Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures (2004) (TVM)

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In 1962 an elderly Agatha Christie (Anna Massey) is attending a party at the theatre for a decade of The Mousetrap. Questions from journalists spur memories of 25 years ago when as a younger woman (Olivia Williams) attending a psychiatrist (Stephen Boxer) she is hypnotised into recalling why she disappeared four months earlier spurring a police search … Richard Curson Smith’s docudrama is based on the intriguing real-life case of the famous author’s apparent fugue state when she was located at a spa in Harrogate, having signed in under the name of the mother of her husband’s mistress. The title alludes to the means by which the doctor engages with Christie to start the story: as a young girl (Bonnie Wright) whose father’s death changes the family dynamic, particularly when her older sister marries. She has been haunted for years by a mysterious character whom she calls The Gunman and many men of her acquaintance transform into this figure when she is under stress. Her marriage to soldier Archie Christie (Raymond Coulthard) is met with disapproval by her mother, who encourages her to write. Her time nursing wounded soldiers introduces her to Belgian refugees, one of whom inspires Hercule Poirot and her first novel. She has few memories of times when she is happy, the triggers for unhappiness make her focus on what may have occurred to prompt her flight – her discovery of her husband’s adultery with Nancy Neele, a secretary … The use of photos, pastiche photographic studios and fake home movies and newsreels gives this a patina of realism which is visually impressive. This is territory previously explored by the film Agatha and Kathleen Tynan’s book, and more recently in a faction novel by Andrew Wilson. Williams gets the lion’s share of the scenes, as a morose young woman who must confront her husband’s extra-marital liaison and his wish to end their union. Even her little daughter says it’s her mother that’s the problem. The older Christie is wiser and happier following a long marriage to a younger man, archaeologist Max Mallowan (Bertie Carvel) whose work on sites in Syria and Iraq literally takes Christie out of herself and England and also inspires some of her best books which she then produces annually. There’s a terrific scene when she comes up with the idea for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which is the book that made her know she was good. There are some technical issues with the sound mixing (you can hardly hear Massey, and some dialogue is drowned out with incidental music) but it’s a thorough and thoughtful account of an episode that’s as mysterious as any of Christie’s novels, supplying psychology to the central character in a way that the Queen of Crime disdained.

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A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

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Get me a bottle of milk and some tranquilisers. Screenwriter Alun Owen and director Richard Lester’s semi-documentary, wholly New Wave account of a day in the life of the world’s biggest band works wonderfully.  Shot in glistening monochrome by the inventive Gilbert Taylor the Beatles are on a train with Paul’s bolshie Irish grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) who is ‘very clean,’ as everyone keeps remarking. Hounded by their fans, they are performing on a TV show directed by Victor Spinetti while their put-upon manager Norm (Norman Rossington) and road manager Shake (John Junkin) try to corral this travelling circus as Grandpa keeps going missing, showing up variously in a casino and a police station. Taylor and the five camera operators run around with Arriflexes capturing the minutiae of the band’s characters who are defined in smart exchanges and incidents, with wonderfully droll moments of mockery, self- and otherwise.  The resulting freedom accorded Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr adds to the sense of  naturalism and reality. The visual wit is complemented by the auditory, with overdubbing and non-synchronous sound combining to create an overwhelming atmosphere of effervescent fun and immediacy:  these guys are young and pulpy and enjoying their first brush with fame and their caustic, cheeky chappie Scouse personalities come across extraordinarily. That enjoyment wouldn’t last (see Ron Howard’s Eight Days a Week) but these indelible images contributed to their myth. You probably know the songs … Edited by John Jympson.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

