The Big Combo (1955)

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First is first. Second is nobody.  Police lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde)  comes under pressure from a gang headed by a vicious mobster Brown (Conte) but his superiors don’t want him to follow the case due to lack of evidence. He is helped by the gangster’s supposedly dead wife Alicia (Helen Walker) who is mentally ill and jealous at her husband’s affair with another woman, the suicidal Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), with whom Diamond becomes obsessed and who supplies him with information to help him close the net on his foe.  In the meantime a gangster presumed still alive turns out to have been murdered and Brown’s cohorts are planning upheaval … An astonishing gangster film, a fetid fever dream of sadism, sexual obsession and suicidal tendencies (moreso than an exploitation flick about the mob). Philip Yordan’s screenplay is as tough as they come and Conte’s incarnation of the vicious Brown is a performance for the ages. But it is a film of striking performances and Wallace (Wilde’s real-life wife) had herself tried to commit suicide a couple of times so this co-production between their company and Yordan and producer Sidney Harmon’s must have hit a number of home truths. The women here are a diverse and fascinating bunch:  Helene Stanton as dancer Rita has a brief appearance but she looks so different from other actresses of the era you won’t forget her. Brown’s handicapped mentor Brian Donlevy’s point of view of experiencing being shot (minus sound) is mesmerising and the cinematography by John Alton [you’ll find some of these shots on the covers of film noir studies] is jaw-dropping:  the use of light in the final sequence is historic.  David Raksin’s music sets the scene with his innovative jazz-influenced bursts underscoring the key movements – but the music in the torture scene is from Shorty Rogers and His Giants (with the deafening drum solo by Shelly Manne). Directed with his usual unforgiving pace by Joseph H. Lewis. Extraordinary.

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A Quiet Place (2018)

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Who are we if we can’t protect them? We have to protect them.  Over three months in 2020, most of the Earth’s human population has been wiped out by sightless creatures with hypersensitive hearing and a seemingly impenetrable armored shell that attack anything that makes noise. The Abbott family — engineer husband Lee (John Krasinski), wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), congenitally deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simonds), and sons Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward) — silently scavenge for supplies in a deserted town. Though skilled in sign language the family must nonetheless be vigilant in case they make accidental noise. Four-year-old Beau is drawn to a battery-operated space shuttle toy, but his father takes it away. Regan returns the toy to Beau, who unbeknownst to her takes the batteries their father removed. Beau activates the shuttle when the family is walking home through the woods, near a bridge. Its noise makes him an instant target for a nearby creature, and he is swiftly killed. A year later Evelyn is pregnant, Regan is plagued with guilt and convinced her father doesn’t love her (despite working on a cochlear implant for her) and he takes Marcus out on survival training just as the creatures are circling the farm and weeks before Evelyn is due to give birth … A canny blend of horror, sci fi and maternal melodrama, the fact that this has a somewhat unclear endpoint doesn’t necessarily ruin its affect. Third-time director and star John Krasinski contributed to the rewriting of the screenplay by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (which had just one line of dialogue) and it’s a testament to the construction that the hook gets a great payoff but still sacrifices a major character. The thrills mount as the tension grinds on, the family treading barefoot everywhere as the slightest noise could bring these aliens swooping down on them.  The elements – air, water, fire – are put to deft use in this clever narrative which tests the audience and not just because a lot of the diegetic atmosphere consists of … silence.  Mercifully short (at 90 minutes) this has all the best elements of 70s horror and a cliffhanger of an ending which means you just know there will be a sequel.

 

Miss Sloane (2017)

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Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.  Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) remains one of the most sought-after lobbyists in Washington, D.C. She will do or say anything to get ahead of the competition. When asked to help oppose a bill that imposes regulations on firearms, she instead joins a scrappy boutique firm led by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) that represents the backers of the law. Her defiant stance and determination to win now makes her the target of powerful new enemies who threaten her career. We find her facing a congressional hearing headed up by Senator Ronald Sperling (John Lithgow) where the needling gets to her and she breaks legal advice to plead the Fifth to respond to a petty point about Indonesia and opens the door to an onslaught of past crimes in the name of getting ahead on Capitol Hill … This wordy worthy drama is hard to take:  Chastain is as we have come to expect – technically adept, capable of delivering very prolix speeches but essentially unsympathetic (not that she cares) in spite of this being about a very current hot button topic – gun control and the powerful lobby that comes out to vote no matter what. Written by Jonathan Perera and directed by John Madden, this is literate, middle of the road social consciousness drama only rendered tolerable by performance and ultimately some finessed construction and screw-tightening towards the conclusion. But like Chastain’s other film this year, Molly’s Game, the stakes aren’t high enough to make us do anything more than yawn at these horrible people.

