Tenet (2020)

We live in a twilight world. An unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) gets kidnapped and tortured by gangsters following an opera siege in Ukraine and wakes up after he takes a fake suicide pill, is rebuilt and sent on a new mission – to find out who’s shipping inverted bullets from the future using Priya (Dimple Kapadia) as a front. He discovers through a forged Goya it’s Russian arms dealer Andrey Sator (Kenneth Branagh) whose art expert wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) is more or less his hostage, trying to keep in contact with their young son. Working with British agent Neil (Robert Pattinson) he organises an attack on the (tax- free) Freeport in Oslo Airport where art treasures are being held in an attempt to to root out the channels Sator is using and tries to avert the end of the world as Sator’s suicide mission takes hold … With a hi-vis jacket and a clipboard you can get in practically anywhere in the world. The ongoing paradox – one of many – in the latest offering from writer/director Christopher Nolan – is that in a world of special effects he does his filmmaking in camera and this has an admirably real feeling, with a lot of it shot in gloomy European cities that mostly look alike – grey, with brutalist tower blocks and dull skies. It’s the dystopic vision that J.G. Ballard satirised while predicting the future, a time when Alain Resnais was pioneering storytelling backwards and forwards through time yet the Sixties feeling is very now. The palindromic inventiveness lies in the story structure, the characterisation and the trust in the audience. Of course it helps  that this tale of a man with the power of apocalypse in his nasty Eastern European paws with the foreknowledge informing his every move is released to a Covid-19 world where people wear masks and dread the end of days, rather like here (when they’re not masked they’re bearded, which is pretty much the same thing). That it also takes the long tall Sally from TV’s espionage hit adaptation of John le Carre’s The Night Manager and puts her in a markedly similar role doesn’t go amiss. These realistic meta touches – with Branagh’s horrifying oligarch resident in London – grip the narrative to something close to recognisable quotidian newspaper headlines; while the parallel lines of future-past intersect in the ‘inverted’ nodes that splatter in all directions. It may be that after one hundred minutes when they decide to return to Oslo and they mean go back in time to Oslo that the plot becomes not just far fetched but out of reach to the ordinary pea brain, or someone who thinks in too linear a fashion, as soldier Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) chides The Protagonist. As ever, we must remember that future and past selves best not meet each other or else – annihilation. There are boys’ own fantasies writ large – joyriding an aeroplane and causing a horrifying amount of damage, an exhilarating catamaran race, an astonishing quasi-hijacking which can’t possibly go well with all that time travel inversion stuff, great military hardware for the penultimate sequence and the unpeeling of The Protagonist aka The American who starts out from a very bad place indeed and is literally reconstituted to do his worst.  The entire narrative is based on one diadic exchange:  What just happened here?/ It didn’t happen yet! It’s a different experience than Inception which was all about a built world inhabited by a featureless character – a video game, in any language. Yet we can see all the references from the Airport movies, through Terry Gilliam and The Thomas Crown Affair in this timeblender. Branagh is such an evil bad guy you expect him to tell Washington he expects him to die while twirling his comedy moustache. Pattinson might well be reprising his T.E. Lawrence  in those early sweaty linen suits. How you appear is all, as Michael Caine’s Sir Michael Crosby informs Washington – less Brooks Brothers, more Savile Row tailoring. They are men on a mission but not Men in Black. This all concludes in the abject maternal being resolved in pleasing fashion, a not unfamiliar trope in Nolan’s body of work; the opportunity to rewrite your life is presented here in key moments. There is one huge technical problem with the film that damages the plot clarity and that is the woeful sound mix, leaving much dialogue lost in the guttural music of Ludwig Goransson while revelling in the sheer kinetic drive of the action. It’s not too late in this digital age to whip up some new codes to tidy it up, is it? Maybe just ratchet up the EQs a tad. In the interim, relish the historical possibilities of film editing in this awesome mosaic of affect and attractions and heed the advice given in soothing voice early on, Don’t try to understand it – feel it. Welcome back, Cinema.

