Heat 1986 ***

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Any personal investigation into the decline and fall of Burt Reynolds would have to include Heat, a 1986 film which eared the star a cool $2 million. Reynolds had decided, perhaps a half dozen films too late, that the ‘man with a car’ trope had been overdone, and was looking for more mature roles. Both Stick and Heat demonstrate that his stardom was considerable enough to bring in a team of top talent; William Goldman adapts his own novel here, while super-producer Elliot Kastner (Where Eagles Dare, The Long Goodbye, Angel Heart) produces. The opening sequence is pretty striking with Nick Escalante (Reynolds) hitting on a woman in a bar, only to be badly beaten by her wimpy husband. It’s soon revealed that this is a set up job, and that Escalante is being paid to make the husband look good. Establishing that our central character is happy to debase himself for cash is a strange way to start, and things get odder when Nick dons a ridiculously garish pimp outfit to avenge a woman Holly (Karen Young) who has fallen foul of a local crime boss DeMarco (Neill Barry). Nick pulls soon lamentable slow-mo kung fu moves and enables Holly to humiliate DeMarco by taking a knife to his genetalia. A side-plot involves Nick working as a bodyguard/chaperone to a gauche young man (Peter McNichol), although given how sleazy the whole enterprise is, it’s hard to imagine Nick’s influence being a positive one, and the way the stories are blended at the climax is crude to say the least. Heat went through several directors, with Dick Richards allegedly quitting after Reynolds punched him in the face. Given the atrocious fight-scenes here, a punch from Reynolds wouldn’t have much impact; a scene where he karate-kicks a light-bulb out if its socket is utterly farcical. And Nick’s habit of carrying his jacking on his shoulder by one finger makes him look like a male-model. And yet…Goldman was one of the Hollywood greats, and there’s some interesting scenes, notably a long meditation on gambling that transfers well to the screen. And even the confrontations between Nick and DeMarco have some latent menace; this is a small-scale, nasty but bluntly effective crime story, quite different from Goldman’s other work, but with evidence of his unique style. With support from Howard Hesseman, Heat isn’t exactly a classic, and was probably worth remaking as Wild Card with Jason Stratham, but there are treasures amongst the ruins for fans of Goldman’s gift for character.

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Carlito’s Way 1994 *****

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Perhaps it’s not as iconic as The Untouchables, but Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Edwin Torres’s book is a cracking crime drama that shows commendable restraint. Al Pacino is Carlito, who emerges from prison determined to go straight, despite his lawyer Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) being a coke-snorting shambles. Carlito starts up his own nightclub, always a good way to avoid criminal temptation, and kicks things off romantically with dancer Gail (Penelope Ann Miller). While the set pieces are memorable, including a pool-room shoot out and the epic finale in Grand Central Station, Carlito’s Way has a vice-like grasp of its central characters that never lets up, and engagement is high throughout. Reviews were rather tepid at the time, but De Palma’s thriller is a great Saturday night popcorn film, big stars, big performances, and an exciting, involving story. Pacino and Penn are both great here, giving proper perfoamnces that don’t bear the traces of excess that both men have indulged elsewhere. The story is bookended with a flash-forward to the final scene, which is a classic trope, but deflects the tension and the power; if you can find someone that hasn’t seen it, skip the opening scene and Carlito’s Way is a blast.

French Connection II 1975 ****

French-Connection-IIAlthough it was released as The French Connection Number 2 in the UK, one of the claims to fame of John Frankenheimer’s sequel is that it started the trend of Roman numerals after the title. Otherwise, French Connection II is not exactly a classic sequel; it doesn’t have the NYC setting, only a couple of returning characters, no car chase, and offers a very different mood to William Friedkin’s scuzzy Oscar-winner. Friedkin wasn’t interested either, but Hackman presumably liked the idea of retuning to the role of cop Popeye Doyle, arriving in Marseilles without any French and falling foul of hoods and police alike on the trail of Frog One (Fernando Rey). Most reviewers focus on a lengthy rehab scene after Doyle is shot full of heroin, and while Hackman’s commitment and performance levels are admirable, it derails the energy of the movie  without upping the stakes and is probably the reason that it’s not as fondly remembered. But The French Connection’s ambiguous ending left room for a satisfying sequel, and there’s lots of vigorous cops and robbers action to enjoy here, including a big-scale docklands shoot-out, a raid on a drug-packaging and distribution plant, and some great bits of business with Doyle; expressing remorse after blowing a fellow cops cover, forming a wordless bond with a barman, or hitching a ride on a garbage truck to avoid a tail, Hackman inhabits this signature role so well that, even if it’s not quite the original, Frankenheimer’s thriller has a weather-beaten style of its own.

