Showdown (1963)

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Aka The Iron Collar. Maybe together you might make one good man. Chris Foster (Audie Murphy) has to get $12,000  in stolen bonds from the ex-girlfriend Estelle (Kathleen Crowley) of his partner Bert Pickett (Charles Drake), or the gang holding him hostage led by wanted outlaw Lavalle (Harold Stone) will kill him. When Chris tracks Estelle down singing her last song in a saloon before catching the stage out of town it seems she has other plans for the money … Seems to me you’re more cat than kitten. An efficient tale dressed up with some unusual levels of violence and occasionally ripe dialogue – Stone gets to expound on his love of oysters which might put you in mind of a certain monologue authored by Gore Vidal in a rather different setting. Strother Martin has a good role as the town drunk while Crowley looks great and gives some odd line readings in a story that is piquant and threatening, with some nice black and white shooting done around Lone Pine, CA.  Written by Bronson Howitzer (aka TV western scribe Ric Hardman) and directed by R.G. Springsteen.  Most of his friends grow well in the dark

Ma (2019)

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Sometimes you want something so badly and suddenly you don’t. Newly divorced Erica (Juliette Lewis) returns to her hometown in Mississippi and works in a casino while her 16-year old daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) starts hanging out with the cool kids at high school led by Haley (McKaley Miller). Middle-aged veterinary assistant Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) befriends them when they’re trying to score liquor at the store and decides to let them party in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober, don’t curse, and never go upstairs. They must also refer to her as Ma. But as her hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, Ma starts stalking the kids on social media and her place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on Earth as it is revealed that these are the offspring of the high school bullies who subjected her to terrible sexual humiliation and she has decided upon a path of bloody revenge decades later ...  How is it on the outside looking in? Director Tate Taylor established a kinship with acting (and producing) powerhouse Spencer on The Help so it’s logical that they would follow through on another collaboration. But a horror? Definitely not what one might anticipate and in spite of that mouthwatering prospect in an era which has upended that genre in many recent outings (with comments on race which are touched upon here), this is twisted in all the wrong ways and is poorly paced. It gives Allison Janney a cursory role as the veterinarian who gets hers; Luke Evans is the sex god from high school; and Taylor himself plays an unfortunate cop. Torture is the order of the day in this high school revenge story gone awry that never properly capitalises on its themes. A bizarre tale that takes a decided left turn for camp which surely means it is destined for that shelf designated Cult. Written by Scotty Landes. I am not weak.  I am not my mother!

 

 

The Two-Headed Spy (1958)

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A man cannot control the circumstances of his birth but he can make a choice. In 1939 Alex Shottland (Jack Hawkins) has been embedded as a British agent at the highest levels of the German military since WW1 and is tiring of his role but is urged to continue by his fellow agent Cornaz (Felix Aylmer) who is posing as an antiques dealer. They carry on their meetings under cover of Shottland’s purported interest in clocks. The revelatioin of Schottland’s half-British origins raises the eyebrows of the obsessive and creepy Lt. Reinisch (Erik Schumann) who works as his assistant and he alerts Schottland’s superiors about a potentially traitorous connection to the enemy. Schottland falls in love with singer and fellow spy Lili Geyr  (Gia Scala) whose melancholic songs carry coded messages across the airwaves to the Allies.  Reinisch suspects their relationship is a cover just as the Battle of the Bulge is getting underway and Schottland struggles to communicate the plans to his real superiors I’ll come to your place any time you want me to and spend the night. The amazing true-ish story was based on J. Alvin Kugelmass’ book Britain’s Two-Headed Spy and although A.P. Scotland was an adviser on the production it’s not based on his real escapades. The screenplay is notable for being written by not one but two blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson and the uncredited Alfred Lewis Levitt. Hawkins is excellent as the net seems to be closing in and he has to endure Cornaz being tortured to death;  while Scala impresses as the slinky songstress with espionage at her heart. There are some terrific scenes at Berlin’s highest table with Kenneth Griffith emoting unseen as Hitler.  Taut storytelling, excellent characteristation, glossy monochrome cinematography by Ted Scaife and an urgent score by Gerard Schurmann combine to make this an enthralling spy thriller. Look quickly for Michael Caine as a Gestapo agent while Geoffrey (Catweazle) Bayldon is Dietz. Directed by André De Toth. Truth is allegiance

Damascus Cover (2017)

 

