Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)

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Aka Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.  The devil assumes many forms. Copenhagen police say otherwise, but amateur scientist Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond) who studies ice crystals in a university lab thinks her young Inuit neighbour Isaiah (Clipper Miano) was chased by an adult before he fell to his death from the roof of their apartment block. The daughter of an Inuit who spent her childhood in Greenland, Smilla learns that the boy’s father died while working for Dr. Andreas Tork (Richard Harris) in Greenland who heads a mining company and she is directed by former accountant Elsa (Vanessa Redgrave) to get an Expedition Report from the firm’s archive.  She asks her father Moritz (Robert Loggia) for help interpreting the information but has to deal with his young girlfriend who resents her interference in their life. After sharing her murder theory with a mysterious neighbour called The Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne) who never seems to go to work, she pursues her suspicions and her life is endangered as the impact of a meteorite hitting Greenland in 1859 is revealed in a reanimated prehistoric worm which proves toxic to human organs Why does such a nice woman have such a rough mouth? Peter Høeg’s novel was very fashionable in the Nineties and encompasses so many issues – identity, language, snow and ice, ecology and exploitation, friendship and bereavement, medical issues, astronomy, being far away from home, being motherless … that you can quite see how difficult it would be to fillet from this a straightforward thriller which is what the cinema machine demands. Ann (Ray Donovan) Biderman does a good job streamlining the narrative threads which form an orbit around Ormond who has a tremendous role here but director Bille August doesn’t really heighten the tensions  sufficiently quickly that they materialise as proper threats. What works as a literary novel seems rather far-fetched on screen when stripped of all those beautiful words. Nonetheless it’s a fascinating story and it’s a shame Ormond’s feature career never had the momentum it once seemed to possess. Costuming by Marit Allen. The way you have a sense of God I have a sense of snow

The Facts of Life (1960)

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Am I really going to San Francisco to spend the weekend… with the husband of my best friend? When neighbours Kitty Weaver (Lucille Ball) and Larry Gilbert (Bob Hope) meet it’s irritation at first sight but there’s an undeniable attraction which they eventually act upon during the annual neighbourhood vacation in Acapulco when they’re forced to spend it together. Problem is, they’re both married, she to habitual gambler Jack (Don DeFore), he to perfect homemaker Mary (Ruth Hussey) and they both have two children. They vow to take off together after circumstances and regular encounters at social gatherings mean they keep running into each other but a messed up drunken assignation at a motel makes them rethink. Then things change after Larry finds out that Kitty has written a note to Jack to tell him she’s leaving him when the pair take go to San Francisco for the weekend during the winter vacation … This is my first affair, so please be kind. A breezy but cold-eyed comedy of suburban middle class adultery is not necessarily what you might expect with that cast, but that’s what legendary screenwriting partners Norman Panama and Melvin Frank created and it’s very well played by the leads who of course are both peerless comedy performers and this is the third of the four films they made together. It’s as though Johns Cheever and Updike decided to up sticks and go Hollywood and take all the baggage of midcentury masculinity with them. Panama and Frank are of course great comic screenwriters.  Their first screen credit was on Hope’s 1942 movie My Favorite Blonde and later work with him includes Road to Utopia, Monsieur Beaucaire and an uncredited rewrite of The Princess and the Pirate so they know his strengths (they are his, as it were) and they turn a messy uncomfortable familial disruption into an easily enjoyed romcom whose moral messiness is tidied into great dialogue and barely concealed social anxiety.  This is the essence of comedy and it’s their forte. There are some shockingly barbed exchanges and there are excruciating sequences when the couple discuss the legal and financial ramifications of two divorces and realise when they’re finally alone together that they’re probably mismatched; when they almost get found out by neighbours at San Francisco Airport the tension is horrific.  There’s a notable score by Johnny Mercer and Leigh Harline with the title song performed by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé and while Frank gets the sole directing credit, it appears Panama co-directed. There’s an unexpectedly conventional titles sequence designed by Saul Bass, putting us right in the mood for the tenor of that era’s comedy style and it all looks beautiful in monochrome thanks to cinematographer Charles Lang. Night-time Los Angeles looks glossy even in black and white.  It’s an interesting one to compare with another film about an extra-marital suburban affair filmed the same year, Strangers When We Meet. Played a beat slower with a fraction less of the leads’ comedy mugging and shot in colour, this could match its melodramatic tone. Are you sure you’re with the right woman?

