Code Name: Emerald (1985)

Code Name Emerald

I was expecting Peter Lorre. Augustus Lang aka Emerald (Ed Harris) is a spy for the Allies working undercover in Nazi-Occupied Paris during World War II but the Nazis believe he’s their man. With his assistance they capture Wheeler (Eric Stoltz) an ‘Overlord’ thought to know the plans for D-Day. Lang is planted as his cell mate and their conversations are monitored by Gestapo officer Walter Hoffman (Horst Buchholz) who is constantly at odds with his SS colleague Ernst Ritter (Helmut Berger) but retains friendly relations with decent Jurgen Brausch (Max Von Sydow).  Outside the cell in everyday Paris, Lang is in contact with Claire Jouvet  (Cyrielle Clair) who is trying to help him engineer Wheeler’s escape. But Wheeler is weakening under threat of torture and Hoffman suspects there might be more than one spy in the wings … Averages aren’t everything. There’s such a thing as grace. A really good premise in a terrific screenplay by Ronald Bass from his novel is largely laid waste by miscasting and some underpowered directing. That makes a change! Harris is not expressive enough to elicit our sympathy as the hero of the piece and Stoltz is unconvincing and probably too young in his role; paradoxically it’s Buchholz who has the most interesting character to play – how often do we see Nazis in civvies in WW2 films? Von Sydow is good as a vitally placed German officer and Clair does very well as the woman at the centre of the romance/resistance storyline. While the tension isn’t strictly maintained, the magnificent score by John Addison goes a long way to giving this a sense of urgency that isn’t necessarily in the dénouement – the outcome of the war is at stake but you wouldn’t know it from the way this is staged. C’est la guerre. Directed by Jonathan Sanger for NBC in their first theatrical production. One of these Krauts is on our side. Problem is, I don’t which one it is

 

Highly Dangerous (1950)

Highly Dangerous

It may not interest you technically but for a large section of humanity it could be a matter of life and death. The British government asks entomologist Frances Gray (Margaret Lockwood) to go behind the Iron Curtain and examine insects that might be used as carriers to spread disease in germ warfare. Grudgingly accepting the job, Frances goes undercover as Frances Conway, a tour director looking for potential holiday destinations and meets tough American reporter Bill Casey (Dane Clark) in the process. Unfortunately, the chief of police Razinski (Marius Goring) quickly sees through Frances’ flimsy cover. Then her contact is murdered and his body left in her hotel room and Frances is taken into custody, prompting Casey to come to her aid… A few months ago some people were shot accidentally in the woods. It was terrible. A vehicle for Lockwood after a period doing theatre, Eric Ambler loosely adapted one of his novels (The Dark Frontier), changed the gender of the protagonist and it’s a spirited adventure. The Ruritanian setting hints at the comedy style, returning Lockwood to a kind of thriller along the lines of The Lady Vanishes – enhanced by the casting of Naunton Wayne as Frances’ recruiter, Hedgerley, Wilfrid Hyde White (after The Third Man) and Goring’s performance as a comedy police chief, enlivening the playfulness. Like The Third Man, Ambler’s script makes a meta issue of storytelling, there’s a torture scene in a TV studio-like location and there are references to soap opera and a character called Frank Conway, the star of a radio serial that Frances listens to for her little nephew and for whom she is re-named. Nicely done with a good mix of intrigue, suspense and fun led by Clark as the inadvertent hero of the situation. Directed by Roy (Ward) Baker. You just can’t do things like that in real life.

1917 (2019)