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When missions go bad, there’s only one rule – protect your partner.  Following the murder of his colleague in Damascus by Syrian Secret Police Chief Sarraj (Navid Negahban) Israeli agent Ari Ben-Sion aka Hans Hoffman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is deployed to Syria by his overseer Miki (John Hurt) to exfiltrate a spy and his family and runs into American photographer Kim (Olivia Thirlby) with whom he becomes involved before realising she is part of a much bigger plot and the real target of his mission is an entirely different individual in deep cover but hiding in plain sight … It’s a real maze. Adapted by director Daniel Zelik Berk and Samantha Newton from Howard Kaplan’s 1977 bestseller this is updated to 1989, the year of revolutions, so that the action happens in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall (although they’re not exactly celebrating Christmas here). The characterisation is undercooked and the storytelling is a little clunky – you feel that Hans/Ari should have figured out a lot quicker that something bigger is going on than his purported task. It’s the textural matters that are more interesting – the maze-like construction of a city where Jews are only permitted to leave their quarter one at a time, where streets lead you to dead ends like a rat; the depicting of the secret police under the original Assad; the post-war Nazis doing business in an Islamic haven (the role of Moslems in the Holocaust has yet to be dramatised); the issue of identity in a region where anti-semitism is writ large: when Ari enters Syria he is asked, Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine? He is already displaced in Israel after moving from Germany as a child and is suffering the bereavement any father would following the breakdown of his marriage in the wake of the death of his young son (although we don’t know how that happened, there are several shots of children at play as well as his haunting nightmares about the boy).  He doesn’t exhibit true emotion until he’s engaged with Kim who herself has issues with being distanced from her young son and who has a father whose actions for his Syrian overlords has resulted in his death.  She appears to be repaying a debt to the intelligence service, willingly or not. Berk is the former talent agent who introduced John Travolta to Quentin Tarantino for which we are all truly grateful and this has a slick look and a trim running time. It’s beautifully shot by Chloë Thomson.  Despite the welcome complexities in Ari and his mistakes, and the issue of Syria versus Israel, it doesn’t plumb the resonant depths of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the echo casting of John Hurt in the perfunctory but dramatically significant role of Miki has a sorrowfulness because it is that great actor’s final part. It is fitting therefore that he should have the last word in the film’s signing off, Goodbye my friend

Against All Flags (1952)

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I don’t like the cut of your sail!  In 1700 British officer Lt Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn) on the British ship Monsoon infiltrates a group of pirates led by Roc Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn) located on Libertatia on the coast of the island of Madagascar  He poses as a deserter and falls in love with pirate captain ‘Spitfire’ Stevens (Maureen O’Hara). He proves his worth and is aboard Brasiliano’s vessel when they loot a Moghul ship and kidnap a harem of women protected by their chaperone Molvina MacGregor (Mildred Natwick) who hides the identity of Princess Patma (Alice Kelley). Meanwhile, Hawke is gathering information through his romance with Spitfire to attack the pirate base …  You’re a real rooster, aren’t you!  Nobody is who they claim to be here in a movie that’s full of rousing action, furious innuendo and Taming of the Shrew-ishness. O’Sullivan is resplendent as the pirate queen and Flynn gets one of his last good action roles (and his final pirate part in Hollywood) although a life of excess had already taken a toll on his glorious looks. They have great fun knocking sparks off each other, particularly when he’s training her to be a lady and instructing her in etiquette. The moment when O’Hara, all decked out in her piratical duds, outbids Flynn for Kelley at a slave auction and says to Flynn, I think I prefer you as a bachelor is just a preview of coming attractions:  she then pulls back the girl’s veil, sees how beautiful her new possession is and observes to Flynn, Curse me if I can blame you too much! One for a queer film compilation for sure. Written by Aeneas MacKenzie as a vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks Jr. it was then rewritten by Joseph Hoffman, and directed for the most part by George Sherman but when Flynn broke his ankle production was postponed, Sherman moved on and Douglas Sirk took over a further ten days’ filming upon Flynn’s eventual return. It looks stunning thanks to Russell Metty and Hans Salter handles the boisterous score. Lambasted by the critics, this made a shedload of money in its time. When he comes back with blood on his hands then he can hoist his own black flag but not before!

