Wings of Desire (1987)

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Aka  Der Himmel Über Berlin / The Heaven Over Berlin / The Sky Over Berlin. Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun just a dream? Isn’t what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world? Two angels, kindred spirits Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), glide through the streets of Berlin, observing the bustling population, providing invisible rays of hope to the distressed but never interacting with them. They are only visible to children and other people who like them. When Damiel falls in love with wistful lonely trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin) whose circus has closed due to financial problems, he tires of his surveillance job and longs to experience life in the physical world. With words of wisdom from actor Peter Falk (playing himself) performing in a WW2 thriller whose cast and crew the angels are observing – he believes it might be possible for him to take human form and enter history ... We are now the times. Not only the whole town – the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are now more than us two. We incarnate something. We’re representing the people now. And the whole place is full of those who are dreaming the same dream. We are deciding everyone’s game. I am ready. Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your handThis beautiful benign allegory of the divided city of Berlin is of course clear to anyone familiar with the practices of the Stasi, who deployed one half of the East German population to spy on the other half:  when the Wall came down and the files were opened families and friendships were torn asunder. However a few years before that occurred, director Wim Wenders plugs into the nightmare of watching and being watched and makes it into a surreal dream in this romantic fantasy. I can’t see you but I know you’re here. It’s verging on noir with its portrait of a place riven by war and totalitarian rule, its acknowledging of the Holocaust and the overview of the Wall snaking through a post-war world. You can’t get lost. You always end up at the Wall.  A poetic film that’s so much of its time yet its yearning humanity is palpable, its message one of eternal hope. Shot in stunning monochrome by Henri Alekan, brought out of retirement and for whom the circus is named. I’m taking the plunge. Written by Peter Handke, for all the fallen angels on the outside looking in. Co-written by Wenders with additions by Richard Reitinger, loosely inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems. An exquisite city symphony that insists on the disrupting of image making, bearing witness, choosing life. With Curt Bois as Homer and Crime and the City Solution and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform.  Must I give up now? If I do give up, then mankind will lose its storyteller. And if mankind once loses its storyteller, then it will lose its childhood

Shadows and Fog (1991)

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I was just pointing out to these lovely ladies the metaphors of perversion. Europe, between the wars. Kleinman (Woody Allen), a cowardly bookkeeper, is woken in the night by a mob of vigilantes and assigned the task of finding a strangler on the loose in the fog-shrouded town where the circus is visiting. Meanwhile, after a lover’s quarrel with her clown boyfriend (John Malkovich) after seeing him flirt with trapeze artist Marie (Madonna), sword-swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) escapes into the city, eventually joining up with Kleinman for support as they make their way through the ominous streets and foggy back alleys. Kleinman meets up with a mortician (Donald Pleasance) who’s dissecting the murderer’s victims; while Irmy encounters a prostitute (Lily Tomlin) who offers her a place to stay at the brothel where she works and wealthy student Jack (John Cusack) chooses to sleep with her rather than the professionals present.  She enjoys it and wants to donate the money to charity. When certain circumstantial evidence points towards Kleinman, he must prove his innocence as the police take interest and vigilantes assemble … There isn’t a whore in the world that’s worth $700. The first screening may have had the studio suits immobilised and looking like they’d been paralysed with curare, as Woody Allen recalls in his memoir, and this adaptation of his play Death is an admittedly uneasy mix. It’s part German Expressionist serial killer flick, circus picture, sex comedy, cowardly nebbish tale and social melodrama – but it’s still funny as hell when it hits the right notes, even though some of the cast (David Ogden Stiers, Kurtwood Smith) apparently think they’re in a different film altogether. But who doesn’t love Donald Pleasence as the mortician about to get his? And what about Kathy Baker, Lily Tomlin (especially Lily Tomlin) and Jodie Foster as chilled-out smart alecky prostitutes (even if they aren’t given proper names)? There’s a myriad of funny moments and lines with Allen giving most of them to himself but Farrow gets some of them, including, I always think you can tell a lot about an audience by how they respond to a good sword swallower. And howzabaout the great Kenneth Mars as a drunken magician? I once plucked a rabbit from between the bosoms of the Queen of Denmark. Small rabbit. Small bosoms. A hoot, in fits and starts, and so much more fun than its reputation suggests. Miraculous production design by Santo Loquasto, building an entire set at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, NYC and shot by Carlo Di Palma. It’s drenched in an atmosphere equally mysterious and amusing with a sort of sinister undertaste, alluding to Lang, Pabst, Murnau but also Hitchcock because we don’t really care about the strangler McGuffin a whit. He’s played by Michael Kirby. See? Told you. Soundtrack by Kurt Weill – well who else could it possibly have been? Written, directed by and starring Woody Allen as the Kafkaesque Little Man. I can’t make a leap of faith necessary to believe in my OWN existence

