Year of the Dragon (1985)

Only one Stanley White. Following the murders of Mafia and Triad leaders in NYC, Polish Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) takes it upon himself to bring down the Chinese organised crime gangs. He’s breaking the long held treaty to permit the Chinese to take care of things in Chinatown. This puts him in conflict with Tony Tai (John Lone) the ruthless leader of the organisation.  It pulls his life apart with his already crumbling childless marriage to nurse Connie (Caroline Kava) collapsing altogether when Stanley falls for the charms of ambitious journalist Tracy Tzu (Ariane). Now Tony has a major shipment coming in from Thailand and Stanley engages in wire tapping for information .. This is America and it’s two hundred years old and you need to change your clocks. This sprawling portrait of the gangs of New York was much misunderstood upon its release but it lays its cards on the table upfront: it’s all in the name (changed) because NYC’s most decorated cop is an unapologetic racist Nam vet and sexist to boot. He’s launching his own tong war. Naturally Rourke plays him as a total charmer and it works:  he has the aura of death about him, his hair is as white as his adopted name and everyone around him seems to get crushed.  As written by Oliver Stone and director Michael Cimino this adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel is remarkably discreet in some areas – and lurid in others. The major love scene between Stanley and Tracy is cleverly done as they tell each other how much they hate each other and then … Her big ‘angry’ scene when he’s moved his team into her preposterously huge loft is amusing because her acting is so poor, all stiff arms like an Irish dancer. Part of the film’s issue representationally is the obvious inexpressivity of the Chinese actors, a physical trait there’s no escaping. They make up for it by killing people. Their treatment historically in the US and their unequal immigrant experience is posited against Stanley’s veteran’s hangups, something that’s used against him.  He wants to sleep with a journalist while both he and Tony decry the media’s role in the portrayal of violence and the way ethnicity is covered. Therefore there is a balance established with Tony – that’s clever storytelling. Lone is super handsome, a great suave villain to play opposite.  The lean way in which the marital story is exposed is a good hook for Stanley’s humanity and it’s the dramatic crutch that assists the outcome. The intra-Asian racism is well dramatised and horrendously violent. Class is an issue that becomes an overriding theme. The whole thing looks incredible – shot by Alex Thomson on a set (by Wolf Kroeger and Victoria Paul) in North Carolina for NYC (except for the views from Tracy’s apartment at the top of the Clocktower Building giving a beguiling view of the city’s skyline).  There’s a fascinating and intricate score by David Mansfield with echoes of phrases from The Deer Hunter. That this is a disguised western is clarified in those final scenes on the railway track. And in this wonderful mesh of genre and tradition there is an honourable way out for one man. What a way to end. Amazingly the role of White (originally called Arthur Powers – but there’s a Stanley White credited as Police Consultant!) was intended for Clint Eastwood. Both he and Paul Newman turned it down. Just as well. Only one Mickey Rourke. He’s a good cop but he won’t stop

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Everything is flat and empty here. There’s nothing to do. In 1951 Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) are high-school seniors and friends inAnarene, North Texas. Duane is dating Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), who Sonny considers the prettiest girl in town. Sonny breaks up with his girlfriend Charlene Duggs. Over the Christmas holiday Sonny begins an affair with lonely Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) the depressed wife of high-school “Coach” Popper (Bill Thurman) who is secretly gay. At the Christmas dance Jacy is invited by Lester Marlow (Randy Quaid) to a naked indoor pool party at the home of Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette) a wealthy young man who seems a better romantic prospect than Duane. Bobby tells Jacy that he isn’t interested in virgins and to come back after she’s had sex. Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) bans the boys from his cafe, pool hall and cinema when they mistreat their retarded friend Billy (Sam Bottoms) taking him to a prostitute who beats him for making a mess. Sam dies while the boys are on a road trip to Mexico and leaves his property to different people, including Sonny. Jacy invites Duane for sex in a motel and eventually breaks up with him by phone, eventually losing her viriginity on a pool table to her mother’s lover Abilene (Clu Gulager). Sonny fights with Duane over Jacy  and Duane leaves town to work on the rigs out of town. Jacy sets her sight on Sonny and they elope to her parents’ fury. The war in Korea provides an escape route for Duane but there’s one last picture show on before the cinema closes down forever … Nothing’s ever the way it’s supposed to be at all. They say the third time’s the charm and so it was for neophyte director Peter Bogdanovich in this adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel about kids growing up in small town North Texas which he co-wrote with the author as well as wife Polly Platt, who was the production designer and collaborator with Bogdanovich on all his films. (Then he fell in love with his young leading lady Shepherd, but that’s another story). The film was shot in black and white following advice from Orson Welles, Bogdanovich’s house guest at the time (and the best book on Welles derives from this era of their wide-ranging conversations, This Is Orson Welles, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum).  The cinematography rendered by Robert Surtees is simply exquisite, the attention to detail extraordinary but this is no nostalgic trip down memory lane. The universally pitch-perfect performances exist in this very specific texture as a kind of miracle, duly rewarding Johnson and Leachman at the Academy Awards. But Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mom Lois has some of the best lines and delivers them with power. She and Shepherd have one amazing scene together. This is a coming of age movie but it’s also about ageing and loneliness and deception and disappointment and it’s the acknowledging of the sliding scale of desperation where the emotions hit gold. And there are juxtapositions which still manage to shock – like when Sonny looks out the window to see one horse mount another while a great romantic poem is being read in class. The realisation that Sam’s great love was Lois and vice versa. The callous way sexual manipulation is used as a casual transaction for the bored. There were controversies over scenes of sex and nudity which didn’t make it into the initial release but those parts were restored in 1992 by Bogdanovich so that the full potential of the story could be contextualised. A poignant Fordian masterpiece now firmly imprinted as an American classic.  You couldn’t believe how this country’s changed

