Wakefield (2016)

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What is so sacrosanct about a marriage and a family that you have to live in it day after day after day? New York City lawyer Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) has a nervous breakdown and hides out in the garage attic of his home for weeks, watching his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and young daughters from the vantage point of the first floor window, coming out in the daytime when his family is gone in order to shower and eat. His withdrawal leads him to examine his life, and he rationalizes that he has not abandoned his family because he is still in the house. When a former boyfriend Wall Street trader Dirk Morrison (Jason O’Mara) re-enters his wife’s life, he realizes that he may not be able to return to the life that he has abandoned… E. L. Doctorow’s short story (by way of Hawthorne) gets a strange workout from writer/director Robin Swicord who previously adapted Little Women and The Jane Austen Book Club.  It seems like a cross between Rear Window, The Seven Year Itch and (maybe) Mad Men. In literary terms we might then say Cornell Woolrich meets John Cheever. But that is part of the problem since it requires a (intermittently unreliable) narration to make sense. Cranston is given something of an odd showcase for his particular brand of addled masculinity but this is really the portrait of a marriage gone wrong. And perhaps the lesson is that a relationship born out of dishonourable behaviour will never last (he stole his wife from his friend). One of the lessons of cinema is show, don’t tell. Or at least don’t do both simultaneously. One hour in, Howard tells us, I left myself. Seventy minutes in he declares, My family is better off without me. Ya think?! There are some amusing moments and scenes – when his Early Man Neanderthal look earns him pity and coins in a public park while reading about his former friend’s success on the front of a business magazine. When he’s chased through the neighbourhood gardens and discovered by the disabled kids next door. When he observes a memorial service to himself – complete with PowerPoint photograph. But it’s not enough. And you know what? You really do need someone to state the absolutely bleeding obvious, like they did at the worst ever stage production of The Diary of Anne FrankHe’s in the attic! And cut the legs from under this narcissistic drag of a man. A disappointment.

 

 

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The Good Companions (1957)

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What originally attracted me was the magnificent way you were all so loyal. Miss Trant (Celia Johnson), a philanthropic, adventure-seeking spinster, joins forces with songwriter Inigo Jollifant (John Fraser) and the newly unemployed Jess Oakroyd (Eric Portman) to re-energize a faltering musical theater troupe, the Dinky Doos who purvey their ramshackle show throughout the English provinces much in the way they did twenty-five years earlier. Although rock ‘n’ roll, striptease and television are about to capture the world’s attention, the troupe revels in its sense of community, and Jollifant falls for the star, Susie Dean (Janette Scott), who ultimately gets her chance on the West End…. The romance between the leads provides much of the subplotting in this second (musical) adaptation of J. B. Priestley’s popular 1930s classic but Scott plays her part a little too low key compared with Hollywood style and it’s really the backstage situations which arouse interest here and the occasionally showy cameos by personalities – Anthony Newley shows up and advises Fraser, Anybody can write a concerto, it takes a composer to write a pop! Joyce Grenfell does her bit with aplomb (providing another somewhat unexpected romance subplot) and when a fight breaks out in a theatre it’s rather fun to watch Thora Hird (who’s Portman’s missing wife) bash people with an umbrella. Hugh Griffith as the twitchy old trouper Morton Mitcham is always worth watching. The score and songs by Laurie Johnson aren’t particularly memorable but the final musical scene-sequence is quite well achieved and Gilbert Taylor’s colour cinematography is very warm. Rather charming, in its own way if not always appropriately staged (how ironic). Adapted by J. L. Morrison and T. J. Hodson and directed by J. Lee Thompson, if you can credit it!

The Return of Frank James (1940)

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I can’t talk without thinking, not being a lawyer. When Jesse James’s murderers the Ford Brothers are set free, his brother Frank (Henry Fonda) who’s been lying low farming, vows revenge and, accompanied by his gang, sets out to track them down. To fund his manhunt, he robs an express office and is subsequently wrongly accused of the clerk’s murder, but an aspiring newspaper reporter Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney) is determined to find out the truth… Sam Hellman wrote a sequel to the earlier Henry King film and it was directed by renowned German director Fritz Lang, his first colour film and his first western. Notable for also being Tierney’s acting debut, she was appalled at her voice and thought she sounded like an angry Mickey Mouse:  she remedied the problem by developing a lifelong smoking habit. She plays nicely opposite Fonda who returns from the earlier film and has several great scenes, including the theatre episode when he’s watching a dramatic ‘re-enactment’ portray his brother’s murder by the Fords while he runs away – the Fords play themselves – and registers his disgust, drawing their attention to him and commencing a chase with Bob Ford (John Carradine). There’s a very funny scene when he and young brother Clem (wonderfully characterised by Jackie Cooper) imprison a nosy Pinkerton detective who’s alerted Stone to their true identities. When justice is finally seen to be done after a trial, Clem steps in to help and the final scene between them is very touching. Wonderfully staged and played, this is a consummate, straightforward revenge western, well told.

