Ice Station Zebra (1968)

Ice Station Zebra

We operate on a first name basis. My name is Captain. Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson) captain of the American nuclear attack submarine USS Tigerfish (SSN-509) is ordered by Admiral Garvey to rescue the personnel of Drift Ice Station Zebra, a British scientific weather station moving with the ice pack. However, the mission is actually a cover for a classified assignment and he is obliged to take on board a British intelligence agent known only as ‘Mr. Jones’ (Patrick MacGoohan) and a U.S. Marine platoon; while a helicopter brings them Captain Anders (Jim Brown). The sub is also joined by Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) a Russian defector and spy who is a trusted colleague of Jones. As they try to break through the ice near the Orkney Islands when approaching the last position of ICZ the sub floods in an act of sabotage and it’s retrieved – just. But Lt. Mills (Murray Rose) is killed.  Ferraday suspects Vaslov and Jones suspects Anders. Ferraday orders the Tigerfish to surface and they find the weather station in ruins, the personnel nearly dead and Jones and Vaslov are soon discovered to be looking for something – a capsule, valuable to both sides in the Cold War, because it contains film of missile sites … I’ve saved a lot of lives by teaching men to jump when I speak. Notoriously the favourite film of one Howard Hughes, if ever there were a time to watch a long movie about the Cold War (actualised in freezing temperatures)… it’s now. I hadn’t seen this since I graduated from Jennings and Billy Bunter books to the oeuvre of Alistair MacLean aged  11 or thereabouts, so it’s both a time-warp exercise (when times were good!) and a deviation from a less visible issue tearing at the world’s synapses. (It makes one vaguely nostalgic for good old-fashioned political intrigue). There’s a deal of nudge-wink dialogue of the sticking torpedoes up spouts variety but the also the odd tart line such as Hudson grumbling at a nervous sailor’s prayer, Do you mind son, we’re trying to think.  Hudson is fine as the mariner under pressure but MacGoohan is particularly good in the most interesting role. Alf Kjellin impresses in his necessarily short sequences as Ostrovsky, the head of the Russian paras and it’s nice to see legendary footballer Jim Brown as Anders as well as actor/producer Tony Bill playing the quite showy role of Lt. Walker. Borgnine is much as you’d expect as a villain of sorts, a part intended for Laurence Harvey. There are some good setpieces centering on jeopardy – when the sub floods;  when some men fall into a crevasse once on icy territory; the tussle between Jones and Vaslov at the staion; and the final clincher which is literally a cold war shootout.  There are some clunky visual effects particularly in the latter stages but there are some fantastic underwater scenes too and the atmosphere is well sustained. It gains a frisson of recognition from knowing it’s based on two real incidents that apparently took place a) in 1959 near Spitsbergen, in Norway, involving a CIA/USAF strategic reconnaissance satellite called … Corona!;  and b) a few years later when two American officers parachuted to an old Soviet weather station.  Michel Legrand’s score is particularly effective in a film constricted by those claustrophobic physical locations and then there are those limitations imposed by all that political and generic roleplay. Adapted by Douglas Heyes, Harry Julian Fink and W.R. Burnett. Directed by John Sturges, who was responsible for the earlier MacLean adaptation, The Satan Bug.  I chose my side out of conviction not by accident of birth.

The Double (2011)

