Marathon Man (1976)

DH Marathon Man

How am I to fathom your mind if you continue to hide it from me?  Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a Columbia graduate student and long-distance runner who has just enrolled in a doctoral seminar with Prof. Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver) where his focus will be the fate of his father a fellow historian driven to suicide in the McCarthy era purely on the grounds of his Judaism.  He is oblivious to the fact that his older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), is not in fact an oil executive but a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) and who is almost murdered by a blue-eyed Asian hitman in a Paris hotel. Doc visits Babe in NYC and meets his girlfriend the allegedly Swiss Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) whom he figures out immediately as one of Szell’s couriers. Babe doesn’t believe there’s a bad bone in her body.  Doc is murdered and his colleague Janeway (William Devane) tells Babe the muggers who ambushed him in Central Park are Szell’s henchmen but they won’t come for him tonight – but they do, and Babe is held at the end of Szell’s dentist’s drill constantly being asked Is it safe?  He is caught in the middle of a transaction being expedited by The Division who clean up matters arising from disagreements between Washington and the CIA ...  Director John Schlesinger reunited with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman to make this iconic paranoid thriller adaptation by William Goldman of his 1974 novel which invokes all sorts of historic nightmares not to mention the fear of unnecessary dental surgery. For a liberal pacifist you have some sense of vengeance Doc tells Babe when he realises he still has the gun their father used to blow his brains out. The last time I saw this was in the middle of another sleepless night during a three-month bout of glandular fever and the words Is it safe? made it impossible for me to recover, for, oh, probably another month at that point. There might be plotholes you could drive a truck through that not even Robert Towne’s putative and uncredited rewrite fixed but even fully conscious and in broad daylight it remains a transfixing piece of work whose echoes are still felt. The schematic structure is emblematic of a film whose many well-constructed sequences take place in famous locations – Columbia, Central Park, the diamond district, where Szell is recognised by two of his victims. Szell! Der Weisse Engel! shrieks a camp survivor as the old Nazi is ironically forced to get a price for his diamonds from the very race he tortured and executed with extreme prejudice thirty years earlier. The entire text is replete with such irony, expressed by Janeway in the line Everything we do cuts both ways after he supposedly rescues Babe only to deliver him back to the Nazi. The dialogue is biting and great:  I believe in my country/So did we all. Michael Small’s score is superb with a real feel for the emotive fraternal and familial issues underlying the narrative action whose logic turns on the notion of history itself and the versions of truth which we tell ourselves and in turn are told to keep us happy.  He did much the same job on The Parallax View, another paranoid conspiracy thriller whose similarly allusive style (and on which Towne also did some controversial rewrite work during a writers’ strike) makes it the best political film of its time. It looks incredible, thanks to Conrad Hall. Oh the Seventies really had great films. Nowadays they’d probably give Szell a sympathetic backstory. Not so much in real life for Keller whose father actually was a Nazi. History is all around us in this persistent, resonant film. Pauline Kael called it a Jewish revenge fantasy. Goy veh.

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American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.

Snatched (2017)

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I worship Goldie Hawn. Foul Play is on constant rotation chez moi. After a terrible 15 year break, she’s back, playing Amy Schumer’s mother. I use those words with caution because in one phrase I have alienated Goldie fans and realise that Schumer fans may not even know who Hawn is. Schumer is dumped by her boyfriend in a scene that is excruciating for all the wrong reasons – too long, badly written, overly expository and revelatory of one crucial fact:  Schumer cannot act. Then after social media intervention by her mom who lives with three rather cool cats  (Andrew, Arthur and Philip) she goes home because she has non-refundable tickets for a holiday to Ecuador and nobody will go with her. Turns out there’s an autistic/agoraphobe/nerd brother (Ike Barinholtz) resident too. After more, long, excruciating, badly written scenes, we fetch up with Goldie and Amy in a luxury resort in Ecuador. Amy wants to have sex with an Aussie adventurer (Tom Bateman) but he’s just keen to bring her on a day out. She brings mom too and they’re kidnapped. There are a few funny bits – Amy has the classic millennial reaction to being parted from her smartphone;  she ends up killing someone with a spade (“Are you sure?” she asks Goldie; “I saw his brains,” Goldie deadpans in response);  they partner up with an Indiana Jones-wannnabe jungle guide (Christopher Meloni) who turns out to be a total phony with a week to live (a bit less, actually); the complete lack of interest from the State Dept.; and there’s a tribute to Alien with a massive tapeworm.  But… there’s the brother’s subplot with the State Dept. And don’t get me started on the bewildering squandering of Wanda Sykes and a mute Joan Cusack (mute! Joan Cusack MUTE!!!!) as a sidebar of handy Lesbian rescuers who just …. disappear in a manner that is literally the opposite of good characterisation and plotting . OMG. I lay most of the issues at writer Katie Dippold’s door:  the scenes are long, lazy and the episodes of (literal) toilet humour – playing to Schumer’s apparent strengths/demographic – are just vile. The story simply doesn’t make sense from scene to scene – and don’t ask me how it winds up in Colombia from Ecuador. I mean I understand South American kidnap and murder gangs don’t go through passport control, but …  Misdirected by Jonathan Levine. Schumer is morphing into Will Ferrell. I still love Goldie! Give her a better film!

