Mysterious Island (1961)

Mysterious Island.jpg

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

Miss Bala (2019)

Miss Bala.jpg

They’re all dirty. And they’re coming after me. Los Angeles makeup artist and Mexican emigrée Gloria Fuentes (Gina Rodriguez) asks the police for help when cartel hit men kidnap her friend Suzu Ramos (Cristina Rodio) from a nightclub in Tijuana, Mexico. She soon finds herself in big trouble when a corrupt cop hands her over to the same goons who shot up the place in an attempted hit on Police Chief Saucedo (Damian Alcazar). Gang leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) decides to use Gloria for his dirty work to avoid detection from the Drug Enforcement Administration one of whom Brian Reich (Matt Lauria) puts a tracking device on her to entrap the gang who get her to transport drugs across the border to San Diego where she’s met by gangster Jimmy (Anthony Mackie) who is actually an undercover CIA agent. Determined to get away, Gloria must now play a dangerous game to outwit not only the cartel but the DEA agents who now suspect her of complicity and she winds up finding out the hard way that she’s been sold out – in the middle of a shootout – and has to choose sides …  You thought I was a bad guy?  I’m just playing their game. This action thriller remake of a 2011 Spanish-language film from director Catherine Hardwicke has everything going for it except characterisation:  sometime, someone, somewhere will remember that character is also action, it’s not enough in the #MeToo era to just put a woman in the protagonist’s role and have her run from bullets (and that’s what ‘bala’ means, not that you’d know it) and sell it as a female-oriented film. And, in yet another ad for Mexico’s tourism industry – drugs, guns, cross-border crime, female intimidation, endless non-stop murders – the best thing you could possibly do on that front is to keep well away. And what on earth has that poster got to do with anything? Oh, when the plot finally kicks in after 70 minutes our heroine has to take part in a beauty pageant (Miss Baja) which leads to a rather good twist ending but it’s all too little, rather late. There is some interesting architecture however. Yawn. Written by Garrett Dunnet-Alcocer. Everyone works for us now. Play your part

The Weaker Sex (1948)

The Weaker Sex

I wish I didn’t feel so cut off.   Widowed Martha Dacre (Ursula Jeans) tries to keep house and home together for her two serving daughters Helen (Joan Hopkins) who’s involved with radio officer Nigel (Derek Bond) and Lolly (Lana Morris) who’s going out with sailor Roddy (John Stone);  and servicemen billeted on her in Portsmouth, a naval base during WW2. While son Benjie (Digby Wolfe) is away in the Navy she has chosen to stay at home as a housewife, but when she learns that his ship has been damaged during the D Day landings, she regrets not taking a more active role in the war and works in a canteen and as a fire watcher. The family story moves forward from D-Day to VE-Day, the 1945 general election and on to 1948. Martha eventually re-marries to her late husband’s colleague, naval officer Geoffrey (Cecil Parker) who was one of those billeted on her and has become a father-figure to her son and daughters…  Oh dear, who’d be a mother? This British homefront drama was released three years following the conclusion of hostilities so it has the benefit of victorious hindsight as well as expressing the postwar era when everyone was completely obsessed with the lack of food. Adapted from actress Esther McCracken’s 1944 stage play No Medals by Paul Soskin with additional scenes created by Val Valentine to bring it up to the year of shooting, it’s a witty drama filled with resigned Keep Calm and Carry On messages underscored by dissatisfaction at the dreariness of housework and the plight of women whose life is dictated by the unavailability of food which becomes a thoroughly good running joke:  The housewives’ battle cry – the fishmonger’s got fish! cackles housekeeper Mrs Gaye (Thora Hird). Intended as post-war propaganda, a kind of decent British take on Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver (minus the Nazi in the garden) with added politics, it’s smart, unfussy and fair, yet trenchant and involving.  Jeans is terrific as the middle class woman finding herself rather (class) envious of Harriet Lessing (Marian Spencer) living in a serviced flat and volunteering:  there’s humour to be had in a lovely payoff when Harriet gets her public comeuppance after the war as rationing motivates her to head the local Militant Housewives League and she gets caught up in an unholy scrimmage which fetches up on the front page of the papers. Parker is a great casting choice – the guy not ashamed of being seen decked out in his uniform doing the vacuuming who can say unabashed to Jeans, I never had a genuinely platonic friendship with a woman before. Of course we know where that leads. He digs in and gets creative when he’s sick of being starved of regular food – and milks a goat. I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life is duty. There is a great sense of warmth in the family relationships and a scene of remarkable tension when Helen and Martha play a card game awaiting a phonecall to find out whether Nigel has survived a bombing.  Jeans tells herself when awaiting more bad news, I mustn’t back down. I must try to be of some use. Parker responds, This language of ours is so completely inadequate. They are expressing the weariness of a nation almost done in yet somehow dragging itself up to cope with the inevitability of ongoing loss. There are occasional dips into newsreel montages to bring a context to the experiences as the story commences in the run up to D Day, through VE Day, the 1945 General Election, Hiroshima and after, but the footage is smoothly integrated and doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow. Hugely successful in its day it’s a really rather spiffing reminder of how and why Britain came through the war, the importance of family and sadly that tragic deaths don’t just occur in wartime. Crisply shot by Erwin Hillier amid exquisite sets by Alex Vetchinsky and this raft of wonderful performances are very well directed by Roy [Ward] Baker. Shabby perhaps, but not yet shoddy

