It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

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Nobody is flying the plane!  During a massive traffic jam in California caused by reckless  ex-convict (following a tuna factory robbery 15 years earlier) Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante), he crashes his car off twisting, mountainous State Highway 74 near Palm Desert. Five motorists stop to help him: dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar) and his wife Monica (Edie Adams); furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters); two guys on their way to Las Vegas, Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett); and Fresno entrepreneur J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle), his wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and his loud mother-in-law Mrs Marcus (Ethel Merman). Just before he dies kicking a bucket, Grogan tells the men about $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park near the border with Mexico under “… a big W”. The motorists set out across California to find the fortune, unaware that Captain T.G. Culpeper, Chief of Detectives of the Santa Rosita Police Department, has been patiently working on the Smiler Grogan case for years, hoping to someday solve it and retire. When he learns of the crash, he suspects Grogan may have tipped off the passersby, so he has them tracked by various police units. His suspicions are confirmed by their nutty behaviour but he may have ulterior motives for retrieving the loot  …  It’s a nice dream.  Lasted almost five minutes.  Earnest producer/director Stanley Kramer’s film may not in fact be the comedy to end all comedies as it was billed but it has most of the mid-century movie world’s best comic performers (and more besides) involved in incredibly engineered slapstick sequences, marvellously sustained as a lengthy madcap satirical farce, with some of the best colour cinematography you will ever see:  those reds and yellows and blues pop perfectly off the screen in staggering synchrony thanks to astonishing work by Ernest Laszlo. Written by William Rose and Tania Rose, it’s an epic ensemble endeavour with support and guest bits from a vast variety of mostly TV stars like Phil Silvers, Peter Falk, Jerry Lewis, Dick Shawn, Andy Devine, The Three Stooges, Edward Everett Horton and the great Buster Keaton, with Zasu Pitts in her final film,  and some lively dancing by Barrie Chase (screenwriter Borden Chase’s daughter and Robert Towne’s onetime girlfriend, previously married to Hollywood hairdresser Gene Shacove and therefore the inspiration for Shampoo!). We love Terry-Thomas (in a role intended for Peter Sellers, who asked for too much money – ironically) and his comments here about American obsessions provide the caustic witticisms that balance the narrative and characters’ unstoppable drive for money.  Sid Caesar inherited the role intended for the fabulous Ernie Kovacs following his death in a car crash driving home from Milton Berle’s baby shower (again, the irony…). A beautifully constructed gem that shows off California in precisely the way you would wish and after commencing with someone kicking the bucket in a cliffhanger opening, ends on an entirely apposite banana skin. Watching these legendary performers trying to steal scenes is a kick:  make America funny again! Beautifully restored.  Don’t call me baby

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The Wrecking Crew (1968)

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Faster! You’re an awful driver! Matt Helm (Dean Martin) is assigned by his secret agency, ICE, to bring down an evil count named Contini (Guy Green) who is trying to collapse the world economy by stealing a billion dollars in gold. Helm travels to Denmark, where he is given a guide, Freya Carlson (Sharon Tate)  a beautiful but bumbling woman from a Danish tourism bureau. Two of Contini’s accomplices, the seductive Linka Karensky (Elke Sommer) and Yu-Rang (Nancy Kwan) each attempt to foil Helm’s plans. The former is killed in an ambush intended for Helm, the latter in an explosion. On each occasion, Freya’s clumsy attempts to assist Matt are helpful, but not particularly appreciated…  My hat’s not broken! Dean Martin returns in the fourth (and final big-screen) outing for Donald Hamilton’s spy, taken out of retirement. It’s all day-glo, great locations and slapstick with Tate an utter joy as the klutz, a Stella Stevens role in the original The Silencers, with her girlfight opposite Nancy Kwan a particular highlight (and as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood acknowledges, Bruce Lee was her martial arts trainer). Dino makes out to his own songs – asking Elke when she wants her dress zipped, Which way – up or down?  – there’s a runaway train with the bullion, combat scenes galore and lots of bombs. Go-go boots ahoy for groovy girls and boys! Directed by Phil Karlson, making a welcome return to the series. Screenplay by William P. McGivern. If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her bed, you’d do better sleepin’ with your uncle Fred

