Year of the Dragon (1985)

Only one Stanley White. Following the murders of Mafia and Triad leaders in NYC, Polish Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) takes it upon himself to bring down the Chinese organised crime gangs. He’s breaking the long held treaty to permit the Chinese to take care of things in Chinatown. This puts him in conflict with Tony Tai (John Lone) the ruthless leader of the organisation.  It pulls his life apart with his already crumbling childless marriage to nurse Connie (Caroline Kava) collapsing altogether when Stanley falls for the charms of ambitious journalist Tracy Tzu (Ariane). Now Tony has a major shipment coming in from Thailand and Stanley engages in wire tapping for information .. This is America and it’s two hundred years old and you need to change your clocks. This sprawling portrait of the gangs of New York was much misunderstood upon its release but it lays its cards on the table upfront: it’s all in the name (changed) because NYC’s most decorated cop is an unapologetic racist Nam vet and sexist to boot. He’s launching his own tong war. Naturally Rourke plays him as a total charmer and it works:  he has the aura of death about him, his hair is as white as his adopted name and everyone around him seems to get crushed.  As written by Oliver Stone and director Michael Cimino this adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel is remarkably discreet in some areas – and lurid in others. The major love scene between Stanley and Tracy is cleverly done as they tell each other how much they hate each other and then … Her big ‘angry’ scene when he’s moved his team into her preposterously huge loft is amusing because her acting is so poor, all stiff arms like an Irish dancer. Part of the film’s issue representationally is the obvious inexpressivity of the Chinese actors, a physical trait there’s no escaping. They make up for it by killing people. Their treatment historically in the US and their unequal immigrant experience is posited against Stanley’s veteran’s hangups, something that’s used against him.  He wants to sleep with a journalist while both he and Tony decry the media’s role in the portrayal of violence and the way ethnicity is covered. Therefore there is a balance established with Tony – that’s clever storytelling. Lone is super handsome, a great suave villain to play opposite.  The lean way in which the marital story is exposed is a good hook for Stanley’s humanity and it’s the dramatic crutch that assists the outcome. The intra-Asian racism is well dramatised and horrendously violent. Class is an issue that becomes an overriding theme. The whole thing looks incredible – shot by Alex Thomson on a set (by Wolf Kroeger and Victoria Paul) in North Carolina for NYC (except for the views from Tracy’s apartment at the top of the Clocktower Building giving a beguiling view of the city’s skyline).  There’s a fascinating and intricate score by David Mansfield with echoes of phrases from The Deer Hunter. That this is a disguised western is clarified in those final scenes on the railway track. And in this wonderful mesh of genre and tradition there is an honourable way out for one man. What a way to end. Amazingly the role of White (originally called Arthur Powers – but there’s a Stanley White credited as Police Consultant!) was intended for Clint Eastwood. Both he and Paul Newman turned it down. Just as well. Only one Mickey Rourke. He’s a good cop but he won’t stop

The Pledge (2001)

There can’t be such devils.  Veteran detective  Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) investigates the murder of a little girl in small-town Nevada just six hours before he’s officially retired.  He makes a pledge on a crucifix the dead girl made to her anguished mother (Patricia Clarkson) that he will catch the perpetrator. When the only suspect Native American Toby Jay Wadenah (Benicio del Toro) blows his head off in custody, Jerry sets off on his longed-for retirement fishing trip but TV coverage of the case affects him deeply and he moves into the neighbourhood buying a gas station where the killing occurred. When he begins a relationship with a waitress and mother Lori (Robin Wright) and gives a home to her and her young daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts) after she takes a beating from her ex, he has all the more reason to nail the killer – but by this time his colleagues reckon they have long since wrapped up an open-and-shut case.  The behaviour of a local Jesus freak Gary Jackson (Tom Noonan) causes Jerry to believe he might have solved not just the mystery death of the young girl the previous winter but the grisly crimes of a previously unnoticed serial killer and when Chrissy goes to meet a man she calls The Wizard Jerry decides to set a trap All at once you became like an animal. Nicholson’s heartbreaking performance, as the twice-divorced retired cop who might just find happiness late in life and solve the crimes of a serial killer, is everything in this meticulously staged murder mystery. The relationships are well observed, the contrast with blowhard ‘tec Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), the wonderfully observed eccentrics (Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke, Eileen Ryan, Vanessa Redgrave) who populate the ensemble, the visual tics and psychological hints at Nicholson’s state of mind, the clues, signs and portents which inflect the text. Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novella (adapted by Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski) was already transposed three times to both big and small screen but its tragic undertow is an understandable lure for someone like director Sean Penn, a performer who himself never shirks complex dramas. Nobody gets away with anything here – and it’s not a pretty picture and even Wright (Mrs Penn at the time) looks careworn with half a tooth missing. Far more than a police procedural, this is a deeply affecting, emotive exploration of loss and missed chances, with the revelations managed so very well.  It’s not just about the predilections of paedophiles but also about paying heed to small children and what they tell adults. The ending is just horrendous and Nicholson, reunited with Penn from The Crossing Guard, is just wonderful, a dedicated cop pursuing his suspicions to the very last. What a great performance. How could God be so greedy?