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

There is no whole thing. You have to make it work. Divorced thirtysomething recruitment agent Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson) begins a romantic relationship with glamorous sculptor Bob Elkin (Murray Head), aware that he’s also intimately involved with lonely middle-aged Jewish doctor Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch).  Bob takes off from the weekend babysitting for Alex’s friends the Hodsons (Vivian Pickles and Frank Windsor) in order to spend time with Daniel. The younger man represents a break with the pasts of both Bob’s older lovers, and neither is willing to let go of the love and vitality he brings to their mundane lives although he’s planning to leave for New York … I know you’re not getting enough of me but you’re getting all there is. Film critic Penelope Gilliatt’s screenplay, suggested by material she plumbed in her novel One by One, is a deep delve into the compromises and deceptions people make in order to have a little happiness. The North London setting with its population of slightly boho middle class types conceals the fact that the story is told rather cleverly, through the shared answering service, tales that Daniel is told by his patients, the insights of the precocious children Alex is minding and her mother’s truisms about marriage. The autumnal scenes carving out a season of political unrest hint at the melancholy truth that these are people who live in fear of rejection, hesitant about commitment, afraid to make a permanent display of emotion in a film which wears its protagonists’ pathology on its shirt sleeve, a patina of loss.  It’s amusing to see both Alex and Daniel cruise past Bob’s flat late at night, fearful there might be yet another person claiming his affection. Alongside the brilliant performances of the leads, with Finch a standout, there’s legendary silent actress Bessie Love as an answering service operator; Tony Britton in search of a job and winding up with a one night stand; and a very young Daniel Day-Lewis as a car vandal. How apposite for Jon Finch to be hustling his namesake, narrowly avoiding a late night arrest in Piccadilly Circus. Directed by John Schlesinger, whose best film this is, about a world he fully inhabits. He also contributed to the screenplay for this landmark in gay representation, along with David Sherwin and Ken Levison, who are thanked for their assistance in the credits. Some people believe something is better than nothing, but I’m beginning to believe that nothing can be better than something

Private’s Progress (1956)

The enemy does not play cricket. He abides by no rules. In 1942 university student Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) is conscripted into the British Army where his uncle Brigadier Bertram Tracepurcel (Dennis Price), himself more interested in art than army, believes he will easily graduate to officer class. Instead upon landing at Gravestone Barracks in Kent for basic training alongside Egan (Peter Jones) a far more apt pupil, he is hopeless, failing officer selection and winding up at a holding unit commanded by Major Hitchcock (Terry-Thomas) where he meets up with several miscreants. They include workshy wide boy Cox (Richard Attenborough) who skives off work regularly and Blake (Victor Maddern) who runs away regularly and is caught in Scotland trying to join the Navy. Windrush is sent to train as a Japanese interpreter and is assigned to his uncle’s raid behind German lines by mistake but the Brigadier just tells him to keep his mouth shut, We don’t want any of that Where Is The Pen of Me Aunt stuff. The real purpose of retrieving art treasures is to sell them to crooked dealers. When Windrush is left behind following an unfortunate episode with a German General he is captured by the British and has a hard time persuading them he’s one of them with all his Nazi regalia and ID card … The producers gratefully acknowledge the official cooperation of absolutely nobody. Adapted by John Boulting and Frank Harvey from Alan Hackney’s autobiographical novel, this service comedy from the Boulting Brothers is equal parts farce and satire with the usual winsome act from Carmichael as the utterly unsuitable university prof shoved into the Army during WW2. Very funny without being outrageous, there are some great exchanges and the antics in Germany (which feature Christopher Lee as a Nazi!) are extremely funny indeed. And yes, Terry-Thomas says many, many times, You’re an absolute shower! The topper is worth waiting for. The delightful score is by John Addison. Being educated sort of limits you, doesn’t it

The Souvenir (2019)

