The Last Of Sheila (1973)

Another night at the movies with an old friend from the 1970s.  “The Last of Sheila” is a terrific murder mystery set among the Hollywood elite and on the French Riviera. It features an all star cast and a delightfully convoluted plot that finishes with one of the most cynical endings you will ever encounter.

The most interesting aspect of the film from my perspective is that it was written by Composer Stephen Sondheim and Actor Anthony Perkins. The moderator of the discussion last night, told us he had visited Sondheim’s apartment to interview him on several occasions and that the entry hall was filled with puzzles and games.  Sondheim and Perkins were famous for throwing parties that featured elaborate mystery games and scavenger hunts. It seems that they were encouraged to adapt their hobby into a script that could be made into a film based on the kinds of puzzle searches that made up for their parties. Of course there has to be a spine for the story and that is provided by the types of people that they would have at their parties, you know, Hollywood types and entertainment professionals.

There are seven principle performers in the story. James Coburn is a movie producer, who’s rich wife was killed in a hit and run accident a year before. He plans an elaborate week on his yacht in the South of France for six guests who were at the party the night his wife died. He has discovered a variety of secrets about them and he uses those as cruel clues to torment his guests as part of the game. The main reason that they put up with such bullying behavior is that they each need something from their friend, a job, financing for a film project, or paying off a long held personal favor. The story then plays out through the game over the days cruising the ports and nights playing scavenger hunt puzzles to solve the game.

Of course there is a murder and everyone is suspect. During the course of the film, there are lots of clues dropped as characters interact and scramble to solve the puzzle. Actor Ian McShane, who is a ubiquitous presence in movies and tv shows these days, plays the hanger on husband of starlet Raquel Welch. He looks incredibly young and handsome in contrast to his older craggy self in films like the John Wick series. Raquel is the weak link in the film, whispering most of her lines but still looking the part. Her best scene is her final brushoff of her secret lover.

Dyan Cannon plays an talent agent based on her own agent Sue Mengers, a legendary Hollywood figure. Cannon is always a hoot in the films she appears in. Her role in this movie is mostly for comic relief as her character has only minor connections to the murder plot. If you are interested in seeing her in a more developed part in a murder mystery, I strongly recommend “Deathtrap” where her costars are Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. She was one of the guests for the conversation following the screening so more on her later.

The late Joan Hackett has a sympathetic and juicy role as the rich wife of screenwriting hack Richard Benjamin. They played off of one another really well and the complicated little game they play between each other regarding their consumption of beverages is one of the clues that move us forward in the game.

The film however, belongs to three performers who take the screen and make it crackle in dialogue, emotional desperation and cleverness. Richard Benjamin as the needy screen writer is also the clever guest who appears to be at the head of the pack when it comes to playing the game. The greatest moment in the film comes from his character Tom, when he explains that he doesn’t have any gloves. I nearly bust a gut at that moment. Coburn is brutally charming and repellent simultaneously. He uses his amazing smile as a weapon to deflect responses from the victims of his cruel asides. His manipulation of everyone else still does not justify what happens but each time he is on screen, the tension level for all the party guests goes up.

No one will be surprised that James Mason’s fading director is the acting apex of the film. He feigns interest in the game quite effectively, but on his face you can see he is really evaluating all the other contestants more that the clues. In the confrontation sequence in the climax, as he explains what has been happening, his voice never waivers but his eyes and body give way to the insecurity he suddenly finds himself in. His denouement is perfect in reflecting the cynical power structures in Hollywood, I loved his performance.

