Andre Previn 6th April 1929 – 28th February 2019

Porgy and Bess.jpgPaint Your Wagon.jpg

The man immortalised as André Preview by Morecambe and Wise to a generation of children who grew up with BBC TV, has died today, aged 89. A formidable and versatile wunderkind, he made his name composing and arranging film scores with MGM musicals and in partnership with filmmakers as diverse and demanding as Stanley Donen and Billy Wilder, but was equally at home on Broadway, conducting orchestras, composing concertos or playing jazz. So preternaturally gifted was he that he scored Holiday in Mexico while still at high school – a film mostly memorable for featuring Fidel Castro as an extra! He is the last of his kind. Rest in peace. And thank you for the music. I’m just very pleased to be a musician. MM#2250

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

Three Identical Strangers.png

I guess I wouldn’t believe the story if someone else were telling it, but I’m telling it and it’s true, every word of it.  David Kellman, Eddy Galland and Bobby Shafran were individually adopted by families from differing social and economic classes who had each adopted a baby girl from the same agency two years previously. They came across each other accidentally when Robert was mistaken for Eddy at college;  they eventually discovered a third identical brother. Their celebrity was such that they appeared on talk shows and even got a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan and opened a restaurant together. We were falling in love with each other. Finally the truth came out:  they had been born (as part of quadruplets – the fourth died at birth, but this isn’t in the film) to a single mother as a result of a prom date gone wrong (supposedly – the birth date doesn’t tally) and were placed as part of a ‘nature versus nurture’ science experiment – the Neubauer Twin Experiment, conducted by a psychiatrist who has since died and whose findings are restricted until 2065; such findings as have been made public have been heavily redacted. A previous film made on the subject was pulled due to unknown forces – maybe the same people prevented this from being Oscar-nominated?  It’s a beautifully made if scarcely credible true story, a modern tragedy stemming from the frankly nutty unethical psychobabble world of the Fifties and Sixties,  including a combination of dramatic recreation, interviews and archive film, and featuring two of the men and Lawrence Wright, the journalist who wrote one account of the story for The New Yorker. The first half is light and amusing, a veritable romcom meet-cute, but things take a very dark turn when the reality of their lives is examined. They finally met their birth mother in her favourite local bar and were not impressed. They were reluctant to discuss her at all. Stunning and desperately sad. Directed by Tim Wardle. I don’t know if this will turn out to be good or terrible

The Tribes of Palos Verdes (2017)

The Tribes of Palos Verdes.png

I can’t believe we moved to a town where women wear green tennis dresses on purpose. When the Mason family moves to idyllic Palos Verdes, California, heart surgeon father, Phil (Justin Kirk) loves it but stay at home mom Sandy (Jennifer Garner) feels out of place among the fake tans and tennis skirts. Teenage daughter Medina (Maika Monroe), is a loner and outcast at school, while her charismatic twin brother Jim (Cody Fern) is effortlessly popular. When Medina and Jim take up surfing, they must prove their right to share the waves with the tough Bayboys gang that monopolises their stretch of beach but when their father announces that he’s going to shack up with his lover, their realtor Ava (Alicia Silverstone) and her son Adrian (Noah Silver), the family is left reeling without him …  They don’t own the waves. Adapted by Karen Croner from Joy Nicholson’s 1997 novel, this is a movie that wears its heart on its very gorgeous sleeve. It’s jarringly true about relationships, rivalries and the difficulties of growing up in a family centred on a depressive narcissistic mother (hands up if this is familiar…) whose fragile ecosystem falls apart when her husband’s philandering finally results in an irreparable schism. Her overdependence on Jim leads to tragedy. Australian actor Fern is tremendous as the outwardly social guy: he is overwhelmed by anxiety and vulnerability, stunningly exposed when Medina falls for Adrian. Monroe and Garner are tender and pensive, unhinged and dangerous, respectively, in this revelatory film about how people affect each other and lives fall apart without anyone caring about the impact of their selfishness. Moving? Hell yeah. But the satirical undertow strengthens the narrative with its depiction of the social setting, Medina’s voiceover and the upwardly mobile tropes hinting at the inevitable outcome. Star spotters will be interested to know that surf dude Chad is played by Mel Gibson’s son Milo; while another Aussie, Thomas Cocquerel plays his mate Mildew –  anyone looking for a new Bond? Look no further than this cast! Directed by Brendan Malloy and Emmett Malloy and beautifully shot by Giles Dunning. Everybody doesn’t get to go bonkers