St Agatha (2018)

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Your name is … Agatha! In October 1957 pregnant con woman Mary (Sabrina Kern) leaves her boyfriend Jimmy (Justin Miles) when a scam goes wrong and takes refuge at an isolated Georgia convent but soon finds out that things are not quite as they seem and has to escape before Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennessy) and her cohorts harm her and her baby … Get your hands off me you bitches! This hopped-up interpretation of what Catholic nuns do to single mothers starts with a claustrophobe’s nightmare – being locked in a coffin: so as someone who baled on my last MRI scan, I was duly entrapped in a story which is a very twisted take on Christian origins. Shot beautifully by Joseph White with gauzy filters lending the convent’s surrounding forest an air of supernature and the entire production an atmosphere which sustains the suspense with the backstory dropped in to illustrate Mary’s family issues. These bewitching scary nuns sure know how to welcome strangers – Mother Superior declares that she too was an unwed mother (the Senator dumped her!) and the scratching sounds in the attics and the bizarre bird-feed vomit in the coffin treatment just confirm Mary’s suspicions that all is not quite right. With its dense flock wallpaper and red lights in the basement this place resembles a brothel. Soon Mary aka Agatha recognises a fellow con in Mother Superior. When Jimmy shows up to try to get Mary back she finds the nuns have guns and they won’t stop short of murder to save the babies to sell them to donors! The books must be balanced and the story takes off. There is quite literally a twist ending when you can take succour from the uses to which you can put a freshly cut umbilical cord:  a logical conclusion to the mediaeval torture that is childbirth. All hail virgin martyrs! Written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Michaels, Sara Sometti Michaels and Clint Sears.  Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. You’ve seen what I’m capable of. What kind of mother would I be?

The Kremlin Letter (1970)

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You’re a fool.  What’s worse, you’re a romantic fool. When an unauthorised letter is sent to Moscow alleging the U.S. government’s willingness to help Russia attack Red China, US Navy Intelligence Officer Charles Rone (Patrick O’Neal) has his commission revoked so he can do an extra-governmental espionage mission.  He’s speaks eight languages fluently and has a flawless photographic memory. He and his team are sent to retrieve the letter, going undercover and successfully reaching out to Erika (Bibi Andersson), the wife of a former agent now married to the head of Russia’s secret police, Kosnov (Max von Sydow). Their plans are interrupted, however, when their Moscow hideout is raided by cunning politician Bresnavitch (Orson Welles) and Rone finds himself being played by a network of older spies seeking revenge .My father says bed is integral to this and one must be good at it. Adapted by director John Huston with his regular collaborator Gladys Hill (who began as dialogue director on Welles’ The Stranger) from Noel Behn’s 1966 novel, this complex canvas of betrayal, treason, murder and double cross is in a line with Huston’s film noir period with a soupçon of Beat the Devil‘s absurdism. Its convoluted plot is best appreciated in response to the hijinks of Bond with its determinedly low-key approach allowing the banal thuggery of the spy master to be revealed. The cast is astonishing – Richard Boone as Ward, the peroxide instigator capable of literally anything, sadism, torture and murder;  two Bergman alumni united in transcontinental jiggery pokery; George Sanders playing piano in drag at a gay nightclub and worse, with a penchant for knitting; Barbara Parkins as Niall MacGinnis’ safe-cracking daughter; Vonetta McGee as a Lesbian seductress;  Nigel Green as The Whore, another old spy keen on playing dress up; Lila Kedrova as a Russian brothel keeper;  and Welles’ Gate Theatre mentor Micheál MacLiammóir shows up – in fact he’s the first character we encounter. A crazy cast in a fascinating Cold War timepiece that requires keen attention. Even so, it’s a stretch to have dour O’Neal pose as a gigolo to win Andersson’s affections. Still, Ted Scaife’s cinematography is a thing of beauty. Never mind the story, feel the wit. Huston appears early as the Admiral who gives Rone his marching papers. If you believe in a cause no danger is frightening

Night and Fog (1955)

