Miss Bala (2019)

Miss Bala.jpg

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

Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)

Backstabbing_for_Beginners_poster.png

Information is everything  – the currency, the power. Young United Nations employee Michael Soussan (Theo James) has left his lucrative job at a bank because he wants to follow in his late diplomat father’s footsteps and travels to Iraq with his mentor Under-Secretary-General Costa ‘Pasha’ Passaris (Ben Kingsley), who is going to show him how successful the UN’s Oil-for-Food Programme has been. When Michael gets a deeper look at the organisation on the ground he listens to the concerns of local UN diplomat Christina Dupre (Jacqueline Bisset) and unveils a corruption conspiracy in which officials both inside and outside of the UN are skimming billions off the top of the aid meant for the Iraqi people. When he meets UN worker (and secret Kurdish activist) Nashim (Bilçim Bilgin) and she informs him his predecessor was murdered, he finds his head being turned yet he wants to do the right thing … There was nobody left who knew how to run the countryPitched as a political thriller, this reeks of the great Seventies paranoid conspiracy stories that Pakula and Pollack made so much their own – and even concludes in a visit to the Wall Street Journal, conjuring images of Robert Redford in his own cat and mouse chase. However this whistleblower drama is a bigger story with the bad guys less easy to identify simply because there are so many of them – thousands of global companies, some household brands, bribing Saddam Hussein, and, as we might recall from the news of 15 years ago, revolved around the United Nations. So basically everything we know is right – they’re all at it, as the overly truthful title indicates. Graft is good. Our shoulder-shrugging dismay is sealed by intermittent montages of newsreel, reminding us that we are watching, as it were, a true story, while some of the ensemble get killed in car bombs as Iraq is carved up by vested interests. Kingsley, unsurprisingly, gets all the best lines and this performance is meat and drink to him. James is more diffuse as the good guy constantly stunned into submission by the realisation that corruption is a way of life and he still scrabbles to do whatever is right, whatever that might be, at any given time as the tables are constantly turned on him in this story of a naïf’s progress.  Adapted from Soussan’s memoir by director Per Fly (isn’t that the best name ever?!) and Daniel Pyne. Admirable but not wholly effective.  What you call corruption is simply the growing pains of a new democracy

 

All About Nina (2018)

All About Nina

Let me take care of you. Thirtysomething Nina Geld’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) passion and talent have made her a rising star in the NYC comedy scene, but she’s an emotional mess offstage. Her married policeman lover Joe (Chace Crawford) resorts to violence when she goes back to her apartment with a one-night stand where she finds that he’s let himself in. She takes a cab to Joe’s house  to show his wife what’s going on and gets told to leave the city. When a new professional opportunity arises in Los Angeles, she moves west and house-shares with spiritual author Lake (Kate del Castillo) who tries to get her out of her comfort zone when she sees her pain.  Nina is forced to confront her own deeply troubled past just as an unexpected romance with Rafe (Common) begins to thrive… Let’s take things one step at a time. The debut film of writer/director Eva Vives, this demands and gets a barnstorming performance from Winstead who has to go on an emotional rollercoaster – from horrific stories about her father to the unexpected delight of having a potentially successful relationship rather than a familiar series of sexual hit and runs, which just triggers more self-destructive behaviour. From its truisms about showbusiness and a possible opportunity to appear on an SNL clone whose top dog Larry Michaels (Beau Bridges) pits all contemporary female standups against each other in an audition;  dealing with the fallout of trust issues from child abuse; to what it takes to go viral and whether that makes you popular or untouchable; this treads with a sureness all the way until the very end when it ultimately fails to deliver an answer but has Nina back onstage, where she really lives. As unpredictable as watching a standup having a meltdown – which is what this is all about, and quite as thrilling. Winstead is brilliant in a frank, raw and revelatory performance.