Under the Volcano (1984)

Under the Volcano.jpg

He on whose heart the dust of Mexico has lain, will find no peace in any other land. A day in the life of a man in 1938. Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) is an alcoholic former British consul living in Quauhnahuac, a small Mexican town. As the local Day of the Dead celebration gets underway, Geoffrey drowns himself in the bottle, having cut himself off from his family, friends and job. When he goes missing, his ex-wife, actress Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), who has returned from the US in the hopes of resurrecting their relationship, convinces his half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) to conduct a last-ditch search for him, hoping that Hugh might be able to rescue her self-destructing husband… How, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken? Finney and Bisset are reunited a decade after Murder on the Orient Express. This is a very different experienceAdapted by Guy Gallo (his only screenplay to date) from Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 masterpiece, this late John Huston film (and he rejected over 20 versions of the screenplay over the decades) is a powerhouse film: brilliantly interpreted by everyone concerned. Reunited with his director following Annie, Finney offers one of his great performances, committed and charismatic, as the dissolute man who nonetheless has a core of humanity. Huston said of it, I think it’s the finest performance I have ever witnessed, let alone directed.  Huston had lived in Puerto Vallarta for a period and shot The Night of the Iguana there as well of course as having made one of his other films in Mexico – maybe his best ever, full stop – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Clearly the country brought something special to his aesthetic – and vice versa. There is nothing more real than magic. Here the various elements churn and dissect a life, symbolised in the wonderful titles sequence. It’s marvellous to see Katy Jurado as Senora Gregoria, a key supporting character in this drama that constantly threatens us with being on the brink of something – death? Truth? War? It was originally written by Lowry in 1936 but underwent many rewrites. It’s so special it’s the subject of two documentaries including the Oscar-nominated Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, in which Lowry’s words are read by Richard Burton, who Huston had hoped to cast as the lead right after they shot Iguana. Quite, quite the film then, with a legacy all its own. Hell is my natural habitat

American Animals (2018)

American Animals.png

You’re taught your entire life that what you do matters and that you’re special. In 2003 Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) are four friends who live an ordinary existence in Kentucky. Spencer is a budding artist and following his visit to the Special Collections room at Transylvania University in Lexington, he informs Lipka of the contents. Lipka comes up with the idea to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the school’s library:  it involves tying up the librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) and making off with the Audubon book, Birds of America, the most valuable one there. They lose their nerve at the first attempt which they prepare for by dressing up as old men. They plot a different approach for the second attempt. As one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history starts to unfold, the men question whether their attempts to inject excitement and purpose into their lives are simply misguided attempts at achieving the American dream and Spencer gave an auction house in NYC his real-life cell phone number with his dumb message on it … How can I tell you if I’m in or I’m out without telling me the first thing about what I might be in or out of.  Writer/director Bart Layton takes a true crime and spins it into something stylish but problematic, a treatise on all-American stupidity. Interviews with the real-life perpetrators, rather humbled after the fact, are interspersed with the narrative drama, which gives it a melancholy quality but the consequent issues in pacing don’t always lead to a pleasing viewing experience. It’s not set up correctly, working against any possibility of suspense. The second attempt at the heist is permitted to progress unimpeded by anything other than the protagonists’ staggering ineptitude. The outcome is inevitable and famous. The film does however blend fact and fiction and the interviews form a kind of Greek chorus, baiting us with the various points of view, Rashomon-like, and at one point even inserts Spencer into the action, albeit briefly. And it does boast Udo Kier in the cast. One day you’ll die

 

That Hamilton Woman (1941)

