Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Nothing is what it seems. Grieving over the accidental death of their daughter, Christine (Sharon Williams), John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) leave their young son Johnny in an English boarding school and head to Venice where John’s been commissioned to restore a church. There Laura meets two ageing sisters (Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania) who claim to be in touch with Christine’s spirit. Laura takes them seriously, but John scoffs until he himself catches a glimpse of what looks like Christine running through the streets of Venice. Unbeknownst to himself, he has precognitive abilities (which might even be figured in the book he’s written, Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space) and the figure of local Bishop Barrigo (Massimo Serato) seems to be a harbinger of doom rather than a portent of hope.  Meanwhile, another body is fished out of the canal with a serial killer on the prowl …  Director Nicolas Roeg made one masterpiece after another in the early 1970s and this enjoyed a scandalous reputation because of the notorious sex scene between Christie and Sutherland which was edited along the lines of a film that Roeg had photographed for Richard Lester, Petulia, some years earlier. The clever cross-cutting with the post-coital scene of the couple dressing to go out for dinner persuaded people that they had watched something forbidden. That aside, the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant is a clever mix of horror, mystery, enigmatic serial killer thriller and a meditation on grief. All of that is meshed within a repetitive visual matrix of the colour red, broken glass and water. None of that would matter were it not for the intensely felt characterisation of a couple in mourning, with Christie’s satisfaction at her dead daughter’s supposed happiness opposed to Sutherland’s desire to shake off the image of the child’s shiny red mackintosh – the very thing that leads him to his terrible fate. Some of the editing is downright disturbing – particularly a cut to the old ladies busting a gut laughing whilst holding photographs, apparently of their own family members. John’s misunderstanding of his visions coupled with the literal crossed telephone line from England creates a cacophony of dread, with Pino Donaggio’s score and Anthony Richmond’s limpid shots of Venice in winter compounding the tender horror constructed as elegiac mosaic by editor Graeme Clifford. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius? Probably. I couldn’t possibly comment.  I never minded being lost in Venice.

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Legend of the Falls (1994)

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He is the rock they broke themselves against. Early 20th-century Montana, Colonel William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) lives in the wilderness with his sons, Tristan (Brad Pitt), Alfred (Aidan Quinn) and Samuel (Henry Thomas). Alfred’s the good rule-abiding one, Tristan is the wild man who hunts and shoots and whose best friend is One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), while Samuel returns from Harvard with a fiancee, Susannah (Julia Ormond), an Eastern woman who initially appears to be a replacement for Ludlow’s wife who never got the hang of western living and abandoned her husband and sons. Ludlow resigned from civilisation following the Civil War due to his distress at how Native Americans were being treated. Eventually, the unconventional but close-knit family encounters tragedy when Samuel is killed in World War I. Tristan and Alfred survive their tours of duty, but, soon after they return home, both men fall for Susannah (Julia Ormond), and their intense rivalry begins to destroy the family. Alfred becomes a Congressman and Tristan disappears for years, travelling the world. He returns to find his father has had a stroke and his former lover Susannah didn’t wait for him and married Alfred, unhappily.  He finds love with the Indian girl who grew up around the family, Isabel Two (Karina Lombard) but then his smalltime rum-running business gets in the way of the O’Bannion gang’s business at the height of Prohibition …   Here at Mondo Towers I have Aussie flu and it’s snowing and I’m miserable so it was time to wheel out the big guns – an unapologetically old-fashioned western romance with enough unrequited love and gunfire and hunting and bear fights and tragedy and murder to fill an entire shelf of stories. The novella by Jim Harrison was adapted by Susan Shilliday and William D. Wittliff and they’re unafraid of throwing big swoony feelings at the screen.  Never mind the snide reviews, this is a really satisfying emotional widescreen experience. Beautifully shot by John Toll with an extraordinarily touching score by James Horner. Directed by Edward Zwick. Exit, pursued by a bear! Gulp.