The Double 2011

He trained us all – his way. Decades after the ending of the Cold War, retired CIA operative Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere) is persuaded by his former boss Tom Highland (Martin Sheen) to return to the fray to hunt down a mysterious and legendary Soviet assassin known as ‘Cassius’ presumed to be behind the assassination of a Senator yet thought to be long dead:  the victim’s throat was slit, his trademark. Shepherdson is teamed up with rookie FBI agent Ben Geary (Topher Grace) who wrote his Master’s thesis on Shepherdson’s long pursuit of his nemesis. Eventually, their investigations uncover disturbing secrets, which lead them to suspect each other even as Shepherdson’s motives are rendered complicated by some very personal business… Respect is the last thing I have for an animal like him. A dull-looking retro action thriller puts a twist upon a twist, using Gere’s established cool persona to aid a plot that ultimately manages to surprise.  When the initial revelation after thirty minutes about a sleeper agent seems like sloppy storytelling but then registers later as irony, it serves to enhance the enigmatic Shepherdson (it’s in the name, actually) as a kinder more benign individual whose otherwise impenetrable obsession with family is revealed in a rather satisfying conclusion. Grace is not as expressive as one would wish particularly given the subplot involving Shepherdson’s care and concern for Geary’s wife Natalie (Odette Yustman) but we find out why in the final sequence. The risk taken structurally (it’s in the title) is quite audacious – buy into it it or not. With Stephen Moyer as a really nasty prisoner called Brutus and Tamer Hassan as an even nastier cove called Bozlovski and an intriguing Mexican border prologue. Written by Derek Haas and director Michael Brandt. What if that’s what they wanted – a more visible alter ego

Le Week-End (2013)

Le Weekend

I’m amazed at how mediocre I’ve turned out to be. Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg Burrows (Lindsay Duncan) are a married academic couple from Birmingham advancing in age and tension. To mark their 30th wedding anniversary, the two embark on a trip to the place they honeymooned three decades before: Paris. Hoping to rejuvenate their marriage, the couple arrives in Paris only for things not to go as planned. Their honeymoon hotel is horrifying so Meg insists on booking into the best hotel in town. They eat lavishly and run out of a restaurant without paying. Their hi jinks re-ignite their romance. Their son wants to move back in but Meg is adamant he can’t, Nick fields the calls from back in England as Meg rages that he is too tolerant. Eventually, the two bump into Nick’s former Cambridge acolyte Morgan (Jeff Goldblum) who is now a philosophy star and they attend a dinner party at his posh Rue de Rivoli home that ultimately opens up a new view of life and love for the ageing couple… I knew this trip would be a fucking disaster. Author and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi’s fourth collaboration with director Roger Michell is all at once delightful homage, biting meditation on ageing and a thoughtful discourse on the absurd difficulties of sustaining an enduring marriage. It’s also a sly commentary on academic rivalry, PC-ness (Nick is being retired early because he told a black woman student she should spend more time on the books and less on her hair), wrongful assumptions about the person you know best and the real problems of intimacy after decades living in someone else’s pocket. This last five to ten years your vagina has become something of a closed book. Sentimental Broadbent is angry beneath that pleading surface;  flinty Duncan is superficially icy but truly loyal – and hot. When Morgan takes Nick’s raucous and self-pitying dinner party confession for a kind of Situationist performance and both husband and wife are disgusted by his ignorance of the truth when it’s laid bare, it is a joy to behold them unite again. And then, the ending, a glorious homage to Bande à part, re-enacting a scene in a simple but uplifting manner that might make you fear growing old just a little bit less. You’ll recognise Morgan’s son as Olly Alexander, of the band Years and Years. This is where I want to be forever

The Uncanny (1977)

