Black and Blue (2019)

Just because she didn’t do it doesn’t mean she wasn’t involved. Witnessing her colleague Brown (James Moses Black)  and undercover narc Terry Malone (Frank Grillo) killing a drug dealer land rookie New Orleans PD officer Alicia West (Naomie Harris) into trouble. Falsely accused of the crime, she now has to fight both the corrupt police and evil gangsters while running through the back streets of New Orleans with body cam footage that will exonerate her from some very angry men. The victim is the nephew of one very pissed off drug dealer, Darius (Mike Coulter). She takes refuge with shopkeeper Mouse (Tyrese Gibson) who she knows from back in the day and he’s the only guy in the hood who’ll take her side and try to keep her alive as the cops close ranks and close in … Murder is murder, no matter who you are. Fantastically well performed, this is that rare thing, an action film boasting a great role for a female protagonist as a police officer (it’s thirty years since Theresa Russell and Jamie Lee Curtis had the pleasure). And boy does Harris nail it. She’s on the run practically from the first scene when she twigs that she’s witnessed a cold blooded murder by undercover narcotic cops, cleaning up those mean streets of N’Orleans in their inimitably corrupt style while pocketing their share of the goodies. In terms of race commentary, it’s a drama that demonstrates without making an issue of it that crime and corruption have no monopoly on ethnicity – what’s more important here is making the most of your particular skill set.  When it comes out that Harris was a former JD and a soldier who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan we know we’re being set up for some explosive and decent can-do action – but she’s constantly under threat and literally runs for her life.  It turns out her options are very limited indeed as her old friends including Missy (Nafessa Williams) who’s mother to a young boy can’t figure a black woman in a blue uniform. Peter A. Dowling’s screenplay doesn’t pull punches and Deon Taylor’s direction never permits the action to be distracted by the visuals which are gritty and pointed in a story that is tough and well managed. She’s a ghost

The Good Liar (2019)

What I deplore more than anything is deception. Career con artist Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) can hardly believe his luck when he meets wealthy recently widowed Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) online. As Betty opens her life and bland suburban home to him, Roy is surprised to find himself caring about her, turning what should be a straightforward swindle into the most treacherous tightrope walk of his life. Her PhD student grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey) makes it clear he suspects Roy is out for financial gain and turns up at various encounters. When Roy is away from Betty he’s in London organising a long con from investors using Russian decoys with co-conspirator Vincent Halloran (Jim Broadbent). One of the victims follows Roy in the street one day and after he is dispatched under a Tube train Roy decides to take Betty on holiday to Berlin where a surprise awaits … It’s like being smothered in beige. Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s novel goes in different directions and manages to constantly surprise while being faithful to the traits established in the first scenes. McKellen and Mirren effortlessly plumb the characterisation, coming up trumps as the narrative brings us back to a very different world where the stakes where initially raised. The story’s roots in 1940s Germany are jaw-dropping when revealed – this is far from being a conventional story of a duped geriatric in some pensions scam:  we are tipped off when McKellen drops his act early on and meets his fellow crims at Stringfellows’ strip club and we meet the guys who want to join in the quick profit as investors (nice to recognise Mark Lewis Jones and Lucian Msamati from the astonishingly violent summer TV hit Gangs of London). Now that’s not a typical octagenarian move. We have to look after what we’ve worked to secure. The long con twists wonderfully in Mirren’s favour in Berlin when another identity is uncovered and the suspense ratchets up several notches as an obscenity from the past is resurrected. The stylish and pacy direction of this wonderfully tangled web is by Bill Condon, who previously worked with McKellen two decades ago on the cherishable Gods and MonstersDo you know who you are?

Tenet (2020)