Hotel Mumbai (2019)

Hotel Mumbai film.jpg

The whole world is watching. In 2008 terror strikes in the heart of Mumbai, India, as members of the Islamic terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba storm the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, one in a series of 12 coordinated attacks throughout the city by the jihadists. Amid the gunfire and mayhem, a brave chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and Sikh kitchen worker Arjun (Dev Patel) decide to risk their own lives to try and protect the frightened guests in a place where the credo is the guest is god. As the militants continue their assault on the hotel, a British Moslem heiress Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and her American architect husband David (Armie Hammer) and their nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) must do whatever they can to protect their newborn baby, even while circumstances conspire to separate them; while shady Russian businessman Vasili (Jason Isaacs) steps up to see how he can protect himself and others. Meanwhile the under-resourced local police force are completely overwhelmed by the military-grade assault and the terrorists make sporadic appearances, executing more and more guests as they make their way through the building taking orders from Brother Bull ...  From Mumbai to Washington, their screams will be heard. The temptation to describe this as a disaster movie is overwhelming, because that’s how this account of a terror attack is presented and packaged. It’s a technically proficient exercise in docudrama with little time to get to know the real heroes who make incredible sacrifices to save strangers. In reality 174 people were murdered in an act of racial hatred that lasted four long days. This was no sinking ship or fiery skyscraper, it was a meticulously planned carnival of cold-blooded mass murder carried out against supposed infidels by Moslems with some stupid complicity by news media giving away the escapees’ location (something repeated during the factory siege following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris). The conventions of genre are efficiently deployed by debut director Anthony Maras and co-writer John Collee to very discomfiting effect with gruesome brutality. A frankly misjudged piece of work which might lure more terrorists into the fray in the belief that their actions will be dramatised unquestioningly, even with a degree of entirely inappropriate sympathy for gullible subliterate peasants whose first experience of flush toilets this was. Or: it’s a timely warning to western and westernising countries to get a grip and stop permitting Islam to flourish.  If any of you want to back out now, no hard feelings

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

The Legend of Hell House poster

This house – it knows we’re here. Elderly millionaire Rudolf Deutsch (Roland Culver) is obsessed with the afterlife and hires sceptical scientist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) and his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) to lead a team into the infamous Belasco House, supposedly haunted by the victims of its late owner, a notorious six-foot five serial killer. Though the rational Barrett does not believe in ghosts, the other members of his group ding, including devout spiritualist Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and psychic medium Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who has been in Belasco House before and is the only survivor of a previous visit and has therefore seen what horrors can befall those who enter it...  The house tried to kill me – it almost succeeded. Fabled novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson adapted his own Hell House and transposed it from New England to the old country for financial reasons where it was directed by John Hough (who would also direct the cult Disney horror Watcher in the Woods there a half-dozen years later). This pits science and the rational against the paranormal, with fascinating excursions into the psychosexual – it ain’t too often you see a ghost having its way with a young lady. And Franklin’s presence, a dozen years after that spectacular classic of a haunting, The Innocents, is a guarantee of this film’s integrity and she rewards us with a dazzling performance. Hunnicutt is no less effective although her eroticism is literally in another kind of dimension. Frankly any film that commences with the following statement has me at hello:  Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true (Tom Corbett, Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty). The building’s negative energy has amazing repercussions for these investigators and McDowall has one of his best roles as an unlikely hero, with an unbilled cameo by one of Brit horror/exploitation’s key actors rounding things out as things end rather explosively but paradoxically, giving this a very human affect in a story of things unseen and the detritus of perversion. One of the very best horror films of the Seventies, probably inspired by Aleister Crowley. Shot at Bolney, West Sussex, Blenheim Palace and Elstree Studios. If you’re that clever why are you still a prisoner in this house?