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Let me give you some advice. Assume everyone will betray you. And you will never be disappointed. Scrumrat Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is separated from his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) on the planet Corellia and finds adventure when he joins a gang of galactic smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and career criminal Val (Thandie Newton) and including a 196-year-old furry Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Indebted to the gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) with whom Qi’ra has now thrown in her lot as a kept woman,  the crew devises a daring plan to travel to the mining planet Kessel to carry out a heist:  the booty is a batch of valuable coaxium, the kind of hyperfuel that gets the big bucks these days. In need of a fast ship, Solo meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the suave owner of the perfect vessel for the dangerous mission – the Millennium Falcon. As Qi’ra joins them on their mission, can she be trusted while a rebellion gets underway?… Let’s forget for a moment that Disney are all about squeezing the lemon dry.  The Star Wars Anthology Series continues with the most blatant sympathy plea ever:  the origins story behind Han and Chewie teaming up, sci fi’s most delectable meet cute.  In fact, tonally this has a lot in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark but then it was written by Lawrence Kasdan (working here with son Jonathan) who did Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders and The Force Awakens so we’re in good hands:  who knows Han better than this guy?! We find out how Han gets his name, how he and Chewie meet (cheers all round!), where he got the golden dice, how he meets dandyish smuggler Lando Calrissian (a welcome return albeit with Glover, who’s terrific) and in the other most anticipated meet cute – seeing the Millennium Falcon for the first time – and how he becomes its owner. Everything you really wanted to know, basically, is here in this SW primer, never mind the abortive milliennial trilogy. In fact this starts at a clip and mostly keeps it up in its own rackety style, with the literary names getting a payoff in a fight with a kind of sea monster out of Jules Verne: epic!  You’ll never mistake Ehrenreich for Solo (he looks too much like a young Orson Welles) but after a while you’ll take this on its own merits as he reluctantly discovers he’s not a complete rogue but a good guy against the background of a truly evil Empire. Interestingly for the principal female, Qi’ra is far from straightforward which will presumably lead us down some black holes in future outings even if Clarke is not convincing. If someone had never seen a Star Wars film (Heaven forfend) this would actually be a pretty good place to start even if I don’t always love it, neither the way it looks (too dirty and grey a lot of the time) nor the pace which doesn’t always maintain its consistency.  Never mind the box office, feel the wit. Directed (eventually) by Ron Howard.

Silent Running (1972)

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It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth… and there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in – you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air… and there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out in to space.  After the end of all botanical life on Earth, with all the flora and fauna destroyed and forests defoliated, ecologist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) maintains a greenhouse on a space station around the rings of Saturn in order to preserve various plants for future generations. Assisted by three robots (Huey, Dewey and Louie!) and a small human crew (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint), Lowell rebels when he is ordered to destroy the greenhouse in favor of carrying cargo.  The decision he takes puts him at odds with everyone but his robots and they are forced to do anything necessary to keep their invaluable greenery alive. But when he finds himself playing poker with his remaining robots he realises the desperation of loneliness and then his bosses locate him … This is one of a slew of environmentally conscious sci fis from the early 70s. It works because it asks the biggest question:  what do we mean in the universe? And it does so simply and without deep philosophical pondering, it’s just a guy in outer space who wants to save the world and realises he misses human companionship. Dern is superb as the uncomplicated man who tries to save himself. Written by Michael Cimino, Steve Bochco and Deric Washburn. The directing debut of 2001‘s effects guy, Douglas Trumbull:  when you see his charming robots you’ll know why he got a call from George Lucas for Star Wars. Ecological elegance.

The Tin Drum (1979)

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There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eat to much fish. There was once a credulous people… who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really… the gas man! There was once a toy merchant. His name was Sigismund Markus… and he sold tin drums lacquered red and white. There was once a drummer. His name was Oskar. There was once a toy merchant… whose name was Markus… and he took all the toys in the world away with him. Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is a very unusual boy born in Danzig in 1924, after the city has been separated from Germany following WW1. Refusing to leave the womb until promised a tin drum by his mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), Oskar is reluctant to enter a world he sees as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and vows on his third birthday to never grow up as he watches his mother take her cousin Jan for a lover and she becomes pregnant – but by who? Miraculously Oskar gets his wish when he throws himself down a staircase.  His talent for breaking glass when he screams garners him attention. As the Nazis rise to power in Danzig, Oskar wills himself to remain a child, beating his tin drum incessantly and screaming in protest at the chaos surrounding him as his mother dies, his father takes a new wife who has a baby Oskar is convinced he has fathered and Hitler takes over while Oskar decides to join a travelling circus and entertain the Nazi troops in Paris … Günter Grass’ stunning 1959 novel was adapted by Volker Schlöndorff (and Jean-Claude Carriére and Frank Seitz Jr.) and he became the first German director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this transgressive, arresting and surreal impression of Nazism and the breakup of Europe. It’s mesmerising, brilliantly conceived and performed – Bennent is one of a kind – and once seen can never be forgotten. It is the blackest of comedies about the darkness in Germany and the way in which Polish people handled the transition to Nazism. The coda in real life – that Grass was found to have been in the Waffen-SS as a teenager after a lifetime of denial –  somehow just gives this greater heft. Amazing.