Molly’s Game (2017)

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The United States versus Molly Bloom. The true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) a beautiful, young, Olympic-class freestyle skier trained by her father (Kevin Costner) who had a terrible accident that stopped her in her tracks aged 22 and she turned to running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade in LA then NYC before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and … the Russian mob which she didn’t know about but she’s indicted all the same. She’s broke, her money’s on the street, she has no friends. Her only ally is her criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who learned there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led people to believe… This should be a screwball comedy but the stakes aren’t really high enough and most of the time Molly isn’t the protagonist, she’s more of a stooge to several men whose power she threatens.  Aaron Sorkin turns his own poker hand to directing with this adaptation of the well-publicised book by Bloom. What it has aside from a woman with daddy issues and an incredible brain are some insights into one vastly overrated charming pillow-lipped actor (I’m lying, obvs) who isn’t named here but everyone knows his poker habit and that he married the studio boss’ daughter (they’re now divorced, he’s not been onscreen for ages) and what he does to Molly is … what you’d expect. So this devolves into sexist power-playing and cheating. The difference between sport, playing poker, gambling and cheating is the axis on which the narrative rests, and those slim timings between winning and losing and trusting what you know rather than letting the other fellow game you with a duff hand. I’m agnostic about Chastain although as critic Tom Shone has it, she doesn’t care whether we like her. In real life, Bloom is a very interesting woman. Here, despite her smarts, it takes her psychologist/nemesis father to give her the dimestore truths about what’s screwed her up (and it’s very obvious, just not to her). It’s just a shame it takes 125 minutes to get the three-year diagnosis in the three minutes it actually takes. However it’s structurally relevant because she has undercut him as a kid by issuing her high school teacher’s critique of Freud in an attempt to undermine his profession over family dinner. There is a good supporting cast:  Michael Cera is the Movie Star, Chris O’Dowd is the Irish American schmuck who turns informer for the FBI, Brian d’Arcy James is the idiot loser who turns out to be something else entirely, Bill Camp is the serious player who loses everything. The voiceover narration (somewhat unreliable, given that it’s from an addict suppressing her memories) is both irritating and enlightening. The exchanges with Elba are problematic – as ever he has diction issues so he’s not as fluid as Chastain and you take cover for fear of his spittle reaching beyond the screen. However as long-winded and prolix as this is (and thank goodness there’s very little time spent in court and none walking/talking) it’s almost a relief to see a film that doesn’t require the female to have sex with the leading man, even if he’s permitted to win a verbal battle concerning The Crucible and she has to take a horrible beating courtesy of some very nasty Joisey mooks. What this probably needed is the conclusion that the real (literary) Molly Bloom has courtesy of James Joyce, referenced here several times: a final, stinging monologue that takes everyone down. But even Sorkin knows he can’t outplay the master and Molly has learned what she knew all along – trust nobody. The only problem is after 140 minutes it really doesn’t amount to a hill of poker chips.  Adapted by Sorkin from Bloom’s memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.

The Great Gatsby (1974)

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You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can. Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) is a young man from the Midwest living modestly among the decadent mansions of 1920s Long Island. He becomes involved in the life of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford), a rich man who throws the most lavish parties on the island. But behind Gatsby’s outgoing demeanor is a lonely man who wants nothing more than to be with his old love, Nick’s second cousin-once removed, the beautiful Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow). She is married to the adulterous and bullheaded millionaire Tom (Bruce Dern), creating a love triangle that will end in tragedy when a misunderstanding leads Tom’s lover Myrtle (Karen Black) to her death in a road accident and her cuckolded husband seeking revenge … We hear all about Gatsby long before we meet him, even if Nick imagines he sees him on the end of the dock early on, with that green light winking on and off. It’s the perfect way to introduce a character who is a self-made myth. Everyone has a different idea about the protagonist of a novel which itself is a masterpiece of sleight of hand storytelling:  it tells us on page one just how. There are a lot of things to admire about this film which is as hollow with the sound of money as Daisy’s voice:  the design, the tone, the casting, which is nigh-on perfect, but the writing leaves the performances with very little to do. Redford, that enigmatic, elusive, evasive Seventies superstar is the ultimately unknowable, uncommitted actor trying to revivify his past love, even as Daisy cries out to this now-multi-millionaire Don’t you know rich girls don’t marry poor boys? Waterston does his best as the writer/narrator who knows far less than he lets on. Dern probably comes off best as the unfiltered louse Fitzgerald wrote but overall Francis Ford Coppola’s script while faithful cannot replicate symbolic effect and the entire novella represents in the most eloquent language ever written class gone wrong in the ultimate American tragedy. Directed by Jack Clayton.