The Naked Jungle (1954)

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I’ll go a long way to see an ant movie but this is only worth it if you’re feeling in the mood for a masochistic melodrama with a two-mile-wide by twenty-mile-long column of bugs at the tail end. Eleanor Parker is the proxy mail order bride who fetches up on Charlton Heston’s South American cocoa plantation at the turn of the century but he doesn’t much like her and takes agin her when he realises she’s a widow. He hasn’t really been there or done that way out in the Amazon jungle so she has him at something of a disadvantage. Some torrid and rather suggestive arguments lead him to send her back to N’Oleans but their gallop upriver is halted by the insects, he greases up to burn them out and she sleeps through the worst of it. Golly, they sure don’t make them like this any more! Based on a story by Carl Stephenson this was adapted by Ranald MacDougall and blacklistees Ben Maddow and Philip Yordan, directed by Byron Haskin and produced by George Pal. This was released March 3rd 1954 so it’s practically an anniversary screening. Personally I prefer Them! and Phase IV. Oh my heaving bosom!

The Colony (2015)

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Aka Colonia. This is the film that infamously earned just £47 on its opening weekend in London last year. That means about 5 people paid to see it. Maybe it’s the subject matter. You don’t need me to tell you that anywhere Germans gather in large numbers there’s going to be a problem. They know it themselves at this point. This takes place in Chile in 1973 when the country was at the high point of unrest and General Pinochet was taking over in a vicious military coup. People were rounded up in the streets and identified by masked informers, and shot in football stadia. And caught up in this are Daniel (Daniel Bruhl) and Lena (Emma Watson), a German activist and photographer and his airline stewardess girlfriend who goes to his rescue when he’s kidnapped by the secret police and delivered to a torture camp run by cult leader Paul Schaefer (Michael Nyqvist). Daniel fakes disability to survive beatings and electrocution; she fakes religious fervour to gain admission to this supposed religious cult and finds herself inside a major circle of child abusers and … inbred Germans. There are a lot of them in South America. It’s not a very well observed drama and frankly despite its being rooted in truth – just watch the German Embassy sell them out when they eventually escape the madness, into more madness – it made me giggle at times.  Not, I fear, the desired response. Watson is not very good and Bruhl is doing what they say you should never do as an actor (remember Harrison Ford?!) – going full retard (well, sort of… ) The fact is this is actually the makings of a brilliant documentary, as the closing credits make clear:  the real camp was a centre for Government-ordered torture, the German Embassy was in collusion, Pinochet never admitted to it, and Schaefer wasn’t caught until 2002 – where? Argentina, of course, that other haven for Nazis. Hundreds of bodies were buried at Colonia Dignidad. We are far from Carmen Miranda territory.  Directed by Florian Gallenberger from a screenplay he co-wrote with Torsten Wenzel.

Romancing the Stone (1984)

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“Wilder? Joan Wilder?!” What must it be like to meet your Number One fan and they don’t want to hobble you like in Misery but to help you out in the middle of the jungle in South America?! Ah, just perfect this, a romantic action adventure that brought Kathleen Turner to megastardom for a short spell, playing the unmarried romantic novelist who’s allergic to everything. After completing her latest magnum opus she rushes to Colombia when her sister Elaine (!) (Mary Ellen Trainor) calls for help. She brings with her a treasure map sent by her late brother in law who’s been hacked to death:  the map is the ransom for her sister’s freedom. Antiquities hunters Ira (Zack Norman) and Ralph (Danny De Vito) are holding her but Joan gets the wrong bus at the airport on the helpful advice of Zolo (her brother in law’s killer) and when she realises, causes it to crash.and is rescued by exotic bird smuggler Jack Colton (Michael Douglas) promising to repay him for his wrecked Jeep with travellers’ cheques. A love-hate relationship ensues as they spend the night in a crashed aeroplane, dance the hell out of each other, get help from a drug lord who’s her biggest fan (I love that scene!), and find the enormous emerald that’s the cause of all the trouble in the first place. “Aw man, the Doobie Brothers broke up!” moans Jack on finding an old issue of Rolling Stone. Witty, fast-moving, scintillating actioner (written in 1978) with great performances from all concerned. Turner is just great in one of the best movies of the Eighties. The horrible coda to all this is that the brilliant first-time writer, Diane Thomas, was killed in the Porsche Carrera gifted her by Michael Douglas when her boyfriend was driving her home after she’d had a few. The novelisation of this and its sequel, which she was unable to write because of being contracted to doing a draft of Always for Spielberg, is credited to one Joan Wilder. Tremendous, timeless entertainment. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Grimsby (2016)

