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Arnie turns 60! July 30, 2007

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Governor Schwarzenegger

A short update today, just to mark the fact that the Austrian Oak, Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger, is 60 years old. The 7 time Mr Olympia, worldwide movie icon and Governor of California has come a long way since his early days growing up in the small village of Thal, Austria. Say what you will about his oversized ego or wooden acting, I’m still one of those who find him an incredibly inspirational figure (BTW, Laurence Leamer’s 2005 biography comes highly recommended from these quarters). Now in his second and final term as California Governor, there are already whispers of a run for senate next. Many happy returns to the, er, old guy; I hope I wear half as well.

The Limey (1999) July 22, 2007

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“Tell me … Tell me! Tell me about Jenny!”

With those furiously spoken disembodied words, The Limey opens to blackness. The Who’s thunderous “The Seeker” strikes up, and the speaker emerges from the darkness at the start of his tale, out of focus, the memories taking time to coalesce. After a few moments Wilson, ageing London gangster, becomes discernible, striding out of LAX airport and into the warm, unfamiliar California sunshine. As Wilson, Terence Stamp burns up the screen, blue eyes firing like diamonds in a face so gracefully weather-worn you feel he could strike a match off his cheek. Wilson is a man with a purpose, and you’d better not get in his way.

Wilson picks up a cab at the airport and travels in silence, his thoughts humming in his head while his voice hums on the soundtrack. Passing traffic barely registers. Wilson is fresh out of prison, an unreformed London gangster, one of the old-school. He’s lived a violent life, full of high times and long stretches, but it’s a different world now, one that doesn’t recognise him, let alone afford him respect. When Wilson buys a gun in LA, the dealers are kids, still in high school. Wilson’s confusion and shame at involving children in his business registers potently on Stamp’s face. Wilson’s one true happiness in life was his daughter Jenny (Melissa George). She grew up well in spite of him, moved to LA, became involved with a wealthy record producer, and died in a fiery car crash. Wilson doesn’t believe it was an accident. He’s out to find the truth, he’s a man with nothing to lose, and he doesn’t fuck around. 

Jenny (Melissa George)

From the very outset, director Steven Soderbergh and his editor Sarah Flack tell the film like a jigsaw puzzle; it’s disjointed, carefully constructed to be almost chaotic but always provide the viewer with the information needed. This is Wilson’s story as he remembers it: fractured into moments, pieces of one conversation mixed with another, fused to the memories they evoke, bringing back old regrets and treasured days. Flashbacks to Wilson’s youth are taken from Ken Loach’s 1967 film Poor Cow, in which Stamp played a thief who ends up in prison. It’s an unusual move, and one that works beautifully. We cut frequently to Wilson, seated on a plane, his face serene, yet sad. To begin, we can only assume this is Wilson before his arrival; only as the story reaches its end does it become apparent that he’s on his way home, looking back over his trip. 

Music and sound are used expertly in the movie, with Wilson’s reminiscences scored to near-silence, broken only by the same few haunting notes played over and over, together with Stamp’s own indistinct humming and the tinkling of windchimes. It’s haunting, lyrical and effective.

A flashback from POOR COW

Wilson hooks up with Eduardo, an old friend of Jenny’s from her acting class. Soderbergh favourite Luis Guzman plays the sidekick, an unusually dramatic role for him, and his turn is understated and genuine. Wilson and Eduardo are strangers from different worlds, they barely speak the same language, and yet both have one thing in common: a sense of duty to the girl they both knew and cared for. Bonded by this, they become a most unlikely and oddly touching team, and the culture clash between cockney gangster and semi-reformed LA crook also gives Soderbergh opportunity to inject a little levity to the script:

Wilson: “I’m going to have a butchers round.”

Eduardo: “Who you gonna butcher?!”

Wilson (patiently): “Butcher’s hook: look.”

Wilson and Eduardo

From Eduardo’s information, Wilson learns the name of the man Jenny was involved with: Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), and the location of a depot where Valentine’s associates operate. Wilson strolls in off the street, confuses the obviously shady workers long enough to find Valentine’s address, then takes a thorough beating with calm indifference. With Wilson dumped on the street outside, Soderbergh executes the film’s most memorable shot: Stamp, emerging from below frame, untangles his battered frame and stands tall; he removes a pistol hidden in his waistband and resolutely plods back into the depot. Shots ring out; there are cries for help. As the camera, still without cutting, moves in on the building, a sole survivor flees as Stamp emerges, his face twisted with rage: “You tell him! You tell him I’m coming! TELL HIM I’M FUCKING COMING!”