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Alain Resnais is unique in the French New Wave. He was the sole enquirer into the Holocaust. Every other filmmaker camouflaged and did away with political analysis in favour of winsome, humorous cinematic style and a rhetoric lacking in nerve. Perhaps it was due to the level of collaboration with the Nazi regime and the Vichy government that formed so much of the recent past.  This is not a pretty history. With a script by Mauthusen-Gusen survivor Jean Cayrol and Chris Marker, voiced by Michel Boquet, and a deceptively urgent score by Hanns Eisler, we are brought into the realm of German horror, a genocide manufactured at the behest of Amin al-Husseini. Integrating newsreel footage with contemporary colour film shot in Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland by Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny this is a solemn narration of a true crime made all the more significant in a restive period of anti-semitism. This week alone saw the remains of six nameless victims of the concentration camps buried in England, given a dignity they never had in life;  and a cross-party coalition in the Irish Republic brought the Occupied Territories Bill before Parliament in a stark reminder that anti-semitism is overt, the territory of braggarts, and there are many in positions of power who would deny Jews their right to exist and the right of Israel to flourish.  A few years ago the Irish government voted to support the administration of Hamas – an Islamist extremist group whose constitution includes the admonition It is the duty of all Moslems to kill Jews on sight. Israel is rapidly becoming a safe haven for European Jews as Islam’s tentacles reach further afield. It is spreading in Europe courtesy not only of the pernicious Eastern Europeans assimilating in their millions in the British Isles but also because of the unstoppable immigration problem from North Africa and the Near East, with millions flooding in, urged on by a Germany that is constantly on the rise and currently in charge of Europe. Today is the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Let us never forget. L’chaim.

Unsane (2018)

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As soon as the insurance runs out you’ll be cured. Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a troubled woman who moves 450 miles away from home to escape a stalker. She is still triggered by interactions with men as a result of her experiences and makes an appointment to attend a counsellor at Highland Creek Behavioral Center. She unwittingly signs a release voluntarily committing herself to a 24-hour stay. She calls the police but they do nothing when they see the signed release. After physical altercations with a patient and a staff member whom she recognises as her stalker David Strine (Joshua Leonard), Dr. Hawthorne says she is being kept for seven more days  during which fellow patient Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah) reveals the insurance scam lying behind her incarceration and which even her mother Angela (Amy Irving) cannot do anything to change when she calls her on Nate’s smuggled cellphone …You unlocked something inside me that day, something I didn’t even realize was there. And right then, I knew that nothing in my life was ever going to be the same. In that moment, I was transformed permanently. You did that. Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer.  Notable not just for being shot (and edited) pseudonymously by director Steven Soderbergh but because he did it on the iPhone Seven Plus and it sure ain’t purty. It’s a flawed but interesting genre piece, another thriller that’s actually an investigation of medical (non-)ethics (after Side Effects, and TV’s The Knick) providing further evidence that Soderbergh is happiest when making B movies, dramatising feisty female characters driven to the point of paranoia, generally hovering on the edges of commerciality and making films that verge on the experimental. The efforts to make TV star Foy a movie personality are interesting.  My job is to access and interpret data to produce analytical results. I did that job

The Exception (2016)

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I may not rule in Germany but by Christ I rule in my own house! It’s 1940.  German soldier Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) goes on a mission to investigate exiled German Monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer). The Kaiser lives in a secluded mansion (Huis Doorn) with his wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) in the Netherlands, and as Germany is taking over the country, the authorities are concerned that Dutch spies may be watching the Kaiser. As Brandt begins to infiltrate the Kaiser’s life in search of clues, he finds himself drawn into an unexpected and passionate romance with Mieke (Lily James), one of the Kaiser’s maids who is concealing the real reason for her own presence in the household… Remember, at the age of four he bit the Duke of Edinburgh on the leg. The soldier is earnest, the Kaiser is sly and the maid is sultry – and each of them has a conflict of interest:  plum roles nicely played by a game cast with Ben Daniels lending good support as the Kaiser’s assistant.  Each of the leads has a big scene in which they reveal what they’re really about and Plummer is particularly impressive as the wily old king who seems to be losing his marbles but as he points out at a crucial moment, he is not a hypocrite.  Courtney is haunted by images from his nightmarish experiences in Poland where he saw what the SS was really about.  James has lost her husband and family to the Nazis. This is a bizarrely appealing, sexy film (James immediately strips for Courtney when they first encounter each other – and why not?) that answers the question nobody ever asks:  where on earth did the Kaiser go when the Nazis jackbooted Germany into submission? If it weren’t for the full frontal nudity this might almost fit into the genre of films made during WW2 itself while reminding us that the German army was not necessarily united in support of the SS or any other wing of the Fuhrer’s movement. The facial reactions to Himmler (Eddie Marsan!) and his shocking storytelling over dinner are priceless.  And who can argue with a secret message from Churchill? You’ll find yourself thinking vaguely of The Remains of the Day but this is a tasteful entertainment of a different variety with the rather odd effect of having you sympathise somewhat with a known anti-semitic emperor. Adapted by Simon Burke from The Kaiser’s Last Kiss by Alan Judd, this is the debut of David Leveaux and very picturesque it is too. They are the rule – you are the exception