Dorian Gray (1970)

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Aka The Secret of Dorian Gray/Il dio chiamato Dorian/Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray. One day when even you’ve become an old and hideous puppet this will still be young. London student Dorian Gray (Helmut Berger) is the subject of a portrait by society painter Basil Hallward (Richard Todd) whose clients hedonistic aristos Lord Henry Wotton (Herbert Lom) and his wife Gwendolyn (Margaret Lee) take a fancy to him. Meanwhile he has fallen in love with aspiring actress Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl) as she rehearses Romeo and Juliet. She makes him think about someone other than himself for a change. As Basil completes his portrait Dorian finds himself obsessed with his painted image and swears that he will trade his soul to remain young. His relationship with Sybil grows complicated and argumentative and she is killed when she is knocked down by a car. Dorian is heavily influenced by Henry who has him sleep with Gwendolyn and Dorian then becomes immersed in society as a kind of gigolo who makes other people famous, be they men or women. However as the portrait begins to reveal his age and escalating depravity he hides it away from sight where it changes appearance and becomes ugly and Dorian ends up killing Basil when he says he’s not responsible for the alterations.  Dorian is conscious of the peril of his situation, particularly when Henry introduces him to Sybil’s double, a woman married to a scientist embarking on research into rejuvenation … Everything is yours. Take it. Enjoy it. The most beautiful man of this or any time stars in a European co-production of the greatest work of literature by the greatest Irish author and it’s updated to the flashy, groovesome Seventies. What bliss is this?! With equal parts tragic romance and fetishistic kink it easily falls into the category of trash yet the moral at the centre – the idea that youth is beautiful in itself, not just for what it can obtain – gives it a lingering value. The god-like Berger is perfectly cast as the impossibly erotic creature who transitions from youthful selfishness to graceless decadence, and his sleazy polymorphous journey through the fashionable world of swinging London is both quaintly dated and oddly touching, principally because of the relationship with Liljedahl (best known for her soft-core films in her home country of Sweden) and Berger’s consistent performance, beset by narcissistic fascination, bewildered by loss. It is precisely because this plugs into the truly pornographic ideas behind the 1890s textual aesthetics that it seems oddly perfect as an adaptation despite the occasional surprise – a bit of S&M in a stables, plus it’s not every day you see Lom approach a beautiful young man to have his wicked way with him. The screenplay is credited to giallo director Massimo Dallamano, Renato Romano, Marcello Coscia and Günter Ebert, from  Oscar Wilde’s indelible novel. The contemporary score is composed by Peppino De Luca and Carlo Pes. Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff and Harry Alan Towers for American International Pictures. You only have a few years to live really fully

Simon and Laura (1955)

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I have acted with octogenarians, dipsomaniacs, dope-fiends, amnesiacs, and veteran cars. When television producers select warring married actors Simon Foster (Peter Finch) and his wife Laura (Kay Kendall), to be the subjects of a live television series documenting a completely happy marriage, they appear to be the perfect choice by chirpy producer David Prentice (Ian Carmichael) but they’re only chosen because the Oliviers aren’t available. On camera, the couple is caring and supportive of each other in the daily one-hour long show. In reality their relationship is rocky but because the show is a hit, Simon and Laura try to keep up the facade until cracks start to surface and romantic complications with the production staff threaten to upset the publicity machine and finally they go off-script on live TV … Do you know what happens when you allow yourself to be regularly exhibited in that glass rectangle? As a response to the incoming threat of TV which was more than existential but factual with the introduction of a new independent channel in addition to BBC, this adaptation of Alan Melville’s stage play by Peter Blackmore elides the situation into a marital farce in which the battling opposites learn to live with one another. The running joke about scripted reality shows is surprisingly pertinent today. See that the script stresses the solidarity of the home. Even what once was called a public intellectual, in the shape of journalist and commentator Gilbert Harding, makes an appearance, describing the dangers inherent in appearing on television:  the  reflexive ironies proliferate.  I find the rapier thrust of Madam’s conversation highly stimulating! The inimitably elegant Kendall is perfectly cast and gets a few barbs that recall her real-life (as it were) career as well as having some opportunities for slapstick antics; while Muriel Pavlow is terrific as the show’s scriptwriter Janet Honeyman, in an engaging cast filled with familiar faces like Richard Wattis, Thora Hird and Alan Wheatley. Finch is good in his first leading role in a British film as the put-upon middle-aged hubby who thinks it’s all rather beneath him but he’s almost upstaged by the obnoxious know it all kid (Clive Parritt) playing his TV son. Television? You call that a wonderful job? Three weeks’ rehearsal, not enough money to cover your bus fares out to Lime Grove, technical breakdown in your one big scene, and no repeat performance? No, thank you. (The line about the Oliviers must have been a little odd for him to hear after his affair with Vivien Leigh). A terrific satirical premise that blends Taming of the Shrew with the growing pains of TV, played at a rate of knots. Great fun. Directed by Muriel Box with beautiful production design by Carmen Dillon and costumes by Julie Harris. We’ll mirror the lives of an ordinary, happily married husband and wife!