Downton Abbey (2019)

Downton Abbey.jpg

It’s like living in a factory. It’s 1927. Excitement is high at Downton Abbey when the Crawley family headed by Robert, Earl Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) learn that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to visit. Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) is perturbed that Maud, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) Queen Mary’s lady-in-waiting, is included in the tour. Maud is Robert’s cousin and her closest relative. The two families have fallen out over who should inherit Maud’s estate, Robert or Maud’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton). Tom Branson (Allen Leech) makes nice with a stranger known only as Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore) who he believes is keeping him under surveillance for his Irish Republican sympathies. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) scrambles to get the household ready but butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is proving inadequate to the task and Carson (Jim Carter) is quickly summoned out of retirement. But trouble arises when the cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Daisy (Sophie McShera), housekeeper Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and the rest of the servants learn that the king and queen travel with their own chefs and attendants – so when the Royal Page of the Backstairs (David Haig) arrives with the entourage the stage is set for a showdown below stairs Secrets always muddle things. Julian Fellowes returns to the big screen with a country house tale nearly two decades after Gosford Park which inspired the hugely successful Downton Abbey TV show in the first place. There’s less plot than one of those episodes and it picks up approximately 18 months after the last one but the characters are so barely skimmed over and it all looks so pretty you’ll hardly notice – the only possible controversy is with an attempted royal assassination, trouble with the monarch’s daughter Princess Mary’s (Kate Phillips) marriage, Barrow’s trip to the Twenties equivalent of a gay rave, Lady Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) mysterious retreat from independence into the world of ladies who lunch (which she only addresses late in the story) and a lightly trailed retirement of the world’s favourite pantomime Dame Maggie who lands all of the best lines. Well she would, wouldn’t she. Even Isis the dog makes a return albeit she isn’t called. Nary a hint of revolution save a mention of the General Strike which leads the Dowager Countess to observe that she noticed her maid was rather curt to her. Featherweight entertainment, as light and fluffy and non-calorific as one of Mrs Patmore’s soufflés. Directed by Michael Engler.  I know I’m going to forget my lines

 

Annie Hall (1977)

