagons around his own self-satisfied persona as the same story/work-life issues repeatedly arise. It’s a big movie about nasty men who (perhaps) played a huge role in the shaping of their country and the hierarchies of cultures and ethnicities are regularly invoked in a tale which may or may not be true. There are some potentially amusing gatherings of men in black suits at family events. But funny they ain’t.  It’s sad perhaps that Scorsese didn’t make this for cinema and after three weeks on limited release it is fated for eternity on a streaming service:  a sign of the times and perhaps the swansong of a major filmmaker at the end of the 2010s. The nail in the coffin of an era? After this we might be asking not just who killed Jimmy Hoffa but who killed the mob movie. Late Scorsese, in more ways than one. They can whack the President, they can whack the president of the union

Greta (2018)

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It’s not harassment if it’s in a public place. Young waitress Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) finds a handbag on the New York subway and promptly returns it to its Brooklyn owner Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert) an eccentric French piano teacher and former nurse who loves tea and classical music. Having recently lost her mother and with her Boston-based father (Colm Feore) consumed by his work, Frances strikes up a seemingly harmless friendship with the lonely and kind widow who enjoys her company, her own daughter seemingly away studying in Paris. But when Greta’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and obsessive, Frances does whatever it takes to end the toxic relationship before things spirals out of control and attempts to get the police involved. She reckons without Greta’s persistence… The crazier they are the harder they cling! Ray Wright and director Neil Jordan wrote the screenplay from Wright’s original story and it’s a pulpy thriller whose plot twists are signalled from the get-go.  Pure stalker territory it might be but by simple expedient of voicemail messages the sinister nature of Greta’s pursuit of Frances is soundtracked as surely as a spider spins a web around its prey. Nonetheless Huppert and Moretz give highly committed performances with Greta’s room mate Erica (Maika Monroe) offering wonderfully comic sidelong observations all the while, and Stephen Rea playing a private eye on nutty Greta’s trail. What Huppert does when she loses a finger has to be seen. Although set in a scary NYC a lot of shooting took place in Toronto and Dublin, Ireland and the fakery adds to the camp fun. Everything has its end even company

The Sentinel (1977)

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I find that New Yorkers have no sense for anything but sex and money. Troubled New York City model Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) decides to make some changes in her life. She breaks up with her boyfriend Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) and after being advised by realtor Miss Logan (Ava Gardner) of an apartment in Brooklyn Heights moves into a brownstone with a great view of the city where the only other tenant is a withdrawn blind priest Father Halliran (John Carradine). Then she meets another neighbour Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) who invites her to his delightfully devilish cat’s birthday party and encounters there a lot of other neighbours not supposed to be in residence. After experiencing several strange occurrences she informs the slippery Michael who works with NYC police detectives Gatz (Eli Wallach) and Rizzo (Christopher Walken) to uncover the origins of these people.  Alison begins to realise why the holy man is there – the building has an evil presence that must be kept in check at all costs and it’s somebody else’s turn to keep the devils out ... It’s all right. Listen, listen. I know everything now. The Latin you saw in that book was an ancient warning from the angel Gabriel to the angel Uriel. Personally I always thought my old apartment was the gateway to Hell but that’s another story. All I can say is I wasn’t expecting Gerde’s (Sylvia Miles) galpal Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo) to masturbate fully clothed in front of her houseguest while awaiting afternoon tea. Not exactly good etiquette. Some Lesbians do ‘ave ’em, eh?! There’s a birthday party for a cat (hip hip hooray!), crazed Catholics,  demons, induced suicides – just your usual sociocultural cross-section in a city apartment block, all helpfully revealed by creepy Perry (William Hickey) who says, I just open doors. This is filled with those lovely women that seemed to be everywhere at a certain point in the late Seventies/early Eighties – Raffin, Raines, Miles and the stunning Gardner and it effectively rips off all the Satanic horrors to date, from Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist under the guise of property porn. And there’s Arthur Kennedy as Monsignor Franchino, an unholy priest and Jerry Orbach as a horrible director. And look out for Jeff Goldblum while even Richard Dreyfuss shows up on the sidewalk. SighNutty, derivative, terrible and horrible, a travesty, an insult to the God-fearing, a twist ending you could see coming – I couldn’t take my eyes off it. And no matter what, I am never asking Ava Gardner to be my realtor. Peak Seventies cult. Fabulous. Adapted from his novel by Jeffrey Konvitz with director Michael Winner. All killers, all dead. She went to a party with eight dead murderers

