Double Indemnity (1944)

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It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets roped into a murderous scheme when he falls for the sensual Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who is intent on killing her husband (Tom Powers) by arranging his ‘accidental death’ and living off the fraudulent accidental death claim. Prompted by the late Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), insurance investigator and Neff’s mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) looks into the case, and gradually begins to uncover the truth… Staggering film noir, this early masterpiece from director Billy Wilder boasts a screenplay co-written (sort of) with Raymond Chandler, adapted from the James M. Cain story Three of a Kind. Rarely has the sensibility of a filmmaker been so attuned to the material in such crystalline fashion:  in this treatise on corruption, crime, sex, adultery and murder the casting plays to all the character strengths with Wilder seeing in the light actor MacMurray something infinitely schlemiel-like, sleazy and vulnerable.  It is literally picture-perfect, offering us a visual and psychological template for noir, a story told in flashback, shot on location all over Los Angeles, from Jerry’s Market to the Chateau Marmont, Glendale Station to the Hollywood Bowl, with venetian blinds, curling cigarette smoke and tilted fedoras filling out the emotional space shot by DoP John Seitz. Did a city ever feel so lonesome? Stanwyck was never better – dolled up in a blonde wig with bangs and an ankle bracelet begging to be opened, this is one of the fatalest femmes ever on screen. Robinson is fantastic as the fatherly man who unravels this story of these blackest of hearts, while this study of behaviour is decorated with the kind of dialogue that you savour forever. How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Classsic Hollywood, in every possible sense of that term.

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Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

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Sinners is my business. You and that hip-slinging daughter of Satan. You know there’s the smell of sulfur and brimstone about you. The smell of hellfire.  In the 1930s Texan Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) hits the road to search for his long-lost sweetheart Hallie Gerard (Capucine). On the road he meets free-spirited Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda) and she joins him on his trip to New Orleans, where the two find Hallie working at the Doll House, a brothel. When Dove tries to take Hallie away with him, he is confronted by the brothel’s possessive madam, the sapphically-inclined Jo Courtney (Barbara Stanwyck), who is unwilling to give up her favorite employee without a fight and resorts to devious means to keep control … Fabulously pulpy, lurid melodrama that steams up the screen. The female pulchritude and the whiff of perversion make for a pleasing concoction. And then there’s Harvey! There was trouble on set when he said Capucine (producer Charles Feldman’s girlfriend) couldn’t act. He had a point. (I always thought she was a tranny, but now I can’t remember why). Stanwyck is masterful as the Lesbian madam, Fonda oozes sex and Anne Baxter is fantastic in a supporting role (rendered problematic when production had to resume as she was heavily pregnant). John Fante and Edmund Morris adapted Nelson Algren’s novel with an uncredited contribution by Ben Hecht. Edward Dmytryk conducted proceedings, with a score by Elmer Bernstein and the famous song over classic titles by Saul Bass. A fetishistic, campy indulgence.

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

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Look at me – a fat silly lame impotent old woman.  Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is a prison clerk in 1887 India, sent by some accident of position to bring a valuable coin to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) in her jubilee year. She is sick and tired of her situation and fawning household courtiers and takes a fancy to Abdul, elevating him to be her Munshi, a sort of spiritual guide and teacher of all things Indian. His travelling companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) is kept on as his servant. She thinks Abdul is Hindu but he’s actually a Moslem. When the Queen realises Abdul has a wife she sends for her and she arrives with her mother, both clad in veils. Everyone in the house resents his increasing influence and when Prince Bertie (Eddie Izzard) arrives home from his feckless life in Monte Carlo expecting his mother’s death any day soon, he sets the staff on a course of revenge … Dench is in fine fettle as a naughty old woman just dying to let rip rather than having to endure endless official engagements and report on her bowel movements to doctors concerned with her poor diet. Lee Hall adapted the book by Shrabani Basu and Stephen Frears lends the material his customary sceptic’s eye particularly in the early stages where the comedy is high and the culture clash constant. The relationship at the story’s core is wonderfully played. Very entertaining return to the role for Dench, with apt mention of John Brown (Mrs Brown was released 19 years ago!) in another tale of Victoria’s unusual friendships and curses aplenty hurled at awful Scotland.  Funny, humane and good-natured with the inevitable bad ending wrought by the dastardly Bertie, the man who should never have been King.