You are lost and you will always be lost. London, 1980. Shy Knightsbridge-dwelling film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) gets involved with a mysterious older man Anthony (Tom Burke) who claims to work for the Foreign Office. While she starts working on a project and he disappears from time to time, she doesn’t suspect what is revealed at a dinner party by a guest – that he’s a junkie. When he steals all her belongings to score she appears to be reeled in to a deeper relationship with him. She doesn’t socialise as much with her old friends but they visit each other’s parents. Then following a trip to Venice when he realises she is aware of his habit she starts bringing him to housing estates to buy drugs and finally sees what is going on in his life until finally she sees him out of control … Don’t be worthy, be arrogant. It’s much more sexy.  Writer/director Joanna Hogg’s quasi-autobiographical tale turns on the passivity rather typical of her characters, upper middle class types stuck in situations they can’t quite recognise and then have trouble leaving.  Here it’s a story of her own youth when she fell in with a much older man who concealed his serious heroin problem from her and given the prevalence of that drug among the arty set in the era (read Will Self on the subject) her naivete is somewhat hard to credit. Realism is introduced by a very welcome soundtrack of songs by bands like The Pretenders and The Fall with those awkward dinner conversations punctuated by political talk – the IRA, the Middle Easterners holed up at the Libyan Embassy:  we even get to re-live the bomb that ended that particular siege.  There are urgent exchanges about movies. Then there are the barely comprehensible phone calls. The letters we can’t read.  It is amusing to see Swinton Sr. turning up in twinset and pearls – definitely not how she spent the Eighties, after all, with her forays in Derek Jarmanland. But it takes 83 minutes for Julie to do something active to end the relationship and it’s only when she sees Anthony’s drug paraphernalia at the flat and then he appears, strung out.  That’s a long time after he robbed all her possessions for a fix. She may be rather innocent in that sense but she has big ambitions and continues with her film: her obvious class status arises only when her Head of Production comments rhetorically, I don’t suppose you really have to think about budget in Knightsbridge, do you. Richard Ayoade gets a great scene when he obnoxiously ponders how a heroin addict and a Rotarian got together and Julie is utterly baffled:  she doesn’t know what track marks are.  The photo of Anthony in full beard in Afghanistan circa 1973 didn’t arouse any suspicions. For such a sophisticate you have to wonder, don’t you. The formation of an artist is tough to put together in the frustrating first hour but somehow in the second, it works, when you finally get intimations of an emotional undertow about to burst in a film that is chiefly of memory rather than strict narrative or depth psychology. I do what I do so you can have the life you’re having

Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019)

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

Aka Portrait de la jenue fille en feu. Will you be able to paint her? Painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is instructing a class of art students in Paris. They ask her about the origins of a painting and she reminisces: France, 1770. Marianne is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) a young woman who has just left the convent and is at home on a remote island off the coast of Brittany. She is a reluctant bride to be and her mother the countess (Valeria Golino) wants Marianne to paint her portrait in secret for an arranged marriage to a nobleman suitor in Milan whose visual approval is required. The last male artist failed in his mission and Marianne must study Héloïse without her knowing. Marianne accompanies her on her daily walk under the pretence of being her companion but observes her carefully and paints her secretly. Is that how you see me? When she reveals her identity and Héloïse dislikes the portrait Marianne destroys it, to the rage of the countess who goes away for a while as long as Marianne agrees to do another portrait, this time with her subject’s full co-operation. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s. The women fall in love and Héloïse reads Orpheus and Eurydice by firelight to Marianne and Héloïse’s servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) whose pregnancy the women help to end. As Marianne finishes the portrait and the countess is returning they must accept what happens next … Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth. French writer/director Céline Sciamma’s historical romance is stately, elegant and well framed:  this is a picture of female solidarity and love, grounded in the most obvious of ideas – the female gaze in a patriarchal world – in a film about looking and perception. We are going to paint. This is about turning around and acknowledging and engaging with what you see – and making a choice. The performers look and watch and are passive aggressive as society dictates they must be with their taboo affair, illuminating each other’s lives in secret. How people see each other has rarely been so truthfully portrayed. A profound, at times magical, meditation on what it means to be a woman, this is beautifully and carefully staged, with nothing excessive or ornamental and driven by stunning performances. The digital cinematography by Claire Mathon is so exquisite there are candlelit scenes you will want to reach out and touch and hang on your wall. This show and tell is far from still life. If you look at me, who do I look at?