We live in a twilight world. An unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) gets kidnapped and tortured by gangsters following an opera siege in Ukraine and wakes up after he takes a fake suicide pill, is rebuilt and sent on a new mission – to find out who’s shipping inverted bullets from the future using Priya (Dimple Kapadia) as a front. He discovers through a forged Goya it’s Russian arms dealer Andrey Sator (Kenneth Branagh) whose art expert wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) is more or less his hostage, trying to keep in contact with their young son. Working with British agent Neil (Robert Pattinson) he organises an attack on the (tax- free) Freeport in Oslo Airport where art treasures are being held in an attempt to to root out the channels Sator is using and tries to avert the end of the world as Sator’s suicide mission takes hold … With a hi-vis jacket and a clipboard you can get in practically anywhere in the world. The ongoing paradox – one of many – in the latest offering from writer/director Christopher Nolan – is that in a world of special effects he does his filmmaking in camera and this has an admirably real feeling, with a lot of it shot in gloomy European cities that mostly look alike – grey, with brutalist tower blocks and dull skies. It’s the dystopic vision that J.G. Ballard satirised while predicting the future, a time when Alain Resnais was pioneering storytelling backwards and forwards through time yet the Sixties feeling is very now. The palindromic inventiveness lies in the story structure, the characterisation and the trust in the audience. Of course it helps  that this tale of a man with the power of apocalypse in his nasty Eastern European paws with the foreknowledge informing his every move is released to a Covid-19 world where people wear masks and dread the end of days, rather like here (when they’re not masked they’re bearded, which is pretty much the same thing). That it also takes the long tall Sally from TV’s espionage hit adaptation of John le Carre’s The Night Manager and puts her in a markedly similar role doesn’t go amiss. These realistic meta touches – with Branagh’s horrifying oligarch resident in London – grip the narrative to something close to recognisable quotidian newspaper headlines; while the parallel lines of future-past intersect in the ‘inverted’ nodes that splatter in all directions. It may be that after one hundred minutes when they decide to return to Oslo and they mean go back in time to Oslo that the plot becomes not just far fetched but out of reach to the ordinary pea brain, or someone who thinks in too linear a fashion, as soldier Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) chides The Protagonist. As ever, we must remember that future and past selves best not meet each other or else – annihilation. There are boys’ own fantasies writ large – joyriding an aeroplane and causing a horrifying amount of damage, an exhilarating catamaran race, an astonishing quasi-hijacking which can’t possibly go well with all that time travel inversion stuff, great military hardware for the penultimate sequence and the unpeeling of The Protagonist aka The American who starts out from a very bad place indeed and is literally reconstituted to do his worst.  The entire narrative is based on one diadic exchange:  What just happened here?/ It didn’t happen yet! It’s a different experience than Inception which was all about a built world inhabited by a featureless character – a video game, in any language. Yet we can see all the references from the Airport movies, through Terry Gilliam and The Thomas Crown Affair in this timeblender. Branagh is such an evil bad guy you expect him to tell Washington he expects him to die while twirling his comedy moustache. Pattinson might well be reprising his T.E. Lawrence  in those early sweaty linen suits. How you appear is all, as Michael Caine’s Sir Michael Crosby informs Washington – less Brooks Brothers, more Savile Row tailoring. They are men on a mission but not Men in Black. This all concludes in the abject maternal being resolved in pleasing fashion, a not unfamiliar trope in Nolan’s body of work; the opportunity to rewrite your life is presented here in key moments. There is one huge technical problem with the film that damages the plot clarity and that is the woeful sound mix, leaving much dialogue lost in the guttural music of Ludwig Goransson while revelling in the sheer kinetic drive of the action. It’s not too late in this digital age to whip up some new codes to tidy it up, is it? Maybe just ratchet up the EQs a tad. In the interim, relish the historical possibilities of film editing in this awesome mosaic of affect and attractions and heed the advice given in soothing voice early on, Don’t try to understand it – feel it. Welcome back, Cinema.

Pain and Glory (2019)

Aka Dolor y gloria. I don’t recognise you, Salvador. Film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is ageing and in decline, suffering from illness and writer’s block. He recalls episodes in his life that led him to his present situation – lonely, sick – when the Cinematheque runs a film Sabor he made 32 years earlier with actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) and they haven’t spoken since due to the performer’s drug use. But now Salva is in pain and following the reunion with Alberto prompted by his old friend Zulema (Cecilia Roth) will take anything he can including heroin to ease his pain from multiple disabling illnesses. He recalls his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) working hard to put food on the table;  moving into a primitive cave house; his days as a chorister whose voice was so beautiful he skipped class to rehearse and got through school knowing nothing, learning geography on his travels as a successful filmmaker. Now he is forced to confront all the crises in his life and his mother is dying … Writing is like drawing, but with letters. Pedro Almodovar’s late-life reflectiveness permeates a story that must have roots in his own experience. His protege Banderas gives a magnificent performance as the director pausing in between heroin hits and choking from an unspecified ailment to consider his path. The stylish visuals that often overwhelm Almodovar’s dramas are used just enough to textually express the core of the film’s theme – love, and the lack of it. Life is just a series of moments and they are recounted here with clear intent, plundering the past in order to reclaim the present. A triumph. Love is not enough to save the person you love

The Assistant (2019)

