Mojave (2016)

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A rich and unhappy Los Angeles artist takes off to the desert and meets a homicidal maniac who follows him home and wreaks havoc in his life. This curiosity from award-winning screenwriter William (The Departed) Monahan shows how a solipsistic turn can be rather problematic for a writer turned director and the casting doesn’t help:  Garrett Hedlund is pretty believable if not sympathetic as the fashionably scruffy Angeleno experiencing some sort of fugue but Oscar Isaac (Hernandez Estrada, whatever) is his usually laughable ludicrous self and sunders the screen story from the moment he appears (indeed there’s no reason as to why he actually appears at all). The subplot with lawyer Walton Goggins and whoring studio head Mark Wahlberg brings a kind of Entourage feeling to this immersion in discomfiting affluence while the requisite French girlfriend Louise Bourgoin increases the sense of literariness that suffuses a film already awash in references to Greed. Pretentious, toi? I couldn’t possibly comment. I’m far too self-absorbed to bother.

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Dressed to Kill (1980)

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A film that practically embodies the term Psychosexual. Brian de Palma’s outrageous, explicit Hitchcockian homage (some might say rip off, Hitch called it fromage) still has the power to shock, with its jawdropping opening sequence – married Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) masturbating in a shower while her lover shaves in a mirror. She fesses up to her psychoanalyst Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) that she’s faking it because her lover’s not really up to it then asks him if he’s attracted to her. She does the  Vertigo shtick at the Metropolitan in Kim Novak’s off-white coat and when she drops a glove (fetish alert!) she attracts a man in shades (another warning).  He gets her off in a taxi (yes, this has to be seen to be believed) then wakes up to find a medical notice in his apartment …. and enters an elevator to leave the building when she suddenly remembers her wedding ring and presses the button to return to the scene of the extra-marital crime … You had me at hello!!! Call girl Liz (Nancy Allen) is the only witness to the murder – while the killer is a mysterious tall blonde in shades. Dickinson’s teenage inventor son Keith Gordon plays private dick, Allen becomes the woman in peril stalked by the tall blonde in shades, the shrink gets taunting messages from Bobbi, a transgender patient, and it all ends just the way you want:  blonde on blonde. Crazy, classic warning cinema – beware of shrinks and nooners! The soundtrack by Pino Donaggio is brilliant. Wild!

Shalako (1968)

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What a potentially terrific project this was: a British western, made in Spain, shot by Edward Dmytryk and pairing the sex symbols of the era, Sean Connery (in between Bonds) and Brigitte Bardot. An adaptation of a 1962 novel by Louis L’Amour (c’mon, how many books did this genius write?!) it’s the story of an aristocratic European hunting party in New Mexico, led on a safari through an Apache reservation by unscrupulous guide, Stephen Boyd. Countess Irina (Bardot) finds herself separated from her companions and kills an Apache, at which point she encounters Shalako (Connery) who comes to her rescue.The natives are restless and Shalako warns everyone to leave this land, which is subject to treaty. Their refusal prompts an attack after Shalako goes for help. Meanwhile Bardot is left behind with the party and is a crack shot, while a dumb American senator underplays the danger and Honor Blackman (who co-starred with Connery in Goldfinger) does the dirty on debt-ridden husband Jack Hawkins when the going gets tough. Dmytryk doesn’t seem entirely at home with the genre’s mechanics and some of the landscape is photographed lazily. When Bardot and Connery finally have their moment it doesn’t fizz as it should:  whether it’s down to the writing, the lack of chemistry, the staging, is open to debate. Shot in Almeria, this doesn’t have the cojones or the contours of the era’s spaghetti westerns, but it’s a watchable curiosity, not least for the sight of Eric Sykes as a resourceful British butler. Adapted by JJ Griffith and Hal Hopper.

In the Line of Fire (1993)