The Queen of Spades 1949 *****

queen of spades 5 suvorin countessFilms can be good and bad; only a few offer magic. Theodore Roszak’s 1991 novel Flicker is about a film-maker whose connection to the black arts allows him to put subliminal messages in his films that make them hypnotic; while it sounds like an ideal David Fincher project, it’s yet to be filmed. But some movies, from Last Year in Marienbad to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Celeine and Julie Go Boating have it, an inexplicable quality that makes the film feel like more than what’s on-screen. The Queen of Spaces is such a film. There’s been a few brilliant horror films adapted from work by great Russian writers; much like Mario Bava’s spell-binding adaption of Chekov’s A Drop of Water in his Black Sabbath anthology, Thorold Dickinson’s Pushkin adaptation has a sense of dread that chills the bones. Anton Walbrook is the manipulative Captain Suvorin who seeks the secret of a elderly countess (Edith Evans); she’s reputed to be a witch, who has sold her soul to the devil to discover how to win every card game she plays. But at what price? Suvorin’s first mistake is to seduce the Countess’s ward to get closer to her; once he inveigles his way to the dying countess’s bedside, things are only going to go against him in the cruellest way possible. The Queen of Spades is a film believed lost for years, but it looks sensational now, with disconcerting use of glass and mirrors to create a unique sense of 1806 St Petersburg. Treasured British film stalwart Michael Medwin is also amongst the cast; if you’re tiring of jump-scares and monster masks, The Queen of Spades is almost certainly the best ghost story you’ve never seen. It’s real cinematic magic.

Dressed to Kill 1980 ***

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Brian De Palma hasn’t been troubling the box-office much with ventures like Tomboy or Domino, but back in 1980, he on fire, and was hailed as the new Hitchcock. He won this accolade as much by imitation as anything else; Dressed to Kill feels like a fusion of the cod-psychology of Psycho plus some of the innocent abroad adventure of North by Northwest. The portrayal of a transvestite killer and gender reassignment treatment feels exploitative and is rather regrettable by today’s standards, and De Palma’s enthusiasm for naked female victims, hardly a unique fetish, inevitably limits the audience. But the technicalities of Dressed to Kill are still impressive; the early sequences involving Kate (Angie Dickinson) being stalked in a museum have steely control, and after she’s unexpectedly side-lined, the plot diverts to Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon) and Nancy Allen’s call girl Liz, leading to a spectacular elevator murder. The level of violence and the stereotyping are regrettable, but De Palma’s gift for tension and dramatic images doesn’t fade, and there’s nice turns from Dennis Franz and Michael Caine as the cop and the psychologist who prove useful Peter on his quest to find out who murdered his mother. they don’t make them like this any more, and that’s probably for the best, but as a snapshot of what was acceptable in 1980, this is a jaw-droppingly slick thriller.

The Amateur 1981 ****

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Reputed to be in development as a reboot for Hugh Jackman for a good few years now, Charles Jarrott’s The Amateur is a tense, effective revenge thriller than makes the best of its mix of cold-blooded espionage and hot-blooded anger. A sense of righteous grievance is harnessed by a shocking opening as a terrorist gang storm the American embassy in West Germany and execute an American (Sarah Kaplan) while being filmed by live-tv crews. Widower Charles Heller (John Savage) is no secret agent, his speciality is mathematics and decoding messages, but when the CIA intelligence forces that he works for don’t respond for political reasons, Heller takes things into his own hands by infiltrating Eastern Bloc spy-networks in the hope of finding who killed his wife. This is all rather more plausaible that usual, Heller uses his ability to hack into the CIA files to find declassified information and force the CIA to offer him some grudging support by blackmailing them; The Amateur makes a virtue of its savvy view of dirty black ops. Christopher Plummer, Marthe Keller and Arthur Hill are all names familiar to genre fans, and Robert Littell’s screenplay ducks many of the clichés expected. The Amateur seems to have been taken out of the system for some reason; just for fun, below is included a link to purchase a DVD for a cool $100 plus. Why that should be so high is an interesting question; The Amateur does a violent but professional wet job that should have left more of a cultural imprint than it did.

https://www.amazon.com/Amateur-John-Savage/dp/B0007WQGW2/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=the+amateur&qid=1564310377&s=gateway&sr=8-3

https://trakt.tv/movies/the-amateur-1981

Boy 2010 ****

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There’s been an understandable rush of enthusiasm for Taika Waititi on the back of strong comic work with original properties Eagle Vs Shark, What We Do In The Shadows and putting en engaging personal stamp on Thor: Ragnorok. That style has developed, but it’s also seen in early work like 2010’s Boy, a coming of age story featuring James Rolleston in the title role and Waititi himself was the boy’s father. Boy is a slow-burning film, but one rich in compassion and delicate in intent. And a post-credits scene, featuring the whole class perform a choreographed dance routine to 80’s hot Poi E is an absolute delight, and a perfect ending to a film that commands respect and admiration in equal measures.