Hollywoodland (2006)

I can see the pieces. How they should fit. How I want them to fit. When Hollywood superstar, TV’s Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck) dies in the bedroom of his home by a single gunshot to his head during a party in June 1959, private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is hired by Reeves’ mother Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith) to investigate his death. He gets caught in a web of lies involving MGM general manager Eddie Mannix’s (Bob Hoskins) and his wife Toni (Diane Lane) with whom Reeves was having an open if adulterous relationship until he took up with younger woman Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) as he is trying to make his own films as a director …. An actor can’t always act – sometimes he has to work. Easily one of the most pleasurable throwback movies made in (relatively) recent times, this is based on one of Tinseltown’s more notorious unsolved crimes. It’s told in classical Hollywood fashion, a romance revealed in parallel with an investigation, the latter of necessity post mortem, the former in flashback, the biography of a rather disappointed self-loathing actor who despises the role responsible for his fame at a time when the film business was in flux. Affleck is superb as the small screen incarnation of the archetypal super hero in what is still his best performance. Lane matches him every step of the way as the ageing starlet cheating on the studio’s most dangerous fixer. Beautifully put together, gorgeously shot by Jonathan Freeman and nicely resolved even if the private eye’s own travails rather detract from the movement of the narrative which posits an alternative ending to that proposed by Kashner and Schoenberger’s book Hollywood Kryptonite. Murderous Mannix is portrayed here by Hoskins whose screen wife Lane was married in real life to Josh Brolin, who played him for the Coen Brothers in Hail, Caesar! and was up for the role of Batman that went to … Affleck! Written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter. I hope you’ve discovered the meaning of justice

Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019)

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

Aka Portrait de la jenue fille en feu. Will you be able to paint her? Painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is instructing a class of art students in Paris. They ask her about the origins of a painting and she reminisces: France, 1770. Marianne is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) a young woman who has just left the convent and is at home on a remote island off the coast of Brittany. She is a reluctant bride to be and her mother the countess (Valeria Golino) wants Marianne to paint her portrait in secret for an arranged marriage to a nobleman suitor in Milan whose visual approval is required. The last male artist failed in his mission and Marianne must study Héloïse without her knowing. Marianne accompanies her on her daily walk under the pretence of being her companion but observes her carefully and paints her secretly. Is that how you see me? When she reveals her identity and Héloïse dislikes the portrait Marianne destroys it, to the rage of the countess who goes away for a while as long as Marianne agrees to do another portrait, this time with her subject’s full co-operation. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s. The women fall in love and Héloïse reads Orpheus and Eurydice by firelight to Marianne and Héloïse’s servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) whose pregnancy the women help to end. As Marianne finishes the portrait and the countess is returning they must accept what happens next … Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth. French writer/director Céline Sciamma’s historical romance is stately, elegant and well framed:  this is a picture of female solidarity and love, grounded in the most obvious of ideas – the female gaze in a patriarchal world – in a film about looking and perception. We are going to paint. This is about turning around and acknowledging and engaging with what you see – and making a choice. The performers look and watch and are passive aggressive as society dictates they must be with their taboo affair, illuminating each other’s lives in secret. How people see each other has rarely been so truthfully portrayed. A profound, at times magical, meditation on what it means to be a woman, this is beautifully and carefully staged, with nothing excessive or ornamental and driven by stunning performances. The digital cinematography by Claire Mathon is so exquisite there are candlelit scenes you will want to reach out and touch and hang on your wall. This show and tell is far from still life. If you look at me, who do I look at?

