Watch on the Rhine (1943)

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I fight against fascism. That is my trade. Jack Warner acquired Lillian Hellman’s hit play for an enormous sum and her lover Dashiell Hammett adapted it for the screen. Bette Davis gets top billing but she’s just one in an ensemble and therefore a supporting player in this tale of anti-fascist activists in Washington in wartime. She plays Sara, the wife of German anti-Nazi Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) who travel with their three children from Europe via Mexico back to her hometown to stay with her widowed mother (Lucile Watson) and brother David (Donald Woods) in a very upscale home. They have other houseguests: Teck De Brankovis (George Colouris) a smooth but desperate Romanian who lives off his wealthy wife Martha (Geraldine Fitzgerald, Davis’s Dark Victory co-star), a woman who is falling for David. Teck soon makes it clear he is a collaborator of the Nazis in Washington and rifles through Kurt’s briefcase threatening blackmail over his true identity.  As Chekhov once proved, if there’s a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third … This talky melodrama is a political tract that works in fits and starts. FDR fan Davis clashed with theatre director Herman Shumlin (who had staged it on Broadway) and argued against the casting of Watson, a Republican, who had established the role on stage. However Watson dominates every scene she’s in with an arresting presence. When she declares, Well we’ve been shaken out of the magnolias, you want to cheer. Very much of its time and terribly stagebound but it demonstrates a consciousness about goings-on in Europe and the wheeling and dealing of so-called diplomats on foreign soils at a time when it really mattered. To demonstrate their commitment to the project Warners refused to bow to pressure from the Hays Office and retained the original ending. They dropped most of the location backgrounds because they contained shots of Government buildings. Shumlin was a prolific stage director and also did Hellman’s The Little Foxes on Broadway. He made just one further film, Confidential Agent (1945). It is not noble. It is only the way I must live.

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American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.

Mrs Pollifax – Spy (1971)

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A widowed retiree volunteers her services to the CIA and finds herself drugged in Mexico City and handcuffed to Darren McGavin on a plane to Albania. A different kind of gap year, perhaps. Rosalind Russell herself adapted the promising book by Dorothy Gilman (one of a series) in a production by her husband, Frederick Brisson. Instead of the fun travelogue spoof you might expect of the era, it’s a mostly dull stint in an Albanian prison (an hour…) with just a few colour shots in Mexico and an awful lot of sparse mountains. Remind me never to go to the land of Enver Hoxha or even Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which looks like an utterly miserable substitute. Unremarkable, to say the very least. It was Russell’s last film. Directed by Leslie Martinson.

Loving (2016)

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A true story about a case that came to stand for the end of miscegenation laws, this biographical drama directed by the gifted Jeff Nichols exemplifies why it is so tough to dramatise issues concerning people of limited articulacy. Poor white construction worker Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) marries his pregnant black girlfriend (Ruth Negga) whom he has known since childhood when they were growing up in a pocket of Virginia. Someone rats them out to the police (we never find out who, or how they might be related or connected with them) and Sheriff Marton Csokas puts them in jail for the weekend when he finds them in bed together. They take a deal to move out of state to Washington DC for 25 years but Csokas finds out when they come back to have their son. They commence a tentative legal challenge through a young inexperienced lawyer from the ACLU and move back to Virginia, quietly bringing up their family on a remote farm. Nothing much happens. Then the case goes to the Supreme Court. While Nichols is great at building tension and atmosphere and the threat of violence which never materialises, the narrative is so slight and the occasionally incomprehensible monosyllabic delivery so rare as to test the patience. There is a coy avoidance of both the couple’s intimacy and the legal fight itself – which rather begs the question about the content and aesthetic rationale. A huge burden is thereby placed on the shoulders of the taciturn protagonists who acquit themselves really well and Nichols regulars Bill Camp and Michael Shannon liven up proceedings. But the more I see of Csokas the more I wish someone would give him a lead. He’s great. This merely runs out of story:  it’s at least 25 minutes too long. Adapted from a book by Nancy Buirski.

Arlington Road (1999)

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You know you’re watching a terrific thriller when Joan Cusack’s sudden appearance at a phone booth makes you jump out of your seat in fright. The screenplay by the gifted Ehren Kruger is concerned with homegrown terrorism, a notion that has never gone away but had particular currency in the era of Timothy McVeigh. Jeff Bridges is the recently widowed history lecturer who discovers that his new neighbours might be plotting something very nasty indeed and realises too late that his young son is spending way too much time in their company. This is a brilliantly sustained tense piece of work which never drops the ball and is tonally pretty perfect. An underrated achievement. Directed by Mark Pellington.

