The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

I found the Picasso. It wasn’t easy. I was looking for a woman with a guitar and it was all cubes. It took me two hours to find her nose. It’s the 1930s. Veteran New York insurance investigator C.W. Briggs (Woody Allen) is at daggers drawn with newly recruited efficiency manager Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt): he goes by instinct (and a few well chosen bribes) and she is all about rational thinking. It’s hate at first sight. He trades quips with and about office beauty Jill (Elizabeth Berkeley) while Betty is carrying on with married boss Magruder (Dan Aykroyd) who promises he’ll leave his wife. When they are both hypnotised by crooked nightclub magician Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) on an office outing the pair of them unwittingly carry out jewellery thefts from their own clients and wind up investigating themselves while not falling in love … Germs can’t live in your blood – it’s too cold.  A hilarious tale scripted like a Thirties newspaper screwball with rat-a-tat machine gun banter sprinkled liberally with sexist abuse being fired off in both directions and several nods to Kafka not least when Hunt repeatedly calls Allen variations on the word roach. With Double Indemnity hovering in the background, Theron a smouldering femme fatale just dying to bed Allen and Hunt giving it her best Rosalind Russell, this is sheerly brilliant escapist fare with so many laugh out loud exchanges it’s impossible to hear all the great lines. Is she kidding, talking to me like that? It’s ’cause she thinks she’s smarter… you know, ’cause she graduated from Vassar and I went to driving school

Bombshell (2019)

Bombshell

I’m not a feminist, I’m a lawyer. When Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired following her on-air revelation that she supports an assault weapons ban, she slaps conservative TV channel Fox News founder and CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) with a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment.  But nobody comes forward to provide evidence of similar experiences, not even her protegée, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) who migrates to the Bill O’Reilly show, is fired her first day and takes the back elevator to Ailes’ office in her quest for advancement. Eventually Gretchen’s decision leads to Presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s bête noire, Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) coming forward with her own story, as well as multiple other women, eventually bringing the channel’s owners, the Murdoch family, into the fray... He handed me the power to hurt him. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when it comes to explaining the way the world turns, it has fallen to America’s comedy auteurs to Show and Tell. And here it’s director Jay Roach invading the body politic once more after the TV dramas Recount, Game Change and All the Way as well as the feature Trumbo. Humour helps but doesn’t really feature in this tawdry tale of three contrasting women who have oddly similar looks in the Barbie-style legs-out fashion cultivated by Ailes – and one scene where all the on-air women presenters are Spanxing it up and shoving five-inch heels onto their calloused feet shows the compromises intelligent gutsy women make visually to make it professionally on US TV, at least on Fox News. Theron’s transformation into Kelly is really something – she wears her work look as if she’s armed for war and her decision to finally take it to the bosses, with the backing of her husband Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass) at the same time as having to battle Trump mania in Summer 2016, tacks sharply when she allows the Presidential hopeful to get away with his menstruation Tweet, to her husband’s disgust. But, as she reminds him, she has to pay the bills. Kidman is good as the woman who has had the sense to record her meetings with Ailes, but is then sidelined with money and an NDA (maybe); and Robbie is impressively touching as the amalgamated character ‘Kayla’ who succumbs to Ailes, believing everyone else must have done it to get ahead (To get ahead, you have to give a little head, as Gretchen regales her lawyers). When Kayla crumbles at the truth, it’s devastating. The fact that these women believe in the political piffle they peddle is what makes the film hold its fire because Kate McKinnon is cast as a secret Lesbian Hillary-supporter in their midst making the politics of it weaker in every sense; and there’s a pretty ludicrous scene when Ailes’ wife, newspaper editor Beth (Connie Britton) has her assistant ask if her sushi lunch is too liberal. (Perhaps it is this very daftness that makes the film’s point). And while the women’s histories shares similar contours, they do not support one another and Kelly’s producer Gil (Rob Delaney) reminds her that all the production team’s jobs are on the line. However Charles Randolph’s screenplay is fast-moving and literate, and there is great use of archive footage.  The female cast are just outstanding, with Lithgow quite horrifying as the disgusting old man who once hobnobbed with Nixon but now intimidates ambitious young women into hoicking up their skirts and a lot worse. The biggest irony? Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) gets to save the day. Sigh. Inspired by the accounts of the women who reported their experiences of harassment. Rule number one, Corporate America:  You don’t sue your boss

Down Three Dark Streets (1954)