Never sit on the couch.  Recent North Western graduate and aspiring film producer Jane (Julia Garner) just landed her dream job as a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul at a famous production company. Her day starts before dawn, making coffee, ordering lunch, making travel arrangements and taking phone messages. But as she follows her daily routine, she grows increasingly aware of the abuse that insidiously colors every aspect of her workday, an accumulation of degradations against which she decides to take a stand when she meets inexperienced waitress Sienna (Kristine Froseth) and takes her by taxi to the Mark Hotel and later her office colleagues (Noah Robbins and Jon Orsini) joke that that’s where their boss is spending the afternoon. It dawns on her what’s happening. She takes her complaint to company human resources officer Wilcock (Matthew McFadyen) who persuades her that she’s actually jealous:  Don’t worry about it, she’ll get more out of it than he will. Trust me. He is clearly well aware of his boss’ predilections as is everyone at the company while her colleagues get her to apologise by email to Him I don’t think you’ve anything to worry about. You’re not his type. The #MeToo era has finally pulled back the curtain on the raging sexist bullying of the media business, not that it was ever going to be a surprise for any woman who has ever had that particular experience. In other words you didn’t have to work for Harvey Weinstein to know that that is how things go, it’s just that he’s the most egregious example and a clear influence on this striking debut by writer/director/producer (and documentary maker) Kitty Green. It’s a small and personal work, focused on the reactions of the protagonist and the only voice that’s raised is that of her nameless boss, behind closed doors, on the phoneline, never seen directly, communicating via Non-Disclosure Agreements, the semen stains in his office, the Viagra bottles and the parade of young women leaving, eyes down, from his office which is clearly modelled on Miramax, now bust, toxicity emanating in the air from his vile presence. Garner’s face does so much of the dramatic suspense for the story – absorbing the psychological sucker punch of what she’s inadvertently arranging for her boss – assignations of rape and sexual coercion. Structured like a mystery over the course of a day in which Jane has to piece together the bigger picture from hints and clues, this is subtly shocking and impressive as an admirably controlled commentary on the abuse of power and its widespread acceptance and nurturing by fawning sexist corrupt help, the kind you find in every office. A quiet scream.  I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great

Luce (2019)

Luce

Keep in mind that for her this knowledge is incidental but for you it could be a matter of life and death. A liberal-minded couple, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter Edgar (Tim Roth), are forced to reconsider their image of the black son Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr ) they adopted from war-torn Eritrea after they discover he has written a disturbing essay for his class at school.  A star athlete and debater and the envy of the other black kids who appear to be failing themselves by  becoming stereotypes, he is being challenged by his history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) in this project in which he has adopted the voice of revolutionary Frantz Fanon, appearing to endorse ‘necessary violence’. At the same time Wilson has found illegal fireworks in his locker and she brings it up with the Edgars who decide not to mention it to Luce. They start to doubt their son and look at him as though he is manipulating them and everyone else and reverting to his origins in order to stay on top of the class … I feel like you are all waiting for me to confirm this thing you are afraid to say aloud. Adapted by director Julius Onah from J.C. Lee’s titular stage play, this is a morally-driven effort to interrogate race, tokenism and politics using the higher expectations applied to black kids to raise them up. However the message is confused with the subplot involving Spencer’s mentally ill sister and the framing of a thriller throwing a spanner in the works:  you expect her to turn into Ma again. Watts and Roth end up questioning the choice to adopt when what he really wants is a baby of their own. They called their son ‘Luce’ because she couldn’t pronounce his African name. Then the issue of teenage sex arises with a girl that their son allegedly protected from sexual assault but whom he happens to be dating. There is a raft of possible duplicities which he appears to have practised and carried off with a winning smile. The ending is unsettling and inconclusive and dramatically false. This smug pointless provocation about Great White Saviours and guilt is just annoying and the last shot will just confirm anti-black prejudice whether in America or anywhere else. I wanted something simple and normal. Our lives didn’t have to be a political statement

 

A View to a Kill (1985)