Midsommar (2019)

Midsommar

Welcome home. When her sister kills their parents in a murder-suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, psychology student Dani (Florence Pugh) tries to repair her relationship with cultural anthropology student Christian (Jack Reynor) who’s been trying to break up with her and is taking off to Sweden with classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren. He has invited Christian and their colleagues Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) for a traditional pagan festival held just once every 90 years. Dani decides to guilt trip Christian into asking her along. When they get there they are disoriented by the permanent daylight, drugged, separated from one another and gradually start to disappear, leaving just Dani to be made May Queen and Christian to perform a very special service… All of our oracles are deliberate products of inbreeding. Writer/director Ari (Hereditary) Aster was offered the opportunity to do a Swedish slasher film but chose to make this instead, a variation on The Wicker Man but with a gang of stupid students instead of one innocent policeman, succumbing to the lure of ancient rituals which are just a cover for sex, incest and murder. As in all horror movies, when people go missing nobody thinks of going for help or contacting the police. They hang around until they are murdered and disembowelled, their body parts reassembled with flowers stuck in their eye sockets. Pugh holds it together in yet another unflattering wardrobe (will someone please dress her properly in one of her films?!); while Reynor is the dumb selfish schmuck ignoring all rational ideas in favour of writing up a thesis. Undoubtedly stylish, this is pretentious and absurdly overlong at 140 minutes and an exploitation film in all but name if the nudists crowing over a copulating couple of ginger mingers are anything to go by. If this doesn’t put you off group activities, religion or Scandinavians, nothing will. I can see you possibly doing that

The Carpetbaggers (1964)

The CarpetbaggersThe Carpetbaggers cast poster

Living up in the air like a rich seagull. When playboy Jonas Cord (George Peppard) inherits his father’s industrial empire based on an explosives factory, he expands it by acquiring an aircraft factory and Hollywood movie studio. His rise to power during the 1920s and 1930s is ruthless. He sets aviation records and starts a passenger airline. He marries and then quickly abandons sweet, bubbly Monica Winthrop (Elizabeth Ashley) the daughter of a business rival and provokes their divorce before she gives birth to their daughter; turns his young, gorgeous stepmother, Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker), who was his girlfriend originally before his father Jonas Sr. (Leif Erickson) married her, into a self-destructive movie star; and manages to disappoint even his closest friend and surrogate father, cowboy movie star Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd) whose concealed background he uses for a movie script. Then he falls for a prostitute Jennie Denton (Martha Hyer) whom he wants to turn into the movie star of America’s dreams… If that woman ran an immoral house she’d have to pay me. Despite the lurid and sadistic content of Harold Robbins’ sensational 1961 bestseller, a roman à clef which mines the contours of a Howard Hughes-type protagonist, and censorship issues aside, this is a strangely muted adaptation by John Michael Hayes and Edward Dmytryk’s stilted direction doesn’t help. The real shocker is the fight scene between Peppard and an ageing Ladd which looks properly dangerous and finally explores Cord’s psychology but it’s truly disturbing because it feels real, unlike much of the drama. As a portrait of the Thirties movie-making scene it’s certainly got a nose for the Hollywood casting couch mentality and its general air of seedy decadence and corruption. In that light it’s an interesting take on the career of the Harlow rip off played by Baker (and she made the biopic the following year). Robert Cummings is properly horrifying as Dan Pierce, the smooth agent who is a pimp in all but name; and Martin Balsam scores as Bernard B. Norman, a dastardly studio head; but in many ways, including performance, with Peppard the main culprit, this is all trash, all surface. Ladd’s character is a mélange of Tom Mix, William Boyd and Ken Maynard:  the prequel, Nevada Smith, would be directed by Henry Hathaway from a John Michael Hayes script with Steve McQueen in the lead. Ladd died before this was released. Only you know how all the pieces fit

