Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)

Maleficent 2

This is no fairytale. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) travels to a grand old castle to celebrate young Aurora Queen of the Moors’ (Elle Fanning) upcoming wedding to Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). While there, she meets Aurora’s future mother-in-law Queen Ingrith  (Michelle Pfeiffer) a conniving queen who hatches a devious plot to destroy the land’s fairies. Hoping to stop her, Maleficent joins forces with a seasoned warrior , the dark fae Borra (Ed Skrein) and a group of outcasts to battle the queen and her powerful army...  We have opened our home to a witch. The overblown sequel to the relatively charming first film in the series is as far from Disney’s delicate and spare Gothic Sleeping Beauty as it can be conceived. This was clearly dreamt up as a bastard concoction of Game of Thrones and to a lesser extent Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy. It’s a shame because the story is a decent face-off between rival mothers-in-law and it’s great to see some of the best cheekbones in the business (enhanced or otherwise) tussling with the special effects. At the centre of it is a treatise on motherhood but you might find yourself wondering more about the dragon and the bear and fairy army than some old fairytale tropes. So it goes. Written by Linda Woolverton and Noah Harpster & Micah Fitzerman-Blue. Directed by Joachim Rønning. Curses don’t end – they’re broken

Grey Gardens (2009) (TVM)

Grey Gardens 2009

Everyone thinks and feels differently as the years pass by. Long Island, the mid-70s. The documentary filmmakers Albert (Arye Gross) and David Maysles (Justin Louis) are showing some of the footage they’ve shot about former members of NYC high society 79-year old Edith Bouvier Beale (Jessica Lange), the sister of Black Jack Bouvier, father of Jackie Kennedy (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her daughter 57-year old Little Edie (Drew Barrymore) to the pair. The women are living in a decrepit dirty house in East Hampton filled with cats and other stray animals and we learn how they wound up in poverty without electricity and running water, starting in the Thirties when Little Edie refused to marry any pig-headed momma’s boys bachelors and wanted a career on the stage. When her father Phelan (Ken Howard) divorces her mother she lives in the city and tries out for shows and models and falls into an adulterous relationship with Julius ‘Cap’ Krug (Daniel Baldwin) a married member of Truman’s administration. Her father tries to end it but it’s Cap who finishes with Edie and she retires to the beach house effectively replacing the attentions of her mother’s former lover, children’s tutor Gould (Malcolm Gets) and never leaves …  I don’t think you see yourself as others see you. In 1975 Albert and David Maysles released their eponymous documentary about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin and people were horrified. It was deemed tasteless and exploitative, its stars clearly not fully compos mentis and their sad lives in a state of utter disarray and poverty. What it lacked was context and that sin of omission is repaired here as we enjoy a series of flashbacks starting in 1936 when Little Edie is such a loser on the husband-hunting trail that would settle her for life while her parents’ marriage falls apart – a situation that would eventually leave her mother and herself penniless and isolated. It’s rare to see a TV movie made with such care and complexity; the word apoplectic appears at key points and has a different resonance on each occasion. Perhaps the makers understood the term palimpsest. This certainly fills the gaps the initial documentary leaves but it also restages certain scenes from Grey Gardens (1975) and the framing story as the women watch clips of their lives unspooling on the wall of the decaying house elicits some priceless reactions by the mother and daughter. This is really a story of women who are left behind and the limited options available even to the supposedly fortunate daughters of the very wealthy:  a priest reporting to Phelan Beale about Little Edie’s behaviour at a party sets the ball rolling disastrously. It’s a deeply felt film about performance on several levels and Barrymore is quite astonishing playing Little Edie in different phases of her life. Her failed debutante, girl about town and finally recluse are brilliantly developed. Her devastation and consequent alopecia when Krug tells her she has naïvely mistaken their sexual escapades for a special relationship is heartbreaking. The possibilities for misunderstandings multiply over the decades and Barrymore masters that flat affectless Boston brahmin drawl, offsetting the emotions in counter intuitive fashion. The final performance for a gay crowd at a NYC club before she leaves the State for good is good natured. Maybe she was in on the joke – at last. Throughout she seems to drift in and out of different kinds of consciousness. We know she definitely can’t stand another winter in the freezing cold of Long Island. She is matched in a different register by Lange whose role requires quite a different set of nuances not to mention a love of cats. There’s a very enlightening sequence when the newspapers break the shocking story about Jackie O’s sad cousins living in squalor and the woman herself visits and promises to have the place redecorated. Little Edie delights in lying to her that she should have been First Lady instead if Joe Kennedy Jr had lived despite having only seen him once at a party. Jackie sadly agrees:  not the anticipated reaction. The Edies enjoy the deceit, setting the scene for their final reconciliation when they finally forgive each other for the destruction of their lives. Perhaps justice is finally done for these eccentrics whose destinies were dictated by men. Written by Patricia Rozema and director Michael Sucsy. Grey Gardens is my home. It’s the only place where I feel completely myself