The Drowning Pool (1975)

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Swimming’s a good way to relax but I know a better way. LA based private detective Lew Harper is hired by old flame Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward), who is being blackmailed about an extra-marital affair she says never happened. He travels down to Louisiana to investigate, but things take a turn for the worse when her mother-in-law (Coral Browne) is killed and her nymphet daughter Schuyler (Melanie Griffith) appears to be involved with the family’s disreputable ex-chauffeur Reavis (Andrew Robinson) who Iris believes is responsible for the blackmailing … I ran a check on you, Mr. Harper. You are not stupid. Adapted by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Walter Hill and Lorenzo Semple Jr. from Ross Macdonald’s titular 1950 novel, this rather laidback followup to Newman’s previous outing as Lew Harper a decade earlier relocates him from his familiar California setting and the New Orleans and Lafayette backdrops provide an easy atmosphere for this most likable of PIs. Beyond the visual attractions of the bayous and plantation home shot by Gordon Willis, there’s the spectacle of real life husband and wife Newman and the marvellous Woodward sharing screen time, Griffith as the jailbait daughter with the squeaky voice, Murray Hamilton as crazed oil magnate J.J. Kilbourne, Anthony Franciosa as Police Chief Broussard and Richard Jaeckel gets some very good moments as a corrupt police officer. You’ll recognise Robinson as the shooter from Dirty Harry. Less deftly plotted than Harper, it’s rounded out with a score by Michael Small arranged around the liberal use of the modern classic, Killing Me Softly, an exceedingly apt choice considering the denouement. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Harper, you’re not such a tough guy

Harper (1966)

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Why so fast, Harper? You trying to impress me? Struggling private eye Lew Harper (Paul Newman) takes a simple missing-person case that quickly spirals into something much more complex. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), recently paralysed in a horse-riding accident, wants Harper to find her missing oil baron husband Ralph, but her tempestuous teenage stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) thinks Mrs. Sampson knows more than she’s letting on… The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise. Brilliantly adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 mystery The Moving Target featuring private eye Archer, renamed here because Newman believed the letter ‘H’ to be lucky following Hud and The Hustler. With that team you know it’s filled with zingers, like, Kinky is British for weird. Macdonald’s roots in the post-war noir world are called up in the casting of Bacall, who reminds us that it was The Big Sleep, among other films based on books by the great Raymond Chandler, that brought this style into being. Of course Macdonald’s own interpretation is consciously more mythical than the prototypical Chandler’s, with allusions to Greek tragedy in its familial iterations but it continues in that vein of a ferociously stylish, ironic, delightfully cool appraisal of California’s upper class denizens and their intractable problems. Newman is perfectly cast as a kind of wandering conscience with problems of his own, while Janet Leigh as his ex-wife, Robert Wagner as a playboy, Julie Harris as a junkie musician, Shelley Winters as a faded movie star, Robert Webber as her criminal husband and Albert Hill as a lovelorn lawyer, all add wonderful details to this portrait of a social clique. A flavoursome, perfectly pitched entertainment with lovely widescreen cinematography by Conrad Hall and oh so wittily and precisely staged by director Jack Smight, underscored by the smooth Sixties jazz orchestrations of Johnny Mandel with an original song by Dory and Andre Previn. I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test

The MacKintosh Man (1973)