State of Play (2009)

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Paul Abbott’s 2003 BBC series was a little bit legendary and it gets a nice big screen interpretation here as a cracking conspiracy thriller set in the world of Washington DC and newspapers, you know, those old-fashioned bits of paper that report facts and not ‘alternative facts’. Adapted by Tony Gilroy, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Billy Ray, Russell Crowe is the old school Saab-driving longhair who likes Irish rebel songs and whiskey when his old college roomie Congressman Ben Affleck (when his forehead still moved) gets mired in scandal as an assistant dies in front of a subway train. She’s widely rumoured to have been his romantic interest. When he approaches Crowe for help as the body count mounts, his committee looking into the doings of a security organisation with government contracts hoves into view. Meanwhile, Crowe takes on his blogging counterpart at the newspaper, Rachel McAdams, as his co-investigator, while editor Helen Mirren is under pressure from the new owners. This is a taut, pacy, tense workout with everyone at the top of their game and the issues of Homeland Security, reporting and the threat to newspapers from the worldwide web interlaced into nice character studies, as Affleck’s estranged wife, Robin Wright Penn, who has had an adulterous relationship with Crowe, complicates and diverts his attention from the bigger picture. An astonishingly timely piece of work. Terrific direction by Kevin Macdonald.

Jackie (2016)

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Did I really see this film?! That’s an appropriate afterthought given its hallucinatory quality, a narcotised morphine fever dream about a woman with a flip haircut, boiled wool suits and a voice from the Marilyn playbook. Natalie Portman doesn’t remotely resemble the upperclass journalist who married into the crass Kennedy family and wound up First Lady with her husband’s brains spattered into her lap on an ill-judged trip to Texas, home to LBJ. Yet that doesn’t matter because after a half hour of her narration you are sucked into this Warholesque meditation on fame and public approval. She lies constantly to journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) interviewing her for Life after the assassination and then tells him things she insists cannot possibly go to print. She will edit the image and control the myth – which she calls Camelot. That record spins as she cascades into a vortex of desperation and disbelief. This will be her version of events. She crashes around the White House, drunk; argues with Bobby and Jack Valenti about the funeral and changes her mind back and forth about how much of Lincoln’s leavetaking should be imitated, while the clodhopping Kennedy sisters try to manipulate the situation;  when her husband’s casket is put on public view she sympathises with LBJ that this should be the terrible beginning of his Presidency. One suspects it is precisely the beginning he desired. Real footage of her White House restoration tour for TV is intercut with a grainy impressionistic copy where she is coached and cheered from the sidelines by Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). Suddenly Portman’s embodiment doesn’t seem as mad. She retracts all the truthful statements from her account to White – what she did with her husband’s skull, the sound of the bullet – but it is to Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt) that she speaks about her loveless marriage, her insecurities, her need to have her dead children interred with their father. Their burial in the rainy hillside at Arlington feels like the ultimate cruelty. Archive footage is impeccably interwoven with this recreation of events in which we all have an investment, even those of us born long after they occurred. As she leaves the White House for the final time she passes Hamiltons department store and sees rows of window mannequins wearing her wigs and two-piece Chanel imitations. What is real? What is performance? she muses. One gets the distinct impression she knew more than most. And off she goes, homeless, to an unknowable, husbandless future. Written by Noah Oppenheim with a visceral arrest of a soundtrack created by Mica Levi, undercutting the sense of camp that this sad and crazy brilliance otherwise imparts. Andy Warhol is alive and well and still making movies. There is just one word for this: astonishing. Directed by Pablo Larrain. Oh!

Everything Is Copy – Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted (2016)

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Journalist Jacob Bernstein’s portrait of his late mother, beloved essayist, humorist, journalist and writer/director Nora Ephron, is a fascinating portrait of a woman whose very private leavetaking mystified her friends, proving that for her, death, at least was not in fact copy ie material to be used as comedy, despite her parents’ advice. The combination of contemporary interviews with home movie footage in Beverly Hills where screenwriters Phoebe and Henry relocated their family of four little girls from NYC in the Forties interlaced with film clips and excerpts from her TV interviews creates a distancing device that makes her art all the greater. When accused of malevolence for cruel descriptions of people like Julie Nixon she accepted the charge. Yet her magnetism was legendary, her dinner parties the place to be. She channeled her enormous betrayal by (second) husband Carl Bernstein into a book (Heartburn) and movie that complicated their divorce and the custody arrangements over their sons. One of them was yet to be born when she found out Bernstein was sleeping with the British Ambassador’s wife, Margaret Jay, whose physical flaws Ephron described in devastating fashion. Interviewed by Jacob, Carl admits to his son that it had enormously damaged him and, he says, what Jacob and Max must have  thought of him and Jacob admits that this is true. Ephron had a cycle of movies that just didn’t work, starting with the Meg Wolitzer adaptation This Is My Life which had resonances about her life with her siblings as children. She fell out with sister Delia when it came to adapting the latter’s novel Hanging Up, which outlined their upbringing and the problems with their alcoholic mom and philandering pop. (The sisters were stunned when they found out about their father’s serial infidelities as they had always believed their mother to be insane and fabricating the stories).  Their tensions were eventually resolved and their relationship is underscored when Delia says, When we died … and realises her error. Meg Ryan, Lena Dunham, Reese Witherspoon, Rita Wilson all read extracts from her work;  Steven Spielberg says getting her to laugh was like winning an Oscar;  so many people sought her approval and so many received her counsel, whether they wanted it or not. She told people what to do. The fact that she didn’t inform any of them that she had leukaemia?  Some appear to interpret it as a kind of betrayal rather than the woman’s own resilience and choice to remain detached and private in an era of oversharing. Since oversharing appeared to be her avocation you can kind of empathise. She had a lot of lunches with a lot of people in the days before she went to hospital and never breathed a word of her terminal illness. (She loved food but never ate dessert).   She made Julie and Julia when she knew she was dying and everyone remarks upon how much kinder she was since marrying writer Nicholas Pileggi, and that the portrayal of Tucci and Streep was as much a reflection of them as it was of Paul and Julia Child. She was saying that it was possible to have a supportive husband and she wasn’t making it up because she was married to such a man. Utterly fascinating and a remarkable work about women in movies from a son whose devotion and puzzlement are equally evident. What is copy is what is lost.