Going in Style (2017)

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These banks practically destroyed this country. They crushed a lot of people’s dreams, and nothing ever happened to them. We three old guys, we hit a bank. We get away with it, we retire in dignity. Worst comes to the worst, we get caught, we get a bed, three meals a day, and better health care than we got now. Lifelong friends Willie (Morgan Freeman), Joe (Michael Caine) and Albert (Alan Arkin) decide to buck retirement and step off the straight-and-narrow when their pension funds become a casualty of corporate financial misdeeds. They’re living on social security and eating dog food so what have they got to lose by taking a little action? Desperate to pay the bills and come through for their loved ones, they risk it all by knocking off the very bank that absconded with their money … The original had Art Carney, George Burns and  Lee Strasberg but in Theodore Melfi’s screenplay from the 1979 story by Edward Cannon, director Zach Braff appeals to the grey dollar audience with some of our favourite Sixties and Seventies performers with Freeman for good measure. Why wouldn’t you want to see this aged crew carry out a heist?! It’s conventionally made but has a resonance maybe moreso than the Seventies’ film did, with the banking crisis still having the ripple effect into everyone’s lives as a life’s work and savings vanish. It’s a lot of fun but says things about society and also the effect that participating in such a crime might have while quietly acknowledging that serial administrations simply permitted corporate criminals to ruin lives on an unprecedented scale and nine years later the effects are still being felt.  The guys have some good repartee and it’s pleasing to see a bunch of geezers making off with bags of swag.  Plus there’s Matt Dillon as an FBI guy and Ann-Margret for the Grumpy Old Men/Viva Las Vegas demographic.  What’s not to like?! For a comedy with a message this is a lot of fun.

I, Tonya (2017)

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There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants! In 1991, talented figure skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) becomes the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. We first see her as a three year old in 1970s Portland Oregon where her monstrous multiply-married mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) insists that she be mentored by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) at the local rink.  In 1994, her world comes crashing down when her violent ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) conspires with her moronic and delusional bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to injure Harding’s friend  and fellow Olympic hopeful and biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in a poorly conceived attack that forces the young woman to withdraw from the national championship. Harding’s life and legacy instantly become tarnished as she’s forever associated with one of the most infamous scandals in sports history…  When producer and star Robbie read Steven Rogers’s pitch black comedy she didn’t realise it was based on a true story (sort of). Her determination to bring this radical post-modern interpretation of one of the most notorious sporting crimes in the last quarter of a century to the big screen is testament to both her good taste and her chutzpah – this after all is her first starring role and she produced the film. She gives a powerhouse performance in a difficult role, delineating Harding’s evolution from white trash teen to triple axel-crushing rink monster routinely routed by snobby judges who want someone more ‘family’-friendly as their poster child and create the conditions for unconscious revenge against the powers that be. You were as graceless as a bull dyke. It was embarrassing! Janney’s performance has won all the awards (never forget she was everyone’s fave woman in the world in The West Wing) however she plays this crushing creature for a couple too many laughs.  It’s Robbie who has the tough job here – convincing us in this self-reflexive narrative that she really did deserve plaudits and not the horrifying level of domestic abuse which she came to expect after being reared by a veritable dragon in human form. Having each of the characters variously interviewed and breaking the fourth wall occasionally to ask why their contribution isn’t being featured at different points in the story reminds you that there are competing testimonies here.  The end credits, complete with real-life cringe-inducing footage of the ghastly individuals (this is really a documentary!) interspersed with Harding’s uplifting, magical performances makes you wonder how the poor girl ever survived the rank and file awfulness of her dreary Pacific north-west background. The interview with Hard Copy journalist Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) and the juxtaposition with the breaking news of OJ Simpson as the drama concludes in 1994 reinforces the underlying story of newsmaking in the 90s and how these two stories changed TV journalism forever. Brilliantly constructed and performed and well executed by Craig Gillespie. 6.0! Go Tonya!