All That Jazz (1979)

All That Jazz.jpg

To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.  When he is not planning for his upcoming Broadway stage musical or working on his Hollywood film, choreographer/director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is popping pills and sleeping with a seemingly endless line of women including Kate Jagger (Ann Reinking). He has to deal with his ex-wife and collaborator Audrey (Leland Palmer) and daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) and survives with a daily routine which always commences to the accompaniment of Vivaldi but must include drugs and sex to keep going.  The physical and mental stress begins to take a toll on the ragged hedonistic perfectionist. He has angina leading to hospitalisating and open heart surgery during which all the shows and episodes of his life appear to him in dreams led by Angelique (Jessica Lange) and his stuttering existence is a neverending chorus line on repeat, meanwhile the financiers are wondering if they should bet on his death …  You could be the first show on Broadway to make a profit… without ever really opening! With Fosse/Verdon upcoming on the small screen, it’s time to sit back and relish the great Fosse’s achievements as choreographer and filmmaker once again.  This was based on a period in his life when he was editing the Dustin Hoffman starrer Lenny and staging Chicago. At the same time. Considering that this is about life as performance, it’s crucial that Fosse’s avatar be as intense and rivetting as he was – and Scheider utterly inhabits the role in an enervating interpretation. It’s incredible that Reinking had to audition to effectively play herself, given that she was one of Fosse’s women at the time. Lange is wonderful as the death angel and the literal intercutting of Joe’s open heart surgery with episodes of his life clearly alludes to Fellini’s similarly autobiographical 8 1/2.  And why not. And it’s a musical! With simply stunning production numbers whose editing makes your nerves jangle with joy. This is how dance is meant to be cut!  Co-written by Fosse with producer Robert Alan Arthur, it’s ironic that it was the 56-year old Arthur who died following production and he was posthumously nominated for a slew of awards. I have no idea how, but somehow, somewhere, probably at a festival many years after its initial release, I had the opportunity to see this on the big screen and boy was I lucky. Film as fantasy? It was never more like life:  vicious, funny, dark, nightmarish and doomed.  A fabulously hallucinatory cinematic experience. Jazz hands, flicks and moonwalks? Absolutely! Assume the position.  It’s showtime, folks!

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

Celine and Julie Go Boating poster.jpg

Aka Phantom Ladies Over Paris. Usually, it started like this. When stage magician Céline (Juliet Berto) goes traipsing across a Parisian park, she unwittingly drops first a scarf, then other objects which librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) cannot help but pick up. So begins a fanciful and obsessive relationship between the two, which soon sees Céline sharing Julie’s apartment and each of them playfully switching identities in their daily lives. As they increasingly indulge their fantasies, they find themselves trying to rescue a young girl Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar) from a supposedly haunted house that Julie worked in and Céline lived next to as a child.  Now it appears to be filled with ghosts (Barbet Schroeder, Marie-France Pisier, Bulle Ogier) …So, my future is in the present.  One of the greatest films ever made, Jacques Rivette’s fragmented narrative of two feisty young women started with two stories by Henry James (The Other House;  The Romance of Certain Old Clothes), giving him a bit of a head start, then he liberally sprinkled some Alice in Wonderland into the mix, created a drama of identity, a rescue fantasy, a story about storytelling, a movie about the cinema, sometimes speeding up and sometimes slowing down, a fiction about fictional creation (because ‘to go boating’ means to take a trip), and came up with a fantasy that adult life could always be as good as your childhood dreams. This is a woman’s film in the very best sense that we can imagine and is of course the source of Desperately Seeking Susan. Devised by Rivette and the stars with input from Ogier and Pisier,and Eduardo de Gregorio, this is a remarkable film of disarming charm, once seen never forgotten, especially with its 194 minute running time. A female buddy film like no other. It doesn’t hurt to fall off the moon!