A View to a Kill

A typical Reds to riches story. Bond (Roger Moore)returns from his travels in the U.S.S.R. with a computer chip. This chip is capable of withstanding a nuclear electromagnetic pulse that would otherwise destroy a normal chip. The chip was created by Zorin Industries, and Bond heads off to investigate its owner, Max Zorin (Christopher Walken), first encountering him at Ascot where despite the form of competitors his horses win against the odds. Zorin is really planning to set off an earthquake along the Hayward and San Andreas faults, which will wipe out all of Silicon Valley, the heart of the world’s microchip production. As well as Zorin, Bond must also tackle his sidekick, hit woman May Day (Grace Jones) and equally menacing companion of Zorin, while dragging State Geologist Stacy Sutton (Tanya Roberts) along for the ride… Well my dear, I take it you spend quite a lot of time in the saddle. Written by Richard Maibaum and producer Michael G, Wilson, this is the fourteenth Bond and the seventh and final to star Moore and is adapted from Ian Fleming’s story From a View to a Kill. Unusually violent for the series, with Walken machine-gunning large groups of people in a mass slaughter, albeit his origins as the product of a Nazi experiment explains the high body count. It’s more than redeemed by an awesomely staged pre-titles ski chase and another genuinely impressive chase through Paris, commencing on the Eiffel Tower and continuing with Moore following Jones in a parachute but on the ground, in a car gradually broken up (literally) in traffic before he jumps onto a bateau mouche, only to watch Jones escape in a speed boat piloted by Walken: David Bowie and Sting were first offered the role of Zorin who is perhaps a little too light although his sinister laugh paradoxically suggests the requisite insanity. In a Freudian touch the scientist responsible for him is his in-house scientist. It’s nice to see Walter Gotell returning as Soviet General Gogol while Lois Maxwell makes her final appearance as Moneypenny. The weakest acting link is Roberts but you can blame the screenplay for her shortcomings. There’s a great role for Patrick Macnee as 007’s sidekick (for a while!) Sir Godfrey Tibbett and Patrick Bauchau makes an appearance as Zorin’s security chief, Scarpine.  Dolph Lundgren makes a brief appearance, his debut, as Venz, one of Gogol’s KGB agents. There’s a welcome appearance by David Yip as the CIA agent who assists Bond in a return of the action to the US and the climax at the Golden Gate Bridge is well done. All in all it’s a bright and colourful outing for our favourite spy. The stonking title song is performed by Duran Duran who co-wrote it with John Barry. Directed by John Glen, his third time at the series’ helm. What would you be without us? A biological experiment? A physiological freak?

Octopussy (1983)

Octopussy

Englishman. Likes eggs, preferably Fabergé. Likes dice, preferably fully loaded. British MI6 agent 009 drops off a fake Fabergé jewelled egg at the British embassy in East Berlin and is later killed at Octopussy’s travelling circus. Suspicions mount when the assistant manager of the circus who happens to be exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), outbids 007 James Bond (Roger Moore) for the real Fabergé piece at Sotheby’s. Bond follows Kamal to India where Bond thwarts several ingenious attacks, kidnapping by Kamal and encounters Kamal’s ally, the anti-heroine of the title (Maud Adams), an international smuggler who runs the circus as a cover for her illegal operations. It seems that Orlov (Steven Berkoff), a decidedly rank and belligerent Russian general is planning to raise enough money with the fake Fabergés to detonate a nuclear bomb in Europe and then defeat NATO forces once and for all in conventional warfare… The West is decadent and divided. The thirteenth in the series and Moore’s seventh appearance as the sexy superspy as well as the first to feature Robert Brown as M following Bernard Lee’s recent death, this is derived from a number of Ian Fleming’s stories: the title is from his 1966 short story collection and there is a scene inspired by another story, The Property of a Lady (included in 1967 and later editions of Octopussy and The Living Daylights), as well as one brief bit of characterisation lifted from Moonraker; while the events of the titular story Octopussy form a part of the title character’s background which she relates herself; but the bulk of the narrative is original, the screenplay credited to novelist George MacDonald Fraser who suggested that it be set in India, series regular Richard Maibaum & producer Michael G. Wilson. In fact Moore had intended retiring from the role but was deemed the most profitable actor for the part when the rival production Never Say Never Again with former Bond Sean Connery was up and running at the same time: James Brolin was apparently due to take over from Moore – can you imagine! The perception of this as the weakest of Moore’s particular Bond films doesn’t hold up despite its apparently problematic heroine (her MO is a bit slight) but Bond’s seduction of a woman who is his equal is particularly well observed –  in fact they both have a death to avenge. The narrative is especially prescient – to have a nuclear bomb planned for Germany, at the time the centre of Cold War fears (see the TV show Deutschland 83 for a dramatic interpretation of the time), feels utterly relevant and Moore is given great space for both humour and action, pitched at a perfect balance here and decidedly lacking in camp. It’s probably the best written of all his Bond iterations. The chases (and there are quite a few) are brilliantly mounted, including trains, planes automobiles and elephants and there’s a great homage to The Most Dangerous Game when our man is the jungle prey. The climactic aerial stunts are some of the most astonishing you’ll ever see – utterly thrilling. Legendary tennis player Vijay Amritraj has a great supporting role as Bond’s MI6 ally in India and even Q (Desmond Llewelyn) gets in on the action with a fabulous hot air balloon! Jourdan makes for a suitably insidious villain and Berkoff (almost!) has a blast as the nutty military man who makes the KGB’s Gogol (Walter Gotell) look sane. There is a terrific performance by Kristina Wayborn as Kamal’s stunning henchwoman Magda – her exit from a night with Bond has to be seen! Adams had of course appeared opposite Moore in previous Bond outing The Man With the Golden Gun as Scaramanga’s doomed mistress and she gets to flex more muscles here albeit her entrance is not until the film’s second half. Watch out for former Pan’s People dancer Cherry Gillespie as Midge, one of Octopussy’s bodyguards.  It’s wonderfully paced, with each sequence superseding the action of the previous one and the flavourful locations are beautifully captured by Alan Hume’s cinematography: this has undergone a pristine restoration. Among the very best Bonds, an episode whose influence can clearly be seen in both the Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible franchises.  The theme song, All Time High is written by John Barry and Tim Rice and performed by Rita Coolidge. Directed by John Glen, the second of his five outings at the helm. Perfect escapism. Mr Bond is indeed a very rare breed, soon to be made extinct