 

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)

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It’s how they are. They have always been like this. When word arrives that Apache warrior Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) has assembled a war party and left the San Carlos Indian Reservation, the United States Army assigns veteran tracker John McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) to lead a young, prejudiced lieutenant Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) and his troops from Fort Lowell to find Ulzana. Outmanoeuvered and unfamiliar with the terrain, the cavalry struggles to stop the long-mistreated and raging Apaches from destroying everything in their path in what initially seem like senseless acts of violence upon homesteads and families … The only thing that won’t slow them down is how much killing they do. Alan Sharp’s screenplay is about a devastating period in American history, that quarter of the nineteenth century when a brutal ethnic cleansing was carried out in the name of white conquest;  equally, it is about the astonishing violence of the Native Americans and this is a film that always has an eye on the war in Vietnam:  draw your own conclusions.  This narrative is hewed from a real attack in Arizona in 1885. Davison is good as the naïf who gains an education in the harshest possible conditions, Lancaster is superb as the ageing man who mentors him in the ways of the west. Between them is the compromised Ke-Ni-Tay who has insider information on Ulzana because their wives are sisters. Never an easy watch, despite the ostensibly beautiful camera setups, it’s one of the key westerns of its era and is an underrated work from director Robert Aldrich. Man give up his power when he die

The Natural (1984)

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I came here to play baseball.  In 1910s Nebraska Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) plays catch with his father who is killed by a tree hit by lightning. Roy makes a bat from the split tree and in 1923 tries out for the Chicago Cubs with girlfriend Iris (Glenn Close) in tow, meeting legendary Whammer (Joe Don Baker) and sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall). He impresses the mysterious beauty Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) who had been fawning over Whammer. She is actually a celebrity stalker who turns up in Roy’s hotel room where she shoots him, apparently dead. Sixteen years later he has a chance as a rookie with bottom of the league New York Knights where he immediately becomes a star to the surprise of manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley).  He falls into the clutches of Pop’s niece Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) who is handmaiden to Gus Sands (Darren McGavin, unbilled) a ruthless bookie who loves betting against him. His form turns until a woman in white stands in the crowd and it’s Iris – who is unmarried but has a son. Mercy finally remembers where he first saw Roy who gets a chance as outfielder following the tragic death of colleague Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen) but the illness resulting from the shooting catches up with Roy and he’s on borrowed time … I used to look for you in crowds. Adapted by Roger Towne (brother of Robert) and Phil Dusenberry from Bernard Malamud’s novel, this is a play on myth and honour, with nods to mediaeval chivalry in its story of a long and arduous journey where Roy encounters the death of his father, bad and good women, resurrection, mentors and villains and lost opportunities and the chance at redemption. It’s a glorious tale, told beautifully and surprisingly economically with stunning imagery from Caleb Deschanel and a sympathetic score from Randy Newman. Redford seems too old at first but you forget about that because he inhabits Hobbs so totally and it’s so finely tuned. This allegorical take on the price you pay for success in America is expertly handled by director Barry Levinson, even if the novel’s ending is altered. I didn’t see it coming

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

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Aka Phantom Ladies Over Paris. Usually, it started like this. When stage magician Céline (Juliet Berto) goes traipsing across a Parisian park, she unwittingly drops first a scarf, then other objects which librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) cannot help but pick up. So begins a fanciful and obsessive relationship between the two, which soon sees Céline sharing Julie’s apartment and each of them playfully switching identities in their daily lives. As they increasingly indulge their fantasies, they find themselves trying to rescue a young girl Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar) from a supposedly haunted house that Julie worked in and Céline lived next to as a child.  Now it appears to be filled with ghosts (Barbet Schroeder, Marie-France Pisier, Bulle Ogier) …So, my future is in the present.  One of the greatest films ever made, Jacques Rivette’s fragmented narrative of two feisty young women started with two stories by Henry James (The Other House;  The Romance of Certain Old Clothes), giving him a bit of a head start, then he liberally sprinkled some Alice in Wonderland into the mix, created a drama of identity, a rescue fantasy, a story about storytelling, a movie about the cinema, sometimes speeding up and sometimes slowing down, a fiction about fictional creation (because ‘to go boating’ means to take a trip), and came up with a fantasy that adult life could always be as good as your childhood dreams. This is a woman’s film in the very best sense that we can imagine and is of course the source of Desperately Seeking Susan. Devised by Rivette and the stars with input from Ogier and Pisier,and Eduardo de Gregorio, this is a remarkable film of disarming charm, once seen never forgotten, especially with its 194 minute running time. A female buddy film like no other. It doesn’t hurt to fall off the moon!