That Hamilton Woman.jpg

Aka Lady Hamilton/The Enchantress.  They told us of your victories but not of the price you paid!  When small-town courtesan Emma Hart (Vivien Leigh) finds herself married off by her indebted uncle to British Ambassador to Naples, elderly widower Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), her world is turned upside down. Just as Emma is finally settling into her new life as Lady Hamilton, she meets British naval hero Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) who vociferously opposes Napoleon’s growing empire and the two fall madly in love. However, their forbidden romance is soon threatened by the ever-growing shadow of the Napoleonic Wars... What a century it’s been: Marlborough rode to war, and Washington crossed the Delaware. Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette. The last of the Stuarts. Peter the Great. Voltaire. Clive of India. Bonaparte. The framing story of this famous propaganda work created by producer/directorAlexander Korda is that of Emma Hamilton ensconced in debtor’s prison in France, regaling her incredulous fellow prisoners with her incredible life story and her grand romance. That this involved once notorious real-life lovers, then married couple, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier (reunited by Korda from Fire Over England), must have been catnip to audiences. Indeed the film’s tagline boasted,  The Year’s Most Exciting Team of Screen Lovers! Its role in attracting the US into a total war nobody wanted is debatable. In fact Korda was accused of espionage, a charge he only escaped because his hearing coincided with Pearl Harbour:  special relationship?! There are always men, who for the sake of their insane ambition, want to destroy what other people build. The screenplay by Walter Reisch and R.C. Sheriff (with two of Nelson’s speeches contributed by Winston Churchill) condenses a lot of historical material and Olivier is perhaps a bit too slow but this is compensated for with the range of emotions Leigh explores to charismatic effect. Shot in the US, it looks gorgeous courtesy of Rudolph Maté’s intricate cinematography and the sumptuous design by Vincent Korda and Lyle Wheeler, with beautiful costuming by René Hubert,  while the romantic score is composed by Miklós Rózsa. There is no ‘then’. There is no ‘after’

Stanley Donen 13th April 1924 – 23rd February 2019

Cover Girl.jpg

Hollywood great Stanley Donen has died aged 94. Handsome, genial, witty and debonair he was an actor, dancer and choreographer who teamed up with Gene Kelly at a ridiculously young age and made screen history with the first musical shot on location, On the Town. They made the greatest musical in film history together, Singin’ in the Rain, the perfect integrated backstage Hollywood movie, the most brilliant, joyous blend of song and dance and storytelling. It transformed cinema. During the Fifties Donen continued learning his craft as director with romantic comedies and returning to his favourite form with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, another innovative iteration of the musical. He reunited with Kelly for It’s Always Fair Weather and then became an independent producer. He worked with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in the enduring classic Funny Face and then relocated to England and made some terrific midlife romcoms, including Indiscreet and The Grass is Greener before turning to thrillers with the great Charade, a Hitchcockian suspenser, back in Paris with Audrey Hepburn and another regular collaborator, Cary Grant. He followed that with another Peter Stone collaboration, ArabesqueTwo for the Road was his most personal film, a comedy drama about a couple in crisis, again starring Hepburn. His Seventies films were variable with Lucky Lady and Movie Movie the standouts, loving homages and pastiches of a Hollywood that he ironically had helped quash. He produced the 1986 Oscars, which boasted a musical number featuring a roll call of Hollywood musical stars:  Leslie Caron, June Allyson, Marge Champion, Cyd Charisse, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds and Esther Williams. His legacy is indelible;  he worked with the greats and made them better;  he mastered musicals, elevating them to a different level entirely with animation, editing and choreography;  romantic comedies; thrillers; and dramas.  Each time I see one of his films I feel a lot better about everything. He was one of my all-time favourite directors. Rest in peace.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.jpg

Do you remember, Clive, we used to say: ‘Our army is fighting for our homes, our women, and our children’? General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), who’s overseeing an English squad of the Home Guard in 1943, is a veteran leader who doesn’t have the respect of the men he’s training and is considered an old duffer who’s out of touch with what’s needed to win the war. But it wasn’t always this way. Flashing back to his early career in the Boer War and World War I, we see a dashing young officer whose life has been shaped by three different women (all played by Deborah Kerr), and by a lasting friendship with German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) as he rises through the ranks of the British Army but now uncomfortable with the modern concept of ‘total war’… In Germany, the gangsters finally succeeded in putting the honest citizens in jail. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s portrait of a lovable man at sea with contemporary combat was incredibly contentious, disliked by Churchill, and cut to pieces so that it’s very rare to see it as it was intended by the talented pair whose satirical but sympathetic bent is at full tilt over 163 minutes with Livesey giving the performance of his career, ageing and irascible, but once a dashing young blade with the world at his feet. The character was created by David Low in his comic strip but Powell and Pressburger claimed this narrative grew out of a scene dropped from their previous film One of Our Aircraft is Missing and editor David Lean said it would be a good idea for a film. Beautifully shot, designed and told, with Kerr impressive (and credited for her three separate if complementary roles) as iterations of the ideal woman. The unlikely friendship between two honorable military men even as their countries are at war is distinctive and moving, commencing with a duel and then years later, when Theo seeks asylum from the Nazis he appeals to his friend, now a high-ranking officer in England. Possibly Powell and Pressburger’s greatest work, certainly their most ambitious, etched in compassion. Restored by Martin Scorsese and Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. Clive, my English is not very much but my friendship for you is very much