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Frank Horrigan is the ageing Secret Service man being taunted by phonecalls from someone who knows way too much about him – including that he was on the detail for JFK in Dallas. Turns out the guy is a former CIA assassin who couldn’t get acclimatised to life after Nam. (I know!) The threat to the current incumbent who’s on the campaign trail is overwhelming and Frank wants to get with the present detail despite being on bad terms with the whole team. He’s accompanied by newbie Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) but gets to know a woman secret agent, Lilly Raines, (‘window dressing’ as he puts it), the fabulous Rene Russo who’s probably been cast for her striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. The brilliance of this cat-and-mouse thriller is that it’s constructed between the poles of guilt and nostalgia – Frank’s guilt at not being able to save JFK, plus what might have been – and the desire not to let history get repeated. There’s also the joy of Clint playing versions of his previous law enforcing self with Dirty Harry references in abundance, verbal and visual. The byplay with Russo is extremely witty and their first (foiled) attempt to go to bed is great slapstick – look at all the weapons come off!  John Malkovich as the disguise-happy Mitch Leary is a great choice for the loopy assassin whose hero is Sirhan Sirhan and we know that this must end in a murder attempt replaying of RFK’s death at a venue similar to the Ambassador Hotel, this time in the midwest. This is a witty, fast-moving, clever, inventive, knowing, brutal and brilliantly written entertainment by Jeff Maguire (working from a story by producer Jeff Apple), superbly directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  The score by Ennio Morricone really works with the other jazz  soundtrack licks including Clint himself tinkling the ivories in all those hotel bars. With John Heard in a supporting role, Fred Dalton Thompson as White House Chief of Staff and Buddy Van Horn looking after the stunts, we are in great hands here as all those ideas about the Warren Commission, lone assassins and your ordinary everyday conspiracy theories are unpicked while an unstoppable romance between Clint and John unfolds in deadly fashion. Fantastic.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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Who wouldn’t want to be the preternaturally gifted Tom Ford? A Single Man was such a wonderful piece of work and the real reason Colin Firth was recognized by the Academy for The King’s Speech (these things happen a lot). I was positively salivating over the prospect of seeing this. It’s tantalising isn’t it, given the talent involved? And the source novel, Tony & Susan, by Austin Wright, is stunning. And I like the poster. And the trailer. So then I saw it and thought, meh. Which isn’t what you want from an adaptation of what is a very fine postmodern literary thriller which sucks you in as you follow Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) progress through the eviscerating novel her ex-husband Edward Sheffield has sent her after a divorce, oh, years ago (in the book it’s 25) which is dramatised as a film within the film. She is now in the marriage for which she left him, to a more successful man and not a failing novelist, and Armie Hammer plays Hutton, the philandering art dealer, while she stays at their gallery and plays snark with fellow professionals and feels her life hollow out as Edward’s avatar Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal plays him as well in the film within a film) infects her brain. Episodes from her life with Edward and their breakup play as respite from her reading of the novel, in intermissions from the violent deaths of Tony’s wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber), redheads just like Susan, raped and murdered in West Texas by a crew of rednecks led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson or whatever he’s calling himself nowadays. (Their destination in the novel is their summer home in Maine;  here it’s Marfa, Texas, the location for the great James Dean film, Giant – I wonder why?).  Michael Shannon turns up to help Tony identify the killers (a much more cursory treatment than the novel). Meanwhile Susan deals with her ridiculous friends and the scene with Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough at an opening is actually risible. It’s astonishingly badly directed. The point of the book within the book, Nocturnal Animals, is that it’s Edward’s revenge, his way of letting his LA-living bourgeois-loving ex, whom he christened a nocturnal animal, This is what you did to me. You left me on the side of the road to be ravaged and tortured. But it’s a literary device and in the novel it becomes truly postmodern when Wright allows Susan enter the story for the horrendous denouement – which can’t happen here since Isla Fisher plays her avatar in the film/novel within the film. There are changes, notably to Susan’s occupation and that of her husband but they don’t necessarily damage the text per se …  But the juxtaposition of the smooth LA gallerist with the awful Texan thugs doesn’t really elicit the emotions required to make the movie’s engine work. Adams does what she can in the present-day setup but the scenes are mostly DOA. She doesn’t even get angry when she hears her husband’s mistress on the phone. And the payoff doesn’t work as well as in the book for all sorts of reasons. A principal one is not just Ford’s own adaptation but – ironically – the aesthetics. For a great designer who transitioned to cinema with a magnificent looking debut that revelled in the California light beautifully shot by Edward Grau, here it’s Grimm and grimmer, sad to say since it’s talented Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey who’s responsible for the filthy palette presumably chosen by Ford. Imagine this master of colour, light, movement, fabric, shape, surfaces, tone, texture and what he’s capable of dreaming into life on the catwalk, and then look at this and ask, Why Tom, why? When you can do so much better? I’ll wait for the next collection. Disappointing.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

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It was a dark and stormy summer night on Long Island when I first saw this and I can barely re-watch it to this day. The story of serial killer Freddy Krueger and the teens whose dreams he inhabits was an epoch-defining event in the horror genre and made Wes Craven’s name as well as starting a profitable franchise and introducing Johnny Depp to the world (although he’s soon swallowed by his own bed.) Heather Langenkamp is the cop’s daughter who draws the short straw and has to lure Freddy out so he can be captured …  Don’t fall asleep. Don’t take a bath. Don’t unplug the phone. And don’t be the child of a vigilante! Perfect Halloween horror.

Don’t Talk to Strange Men (1962)