The White Buffalo (1977)

The White Buffalo

Aka Hunt to Kill.  The whites have no honor. White man wants death, comes out of season.  In 1874 an ageing Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson) finds his dreams haunted by a rampaging white buffalo.  He decides the only solution is to find and kill the creature. With the help of his old friend One-Eyed Charlie (Jack Warden), he sets out across the snowy plains using the pseudonym James Otis, unaware that he’s not the only one looking for the fabled beast. Sioux Chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson) has recently lost a daughter to the white buffalo, and he fears the girl’s soul won’t rest until he kills it. Hickok briefly resumes his relationship with lover Poker Jenny (Kim Novak) and takes to the mountains to kill his quarry because he has recurrent experiences of déjà vu and believes it is his destiny … Adapted by Richard Sale from his 1975 novel, this strange western has an unsettling effect. On the one hand it uses known facts about Hickok, on the other it melds elements of Moby Dick (and the recent Jaws) into a western setting to eerie purpose.  There is some nice character work by John Carradine, Shay Duffin, Clint Walker and Stuart Whitman. Bronson is Bronson, reunited with director J. Lee Thompson after St Ives.  Oddly satisfying Freudian outing even if Larry McMurtry said that Sale had impaled himself on the mythical story. Creature work by Carlo Rambaldi.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

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Let me give you some advice. Assume everyone will betray you. And you will never be disappointed. Scrumrat Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is separated from his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) on the planet Corellia and finds adventure when he joins a gang of galactic smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and career criminal Val (Thandie Newton) and including a 196-year-old furry Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Indebted to the gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) with whom Qi’ra has now thrown in her lot as a kept woman,  the crew devises a daring plan to travel to the mining planet Kessel to carry out a heist:  the booty is a batch of valuable coaxium, the kind of hyperfuel that gets the big bucks these days. In need of a fast ship, Solo meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the suave owner of the perfect vessel for the dangerous mission – the Millennium Falcon. As Qi’ra joins them on their mission, can she be trusted while a rebellion gets underway?… Let’s forget for a moment that Disney are all about squeezing the lemon dry.  The Star Wars Anthology Series continues with the most blatant sympathy plea ever:  the origins story behind Han and Chewie teaming up, sci fi’s most delectable meet cute.  In fact, tonally this has a lot in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark but then it was written by Lawrence Kasdan (working here with son Jonathan) who did Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders and The Force Awakens so we’re in good hands:  who knows Han better than this guy?! We find out how Han gets his name, how he and Chewie meet (cheers all round!), where he got the golden dice, how he meets dandyish smuggler Lando Calrissian (a welcome return albeit with Glover, who’s terrific) and in the other most anticipated meet cute – seeing the Millennium Falcon for the first time – and how he becomes its owner. Everything you really wanted to know, basically, is here in this SW primer, never mind the abortive milliennial trilogy. In fact this starts at a clip and mostly keeps it up in its own rackety style, with the literary names getting a payoff in a fight with a kind of sea monster out of Jules Verne: epic!  You’ll never mistake Ehrenreich for Solo (he looks too much like a young Orson Welles) but after a while you’ll take this on its own merits as he reluctantly discovers he’s not a complete rogue but a good guy against the background of a truly evil Empire. Interestingly for the principal female, Qi’ra is far from straightforward which will presumably lead us down some black holes in future outings even if Clarke is not convincing. If someone had never seen a Star Wars film (Heaven forfend) this would actually be a pretty good place to start even if I don’t always love it, neither the way it looks (too dirty and grey a lot of the time) nor the pace which doesn’t always maintain its consistency.  Never mind the box office, feel the wit. Directed (eventually) by Ron Howard.