La Strada (1954)

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What a funny face! Are you a woman, really? Or an artichoke? Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is a simple-minded young woman whose mother accepts 10,000 lire from brutish itinerant strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) to take her on the road after her older sister Rosa has died doing the same job. He bullies her and she takes up with high-wire performer Il Matto/Fool (Richard Basehart) who is with a travelling circus which she then joins with Zampanò when he finds her. The men’s rivalry culminates in a death … Here we have a piece of chain that is a quarter of an inch thick. It is made of crude iron, stronger than steel. With the simple expansion of my pectoral muscles, or chest, that is, I’ll break the hook.Written by Fellini and Tulio Pinelli with Ennio Flaiano, this is the first of the maestro’s world hits and one of the classics of cinema. It is a tragedy told with immense humanity and vivid melancholy and is a tribute to the performing brilliance of Masina, Fellini’s wife and the inspiration for the central character, a waif of Chaplinesque attractiveness. Much of the film was shot around dawn, imbuing this picaresque of poverty with its unique tone of fatality. This marks a break with the director’s neorealist cinematic roots,  yet it is an unvarnished picture of post-war Italy, a stark contrast with the American Technicolor tourist romcoms being produced on location. However it embraces the vitality and symbolism of the circus and brings a distinctive worldview to global attention. Quinn seems unbearably tough while Basehart does well as a kind of trickster in this allegorical play on the fairytale.  Nino Rota provides the evocative score and the song which is repeated to such urgent effect. A devastating portrait of the destruction of innocence with the overwhelming power of melodrama. Once you lose your eyes, you are finished. If there’s any delicate person in the audience, I would advise him to look away ’cause there could be blood

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

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This isn’t happening. After returning home from the Vietnam War, veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) struggles to maintain his sanity. Plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks, convinced he is in Hell when he travels on the subway, Singer rapidly falls apart as the world and people around him morph and twist into disturbing images. Girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) and ex-wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalember), try to help, but to little avail. Even Singer’s chiropractor friend Louis (Danny Aiello), fails to reach him as he appears to descend into madness… There is no out of here. You’ve been killed, don’t you remember? Bruce Joel (Ghost) Rubin’s impressionistic screenplay about life and death gets a hallucinatory treatment by director Adrian Lyne in an unforgettable psychological portrait that seems to be about PTSD but morphs into something else entirely, a metaphysical enquiry about perception. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth. Better seen than explained, this leaves its audience in emotional distress, occupying a hellish reality where demons seem to pursue you in the subway. Robbins and the late Peña are wonderful playing out this magnificent fever dream, while Maurice Jarre’s score is a lament for the ages. See. According to this, you’re already dead

The Boy With Green Hair (1948)

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I’m here to remind you that war is bad for children. I want you to tell the world. Peter Fry (Dean Stockwell), a boy with a shaved head, is found by the police who ask a psychologist Dr Brand (Robert Ryan) to try to get him to talk. He regales the man with his life story … He is adopted by retired actor Gramp (Pat O’Brien) after he’s been passed like a parcel from one relative to another.  He finally feels safe with his new caretaker, but when he is taunted at school for being an orphan, he gets demoralised as his teacher Miss Brand (Barbara Hale) and Gramp now have to reveal the truth:  his parents were killed doing war relief work. The next day he wakes up with green hair. Embarrassed and further ridiculed, Peter seeks solace in a nearby forest where he finds other orphans in the woods and realises he is not alone. They encourage him to spread news of the injustices of war… This post-war pacifist propaganda allegory caused its writers, producer and director a whole lot of trouble:  writers Ben Barzman and Alfred Lewis Levitt, producer Adrian Scott and debut director Joseph Losey were blacklisted following the HUAC hearings, with Losey taking permanent refuge in England. It’s a curious film, though Stockwell, who was such a beautiful child, is certainly worth viewing for his paradoxically mature performance in his sixteenth film.  This is also notable for its extraordinary theme song, Nature Boy, by eden ahbez aka George Alexander Aberle, which was made famous by Nat King Cole and ahbez was apparently found living under the first L of the Hollywood sign. An oddity of a film that had such strange consequences for all concerned with RKO’s owner Howard Hughes demanding the removal of more material outwardly requesting tolerance.