A New Leaf (1971)

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You have managed to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born. A spoiled and self-absorbed playboy who has squandered his inheritance, Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) is ageing and desperate to find a way to maintain his lavish lifestyle. He approaches his disbelieving Uncle Harry (James Coco) who agrees to loan him some money but only on condition he marries within 6 weeks or he will take everything Henry has left in his name, ten times the loan amount. Henry sees an opportunity when he meets Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), an awkward and bookish botanist and heiress whose greatest hope is to discover a new fern. Though Henry proposes marriage within three days of meeting, he has no intention of remaining with her and plans a sinister scheme. As he attempts to murder Henrietta, it may not be as easy as he had thought and he finds himself protecting her from her thieving household staff and caring about her appearance … I eat I sleep I swim I dry off.  I’m primitive! Writer/director Elaine May’s hilarious black comedy may have been re-cut by the studio (headed up by the legendary Robert Evans) against her wishes (losing two murders in the process) but Matthau preferred this version and it’s laugh out loud brilliant and humane, quite a combination. Matthau’s hangdog look perfectly encapsulates his desperate situation as the destitute playboy who against his killer instincts finds his inner decency; while May is a delight as the klutzy eccentric who knows more than she lets on. Coco is hideously funny as the rich uncle with the motorized pepper mill who has a metaphorical noose over Henry; while James Weston scores as Henrietta’s lawyer desperate not to lose his valuable client. Some of the best scenes are between Henry and his ‘gentlemen’s gentleman’ Harold (Jack Rose) who commences by suggesting suicide as an alternative to the awful embarrassment of public poverty when the cheques start to bounce; and then points out the ironic development that Henrietta’s helplessness has triggered Henry’s surprising financial acumen. Startlingly funny and rather cruel about men and women and a certain social niche, this has lost none of its edge or its warmth because it truly understands the vast compromises required by marriage and there are moments of inspired physical comedy.  Adapted by May from Jack Ritchie’s short story The Green Heart. I’m going to find a suitable woman and mur …. marry her!

Catch-22 (1970)

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Help the bombardier. Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) an American pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II attempts to cope with the madness of armed conflict. Convinced that everyone is trying to murder him, he decides to try to become certified insane but that is merely proof that he’s fully competent. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian has to resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation... All great countries are destroyed, why not yours? Not being a fan of the rather repetitive and circular source novel aids one’s enjoyment of this adaptation by director Mike Nichols who was coasting on the stunning success of his first two movies (also adaptations), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, which was also adapted by Buck HenryThe critical reception for this resisted adulation instead focusing on a flawed construction which really goes back to Joseph Heller’s book and does not conform to the rules of a combat picture as well as contracting the action and removing and substituting characters. But aside from the overall absurdity which is literally cut in an act of stunning violence which shears through one character in shocking fashion, there is dialogue of the machine gun variety which you’d expect from a services satire and there are good jokes about communication, following orders, profiteering and stealing parachutes to sell silk on the black market.  There are interesting visual and auditory ways of conveying Yossarian’s inner life – in the first scene we can’t hear him over the noise of the bombings, because his superiors are literally deaf to what he’s saying, a useful metaphor. The impressionistic approach of Henry’s adaptation is one used consistently, preparing the audience for the culmination of the action in a surreal episode worthy of Fellini. I like it a lot, certainly more than the recent TV adaptation and the cast are just incredible:  Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen and Orson Welles among a large ensemble. Even novelist Philip Roth plays a doctor. It’s shot by David Watkin, edited by Sam O’Steen and the production is designed by Richard Sylbert. Where the hell’s my parachute?

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

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Play something else. Bored Boston millionaire Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) devises and executes a brilliant scheme to rob a bank on a sunny summer’s afternoon without having to do any of the work himself. He rolls up in his Rolls Royce and collects the takings from a trash can without ever meeting the four men he hired to pull it off. When the police get nowhere fast, American abroad Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), an investigator hired by the bank’s insurance company, takes an interest in Crown and the two begin a complicated cat-and-mouse game with a romantic undertone although Vicki is also assisting police with their enquiries via Detective Eddy Malone (Paul Burke) who stops short of calling her a prostitute due to her exceedingly unorthodox working methods. Suspicious of Anderson’s agenda, Crown devises another robbery like his first, wondering if he can get away with the same crime twice while Vicki is conflicted by her feelings and Tommy considers giving himself up I’m running a sex orgy for a couple of freaks on Government funds. Dune buggies. Gliders. Polo ponies. Aran sweaters. The sexiest chess game in cinema. Those lips! Those eyes! Those fingers! Has castling ever seemed so raunchy?! Super slick, witty, rather wistful and absurdly beautiful, this classic caper is the epitome of Sixties cool, self-consciously clever, teeming with split-screen imagery, bursting with erotic ideas and boasting a brilliant if enigmatic theme song Windmills of Your Mind composed by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman. The breeziest, flightiest concoction this side of a recipe for soufflé, it benefits from both protagonists’ identity crisis where everything comes easily to Tommy and life is a game, and yet, and yet … while Vicki is genuinely hurt when Detective Malone hands her a file on Tommy’s nightlife affairs with another woman. Written by Alan Trustman, also responsible for Bullitt. The production is designed by Robert Boyle, shot by Haskell Wexler and directed by Norman Jewison while the editing is led by future director Hal Ashby.  This is deliriously entertaining.  And did Persol shades ever look as amazing? It’s not the money, it’s me and the system