Down Three Dark Streets

I kept asking myself, all night long, who would want to such a thing? FBI agent John Ripley (Broderick Crawford) inherits three cases his murdered partner Zack Stewart (Kenneth Tobey) has been investigating, hoping one of them will turn up his killer. Glamourpuss Connie Anderson (Martha Hyer) can be connected to gas station killer Joe Walpo (Joe Bassett). Fashion buyer Kate Martell (Ruth Roman) is getting phonecalls extorting insurance money that she received following her husband’s death and her young daughter is being threatened.When boxer Matty Pavelich (Claude Akins) beats up blind Julie Angelino (Marisa Pavan) her husband Vince (Gene Reynolds) agrees to testify, so another case is tied up … I don’t like men staring at me before lunch. Adapted by The Gordons (Mildred and Gordon) from their novel Case File FBI, this serves as something of a Valentine to that agency although J. Edgar Hoover reputedly objected to the early draft scripts. It’s enlivened by the shift between documentary-style realism, great location shooting and a conventional thriller mode boasting some terrific female performances, particularly Hyer (once touted as the new Grace Kelly) giving it the full Marilyn Monroe as the sexpot link to a mysterious criminal. Roman is her customarily intense self with a problematic household, an aggressive romantic interest (Max Showalter) and a job as a fashion buyer to contend with; while Crawford’s gruff persona suits the no-nonsense lead role. There is some especially piquant dialogue and a gloriously funny moment when an inventor tries to sell him on a Geiger counter for spies (it has a light that comes on when a taxman is in the vicinity). The stories are well put together and it ends (happily, for the viewer at least) at the Hollywood sign in a Los Angeles that is still notably rural, with the freeway almost empty of the traffic to come. Directed by Arnold Laven. Sometimes you meet some nice people in this business

Instant Family (2018)

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Is it a problem, the whole white saviour thing? Building contractor Pete Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) and his interior designer wife Ellie (Rose Byrne) have a perfect life, flipping houses and making money. However their child-free status is starting to get to Ellie and she persuades Mark to think about fostering. They train under the supervision of social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) and get overwhelmed when they encounter wisecracking 15-year old Lizzie (Isabela Moner) but she has a little brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz) and the couple don’t want to break up the family, whose crack addict mom is in jail.  The honeymoon period is followed by serious tantrums and disruption … If I chatted to a random kid in the park I could get arrested.  A film constructed on such a hideously sentimental premise you might not look beyond the awesome shabby chic interiors and hear some very shrewd and witty observations about race, parenting and family.  But what the hell were they thinking to deploy the great Joan Cusack as the weirdo in the last scene? Cringe! Must be the flu meds. Ahem. Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders. I never get tired of watching white people fight

Gunpoint (1966)

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You’re not much like the man I once knew. In the early 1880s near the Wild West town of Lodgepole, Colorado, Sheriff Chad Lucas (Audie Murphy) gets shot during a train robbery not by the perpetrators, but by his jealous deputy, Captain Hold (Denver Pyle), who believes he should be sheriff instead. Left to die, Chad rallies and takes off in search of the robbers encountering attacks by Indians and horse thieves en route. Tracking them down to New Mexico, Chad and saloon owner Nate (Warren Stevens) chase after gang leader Drago (Morgan Woodward), who has taken saloon singer and Chad’s ex-lover Uvalde (Joan Staley) as a hostage but Nate is engaged to Uvalde and doesn’t like it when he discovers her past relationship with Chad I’d as soon gun down a horse thief as stomp a tarantula. This is a fairly standard oater but there’s a sense of jeopardy arising not just from how the landscape (St George, Kanab Canyon, Snow Canyon State Park Utah) is presented but in the use of animals, with a horse stampede proving an opportunity for some nice low-angle shots. Audie has some good verbal exchanges particularly with Woodward and his late reconciliation with Uvalde  gives him a nice scene immediately prior to her seeming betrayal – until Audie gets a chance to make all sorts of amends which lends a touch of psychological complexity to otherwise routine proceedings. The last of a cycle of seven westerns Audie made with the producer Gordon Kay. Written by Mary Willingham and Willard W. Willingham and directed by Earl Bellamy. Maybe all evens up in time

Captain Marvel (2019)