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Put a bag over my head. I’ve been in prison for 15 months! Secret agent Joseph Rearden (Paul Newman) poses as an Australian jewel thief and is quickly convicted of stealing £140,000 of diamonds and imprisoned in order to infiltrate an organisation headed by Home Secretary Sir George Wheeler (James Mason) who organises Rearden’s escape along with that of MI6 intelligence officer Slade (Ian Bannen) who was gaoled as a Soviet mole … I don’t know about you, Slade; I’m not ready for death. The rest I’ll drink to. Adapted by Walter Hill (along with director John Huston and William Fairchild) from Desmond Bagley’s The Freedom Trap, this starts out quietly and continues that way for some time – tricking the susceptible viewer into believing that Rearden himself has been tricked by MI6 into taking the fall for a jewel heist and for more than a half hour it’s a prison movie. However the sleight of hand is revealed as it becomes clear Rearden has gone into deep cover to smoke out a dangerous organisation in this Cold War tale. Of course you will recognise the contours of the real-life story of George Blake, whose daring prison escape is the stuff of legend. For an action film and spy thriller this is a work of smooth surfaces and understated performances, especially by Newman, enhanced by the cinematography of the great Oswald Morris and a beautiful score by Maurice Jarre. The locations around Galway – Oranmore and Roundstone – were local to director Huston who spent much of the Fifties onwards at his house St Cleran’s. The palpable anger and keen sense of duty comes in fits and starts, usually at the conclusion of realistically staged action sequences, including a chase across an Irish bog and using banged up cars rather than Aston Martins. There are also some small gems of supporting appearances – Leo Genn as prosecuting counsel, Jenny Runacre as Gerda the nurse, Noel Purcell and Donal McCann in the Irish scenes. There are also scenes of misogyny and violence (even against a dog) that might shock in this more politically even-handed climate. The strangest character Mrs Smith, played by Une femme douce herself Dominique Sanda, gets an incredible payoff.  You might even say she has the last word. The cool, straightforward approach to treachery, duplicity in the modern state and something of a twist ending just raises more questions, making this a palpable pleasure, a film which tells one simple truth – trust nobody. Produced by John Foreman who had a company first with Newman and then made a cycle of films with Huston. Our deaths would mean little or nothing to anyone, anywhere – only to ourselves

Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963)

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Aka Sparrers Can’t Sing. Don’t argue. If I hadn’t have liked you, I wouldn’t have bashed your head in, would I? Cockney merchant sailor Charlie (James Booth) comes home after two years at sea to find his house in London’s Bethnal Green razed and his wife Maggie (Barbara Windsor) missing. She’s now living with bus driver Bert (George Sewell) who has his own wife and Maggie has a new baby – but who’s the daddy?!  Charlie’s friends won’t tell him where Maggie is because he’s famed for his terrible temper. But he finally finds her and, after a fierce row with Bert, they are reconciled… Hey, bus driver! I can go away for *ten* years and get my own wife back! Interesting on so many levels, this, even if its experimental styling doesn’t wear so well with elements of raucous pantomime occasionally diverting the narrative thread. Developed from Stephen (On The Buses) Lewis’s play at director Joan Littlewood’s famed Theatre Workshop at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1960, with improvised contributions from the performers, many of whom are featured here, this has sentimental value as a vehicle for Barbara Windsor (who was discovered by Littlewood), better known from the Carry On series and TV’s Eastenders. She earns her stripes in a heartwarming even startling performance.  It’s notable also as a southern variation on the British New Wave or kitchen sink realist style and for its use of language in conveying a sense of community in that part of London, with plenty of Yiddish and Cockney slang. The city gleams courtesy of Desmond Dickinson’s cinematography and the original score by Stanley Black coupled with original songs (including the title by Lionel Bart, sung by Windsor) marks it out from the pack. It also has a cracking cast of familiar faces including Roy Kinnear, Yootha Joyce, Brian Murphy, Harry H. Corbett, Murray Melvin, Victor Spinetti  and Arthur Mullard to name a few. Although the Krays were rumoured to appear in it, and they seem to make a cameo appearance, allegedly they don’t, but the parties celebrating the premiere were held at two of their clubs. Adapted by Littlewood and Lewis, this was Littlewood’s only feature aside from an earlier TVM based on a play by Aristophanes so this is really the only filmed record of her groundbreaking achievements. Shot around Limehouse, Stepney, Shadwell, Millwall, the Isle of Dogs, West Ham, Greenwich, Whitechapel and Blackheath, this gives an authentic picture of the city as the slums were being cleared and its face was quite literally changing. Some interiors were shot at Merton Park Studios. It wasn’t always your fault