All the President’s Men (1976)

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Where’s the goddamn story? There’s a break in at the Watergate building and a laidback and very green Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is suspicious when the Cuban-American burglars appear in court with high-level representation. Boss Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) teams him up with chippy Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to help out  – Bernstein writes better copy. Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) is not convinced that there’s much there but reluctantly gives the go-ahead.  With the help of a mysterious source, code-named Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), the two reporters make a connection between the burglars and a White House staffer. They encounter dirty tricks, ‘rat-fucking’ and an organisation known as CREEP. Follow the money Despite dire warnings about their safety, the duo follows the money all the way to the top… Part conspiracy thriller, part detective story, part newspaper flick, this only errs on the forgivably smug side that you’d expect if you’d been one of the hacks who’d (mistakenly) stumbled on an Oval Office-level conspiracy in the early 1970s. Part of director Alan J. Pakula’s unofficial paranoid trilogy (along with Klute and The Parallax View) this was adapted from Woodward and Bernstein’s book by William Goldman in the first instance – or actually four – before it was rewritten by Bernstein and Nora Ephron and then by Pakula and Redford, albeit those claims have been debunked. It’s a film that shows you the process of how to get and write the story – the sheer drudgery of sitting at desks, making phonecalls, being fobbed off, meeting strange men in car parks, going to libraries to borrow books, boredom, fear, anticipation, surveillance, and typing, typing, typing, the whole kit and caboodle. But when it’s played by two of the world’s biggest film stars at the time and they make calling someone on the phone so unbearably tense, you know you’re in good hands. As Redford’s biographer Michael Feeney Callan clarifies, Redford’s mind was already elsewhere during production despite the project being his and he was permanently distracted, yet we are carried on this tidal wave of information that started as a local story and became a national scandal – despite knowing the rather fabled outcome. What a way to make your name. Katharine Graham’s role was excised entirely from the action, to be resurrected in the preceding scandal of the Pentagon Papers dramatised in the recent The Post. Remarkable on every level, with the characters becoming at times functionaries of a cannily authentic production design by George Jenkins and a shooting style by Gordon Willis that emphasises light – its presence and absence, its curtailment and its blazing power – amid an ensemble of brilliant players in roles large and small, thrillingly brought to life. Classic.

 

 

Marathon Man (1976)

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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.

The Freshman (1990)

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I had been in New York nineteen minutes and eleven seconds and I was already ruined. Kansas/Vermont/Montana boy Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick) is robbed moments after arriving in New York to study film at NYU. When he sees his mugger Victor (Bruno Kirby) through a window several days later during a meeting with his tutor Fleeber (Paul Benedict), he confronts him. Victor promises to return his property and get him a job with his uncle, Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando), who turns out to be a Mafia boss. Clark can’t help but notice his uncanny resemblance to The Godfather. His first job (for $500!) is to pick up a komodo dragon from a lot in New Jersey which escapes at a gas station when his roommate Steve (Frank Whaley) opens the car door to smoke. The dragon runs amok in a mall. When Clark tells his mom on the phone about his new job his environmental activist stepdad Dwight (Kenneth Welsh) overhears. Carmine has lined up his daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller) to marry Clark. As Clark continues his shady work for Carmine, he discovers an elaborate underworld that has caught the attention of the authorities. He’s chased by men from the Department of Justice who are particularly interested in the wildlife Carmine is importing and he’s persuaded to become an informer. As things come to a head, not everything is what it seems. The endangered species are being prepared for a deluxe meal at a gourmet club where Carmine fleeces the rich for millions … I was once asked at a dinner party what I thought of Bergman. I responded, Ingmar or Andrew? Because that’s the kind of all-round entertaining dinner guest I am! In truth I’ve always enjoyed Andrew Bergman’s movies – they never fail to engage or amuse and this is no different. In fact I’d forgotten just how hilarious this is. You ain’t seen nothing till you’ve seen Brando on ice skates. This is a genuinely funny spoof with lots of endearing performances and a couple of artfully chosen excerpts from a certain pair of classic Mafia movies serve as commentary on the narrative that pastiches them. And if you have ever taken a film studies class you will get a kick out of Benedict’s painfully apt role as the self-obsessed lecturer. Brando is quite brilliant parodying himself and Broderick even out-Ferrises himself in some scenes. Great fun.