 

Rules Don’t Apply (2017)

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A girl can get in trouble for having a case of the smarts. 1964 Acapulco:  a decrepit and isolated Howard Hughes is on the verge of making a televised phonecall from his hotel hideout to prove he doesn’t have dementia to dispute a claim by the writer of a book who may never actually have met him. Flashback to 1958, Hollywood:  Small-town Virginia beauty queen and devout Baptist Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), under contract to the infamous Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) arrives in Los Angeles with her mother (Annette Bening) to do a screen test for a film called Stella Starlight. She is picked up at the airport by her driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) only two weeks on the job and also from a religiously conservative background. He’s engaged to his seventh grade girlfriend. He drives them to their new home above the Hollywood Bowl where the sound of evening concerts wafts their way. She’s earning more than her college professor father ever did. The instant attraction between Marla and Frank not only puts their religious convictions to the test but also defies Hughes’ number one rule: no employee is allowed to have an intimate relationship with a contract actress and there are 26 of them installed all over Hollywood. Hughes is battling TWA shareholders over his proposals for the fleet as well as having to appear before a Senate sub-committee;  Marla bemoans the fact that she is a songwriter who doesn’t sing – so what kind of an actress can she be? And Frank wants to become a property developer and tries to persuade his employer to invest in him but Hughes is talking about a new birth control pill to him and when he meets Marla he talks to her about this thing called DNA that some English people discovered a few years back … It’s quite impossible to watch this without thinking of all the references, forwards and backwards, that it conjures:  that Beatty was tipped to play Hughes by Time after the mogul’s death, a decade after he had already espoused an interest in the mysterious billionaire who also lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a spell;  that he himself arrived in Hollywood at the end of the Fifties (via theatre) from Virginia and liked to play piano and got by with help from the homosexuals he impressed and the actresses like Joan Collins he squired about town;  Ehrenreich might be another aspect of Beatty as a youngster on the make, keen to impress mentors like Jean Renoir and George Stevens;  the motif of father and son takes a whole meta leap in his casting Ashley Hamilton, a Beatty lookalike who might well be his son (I think this is an inside joke, as it were), as a Hughes stand-in;  the dig at Beatty’s own rep for having a satyr-like lifestyle with the quickie Hughes has with Marla which deflowers her after she’s had her first taste of alcohol. It’s just inescapable. And if that seems distasteful, Beatty is 80 playing 50, and it has a ring of farce about it, as does much of the film which telescopes things like Hughes’ crash in LA for dramatic effect and plays scenes like they’re in a screwball comedy. There’s a lovely visual joke when he orders Frank to drive him somewhere at 3AM and they sit and eat fast food (after Frank says a prayer) and eventually we see where they’re seated – in front of Hughes’ enormous aeroplane (and Frank has never flown). This is too funny to merit the lousy reviews and too invested in its own nostalgia to be a serious take on either Hollywood or Hughes but it has its points of interest as another variation on the myth of both subjects. In real life it was long rumoured that Hughes had a son by Katharine Hepburn who allegedly had him adopted at the end of the Thirties. Timewise it picks up somewhere after The Aviator ends, but not strictly so. All it shares with that film is the banana leaf wallpaper. Tonally, it’s shifting from one generic mode to another (all that Mahler from Death in Venice is pointing to tragedy and age and decay, not youth and beauty and promise) but it’s difficult to dislike. It’s extremely well cast: Collins is terrific as the gauche naive young woman in the big city who’s given up her music scholarship and Ehrenreich is very good as the ambitious and conflicted guy who wants a mentor; Matthew Broderick does well as Levar, the senior driver jaded by long years of service to this eccentric and Oliver Platt (who did the great Bulworth with Beatty twenty years ago) has fun in a small role but Candice Bergen is wasted in the role of Nadine, the office manager. Bening is really great as Mrs Mabrey but she just … disappears. Beatty plays Hughes sympathetically, even unflatteringly (he knew him, albeit very slightly) and these young people’s relationship is ultimately played for its future potential despite its signposting as evidence of the hypocrisy lying directly beneath a church-led society. Written by Beatty with a story credit to him and Bo Goldman, and directed by Beatty, his first film in two decades.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