The Pledge (2001)

There can’t be such devils.  Veteran detective  Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) investigates the murder of a little girl in small-town Nevada just six hours before he’s officially retired.  He makes a pledge on a crucifix the dead girl made to her anguished mother (Patricia Clarkson) that he will catch the perpetrator. When the only suspect Native American Toby Jay Wadenah (Benicio del Toro) blows his head off in custody, Jerry sets off on his longed-for retirement fishing trip but TV coverage of the case affects him deeply and he moves into the neighbourhood buying a gas station where the killing occurred. When he begins a relationship with a waitress and mother Lori (Robin Wright) and gives a home to her and her young daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts) after she takes a beating from her ex, he has all the more reason to nail the killer – but by this time his colleagues reckon they have long since wrapped up an open-and-shut case.  The behaviour of a local Jesus freak Gary Jackson (Tom Noonan) causes Jerry to believe he might have solved not just the mystery death of the young girl the previous winter but the grisly crimes of a previously unnoticed serial killer and when Chrissy goes to meet a man she calls The Wizard Jerry decides to set a trap All at once you became like an animal. Nicholson’s heartbreaking performance, as the twice-divorced retired cop who might just find happiness late in life and solve the crimes of a serial killer, is everything in this meticulously staged murder mystery. The relationships are well observed, the contrast with blowhard ‘tec Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), the wonderfully observed eccentrics (Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke, Eileen Ryan, Vanessa Redgrave) who populate the ensemble, the visual tics and psychological hints at Nicholson’s state of mind, the clues, signs and portents which inflect the text. Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novella (adapted by Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski) was already transposed three times to both big and small screen but its tragic undertow is an understandable lure for someone like director Sean Penn, a performer who himself never shirks complex dramas. Nobody gets away with anything here – and it’s not a pretty picture and even Wright (Mrs Penn at the time) looks careworn with half a tooth missing. Far more than a police procedural, this is a deeply affecting, emotive exploration of loss and missed chances, with the revelations managed so very well.  It’s not just about the predilections of paedophiles but also about paying heed to small children and what they tell adults. The ending is just horrendous and Nicholson, reunited with Penn from The Crossing Guard, is just wonderful, a dedicated cop pursuing his suspicions to the very last. What a great performance. How could God be so greedy?

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?

Birdy (1984)

I wish I could die and be born again as a bird. 1960s. Following reconstructive surgery on his face when he’s home from Vietnam Al Columbato (Nicolas Cage) is visiting his eccentric bird-loving friend Birdy (Matthew Modine), incarcerated in a mental ward after going missing in action for a month during the conflict. He thinks he’s a bird. Al recalls their friendship back in Philadelphia, restoring a car, going to prom, dog catching, and tries to persuade his friend to communicate, while engaging in his own war of wills with the medical authorities …You ever wondered what our lives down here must look like to a bird? Sandy Kroopf & Jack Behr adapted William Wharton’s 1978 novel, a very significant read when you’re a young person, almost like when you discover Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and Amory Blaine. It’s updated from WW2 to Vietnam so the cultural touchstones and speech patterns land closer to home. Alan Parker brings his customary tendresse to this depiction of youth with some exhilarating passages to contrast with the melancholy affect of Modine’s birdlike crouch in the psych ward. A different kind of buddy movie, with social awkwardness, difference and male friendship framed by the devastating experience of war. The performances by Modine and Cage reach places you thought could never be touched. So emotional you’ll believe you can fly. There’s a notable score composed by Peter Gabriel.  Flying is much more than flapping wings

Casino (1995)


