Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (2020)

Aka Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. I lost all sense of who I was. It’s open season on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) when her explosive breakup with the Joker puts a big fat target on her back. Unprotected and on the run, Quinn faces the wrath of narcissistic crime boss Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor)), his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), and every other vile thug in Gotham. But things soon even out when Harley becomes unexpected allies with three deadly women – Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) out to avenge the murder of her entire Mafia family as a child; club singer Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who’s forced to become Mask’s driver; and hot-tempered suspended cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who’s keen to make her mark in a hostile male environment. And then there’s the tricky street thief Cassandra Cane (Ella Jay Basco) who’s swallowed that diamond with the mob’s bank account details in its mutiple surfaces and that’s what everybody wants most of all Nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence. The sole bright spark in the otherwise execrable Suicide Squad was Robbie’s Quinn so you can see how she might have wanted to bring this powerhouse character back in a more equitable narrative. The driving force is to get the attention of the man who broke up with her, Joker, but as we know from other films, he’s kinda tied up elsewhere  and is quickly forgotten here. The idea of the girl gang that comes to fruition in the final 25 minutes is the MO but intriguingly it’s Harley who needs to be told to ‘focus’ – the other characters are more precisely delineated: the frustrated cop whose throwaway lines are from an 80s cop show, the ingenious pickpocket who unwittingly causes everything, the action babe singer, the highly creative crossbow killer with a serious revenge motive (whose name The Huntress everyone forgets, a nice running joke) which ironically leads to the whole premise being diffused, albeit for a higher feminist purpose. Each of them (bar Harley, who has a penchant for glitter) has a particular fighting style (and the stunts are real something.) McGregor’s psycho villain is thinly drawn and characterised. The fact that the penultimate sequence/showdown takes place in a fun house just exacerbates the cartoonish impact of DC’s all-women superhero squad. Yet it fizzes with antic, frantic, anarchic energy and a sense of its own ridiculousness expressed in many ways but most obviously in the title cards introducing all the characters and the batshit baby doll voiceover. Not to mention that rollerskating Harley’s pet hyena is called Bruce.  And yet it’s a story about female empowerment, diversity and righteous vengeance and is all done with effortless humour because Harley ultimately realises their talents are best deployed against their common enemies – scummy men. Robbie is charm itself and channels her inner Marilyn/Madonna with her performance of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. Written by Christina (Bumblebee) Hodson, produced by Robbie and directed by Cathy Yan. It almost makes you yearn for Tank Girl and Barb Wire, a pair of female action movies from the 90s that just missed their target. Almost. What a breakup movie – it even has a hair-pulling scene. Well what else would you expect from the fractured psyche of a PhD in Psychology? Girl Power kicks ass! You know, vengeance rarely brings the catharsis we hope for

Casino (1995)


There are three ways of doing things around here: the right way, the wrong way, and the way that I do it. You understand? Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is a Jewish handicapper asked by the Chicago Mob to oversee the day-to-day casino and hotel operations at the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas in 1973. His childhood friend, mobster Nicky Santoro (Pesci), is a made man and makes life tricky for Ace. Ace falls for call girl and chip hustler Ginger McKenna (Stone) whom he eventually marries. They have a daughter Amy (Erika von Tagen) but Ginger gets into drugs and her behaviour becomes loud and difficult. Ace has problems getting a gaming licence despite keeping local politicos happy and the skimmed money is being skimmed by people he employs. All his relationship begin to break down and the FBI are closing in when Ginger runs away with her lover and pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods) taking Amy with them … When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believed, that’s the kind of love I had.  At first glance it doesn’t seem elegiac yet this Scorsese collaboration with co-writer Nicholas Pileggi (from his Casino:  Love and Honor in Las Vegas) five years after Goodfellas operates as a long goodbye to a way of life essentially foreign, about strangers in a strange land. It’s adapted from the lives of Frank Rosenthal, Anthony Spilotro and Geri McGee. The mob were never at ease in the desert landscape and the story problem doesn’t end there because all the relationships here are uneven and mismatched:  Jewish and Italian, Ace and Nicky, Ace and Ginger, the Mob and Vegas. It starts audaciously: with a bomb. Yet the victim is one of the narrators. The competing voiceovers by Ace and Nicky are stark illustrations of the power plays beyond the gaming tables. The storytelling, spanning a decade to 1983 (and ‘many years before’) is a familiar one of bribery, corruption, murder, gambling, crooked politicians, prostitution, children, golf, drugs and great clothes, And the production design by Dante Ferretti lit up by Robert Richardson’s beautiful cinematography offers a stark contrast to the coarseness of these terrible people. It’s long and talky and horrifically violent and startling in terms of juxtapositions and acting. At the centre of the extraordinary soundtrack in this epic of marriages gone wrong is the score for Godard’s Contempt (Le mepris) by Georges Delerue, pointing our response in the correct direction. We are left to contemplate the magnificent, complete performance by Sharon Stone, one of the best in modern cinema, the cause and effect in this epic and tragic tale of the misbegotten. In the end it is a pitiless exploration of humanity. A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes

Victor/Victoria (1982)

 

Only a moron gives advice to a horse’s arse.  Paris, 1934. Coloratura soprano Victoria Grant (Dame Julie Andrews) fails in her audition at a nightclub where she’s seen by gay cabaret singer Carole “Toddy” Todd (Robert Preston) who has been fired from his gig at a second-rate Chez Lui. When Victoria punches out Toddy’s bisexual hustler lover Richard (Malcolm Jamieson), Toddy comes up with what he considers to be an inspired idea: to pass Victoria off as a female impersonator. Victoria. Her male alter ego could be the toast of Paris and make a lot of money as gay Polish Count Victor Grazinski. It all goes well until Chicago gangster King Marchan (James Garner) turns up with his girlfriend Norma Cassady (Lesley Ann Warren) and falls for Victor, convinced he is a she … A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. A breathtaking blend of musical comedy, gender confusion, romance, slapstick, cross-dressing and cabaret, this loose remake of 1933 German screwball film Viktor Und Viktoria  written by Hans Hoemburg and director Reinhold Schuenzel is a showcase for all writer/director Blake Edwards’ talents as well as providing wife Julie Andrews’ greatest role. Preston is a joy as her outrageous gay mentor in a warm, funny, generous performance and Garner has great fun subtly unravelling when his suspicions are proved happily correct in a scenario that takes pleasure in mocking his macho stance. Warren is also excellent as his Thirties moll with bodyguard Alex Karras surprising everyone by coming out.  And for Edwards fans there’s the prospect of Graham Stark providing his customary support in a cast alight with provocation and tolerance proving sexual orientation really is not the issue as long as you’re getting some. What great characters! With songs by Leslie Bricusse and composer Henry Mancini there’s a lot to love in an astonishingly constructed entertainment. Never mind twist endings, the entire narrative is twisted in every possible direction. A modern classic. People believe what they see

Richard Jewell (2019)

Where I come from, when the Government says someone is guilty you know they’re innocent. During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) discovers a suspicious backpack under a bench in Centennial Park. With little time to spare, he helps to evacuate the area until the incendiary device inside the bag explodes. Hailed as a hero who saved lives, Jewell’s own life starts to unravel when three days later the FBI names him the prime suspect in the bombing, with agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) informing Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), which helps her nail her first front page headline. The home Jewell shares with his mom Bobi (Kathy Bates) is besieged. Jewell contacts Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), the only lawyer he knows from his days in the Small Business Administration 10 years earlier where Watson was the sole partner who didn’t call the generous and observant Jewell names and they begin an uphill battle to prove his innocence in a case where there is no evidence against him whatsoever This kid is being railroaded. Richard Jewell’s face didn’t fit – or rather it did:  the overweight gun-toting loner living in his mom’s apartment with aspirations to work in law enforcement who had to remind his own lawyer that he wasn’t him. Not everyone behaves like everyone else in an ideal scenario. And this was far from ideal – the American showcase event blighted by bomb threats with the President congratulating the FBI on TV for making a swift ID. Jewell had a problematic past and was reported by a University Dean who disliked him. Clint Eastwood’s directing of this hero to zero story is typically unfussy and respectful, allowing the outrageous injustice perpetrated against a wholly innocent (in all senses) individual at the centre of the journalistic maelstrom speak for itself. Richard talks too – too much, as he is constantly reminded:  Why are you always defending these guys? asks Watson in utter exasperation. It’s quite a shot when both he and Bobi hold their hips at his inability to stop running off at the mouth, assisting the very guys who have him in their sights without a shred of evidence. The portrayal of Scruggs (who died in 2001) is problematic – an ambitious journo who will stop at nothing for a story even if it means the wrong man – but not as much as what she did to Jewell in real life when she crushed him.  Perhaps it’s ironic that this film does to her what she inflicted upon her subject. He died aged 44. And thanks to her, people still think he’s the Atlanta bomber, who was an anti-abortionist named Eric Rudolph, actually apprehended in 2002 and named in the closing scene. The screenplay is written by Billy Ray, based on Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” by and the 2019 book The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen. A well argued comment on the issues of bullying, mob rule, media and the widespread intolerance infecting contemporary society. And that was 20 years ago.  I was in the right place at the right time

The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960)

The Wackiest Ship in the Army.