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Aka The Brothers Grimsby. Where to start in this ode to Northern British scum? Liam Gallagher lookalike kebab-munching Nobby Butcher (Sacha Baron Cohen) keeps a tribute wall to the brother from whom he was separated 28 years earlier. It means as much to him as his football team in his awful council house where he’s shacked up with knickerless flatulent Dawn (Rebel Wilson), their 11 bastards and sundry grandchildren. He finds brother Sebastian (Mark Strong) at a London gathering for healthcare philanthropist Rhonda George (Penelope Cruz) and disrupts his work as a crack secret agent preventing an assassination, causing calamitous results including infecting Daniel Radcliffe with AIDS. They have to go on the run to protect Sebastian and go back home while MI5 boss Ian McShane unleashes ‘Chilcott’ (hmm!) on his black ops man turned supposed rogue agent, information helpfully supplied by Isla Fisher who’s hairless Sebastian’s on-off love interest. After some family bonding and flashbacks to their separation, the burst of post-Thatcher social realism amid the feral underclass shifts from one favela to another, in South Africa, where Nobby puts his daytime TV knowledge too good use, gets on down with the drug dealers (big up to LinkedIn!) and proves an idiot adept at the old spy game. The outrageous story complete with anal and phallic acts, animal abuse, defecation, fellatio, football hooligans, paedophilia, miscegenation, murders accidental and otherwise, takes place in a narrative of fraternal empathy, foster care, the World Cup, politics, eugenics and global germ warfare. And it’s literally jaw-droppingly tasteless, Jeremy Kyle Does James Bond, with a very large if flaccid and out-dated swipe at the kind of people who despise the shameless amoral creatures at its centre. I winced, I gasped and yes I did laugh on occasion:  more than I did during The Girl on the Train. And there is a suitably explosive ending. Plus an unnervingly up to date joke about a certain TV sleb turned US Presidential candidate. I do hope the elephants weren’t hurt as this action bomb lands on its footballs.Where to next for Baron Cohen? F**k knows, as he would undoubtedly say. Un film de Louis Leterrier.

Now, Voyager (1942)

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All I have is a faded corsage and an empty bottle of perfume … Sob! Most people’s favourite Bette Davis picture, this tale of a bullied daughter of Boston brahmin stock, sent away to recover from a mother-induced nervous breakdown only to return a woman of the world with a married man, is pure classical Hollywood. Olive Higgins Prouty’s bestseller of an ugly thirtysomething duckling who turns into a mature and lovely swan is the stuff of Cinderella transformations and all the stops were pulled out to ensure its success. Casey Robinson was the steady hand deployed to manage the emotions and tap all the appropriate responses in what would have been censor-baiting material. He was the greatest screenwriter at Warners’ disposal, starting his career with Captain Blood (1935) which made Errol Flynn a star and created a tone for all action-adventure films to follow. He started writing films for Bette Davis two years later with It’s Love I’m After and followed it with the great Dark Victory, the film which properly turned Davis into a feminine star. He said it helped to know which actor he was writing for because then everything was in their voice “and Bette Davis, how I heard her voice!”  Irving Rapper directed,Gladys Cooper is Mommie Dearest,  Claude Rains is the suave and suaver psychiatrist and Paul Henreid does the two-cigarette act with aplomb. Golly this is great.

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

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Some films just take you back in a swoon of nostalgia for a time you couldn’t possibly have known but maybe you’d sniffed once upon a time. Bank clerk Holland (Alec Guinness) dreams of the good life and we meet him in Rio, regaling the assembled audience about his cunning plan (and watch for Audrey Hepburn in an early walk-on) to escape the dull life he used to lead. He and Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) use the latter’s smelting gear to forge gold bullion into Eiffel Tower souvenir paperweights which they have to smuggle back to London and hire Lackery (Sid James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass) to help carry out the scheme. This is one of the best Ealing comedies and embodies the term droll. Those names read like the comfort blanket of the shipping forecast, the T.E.B. Clarke script parodies The Blue Lamp – watch that final chase! – and he won an Academy Award for his trouble. He had done research for bank robberies when writing Pool of London and the Bank of England set up a special committee as to how best it could be achieved! Edited by Seth Holt and directed by Charlie Crichton, this was shot by the late great Douglas Slocombe in a London that still looks bombed-out. (If you’re really sharp you’ll spot little James Fox in a shot). For when you need a warm bath. Love it.

Predator (1987)

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There’s something out there waiting for us and it ain’t no man. We’re all gonna DIE! If you wanted to explain the Eighties this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It all began with a joke about how there was nobody left for Rocky Balboa to fight so the next guy would probably be an extra-terrestrial. Jim Thomas and John Thomas (no jokes there at the back) took up the challenge and in a convoluted series of developments we wound up here, with Arnie Versus Alien. A special forces commando unit is sent into the jungle to look for a cabinet minister gone AWOL. When they find him and his chopper crew skinned alive our guys know there’s something seriously amiss and they’ve been set up – and then get picked off one by one.The final confrontation is something to relish – You’re One Ugly Motherfucker! declares Arnie to his monstrous foe. And he would be right. That sexist jerk who gets his early on is the same Shane Black who was rewriting Lethal Weapon for producer Joel Silver at the time. This hits so many buttons it’s hard to find fault and director John McTiernan does a fine job. Oh, it’s a cult cracker!