They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969)

They Shoot Horses Dont They

Don’t forget your poor old mother. Yowza yowza yowza! In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932 wannabe film director Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) encounters manipulative MC Rocky (Gig Young) when he wanders into a dance marathon on the Santa Monica Pier.  Rocky enlists contestants offering a $1,500 cash prize. Among them are a failed actress Gloria (Jane Fonda) whom he induces Robert to partner; a middle-aged sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons); delusional blonde Alice (Susannah York); impoverished farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). Days turn into weeks as the competition drags on and people either drop out or die. Rocky will do anything for publicity and initiates a series of gruelling derbies and nerves fray as exhaustion sets in … That soap’s a little hard. James Poe and Robert E. Thompson’s adaptation of the 1935 Horace McCoy novel plugs straight into its melodramatic core – a musical drama about economic despair. And the air of desperation hanging over these lost souls is like a fug, admirably sustained by director Sydney Pollack. Fonda is superb in a complex performance as the brittle cynic whose psychology is gradually broken while all around her succumb to the physical pressure. Her fear drives the story. How extraordinary to think that Charlie Chaplin had acquired the rights to the property eighteen years earlier, intending to cast his son Sydney opposite Marilyn Monroe in the roles played by Sarrazin and Fonda. It fell apart when Chaplin was refused re-entry to the US on foot of his political sympathies. When Fonda was approached by Pollack he asked her what she thought of the material and the character and she writes about it as a turning point in her career:  This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant. It also marked the beginning of Sarrazin’s years as a leading man – somehow he fell out of fashion in the late Seventies. He would die in 2011. There are some wonderful contrivances like the flash forwards that certain critics found irritating but it all works to build a mythic aspect. This is a stunning, disturbing indictment of social artifice and possesses a haunting quality, with its title becoming a catchphrase (and inspiring a hit song) and Gig Young’s fraudulent host inducing a kind of existential dread of showbiz ‘characters’. Maybe the whole world is like Central Casting – they got it all rigged before you ever show up

 

100 Rifles (1969)

100 Rifles.jpg

Every time four Mexicans get together one of them makes himself a General.  In 1912 Sonora Mexico, Arizona lawman Lyedecker (Jim Brown) chases Yaqui Joe (Burt Reynolds), a half-Yaqui, half-white bank robber who has stolen $6,000. Both men are captured by the Mexican general Verdugo (Fernando Lamas). Lyedecker learns that Joe used the loot to buy 100 rifles for the Yaqui people, who are being repressed by the government and he regards them as his people. Lyedecker is not interested in Joe’s motive, and intends to recover the money and apprehend Joe to further his career. The two men escape a Mexican firing squad and flee to the hills, where they are joined by the bandito’s sidekick Sarita (Raquel Welch) a beautiful Indian revolutionary. Sarita has a vendetta against the soldiers, who murdered her father. The fugitives become allies. Leading the Yaqui against Verdugo’s forces, they ambush and derail the General’s train and overcome his soldiers in an extended firefight… My daddy was a Yaqui Indian and my mamma was from Alabama. Adapted from Robert MacLeod’s 1966 novel The Californio first by Clair Huffaker and then by director Tom (Will Penny) Gries, this spaghetti western occasioned a great meeting of male and female puchritude recently recalled by Welch:  “The first time I laid eyes on him, he came strolling across the tarmac towards the plane and, well, he had a walk that was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. He was somewhere between a jock and a cowboy, which was just about perfect. I was thinking he’s just the hottest thing. And I haven’t even seen his face!” She was of course referring to Reynolds, who walks away with the picture, macho, moustachioed, sardonically amused when he isn’t fighting, he just oozes charisma and carries the acting and physical duties with ease. Half of it I spent on whisky and women, the other half I wasted! Welch wasn’t happy on set as Brown stated: “[Burt Reynolds] was usually a stabilising influence [between the stars]… He’s a heck of a cat. He had various talks with Raquel and tried to assure her that nothing was going on, that we weren’t trying to steal anything.” I admire a man who dies well  Reynolds himself wrote of the experience:  “I was playing Yaqui Joe, supposedly an Indian with a moustache. Raquel had a Spanish accent that sounded like a cross between Carmen Miranda and Zasu Pitts. Jimmy Brown was afraid of only two things in the entire world: one was heights, the other was horses. And he was on a horse fighting me on a cliff. It just didn’t work… I play a half breed but… I send it up, I make it seem like the other ‘half’ of the guy is from Alabama. I play it nasty, dirty, funky. I look like a Christmas tree — wrist bands, arm bands. At the beginning I even wore these funky spurs. But every time I walked I couldn’t hear dialogue.” He said of the problems with Welch and Brown:  “I spent the entire time refereeing fights between Jim Brown and Raquel Welch…  It started because they were kind of attracted to each other. After a while they both displayed a little temperament, but don’t forget we were out in the middle of the bloody desert with the temperature at 110. Of course, I don’t think they’ll ever work together again. The critics have really been knocking those two — murdering them — but as far as I know no one ever said they were Lunt and Fontanne. Jim is the most honest man I know… And Raquel — one of the gutsiest broads I know, physically. She did all her own stunts. There’s also a performance in there somewhere.”  He and Brown make a great, funny double act. Weirdly, they were born just 6 days apart and of course Brown had the football career Reynolds had dreamed of having. Welch said later: “Jim was very forceful and I am feisty. I was a little uncomfortable with too much male aggression. But — it turned out to be great exploitation for the film, now as you look back. It broke new ground.” She told Variety Reynolds was  “one of my favorites. Nobody did — or does — quite what Burt does. And he has a darker edge, which made the scenes sexy.” It’s beautifully shot by Cecilio Paniagua and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is rousing, compensating for some deficiencies in the action choreography. Lamas is fun as Verdugo and Dan O’Herlihy offers typically good support as villain Grimes with Hans Gudegast (aka Eric Braeden) as the German advisor to Verdugo. Some might see elements of The Wild Bunch and even Blazing Saddles;  one way or another it’s underrated. Cult value lies in the presence of Soledad Miranda as the prostitute with Joe in the opening scenes at the hotel. She is best known for her collaborations with Jess Franco, particularly Vampyros Lesbos. She died aged 27 a year after this was released. I think with a little bit of luck we might be able to get out of this