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

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There’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive. Britains’ top agent James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is entrusted with the responsibility of protecting Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) the daughter of M’s (Judi Dench) college friend, an oil tycoon murdered while collecting money at MI6 in London. While on his mission in Kazakhstan, he learns about an even more dangerous plot involving psychotic villain Renard (Robert Carlyle) and teams up with nuclear physicist Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) while enjoying a romance with the woman he’s been sent to protect … This is a game I can’t afford to play. Brosnan is back and he’s a charmingly effective Bond in a literally explosive set of action sequences packed with non-stop quips, assaults and well-choreographed kinetic adventures commencing with a bomb in MI6 HQ. Marceau is lovely as his marvellously outfitted female foil, Carlyle is a useful if underexploited villain and Richards is perfect as the preposterously beautiful nuclear physicist whose name gives rise to some great puns in the climactic scene. The only inconsistency is M being made a dupe but you can’t fault the transition from Q to R (John Cleese as a Fawlty-ish successor) or the casting of Robbie Coltrane as a bumptious Russian casino proprietor. The screenplay is credited to Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade from a story devised with Bruce Feirstein but weirdly somebody forgot to mention spy mastermind Ian Fleming. The title song performed by Garbage is composed by David Arnold and the legendary lyricist Don Black. The endless fun is directed by Michael Apted. You can’t kill me – I’m already dead

 

Mystify: Michael Hutchence (2019)