The Uncanny

Horror author Wilbur Gray (Peter Cushing) tells publisher Frank Richards (Ray Milland) of his fear that cats are preparing to replace humans and regales him with three true stories that prove his point. London 1912. The cat gets everything. wealthy dowager Miss Malkin (Joan Greenwood) is planning to write her only nephew Michael (Simon Williams) out of her will, and bequeath her large fortune entirely to her large multitude of cats. When her maid Janet (Susan Penhaligon), hears the old woman making these changes with her lawyer Wallace (Roland Culver) she alerts Michael and they plan to destroy the last copy of the will locked in Miss Malkin’s bedside safe. Janet waits for the perfect moment to crack the combination but Miss Malkin catches her in the act and attempts to call the police, forcing Janet to kill her. But the cats witness everything and stop her from destroying their inheritance. Quebec Province 1975Why can’t you be more like Angela? She never puts a foot wrong. Young orphan Lucy (Katrina Holden), moves into her aunt Joan’s (Alexandra Stewart) home along with her pet cat Wellington. Her cousin Angela (Chloe Franklin), however, gets extremely jealous when she discovers that Wellington will be living with them, since she’s not allowed any pets herself. When her whining does little to change her parents’ (Alexandra Stewart and Donald Pilon) minds, Angela delights in getting both the cat and Lucy in trouble, prompting her fed-up father to bring Wellington to be put down. Wellington somehow finds his way home, and helps Lucy plot her revenge against the troublemaking Angela by shrinking her cousin down to the size of a toy. Hollywood 1936.  It was the cat that did it. B-movie star Valentine De’ath (Donald Pleasance) does away with his leading lady wife in an artfully arranged accident, persuading his producer Pomeroy (John Vernon) into handing over the role role to the actor’s vapid girlfriend Edina (Samantha Eggar) who calls him ‘VD’. As the two celebrate back at De’ath’s mansion, they are constantly interrupted by his wife’s cat, who is taking care of her newborn litter. De’ath hates the little creatures and drowns them all, but the mother cat escapes and follows him to the studio to take her revenge, eating through ropes to drop a light on his head and then shutting an iron maiden with his girlfriend inside… This British/Canadian Amicus anthology features a great cast but offers fairly slim pickings even if the theme of feline revenge is immensely appealing. It just doesn’t serve it with sufficient variety. There are some nice moments – including a photo of Pleasence in his Bond role, white pussycat on his lap;  but the framing story isn’t sufficiently surprising even with its twist ending. The cats are delightful, if somewhat intimidating. And hungry. Written by Michel Parry and directed by porn stalwart Denis Héroux.

An Inspector Calls (1954)

An Inspector Calls

We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. In 1912 Inspector Poole (Alastair Sim) arrives at the wealthy Birling household as he investigates the apparent suicide that afternooon of Eva Smith (Jane Wenham), a young working-class woman. He arrives in the middle of a dinner party and slowly reveals how each family member, including stern patriarch Arthur Birling (Arthur Young) and his uptight wife, Sybil (Olga Lindo), daughter Sheila (Eileen Moore), future son-in-law Brian Worth (Gerald Croft) and finally his own son Eric (Bryan Forbes), could all have had a hand in Eva’s death…  We all started like that, so confident and pleased with ourselves, and then he started asking us questions.  J.B. Priestley’s 1945 blend of closed-room suspenser and drama of conscience is a fascinating theatrical exercise adapted by Desmond Davis retaining Priestley’s rather blustering retro-fitted comment about complacency ahead of a war that couldn’t possibly happen in those halcyon pre-WW1 days. With the casting of Sim (famously Inspector Cockrill) you know this isn’t going to play out conventionally but each family member plus Worth has their flashback to their supposed involvement and the implications grow of a politically loaded social threat:  the father set in motion the girl’s downfall because he didn’t want to pay more than subsistence wages and feared her collectivist instincts so fired her.  It’s a canny work, toying with all kinds of prejudices and fears, ultimately summoning the supernatural to extinguish the guilty parties who are all, in their way, corrupt. Directed by Guy Hamilton. You and I aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner here

 

Gemini (2017)