What a Way to Go! (1964)

What a Way to Go

You don’t need a psychiatrist, you need your head examined. Louisa May Foster (Shirley MacLaine), a widow four times over, donates $200 million to the Internal Revenue Service because all her four marriages end in her husbands’ deaths, leading her to believe that the money is cursed and she is a jinx when all she wanted to do was marry for love. She winds up on the couch of psychiatrist Dr. Victor Stephanson (Bob Cummings) who asks her what has led her to do something so crazy and Louisa recounts her life starting with her childhood when her hypocrite mother (Margaret Dumont) preached penury but actually wanted to be rich and berated her poor husband. Louisa dates the richest boy in town Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin) but prefers the little shopkeeper Edgar Hopper (Dick Van Dyke) from high school who refuses to sell out and they bond over Thoreau – until he feels guilty and ends up accumulating huge wealth from non-stop working until it kills him. Then she travels to Paris for the holiday they never took where she encounters part-time taxi driver and wannabe artist Larry Flint (Paul Newman) and inspires him to create moneymaking paintings using machines that respond to Mendelssohn and kill him. She meets maple syrup tycoon Rod Anderson Jr.(Robert Mitchum) who flies her to NYC on his private plane when she misses her flight home and they marry immediately. When he sells up and they retire to a farm he mistakes a bull for a cow in the milking parlour and winds up in a water trough. Dead. Louisa goes for a coffee in a diner and meets Pinky Benson (Gene Kelly) a performer who stars in a terrible dinner theatre production every night. When she persuades him to be himself the crowd loves him, he becomes a star and they go Hollywood where the fans love him to death and Dr. Stephanson hasn’t been listening for the last two husbands …  Every man whose life I touch withers. This Betty Comden and Adolph Greene screenplay (from a story by Gwen Davis) proves an astonishing showcase for MacLaine with the film within a film parodies punctuating each marriage providing a great opportunity to send up various moviemaking styles, including silent movies, foreign art films, a Lush Budgett!! spectacular, and culminating in a wonderful musical pastiche with Kelly.  It’s a total treat to see these famous dancers performing together (look quickly for Teri Garr in the background!). It’s a breezy soufflé of a movie and a distinct change of pace for director J. Lee Thompson who previously worked with Mitchum on the classic thriller Cape Fear. Very charming and funny with lots of good jokes about the American Dream, the art world, Hollywood and fame, and terrific production values. That’s Reginald Gardiner as the unfortunate who has to paint Pinky’s house … pink. A wonderful opportunity to see some of the top male stars of the era making fun of themselves. Perhaps what’s most astonishing is that this was supposed to star Marilyn Monroe until her shocking death and Pinky’s swimming pool is the one from the abandoned set of Something’s Got To Give.  Thompson and MacLaine would work again the following year on the Cold War spoof John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. Shot by Leon Shamroy, edited by Marjorie Fowler, costumes by Edith Head, jewellery by Harry Winston and score by Nelson Riddle. Money corrupts, art erupts

 

Play Misty for Me (1971)

Play Misty for Me large

You ever find yourself being completely smothered by somebody? Popular late night radio show host Dave Garver (Clint Eastwood) at jazz station KRML becomes restless in his relationship with artist girlfriend Tobie Williams (Donna Mills). Impulsively, he goes out and has a one night stand with Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter) a woman he meets at a nightclub. Afterwards he finds out she was not an anonymous hookup, but an obsessive fan who has been calling in repeatedly to request he play the Errol Garner song Misty. Garver soon discovers extricating himself from Evelyn will be no easy feat as she insinuates herself into his life, showing up everywhere and becoming increasingly deranged. He seeks help from policeman Sgt McCallum (John Larch) only realising at the eleventh hour that Tobie may be in danger... Do you know your nostrils flare out into little wings when you’re mad? It’s kinda cute. Eastwood made his directing debut with trusted mentor Don Siegel by his side and playing Murphy the bartender at a local joint in the town where he lived, Carmel-by-the-Sea in Northern California, a locale made look even more beautiful by the skilled cinematography of usual Eastwood DoP Bruce Surtees. The screenplay was written by Jo Heims, a former model and dancer, while Dean Riesner (from Dirty Harry and Coogan’s Bluff) polished it;  with the idea for a girlfriend, Tobie, coming from editor Sonia Chernus. It’s a clever and lean premise, brilliantly executed in the economic style we have come to know as Eastwood’s particular stamp. He uses his local knowledge to establish a keen sense of place, with a variety of shots giving us a good idea of the geography of this stunning town, the gorgeous sunlight steadily accreting to create a form of terror all over Monterey County. The tension is marvellously sustained with expert use of the jazz soundtrack (and the local music festival) creating more suspense with Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face used for a romantic mood. (The song’s exposure turned it into a Number One hit.) Walter was Eastwood’s first choice for Evelyn following her appearance in The Group a half dozen years earlier, and we believe her to be so much of a threat that she can do absolutely anything to impose her will; while Mills acquits herself very well as the only stable character in this unwitting love triangle. She had played opposite Burt Reynolds in an episode of his show Dan August and he recommended her to Eastwood. He looked at rushes and hired her without even meeting her. Eastwood is excellent here, completely believable as a man of a certain age who is selfish and unaware and still thinks he can hit it big in the city yet has to bide his time reading poetry late at night to a devoted small town audience. A great first film.  I did it because I LOVE YOU!