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Michael always had an aura about him. One of the saddest stories in rock music is the demise of Michael Hutchence, the awesomely charismatic and handsome frontman of  INXS, the first Australian band to conquer the US and beyond. Dead by his own hand at 37 in a Sydney hotel room in November 1997 while entrenched in a custody battle over lover Paula Yates’ children by her husband Bob Geldof, she was back in London where she was obliged to stay with their own baby daughter Tiger Lily as custody was being worked out and he made a series of desperate calls to friends and agents in his final hours, recollections of which form the soundtrack to the film’s conclusion. This followed a wounding battle conducted in the scuzzy pages of the British tabloid press which he described as ‘misogynistic’. His friend and one-time director (of cult movie Dogs in Space) Richard Lowenstein has assembled a fascinating montage of home movies, concert footage, photographs as well as audio recordings of interviews with Hutchence’s family, girlfriends, agents, manager and band mates. Hutchence came from a fractured background with a glamorous model and makeup artist mother Patricia Glassop who married Moet & Chandon agent Kell Hutchence when her own daughter Tina (who never met her father) was 11. Tina had been brought up her grandparents and says her mother and Kell weren’t prepared for a baby and she became Michael’s surrogate mother when she started living with them and he was the dream baby, smiling all the time. Unlike his two years younger brother, Rhett, whose first word was No. Michael and his mother fled the family home for the US when he was a young teen, Rhett turned to drugs (his nannies introduced him) and the eventual divorce created a void that Michael filled with his high school friends upon his return to Australia, spending a lot of time in particular with the Farriss brothers who formed the band with Garry Beers and Kirk Pengilly. They allowed Michael to be their singer because he had no talent for musical instruments. He acquired a love of words through an early relationship when he became infatuated with the Beats in particular. Together with Andrew Farriss, the band’s main composer, he found an outlet and a love of performing belied by his innate shyness. At the height of the band’s fame with the Kick album they were worked hard, too hard, and it took a toll.  A long-term relationship with Michele Bennett didn’t survive the band’s astonishing transatlantic success and Never Tear Us Apart was inspired by her but she was no longer in the picture. Other band members were horrified when Hutchence cut off his signature Byronic locks (Pengilly remembers telling his wife to put away the credit cards) and did an experimental album, Max Q. Fellow singer and his lover of two years Kylie Minogue shares home movies including of a trip on the Orient Express and clarifies what he gave to her – a love of pleasure, of all kinds. He was a sensualist who would try anything but his hedonism was balanced by his curiosity as they travelled the world together when their schedules permitted until the inevitable breakup. His next relationship with model Helena Christiansen saw the pivotal moment that would, over a period of five years, trigger a catastrophic deterioration. They were bicycling through her hometown of Copenhagen late at night and had stopped for pizza. Hutchence was in the way of an irate taxi driver who punched him, knocking him to the kerb where he hit his head and blood poured from his mouth and ear and she thought he was dead. He became aggressive when he woke up in hospital and barged out without being prevented from leaving by doctors. She describes him staying in bed in her apartment for a month where he refused food or assistance. Then he attended a neurologist in Paris whose scans revealed permanent destruction of his olfactory neurons – a horribly ironic situation for a man who had gifted Kylie with the novel Perfume. He relished scent and taste and it is suggested that it was central to his loss of self. Returning to work with the band he was confrontational and violent, ‘virtually bipolar’, as one of them has it. They were not a happy unit. He got together with TV presenter Yates and their affair was endlessly controversial as the British press had christened Geldof ‘Saint Bob.’ Hutchence was humiliated by Noel Gallagher at the Brit Awards, an incident that hurt him enormously and INXS’ intended comeback album Elegantly Wasted didn’t work. When Yates had baby Tiger people around him report having never seen him so happy and he was a devoted father. However a scandal involving opium found in their house by Geldof’s nanny [those in the know are aware that Geldof planted it in the custody war – allegedly, of course] caused havoc and a legal battle for Yates’ three daughters by Geldof. Hutchence – a sensitive and gentle man with a slight lisp who always craved a family of his own – was horrified that he could be breaking up anyone else’s family following his own awful upbringing – seems to have suddenly had everything go against him. He was in the middle of rehearsals for the band’s comeback tour in Australia when he died alone in a hotel room following a series of phone calls – including one to Geldof, which is not mentioned here. Ironically he and Yates wanted to split and he had moved on with a young American woman named Erin whose interview forms part of the concluding narration to this sorry tale. Hutchence’s autopsy would reveal two large areas of brain damage that he had concealed from everyone since the violent 1992 assault. It’s an utterly tragic and moving story of a sensational man who made millions of us devoted fans very happy but who finally couldn’t find the ingredients to make everything add up for himself with the unravelling Geldof marriage seemingly proving the final straw. A troubling, sad and beautifully constructed and deeply felt portrait that seems like it will be the final word on its legendary and complex subject even if it’s made in an act of friendship and doesn’t entirely demystify the essence of a greatly talented songwriter and performer partly because of the rights issues that only permitted half a dozen songs to be included, courtesy of Tiger Lily’s intervention. However it gets beyond the clichéd and dreadful stories conjured by British journos in their effort to take him down: they succeeded, in the most awful fashion.  We’ll never get old

The Champ (1979)

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A man who can’t do up his own pants ain’t a man. Washed-up prizefighter Billy Flynn (Jon Voight) hangs up his gloves to try and make it as a horse trainer and be a good father to his eight-year old son TJ or Timmy (Ricky Schroder) who spends his time taking care of his dad who’s prone to drinking and gambling. Billy buys the kid a horse called She’s A Lady but the filly collapses in a race leading to a meeting with Billy’s ex-wife fashionista Annie (Faye Dunaway) but the child think his mom died years ago in a car wreck. Billy reluctantly agrees to allow her to spend a little time with the boy but after Billy gets into trouble at the track and faces a prison term she reveals to TJ that she’s his mother and it upsets him greatly. Despite a recurring headache Billy wants to win his son back and plans a comeback in the boxing ring with reluctant trainer Jackie (Jack Warden) and it seems like the father and son might be reunited … You’re dead! He’s got no mother! This remake of the earlier 1931 Wallace Beery/Jackie Coogan two-hander is a great tragic melodrama. Director Franco Zeffirelli wrings the very heartstrings and you’d have to be a brute not to respond in kind. Walter Newman updated the original screenplay by Frances Marion, one of the great screenwriters of early cinema and it sticks to the essentials with Voight and Dunaway superb in what could be very clichéd roles. However it’s the extraordinary Schroder you remember – his debut performance as the little boy exploding with love for his pop is one of the most startlingly emotive in cinema. Mary Jo Catlett, Joan Blondell and Strother Martin score in supporting roles. Voight lost out on the Golden Globe to Dustin Hoffman, his Midnight Cowboy co-star, who took it for the year’s other big male weepie, Kramer Versus Kramer. It looks as gorgeous as Zeffirelli’s productions always do, courtesy of cinematographer Fred J. Kroenekamp while Dave Grusin’s score was nominated for the Academy Award. Totally manipulative, utterly irresistible and completely heartbreaking! What about my heart? What about my mind? What about me? What about me?