Widows (2018)

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The best thing we have going for us is being who we are… no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.  When Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew of criminals are engulfed in flames during a botched job in Chicago, Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself owing hustler-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a couple of million dollars. Armed only with a notebook in which Harry detailed his past and future plans, Veronica teams up with the gang’s other widows – Linda (Michelle Rodriquez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and single mom Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to mount a robbery her husband was planning that could clear their debt and give them a new start. Meanwhile, an increasingly brutal election battle featuring Irish-American career politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his father Tom (Robert Duvall) emphasises the social problems of Chicago, raising the stakes for this ramshackle group’s first foray into crime…  I’m the only thing standing between you and a bullet in the head. Steve McQueen won the Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave, a relentlessly gruesome account of black American history, an astonishing achievement for a British visual artist never mind a black director. His genre impetus has hardly been on anyone’s radar but he was a fan of Lynda La Plante’s feisty women from the 1983 British TV series (set in London) and brings a lot of artistry to this slick feminist outing concerning itself as much with issues of poverty, domestic abuse and childcare as the unlikeliness of a heist led by women trying to pay back their criminal husbands’ debts following the conflagration that killed the men in a botched heist.  The backdrop which exists in the narrative courtesy of Farrell’s role is given huge expressivity through Sean Bobbitt’s widescreen camerawork, the issues of money and race and class and the sewer of Chicago politicking right there for all to see but of course that deflects from the main story even as it serves to amplify a theme of difficult intergenerational relationships.  This detailed texture is an expansive approach in an established genre which usually has a narrow focus but if ultimately it doesn’t fully engage in the manner which you’d wish, it’s probably due to the underwhelming adaptation by McQueen and Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn which doesn’t give the principals a lot to work with – a shame in the case of Davis, who works at it and has some great scenes with Neeson. Debicki comes off best because she has a character who goes through real development and lots of emotions as the narrative progresses – from abuse by mother and husband, through sugar baby, to independence. Good, but should have been a lot better, especially with that twist 75 minutes in. Criminals and cops are the same. They never bring their shit home

The Looking Glass War (1970)

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I’ve never been a spy before. It will be a new experience for me.  Polish defector Leiser (Christopher Jones) is lured into the world of espionage by a shadowy adjunct to MI6 run by Leclerc (Ralph Richardson) and Haldane (Paul Rogers) with the promise of British residency so that he can see his pregnant girlfriend (Susan George). Trouble is she’s aborted the baby and he drowns his sorrows with his training operative John Avery (Anthony Hopkins) before entering East Germany to clarify if blurred photographs from Hamburg are proof of a missile site. He pairs up with Anna (Pia Degermark) who wants out from the Iron Curtain and together they embark on a treacherous undertaking with high risks and mixed results … Never lean on your opponent.  Never lose your temper.  And why fight over a knife when there’s a gun under your arm? This adaptation of John le Carré’s novel by writer/director Frank Pierson starts with an intriguing encounter at an airport which winds up with a roadside death. Accident? This downbeat deconstruction of the spy’s life continues in the vein of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and its satirical intent is conveyed in that first sequence – the spy can’t get taxi expenses and loses the film he’s paid a pilot to smuggle, killed by a camper van sliding along the snowy road. The author claimed it’s the most accurate depiction of his own experiences in espionage – including a misplaced longing for the glory days of WW2, utter incompetence and the futility of much intelligence activity. However the tone of anti-nostalgia in this story of The Department’s ineptitude is sacrificed for a more straightforward (and duller) exposition. The classic character of George Smiley is dropped from the source novel. There are plenty of incidental pleasures however, not least the cinematography by Austin Dempster; Jones’ gear (like a forerunner of Robert Redford’s getup in Three Days of the Condor), all peacoat and steel-rimmed mirror shades; a rare performance by Elvira Madigan herself, Degermark; and a score that is both modish and interesting from Wally Stott (responsible for arranging Scott Walker’s first three solo albums) who changed sex two years later and became Angela Morley. Morals are a bitch on heat