This hulk is commissioned?  As what?! In 1943 at the height of World War 2 Lieutenant Rip Crandall (Jack Lemmon) is conned into taking charge of a broken-down ship with a clueless crew whom he has to train up to learn the most basic elements of seagoing. The only member who knows how to work a ship with sails is eager young Ensign Tommy Hanson (Ricky Nelson) who cost Crandall a yacht race with a mistake before the war. Hanson and Crandall’s former sailing buddy Lieutenant Commander Vandewater (John Lund) wear down his resistance. Then he finds out they have a top secret mission and he has to sneak an Australian spy/coast watcher Patterson (Chips Rafferty) into enemy waters of the Pacific patrolled by the Japanese … This was a period of far-reaching decisions, desperate strategies, and incredibly daring counter-strokes – not the least of which involved two bright young naval officers. A colourful widescreen action adventure that achieves the transition from docks-bound comedy to island warfare so smoothly you won’t even notice. Lemmon is superb as the supposed schmuck who rises to the challenge of educating a bunch of crafty oddballs. Lund more or less reprises his role from A Foreign Affair 15 years earlier as the slick willy officer conniving with Nelson, who has one of his best roles here and even gets to sing while Lemmon jams on a piano. Rafferty adds serious flavour in the final scene sequence when they have to deal with some pesky Japanese soldiers, one of whom speaks English and finds common ground (then water) with Lemmon. Herb Margolis & William Raynor’s screen story was based on a story by Herbert Carlson about the real USS Echo which was requisitioned from New Zealand and the screenplay was by director Richard Murphy. A terrific comedy drama. What, aren’t you going to stay here and die for the ‘Rising Sun’?

Rio Bravo (1959)

Rio Bravo

A game-legged old man and a drunk. That’s all you got? In the American west, small-town sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) enlists the help of Stumpy, a cripple (Walter Brennan), Dude, a drunk (Dean Martin), and Colorado Ryan, a young gunfighter (Ricky Nelson) in his efforts to hold in jail the brother Jack (Claude Akins) of the local bad guy, Nathan Burdette (John Russell) until the marshal arrives, while dealing with card sharp Feathers (Angie Dickinson) who swears she’s leaving town on the next stage. Then the outlaws arrive … Let’s get this straight. You don’t like? I don’t like a lot of things. I don’t like your men sittin’ on the road bottling up this town. I don’t like your men watching us, trying to catch us with our backs turned. And I don’t like it when a friend of mine offers to help and twenty minutes later he’s dead! And i don’t like you, Burdette, because you set it up. Producer/director Howard Hawks had been in Europe for four years and came back to find that US TV now boasted several filmed TV series each night, mostly westerns, one even starring The Thing (James Arness), Gunsmoke. He didn’t like the politics of High Noon or 3.10 to Yuma so took the scenes he disliked and turned them around, inverting their meaning and attitude, in this story starring a man called Chance (named for the 20 year old Chanel model Hawks met in Paris and who would remain with him until his death twenty years later). Written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, this is one of the most relaxed yet keenly felt chamber westerns, so laid back and laconic in its reversals you nearly don’t notice how little people say, because what they do, even the simplest gesture, is replete with meaning, especially when it involves cigarettes. Furthman and Brackett had both worked on The Big Sleep but never actually met. He had more or less retired and she had become a sci-fi novelist. He didn’t like to do any writing per se so he and Hawks would discuss ideas while Brackett would type them up, rework them and make her own contributions, so that the first draft screenplay bore her name alone. Furthman was on set and helped Hawks rewrite while the director encouraged the cast to improvise, a speciality of Brennan’s; Wayne preferred to have his lines given to him and he was a quick study. Nelson was given some of Montgomery Clift’s tics from Red River so he would have something to do with his hands. Hawks was so in tune with what the TV audience wanted that he cast Ward Bond (from Wagon Train) in his final role as Chance’s friend Pat Wheeler, Russell (Lawman), Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as hotel proprietor Carlos Robante (from You Bet Your Life), Dickinson had recently appeared in a Perry Mason episode directed by Christian Nyby and of course Brennan (The McCoys). Hawks noticed The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was hugely popular and cast 17-year old Nelson, believing he could do the kind of box office numbers that Elvis was doing.  His 18th birthday happened on set and the hard-drinking Big Guy cast (all the principals plus Hawks himself stood over six feet)  gave him 300lbs of steer manure which they duly threw him into. Hawks trusted Martin to produce the goods when the singer arrived for a meeting at 8.30AM on the lot in LA after performing a midnight show in Vegas because he wanted the part so badly. The script reworked several ideas, characters, relationships and plot points from Hawks’ previous films (mainly with Furthman) in recycling Underworld, Gunga Din, To Have and Have Not and Red River. And what an entrance Dickinson has – inviting Wayne to disrobe her when he suspects her of hiding three missing cards after fleecing a friend of his at the table. Their sparring is really something, her teasing leaving him at sixes and sevens. Brennan is simply adorable as Stumpy, the ol’ toothless guy that can, while hotshot Nelson and cleaned up drunk Martin even get to sing a couple of songs in between firing off those six-shooters – music is particularly important here with Dimitri Tiomkin (hired despite working on High Noon!) reworking De Guello as the haunting melody from the Alamo (and Wayne would use it in his own take on The Alamo the following year). Wayne is more himself than ever, ambling through the sequences, always doing the right thing, taking care of people, using that pump action rifle to even the score as he walks back and forth up and down the main street of the Old Tucson set (from Arizona) to see to things in the jail and see to his girl in the hotel, back and forth, back and forth. Sheer genius. A hugely influential American classic that is not just expressive filmmaking, it is also entertainment of the highest order. If I ever saw a man holdin’ a bull by the tail, you’re it. MM#2900

