The Naked Face 1984 ***

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Sidney Sheldon was one of the bestselling novelists of the 20th century; a couple of decades later, and his work has largely been forgotten. The Naked Face was something of a breakthrough novel when published in 1969, with a prescient theme involving psychological profiling in murder cases. By 1984, Sheldon has considered more to be a writer of trashy blockbusters like Masters of the Game rather than a mystery writer, but The Naked Face is a well-plotted thriller, carefully adapted by writer/director Bryan Forbes.

Roger Moore plays Judd Stevens, a Chicago psychiatrist who gets an unpleasant visitation from two cops (Rod Steiger and Elliot Gould). They’re investigating the murder of one of Judd’s patience, and there’s bad blood from a previous encounter when Judd’s testimony got a cop-killer out of a potential jail sentence. Judd refuses to let the police see his confidential files, which only further antagonises them, and turns to an eccentric private detective (Art Carney) to clear his name.

The Naked Face was part of Cannon’s attempts to move from distribution to high-end film-making, and it found few takers on release, perhaps due to a lack of advertising spend. Steiger shouts a lot, while More underplays, and yet the result is quite compelling in places; there’s enough red herrings and plot-twists to divert the mind from Moore’s awful raincoats, smoking jackets and elbow patches. It’s an old-fashioned, dialogue-heavy thriller with good location work; forgotten now, it’s worth exhuming for fans of the mystery genre. The appearance of John Kapelos, the janitor from The Breakfast Club, should be a clincher for cult-movie fans attracted by the Oscar-heavy cast.

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The Current War 2017 ****

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The Current War has been on the shelf for two years now; specifically because it had been primed by Harvey Weinstein as an awards contender in 2017. It was unloved when screened at Toronto that year, but the negative buzz about the producer may have had something to do with that. The poster makes it look like The Prestige, but instead of competing magicians, it’s competing scientists, or rather inventors; Westinghouse, (Michael Shannon), Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Tesla (Nicolas Hoult). Unless you’re a master of physics and chemistry, some of the technical details escape you, but compensations are plentiful including two big performances from big actors, the elaborate and unfamiliar period details, and the pointed montages; there’s a great juxtaposition of the electrified world fair in Chicago and the first electrocution of a murderer in an electric chair. Tom Holland also has a decent role, as does Katherine Waterston; it’s a big prestige picture of the kind that used to be released for awards-season attention on Xmas day by Weinstein. Sold off as an asset to another company for a paltry $3 million, it’s unlikely to draw a massive crowd amongst the brainless summer blockbusters, but it’s an intelligent and interesting movie. For all the nay-sayers who complain that there’s no smart summer movies, The Current War is far from the stinker it’s history suggests. The film has been re-edited and new scenes added; this UK release is an attempt to gauge interest before a more (or less) expensive US release is mooted.

 

The Untouchables 1987 *****

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Sequel and prequels (Capone Rising) have come to nothing; Brian De Palma’s 1987 gangster opus remains one of the best examples of reworking a hit tv show on an epic scale. There’s an operatic sweep to the story of Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner), the FBI-enforcer who sets out to bring down Al Capone (Robert De Niro) with the help of an old Chicago cop (Sean Connery). Also a couple of the effects now show their age, and the film’s budgetary concerns are visible, The Untouchables has one great scene after another; the store bombing, the first border raid and it’s bloody aftermath, the baseball scene, the railway-station shoot out, the show-down with Frank Nitti (the late, great Billy Drago). Costner fits his white-collar character like a glove, and Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia make ideal support. David Mamet’s script also crackles with great dialogue, and De Palma’s sweeping camera and desire to entertain made The Untouchables an instant classic.

Widows 2018 ****

Steve McQueen has something of a reputation as a pretentious film-school type, but Widows is easily his best film, mainly because it’s the first time he’s attempted to tell a story in an entertaining rather than a tortuous way. Here, McQueen dusts off the old 1983 ITV Linda La Plante crime series, adapted by Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, and it’s a slow-burning heist film with some political aspirations. Three widows of hardened thieves join forced when their husbands are killed during a robbery. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debricki. Various factions are searching for missing money, and Davis initiates a heist based on her late husband’s notes. Meanwhile, there’s Colin Farrell as a crooked politician, Robert Duvall as his racist father and Daniel Kaluuya as a psychotic thug and they’re all sniffing around the cash. It takes about two hours of slow-burning menace and social commentary to get to the action, which is swift and undeniably exciting. The political stuff, about how the patriarchy use faked female empowerment news stories to disguise their criminal activity, is sharp and very 2018, but ultimately this is bang-bang cops and robbers stuff, very enjoyable to watch and with some very flashy moments. It can be compared to the great 1996 B movie Set It Off, and that’s high praise for Widows.

Three Kings 1999 ***

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Pre American Hustle work from David O Russell, this Gulf War drama with a difference is a key film in his canon, demonstrating that he could deal with big stars and action while retaining his indie style. Russell and star George Clooney reportedly came to fisticuffs during filming, but if there was on-set tension, it doesn’t show in this heist film with a difference. Archie Gates (Clooney) and Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) are US soldiers who gets wind of a stash of hidden gold. She soldiers have selfish motives for their adventure, but the find themselves politicalised, and end up helping a group of Iraqi insurgents who are rebelling against Saddam Hussein.  David O Russell makes this tale of mercenaries turned freedom fighters into a comic parable, staging one action sequence to the strains of Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now and there ‘s also a notable torture sequence in which Troy is made to drink oil but his captors. A forerunner of Clooney’s Monuments Men, Three Kings is a war film that doesn’t reply on patriotism, but attempts to establish a common good across racial and international borders.