Monte Walsh (1970)

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I wish I knew something besides cowboyin’. It’s the end of the great wild west era and ageing cowboys Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) arrive in the town of Harmony, where they reconnect with their old friend Shorty Austin (Mitch Ryan). The former wanderers do their best to settle down: Chet gets married and finds work, while Monte pursues saloon girl Martine (Jeanne Moreau) to a nearby township. But when the doldrums of sedentary life set in, they begin falling apart and find themselves embroiled in robbery, murder and vandalism and Monte’s failure to tame a bronco triggers a crisis… A beautiful directing debut for renowned cinematographer William A. Fraker. Its elegiac quality is underlined by the wonderfully empathetic score by John Barry, probably one of his most haunting themes. The romance between Marvin and Moreau is delightful while the shift in tone at the conclusion in this story of transition to modernity is captured sorrowfully by the photography of David M. Walsh. Adapted by Lukas Heller and David Zelag Goodman from Jack (Shane) Schaefer’s novel, this is western as metaphor. Quite marvellous.

Anastasia (1956)

Anastasia 1956

You are an excellent actress, Madame. My compliments. You were very well trained.Paris 1928.  A suicidal amnesiac (Ingrid Bergman) whose resemblance to the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, widely rumoured to have survived the family’s execution in 1918 –  is drawn into a plot devised by the former Russian White General Bounine  (Yul Brynner) and his associates to swindle from the Grand Duchess an inheritance of £10 million. However, the ultimate hurdle to their plan is the exiled Russian aristocracy — in particular the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna (Helen Hayes) who is of course the grandmother of the royal family and whom their handpicked claimant must convince of her legitimacy if they wish for their scheme to succeed. After ingratiating herself with the Dowager Empress, Anastasia aka Anna Anderson (the name Bounine invents for her) is preyed upon by the fortune-hunting Prince Paul (Ivan Desny) and Bounine becomes jealous … Director Anatole Litvak would only agree to making this film if Bergman was cast and she’s ideal in a role that is all about impersonation and performance. It marked her triumphant return to Hollywood following her association with Roberto Rossellini which had her denounced from pulpits. Arthur Laurents adapted Marcelle Maurette’s stageplay (Prince Paul is an invented character) and it’s immaculately constructed with the scenes between this pretender and her grandmother a standout at the film’s centre, the masterful ladies of the cinema facing off in a film that is all about acting. Martita Hunt is a standout in the supporting cast as the Dowager’s lady in waiting, Baroness Elena. Bergman picked up the Academy Award and her place in American cinema was secure. The play is over. Go home.

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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Just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.  In the summer of 1983 precocious piano prodigy, American-Jewish-Italian 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending the days with his archaeologist father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and translator mother (Amira Casar) at their 17th-century villa in Lombardy, Italy.  Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a handsome American doctoral student who’s working as a research assistant for Elio’s father and living with them for the holiday to help him with his academic papers. Amid the sun-drenched splendour, while Elio pursues relationships with local girls, he and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire that will alter their lives…  Adapted by the venerable filmmaker James Ivory from André Aciman’s 2007 debut novel, this is a uniquely atmospheric work by director Luca Guadagnino which attempts successfully to convey how people really think and feel about each other while consumed with desire. Most of the acting nominations were for Chalamet but Hammer is stunning in a role he was born to play. There are moments that take the breath away – shot choices that focus on his face, shifting lens length and emphasis and particularity to indicate his conflicted thoughts about instigating a relationship with a mere boy.  We understand how his mind works. When the older gay couple visiting the Perlman home stand listening to Elio play an affecting piano piece, Hammer hovers very briefly in the background in the doorway and his effect on people is such that the younger of the men looks over his shoulder, as though the very plates had shifted beneath him, even with a passing glimpse of this astonishingly attractive guy. Such is Oliver’s power. His beauty is tactile. He eats up life with the same enthusiasm he gobbles food. He folds in his imposing height to avoid intimidating people. But his touching of Elio’s shoulder during a volleyball game signals his intentions. It’s such a physically demanding characterisation. He is wooing us all. The puppyish Elio has no hope. Hammer projects his position as lust object with immense sympathy. His introduction to the family involves Perlman’s customary intellectual test which he passes with flying colours in an audition that might telegraph social embarrassment but lends the drama its comic and humane undertow. It also skewers the viewer’s fear that this is a film about pretentious people:  we soon realise these are instead people of passions. There is a coyness of course to the exposition of the sex – we see Elio having intercourse with his young girlfriend but we never witness the act between him and Oliver. Instead, when they finally achieve total freedom and intimacy away from the family home, in the mountains outside Bergamo, the correlative for this is a waterfall:  it’s somehow overstated yet understated at the same time, perfect for young men going wild in the country, figuratively sharing an orgasm in public. The brief flashback sequence is done in tinted negative, another decent aesthetic choice. Mirrors are used sparingly to convey psychological turmoil and brief parental distance. And if T.S. Eliot encouraged you to dare eat a peach you might think twice before doing it after watching this:  masturbation played ultimately for endearingly awkward laughs, more Philip Roth than American Pie. What a marvellously thoughtful and beautifully judged piece of cinema, one that lingers in the mind long after viewing for its grace and beauty and generosity and its remarkable sensuality. Richard Butler must be thrilled.