Serpent of the Nile (1953)

Serpent of the Nile

A woman of beauty, intellect and charity – this is almost too much to believe! Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in Rome 44 BC, Mark Antony (Raymond Burr) spares the life of Lucilius (William Lundigan), a Roman officer who becomes a friend as he makes his way to Alexandria in Egypt. However, Lucilius has had history with Cleopatra although she chooses to take up with Mark Antony. Eventually Antony loses his grip in a society resentful of a queen living in luxury while they become increasingly impoverished. Lucilius joins Antony’s rival, Octavius (Michael Fox), who arrives to put an end to Antony’s failing expedition since he is clearly being used by Cleopatra to establish dominion in Rome… Are women ever conquered? Adapted from H. Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra by Robert E. Kent, this low-budgeter from producer Sam Katzman was shot on the leftover sets from Salome, the Rita Hayworth film. It was the year for fans of Julius Caesar and the ancients as the successful Brando-starrer proved and despite the rackety origins, this is fun, filled with ripe dialogue and fruity leers. Lundigan has a blast as Burr’s love rival with a secret, having admired Cleo in Caesar’s house for many a long year;  while Fleming is totally alluring as the queen bee. That glorious gilded woman performing a dance of seduction is the great Julie Newmar. With an atmospheric score by Mischa Bakaleinikoff and narration by Fred Sears, this is very entertaining. Directed by William Castle. If you had but loved yourself more and Cleopatra less

A Man About the House (1947)

A Man About the House 1947

It may be an advantage to have a man about the house. The unmarried British Isit sisters Agnes (Margaret Johnston) and Ellen (Dulcie Gray) unexpectedly inherit their uncle’s Italian villa and have to deal with his sinister major-domo Salvatore (Kieron Moore) who manages the villa and vineyard. Agnes is overwhelmed by him and they marry, so he ends up owning the estate that once belonged to his family, believing Agnes to be the sole inheritor. Ellen’s suspicions are aroused when Agnes’s health begins to deteriorate and she consults Agnes’s former fiancé, visiting English doctor Benjamin Dench (Guy Middleton) …  Spinsters aren’t safe with such a man. A fun Gothic melodrama with an early opportunity to see Gina Lollobrigida in English-language cinema the year she came third in the Miss Italia pageant. Moore had played Salvatore in the theatre production of Francis Brett Young’s 1942 novel (which is adapted here by J.B. Williams) and he relishes his badness here – his speechifying about the differences between dried up Italian women and young unmarried Englishwomen has to be heard to be believed. Watching the sisters’ emotional unfurling as the vines are harvested is well done, their suppressed instincts vividly described against the emotional Italians nicely gauged in montages and changes of hair and costume.  It’s supremely ironic that it’s the stiff upper lipped older sister played by (the frankly weird) Johnston who succumbs to the determinedly sexual lure of the sleazy butler with murder in mind. Directed by Leslie Arliss. It is our duty as Englishwomen to set an example and not succumb to their lax foreign ways

 

 

Harlow (1965)