Wilson rises again

News of this gets back to Terry Valentine through his no-nonsense security advisor Avery (Barry Newman). Standing on the overhang of his grand house in the LA hills, a beautiful starlet swimming in the pool, with “King Midas in Reverse” jangling on the soundtrack, the handsome and well-groomed Valentine looks like the man who has everything. Fonda is perfectly cast opposite Stamp: two once-golden 60s icons, playing rivals in a film that dwells on themes of age, memories and regrets, men past their time.

Valentine's place

Fonda makes Terry Valentine everything Wilson is not: relaxed, reflectful, mellow; yet underneath is unrest, even a sense of desperation. Valentine’s high days are long behind him, the sun is setting, and he’s clinging on by his fingertips. In that first scene, Valentine stands in twilight, the warm California sun fading below the horizon, and the implication is clear. Later, there’s a quiet little scene in which he describes the halcyon days of the 1960s to his young girlfriend; Fonda is subdued, mournful and quite wonderful.

Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda)

Valentine holds a party the next day, into which Wilson and Eduardo crash. In a striking sequence, Wilson’s repeated fantasies about stepping up and shooting Valentine dead are played out, editing together multiple angles of Wilson’s revolver swooping out like a coiled snake. Wilson won’t go through with it yet, however, telling Eduardo: “he’s got to know why.”

The plot thickens: Valentine authorises Avery to hire hitmen, but they fail. Wilson discovers from the authorities that Valentine is suspected of laundering money for drug dealers. As the net closes in on the panicked music mogul, he flees to his vacation home along the coast, but Wilson is on his tail.

Elaine (Lesley Anne Warren)

Intertwined with this, somewhere in a quiet alleyway just off the main story, Eduardo leads Wilson to Jenny’s acting coach, Elaine (Lesley Anne Warren). A calm and quiet person, she is not a natural mesh with Wilson, yet they develop a careful friendship; through their talks he is able to put his memories into order, mull over the possibilities and family life he missed out on, even though he doesn’t regret his choices. It’s in these quiet moments that Stamp’s faultless performance is at its peak. When he allows a tiny crack in Wilson’s armour, a melancholic smile for the daughter whose childhood he watched largely from behind prison bars, Stamp’s delivery is heartbreaking.

Elaine: “Do you even remember the last time you saw her?”

Wilson: “I remember every time I saw her. I watched her grow up … in increments.”

Wilson recalls his daughter's childhood

*SPOILERS BELOW* 

It’s this same, almost serene Wilson, who ultimately emerges at the film’s climax. Having cornered the terrified Terrry Valentine after a bloody and superbly filmed gunfight, the film’s first, then-detached words are finally placed in context. “Tell me,” Stamp snarls like a wolf, “tell me about Jenny!

The now pathetic, cowering figure of Terry Valentine tells the whole guilty tale. Wilson could, and perhaps should - at least by his code - kill him, but instead he steps back, his mind overflowing with conflicting memories and emotions. Finally, without explanation, he walks away. Whatever he took from Valentine’s story, it was enough to complete his cathartic journey.

Wilson bids farewell

The Limey is a film I didn’t fully appreciate upon its initial cinema release; I don’t think I was expecting something so stylised or non-linear in its narrative. Since then I’ve watched it three or four times, and it grows in my estimation with each repeat viewing. I’d now say that it’s a minor classic: rich, haunting, beautifully photographed and with a magnificent central performance from Terence Stamp.

Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) July 15, 2007

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Right from its opening moments, with the camera sweeping majestically across Manhattan while a beautiful rendition by Sting of the classic title song plays over the credits, Someone to Watch Over Me is as effortlessly cool and jazzy as can be.

I’ve always been a fan of Ridley Scott, but as a youngster this film seemed, quite honestly, dull. I think it was the very 80s appearance of the film (hair, fashions, etc.), and the fact that it’s less a thriller, more a romance with a thriller subplot. Watching it again recently, it was almost like a different movie to the one I remembered. The focus on the romance in the story worked extremely well for me this time, simply because it’s so engagingly portrayed. Scott gets the initial trigger for the plot (Mimi Rogers’ wealthy Manhattan socialite witnesses a murder backstage at a party) out of the way in a short but thrilling sequence within the first ten minutes. It’s a premise familiar from The Narrow Margin and other thrillers, and there’s no attempt at anything particularly original here. The thriller aspect is strictly routine, necessary only to set up the slow burning romance which develops between Rogers and the happily married detective (Tom Berenger) assigned to protect her until the killer is found.