Fire Down Below (1957)

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When it runs it’s a good little boat. U.S. expatriates Tony (Jack Lemmon) and Felix (Robert Mitchum) cruise around the ocean and eke out a meager subsistence using their small tramp boat to transport cargo around the Caribbean islands in between drinking sessions. When they take on the job of smuggling illegal-immigrant beauty Irena (Rita Hayworth) to another island (from nowhere to nowhere), they find their friendship torn apart by their mutual romantic feelings toward her and a betrayal occurs. After the authorities are on his tail he takes a job on cargo ship Ulysses but gets trapped below deck following a collision and time is running out  What a country America is, everything even rebellion. Irwin Shaw’s adaptation of Max Catto’s 1954 novel is a fantastic star vehicle with sparky characters, ripe and eloquent dialogue  – there are real zingers about Americans abroad and the world of men and women. Well, Shaw knew all about all of that good stuff. Some fantastic setpieces include numerous musical sequences (the harmonica theme was written by Lemmon while the title song is performed by Jeri Southern) and a fiery conflagration to bring things to a head. He and Mitchum have a friendship that is curdled by love for the mysterious Hayworth who is as usual much better when she’s required to move rather than stand still and emote. Lemmon is fine as the cuckold but Mitchum and Hayworth have really great scenes together – after dancing in a huge crowd she returns to their table purring at him, That was wonderful. Wasn’t it, he deadpans back to her. There’s a universe of understanding between them. Herbert Lom shows up as the harbour master, Bernard Lee is a doctor, Anthony Newley is a bartender, producer Albert Broccoli makes a cameo as a drug smuggler, there’s a gunfight at sea and best of all there are three stars doing what they do best in their inimical and idiosyncratic style. Fantastically entertaining. Mitchum would not only make his next film in the Caribbean (Heaven Knows Mr Allison) he recorded a calypso album! Directed on location in Trinidad and Tobago by Robert Parrish. I’m so sad that little dogs howl in desperation when they see me

 

Mysterious Island (1961)

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Why don’t we turn this island into a democracy and elect a leader? During the Civil War, a group of soldiers led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) escape a Confederate prison siege using an observation balloon, and due to a storm that lasts four days and pitches them off course, are forced to land on a strange island that is full of tropical jungles and volcanoes. They are confronted by giant mutated animals, find two Englishwomen, Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece Elena (Beth Rogan) washed up from a shipwreck, fight marauding pirates and are then confronted by the infamous Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) whose submarine the Nautilus was feared lost off Mexico eight years previously. They need to escape and that volcano is rumbling but will Nemo assist them using his engineering genius? … We lived like primitive men using primitive implements. The followup to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea doesn’t start particularly promisingly – the escape from the Confederate prison isn’t very well handled by director Cy Endfield, not the first name you’d come up with for an effects-laden juvenile fantasy flick taken from Jules Verne’s two-part novel. However when the action kicks in on the island and the Ray Harryhausen effects interplay with the threat of a volcano about to blow and those sheer painted backdrops hint at disaster, well, it finally gets interesting. Everything is punctuated by regular run-ins with those giant creatures who are the result of Nemo’s horticultural physics experiments. The laughs come courtesy of war journo Gideon Spilitt (Gary Merrill) who has an ongoing run of food jokes: I wonder how long this will take to cook in a slow oven, he deadpans about the giant chicken they believe they’ve killed; turns out Nemo shot it. The cast is excellent although Craig doesn’t set the screen alight and it’s great to see Lom doing his Nemo:  he’s a misunderstood guy who just wants to stop the causes of war. Rogan and Michael Callan get to do a bit of romancing before being sealed into a giant honeycomb; while Percy Herbert and Dan Jackson bring up the rear. The whole shebang is carried by Bernard Herrmann’s sonorous score, booming from the screen as surely as those explosives. From a screenplay by Crane Wilbur, Daniel B. Ullman and John Prebble. Shot at Shepperton Studios and on location in Catalonia. A man could write an inspired novel in a place like this