 

Personal Shopper (2016)

 

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So we made this oath… Whoever died first would send the other a sign. A young American in Paris Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) works as a personal shopper for a celebrity, Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). She seems to have the ability to communicate with spirits, like her recently deceased twin brother Lewis. They share a congenital heart defect. She hangs around Paris near the villa where he lived hoping to receive a sign from him from the other side – he was a spiritualist. She indulges her interest in art by pursuing knowledge about a previously unknown Swedish female abstract artist.  She proclaims her distaste for her job to her boyfriend with whom she communicates via Skype in Muscat but is clearly tempted by its benefits. Soon, she starts to receive ambiguous text messages from an unknown source… Stewart always seemed to me to be pretty one-dimensional in her American films with a limited capacity to convey joy. But the issues of her expressivity are perfectly exploited by French auteur Olivier Assayas in their second collaboration even as he maintains a distance within a genre-touching exercise where emotion and excess are mostly avoided (imagine if Argento had made this!).  There is a great mood of sadness and mystery when it gets going (and it takes a while) and if Stewart isn’t this generation’s Jean Seberg she is evolving into a determinedly individualistic performer.  The enigmatic narrative has a fragility that occasionally bursts with the threat of violence real and imagined. Oddly compelling and stylish and proof that there is great potential for this American in Paris.

Planes Trains and Automobiles (1987)

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I really don’t care for the way your company left me in the middle of fucking nowhere with fucking keys to a fucking car that isn’t fucking there. And I really didn’t care to fucking walk, down a fucking highway, and across a fucking runway to get back here to have you smile in my fucking face. I want a fucking car… right… fucking… now. Advertising executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) is something of a control freak. Trying to get home to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with his wife (Laila Robins) and kids, his flight is rerouted to a distant city in Kansas because of a freak snowstorm, and his sanity begins to fray. Worse yet, he is forced to bunk up with talkative slob Del Griffith (John Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman, whom he finds extremely annoying. Together they have to overcome the insanity of holiday travel to reach their intended destination… John Hughes’ films still tug at our heartstrings because they have a core of humanity beneath the hilarity.  Martin and Candy are perfectly paired – the nutty fastidious guy versus the relaxed nice guy, a kind of Odd Couple on a road trip with some outrageously good banter balancing the physical silliness. Martin’s descent into incivility is a joy:  anyone who’s ever been desperate to pick up their rental car will relate to how Neal loses it at the hire desk! I remember hearing when Candy had died feeling a terrible sorrow and thinking that of all the larger than life actors out there he was the one I most wanted to have around a very long time. I haven’t changed my mind. This is still very funny indeed.