1917

If you fail, it will be a massacre. During World War I in the trenches close to the front line, two British soldiers Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) receive seemingly impossible orders. In a race against time, they have to cross over into enemy territory to deliver a message to the Devons Regiment – not to go over the top, in a change of plan that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades including Blake’s own brother from falling into a German trap... Brimming with award season nominations, already garlanded with some and its director and co-writer Sam Mendes (with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) pronouncing on the virtues of pacificism, this is chiefly noted for the supposed virtuosity of its being an apparently seamless one-take drama shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Newsflash:  it is a dull and irritating exercise entirely lacking in character development, boasting minimal plot, cursory and random dialogue, little forward propulsion until the 75th minute and thereafter it continues to play out in real time, with a wholly foreseeable ending. What is the problem? The script, the script, the script. It’s unthinking, immature and poorly conceived. The camera has a perspective, the script lacks a point of view. World War 1 was a senseless slaughter of boys led by blinkered generals. There are images of bodies both human and animal. Death was in the trenches and in the air. We know. There are great war films, and not just about World War 1, although La Grande Illusion, All Quiet on the Western Front, Gallipoli and Paths of Glory immediately come to mind when that subject arises. World War 2 has a plethora, most recently, Saving Private Ryan, which sensibly – necessarily – pulls back from its extraordinarily immersive half-hour opening sequence at the Normandy Landing to give the audience a breather from the shockingly unleashed violence and drive towards death and to establish characters, context and narrative.  It is a classic of modern cinema. Dunkirk attempts to converge three stories in parallel without having a scintilla of memorably comparable affect because it seems, like another of Christopher Nolan’s films, Inception, to derive from a gamer’s sensibility, visor firmly clamped around the viewer’s eyes to prevent any kind of peripheral vision (like this). Elem Klimov’s Come and See is an astonishing – almost incomparable – film that lingers long in the memory for its brutal tale of a teenager on the Russian front lines. Hamburger Hill tells the ‘Nam story from the perspective of grunts and it’s devastating; Apocalypse Now takes a literary exercise and converts it to cinematic hallucination. I could go on. This? A cameraman tracks back for ten minutes in an unaltering medium two-shot in a trench making for a queasy opening, and then follows the pair of protagonists until two inevitably become one; then he enters a nightmarish world of a (finally) changing landscape and the dreary grey palette of northern France (actually Wiltshire) gets some studio lighting at last. The idea of presenting the story in real time derives from a mistaken sensibility that has a paradoxically theatrical affect preventing any level of deep character engagement:  and on that subject, it would help to have an attractive protagonist. MacKay communicates precisely nothing but he is given very little to work with. Ordinariness has its own rewards, just not for an audience. There is an old saw that goes, Don’t shoot the messenger. Well, if they had shot the right one, they might have had a film. Ostensibly, this is a film about war. Actually, it’s a film about avoidance. Hope is a dangerous thing

Deep Impact (1998)

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This is not a videogame, son. One year after teenage astronomer Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) spots a comet the size of Mount Everest heading for Earth, journalist Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) mistakes the scoop of a lifetime for a story about the mistress of the US President Beck (Morgan Freeman). Once she’s allowed into the loop of the Extinction Level Event with the rest of the press pack she finds that with one year to go before it could hit the planet there’s a plan to build a system of caves while a joint US/Russian spacecraft nicknamed Messiah being led by veteran astronaut Captain Sturgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) is going to try to intercept its path with nuclear weapons … People know you. They trust you. A disaster movie par excellence, this mixes up men on a mission and race against time tropes with ideas about God, friendship, family and the all-pervasive sense of doom that settles upon people learning of an entire planet’s imminent destruction and how they deal with it. Leoni doesn’t quite have the expressivity to offer a mature performance although her particular role is buttressed by the subplot of her unhappiness at her father Jason’s (Maximilian Schell) new marriage while her beloved mother Robin (Vanessa Redgrave) suffers. However the entire drama is well structured and tautly managed. Written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin (as a vague remake of When Worlds Collide, 1951) and expertly handled by Mimi Leder, better known for TV’s ER, some of whose alumni feature here. Let’s go home

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

John Wick 3

John Wick, Excommunicado. In effect, 6:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. After gunning down Santino d’Antonio, a member of the shadowy international assassins’ guild the High Table, hit man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself stripped of the organisation’s protective services. There’s a $14 million bounty on his head and he is on the run in New York City, the target of the world’s most ruthless killers and he tries to locate the Elder (Said Taghmaoui) the only person above the High Table empowered to take the price tag off his head … He shot my dog/I get it. Starting quite literally from the last shot of the second film in the trilogy about the world’s calmest hitman, this is breathless action fare that starts in New York Public Library of all places setting things in motion with a crucifix necklace and a medallion. What better storage facility for your jewels? Then things get seriously international and move to Morocco and the desert as this violent quest for a kind of redemption gets underway while John reconciles with his origins: he is actually Jardani Jovonovich of Belarus, which we learn courtesy of a drop in at Anjelica Huston’s ballet school. Reeves is as Zen-like as ever even when offing everyone in sight and his dog is the dog’s, as they say, although he mostly keeps out of trouble by residing at the Hotel Continental. A sinuous exercise in ultraviolence, this is actually very beautiful to watch. With Ian McShane back as John’s dubious caretaker Winston, Halle Berry sharing his love canines and Laurence Fishburne giving this a Matrix-y feeling, this has a lot of good moments bookended by two extraordinary sequences of skillfully choreographed action with – what else – a cliffhanging ending. Written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams, based on a story by Kolstad. Directed by Chad Stahelski. It wasn’t just a puppy

The Facts of Life (1960)