Annie Hall.jpg

Boy I wish real life was like this. Neurotic NYC comic and TV gag writer Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) looks back on his relationship with insecure aspiring club singer Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) and wonders where it all went wrong. He recalls how they first met playing tennis with his actor friend Rob (Tony Roberts) who moves to LA;  his first marriage to Allison (Carol Kane); and his second to Robin (Janet Margolin);  and how when Annie moved in with him he became totally paranoid and thought everything she did spoke to infidelity. When they visit Rob in LA she meets music producer Tony Lacey (Paul Simon) at a party and on the couple’s return flight to NYC they agree they should split up and she returns to LA to be with Tony … That sex was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing. Co-written with Marshall Brickman, this collage-like film is episodic, digressive, farcical, filled with running jokes, surreal flashbacks and pieces to camera on subjects as diverse as masturbation and being Jewish and Marshall McLuhan (who shows up in a line at the movies). Alvy’s whole problem is a premise derived from the great philosopher Groucho Marx – he can’t be with any woman who would want to be with him. In this battle of the sexes territory there are only departures and very few arrivals. It’s a breezy affair that exists on a tightrope of suspended disbelief and charming performances and Keaton’s is a delight. The supporting cast is outstanding and Jonathan Munk as the flame-haired kid Alvy constantly kissing girls in class is hilarious with adult Alvy moving through these flashbacks as though he’s in Wild Strawberries. Roberts is great as Alvy’s grasping sidekick. And Allen? Well it’s quintessential Woody and at least partly autobiographical. Hall is Keaton’s birth name while he calls himself ‘Singer’:  Freud is never too far away in a film which coasts on psychoanalytic concepts. Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love. Elsewhere there’s Shelley Duvall, Colleen Dewhurst, Christopher Walken as Annie’s brother and for real nerds that’s Sigourney Weaver meeting Alvy at the movies in the last shot. The film’s surprisingly delicate piecemeal structure is held together by Alvy’s narration and according to editor Ralph Rosenblum was put together in post-production:  when Alvy is speaking to camera he’s making up the story that isn’t shot.  Allen is one of the best writers around though and these addresses don’t just fill gaps, they create allusions and deepen the theme. It’s a landmark Seventies film.  A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark

The Dreamers (2003)

The Dreamers.jpg

Before you can change the world you must realize that you, yourself, are part of it. You can’t stand outside looking in.  In May 1968, the student riots in Paris exacerbate the isolation felt by three youths:  American exchange student Matthew (Michael Pitt) and twins Théo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green). Having bonded over their mutual love of cinema, Matthew is fascinated by the intimacy shared by Isabelle and Théo, who were born conjoined. When the twins’ bohemian parents go away for a month, they ask Matthew to stay at their apartment, and the three lose themselves in a fantasy straight out of the movies that dominate their daydreams … I was one of the insatiables. The ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen. Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first. Adapted by the late Gilbert Adair (how I miss him) from his novel The Holy Innocents (inspired by Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles) this insinuates itself into the mind and the senses as surely as the French brother and sister at its heavily beating cinéphile’s heart. Scrupulously tracing the evolution of a romantic sensibility alongside a political education, this merges a rites of passage story with social and personal revolution in intelligently provocative fashion, fusing Adair’s narrative with director Bernardo Bertolucci’s sympathy for youthful yearning. And it’s sexy as hell, this movie about movies and movie lovers and passion and politics. Green is enigmatic and brave and beautiful, while the boys’ attraction for one another, emerging as a homosexual encounter in the original screenplay, is sacrificed by Bertolucci, whose sexual depictions are always of the hetero variety. There’s a delectable selection of movie clips and songs on the soundtrack of this startlingly beautiful dream of a film. The first time I saw a movie at the cinémathèque française I thought, “Only the French… only the French would house a cinema inside a palace”

The Man Who Wanted to Fly (2018)