The obvious construction of the romance - he’s a blue-collar cop from Queens; she’s a privileged heiress with her own chauffeur - is nonetheless entirely beliveable. Scott’s vision of Manhattan is warm, opulent and inherently glamorous, beautifully photographed as always; when Keegan finishes a shift, we cut straight to him trudging home on the subway to his working class neighbourhood. Scott combines his trademark visuals with a striking use of music to great effect, most noticeably during Berenger’s first visit to Rogers’ apartment. While the camera follows him in grand sweeps as he marvels at the scale of his surroundings, Vivaldi’s “Gloria” plays on the soundtrack, perfectly underscoring the character’s reactions. Classical music is used throughout the scenes in Rogers’ apartment, creating an inviting atmosphere, a refuge for Keegan and amplifying the movie’s relaxed, mellow pace.

The action/thriller element is held back so that when it does come, its impact is only heightened. In the film’s best sequence, the threat to Rogers finally reaches her apartment itself, and in a tense, well-staged set-piece, it’s Keegan’s new-found familiarity with his environment that gives him the edge over the killer.

Crucially, though, it’s the performances that sell the story. Rogers delivers strongly in a role requiring a mixture of strength and inner vulnerability. Berenger, meanwhile, is truly excellent. In Detective Mike Keegan he creates a rounded, flawed hero, whose every move rings true: from his first unsure, embarrassed meeting with his witness, through to their eventual affair and its consequences, Berenger charts his character’s emotional journey with skill, his motivations always well-defined. Seeing a performance like this underlines how unfortunate it is that Berenger now finds himself stuck in DTV hell, a thoroughly undeserving fate.

Lorraine Bracco, years before The Sopranos would bring her wider recognition, gives fine support in the somewhat thankless role of Keegan’s wife. Andreas Katsulas is perfectly cast as the ruthless killer, and it’s surely his performance here which landed him the role of the ‘one-armed man’ in the excellent big screen remake of The Fugitive.

The only false note in the film is the climax. Up to this point the story has existed in a beliveable world, with character behaviour grounded in reality, but it does sadly go a little off the rails for a typically OTT Hollywood finish. It didn’t ruin the movie for me at all, though, and it does recover for a nice, understated ending that falls somewhere between happy and downbeat. This is, in my new opinion, an excellent, very stylish romantic thriller, and unfortunately somewhat underappreciated.

Drive a Crooked Road (1954) July 4, 2007

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From the writer/director team of Blake Edwards and Richard Quine comes the minor yet engaging little robbery noir Drive a Crooked Road

Mickey Rooney stars as Eddie Shannon, a shy, lonely car mechanic and amateur race car driver with hopeless dreams of turning professional. When the beautiful, sophisticated Barbara (Dianne Foster) takes a shine to Eddie, he’s smitten. Then Barbara’s amiable friend Steve (Kevin McCarthy) casually mentions that he has a job for a top driver like Eddie - handling the getaway car on the demanding escape route from a planned bank heist. Eddie’s no criminal, but begins to think of the life he and Barbara could enjoy with all that money. But what Eddie doesn’t realise is that he’s being played by them both …

Steve brings Eddie in on his plan

It’s easy to pick holes in the film. For starters, the climactic robbery is rather rushed, while Steve and Barbara’s nefarious scheme is laid out in the very first scene, leading to a sort of Columbo situation in which the audience is always ahead of the main character. It’s also obviously a ‘B’ grade production, but well-directed by Quine, and with good use of locations throughout, which adds immensely to the realism.

The performances are uniformally good, too, and the characters well-drawn. Mickey Rooney gives a sensitive, low-key portrayal of an interesting character - even as Eddie is drawn into crime, Rooney makes the guy such a likeable dope that you’re totally on his side. Dianne Foster is good as the duplicitous Barbara, especially when she begins to harbour doubts about what she is doing to Eddie. Kevin McCarthy is also excellent as the charming Steve, disarmingly friendly to McCarthy in a recent pic with Anthony and Stella Hopkinsthe nervous Eddie until he finally reveals his true cold, callous nature. To go slightly off-topic, I’m immensely fond of McCarthy - Innerspace was one of my favourite movies as a kid and remains tremendous fun, while the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a genuine classic. Hopefully we’ll get a new special edition DVD while McCarthy and co-star Dana Wynter are still around to contribute. At the age of 93, McCarthy is still busy working in movies today.

I often find that small-scale little noirs like this - not great, but not bad - either click with me straight away or not at all. Drive a Crooked Road drew me in and is one I know I’ll watch again sometime. It’s a Columbia picture, pretty much unknown, and not that likely to show up on DVD. A pity.

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