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Am I really going to San Francisco to spend the weekend… with the husband of my best friend? When neighbours Kitty Weaver (Lucille Ball) and Larry Gilbert (Bob Hope) meet it’s irritation at first sight but there’s an undeniable attraction which they eventually act upon during the annual neighbourhood vacation in Acapulco when they’re forced to spend it together. Problem is, they’re both married, she to habitual gambler Jack (Don DeFore), he to perfect homemaker Mary (Ruth Hussey) and they both have two children. They vow to take off together after circumstances and regular encounters at social gatherings mean they keep running into each other but a messed up drunken assignation at a motel makes them rethink. Then things change after Larry finds out that Kitty has written a note to Jack to tell him she’s leaving him when the pair take go to San Francisco for the weekend during the winter vacation … This is my first affair, so please be kind. A breezy but cold-eyed comedy of suburban middle class adultery is not necessarily what you might expect with that cast, but that’s what legendary screenwriting partners Norman Panama and Melvin Frank created and it’s very well played by the leads who of course are both peerless comedy performers and this is the third of the four films they made together. It’s as though Johns Cheever and Updike decided to up sticks and go Hollywood and take all the baggage of midcentury masculinity with them. Panama and Frank are of course great comic screenwriters.  Their first screen credit was on Hope’s 1942 movie My Favorite Blonde and later work with him includes Road to Utopia, Monsieur Beaucaire and an uncredited rewrite of The Princess and the Pirate so they know his strengths (they are his, as it were) and they turn a messy uncomfortable familial disruption into an easily enjoyed romcom whose moral messiness is tidied into great dialogue and barely concealed social anxiety.  This is the essence of comedy and it’s their forte. There are some shockingly barbed exchanges and there are excruciating sequences when the couple discuss the legal and financial ramifications of two divorces and realise when they’re finally alone together that they’re probably mismatched; when they almost get found out by neighbours at San Francisco Airport the tension is horrific.  There’s a notable score by Johnny Mercer and Leigh Harline with the title song performed by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé and while Frank gets the sole directing credit, it appears Panama co-directed. There’s an unexpectedly conventional titles sequence designed by Saul Bass, putting us right in the mood for the tenor of that era’s comedy style and it all looks beautiful in monochrome thanks to cinematographer Charles Lang. Night-time Los Angeles looks glossy even in black and white.  It’s an interesting one to compare with another film about an extra-marital suburban affair filmed the same year, Strangers When We Meet. Played a beat slower with a fraction less of the leads’ comedy mugging and shot in colour, this could match its melodramatic tone. Are you sure you’re with the right woman?

A New Leaf (1971)

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You have managed to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born. A spoiled and self-absorbed playboy who has squandered his inheritance, Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) is ageing and desperate to find a way to maintain his lavish lifestyle. He approaches his disbelieving Uncle Harry (James Coco) who agrees to loan him some money but only on condition he marries within 6 weeks or he will take everything Henry has left in his name, ten times the loan amount. Henry sees an opportunity when he meets Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), an awkward and bookish botanist and heiress whose greatest hope is to discover a new fern. Though Henry proposes marriage within three days of meeting, he has no intention of remaining with her and plans a sinister scheme. As he attempts to murder Henrietta, it may not be as easy as he had thought and he finds himself protecting her from her thieving household staff and caring about her appearance … I eat I sleep I swim I dry off.  I’m primitive! Writer/director Elaine May’s hilarious black comedy may have been re-cut by the studio (headed up by the legendary Robert Evans) against her wishes (losing two murders in the process) but Matthau preferred this version and it’s laugh out loud brilliant and humane, quite a combination. Matthau’s hangdog look perfectly encapsulates his desperate situation as the destitute playboy who against his killer instincts finds his inner decency; while May is a delight as the klutzy eccentric who knows more than she lets on. Coco is hideously funny as the rich uncle with the motorized pepper mill who has a metaphorical noose over Henry; while James Weston scores as Henrietta’s lawyer desperate not to lose his valuable client. Some of the best scenes are between Henry and his ‘gentlemen’s gentleman’ Harold (Jack Rose) who commences by suggesting suicide as an alternative to the awful embarrassment of public poverty when the cheques start to bounce; and then points out the ironic development that Henrietta’s helplessness has triggered Henry’s surprising financial acumen. Startlingly funny and rather cruel about men and women and a certain social niche, this has lost none of its edge or its warmth because it truly understands the vast compromises required by marriage and there are moments of inspired physical comedy.  Adapted by May from Jack Ritchie’s short story The Green Heart. I’m going to find a suitable woman and mur …. marry her!