Score – A Film Music Documentary (2016)

Score_Poster.jpg

We can make you feel anything we want you to feel. Matt Schrader’s documentary about film composers is a compelling and immersive odyssey which tracks the evolution of the music score from its heyday in classical Hollywood through the present day. Alex North’s debut score for A Streetcar Named Desire featuring jazz stylings is named as the first truly modern score, marking a break from the nineteenth century symphonic style that had dominated to that point. It’s actually revolutionary, say this assemblage of composers, film directors and critics. Then John Barry is cited, the James Bond theme (which he adapted from Monty Norman’s signature) inextricably linked with the spy genre. An array of composers describe and exhibit their collections of instruments, with Mark Mothersbaugh wondering what happened to the toy piano he picked up in the Beverly Center for sixty bucks – he used it to compose the Rugrats theme then returned it and got his money back. Bernard Herrmann was an original, demonstrating that anything was possible:  as the shower scene from Psycho is shown without music, you suddenly see the edits. The emotional effects of film composition are discussed through physiology and eye movement – that’s the science. Jerry Goldsmith’s work is the next signpost to modernity – his work on Planet of the Apes even used kitchen utensils to achieve its particular affect. When writing a new score for Chinatown (after the original had been written, recorded and dumped) he demanded four harps, four pianos, strings, percussion and a solo trumpet:  instant film classic. John Williams dominates because he was chosen by Steven Spielberg, who thought after seeing The Reivers with its pastoral theme he was an old guy:  far from it, he was a hep young jazz cat. When he presented the filmmaker with two notes for Jaws, Spielberg thought it was a joke. Of course those notes triggered a major work, but he was nervous. Then came Star Wars. And E.T., where the gaps are left to ultimately bring the story to a fanfare that is oriented to Elliott’s point of view in an epic story of unique intimacy. Some iconic London recording studios are visited – Air (discovered by George Martin, who converted it from a church building) and where David Arnold has worked for a quarter of a century;  and Abbey Road, also inhabited by Martin with the Beatles but latterly better known as a soundtrack centre with some intriguing engineering and choral setups explored. Danny Elfman was picked to compose for Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure because he liked his work with synth band Oingo Boingo and a new, dark universe of music was begun from scratch. With Thomas Newman, son of the great Hollywood composer Alfred, the emotive solo piano comes to the fore:  inimitable, as we recognise in Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty. Hans Zimmer, also part of an Eighties synth group, Buggles, is practically a genre unto himself, Led Zeppelin with an orchestra. As he sits in his Santa Monica studio saying his music exposes him, he reminds us that if it weren’t for film composers a lot of orchestras would be going out of business. And suddenly we swerve into contemporary composition:  experimental work by rock musicians starting with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on The Social Network. Thus is a new era born, constantly reinventing itself with technology and innovations. The poignant conclusion is a loop back to the ideas presented at the start of the film – that directors generally cannot articulate what they want from a score. James Cameron misunderstood a recording sent to him by the late James Horner for Titanic: Horner described it as ‘a sketch’. It was a musical sketch, for piano, but Cameron thought it was literally for the actual sketching scene when Di Caprio draws Winslet, posing nude. He edited the scene to the music and called Horner. Horner protested it was a sketch. Cameron said it was perfect, he should see it. Horner said he could get the best pianist in the world to play it. Cameron kept it as it was. It’s perfect. All your other work in a film could come to nothing if you don’t get the music right