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British cinema has thrown up some worthy B-movies and this is one of them, from the venerable Pat Jackson, who made his name in the documentary movement and whose first feature, Western Approaches, about the Battle of the Atlantic, remains his finest work. Gwen Cherrell’s screenplay tells the story of a flighty teenage girl Jean (Christina Gregg) who picks up the ringing telephone in a call box whilst waiting for the bus to her part-time job at the local pub run by her dad’s friend Ron (Conrad Phillips). She strikes up a friendship with the man on the line, adopts the moniker Samantha for their daily calls and convinced that this is Love, agrees to meet him. There’s been a spate of killings in the area and she pays no heed until Dad grounds her and her sensible younger sister Ann (Janina Faye) but they plan an outing to the cinema so that Jean  can meet this unseen beau. Bus conductress Molly (the fabulous Dandy Nichols) warns her not to go through with her airhead schemes but she pays no heed. Until she finds herself waiting for the real-life meeting and gets cold feet. But her little sister feels the fear and goes to her rescue … This is a surprisingly taut suspense thriller, much of it taking place in a telephone kiosk (remember them?!) and assisted immeasurably by good family dynamics (real-life spouses Cyril Raymond and Gillian Lind are the put-upon parents), bolshy Ann writing letters to politicians about bloodsports, the lowkey Home Counties setting (even the opening discovery of a young woman’s body in a barn), the rhythm established by the regular phonecalls, the bus journeys, the conversations, and a winning performance by Gregg, a model and actress better known for roles in TV’s Danger Man and The Saint. What’s interesting is of course how people do the utterly unexpected and act the opposite way that you’d expect – as in life, so in movies, and that’s what turns this into something unbearably tense. There are tropes here that would become a staple of slasher films in the Seventies. Faye has had a much longer career than her co-star and is probably better known for her big screen work in Dracula and The Day of the Triffids and has often appeared at Hammer conventions. She has also directed a short film called Green Fingers starring Ingrid Pitt. She previously appeared in the rather similarly-themed Never Take Sweets from a Stranger. Actress and screenwriter Cherrell would go on to write The Walking Stick (1970), Brief Encounter (1974) – the Burton/Loren version, and TV sitcom Leave it to Charlie (1978). Made at Marylebone Studios and on location in Bucks., and distributed by Bryanston.

Say Hello to Yesterday (1971)

 

 

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A time capsule of London at the beginning of the Seventies, love in the afternoon and the likely dream of bored housewives everywhere who saw Romeo and Juliet – having a ridiculous meet-cute with hyper-verbal Leonard Whiting and playing kiss-chase across the city for 10 hours. He spurns lovely young Susan Penhaligon (uncredited) and hits on forty year old Jean Simmons taking the train to London and haunts her into hanging out with him. When she arrives at her mother’s Regency flat he turns up with flowers and Mother says, If you have an affair with that boy you’ll regret it, if you don’t have an affair with him, you’ll regret it. She and Papa had their own fun separated by WW2. What’s a frustrated middle class woman to do?  An everyday tale of a day in the life, sort of, and an underrated look at life in those in-between years when unnamed people could have a one-day stand and not live to regret it. Written and directed by Canadian Alvin Rakoff whose preferred soundtrack of Joni Mitchell and Donovan was replaced by work from Riz Ortolani, best known for Mondo Cane. If the city looks great, that’s thanks in large part to being photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth. It’s also nice to see Catweazle (Geoffrey Bayldon) as an estate agent. Whiting’s general disappearance from screen acting for several years is mystifying albeit it seems he was typecast as the beautiful young man. He was last credited as ‘Julia’s Father’ in a 2015 thriller called Social Suicide alongside his former co-star Olivia Hussey as ‘Julia’s Mother’ in what appears to be a reworking of Romeo and Juliet. Sigh.

Don’t Answer the Phone! (1980)

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The old saw regarding the difference between the sexes goes, Men are afraid that women are going to laugh at them, Women are afraid that men are going to kill them. So it goes here, in this ghastly exploitationer from Crown (who else). Written and produced by Michael D. Castle and Robert Hammer, who directed. A Nam vet stalks the streets of LA tracking and raping and murdering women. He calls a radio shrink to inform her of his ill-health and kills a victim on air. His porn photos lead police to his door. This is sick and ghastly and impugns vets. It’s why people watch Downton Abbey. Frasier this ain’t.

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

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The unreliable narrator is a very difficult trope to pull off in a novel – still more problematic in film. Yet Patrick Marber’s adaptation of Zoe Heller’s modern classic is effortlessly stylish, using the diary entries of deluded self-hating Lesbian teacher Barbara (Judi Dench) to underline, contradict and stomp on what we are seeing, misleading everyone in the process. Her obsession with younger beautiful newcomer Sheba (Cate Blanchett) enmeshes them both in a terminal spiral of disaster when she sees her rival giving an underage boy a blow job in the art room. Zoe Heller is a writer of supreme style – her column was one of the best things about The Sunday Times in the late 1990s, when that newspaper was still excellent. Her father Lukas was a great screenwriter – principally remembered as a key collaborator of Robert Aldrich on some of his best films. So the book she wrote seemed less like an accidental change in career and more like a premeditated move into something logically excellent but with even more impact than her columns, something for the ages. The genius of the novel is that everyone in it is deceitful, concealing some aspect of their actions, whether now or in the past, and the construction of the film’s screenplay by the brilliant playwright Marber both condenses and hones the narrative to a merciful 90 minutes (I hate long films – hate them! And the credits that go on for days!) so that it becomes an exemplar of screen storytelling. The performances by Dench, Blanchett and hapless hubby Bill Nighy are simply stunning. I’d forgotten how brilliant this was. A must-see and one of the best films of the dreadful Noughties directed by theatre great Richard Eyre.