Damascus Cover (2017)

 

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When missions go bad, there’s only one rule – protect your partner.  Following the murder of his colleague in Damascus by Syrian Secret Police Chief Sarraj (Navid Negahban) Israeli agent Ari Ben-Sion aka Hans Hoffman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is deployed to Syria by his overseer Miki (John Hurt) to exfiltrate a spy and his family and runs into American photographer Kim (Olivia Thirlby) with whom he becomes involved before realising she is part of a much bigger plot and the real target of his mission is an entirely different individual in deep cover but hiding in plain sight … It’s a real maze. Adapted by director Daniel Zelik Berk and Samantha Newton from Howard Kaplan’s 1977 bestseller this is updated to 1989, the year of revolutions, so that the action happens in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall (although they’re not exactly celebrating Christmas here). The characterisation is undercooked and the storytelling is a little clunky – you feel that Hans/Ari should have figured out a lot quicker that something bigger is going on than his purported task. It’s the textural matters that are more interesting – the maze-like construction of a city where Jews are only permitted to leave their quarter one at a time, where streets lead you to dead ends like a rat; the depicting of the secret police under the original Assad; the post-war Nazis doing business in an Islamic haven (the role of Moslems in the Holocaust has yet to be dramatised); the issue of identity in a region where anti-semitism is writ large: when Ari enters Syria he is asked, Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine? He is already displaced in Israel after moving from Germany as a child and is suffering the bereavement any father would following the breakdown of his marriage in the wake of the death of his young son (although we don’t know how that happened, there are several shots of children at play as well as his haunting nightmares about the boy).  He doesn’t exhibit true emotion until he’s engaged with Kim who herself has issues with being distanced from her young son and who has a father whose actions for his Syrian overlords has resulted in his death.  She appears to be repaying a debt to the intelligence service, willingly or not. Berk is the former talent agent who introduced John Travolta to Quentin Tarantino for which we are all truly grateful and this has a slick look and a trim running time. It’s beautifully shot by Chloë Thomson.  Despite the welcome complexities in Ari and his mistakes, and the issue of Syria versus Israel, it doesn’t plumb the resonant depths of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the echo casting of John Hurt in the perfunctory but dramatically significant role of Miki has a sorrowfulness because it is that great actor’s final part. It is fitting therefore that he should have the last word in the film’s signing off, Goodbye my friend

Miss Bala (2019)

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They’re all dirty. And they’re coming after me. Los Angeles makeup artist and Mexican emigrée Gloria Fuentes (Gina Rodriguez) asks the police for help when cartel hit men kidnap her friend Suzu Ramos (Cristina Rodio) from a nightclub in Tijuana, Mexico. She soon finds herself in big trouble when a corrupt cop hands her over to the same goons who shot up the place in an attempted hit on Police Chief Saucedo (Damian Alcazar). Gang leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) decides to use Gloria for his dirty work to avoid detection from the Drug Enforcement Administration one of whom Brian Reich (Matt Lauria) puts a tracking device on her to entrap the gang who get her to transport drugs across the border to San Diego where she’s met by gangster Jimmy (Anthony Mackie) who is actually an undercover CIA agent. Determined to get away, Gloria must now play a dangerous game to outwit not only the cartel but the DEA agents who now suspect her of complicity and she winds up finding out the hard way that she’s been sold out – in the middle of a shootout – and has to choose sides …  You thought I was a bad guy?  I’m just playing their game. This action thriller remake of a 2011 Spanish-language film from director Catherine Hardwicke has everything going for it except characterisation:  sometime, someone, somewhere will remember that character is also action, it’s not enough in the #MeToo era to just put a woman in the protagonist’s role and have her run from bullets (and that’s what ‘bala’ means, not that you’d know it) and sell it as a female-oriented film. And, in yet another ad for Mexico’s tourism industry – drugs, guns, cross-border crime, female intimidation, endless non-stop murders – the best thing you could possibly do on that front is to keep well away. And what on earth has that poster got to do with anything? Oh, when the plot finally kicks in after 70 minutes our heroine has to take part in a beauty pageant (Miss Baja) which leads to a rather good twist ending but it’s all too little, rather late. There is some interesting architecture however. Yawn. Written by Garrett Dunnet-Alcocer. Everyone works for us now. Play your part

Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing