Gone to Earth (1950)

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Aka The Wild Heart. He put a spell on me, he did. Hazel Woodus (Jennifer Jones) is an innocent child of nature in the Shropshire countryside on the Welsh borders in 1897. She loves and understands all the wild animals more than the people around her. Whenever she has problems, she turns to the book of spells and charms left to her by her late gypsy mother.  Local fox-hunting squire Jack Reddin (David Farrar) sees Hazel and wants her, but she has already promised herself to the Baptist minister, Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack). She brings up a fox cub (Foxy) and is mother to him, insisting that he be part of her bridal party in the church. A struggle for her body and soul ensues and she turns to superstition to deal with her problems… Adapted from Mary Webb’s 1917 bodice-ripper, this is one of Powell and Pressburger’s odder films.  Given producer David O. Selznick’s involvement it’s no surprise that it stars his famously sibilant-averse wife Jones, who never seemed to age. She’s like a feral Scarlett O’Hara, feisty and strong-willed but ignorant in all essentials. Farrar makes a return to the P&P troupe, while Sybil Thorndike is excellent support playing mother to Cusack’s parson, a fine role for the Irish character actor. Hugh Griffith (as the wicked squire’s faithful man servant), Esmond Knight and George Cole get some good moments in the ensemble.  This is a stunning, full-blooded work in lush Technicolor with startling cinematography by the great Christopher Challis, relishing the opportunity to capture the strangeness and beauty of a very lovely part of the world which some readers might recall was the setting for some of Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series of books for adolescents. Narrated by Joseph Cotten.

 

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Strictly Ballroom (1992)

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If you kept it simpler and danced from the heart … Australian ballroom dancer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) wants to do his own thing and make up steps on the dancefloor, much to the disdain of his traditional colleagues. He is denounced by Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) who runs Dancesport, the competitive ballroom scene.  Scott’s partner Liz (Gia Carides) abandons him for Ken (John Hannan) whose partner Pam Short (Kerrry Shrimpton) has broken both her legs. So when a plain, left-footed local girl Fran (Tara Morice) approaches him he has little option but to take up the offer. Her Spanish father teaches them to dance the Paso Doble and her grandmother tells Scott he must learn to dance with his heart. Together, the team gives it their all but they only have three weeks to get ready for the Pan-Pacific competition and Barry Fife tells Scott that dancing their own way cost Scott’s parents while Liz wants him back … You stick with your roles until eventually they bring their own rewards. The first of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain trilogy, this is a low budget adaptation of a theatre improvisation and play which brought him to the world stage in a fairytale manner, much as our heroes take the competition. The faux-documentary style with direct address to camera gives way to more straightforward musical drama which however never rises much beyond the level of caricature in over the top characterisations, plenty of intimidating close ups of faces (the dancing feet, a little less) and restricted locations. However the sheer zip and zest of the performances, the funny Australian stereotyping and the heartfelt Cinderella story combined with the ugly duckling becoming a swan and falling for the daring prince who realises his pathetic dad (Barry Otto) is actually quite a chap, makes it all sequins and spangles and fun and wins you over in the end. There’s a wonderful soundtrack. Along with Muriel’s Wedding and Dead Calm, this film put Australia on the global movie map once again.

Street Corner (1953)

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Aka Both Sides of the Law. Coppers in skirts. Pity they haven’t got something better to do.  Two London policewomen based at Sloan Street in Chelsea go about their daily lives involved in cases of child endangerment and larceny.  Sgt Pauline Ramsey (Rosamund John) and WPC Susan (Anne Crawford) deal with a woman Edna Hurran (Eleanor Summerfield) who’s rescued a boy from drowning. The surrounding publicity means she has to return to the Army from which she went AWOL to marry sickly David Evans (Ronald Howard) and must pay the price – until a reward is given to her and the newspaper story triggers the return of her first husband looking for a share:  they never divorced. A toddler wanders out on the ledge of her tenement building several storeys up. There are tense moments as Pauline saves her and then ruminates the possibility of adoption as her own child and husband were killed in a car crash and she thinks motherhood would be a better alternative to work. Then Susan finds the child’s mother, now remarried.  Shoplifter Bridget Foster (Peggy Cummins) faces a £5 fine and abandons her 15-month old son to her mother-in-law, taking up with Ray, a crim (Terence Morgan) who sees her at a nightclub. He’s involved in a heist on jewels  in a van and pawns them at Mr Muller’s (Charles Victor) but doesn’t like the price he gets and pays a return visit.  WPC Lucy (Barbara Murray) goes to get her hair done and spots Bridget which may lead her to the thieves … Jan Read’s story was adapted by Muriel and Sydney Box as a kind of followup to The Blue Lamp which had been a huge hit in England. Ostensibly a docudrama, this production cast well-known names as a kind of insurance policy – John was in several good films since wartime, while Cummins had made her name in America. There are some moments of humour in the police station – when an older woman reports a man following her, the Sergeant (male) remarks, ‘sounds like an acute case of wishful thinking’;  while a man in the raided nightclub says ‘my wife thinks I’m in Birmingham,’ which impresses precisely nobody.  There are interesting strands to the stories – the perceived fairness of the judiciary;  Muller’s experience of the Gestapo in Berlin which he likens to Morgan showing up pretending to be a policeman looking for a bribe; the issue of parenting – the child abuse of the toddler whose mother is now apparently uninterested in her welfare following her remarriage. Muriel Box’s direction is pretty rudimentary but her storytelling skill is evident and the conclusion, when all the stories are threaded together in a chase and courtroom and there is a satisfying drawing together of the various elements. How Morgan is caught is particularly good.  In the final scene sequence Cummins is outfitted in a beret so that she resembles the gangster’s moll she played in the incredible Gun Crazy but that film is in a different league to a more plodding police procedural, albeit its focus is on the female experience: working, single, marital, maternal, streetwise and otherwise.  Shot at Gate Studios, Elstree with some interesting location work on the streets of London which looks rather lacking in business in the era of rationing and is filled with blocks of modernist council flats. There’s an interesting score by Temple Abady and fun to be had spotting actors who would become better known, principally through TV roles:  Michael Medwin, Michael Hordern and Thora Hird.

A Double Life (1947)

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I wanted to be something better than I was – an actor, a real actor. Highly regarded middle-aged Broadway stage actor Anthony ‘Tony’ John (Ronald Colman) has a violent temper, which leads his actress wife, Brita (Signe Hasso), to leave him.  He can never escape the roles he plays and lives with them night and day and whether they’re comic or dramatic, he’s tough to be around. It’s a living nightmare not a holiday John’s producer Max Lasker (Philip Loeb) wants them to play in Othello together and it’s hugely successful, running for two years, but the strain drives John insane, to the point of killing his mistress, Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters). John does not remember the incident, but is forced to face his actions when promoter Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien) uses the murder to publicise the play… I had to tear myself apart and put myself together againThe first of four collaborations between husband and wife writing team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin with director George Cukor, this has the great production values typical in the post-war period, stuffed with atmospheric locations and design, all New York taxis and elevated trains, with great music by Miklós Rosza and a wonderful sense of performance inscribed in the titles sequence when the curtains are raised. Suddenly you’re startled by the sound of your own voice Theatre was a wonderful addition to the film noir genre (the following year’s The Velvet Touch is another great example) and the complexity of Shakespeare’s hero is perfect for an actor on the verge. The screenwriters were both veterans of Broadway and would become specialists in marriage dramas, famed for their notions of marriage between equals (they did the Hepburn-Tracy comedies Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike) and here Hasso is a perfectly reasonable ex-wife, unable to cope with the vicissitudes of her husband’s mental trauma. Now he’s hearing voices that nobody else does. Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight! Ronald Colman won the Academy Award for his performance, confusing Shakespeare with his daily life and almost killing Brita on stage. All the time you’re caught and there’s no time to change your mind  The stresses of preparing and rehearsing are brilliantly caught by the writers whose intimate knowledge of that arena is acutely conveyed.  Jealousy – find it – hold it – live it- Jealousy! A very young Winters is marvellous in her first big screen role as the waitress who takes his fancy and comes to a very sticky end. In their first scene together (when they meet in the restaurant) Winters did everything wrong and they did 96 takes. Colman took her for lunch and chatted to her casually, asking about her background. Afterwards she did the scene perfectly. She credited Colman with probably saving her career. You’re two men now, grappling for control. You and Othello. With Whit Bissell, Ray Collins and Millard Mitchell among the cast, this is tastily played. (Watch closely for Paddy Chayefsky in an uncredited role as a photographer and the first screen Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln plays a detective, also uncredited).  The final scenes, when reality and illusion blur so terribly, bring everything to a suitably tragic conclusion. The warring poles of the drama are figured in Milton Krasner’s luminous monochrome cinematography, the light and shade of two opposing worlds chiming their dreadful song. Edited by former child actor and future director Robert Parrish. I don’t believe in myself but I expect others to believe in me

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

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We just have to stick together. We do that, we can win. Four high school kids discover an old video game console in detention in their high school basement. Spencer is a nerd beset with allergies, Fridge is a footballer who needs help with his homework, Bethany is a narcissistic beauty addicted to her iPhone and Martha is a friendless brainiac who has no fun. They are sucked into the game’s jungle setting, literally becoming the adult avatars they chose:  Spencer is now explorer and archaeologist Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) who has no weakness (except he’s still shy),  Fridge is zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart) who can’t eat cake,  Martha is curvy martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) who can be killed by venom and Bethany is an overweight male middle-aged cartographer Prof. Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji – you must survive it. To beat the game and return to the real world, they’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives by returning a jewel to a Jaguar mountain shrine, discover what Alan Parrish left 20 years ago, and change the way they think about themselves – or they’ll be stuck in the game forever.  They have to dodge treasure hunter Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), a corrupt archaeologist, and his henchmen, a crew of evil bikers plus a herd of rampaging rhinoceros, They enlist the help of Alex (Nick Jonas) who has one life left and is afraid to lose it and get stuck in here forever:  he thinks he’s been here a few months but he’s the kid from the Freak (Vreeke) House who disappeared in 1996 after getting lost in the original video game. They have to face up to their fears and join together to get out or it will be Game Over ... How can my strength be my weakness? A sequel and a reboot, this followup to the beloved adaptation of Chris van Allsburg’s book is PC, clever and fun, catering for nostalgia freaks harking back to 1930s jungle films, the 90s obsession with video games, and placating the millennial generation that thinks they can change their race and gender because, you know, it’s their human right and they can choose who they want to be and before they grow up and get real! (It’s not just a game… it’s a life lesson).  We no longer have the Jumanji board game that trapped Alan Parrish (Robin Williams, who’s mentioned here in tribute) but we do have all the ins and outs of a protagonist-led adventure where the rules always apply – until they need to be changed. There are a lot of bright moments – Jack Black the former mean girl coaching school swot Karen Gillan to flirt; tiny Kevin Hart realising he’s not the huge killer ball player any more; Johnson morphing into an unbelievably strong 6’5″ hulk from the puny geek with allergies:  his smoldering voice is hilarious and he just cannot get over the size of his arms. There are some fun penis jokes and a lot of throwaway lines that are laugh out loud good. Exceptionally well cast and performed, this is a very pleasant and funny entertainment that moves like the clappers. Written by Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner, from a story by Chris McKenna. Directed by Jake Kasdan.  Zoology, bitch!

Becoming Jane (2007)

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I have no money, no property, I am entirely dependent upon that bizarre old lunatic, my uncle. I cannot yet offer marriage, but you must know what I feel. Jane, I’m yours. God, I’m yours. I’m yours, heart and soul. Much good that is. It’s 1795 and twenty-year old Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) is a young aspiring writer who wants to marry for love. Her financially strapped parents (James Cromwell, Julie Walters) expect her to marry Mr Wisley (Laurence Fox), the nephew of wealthy Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith).  She knows that such a marriage will destroy her creativity and self-worth. Instead, she becomes involved with Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), a charming and roguish but penniless apprentice lawyer from Ireland who gives her the knowledge of the heart she needs for her future career as a novelist… No sensible woman would demonstrate passion, if the purpose were to attract a husband. An imaginatively reconstructed story about how Jane Austen got her romantic mojo from a thin sliver of fact:  this is all that is required to steep us in more Austen mania. Thomas Langlois Lefroy described his friendship with Austen as ‘boyish’ rather than passionate, but no matter, any excuse to enter into the world of Georgian and Regency romance. The leads perform with gusto and charm – sparks fly between Hathaway and McAvoy.  The entire setting is beguiling, no matter how little connected with history while we construe – as we are intended to do – the beginnings of Pride and Prejudice from the interplay.  Affection is desirable but money is absolutely indispensable. As movies about writers go, why not?! Written by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams using tropes from Austen’s own comedies of manners and society, and directed by Julian Jarrold. How can you, of all people, dispose of yourself without affection?

This is Bob Hope (2017) (TVM)

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The PBS series American Masters tackles the most influential comic of them all, London-born Leslie Townes Hope, aka Bob. Narrated by Billy Crystal, reading from Hope’s diaries, this commences with difficult stuff:  Woody Allen addresses the star’s Republicanism and the film is bookended with another thorny issue – his hopeless philandering, which his adopted children admit their mother knew about and tolerated as long as nothing was brought home. The bulk of the film however is a compelling story of child poverty, reform school and clawing his way from Cleveland to Broadway, through vaudeville, singing and dancing, until he found his niche MC’ing shows and getting a break on radio until comedy shorts and Hollywood beckoned in 1934. He basically developed the first standup routine and specialised in topical jokes. He became in demand to the point that he needed writers to supply him with gags. They needed a character to build the shtick around so the ‘type’ was a cowardly, skirt-chasing braggart – not unlike Hope in real life. It’s a persona that’s much-imitated and Woody Allen’s work exemplifies this but he declares of his inspiration, ‘He’s just more gifted’. Hope’s writers? Guys like Mel Shavelson and Larry Gelbart.  Dick Cavett suggests that Hope’s vocal tone is responsible for his impact:  ‘the very sound of his voice made you laugh.’ Brooke Shields contributes, ‘He could do more with a look or a glance than most of us could do with a monologue.’ His signature song, ‘Thanks for the Memory’ was a rare moment of emotion;  while his one dramatic performance showed he had acting chops too. He had the number one radio show in 1941 and throughout the war years, when he brought an entourage to the fringes of the combat zones to entertain the troops, a lifelong avocation doing 57 tours in 50 years. On radio, on the screen with Bing Crosby in the Road movies or on TV specials, he conquered all the main entertainment media and made a fortune through canny investments – a fact he was advised to tackle head-on by joking about it. Filled with marvellous footage, newsreel, photographs, clips and interviews (including Kermit, Leonard Maltin, Conan O’Brien and Margaret Cho), this is an essential history of an innovator, written, produced and directed in a zippy style by John Scheinfeld.

Adrift (2018)

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Come sail with me. In 1983 Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) and her new boyfriend Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) couldn’t anticipate that they would be sailing directly into one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history. They have met on Tahiti and he is hired to deliver a yacht to San Diego, her hometown, which she had no desire to see any time soon.  In the aftermath of the late season storm, with the boat pitch poled, Tami awakens to find Richard badly injured and the Hazana in ruins. Everything is broken, smashed and scattered, the cabin half-full of water, the masts broken clear off and the sails waterlogged and floating useless nearby;  the navigation system, and the emergency position-indicating radio device, were broken. With no hope of rescue, Tami must now find the strength and determination to save herself and the only man she has ever loved who is lying on the aft deck, ribs broken, leg shattered, guiding her in calculating their position using a sextant and working out the latitude on the ship’s maps. All the time she is trying to avoid the storm that is tagging them to try and make it to Hawaii despite having drifted north in a potential search area of 1,500 miles – and that’s only if anyone has noticed their disappearance…  Since this is adapted from Oldham’s book Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea we know she survived this appalling experience:  this shows us how, more or less. It’s written by David Branson Smith,  Aaron Kandell and Jordan Kandell and their interpretation may be faithful to the account and what Oldham did to survive although it’s somewhat creative in what actually occurred during the 41-day long ordeal. It starts with a shocking scene following the storm and then cuts back and forth from the aftermath to the couple’s meeting on the Pacific island where they fall in love and eventually (and reluctantly on Oldham’s part) take the job to deliver the yacht on behalf of a London couple who know Richard. He is a decade older than Tami and a failed naval cadet who is living his dream sailing the world alone – until he meets her and proposes marriage. Director Baltasar Kormákur’s handling of the alternating scenes is expert – there’s a good balance between the evolving romance and the disastrous trip as we learn how this woman who Richard describes as ‘wild’ uses her every wile to make it. Woodley is happily convincing as the daredevil 23-year old reluctantly caught up in a terrible dilemma due to her relationship .We’ve been here before (to some extent) with Robert Redford in All is Lost but there is a twist which will either make you throw your popcorn at the screen or sigh with relief that you haven’t had to go through this entirely scarifying experience yourself. And it doesn’t overstay its welcome, always a joy. What’s it like sailing out there on your own?

Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures (2004) (TVM)

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 It was such a time to be alive. You could be anything, and biology would do the rest. In 1962 an elderly Agatha Christie (Anna Massey) is attending a party at the theatre for a decade of The Mousetrap. Questions from journalists spur memories of 3 years ago when as a younger woman (Olivia Williams) attending a psychiatrist (Stephen Boxer) she is hypnotised into recalling why she disappeared four months earlier triggering a police search … Richard Curson Smith’s docudrama is based on the intriguing real-life case of the famous author’s apparent fugue state when she was located at a spa in Harrogate, having signed in under the name of the mother of her husband’s mistress. The title alludes to the means by which the doctor engages with Christie to start the story: as a young girl (Bonnie Wright) whose father’s death changes the family dynamic, particularly when her older sister marries. She has been haunted for years by a mysterious character whom she calls The Gunman and many men of her acquaintance transform into this figure when she is under stress. Her marriage to soldier Archie Christie (Raymond Coulthard) is met with disapproval by her mother, who encourages her to write. Her time nursing wounded soldiers introduces her to Belgian refugees, one of whom inspires Hercule Poirot and her first novel. She has few memories of times when she is happy, the catalysts for unhappiness make her focus on what may have occurred to prompt her flight – her discovery of her husband’s adultery with Nancy Neele, a secretary … The use of photos, pastiche photographic studios and fake home movies and newsreels gives this a patina of realism which is visually impressive. This is territory previously explored by the film Agatha and Kathleen Tynan’s book, and more recently in a faction novel by Andrew Wilson. Williams gets the lion’s share of the scenes, as a morose young woman who must confront her husband’s extra-marital liaison and his wish to end their union. Even her little daughter says it’s her mother that’s the problem. The older Christie is wiser and happier following a long marriage to a younger man, archaeologist Max Mallowan (Bertie Carvel) whose work on sites in Syria and Iraq literally takes Christie out of herself and England and also inspires some of her best books which she then produces annually. There’s a terrific scene when she comes up with the idea for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which is the book that made her know she was good. There are some technical issues with the sound mixing (you can hardly hear Massey, and some dialogue is drowned out with incidental music) but it’s a thorough and thoughtful account of an episode that’s as mysterious as any of Christie’s novels, supplying psychology to the central character in a way that the Queen of Crime disdained.