 

The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966)

The Brides of Fu Manchu

Take this knife and place it at the throat of the man who is your father. In 1924, Chinese megalomaniac Dr. Fu Manchu Christopher Lee), his army of dacoits and his vicious daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) are kidnapping and holding hostage the daughters of prominent scientists and industrialists taking them to his remote island, where he demands that the fathers help him to build a radio device that transmits blast waves through a transmitter he intends to use to take over the world. He plans to keep (even marry) the girls in question. But Dr. Fu Manchu’s archenemy, Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer) of Scotland Yard, is determined not to let that happen, assisted by Franz Baumer (Heinz Drache) who impersonates the man Fu Manchu most wants on his side, Otto Lentz (Joseph Furst) but an international conference is about to take place in London and time is running out … Remember – the snake pit is one of the quicker deaths that awaits your daughter! The second in the Sax Rohmer series directed for writer/producer Harry Alan Towers by Don Sharp, this isn’t as lushly beautiful and startling as the first but it’s still a lovely period suspenser with Lee returning as the diabolical Yellow Peril criminal mastermind with world domination dictating his every action. Pink Panther fans will enjoy Burt Kwouk’s performance as henchman Feng. The entire world will capitulate to me. That is the destiny of Fu Manchu

Thunderball (1965)

Thunderball

A poker in the hands of a widow.  Two of NATO’s atomic bombs are hijacked by the criminal organisation SPECTRE, which holds the world to ransom for £100 million in diamonds, in exchange for not destroying an unspecified city in either the United Kingdom or the United States (later revealed to be Miami). The search leads James Bond (Sean Connery) to the Bahamas, where he encounters Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) the card-playing, eye patch-wearing SPECTRE Number Two whom he bests at the tables. Backed by CIA agent Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter) and Largo’s mistress Domino Derval (Claudine Auger) Bond’s search culminates in an underwater battle with Largo’s henchmen but time is running out … What strange eyes you’ve got. The one that caused the franchise a whole lot of legal issues in the ensuing years, this was also the one the audiences went bonkers for with Widescreen shooting, seriously glossy production values and slick underwater sequences that take up about a quarter of the overall running time which at two hours ten minutes was by far the longest in the series thus far. The legal issues arose because Ian Fleming’s 1961 novel was based on a story by producer Kevin McClory and was intended as the first in the series with a screenplay by them with Jack Whittingham. The new screenplay is by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins and it commences with an ingenious escape from a surprising funeral. The cat and mouse relationship between Bond and Largo is consistently surprising and satisfying; Celi is particularly good in the role. The production design by Ken Adam is quite breathtaking, the women are among the most beautiful of the era – Auger (Miss France, voiced by Nikki van der Zyl), Luciana Paluzzi as femme fatale Fiona Volpe, Martine Beswick as Paula Caplan, Bond’s tragic CIA ally, Molly Peters as physiotherapist Patricia Fearing – and Bond is actually saved by a woman. The gadgets include water-firing cannon affixed to the rear of the Aston Martin, a jetpack and a handbag-friendly Geiger counter. It all looks glorious and the incredible underwater work is shot by Ricou Browning although it’s not always clear what’s going on. The theme song by composer John Barry (returning to the franchise) with lyrics by Don Black is performed by Tom Jones who fainted in the recording booth as he sang the final note. What’s not to like? Directed by Terence Young in his third and final Bond outing. Remade 18 years later as Never Say Never Again, with Connery once more taking the lead in what was his final Bond film. Was ever a man more misunderstood?