A Touch of Larceny (1959)

A Touch of Larceny

I was implying I might be a matrimonial hazard if I were wealthy. Rakish former Naval submarine Commander Max ‘Rammer’ Easton (James Mason) realises he needs plenty of cash to win the heart of American widow Virginia Killain (Vera Miles) currently the companion and soon to be wife of his Naval colleague Sir Charles Holland (George Sanders). Max disappears after faking treachery as a Soviet spy, planning to reappear and sue all the tabloids which libelled him so as to win the hand of Virginia but his plans go awry when he really does get into trouble in the Western Isles … One of the hardest lessons in life is to accept defeat gracefully. Adapted by Roger MacDougall, director Guy Hamilton and producer Ivan Foxwell from Andrew Garve’s (a pseudonym for Paul Winterton) novel The Megstone Plot, this sees Mason at his best as the breezy playboy and former WW2 hero who has finally met a woman he can see himself living with – and the sparks fly between him and Miles in a comedy that has wit, guile and surprising wisdom. He sets himself up and then spends a third of the film as a raffish beachcomber listening to rumours of his supposed defection. Sanders feasts on the prospect of revenging the man who appears to have compromised his fiancée, whose intentions are far from clear. You’ll recognise Martin Stephens the creepy boy from The Innocents as Sanders’ nephew. There are good jokes about newspapers and that year’s current scandalous novel, The World of Suzie Wong. Perhaps its occasional moments of true feeling guy the comedy’s intent so that the tone shifts but in the main it’s an impressive production and the performances are terrific. An interesting syncopated beat to Mason’s other Cold War movie that year – North By Northwest. You know Max, one of these days somebody may take you seriously

Showdown (1963)

Showdown

Aka The Iron Collar. You can’t do this to a man. Not to a man! Two drifters, cowpoke Chris Foster (Audie Murphy) and veterinarian Bert Pickett (Charles Drake) go into the border town of Adonde. Bert gets in a fight after getting drunk and punches out the local sheriff during a card game and he and Chris are put in iron collars, chained to an outlaw and famed killer, LaValle (Harold J. Stone) at a post in the town square. He is there with his gang members Foray (L.Q. Jones) and Caslon (Skip Homeier). They manage to escape but La Valle wants them to rob a bank and they try to buy their way to freedom with some stolen bonds … The man who said he could never be caught. He’s collared now. Written by Bronson Howitzer (aka Ric Hardman) and directed by western stalwart R.G. Springsteen, this is standard genre fodder, albeit with appropriately noir overtones for this monochrome affair. Murphy acquits himself well, Stone is a convincing villain, Kathleen Crowley makes for an admirably cynical kind of femme fatale with a sympathetic backstory and Lone Pine stands in for New Mexico with well mounted if small-scale action. When I call you come or I put you back on the leash!

Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (1957)

Shoot Out at Medicine Bend

Aka The Marshal of Independence. Thee has to talk like them and don’t forget it. Captain Buck Devlin (Randolph Scott) and cavalry troopers Sergeant John Maitland James Garner) and Private Wilbur Clegg (Gordon Jones) all recently mustered out of the army, head to Devlin’s brother’s homestead to settle down and arrive just in time to drive off an Indian attack but just too late to save his brother. Faulty ammunition cost him his life. The three men set out for Medicine Bend to find out who sold the ammunition. The community also gives them all their funds to buy badly needed supplies. On the way however, they are robbed of everything – the money, their horses, even their uniforms. Fortunately, they happen upon a local church (who have also been robbed), and are given spare clothing. Devlin decides it would be a good idea to pretend to be Brethren while in town. They quickly connect the robbers, and later the defective ammunition, to Ep Clark (James Craig). Clark controls the mayor and the sheriff, and has his gang attack wagon trains of pioneers heading west and forces other local traders out of business. The men are up against it in their pursuit of the ruthless town boss … I prefer sour ‘bosom.’ It’s more refined. Directed by Richard Bare and amusingly written by John Tucker Battle and D.D. Beauchamp, this is standard western fare but it’s more fun than most with our leads gussied up as Quakers sorting out the decent wheat from the villainous chaff and doing the Robin Hood act.  Probably the only film you’ll ever see where that peaceable bunch do the necessary to end violence and it is of course interesting to watch Scott fulfill his contract at Warner Brothers while independently making classics of the genre under his own banner elsewhere. Garner says of the experience in his memoir, “It was always fun working with Dick Bare, and Randy Scott was an old pro, but the movie isn’t worth a damn. I was under contract, so I had to do what they put in front of me.” Angie Dickinson has a nice role as the storekeeper’s niece who is of course Scott’s love interest while Dani Crayne sings Kiss Me Quick in the saloon earning Garner’s attention. The title tells you all about how it ends. Get his partner. Give ’em a fair trial. Then hang ’em!

Smashing Time (1967)

Smashing Time large

I do love your accent. It’s so tuned in. Selfish Yvonne (Lynn Redgrave) and her best friend frumpy Brenda (Rita Tushingham) leave the drab North of England and head for London with dreams of hitting the big time, their ideas of the place dominated by what they read in trendy magazines. But when they arrive and quickly lose their savings to a robber, they find that city life is tougher than expected and success may be more elusive than they planned. Yvonne hits Carnaby Street where she encounters trendy photographer Tom Wabe (Michael York) and then lucks her way into TV and achieves celebrity when she unexpectedly turns a bad song into a hit single.  She begins to wonder about the cost of fame, and the whereabouts of her old friend who has become Tom’s modelling muse and is now the face of a cosmetics campaign including the perfume Direct Action which uses footage from protests in its TV advertising … Ain’t she smashing when she gets the needle! Screenwriter George Melly (yes, the same jazz hero) has a ball making fun of the Swinging London scene with ‘Brenda’ and ‘Yvonne’ which were the nicknames given to the Queen and Princess Margaret by Private Eye magazine. Director Desmond Davis had previously directed Tushingham and Redgrave in The Girl With Green Eyes and they clearly have a rapport – their burning charisma has a lot to contend with in a narrative that is essentially ten slapstick scene-sequences (including a pie fight) so there’s a lot of wide-eyed mugging as well as some nifty lingo. Effectively our lovely ladies are turned into a distaff Laurel and Hardy. Tushingham’s A Taste of Honey co-star Murray Melvin makes an appearance, Ian Carmichael does a kind of class throwback as a nightclub lech who gets his back at his, Anna Quayle scores as posh shop-owner Charlotte who doesn’t want to sell anything, Arthur Mullard and Sam Kydd have a knockabout in a greasy spoon and Irene Handl seems to appear with one of her own chihuahuas in the vintage clothes shop. The last scene is literally set to overload and the pair see the ludicrousness of the cool gang for themselves even if they’ve briefly been their icons. The garish glare of the ‘happening’ places is physically some distance from the rest of London, which is shot in several tracking shots, revealing its true grimy drabness. The songs are a lot of fun in a pastiche score by John Addison. A time capsule that might even have been too late by the time it was released but a must for fans of the appealing stars whose sheer exuberance lights up the screen.  Watch out for the psychedelic group Tomorrow. Thanks to Talking Pictures for putting this on their schedule.  I may be green but I’m not cabbage-coloured