 

A Cure for Wellness (2016)

 

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Do you know what the cure for the human condition is? Disease. Because only then is there hope for a cure. An ambitious young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to retrieve his company’s CEO Pembroke (Harry Groener) from an idyllic but mysterious “wellness center” at a remote location in the Swiss Alps. He soon suspects that the spa’s miraculous treatments are not what they seem and the head doctor Volmer (Jason Isaacs) is possessed of a curiously persuasive zeal and, rather like Hotel California, nobody seems able to leave.  Lockhart’s sighting of young Hannah (Mia Goth) drives him to return. When he begins to unravel the location’s terrifying secrets, his sanity is tested, as he finds himself diagnosed with the same curious illness that keeps all the guests here longing for the cure and his company no longer wants anything to do with him because the SEC is investigating him – and is that Pembroke’s body floating in a tank? … Part bloody horror, part satire, indebted equally to Stanley Kubrick, mad scientist B movies and Vincent Price, this has cult written all over it. Co-written by director Gore Verbinski with Justin Haythe, with his proverbial visual flourishes, this is one 141-minute long movie that despite its outward contempt for any sense of likeability, actually draws you in – if you’re not too scared of water, institutions, eels or demonic dentists. Isaacs has a whale of a time as the equivalent of a maestro conducting an orchestra who dispatches irritants with a flick of a switch or insertion of an eel. DeHaan gets paler by the scene. Wouldn’t you? The one thing you do not want to do is drink the water! A man cannot unsee the truth!

Viceroy’s House (2017)

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History is written by the victors. The final Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) arrives with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela (Lily Travers) in 1947 British India where he is tasked with overseeing the transition to independence, but meets with conflict as different sides clash in the face of monumental change. In this vast house, new valet Jeet (Manish Dayal) a former prison officer who left due to his political leanings meets beautiful Alia (Human Qureshi) whom he knew beforehand. She tries to ignore him because he is Hindu and she is Muslim and doesn’t wish to disappoint her invalided father Ali (Om Puri). While Mountbatten tries to balance the arguments about what to do regarding the various parties’ demands – hearing out Jinnah (Denzil Smith), Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) – and Edwina causes consternation among the staff by insisting on diverse meal preparation, Mountbatten realises that Lord Ismay (Michael Gambon) has been carrying out covert work to use partition to create a buffer state between India and the Soviet Union … This was gutted by some commentators and you can see why:  a project that was years in development, culled from several books of differing provenance with a foot in both camps as it were – a heritage romance that deals sharp lessons in politicking culminating in the greatest human migration in history with a million casualties. There are two books credited as the basis for the screenplay and a few writers: the principal source was Narendra Singh Saril’s The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition which was based on secret documents discovered in the British Library;  Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and director Gurinder Chadha are credited as screenwriters. History does not look kindly on Louis Mountbatten, who was, as this film clarifies, something of a stooge for a plan that had been in the London Government’s works for some time. (Maybe). His intentions were good, his overlords’ were anything but, is the arc here. You divided India for oil. Nonetheless the (heavily beautified) portrait of the Mountbatten marriage (no hint of Edwina’s affair with Nehru) with all the attractions of soft power being exercised within and without the household plus the subplot of the below stairs romance which is the only kind of happy ending possible here, is meticulously made. It’s nicely performed, beautifully photographed by Ben Smithard, integrating some great newsreels (real and faux) and sympathetically scored by A.R. Rahman.  Chadha’s personal relationship with the material is clarified in the end credits. As you can see, there are no straight lines in India. MM #1600.

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

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 I think the world may be going through a phase, the way I was with mother. It’ll pass. Maybe not hundreds of years, but someday. – I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart. In 1945 Otto Frank (Joseph Schildkraut) revisits the Amsterdam building where he and his wife and young daughters were hidden from the Nazis during the Occupation and recalls their life in the cramped space with other families … In Nazi-occupied Holland in 1942, shopkeeper Kraler (Douglas Spencer) hides two Jewish families in the attic above his office. Young Anne Frank (Millie Perkins) keeps a diary of everyday life for the Franks and the Van Daans (Lou Jacobi and Shelley Winters) chronicling the Nazi threat as well as family dynamics. They have to maintain total silence during office hours. Miep (Dody Heath) frequently visits with food and other items to keep them going. A romance with Peter Van Daan (Richard Beymer) causes jealousy between Anne and her sister, Margot (Diane Baker). Only Kraler’s radio can provide any relief, especially when troops land at Normandy. But then the office telephone rings repeatedly and the strain tells … As it is Holocaust Memorial Day it is apt to recall a film which was based on a diary (probably co-authored post hoc by her father) kept by an ordinary teenage girl recording her impressions of her daily experiences, her first love, her day-to-day activities and fantasies amid extraordinary circumstances – the utterly desperate covert existence led by a disparate and uncomfortably ill-matched group of people forced to live out in cramped conditions under threat of discovery by Nazis and their collaborators and informers in wartime Holland. It was essential reading when I was growing up and it can hardly have lost its lustre or significance. The building where the family hid was the first destination for me on my trip to Amsterdam and it was unbearably moving to see the newspaper cuttings of movie stars (a lot of Garbo) pasted to the wall in the room where Anne had slept. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett adapted their own stage play (based on Diary of a Young Girl) and it perfectly captures the initial civility that gives way to the normal reactions to which people under pressure might succumb when food goes missing (stolen by selfish Van Daan), a fake cat allergy (Ed Wynn as dentist Albert Dussell), and a thief who makes regular night-time visits to the safe downstairs, with everyone simply dreading a knock on the door. When Anne has a nightmare about the schoolfriend taken to a concentration camp it is a jolt. While former model Perkins doesn’t have quite sufficient emotional range to convey the complexity of the role (which, to be fair, may have been mostly fictional in the first place) the stresses and irritations of people stuck with each other provide a narrative arc with certain inevitable outcomes that are extremely well played out. The story is persuasively told – suspenseful, tense, sentimental, and, worst of all, horribly true. Directed by George Stevens, a man forever changed by what he saw in the camps. פן ישכחו.


					

Our Man in Havana (1959)

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Everything’s legal in Havana. Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness) is an English ex-pat living in pre-revolutionary Havana with his vain teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow). He owns a vacuum cleaner shop but isn’t very successful and Milly is annoyed he’s unable to fulfill his promise of a horse and country club membership, so he accepts an offer from Hawthorne (Noel Coward) of the British Secret Service to recruit a network of spies in Cuba. Wormold hasn’t got a clue where to start but when his friend Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) suggests that the best secrets are known to no one, he decides to manufacture a list of agents from people he only knows by sight and provides fictional tales for the benefit of his paymasters in London. He is soon seen as the best agent in the Western hemisphere and is particularly happy with his new friend, the beautiful spy Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara) but it all unravels when the local police decode his cables and everything he has invented bizarrely begins to come true when they start rounding up his network and he learns that he is the target of a group out to kill him… This film is, rather like North by Northwest, a taste of things to come:  an irreverent picture of the Cold War, the assumptions of the West and of course a picture of Cuba on the verge of a revolutionary breakdown (it was shot immediately after the Batista regime was overthrown). Graham Greene was reluctant to let anyone film his novels following the near-desecration of The Quiet American but this novel (the last he would term an entertainment and based on his WW2 experiences in Portugal) survives pretty unscathed with its comic tone evident throughout the cast (albeit Greene hated Maureen O’Hara). Who doesn’t love Ernie Kovacs? Or Guinness, for that matter, who perfectly inhabits this hapless effortful beast Wormold. I particularly liked his take on a game of checkers. Beautifully photographed by the great Oswald Morris  – but in black and white – in Havana?! Why?!  Directed, not by Hitchcock, who had tried to acquire the rights from Greene, but by Carol Reed. It was their third collaboration following The Fallen Idol and The Third ManOne never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.

The Others (2001)

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Mummy you’re letting the light in. Grace (Nicole Kidman) is the devoutly religious mother of Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). She moves her family to the Channel Islands in 1945. She awaits word on her husband who’s gone missing in WW2 while protecting the children from a rare photosensitivity disease that causes the sun to harm them. Curtains shroud the windows throughout the huge house.  Three new servants arrive, stating that they are very familiar with the place as they worked there years before: Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), Edmund Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and mute girl Lydia (Elaine Cassidy).  When Anne claims she sees ghosts, Grace initially thinks that the servants are playing tricks but chilling events and visions make her believe something supernatural has occurred and Bertha warns of intruders returning … Owing something of its origins to James’ The Turn of the Screw (which was previously directly adapted as the brilliant The Innocents) this original work by Spanish writer/director Alejandro Amenabar was undoubtedly inspired by the success of The Sixth Sense, another example of visual and narrative sleight of hand but nonetheless has its own particular brand of the uncanny. Unless you’re looking for particular breadcrumbs to follow you don’t see them until you work backwards after the twist ending which is carefully built:  this is a masterclass in control. From the Gothic concept, the empty rooms, the lack of food, the nature of the interactions, the fog encasing the mansion, the graveyard, the clues are there, but Grace is wilfully ignoring them until an unexpected intervention that includes a boy called Victor. Kidman’s performance really holds us in the suspension of disbelief that the story requires – tearful, gutsy, protective, guilty, scared, she plays a gamut of emotions while being terrified in this spooky house where she locks every single door to keep her children safe.  This is a very satisfying thriller with there being no question of feeling conned because the mood is perfectly sustained … No one can make us leave this house.