Gemini 2017

I want to kill you right now. When Hollywood actress Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz) is shot dead in her home, LAPD Detective Ahn (John Cho) becomes suspicious of her assistant, Jill LeBeau (Lola Kirke) whose gun is found beside her boss’s body. Jill, on the other hand, decides to investigate on her own and clear her name, uncovering a list of suspects in a tricky web of relationships including Heather’s ex-boyfriend Devin (Reeve Carney), girlfriend Tracy (Heather Lee), agent Jamie (Michelle Forbes), producer Greg (Nelson Franklin) whose passion project is destroyed by Heather’s decision not to do it and then there’s her lookalike superfan stalker Sierra (Jessica Parker Kennedy)… You think you understood Heather. Written and directed by Aaron Katz, this noir-ish thriller stars two of the most interesting young actresses around and a nice setting – contemporary Hollywood. The story of the personal assistant has been done elsewhere – notably by Kristen Stewart, in a different context; and previously by Julia Roberts to Catherine Zeta-Jones’ romcom queen – and it’s a loaded gun of a premise with this hipster iteration complicated by murder. However it’s let down by underpowered writing which teases and suggests, extending to the occasionally oblique shooting style, and that means the twist doesn’t entirely carry the weighty intensity it ought. The shadow of Mulholland Drive falls far into this indie story’s LA dark night of the soul but it boasts a great sense of the city’s architecture, from 24-hour laundromat to modernist mansion. Ricki Lake appears as a TV host offering the usual redemption narrative conduit; while Forbes, whose appearance is all too brief, is one of the coolest of the Nineties cool girls and it’s a shame the script didn’t give her more to do. A film that has inappropriate lightness where it ought to fill you with anticipatory dread, it still has an oddly haunting quality you can’t quite let go with its circle of women carving out lives and identities not quite separate from each other. You know how you said you didn’t feel safe?  I feel like that all the time

Walk, Don’t Run (1966)

Walk Dont Run

You remind me of myself a few years ago. Quite a few years ago. When British industrialist Sir William Rutland (Cary Grant) arrives days early for a meeting in Tokyo he doesn’t realise that due to the housing shortage throughout the 1964 Summer Olympics there’s nowhere to stay and even Julius Haversack (John Standing) at the British Embassy can’t be of assistance. He answers a small ad for an apartment share and when he arrives at the destination he finds British girl Christine Easton (Samantha Eggar) in a tiny place and she has a strict timetable to which Rutland must adhere. When he sublets to homeless American Olympic athlete Steve Davis (Jim Hutton) Christine has to put up with it because she’s already spent Rutland’s share of the rent. Then Rutland disagrees with her plans to marry Haversack and plays Cupid, while both he and Christine try to find out what sport Davis is competing in and resort to taking a cab and finding themselves in the middle of a race-walk … You’ve gone too far. And if you’ve any sense of decency you will leave. In the morning. A remake of the 1943 movie The More the Merrier, this is relocated from wartime Washington to the Tokyo Olympics and has neither the biting wit of the original screenplay by Sol Saks (and an uncredited Garson Kanin) nor the firm direction of George Stevens but is quite pleasant fluff although Eggar lacks comedy chops. There are some good moments – when Hutton is suspected of being a spy;  when the father of Eggar’s friend Aiko (Miiko Taka) is confused by the various relationships and mistakenly hands Grant a fertility symbol: Grant turns around to Standing, declaring I think we’re engaged, reminding us of his ad lib in Bringing Up Baby, I just went gay all of a sudden.  And given that it’s Grant’s final film it’s amusing to hear him humming the themes from both Charade and An Affair to Remember while he’s doing his shtick in Eggar’s tiny kitchen, thematically resonant as well as self-referential. There’s a nice bit at Aiko’s house when the TV is screening a Jimmy Stewart western – dubbed! Imagine a movie without his inimitable voice and in Japanese! Written by Robert Russell and Frank Ross and directed by Charles Walters with a score by Quincy Jones who co-wrote the songs Stay With Me and Happy Feet with singer Peggy Lee. He’s an Englishman, isn’t he?