There are three ways of doing things around here: the right way, the wrong way, and the way that I do it. You understand? Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is a Jewish handicapper asked by the Chicago Mob to oversee the day-to-day casino and hotel operations at the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas in 1973. His childhood friend, mobster Nicky Santoro (Pesci), is a made man and makes life tricky for Ace. Ace falls for call girl and chip hustler Ginger McKenna (Stone) whom he eventually marries. They have a daughter Amy (Erika von Tagen) but Ginger gets into drugs and her behaviour becomes loud and difficult. Ace has problems getting a gaming licence despite keeping local politicos happy and the skimmed money is being skimmed by people he employs. All his relationship begin to break down and the FBI are closing in when Ginger runs away with her lover and pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods) taking Amy with them … When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believed, that’s the kind of love I had.  At first glance it doesn’t seem elegiac yet this Scorsese collaboration with co-writer Nicholas Pileggi (from his Casino:  Love and Honor in Las Vegas) five years after Goodfellas operates as a long goodbye to a way of life essentially foreign, about strangers in a strange land. It’s adapted from the lives of Frank Rosenthal, Anthony Spilotro and Geri McGee. The mob were never at ease in the desert landscape and the story problem doesn’t end there because all the relationships here are uneven and mismatched:  Jewish and Italian, Ace and Nicky, Ace and Ginger, the Mob and Vegas. It starts audaciously: with a bomb. Yet the victim is one of the narrators. The competing voiceovers by Ace and Nicky are stark illustrations of the power plays beyond the gaming tables. The storytelling, spanning a decade to 1983 (and ‘many years before’) is a familiar one of bribery, corruption, murder, gambling, crooked politicians, prostitution, children, golf, drugs and great clothes, And the production design by Dante Ferretti lit up by Robert Richardson’s beautiful cinematography offers a stark contrast to the coarseness of these terrible people. It’s long and talky and horrifically violent and startling in terms of juxtapositions and acting. At the centre of the extraordinary soundtrack in this epic of marriages gone wrong is the score for Godard’s Contempt (Le mepris) by Georges Delerue, pointing our response in the correct direction. We are left to contemplate the magnificent, complete performance by Sharon Stone, one of the best in modern cinema, the cause and effect in this epic and tragic tale of the misbegotten. In the end it is a pitiless exploration of humanity. A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes

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.

The Comfort of Strangers (1990)

My father was a very big man. And he wore a black moustache. When he grew older and it grew grey, he coloured it with a pencil. The kind women use. Mascara. English couple Mary (Natasha Richardson) and Colin (Rupert Everett) are taking a return holiday in Venice in an attempt to repair their relationship. They are befriended by suave Robert (Christopher Walken), a British-Italian bar proprietor, unaware that he has been stalking and photographing them. When he brings them to his palazzo apartment and introduces them to his wife Caroline (Helen Mirren) they become enmeshed in a game of psychological and erotic roleplay and wind up experiencing a terrifying drama of decadence in which nothing and nobody is as they appear … I mean that you’d do absolutely anything for the other person, and you’d let them do absolutely anything to you. Anything. Adapted by Harold Pinter from the 1981 Ian McEwan novella, this picturesque exploration of perverse relationships practically wallows in morbidity. Teetering on the verge of horror and luridness at all times, this never tips into typical genre expectations, always erring on the side of suggestiveness, surprise and eerieness. Until a swift end is brought to proceedings. The irony replete in the story is all in the title and in creepy Walken who declares, They want to destroy everything that’s good between men and women. It’s expertly directed by Paul Schrader with densely beautiful cinematography by Dante Spinotti, permitting the full strangeness of the city to express the moistly malevolent mystery, sinister and lustrous, terrifying and thrilling, all at once, inhabited by just the right performers in wondrous sets by Gianni Quaranta. Some people don’t like the ending. As in life, etc. Although if you’ve read Thomas Mann or seen Don’t Look Now you’ll have a justifiably familiar feeling of foreboding. A sensual nightmare of innocents abroad. I knew that fantasy was passing into reality. Have you ever experienced that? It’s like stepping into a mirror

From Here to Eternity (1953)

You should know that in the Army it’s not the individual who counts. 1941. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is transferred to Schofield Barracks on Hawaii where his commanding officer Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober) promotes boxers but Prewitt blinded a man in a fight and won’t co-operate. He is bullied until Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) suggests he is given extra duties but gets hazed by non-comm officers. Supported by friend Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), the men go carousing to a private club where Prew falls for Lorene (Donna Reed), a ‘hostess’. Maggio gets into a row with stockade Sergeant ‘Fatso’ Judson (Ernest Borgnine) but Warden intervenes. Warden begins an affair with the neglected wife Karen (Deborah Kerr) of Captain Holmes whose promiscuous reputation hides a tragedy. Maggio leaves guard duty and gets atrociously drunk, ultimately leading to a sadistic beating from Fatso which kills him. Prew decides upon revenge on the eve of Pearl Harbour … A man don’t go his own way he’s nothing. Despite some decidedly uninspired directing from Fred Zinnemann, this tightly scripted adaptation of James Jones’ classic novel by Daniel Taradash skirts a fine line between outright travesty and censor-baiting in a bid to stay more or less faithful to the themes and the melodramatic aspects are saved before the concluding scenes when the Japanese bombers arrive. Clift gets the best of the pithy truisms, which fits the story’s construction, given that he and Sinatra are the doomed pair who have to make the tragic sacrifices and both give stunning performances. The entire cast shines and there are many great scenes, with the usual one on the beach with the crashing surf between Kerr and Lancaster excerpted as an instance of classic Hollywood romance but it’s one with an undertow of sadness, The first-rate expressive acting is what makes this special.  A man should be what he can do