Smashing Time (1967)

Smashing Time large

I do love your accent. It’s so tuned in. Selfish Yvonne (Lynn Redgrave) and her best friend frumpy Brenda (Rita Tushingham) leave the drab North of England and head for London with dreams of hitting the big time, their ideas of the place dominated by what they read in trendy magazines. But when they arrive and quickly lose their savings to a robber, they find that city life is tougher than expected and success may be more elusive than they planned. Yvonne hits Carnaby Street where she encounters trendy photographer Tom Wabe (Michael York) and then lucks her way into TV and achieves celebrity when she unexpectedly turns a bad song into a hit single.  She begins to wonder about the cost of fame, and the whereabouts of her old friend who has become Tom’s modelling muse and is now the face of a cosmetics campaign including the perfume Direct Action which uses footage from protests in its TV advertising … Ain’t she smashing when she gets the needle! Screenwriter George Melly (yes, the same jazz hero) has a ball making fun of the Swinging London scene with ‘Brenda’ and ‘Yvonne’ which were the nicknames given to the Queen and Princess Margaret by Private Eye magazine. Director Desmond Davis had previously directed Tushingham and Redgrave in The Girl With Green Eyes and they clearly have a rapport – their burning charisma has a lot to contend with in a narrative that is essentially ten slapstick scene-sequences (including a pie fight) so there’s a lot of wide-eyed mugging as well as some nifty lingo. Effectively our lovely ladies are turned into a distaff Laurel and Hardy. Tushingham’s A Taste of Honey co-star Murray Melvin makes an appearance, Ian Carmichael does a kind of class throwback as a nightclub lech who gets his back at his, Anna Quayle scores as posh shop-owner Charlotte who doesn’t want to sell anything, Arthur Mullard and Sam Kydd have a knockabout in a greasy spoon and Irene Handl seems to appear with one of her own chihuahuas in the vintage clothes shop. The last scene is literally set to overload and the pair see the ludicrousness of the cool gang for themselves even if they’ve briefly been their icons. The garish glare of the ‘happening’ places is physically some distance from the rest of London, which is shot in several tracking shots, revealing its true grimy drabness. The songs are a lot of fun in a pastiche score by John Addison. A time capsule that might even have been too late by the time it was released but a must for fans of the appealing stars whose sheer exuberance lights up the screen.  Watch out for the psychedelic group Tomorrow. Thanks to Talking Pictures for putting this on their schedule.  I may be green but I’m not cabbage-coloured

L.A. Story (1991)