In the Line of Fire (1993)

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Frank Horrigan is the ageing Secret Service man being taunted by phonecalls from someone who knows way too much about him – including that he was on the detail for JFK in Dallas. Turns out the guy is a former CIA assassin who couldn’t get acclimatised to life after Nam. (I know!) The threat to the current incumbent who’s on the campaign trail is overwhelming and Frank wants to get with the present detail despite being on bad terms with the whole team. He’s accompanied by newbie Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) but gets to know a woman secret agent, Lilly Raines, (‘window dressing’ as he puts it), the fabulous Rene Russo who’s probably been cast for her striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. The brilliance of this cat-and-mouse thriller is that it’s constructed between the poles of guilt and nostalgia – Frank’s guilt at not being able to save JFK, plus what might have been – and the desire not to let history get repeated. There’s also the joy of Clint playing versions of his previous law enforcing self with Dirty Harry references in abundance, verbal and visual. The byplay with Russo is extremely witty and their first (foiled) attempt to go to bed is great slapstick – look at all the weapons come off!  John Malkovich as the disguise-happy Mitch Leary is a great choice for the loopy assassin whose hero is Sirhan Sirhan and we know that this must end in a murder attempt replaying of RFK’s death at a venue similar to the Ambassador Hotel, this time in the midwest. This is a witty, fast-moving, clever, inventive, knowing, brutal and brilliantly written entertainment by Jeff Maguire (working from a story by producer Jeff Apple), superbly directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  The score by Ennio Morricone really works with the other jazz  soundtrack licks including Clint himself tinkling the ivories in all those hotel bars. With John Heard in a supporting role, Fred Dalton Thompson as White House Chief of Staff and Buddy Van Horn looking after the stunts, we are in great hands here as all those ideas about the Warren Commission, lone assassins and your ordinary everyday conspiracy theories are unpicked while an unstoppable romance between Clint and John unfolds in deadly fashion. Fantastic.

Contact (1997)

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In between paying the bills, dealing with people, learning stuff, surviving illness, being distracted and getting through the day, everyone is trying to figure out what we are, why we are here and all that good stuff. There are many of us who would leap at the chance of getting off the Earth and into the galaxy for a bit. No?! Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) has been trying to make contact with people since she was a kid and her father (David Morse – what an apposite name) supplied her first with radios then telescopes and now that she’s an orphaned adult she’s a hugely important research scientist with SETI battling for funding until she can finally make contact with extra-terrestrial life:  people on Earth are just not as fascinating, when you get down to it. And funding’s a bitch as far as getting the Government to back you. The publicity attaching to her private project when static is finally revealed to be the first ever TV pictures being beamed back to Earth (Hitler at the 1936 Olympics) – along with plans to build a bloody huge machine for goodness knows what purpose – elicits scepticism, terror and hostility, especially from the religious nuts. She argues with theologian Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) about the differences between facts and articles of faith and the film is really a disquisition on the politics of belief. She misses out on the first supposed opportunity to travel to meet the alien life forms, in favour of her game-playing boss David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt); while the original project is actually being backed by a reclusive billionaire SR Hadden (John Hurt) who has his own very personal reasons. Science versus religion is the heart of this superior production from Carl Sagan’s novel which he based on a story devised with his wife Ann Druyan, originally a treatment for a film at Warners. It was adapted by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Foster is perfectly cast in this story of grim determination. If you’ve been to Cape Canaveral you’ll wonder at the possibilities, as much as you laugh at the rockets and paraphernalia that seem to be made from egg boxes and tinfoil. But all it takes is a leap of faith … Marvellous, in every sense.