The Man Who Wanted to Fly.jpg

Nothing lasts. Elderly Irish bachelor Bobby Coote has always wanted to fly, He lives with unmarried brother Ernie in rural County Cavan, Ireland where each pursues different interests. Ernie likes CB radio, movies, cultivating a garden and feeding the birds. Bobby likes making and repairing clocks and violins and he finally has the money to buy a microlight which he stores in his friend Sean’s custom-made hangar and they clear a landing strip in Sean’s field which his wife looks upon askance … I wouldn’t want that fella flying over me.  The Coote brothers are enormously engaging, very different characters who think about things but see the funny side too. They live in what one might term genteel squalor but have great TV equipment and nippy little cars. Bobby’s music habit brings him out a little more with evenings at Gartlans’ thatched pub in Kingscourt while Bobby prefers to stay home watching spaghetti westerns. Bobby celebrates Christmas with friends;  Ernie cooks a turkey leg for one and eats it alone.  Ernie has postcards from all over the world from his radio contacts but doesn’t think he’d like travelling;  Bobby worked in England on the motorways for a couple of years but didn’t much fancy the life over there. Their youngest brother fell into a canal in England the previous year. Neither of them has had relationships that might have started a marriage and family. TV interviews with the brothers from forty years earlier show a pair of good looking dapper young men;  Ernie comments on the changes time has wrought. A home movie shows a friend he used to go fishing with who is dead;  Bobby shows family photos of those departed. The midpoint sequence when Bobby gets a call from the microlight centre in Newtownards informing him that he’s been sold a pup requiring an expensive overhaul is understated and moving.  But he doesn’t give up. This story of seemingly unfulfilled lives and loneliness should be sorrowful but instead it’s a triumph of small-scale ambition that eventually soars in glorious skies. The ending makes you cheer. Beautifully made with some stunning overhead photography by Dave Perry. Produced by Cormac Hargaden and Trish Canning and directed by  Frank Shouldice. You’ve got me pulled!

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians.png

The key is playing to win instead of trying not to lose. NYC:  Chinese-American economics lecturer Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is happy to accompany her longtime boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to his best friend Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding in Singapore. She’s surprised to learn that Nick’s family is extremely wealthy and that he’s considered one of the country’s most eligible bachelors. She meets up with college friend Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) who lets her in on the open secret. Thrust into the spotlight, she has to deal with jealous socialites, including his ex Amanda (Jing Lusi); quirky relatives (the aunties); and something far, far worse – Nick’s disapproving mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh)… It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. So wrote Jane Austen a couple of hundred years ago and the plot of Pride and Prejudice is writ large here in an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim. It’s a rock solid romantic comedy which morphs into a maternal melodrama before allowing the com to rear its head again in a pleasing conclusion in which the young economics lecturer uses game theory to best her dragon lady (potential) future mother-in-law in a face-off involving mahjong. (She might be clever and an economist but she doesn’t know she’s dating one of the wealthiest men in Asia. Hmmm…) Also in common with the works of Austen, the fathers are mainly absent – dead (maybe) or in Shanghai on business unless you count Peik Lin’s dad, played by Ken Jeong in the one really funny family here:  this is a matriarchy and what a vicious society it makes. At Minty’s (Sonoya Mizuno) bachelorette celebration Rachel has a bloody gutted fish left on her bed with nasty serial killer graffiti painted above because she’s not exactly a hit with the superficial Mean Girls;  Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) has married someone without money and he’s cheating on her – and it’s her friendship with Rachel that clarifies this family’s values and mirrors the ups and downs of her own bruising encounters. Rachel’s foreignness as a naturalised American is a problem, her perceived quest for happiness an issue, her ambition unacceptable. But it’s whatever Grandma (Lisa Lu) says that goes in a world of ritual, legacy and habit. The shape of your nose is auspicious Eleanor tells Rachel of her origins which are not as obscure as her single mother led her to believe. Her outsider status is confirmed and then some. The Asian lifestyle is fetishised through food and flowers and shopping and overpowering and gaudy production design – the fetid chaos of the region is well captured, the fabulous wealth jaw-dropping, the Chinese covers of Western pop songs jar at first and then please:  though it’s anyone’s guess as to why Coldplay’s Yellow features. The performances are spot-on but it’s Awkwafina who proves her comedy chops. It’s all a bit much until Yeoh’s story of jealousy and viciousness is integrated into an overstuffed menu, creating a sorbet effect:  otherwise it’s sickly sweet and a bit sticky, a fluffy fairytale with sparkles and gloss and jewels galore, a millennial soap opera with massive dollops of money. The final party scene is simply spectacular. Directed by Jon M. Chu. JFK just smells of salmonella and despair

Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa.jpg

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a failed love affair in Denmark the aristocrat Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) sets out for the white highlands of Kenya where she marries her lover’s brother Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer).  She is intent on dairy farming, Bror instead spends their money on a coffee plantation. After discovering Bror is unfaithful when she contracts syphilis, Karen develops feelings for British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) but he prefers a simple lifestyle compared to her upper class affectations. She separates from Bror and sets about remaking her home to his taste. The two continue their relationship until a series of events force Karen to choose between her love life and her personal growth as an individual … Like a lot of people, I imagine, I first heard of Isak Dinesen (or Karen Blixen) courtesy of The Catcher in the Rye. If it was good enough for Holden Caulfield, I figured, I’ve got to check it out. And that was my introduction to a great writer whose life is immortalised here in the form of La Streep while the less than glamorous Finch Hatton is personified by Redford. History is rewritten right there! But their chemistry is so right. Streep is wonderful as the woman who finally finds herself, Redford is great as a hunter who simultaneously deplores environmental destruction – these are fantastic star performances.  So the school, the farm, that’s what I am now Director Sydney Pollack later regretted that he didn’t shoot this in widescreen and you can see why. This is a film of big emotions in a breathtaking landscape that dwarfs the concerns of the little people, aristos or not. There are fabulous, memorable scenes:  when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair; when they play Mozart on the gramophone to monkeys and Denys remarks that it’s their first exposure to humans; when he takes her flying; when she begs for land for the Kikuyu. And when she leaves.  If you like me at all, don’t ask me to do this Altering the focus of Dinesen’s writing somewhat to the personalities rather than the issues that actually drove Dinesen and the contradictions within Finch Hatton, it’s a glorious, epic and tragic romance sensitively performed, with a meticulous score by John Barry. Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay was adapted from three sources:  Dinesen’s Out of Africa;  Judith Thurman’s biography Isak Dinesen:  The Life of a Story Teller;  and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski. He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast

 

The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment.jpg

Normally, it takes years to work your way up to the twenty-seventh floor. But it only takes thirty seconds to be out on the street again. You dig?  Ambitious insurance clerk C. C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) permits his bosses to use his NYC apartment to conduct extramarital affairs in hope of gaining a promotion. He pursues a relationship with the office building’s elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) unaware that she is having an affair with one of the apartment’s users, the head of personnel, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) who lies to her that he’s leaving his wife. Bud comes home after the office Christmas party to find Fran has taken an overdose following a disappointing assignation with Sheldrake … Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were fresh off the success of Some Like It Hot when they came up with this gem:  a sympathetic romantic comedy-drama that plays like sly satire – and vice versa. Reuniting one of that film’s stars (and a nasty jab at Marilyn Monroe using lookalike Joyce Jameson) with his Double Indemnity star (MacMurray, cast as a heel, for once) and adding MacLaine to the mix, they created one of the great American classics with performances of a lifetime. Bud can keep on keeping on as a slavering nebbish destined to be the ultimate slimy organisation man or become a mensch but he can’t do it alone, not now he’s in love. This is a sharp, adult, stunningly assured portrait of the battle of the sexes, cruelty, compromise and deception intact. With the glistening monochrome cinematography of Joseph LaShelle memorializing that paean to midcentury modernism, the architecture of the late Fifties office (designed by Alexandre Trauner), and an all-time great closing line (how apposite for a Wilder film), this is prime cut movie.  The best Christmas movie of all time? Probably, if you can take that holiday celebration on a knife edge of suicidal sadness and bleakly realistic optimism. Rarely has a home’s shape taken on such meaning.