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

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This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime. When the daughter Carolyn (Annie Corley) and son Michael (Victor Slezak) of Italian war bride mother Francesca (Meryl Streep) return to Iowa for her funeral they discover among her belongings evidence of a four-day extra-marital affair she had in 1965 with Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) who was photographing covered bridges for National Geographic magazine. As they uncover the story and the secret she kept for decades, they recognise some truths about their own relationships … I don’t want to need you – because I can’t have you. Time was, author Robert James Waller was trawling the world’s talk shows, hawking his book and singing his songs and that was only in the Nineties. And it’s absurd to think of it now, but Clint Eastwood is still directing movies so this can be described as middle-period Clint. He and Streep (doing Anna Magnani in some scenes) are phenomenal together – have we ever seen them be so appealing, so vulnerable, as these middle aged lovers who’ve been around the block and been burned and bored and now find this wondrous once in a lifetime love?  Adapted by Richard LaGravenese from the slim bestseller, this is a long, slow, languorous look at a couple who know it’s now or never, flawed perhaps only by over length and the framing story doesn’t really add to the experience (this was the idea of Steven Spielberg, who originally planned on directing).  Nonetheless it’s totally satisfying, filled with nuance and passion and detail, and if you don’t shed a tear when those windscreen wipers are going from side to side, in that classic penultimate sequence, well, face it, you’re already dead. Wonderful. You never think love like this is ever going to happen

The Mule (2018)

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For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for everything. Broke, alone and facing foreclosure on his business, 90-year-old horticulturist and Korean War veteran Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) takes a job as a drug courier for a Mexican cartel and transports huge loads to Chicago in the trunk of his pick-up truck. His immediate success leads to easy money and the opportunity to help other folks in trouble. A larger shipment soon draws the attention of hard-charging DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) who has to work hard to convince his boss (Laurence Fishburne) to track the culprit. When Earl’s past mistakes start to weigh heavily on his conscience, and his guilt over the way he treated his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and his estranged daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) plunges him into grief, he must decide whether to right those wrongs before law enforcement and cartel thugs catch up to him but his drug lord amigo Laton (Andy Garcia) is no longer in charge Next time you see me, I’ll be texting my brains out!  Adroitly positioned between comedy and drama and boasting an amiable performance by star/director Eastwood, this manages to be both droll and horrifying with a raft of racial references that frankly could be taken either way except they’re made by a white man of a wholly different world and he happens to be very sympathetic: there are thematic connections with Gran Torino (also written by Nick Schenk)to completely different effect. Garcia has fun as Laton the  kingpin (until he’s not) and Cooper is probably paying his dues in a by-the-numbers role in exchange for having been directed to greatness in American Sniper albeit they have a nicely ironic meeting in a diner which improves upon the non-event that was Heat‘s encounter between De Niro and Pacino.  Mostly shot with a great feel for landscape, there are surprising lapses in the cinematography (focus pull, anyone?) that like a lot of Eastwood’s output indicate there’s been some slapdash shooting. Nonetheless, even with the predictable subject matter and the silly sentimentality (Wiest is like a latterday saint) Eastwood plays with his star persona in absurdly engaging fashion (even casting his own daughter Alison as his screen daughter) so much so that you’ll be looking for an orangutan in that truck. This has things to say about ageing, family, friendship, community, the generation gap(s!) and regrets. His unique lyrical interpretation of those radio songs just rocks practically turning this into a musical. Adapted from the true life story of Leo Sharp, an octogenarian mule for the Sinaloa cartel, this was inspired by a New York Times article by Sam Dolnick although all character names have been changed. As an exercise in self-critical auteurist filmmaking, this is rather amazing. Roll on, Rowdy! At least I’ll know where to find you