The Conversation

After the film had screened, film Historian Foster Hirsch interviewed the two guests for the evening. Dyan Cannon and Richard Benjamin. Both of them were engaging and free with stories, although most of the information they shared was already well known.
Cannon talked about how she modeled her performance on her friend and agent Sue Mengers, who knew that she was in fact the inspiration for the character that she was asking her client to play. Dyan told us about enjoying the time filming on the beaches of southern France and about adding some pounds to her frame to play the agent, still not unflattering.
Richard Benjamin recounted how he traveled one day on a break from filming with his costar James Coburn in his newly acquired Ferrari. Neither of them had their passports with them as Coburn flew down the coast at 140 mph toward the Italian border. When asked for their papers Coburn took off his sunglasses and smiled and the border guard said “Ah, Mr. Flynt, welcome” and waived them through.  When they returned to France, virtually the same thing happened with the gendarmes controlling the French Border.
Benjamin also mused about how much luck was involved in the business. He was fortunate to be cast in a play, that lead to several other jobs and ultimately allowed him to direct as well.  He mostly allowed events to move him into the job of director. Dyan Cannon, who has also directed a few things contrasted his experience with her own, a woman in the 1970s trying to get a directing gig needed a much more organized plan.
Cannon has several projects she is working on, the one she spoke of at the TCMFF a couple of years ago is still on her plate, a musical based on her life. The play will include material on her life as Mrs. Cary Grant and she intends to star in it. She looks like she could nail it, she seemed to be a healthy octogenarian with good doctors and plenty of energy. Benjamin quipped that he was available.
I also had the pleasure of being seated with one of my podcasting friends Kristen Lopez from Ticklish Business and Journeys in Classic Film. She was there with her mother who was a big fan of the film, and there was a small service dog who sat quietly next to me on Mom’s lap through the whole film. We chatted a bit before the movie and I said good bye to them as we moved through the lobby of the Egyptian Theater. Had I waited a few more minutes I might have been rewarded, Kristin posted a picture of herself with Dyan Cannon that must have been taken just a little while after I said goodbye. Nice for her.

The Gentlemen

If ever there was someone who clearly benefited from the rise of independent cinema through the wedge of Quentin Tarantino, it was Guy Ritchie.  His take on English gangsters propelled him into prominence and he has had some great opportunities ever since. Maybe all of his films have not been successes, but after shepherding the live action remake of Aladdin to a worldwide box office of over a billion dollars, his failures will be overlooked for a while. He returns to his natural milieu with “The Gentleman”, a violent comical take on the economics of the marijuana business. It is filled with the sort of off kilter characters that “Snatch”, “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Rocknrolla” also overflowed with. Even though Vinnie Jones and Jason Statham are missing, “The Gentlemen” will take it’s rightful place alongside those rough cut gems.

The cast is chock full of Richie regulars but features some newcomers as well. Co-producer Matthew McConaughey is given star billing and while he earns it, there are several standout performances along the way. Charlie Hunnam, who starred in the Ritchie misfire “King Arthur” is a sturdy second banana to McConaughey’s crime lord.  He is all quiet coiled professionalism, waiting to be provoked into action. Henry Golding who has made a name for himself as a romantic lead in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Last Christmas” gets to play a heavy in this film and he is cynically effective as a self absorbed hoodlum on the make and maybe stretching past his reach too soon.  Eddie Marsan, a veteran of the two Guy Ritche Sherlock Holmes movies, plays a belligerent newspaper publisher. The resolution to his part of the story is one of the images we are fortunately spared from viewing.

It is two big names playing supporting parts that steal this movie and make it so enjoyable to watch. I could have sworn that Colin Farrell was a veteran of the crime films Ritchie made in his early days, but this seems to be their first film together. You know how Tarantino has filled the mouth of Samel L. Jackson with amazing dialogue in their collaborations? while this feels the same way. Farrel delivers the lines that Ritchie has written as if they have worked together for decades. He gets the intonations, relational status and emotional equivalency exactly right. Some things just go together perfectly. So to the list of milk and cookies, peanut butter and jelly, and James Bond and Martinis, add Colin Farrell to Guy Ritchie.