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991)

Dont Tell Mom the Babysitters Dead

I’ve had a very rough thirty-seven years and I need a break. Sue Ellen Crandell (Christina Applegate) has just graduated high school and her plans to join friends on vacation in Europe are ruined when her divorced mom (Concetta Tomei) decides to take off for two months to Australia leaving an elderly woman Mrs Sturak (Eda Reiss Merin) in charge of Sue Ellen and her twin Kenny (Keith Coogan) a stoner and slacker, 14-year old romantic Zach (Christopher Pettiet), 13-year old tomboy Melissa (Danielle Harris) and 11-year old TV addict Walter (Robert Hy Gorman). However Mrs Sturak dies of shock at the state of Kenny’s bedroom and after disposing of her at the local mortuary they realise she has taken the money for the summer. Sue Ellen draws the short straw and has to find a job. After failing miserably at a fast food place where she hits it off with co-worker Bryan (Josh Charles) she fakes her age and her way into an admin position at General Apparel West where designer boss Rose Lindsey (Joanna Cassidy) thinks she’s found an heir apparent.  While waiting for a paycheque she has to use petty cash to make the grocery bills and conceal her identity from office rival Carolyn (Jayne Brook) because she’s Bryan’s sister. Then the company runs into trouble and Sue Ellen’s unique (and recent) insights into teen fashion might just save the day … Did he just finish reading Dianetics or something? In which a grisly black comedy premise mutates into a tale of an accidental teenage career woman and her stoner brother who turns house husband chef, this is a feast in more ways than one:  the Nineties fashion, the role reversal whereby the kids assume adult roles more convincingly than the grown ups, and there’s a hilarious scene when Kenny chastises Sue Ellen for acting like an ungrateful spouse, home late after he’s spent the day cooking using Julia Child’s TV show to tutor him. Cassidy is outstanding as Sue Ellen’s boss who regresses to a candy-guzzling kid when her job is on the line, and an attractive cast of kids give spirited performances but it’s Applegate all the way. The imaginative use by David Newman of the Psycho score to see off Mrs Sturak is highly amusing. Written by Neil Landau and Tara Ison and directed by Stephen Herek. A relic of its era, in the best possible sense. Babysitters suck

Driven (2018)

Driven 2018

A flying car that can’t fucking fly! FBI informant Jim Hoffman (Jason Sudeikis) is in trouble with the agency and Benedict Tisa (Corey Stoll) has him on tap to give information about drug trafficker Morgan Hetrick (Michael Cudlitz) after he’s been caught flying cocaine for him. He’s living under witness protection with wife Ellen (Judy Greer) in a ritzy San Diego neighbourhood and his next door neighbour happens to be the charismatic former General Motors magnate John DeLorean (Lee Pace) who lives with former model Cristina Ferrara (Isabel Arraiza) and is dreaming of building his own futuristic car. The couples socialise and Jim ingratiates himself into a friendship with the designer as he negotiates deals and suddenly decides to open a factory in Northern Ireland in the middle of The Troubles:  Do you know how many people were murdered there last year? Ninety! Do you know how many people were murdered in Detroit last year? Nine hundred! But when his former secretary Molly (Tara Summers) goes public with information about his offshore accounts, the British Government withdraws funding and he’s in deep financial trouble. Jim comes up with an idea to save John’s skin but it’s really to save his own – to buy cocaine from Hetrick in order to rescue the factory means he can settle scores with the FBI but it means betraying DeLorean in an undercover sting for cocaine trafficking… In the America I grew up in a man was defined by the job that he did. For anyone born within an ass’s roar of Northern Ireland the name DeLorean conjures up a misty-eyed recollection of when bad times were kinda good because Belfast was home to his car manufacturing for a spell. So it’s appropriate that two men from that locale (who previously collaborated on The Journey) make this biographical film about the FBI sting that almost took DeLorean down when the British Government reneged on their deal to make the most inspiring car that ever made it into movies. Screenwriter Colin Bateman is of course a gifted comic novelist, while Nick Hamm has made several films in different genres in his time and it’s nicely staged, looks great and only has a hint of the tragedy it really is, kept buoyant with a vague ridiculousness that makes you keep asking yourself how this ever happened. Sudeikis scores as the slippery informant whose conscience only works some of the time although he’s a lightweight actor and sometimes the complexity doesn’t hit home when the comedy turns serious. Pace plays DeLorean as part-mystic, part-showman, part chinless con-man and the final twist is one to savour. In some ways this is worth watching just to see the tonsorially challenged Stoll don a frightwig. But mainly, it’s all about the car that brought us all back to the future and the man who dreamed it up. It’s not all true, but it might be and you wish it could have turned out differently. Co-written by Alejandro Carpio.  I will be remembered. My car will be remembered. Our scuzzy coke deal won’t be remembered