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

I found the Picasso. It wasn’t easy. I was looking for a woman with a guitar and it was all cubes. It took me two hours to find her nose. It’s the 1930s. Veteran New York insurance investigator C.W. Briggs (Woody Allen) is at daggers drawn with newly recruited efficiency manager Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt): he goes by instinct (and a few well chosen bribes) and she is all about rational thinking. It’s hate at first sight. He trades quips with and about office beauty Jill (Elizabeth Berkeley) while Betty is carrying on with married boss Magruder (Dan Aykroyd) who promises he’ll leave his wife. When they are both hypnotised by crooked nightclub magician Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) on an office outing the pair of them unwittingly carry out jewellery thefts from their own clients and wind up investigating themselves while not falling in love … Germs can’t live in your blood – it’s too cold.  A hilarious tale scripted like a Thirties newspaper screwball with rat-a-tat machine gun banter sprinkled liberally with sexist abuse being fired off in both directions and several nods to Kafka not least when Hunt repeatedly calls Allen variations on the word roach. With Double Indemnity hovering in the background, Theron a smouldering femme fatale just dying to bed Allen and Hunt giving it her best Rosalind Russell, this is sheerly brilliant escapist fare with so many laugh out loud exchanges it’s impossible to hear all the great lines. Is she kidding, talking to me like that? It’s ’cause she thinks she’s smarter… you know, ’cause she graduated from Vassar and I went to driving school

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

Out of Blue (2019)

Out of Blue

Can you explain your place in the universe? When well-connected black hole expert and astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) is found shot at a New Orleans Observatory, police detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) is put in charge of the investigation and questions her co-worker, observatory manager Professor Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) and her teaching colleague boyfriend Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors). When she encounters Jennifer’s father Colonel Tom Rockwell (James Caan) she finds an intimidating figure, a well-known local businessman, famous soldier and POW who walks on a cane. His wife Miriam (Jacki Weaver) is a fidgeting fusspot, the twin sons Walt and Bray (Brad and Todd Mann) argumentative and odd. Their office is dominated by a family portrait. Similarities are noted by her colleague Aaron Tevit (Tony Silvero) and reporter Stella Honey (Devyn A. Tyler) with the unsolved murders of other blonde thirtysomething women from decades earlier where items were exchanged with the victims. Mike pursues the idea that Tom might have been responsible but then it becomes clear that Jennifer killed herself. When Mike finds a familiar brooch among Jennifer’s collection of vintage clothes and costume jewellery questions of the cosmos start to inform the solution … The catastrophic death of a star brings new life to the universe. We are all stardust.  This adaptation of Martin Amis’ 1997 genre novel Night Train has some changes but mostly it bears the marks of writer/director Carol Morley, a singular talent who likes to compose a flat frame with just enough textural detail to suggest complexity, a taste that lends itself perfectly to this atmospheric thriller which shows a less travelled side of New Orleans. Mike is a troubled former alcoholic with a spare lifestyle; while Jennifer’s home is filled with nick nacks and her recorded talks anchor the narrative:  We spend our lives trying to get to the heart of this dark energy. It’s other people who point to the clues in the past – a TV journalist and another police officer. The similarities to the .38 caliber gun murders are inescapable – the victims are all blonde and of a certain age and the killings stopped when Jennifer was born. The intriguing use of imagery – not just fetish objects like blue marbles, a pot of handcream, but the confusion as to whether Mike is fantasising, dreaming or even remembering – is conjoined with the theme of the stars and their influence. And with a hint of Chinatown hanging over a story about family and power, there’s a cute reference when Miriam leaps into Mike’s police car and pulls her nose: You know what happens to very nosy people?  They lose their noses! We are reminded of Polanski. The narrative raises questions about how society deals with war – just what kind of man walks out of three years’ imprisonment a hero? Clarkson is great as this unconventional woman who lets loose in a strip club:  There’s many ways to be a woman. There are black holes in the story itself with a wry running joke about cats in boxes (and not just Schrödinger’s). In my experience usually what’s in a sealed box is dead. In the end, this is not just about the murder mystery, it’s about where we come from, who we are, what formed us and what happened to us. In that sense, the final sequence is truly a revelation of personal history in a unique procedural narrative which grapples with a bigger cosmic picture. Produced by Luc Roeg with a score by Clint Mansell. The past is messy