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You call me ‘young lady’ again, I’ll shove my foot up somewhere it’s not supposed to be. Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers or Vers (Brie Larson) is an extraterrestrial Kree warrior who finds herself caught in the middle of an intergalactic battle between her people and the Skrulls. After crashing an experimental aircraft, Air Force pilot Carol Danvers was discovered by the Kree and trained as a member of the elite Starforce Military under the command of her mentor Yon-Rogg. Back on Earth in 1995, she keeps having recurring memories of another life as U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers. With help from S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) Captain Marvel tries to uncover the secrets of her past while harnessing her special superpowers to end the war with the evil Skrulls… We have no idea what other intergalactic threats are out there. And our one woman security force had a prior commitment on the other side of the universe. S.H.I.E.L.D. alone can’t protect us. We need to find more. The first twenty minutes are wildly confusing – flashbacks? dreams? reality? WTF? Etc. Then when Vers hits 1995 we’re back in familiar earthbound territory – Blockbuster Video, slow bandwidth, familiar clothes, Laser Tag references, and aliens arriving to sort stuff out under cover of human identities. And a killer soundtrack of songs by mostly girl bands(Garbage, Elastica, TLC et al). So far, so expected. Digital de-ageing assists the older crew including Annette Bening (she’s not just Dr Wendy Lawson! she’s Supreme Intelligence, natch) but the colourless Brie Larson (well, she is named after a cheese) doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the otherwise tolerable female-oriented end of the action adventure. There is however a rather marvellous ginger cat called Goose happily reminding us of both Alien and Top GunWritten and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. I have nothing to prove to you

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (2019)

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Hey that’s no way to say goodbye. Documentary maker Nick Broomfield charts the story of the enduring love affair between writer and singer Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne Ihlen, a young married woman and mother, who spent time together on the Greek island of Hydra in the Sixties, the era before mass tourism.  They made each other believe they were beautiful and she lived with him and took on the role she had previously performed for her writer husband.  It transpires Broomfield knew them both and also fell in love with Marianne who later pushed him to make his first film back in Wales. Cohen’s career is etched against the backdrop of the relationship and it is echoed in the songs he wrote in Marianne’s honour and memory including Bird on a Wire. I was possessed, obsessive about [sex], the blue movie that I threw myself into [and] blue movies are not romantic. However it’s mostly about Leonard, and even Nick. I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web/ Is fastening my ankle to a stone.  In some ways this is a bad trip in more ways than one as the film makes clear, with alterations in lyrics making over the original conditions in which they were written. Leonard earned the nickname Captain Mandrax thanks to his gargantuan appetite for drugs.  Hydra became a playground for the wealthy, awash with illicit substances and countercultural encounters structure the narrative as much as Leonard’s songs. Various interviewees agree that poets do not make great husbands.  I was always trying to get away. So what did Marianne do that made her such a significant muse, and not just to Leonard? She had a talent for spotting talents and strengths in people.  After eight years together during which Leonard went from being a penniless poet to a nervous stage performer when Judy Collins discovered him and he became a star overnight, Marianne had had enough. He had an obsessive love of sex which he dutifully indulged while she stayed on the island. When she was summoned she joined him but things did not work and her little son suffered. She endured Leonard’s constant infidelities on the road and she was replaced by Suzanne (Elrod) whose relationship with Leonard overlapped with her own, and one day spider woman Suzanne turned up on the doorstep in Hydra with their toddler son Adam, ready to move in.  So Marianne moved on. Leonard had found himself to be a born performer and she no longer had a role, this sensitive woman who didn’t draw or paint or write yet whose value as muse was frequently cited by Leonard in public, on stage, in interviews. Thereafter there were telegrams to her and invites to concerts when she returned to Norway and remarried and settled into a suburban lifestyle and their relationship fizzled into a kind of long-distance friendship which ended poignantly. Broomfield reveals that on one visit to him in Cardiff Marianne had to go away one day to abort Leonard’s baby – one of several she had by him. One friend comments that if anyone were to have had his children it should have been her. Instead it was the universally disliked Elrod. Marianne and Leonard’s relationship wasn’t the only casualty, as Broomfield finds in this picture of the early hippie lifestyle with its bohemian leanings and open marriages. There are accounts of mental illness and suicides including the sad account of the Johnstons, the friends who made his arrival in Greece so happy and easeful. Re-entering the real world following the isolation of this island adrift from the world was anything but happy. This is a complex story with many participants and audio interviews old and new are interspersed with superb archive footage (some by DA Pennebaker), numerous photographs and revealing chats with friends, bystanders and musicians who survive to tell the tale of this mysterious love.  It is about Broomfield’s own loyal friendship with Marianne. Finally, it is about people finding themselves through each other and a story almost mythical in musical history which has so nourished the world’s imagination. So long, Marianne

Oklahoma Crude (1973)