LA Story

Why is it that we don’t always recognize the moment when love begins but we always know when it ends? Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin) has the easiest job in the world: he’s a TV weatherman in Los Angeles, where the weather is so predictable he tapes his ‘wacky’ forecasts days in advance. Bored with his job, his life and his relationship with longtime girlfriend Trudi (Marilu Henner), foundering while she carries on an affair with a colleague Frank Swan (Kevin Pollak), Harris begins to receive secret messages from an electronic freeway sign near his home, which lead him to pursue romance with a married British journalist Sara (Victoria Tennant) doing a story on LA lifestyles and a vapid young model SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker). Sara doesn’t want to let down her ex-husband Roland Mackey (Richard E. Grant) but Harris believes she could be his source of happiness … Let us just say I was deeply unhappy, but I didn’t know it because I was so happy all the time. Written by Martin and directed by Mick Jackson, this pleasantly zany romcom perfectly encapsulates what many believe to be true of a certain kind of social scene in Los Angeles, an updated take on Cyra McFadden’s earlier self-help satire Serial, perhaps, with fads and fashions plucked from the air like oranges from trees or aphorisms from freeway signs. If it never hits the comic heights you would expect from Martin, this is a Valentine to the city, an observational fantasy that sees contentment as a home run while a certain kind of busy wit unspools through these characters’ lives...it’s not what I expected. It’s a place where they’ve taken a desert and turned it into their dreams. I’ve seen a lot of L.A. and I think it’s also a place of secrets: secret houses, secret lives, secret pleasures. And no one is looking to the outside for verification that what they’re doing is all right. Not quite the Odyssey Harris’ name suggests but an intriguing and insightful journey nonetheless, with an outstanding soundtrack which will practically bring tears to the eyes of Nineties kids. Ordinarily, I don’t like to be around interesting people because it means I have to be interesting too

England Is Mine (2017)

England Is Mine

Do you ever wake up and think, I wonder if I could have been a poet. Shy and sullen Steven Patrick Morrissey (Jack Lowden) is the unemployed and depressive son of Irish immigrants growing up in 1976 Manchester. Withdrawn and something of a loner, he goes out to rock gigs at night and then submits letters and reviews to music newspapers as well as keeping a diary. His father (Peter MacDonald) wants him to get a job, his mother (Simone Kirby) wants him to follow his passion for writing, and Steven doesn’t quite know what he wants to do. His friend, artist Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay) a nascent feminist, inspires him to continue to write lyrics and urges him to start to perform, but she eventually moves to London. Forced to earn a living and fit in with society his income from office work permits his gig-going but Steven’s frustrations and setbacks continue to mount. Although he eventually writes some songs with guitarist Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence) for the band The Nosebleeds until Duffy breaks it off, and he tries his hand at singing and enjoys it, nothing substantially changes in his life, and Steven seems at the end of his rope until another teenage fanboy who can play guitar Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) shows up on his doorstep in 1982… The past is everything I have failed to be.  A biography of The Smiths’ singer-songwriter and solo artist Morrissey before he became famous, this is hampered by the lack of The Smiths music (because the makers didn’t own the rights) but nonetheless forms another part of the puzzle that is is the man. In many respects it hymns the kitchen sink realist films that he himself paid homage in so many songs, colouring in his Irish background in the northern city of Manchester but pointedly avoiding his later songwriting and sexuality and stopping at the moment he meets Marr, the guitarist, which is where most of his fans come in. Instead it’s a portrait of a bedroom loner, a fan who fantasises about being famous and in that sense paints a fascinating picture Billy Liar-style of someone who manages to rise above their miserable circumstances and then (after the film) in protean style fashions fame from their influences and obsessions despite the apparent lack of propulsion in his life. In that sense, it’s a portrait of celebrity and how it can inspire people to escape their humdrum lives and find their own voice. The songs on the soundtrack from New York Dolls and Mott the Hoople to Sparks and Magazine are as much a part of the narrative as the arch teenage diary entries which echo the later mordantly amusing lyrics and the performance by The Nosebleeds is the most thrilling sequence in the film. Anyone who ever lived in Manchester will recognise the dreadful rainy place Morrissey wrote has so much to answer for. Director Mark Gill who co-wrote the screenplay with William Thacker gets into the head of one of the most singular talents ever produced on the British music scene and perhaps the best ever Irish band on the planet, The Smiths, the only band that mattered in the Eighties. He’s played quite charmingly by Lowden who livens up a drama that may cleave much too closely to the exhausting reality as lived in Northern England at the time. Today is Morrissey’s sixty-first birthday. Many happy returns! If there was ever a revolution in England, we’d form an orderly queue at the guillotine