Harlow

Everything about me is real.  Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) arrives in Los Angeles as a teenager, pushed into showbiz by her sex-mad mother Mama Jean (Angela Lansbury) and grasping stepfather Marino Bello (Raf Vallone). Kindhearted agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons) becomes Jean’s mentor and rescues her from glamour shots and the casting couch, while a devious Howard Hughes-like mogul Richard Manley (Leslie Nielsen) grows infatuated with the beautiful young actress. Harlow herself falls for writer/producer Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) before tragedy strikes right after their marriage and her efforts to get together with fellow studio star Jack Harrison (Mike Connors) come to nothing …  You have the body of a woman and the emotions of a child!  The big-budget version of the screen icon’s life was beaten to it by a cheaper experimental film starring Carol Lynley that barely scraped into theatres so this is the one that people remember, if at all. Adapted in part from Landau and Irving Shulman’s pulpy biography of the sex goddess by John Michael Hayes, this skips and jumps through Harlow’s life, eliminating altogether any direct reference to her relationship with William Powell (Connors plays a variation on him) or her co-star Clark Gable, more or less fabricating whole sequences and introducing an element of wantonness involving her stepfather that seems excessive even in this version of events. It’s rather lurid and seems to deviate from what is known of Harlow’s true character but it’s rather interesting to see an interpretation of the platinum blonde in vivid Technicolor with Edith Head making the most of the opportunity to create some stunning gowns. Baker had featured in the controversial Hayes adaptation of Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers a year earlier and shot a famous nude scene in the role of Rina, a thinly veiled version of Harlow – so her casting here is no surprise given that Paramount produced both pictures. Effectively, then, this is a remake in part of part of a year-old film. Baker is a decade older than Harlow at the time of her death but her performance is tender and appealing, capturing some of the spirit of Harlow’s great characters against a melodramatic backdrop that nonetheless plays fast and loose with the facts including the circumstances of her demise. Lansbury and Vallone are extremely impressive as the lusty parental figures while Buttons is very good as the kind man who remains her one true friend. A fascinating insight into how Hollywood saw itself at one time. Welcome to the velvet prison. Hayes deserves his reputation as a great writer of dialogue and he manages to invest showbiz clichés with the ring of truth especially when uttered venomously by Connors; Julie Parrish appears uncredited as Connors’ wife and would make a couple of appearances opposite him on Mannix five years later. The production design by Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira and James W. Payne is jaw dropping. The theme song Lonely Girl is sung by Bobby Vinton. Directed by Gordon Douglas. There’s nobody deader than I am right now. Oh, I guarantee all of you I won’t be by tomorrow

Dr No (1962)

Dr No

You are carrying a double 0 number. It means you are licensed to kill, not get killed. British agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) by head of the Secret Service M (Bernard Lee) is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow British agent, Strangways (Timothy Moxon) to determine if it is related to Strangways’ decision to co-operate on a CIA case involving the disruption of rocket launches from NASA’s base at Cape Canaveral in Florida by radio jamming. When Bond arrives in Jamaica, he is immediately accosted by a man claiming to be a chauffeur sent to collect him who is really an enemy agent sent to kill him. Before Bond can interrogate him, following a struggle, the agent kills himself with a cyanide capsule. After visiting Strangways’ house, Bond confronts Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) a boatman who was collecting mineral samples from Crab Key for Strangways and who reveals that he is aiding the CIA, introducing Bond to agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), who is also investigating Strangways’ disappearance. Local geologist Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) claims the samples are normal but Bond is not convinced. Dent travels to the underground base of megalomaniac Dr Julius No (Joseph Wiseman) a Chinese-German with prosthetic metal hands who is the operator of a bauxite mine on the Caribbean island of Crab Key (and a reclusive member of SPECTRE) who is plotting to disrupt the US space programme … Cyanide in a cigarette? Fantastic! The first in the series, based on Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel (the sixth in the book series) this really introduced Connery to the world. Shot with a relatively low budget, it’s fast-moving, whip smart and set the tone for a secret agent trend that has never really ceased. Fleming originally came up with the idea for the story as a screenplay for a film called Commander Jamaica with Dr No a riff on the character of Fu Manchu. That film never got made so Fleming adapted it into a novel. The screenplay for this was based on that as well as several other strands of Fleming’s work: Richard Maibaum and Wolf Mankowitz did the original draft which the producers rejected then Maibaum did one while Mankowitz removed his name; Irish writer Johanna Harwood who worked for Harry Saltzman rewrote that draft with thriller writer Berkely Mather. SPECTRE wasn’t mentioned until Thunderball, the 1961 novel that the producers had originally wanted to adapt first before legal issues complicated that plan. This may not have the bells and whistles of later films in the series but it has many of the iconic elements that became part of the identity of this long-running franchise including Ken Adam’s production design, Bond being introduced to the Walther PPK and an undertow of S&M. Connery’s performance is nigh-on perfect, a combination of violence, suave intelligence and droll wit; while shell diver Honey Rider’s (Ursula Andress) arrival like Venus on the beach is for the cultural ages. Directed by Terence Young. I do not like failure