 

Red Sparrow (2018)

Red Sparrow

The Cold War did not end, it merely shattered into a thousand pieces.  Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) faces a bleak and uncertain future after she suffers an injury to her leg that ends her performing career. Her uncle Vanya(!) (Matthias Schoenaerts) is deputy director of the SVR and has photos which incriminate her dance partner and rival at the Bolshoi and she inflicts terrible injuries on the pair of them, as he predicted.  He then makes her a deal and she becomes a witness to a state-sponsored killing and either has to die or do what he says.  She needs her sick mother (Joely Richardson) to be cared for. She is sent to Sparrow School, a secret intelligence service set up by Khrushchev, that trains exceptional young people to use their minds and bodies as weapons under the watchful eye of Matron (Charlotte Rampling). Egorova emerges as the most dangerous Sparrow after completing the sadistic training process which turns her into a prostitute for the State, with killer abilities. As she comes to terms with her new job, she encounters CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in Budapest and he tries to convince her that he is the only person she can trust as her mission threatens to undo the security of the US and Russian alike and she agrees to become an agent for the US – or does she? … As the world moves back to Cold War positions, this throwback to that era aims to be a tough sexy thriller but Jason Matthews’ novel adapted by Justin Haythe abounds with clichés which no amount of nudity (gratuitous or otherwise) convince us that this belongs with the great espionage films we all know and love. Long and violent, there are some amusing exchanges, particularly with Putin lookalike Schoenaerts such as when his niece hisses  You sent me to whore school! I thought all Russian women went, but there you go. There are twists upon twists and ultimately they play well, with Lawrence very good in a role which is truly abject and horrible in parts. This is a fast-moving travelogue with a conclusion that is planted well in advance and you don’t need to be a master in spycraft to figure it out. It’s not Graham Greene, but what are you going to do? Lawrence is reunited with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for this walk on the wild side and it looks splendid:  even the torture is shot prettily.