As great as Farrell is in his almost tangential role, there is another well established actor who basically steals the film in a wholly unexpected manner. Hugh Grant has been a light romantic comedian for most of his career. As he is aging out of the romantic lead casting, he has found his true niche as a character actor. In “Florence Foster Jenkins” he gave a sympathetic performance backing up Meryl Streep. In “Paddington 2” he delightfully plays the villain and deserved even more awards attention. Unfortunately, this fil gets a January release here in the States and by next December, people will have forgotten how great he is here. Grant plays a investigator/journalist/detective who tries to take what he finds out about the drug kingpin as a way of both blackmailing the gangster and breaking into the movie business. He is also the narrator of the film, who provides exposition, transitions and color to the events being described. Usually Grant has a proper sounding pronunciation and delicate manner of expression, but not his character Dexter. He is a foul mouthed, dirty minded, over confident and smug creature. Visually he is barely recognizable as the world famous actor he is, but vocally and with many mannerisms, you will not know that this is the same guy who wooed Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Sandra Bullock and many more.

The dialogues, violence and complicated machinations of the plot are the things that you expect in a Guy Ritchie crime film. The elegant turns of phrase that McConaughey uses as he engages his potential business partners and his enemies is a great example of the screenwriter’s strengths. Hunnam and Farrell with their mild deferential styles contrasted to what we see both are capable of are a plus with the dialogue and the action. Although it seems that the events in the story are spinning out as a series of unplanned obstacles, there is always a way that those moments tie back into the plot, usually in a surprising way.  At least it will be a surprise if you have never seen one of Ritchie’s earlier gangster films. If you have, you know to expect the unexpected, but you will be able afterwards to say, Of course.

Bad Boys for Life

Not that anyone ever took these films seriously, but after “Hot Fuzz” and “Team America”, it seemed to me that the secret was out that these movies are sort of a parody of real cop movies. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider did long surveillance in seedy conditions, ate and drank crappy food in cramped cars and mostly the car chases were collision courses in old cars. Cops drew their guns but were careful about firing, and if they weren’t the ending was downbeat rather than celebratory. The early Michael Bay films took action to extremes, mixed the improbable with some humor and amped up the violence. It was a formula for success twenty years ago. Apparently, it still works in spite of the passage of time and the mocking of tropes that has gone on since the last time Will Smith and Martin Lawrence saddled up to sing and shoot.

I saw both of the previous films once each. I enjoyed them at the time but I have almost no recall of plot or other characters. The movies are strictly disposable entertainment. Nothing wrong  with that, but if I’m going to put a Michael Bay film on repeatedly, it’s going to be “The Rock”. I did not have high expectations for the film but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it while I was in the theater. Bay does not direct [Although he does make an appearance], the directing team of Bilal Fallah and Adil El Arbi have the reins and they ride this pony for all it’s worth. It does not have the pacing of a Bay film, but everything else is there, glamour, explosions, over the top violence and shiny images and people. It’s like the 80s never died and “Miami Vice” became the biggest influence on movie making since “Jaws”.

Before he put on the fat suit and dressed as a transvestite, Martin Lawrence was a pretty reliable comic actor in action films and urban based comedies. This movie reminds us of why he was a star for most of the 90s. Maybe he has worked more sparingly in the last few years because the material did not fit him, but for this film it does. Will Smith is still the first name above the title but Lawrence is the acting hero in this movie. The comedy is not slapstick but based on a couple of premises. The usual trope of retirement is used to gain some sympathy. His character is also a new Grandpa.  It is the second premise that I appreciated more though. His character Marcus has emotional regrets about the violence he has inflicted on the world and he is trying to make good on a deal with God to be a better man. Of course by the end that will fly out the window, but until it does it gives Lawrence plenty of opportunities to riff on his characters self doubts and the more conservative person he has become as a father/grandfather figure.

Will Smith plays Will Smith. He is still cock of the walk confident and handsome. Yet he is also getting older and some acknowledgement of that was called for. The turn in the third act seems a little close to his film from last year but I won’t say too much. The plot does try to introduce new blood into the storyline and you can see the blueprint being laid down for future episodes of the series. It’s probably a good idea that he follows the lead of Tom Cruise, make a franchise film in your comfort zone every couple of years, and people will not notice when the mediocre films flop as much.