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

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Play something else. Bored Boston millionaire Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) devises and executes a brilliant scheme to rob a bank on a sunny summer’s afternoon without having to do any of the work himself. He rolls up in his Rolls Royce and collects the takings from a trash can without ever meeting the four men he hired to pull it off. When the police get nowhere fast, American abroad Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), an investigator hired by the bank’s insurance company, takes an interest in Crown and the two begin a complicated cat-and-mouse game with a romantic undertone although Vicki is also assisting police with their enquiries via Detective Eddy Malone (Paul Burke) who stops short of calling her a prostitute due to her exceedingly unorthodox working methods. Suspicious of Anderson’s agenda, Crown devises another robbery like his first, wondering if he can get away with the same crime twice while Vicki is conflicted by her feelings and Tommy considers giving himself up I’m running a sex orgy for a couple of freaks on Government funds. Dune buggies. Gliders. Polo ponies. Aran sweaters. The sexiest chess game in cinema. Those lips! Those eyes! Those fingers! Has castling ever seemed so raunchy?! Super slick, witty, rather wistful and absurdly beautiful, this classic caper is the epitome of Sixties cool, self-consciously clever, teeming with split-screen imagery, bursting with erotic ideas and boasting a brilliant if enigmatic theme song Windmills of Your Mind composed by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman. The breeziest, flightiest concoction this side of a recipe for soufflé, it benefits from both protagonists’ identity crisis where everything comes easily to Tommy and life is a game, and yet, and yet … while Vicki is genuinely hurt when Detective Malone hands her a file on Tommy’s nightlife affairs with another woman. Written by Alan Trustman, also responsible for Bullitt. The production is designed by Robert Boyle, shot by Haskell Wexler and directed by Norman Jewison while the editing is led by future director Hal Ashby.  This is deliriously entertaining.  And did Persol shades ever look as amazing? It’s not the money, it’s me and the system

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

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 These are you final steps, Rey. Rise and take them. The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more as Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron’s (Oscar Isaac) journey continues led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). They discover that the Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is alive and unwell and living on Exegol where he’s been discovered by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). With the power and knowledge of generations behind them, the final battle commences between good and evil and Rey makes a surprising discovery about her origins that leads to a confrontation that could have devastating consequences for future generations …  Every Jedi who ever lived, lives in you. How to finish a beloved trilogy? Perhaps it’s fitting that the concluding days of a decade that ends a 42-year long saga is one that commenced with James Cameron’s Avatar a film that was purportedly about to change cinema; that film’s impact then became dissipated with the sheer proliferating superheroism of Marvel Comics; so now we have something that seems somehow less tainted than either of those (non-) series. J.J. Abrams may not be the ideal filmmaker to bring things to a conclusion, ending things not being his forte (I give you Lost). The first trilogy is so beloved;  the second so critically reviled (albeit kids love it); so how would it tie up so many apparently disparate loose ends? Well, it does, if rather haphazardly. It brings together the Sith story with the Jedi story and allows the characters of both Rey and Ben/Kylo Ren to assert their position in the pantheon. The original characters play an active role, albeit in unexpected fashion;  a favourite returns;  and there is more than one kind of rebirth. In other words all the Jungian and mythical tropes that inspired George Lucas via Joseph Campbell are invoked. Even the Ewoks (the honours appropriately taken by Warwick Davis and his son) make a very brief appearance, in case anyone would think they’d been overlooked. There is some dreadfully portentous dialogue; there is some bad acting (I’m sorry to say I mean you, Richard E. Grant); there is a brief Lesbian kiss (the Force definitely woke up); there are some deaths and sacrifices. The film that made my entire generation go to the movies ends the 2010s and it’s not a cliffhanger, it’s a proper ending. What else do you want? It all sits, more or less, on the elegant shoulders of Ridley and she’s very good as the feistiest woman since, well, Princess Leia. Happy New Year. Screenplay by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams from a story by Derek Connolly & Colin Treverrow and Terrio & Abrams. We are not alone

Shock (1946)

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It’s hard for a doctor to make promises. We can only do our best. Psychiatrist Dr Cross (Vincent Price) is treating catatonic Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw) after she has witnessed a man hit a woman with a candlestick causing her death. When she comes to realise that it was in fact Cross murdering his wife he commits her to a sanatorium where his nurse lover Elaine Jordan (Lynn Bari) persuades him to give Janet  an overdose of insulin but Cross finds getting away with murder a second time a difficult prospect … I’m neither a miracle man nor a prophet, Lieutenant. If medicine were an exact science, not an art, I might be able to tell you. This controversial post-war thriller is notable for being Price’s first starring role and for attracting criticism of its portrayal of psychiatry, a profession thought to be both unimpeachable and necessary for the treatment of returning WW2 vets. This is highlighted by the return of Janet’s husband Paul (Frank Latimore), in his soldier’s uniform, embodying a sociocultural crisis. The sense of jeopardy is well sustained, Bari is a superb femme fatale (she wasn’t known as The Woo Woo Girl for nothing) and the murderous Price’s own ethical crisis is nicely handled. Written by Eugene Ling and Albert DeMond (from his story) with additional dialogue by Martin Berkeley. There’s a highly effective score by David Buttolph and it’s well photographed by Joseph MacDonald and Glen MacWilliams, beautifully designed by Boris Leven and Lyle Wheeler,  with editing by Harmon Jones. Directed by Alfred L. Werker. Doctor, the important thing is – what can you do for her?  * In Celebration of the Centenary of Lynn Bari’s birth 18th December 2019 *