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Elizabeth will have to ascend the throne without me. Teeth are all I’m going to see crowned for the next couple of years. In 1949 New York City script developer and bibliophile Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft) writes to the London bookshop Marks & Co at the titular address in search of some titles she has not been able to turn up locally. Nobody reads English literature in New York City?! Store manager Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins) responds politely to her chatty letter, and over the course of two decades, a deep, long-distance friendship evolves against the backdrop of post-WW2 society, food rationing in London, Frank’s family life with his second wife and two daughters, the day to day business of the book shop, Hanff’s solitary life (her fiance was killed in combat), her career as a TV writer (Ellery Queen!) and her ravenous appetite for great words in her little apartment and cheap overstuffed chair. Helene Hanff’s autobiographical book of letters exchanged with a bookseller at Marks and Co. was a bit of a hit back in the Eighties, along with the two-hander play adapted from it. Produced by Anne Bancroft’s hubby’s company (Mel Brooks’ Brooksfilms), this runs with the conceit, breaking the fourth wall, bringing post-war NYC and London to life through the gabby and acerbic Jewish Hanff and the more reserved yet quietly interesting Doel. It initially seems like a drab tapestry but it becomes enriched by both of these different protagonists’ passion for writing which they evoke in their very individual ways. This is a romance, of a kind. That the two never meet compounds the tragic aspect. Now that all my favourite bookshops on Charing X Road are closed due to spiralling rents I felt quite tearful throughout as I watched these two lives unwrap like those transatlantic parcels they regularly exchanged and opened  – Hanff sent care packages of food from Denmark for Doel and his co-workers, family and friends at regular intervals with the kinds of goodies (vegetables! eggs! ham! bananas!) they could only get otherwise on the black market with just 2 ounces of meat per person and one egg a month permitted per head at the time. As a booklover and someone who whiled away many hours in shops just like this (oh how I miss Zwemmers!)  I found this absurdly moving and could practically smell the must and feel the foxed pages coming off the screen. It really shouldn’t work. In many ways it doesn’t. So what? The performances are pitch-perfect in this most fascinating portrait of friendship. It’s a lovely way to celebrate both Hopkins’ 80th birthday and New Year’s Eve. Adapted from James Roose-Evans’ play by Hugh Whitemore  and directed by David Jones.

Mansfield Park (1999)

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It could have all turned out differently I suppose. But it didn’t. Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) is born into a poor family with far too many children so she is sent away to live with wealthy uncle Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter), his wife Aunt Norris (Lindsay Duncan) and their four children, where she’ll be brought up for a proper introduction to society. She is treated unfavorably by her relatives, except for her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), whom she grows fond of. However her life is thrown into disarray with the arrival of worldly Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz) and her brother Henry (Alessandro Nivola). The path of true love never runs smoothly and then there are matters of money. Matches are made and Fanny rejects Henry which sends everyone into a spin and certain romantic fancies turn to actual sex … Well what a palaver – a Jane Austen adaptation that puts sex and politics and money front and centre in the most obvious way. Patricia (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing) Rozema’s adaptation plays with the form and breaks the fourth wall and even introduces some very out-there drawings which take Uncle Harold Pinter down a moral peg or three:  he’s made his money in slavery and his son Tom’s return from the West Indies with a terrible illness makes him produce some very realistic impressions of his father’s predilections and the depredations of the slave trade. Austen was the hottest screenwriter in the world in the 1990s (not that she knew a thing about it) and survives even this quite postmodern dip into adaptation by the Canadian filmmaker with some delightful performances, particularly by O’Connor who is given lines from Austen’s own private correspondence in her addresses to camera. But sex? In Austen? Tut tut! Charming, in its own perversely witty fashion.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) attends the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in a small Western town. Flashing back 25 years, we learn Doniphon saved Stoddard, then a lawyer, when he was roughed up by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). As the territory’s safety hung in the balance, Doniphon and Stoddard, two of the only people standing up to him, proved to be very important, but different, foes to Valance. Stoddard opened a law office over the offices of the Shinbone Star, the newspaper which is run by a steadfast editor determined to expose the reality of the violence terrorising the territory and preserve the freedom of the press. Both Doniphon and Stoddard are in love with the same woman, Hallie (Vera Miles) who cooks in her immigrant parents’ restaurant and whom Stoddard teaches to read and write. When the newspaper prints a (mis-spelled) headline declaring Valance is defeated, he takes revenge – and then the peace-loving Stoddard takes up a gun … This is a film of polarities, exemplified by the civilising influence of Ransom opposed to Valance and Doniphon’s own belief in the power of the gun (which ironically opens up the possibility for bringing law and order to the place). Vera Miles is splendid as the illiterate love of both men:  What good has reading and writing done you? Look at you – in an apron!  An eloquent essay on the genre itself, this was not received warmly upon release. And yet its entire narrative provides the content for soon to be popular structuralist analysis of the western:  the East versus the West, old versus new, the wilderness versus civilisation, violence versus law and order, reality versus myth, the desert versus the garden. Never was a cactus rose deployed to such symbolic effect! John Ford made one of the great films but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch up. Adapted from Dorothy Johnson’s short story by producer Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah .

Paddington 2 (2017)

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Exit bear, pursued by an actor. Paddington is now settled with the Brown family and wants to earn money for a beautiful pop-up book of London which he finds in Mr Gruber’s antiques shop as a gift for Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday. He takes a series of odd jobs which all end up more or less in chaos. When the family attend a funfair opened by thespian neighbour Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) he lets slip to the self-absorbed one about the book and nobody notices Buchanan’s interest. Paddington then disturbs a burglary at Mr Gruber’s and gets put in prison after chasing the thief and being charged himself:  the pop-up book was stolen, leaving far more ostensibly valuable items behind. The family work to get Paddington out of prison, with Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) doing artist’s impressions of him from witness descriptions. She can’t convince Henry (Hugh Bonneville) of Buchanan’s guilt – he’s too preoccupied by his own midlife crisis. Buchanan has the book and dons a series of theatrical disguises to follow the clues around great city landmarks to an immense treasure. Meanwhile, in prison, Paddington has convinced the brutal cook Nuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) to make marmalade sandwiches and change the menu and get the prison warder to read everyone bedtime stories:  everyone is his friend … This is a fiendishly inventive and funny narrative whose winning spirit is in every frame. Grant has a whale of a time as a splendidly awful actor who now does dog food commercials (his agent Joanna Lumley explains he can only act on his own) while the Brown family’s attempts to prove Paddington’s innocence rely on each of their particular talents:  Judy (Madeleine Harris) writes her own newspaper while Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) aka J-Dog is intimately acquainted with steam trains. Mary’s in training for a cross-Channel swim which comes in amazingly handy. Fizzing with irreverent whimsy, dazzling production design, joyful exuberance, sorrow, good manners, respect and – gulp – love, this is, in the words of choreographer Craig Revel Horwood (responsible for Grant’s incredible jailhouse hoofing in the credits), Fab-U-Lous.  Adapted by Simon Farnaby and director Paul King from those unmissable books of my childhood by Michael Bond. This little bear is the best superhero ever. Just wonderful.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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You sit here and you spin your little web and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Up in Heaven Clarence (Henry Travers) is awaiting his angel’s wings when a case is made to him about George Bailey (James Stewart) who’s thinking about jumping off a bridge and into a wintry river at Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve 1945. Clarence is told George’s story: as a young boy rescuing his brother Harry from an icy pond, to his father’s death just when his own life should have been taking off and he winds up staying in this loathsome little town running the bank and having his honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) ruined when there’s a run on the bank’s funds … and losing himself amid other people’s accidents, deaths and rank stupidity while the town runs afoul of greedy financier Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George is such a great guy with dreams of travel and adventure and the truth is he never leaves home and becomes a martyr to other people. I’ve always found this immensely depressing. What happens to him – the sheer passive aggression directed at him and the loss of all of his ambitions in order to satisfy other people’s banal wishes at the expense of his own life’s desires  – is a complete downer. Reworking A Christmas Carol with added danger it feels like a post-war attempt to make people feel happy with their very limited lot. Which is why I watch this very rarely and with complete reluctance precisely because its petty moralising is achieved so beautifully and rationally … So sue me! Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling and directed by Frank Capra.