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)

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I’m going to make you wish you were deadComposure magazine advice columnist Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) really wants to write about important things like politics but she’s under editorial pressure. She tries pushing the boundaries of what she can do in her new piece about how to get a man to leave you in 10 days after best friend Michelle (Kathryn Hahn) has yet another breakup. Her editor Lana (Bebe Neuwirth), loves it. Advertising executive Ben Berry (Matthew McConaughey) is so confident in his romantic prowess that he thinks he can make any woman fall in love with him and makes a bet with his boss in time for the company ball in 10 days. If he manages it he’ll get the contract for a new diamond company.  His in-house rivals Judy and Judy (Michael Michele and Shalom Harlow) set Ben up to meet Andie after they learn of Andie’s project at a magazine conference. When Andie and Ben wind up meeting their plans backfire and they do everything they can to meet their targets …  You think you know what you’re getting with a battle of the sexes comedy – after all we’ve been here before with some of the screwball greats. However where this falls down in between some very bright comedic action is ironically in the dialogue which has a vicious undertow but isn’t the consistently witty banter we want. Then there’s the meet the family stuff which underscores the sentimental base. Nonetheless Hudson is good as the smart as hell writer with her wicked conniving schemes and that glint in her eye. There’s excellent support including from her Le Divorce co-stars Neuwirth and Thomas Lennon, who’s one of Ben’s entourage. The ending is too sappy by half! This is an adaptation of Michele Alexander and Jeanie Long’s self-help book by Burr Steers, Kristen Buckley and Brian Regan. Directed by Donald Petrie who’s been around the romcom block.

Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971)

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I’m slow – but you’re slower!   Travelling con man Latigo Smith (James Garner) drifts into a small Western gold rush town called Purgatory, he decides to take advantage of a local rivalry between gold-mining factions. Recruiting the shifty Jug May (Jack Elam) to pose as a notorious gunfighter, Smith sets his scheme in motion, while also taking time to romance the lovely Patience Barton (Suzanne Pleshette) who likes nothing better than to shoot up the town. However, after his ruse is uncovered, Smith incurs the wrath of the real hired gun (Chuck Connors) among others, leading to a big shoot-out and his inability to ride a horse is artfully exposed:  or is it? …  This unofficial ‘sequel’ to Support Your Local Sheriff features a variation on the conman/trickster persona of Garner (playing a different character) and while James Edward Grant gets the screenplay credit it had an uncredited rewrite by director Burt Kennedy who came to make a speciality of the comedy western following his early genre work in the Scott/Boetticher cycle. This isn’t quite as sharply parodic as the earlier film and it doesn’t possess its coherence rather a series of amusing vignettes including explosions and a bar-room brawl but it has great work by Elam as the oafish sidekick whom Garner identifies to the locals as sharpshooter Swifty Morgan, nice characterisation as the bawdy madam by Joan Blondell, sporting a chihuahua (and she has a visit by fellow proprietress Marie Windsor!) and lovely support by Pleshette as the blast-happy daughter of Harry Morgan who masquerades as a prostitute but is the real love interest. Garner is great, as ever!

Rome Express (1932)

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Discretion is the better part of wagons-lits.  As the express train is about to depart Paris for Rome, two men, Zurta (Conrad Veidt) and his colleague Tom (Gordon Harker), rush onto the platform and just manage to board. They have received information that someone they want to see is on the train. Another passenger, McBain (Cedric Hardwicke) a wealthy businessman travelling with his brow-beaten secretary/valet Mills (Eliot Makeham), learns that a valuable painting by Van Dyck, which he had previously tried to buy and had later been stolen from a Paris gallery has still not been recovered, and he says he would do anything to get hold of it. Also on the train are an adulterous couple (Harold Huth and Joan Barry, an annoyingly sociable Englishman, Tony (Hugh Williams), a French police officer M. Jolif (Frank Vosper), and an American film star Asta Marvelle (Esther Ralston) who is tiring of her fame, accompanied by her manager/publicist Sam (Finlay Currie). It transpires that the stolen painting is in the possession of a man, Poole (Donald Calthrop) who conspicuously keeps his briefcase close to him at all times. When he agrees to join a poker game on the train, he finds one of the other players is Zurta, and Poole’s reaction shows that they know each other. Poole is disconcerted and carelessly lays down his briefcase, which is later innocently taken away by Mills who has a similar briefcase. After the poker game ends, Zurta follows Poole to his compartment, forces his way in and confronts Poole, who offers to hand over the painting but finds he has the wrong briefcase. Zurta threatens to throw him from the train and they struggle and Poole is killed. Meanwhile, McBain discovers in Mills’ briefcase the stolen painting which he had wanted to buy. When Poole’s body is discovered by a train attendant, the police inspector begins an investigation and interviews all those who have been in contact with Poole. Zurta learns that the briefcases have been switched and tries to recover it from McBain’s compartment, but is apprehended by McBain and Mills as the police arrive… … The main interest here is the performance by Ralston, whose romance with Williams provides a nice subplot. She was a silent luminary after being a child vaudeville star (kinda Baby Jane-ish) but her career somewhat derailed in the Thirties despite a captivating presence.  This is based on a screenplay by Clifford Grey and Sidney Gilliat (with additional dialogue by Frank Vosper and Ralph Stock) and it’s rather creaky as train thrillers go. Gilliat would go on to perfect the form with The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich. It was remade as Sleeping Car to Trieste. Directed by Walter Forde.

Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983) (TVM)

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I’d left it too late. That’s the funny thing – everyone thinks they’re exempt. It’s 1974, and Barbara Dean (Judi Dench) is a British assistant manager and loan officer in a foreign bank in Saigon.  She’s something of a depressive and has to ward off the advances of her co-worker Donald (Roger Rees) while her narration informs us she has been a woman of secrets ever since having an affair with a friend of her father’s at a very young age. She meets an American Bob Chesneau (Frederic Forrest) at the end of a party one night when she’s waiting for a taxi home. She has fended off the interest of Frank (Wallace Shawn), a US Embassy officer with whom she plays bridge. She and Bob begin a relationship and she realises that he’s not a cultural attaché but he works for the CIA and knows that the fall of South Vietnam is very near because sources suggest the North Vietnamese are stepping up plans to take Saigon. Things are heating up at the bank when a member of the public comes in armed with a gun demanding all his money. Barbara delays planning her departure even when she’s helping the locals get passports for their own hasty exits. Bob tries to persuade his boss Jack Ockham (Josef Sommer) and the US Ambassador (E.G. Marshall) to evacuate the South Vietnamese who have been working for them but the Ambassador wants to appease President Thieu’s regime. Bob and Barbara’s relationship suffers under the strain …  Made for Thames TV, this is a real auteur work – an original teleplay by theatrical giant David Hare and directed by Stephen Frears the year before he made The Hit. Dench was likewise a lady of the theatre albeit with some TV in the bag but it was a long time before America discovered her properly in Goldeneye. If the direction feels a little clunky at times, and perhaps it’s due to both the low budget and the schematic constraints of Hare’s writing, there are some good elements. There’s a nice juxtaposition when the Jolly Green Giants swoop into the city and White Christmas is on the soundtrack – as Bob has said, When the radio stations play all Bing Crosby Americans know it’s the end.  This is a rather obvious trope but is used to signify that the US military are really out of their depth. There’s a nicely mounted tension and the intermittent meetings between the US Ambassador and the nervy hard-drinking Ockham, with Shawn’s character providing a kind of Greek chorus, add to the sense of fear. Spooky to think that of the cast it’s Judi Dench who went from strength to strength while the marvellous Forrest has been more or less retired for decades. I haven’t seen him since he played in John Frankenheimer’s last movie 16 years ago, coincidentally another TV movie about Nam, Path to War. Now that is a real injustice. I miss him. George Fenton’s score is nicely understated.

 

Sgt. Bilko (1996)

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Can’t is a four-letter word in this platoon! Sergeant Bilko (Steve Martin) is in charge of the motor pool at his Kansas base but more importantly he oversees his base’s gambling operations and occasionally runs a little con game, all under the oblivious nose of his commanding officer, Colonel Hall (Dan Aykroyd). After Bilko’s old nemesis, Major Thorn (Phil Hartman), shows up, intent on ruining his career and stealing his girlfriend, Rita (Glenne Headly), Bilko must take extra care to cover his tracks while concocting the perfect scheme to take down his foe… I have been avoiding this since it came out (a long time ago) because I grew up watching the Phil Silvers show on re-runs practically every night. I even gifted myself a box set of the series a short while back.  However I’m glad to report that far from the grimfest I half-expected it’s a very likeable physical comedy with some great setpieces perfectly cued to showcase Martin’s adeptness at farce. The material and scenarios are somewhat updated to accommodate modern mores – which provide some fun during a dorm check – and Hartman gets a wonderful opportunity to exact revenge for a laugh out loud prank which we see in flashback:  the best boxing match ever on film with both participants taking a dive! And then Bilko gets his turn when all the chips are down and the guys line up to help him out. It’ll never erase the great TV show but there are compensations – Headly as the woman forever scorned (until she bests him) and the chance to see a soft side of Aykroyd who allows all the chicanery to take place without ever expressing a cruel word. And Austin Pendleton shows Bilko how to play poker! There’s even Chris Rock and Phil Silvers’ daughter Cathy who come to audit the base and cannot catch Bilko for love or money. It’s like watching a magician!  she declares. Very funny indeed. Andy Breckman adapted Nat Hiken’s show and it’s directed by Jonathan Lynn.