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Businessmen do this to each other all the time. Headstrong lone wildcatter Lena Doyle (Faye Dunaway) accepts the assistance of her ne’er do well father Cleon (John Mills) and hired gun, oilfield drifter Noble Mason (George C. Scott), in defending her oil derrick from businessman Hellman (Jack Palance) and his associates in the Pan-Oklahoma Oil Trust in 1913 …Women are even worse; they try to be like men, but they can’t cut it. I’d like to be a member of a third sex. Producer Stanley Kramer makes a broad comedy far removed from his usual solemn and socially conscious films with a vulgar, funny screenplay by Marc Norman (which he later adapted into a novel) complete with throwaway lines on sexual politics. The leads play mostly against type and Dunaway and Scott are superb bouncing off each other. They offer fascinating, stylised performances with Dunaway doing a kind of Jane Fonda impression in her dyed ‘do. A highly enjoyable frontier outing enhanced by Henry Mancini’s score and song, Send a Little Love My Way which he co-wrote with Hal David, performed by Anne Murray. Beautifully shot by Robert Surtees.  Isn’t that just like a woman? She wants to be treated like a man… and then she cries!

All Is True (2018)

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I’ve just bought a pension. I can’t die for at least 10 years or I’ll be ruined. It’s 1613, and Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground and he decides he will never write again. Devastated, he returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death 17 years earlier of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis) he struggles to mend the broken relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters, Hamnet’s twin sister, spirited spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappy Susanna (Lydia Wilson) who is married to a noxiously stern Puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). He is forced to examine his failings as an absent husband and father when 28-year old Judith finally gets involved with a suitor alleged to have impregnated another woman and Susanna is accused of adultery … A garden ain’t a play. Screenwriter Ben Elton has been wowing on the small screen with his very clever parody of Shakespeare in Upstart Crow but this is only occasionally in the same pantomimic vein albeit its nod/wink title (the original title for The Life of Henry VIII) toys with the idea that this is anything other than a confection of falsehoods and assumptions.  And it is a bit of a joke to start with – an old conqueror finally comes home and gets in the way of his wife and has the temerity to mess up the garden she has so carefully cultivated for the last 20 years. And then there are all those long country evenings when all you have is a candle for company. Irony is writ large here. At its heart a melancholy meditation on age, family and what you leave behind, Shakespeare is confronted with the long-hidden truth of his young son’s death, a boy whom he believed to have been greatly talented but who had actually been presenting the work of his twin, who was left unable to read and write, being but a girl. The discovery is poignant indeed. There’s a sonnet-off  (# 29) when Will is confronted with another truth – that the now elderly object of his affection Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) is not interested in him but appreciates his art. How wonderfully odd that two of the great contemporary exponents of the Bard are quoting him at each other. Anne’s feelings are nothing – when the poems were published (illegally, without Will’s consent), he never thought about her reputation or what people might say. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The bedrock of his entire life it seems has been other people and what they say – what was said of his father, what was said of him, and now, what is said about his daughters, both caught up in scandals of their own. He is a man for whom all truth is literally relative. Retirement is not easy and revelations about what happened at home when he was enjoying fame and adulation come as a shock to someone for whom all the world’s a stage and now his daughters are ruining the name he literally wrote out of disgrace to redeem his father’s blackguarding. Branagh is very good, prosthetics and all, capable of being hurt and amusing and rueful. The motifs are striking in a beautifully shot production – two fires dominate the visuals: the opening conflagration at the Globe caused by a misfiring cannon in a production co-written with John Fletcher; and the smaller one in the grate when Judith attempts to destroy what Hamnet transcribed – because Will needs to believe it was his dead son who wrote the poetry and she is guilty at being a gifted woman because he has such a low opinion of her. And Will loves the word on the page – when he sees his son’s name written in the funeral record in the local church his face comes to life. Anne chides him that when Hamnet died he was busy writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dench is wise and moving in the role of the much older wife protecting him from terrible knowledge. However the slow pace and ruminative setting, autumnal and somewhat bucolic, hide the sad drama within. It’s stunningly shot by Zac Nicholson, not just allowing us to see the wide open spaces juxtaposed with interestingly shot and lit interiors – so many dimpled with pure candlelight as the sole source – but telling us that there is always a bigger story and hinting where to look. There are funny scenes with the ridiculously ingratiating local MP Sir Thomas Lucey (Alex Macqueen) and some wild put-downs. There’s even a jibe about authorship and how it was that a man who owns up to having lived such a little life could have ended up knowing everything. Lest we forget, Elton is the best Elizabethan historian we have, when you think about Blackadder. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is very lovely. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Nothing is ever true

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head