Wakefield (2016)

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What is so sacrosanct about a marriage and a family that you have to live in it day after day after day? New York City lawyer Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) has a nervous breakdown and hides out in the garage attic of his home for weeks, watching his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and young daughters from the vantage point of the first floor window, coming out in the daytime when his family is gone in order to shower and eat. His withdrawal leads him to examine his life, and he rationalizes that he has not abandoned his family because he is still in the house. When a former boyfriend Wall Street trader Dirk Morrison (Jason O’Mara) re-enters his wife’s life, he realizes that he may not be able to return to the life that he has abandoned… E. L. Doctorow’s short story (by way of Hawthorne) gets a strange workout from writer/director Robin Swicord who previously adapted Little Women and The Jane Austen Book Club.  It seems like a cross between Rear Window, The Seven Year Itch and (maybe) Mad Men. In literary terms we might then say Cornell Woolrich meets John Cheever. But that is part of the problem since it requires a (intermittently unreliable) narration to make sense. Cranston is given something of an odd showcase for his particular brand of addled masculinity but this is really the portrait of a marriage gone wrong. And perhaps the lesson is that a relationship born out of dishonourable behaviour will never last (he stole his wife from his friend). One of the lessons of cinema is show, don’t tell. Or at least don’t do both simultaneously. One hour in, Howard tells us, I left myself. Seventy minutes in he declares, My family is better off without me. Ya think?! There are some amusing moments and scenes – when his Early Man Neanderthal look earns him pity and coins in a public park while reading about his former friend’s success on the front of a business magazine. When he’s chased through the neighbourhood gardens and discovered by the disabled kids next door. When he observes a memorial service to himself – complete with PowerPoint photograph. But it’s not enough. And you know what? You really do need someone to state the absolutely bleeding obvious, like they did at the worst ever stage production of The Diary of Anne FrankHe’s in the attic! And cut the legs from under this narcissistic drag of a man. A disappointment.

 

 

Our Man in Havana (1959)

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Everything’s legal in Havana. Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness) is an English ex-pat living in pre-revolutionary Havana with his vain teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow). He owns a vacuum cleaner shop but isn’t very successful and Milly is annoyed he’s unable to fulfill his promise of a horse and country club membership, so he accepts an offer from Hawthorne (Noel Coward) of the British Secret Service to recruit a network of spies in Cuba. Wormold hasn’t got a clue where to start but when his friend Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) suggests that the best secrets are known to no one, he decides to manufacture a list of agents from people he only knows by sight and provides fictional tales for the benefit of his paymasters in London. He is soon seen as the best agent in the Western hemisphere and is particularly happy with his new friend, the beautiful spy Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara) but it all unravels when the local police decode his cables and everything he has invented bizarrely begins to come true when they start rounding up his network and he learns that he is the target of a group out to kill him… This film is, rather like North by Northwest, a taste of things to come:  an irreverent picture of the Cold War, the assumptions of the West and of course a picture of Cuba on the verge of a revolutionary breakdown (it was shot immediately after the Batista regime was overthrown). Graham Greene was reluctant to let anyone film his novels following the near-desecration of The Quiet American but this novel (the last he would term an entertainment and based on his WW2 experiences in Portugal) survives pretty unscathed with its comic tone evident throughout the cast (albeit Greene hated Maureen O’Hara). Who doesn’t love Ernie Kovacs? Or Guinness, for that matter, who perfectly inhabits this hapless effortful beast Wormold. I particularly liked his take on a game of checkers. Beautifully photographed by the great Oswald Morris  – but in black and white – in Havana?! Why?!  Directed, not by Hitchcock, who had tried to acquire the rights from Greene, but by Carol Reed. It was their third collaboration following The Fallen Idol and The Third ManOne never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.