Nina (2016)

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Take me to the water. It’s 1988. Singer Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana) is financially unsound, mentally unstable and an alcoholic with her performing and activist heyday far behind her. After threatening a lawyer with a gun, she is committed in a psychiatric hold to an LA hospital. She hires nursing orderly Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo) as an assistant. He accompanies her back to her home in the south of France where she continues drinking heavily and declining to take medication for her bipolar condition. She is confrontational and verbally abusive and uses Clifton to procure men for one-night stands. He returns to the US. Meanwhile she has a biopsy which requires treatment. She turns up at Clifton’s family home in Chicago and asks him to manage her. Clifton attempts to book shows in France, but nearly no one wants to deal with Nina’s difficult behavior. Nonetheless, his efforts eventually pay off and she performs successfully at a gig. He gets a studio and she begins recording new music. It is implied that they begin a sexual relationship. Worried about her health, he convinces her to undergo surgery for her cancer. Once recovered, Nina returns to America for a live performance in Central Park. A crowd flocks to see her and she opens her concert with Feeling Good… The very capable Zoe Saldana is a thirtysomething woman playing a woman in her sixties. She performs the songs herself – and while she has a voice, it is not Simone’s voice. Her casting was criticised by Simone’s daughter on the grounds that she’s not black enough – and that is a horrifying criticism even if it’s true and she’s much too thin and pretty and sports the kind of prosthetics that got Nicole Kidman an Oscar but even that’s not the problem. Albeit it is frankly strange to understand why a black woman needs to black up to play another black woman.  (Pardon me if I don’t understand the politics of blackness…) The issue is the narrative by writer/director Cynthia Mort and how the casting of Saldana might have been better utilised to portray an earlier phase in Simone’s life – as it was, Simone actually stated she wanted Whoopi Goldberg to play her some day and you can’t help thinking of that as you watch this unspool through untruthfulness. Clifton’s homosexuality is coyly if crudely referenced. The concert in Central Park? Never happened. What did happen was that when Nick Cave once curated an event at which Simone was performing she had two items on her rider – cocaine and sausages.  Mississippi Goddam!

The Post (2017)

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We have to be a check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable, who will? Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is the first female publisher of The Washington Post. With help from editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Graham races to catch up with The New York Times who are publishing Neil Sheehan’s explosive stories to expose a massive cover-up of Government secrets that spans three decades and four U.S. presidents. Together, they must overcome their differences as they risk their careers and freedom to help bring long-buried truths to light with the Attorney General acting on orders from Nixon to injunct The Times.  A source known to journalist Ben Babdikian (Bob Odenkirk) hiding out in a motel on the other side of the country is sitting with a 4,000 page file from Bob McNamara’s office which demonstrates that the Government knew Vietnam would be lost as early as April 1965… It was all Nora Ephron’s idea. She suggested to Liz Hannah that she should adapt Graham’s memoirs. She wrote a screenplay. Then Josh (Spotlight) Singer rewrote it and it became a reporter’s movie. Why don’t we suppose you’re a writer not a novelist?  As much about sexism as political conspiracy (on that it differs from All the President’s Men, its father superior in the paranoid thriller stakes) this is about a woman making a decision to publish the Pentagon Papers with or without the permission of her all-male board with the shareholders anxious not to upset President Nixon or his cohorts and lower their share value. Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe her advisor has a ball as the man who knows to expect the unexpected and his laugh at the conclusion is as much relief to us as to him. Much of the tension derives from Streep’s inculcating of Graham’s society dame and her realisation that what was acceptable years earlier – her ‘great’ father leaving his legacy to her husband – is no longer necessary and she is a middle aged grandmother finally coming into her own. Her mingling with the upper echelons of Washington society is intrinsic to the process of the story – both the gathering and the telling. Hanks’ interpretation of Bradlee takes a totally different approach than Jason Robards in the earlier film – he is another man entirely, and it’s to the benefit of the text. He is also a society man. The sentimentality of his friendship with JFK literally blinded him to the corruption of the office. Now he needs to kick Government ass. The journalism is fun but not remotely as engaging as ATPM even if it’s entertaining to watch people dropping coins at the phone kiosk and to hear the real recordings of Nixon’s phonecalls which narrate some of the segments. This is a message movie and it has a cliffhanging ending at Watergate! That it finishes on a horribly scored triumphalist note instead of the more pleasing sonorousness of hot metal and type is an aesthetic flaw I find quite unforgivable. Like anyone cares! Jefferson must be rolling in his grave.