The action is insane at times, including a climax in a burning hotel that features a helicopter explosion inside of an abandoned building. The motorcycle chase can’t stand up to the Mission Impossible standards that have set the bar recently, but there are some good moments and a lot of gunplay to go with it. I don’t think this edition of the buddy cop franchise is necessarily better than the previous two, but since it is recent, I can remember a bit more of what happened. Give me a couple of years and it will fade too. Then maybe I can watch all of them again before the inevitable “Bad Boys 4” gets unleashed.

Underwater

If you were to make a list of signs that a movie is in potential trouble, one of the first things that will jump out at you is the timeline from filming to release. “Underwater” was filmed in 2017, this is 2020, that means it has been percolating for three years. A second indicator that you are in trouble is that you have a horror film opening in January. The first month of the year is the graveyard of the dregs for new releases. It is for counter programming to the big holiday releases that are still playing and collecting on their critical acclaim. Studios notoriously put films they have no faith in out at this time of year. Horror films often are the pawns in a game of movie release chess and they are sacrificed at this time all the time. Finally, Kristen Stewart, action star, is just not a description that anyone will pull out of their memory. So “Underwater” has a few strikes against it before the lights go down.

On the other hand, there were some rumors from early punters that it is better than you would expect.  I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned “Rotten Tomatoes” as a resource for any review I have ever done on this site, but “Underwater” was rated “Fresh” on the web site for the ticket purchase, so as I always do, I hoped for the best. Francis Bacon said “Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.” My dinner this evening was not very good. I can’t say the film is terrible, but I can tell you it is not good, and there are several reasons.

To start with the first failing, the story attempts something that just doesn’t work very well. Most films like this set up the characters by letting us meet them in the normal course of their lives. We usually get a map of the environment so we can get a fix on the eventual horizon. There will be some foreshadowing which increases the tension before the main story begins. “Underwater” eschews this approach, plunging us into the story without any set up except some cryptic headlines briefly flashed on the screen during the credit sequence. We know nothing about the job, the technology or the people before disaster strikes. So the film is going to depend on spectacle to draw us in, and this is a story set almost seven miles underwater, where there is no light and no horizon. We can’t really tell what has happened to the station that the characters are on, except from the inside, and it looks like any other building collapse interior you have seen in a movie.

When we finally do get a set of six characters set up in an escape plan, you can pretty much say who is going to die and the order in which they are going to go. This is a horror film that is so conventional that it reinforces one of the oldest tropes a a black character in horror. This is a concept that has been parodied in horror comedies for years.  I’ll let you figure out everything else, but if you have seen an action disaster film or horror film in the last fifty years, you will know. At least with “Alien” we got to care about those characters before their demise.

The dialogue in the film is almost imperceptible at times. Vincent Cassel’s accent is laid on a little thick at times and everyone else practically whispers. Meanwhile, the dialogue and exposition are drown out by the cacophony of alarms, explosions and screaming. The exposition is so vague that we have no idea what the goal is that we should be rooting for. I guess we are just supposed to hope that they don’t all die, but it is not clear before what. T.J. Miller, whose presence is another indicator of how long ago this movie was made, could easily be mistaken for playing the same part as he did in “Cloverfield”. When we finally get the reveal of what is out there in the murky water, it looks like a prequel to that creature feature.

One other way that the film sinks to mediocrity, is by splicing on an environmentalist theme and then adding a dollop of corporate conspiracy to finish off the recipe. The end credits suggest more elements to the story that never appeared to be critical to what was happening. You can’t just retro fit the movie which has played out with some theme that makes no sense.   Anyway, I am a sucker for crappy January films. So far this is my best film of the year and my worst. Let’s see how it all pans out when “Dolittle” arrives in a week.