Good Posture (2019)

Good Posture

I’m not much of a reader. Lilian (Grace Van Patten) is a budding filmmaker living in New York City after her father Neil (Norbert Leo Butz) abruptly moved to Paris with his girlfriend. When her boyfriend Nate (Gary Richardson) dumps her for being immature, she moves in with family friends who she last saw when she was a baby. While musician Don (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is welcoming and friendly his wife Julia (Emily Mortimer), a famous and reclusive British novelist, immediately clashes with lazy Lilian and it appears she bullies her husband. Lilian smokes marijuana with Don which leads to his having a fight with Julia and he promptly leaves the house. Julia sequesters herself in her room and begins communicating with Lilian through messages in Lilian’s private journal.  After running into Nate and his co-worker, filmmaker Laura (Condola Rashad), whom Lilian works out he is seeing, Lilian pretends she is working on a documentary about Julia to make herself look good. Rather than ask Julia for permission, Lilian begins scouting for cameramen and settles on Simon aka ‘Sol’ (John Early) and uses her father’s connections to contact famous writers and interview them about Julia.She finds out from Jonathan Ames that her father is back in New York and his girlfriend is pregnant. She also realises that Julia is using her as possible writing inspiration and has used her as inspiration before, when she was a child. Then Julia finds out about Lilian’s documentary when Lilian is late to meet Sol, and he enthusiastically tells Julia everything. Julia cuts off all communication with Lilian. Depressed, Lilian makes a move on Julia’s reclusive dog walker George (Timm Sharp) who rebuffs her. Then she reconciles with her father and meets his girlfriend Celeste (Emmanuelle Martin, the film’s costume designer) and they don’t even tell her what she already knows about their future plans … Tell Miss Havisham I’m on it. It’s difficult to tell what age our heroine Lillian might be even though when we meet her she is clearly (formerly) involved with an adult male but she wears pigtails, is parented by phone from Paris and also does drugs. She’s tricksy, unlikable and a bit ungrateful. Likewise her authoress host is prickly as a porcupine, sour and not exactly pleased to see her. A bit like real life then. A writer who doesn’t write, a musician husband who hasn’t made a record lately, a house guest of indeterminate duration who doesn’t read yet wants to make documentaries but admits that she has ‘never sat through one’ and fixes on making one about the woman she refers to as Miss Havisham whose books she doesn’t know. Yet we find out Lilian’s mother abandoned her (she died) and Julia lost a baby. It’s a film about people in the mass media who don’t know how to communicate with each other. Information is passed like contraband behind people’s backs. Julia writes in Lilian’s diary and uses it for a new novel. We find out about the story from the songs composed for the soundtrack by Heather Christian. It’s also about how the children of well known people coast through life using their parents’ contacts and money. It’s about how bereavement plays out for years and years.  It’s about how people can’t see what’s staring them in the face. It’s about the millennial generation’s sense of entitlement.  It’s replete with contradictions and human comedy and the film within a film boasts cameos from novelists Zadie Smith and Jonathan Ames who play along gamely with the witty script but leave it to Martin Amis (who is gleefully credited as ‘Self’) to deliver the zinger that is both dramatic and comically relevant: It’s not an intellectual stimulus, being happy. On the contrary. The performances are perfect. Mortimer is an underrated actress. She looks so harmless but one remark can hit right below the belt and power several scenes ahead when she’s nowhere to be seen. She has one employee solely to care for her dog whom he walks and cooks for yet she bullies her own husband out of the family home. Van Patten has a tough role and plays it excellently – spiky, spiteful, irritating and manipulative, eventually developing a degree of self-awareness. The epistolary nature of her relationship with Mortimer reminds us of nineteenth century literature. Low-key, writerly, amusing and ironic with an unpredictably clever romcom happy ending plot-engineered by master puppeteer Mortimer: I would expect no less from writer/director Dolly Wells, Mortimer’s co-star in the cherishable TV series Doll & Em, similarly set in Brooklyn.  Let’s keep it happy

Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger theatrical

I must be dreaming. MI6 agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is holidaying in Miami when his opposite number in the CIA Felix Leiter (Cec Linder) asks him to keep an eye on a fellow hotel guest – so he winds up investigating a gold-smuggling ring run by businessman Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe). As he delves deeper into his activities, he uncovers a sinister plan to attack Fort Knox’s gold reserves to destroy the world’s economy… Do you expect me to talk?/No, Mr Bond. I expect you to die! The third in the series, this is where everything came right – action, humour, thrills, villain, style, ingenious gadgets,  great set design by Ken Adam, doubles entendres, devilish mute Korean hitman Oddjob (Harold Takata), Goldfinger’s persuasive personal pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) with her Flying Circus and the notorious death by gold paint of Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) which still startles today. Adapted by Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn (with suggestions by Wolf Mankowitz) from Ian Fleming’s eponymous seventh novel, the character of Auric Goldfinger is a very specific kind of nemesis, with his psychopathic obsession the Achilles heel of the man: This is gold, Mr. Bond. All my life I’ve been in love with its color… its brilliance, its divine heaviness. That’s what makes him a perfect crazed criminal but also a great pivot into Cold War politics and economic ideas, a kind of double bluff à la Hitchcock. This is a narrative where sex and danger and death are combined symbolically in the iconic title sequence (by graphic artist Robert Brownjohn) with all those dead painted girls providing a backdrop of morbidity and Connery freely imbues his performance with fear particularly when he’s about to get his by an artfully directed laser beam. The chase and action sequences are brilliantly managed with the modified Aston Martin DB5 in a class of its own. Then of course there’s the legendary theme written by composer John Barry with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Tony Newley and performed by Shirley Bassey, creating a siren song of sass. Smartly directed by Guy Hamilton, a colleague of Fleming’s in Britain’s wartime intelligence operations, this is totally thrilling entertainment that provided the blueprint for the films that followed.  Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He’s fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavour… except crime!

Dark Shadows (2012)

Dark Shadows

I killed your parents, and every one of your lovers. They kept us apart. AD 1972.  Two hundred years after he’s been condemned to a living death as a vampire by Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) a spurned servant who happens to be a witch, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is accidentally exhumed and vows to help his impoverished dysfunctional descendants while falling for his reincarnated lost love Victoria/Josette (Bella Heathcote). He returns to Collinwood where he hypnotises caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) into being his servant, introduces matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) to the family’s treasure trove, ordering her to keep it secret from her nee’er do well brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his eccentric little boy David (Gully McGrath) and her own rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). They have a permanent houseguest in Dr Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), David’s hard-drinking psychiatrist. They also have a rival in the local fishing business in Angel Bay Cannery run by Angie Bouchard (Green) who is still alive and well and determined to finally win Barnabas for herself but he is still in love with Josette… She has the most fertile birthing hips I have ever laid eyes upon. Just your everyday story of immigrants to the New World who turn into vampires because of an ancestral curse, this is one of those Tim Burton films that seems to fall between two stools:  homage and nostalgia, in this earnest adaptation/pastiche of a TV daytime drama hitherto unknown to me but certainly filed nowadays under the heading of Cult. The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith is from a story credited to him and John August and adapted from Dan Curtis’ original show and was reportedly being regularly rewritten on set which is not unusual. It might account for the strangely disconnected feel of the production, which however looks incredible thanks to the designer Rick Heinrichs. At its heart it’s a morality tale about family:  Family is the only real wealth. While the plot’s construction is of the laborious join the dots variety, there are some cute generation gap and proto feminist threads, good time shift moments, like Barnabas’ shocked reaction to television (What sorcery is this?), rock star Alice Cooper (who else?!) performing a concert and of course Depp, who gives a superbly physical Max Schreck-like performance and has very amusing sparring exchanges with all concerned. Not really sure if it wants to be a straight-up horror or a campy comedy and falls between both stools. Luckily Christopher Lee shows up as the king of the fishermen. Green would go on to replace Bonham Carter as Burton’s long term companion. Okay. If you wanna get with her, you’re gonna have to change your approach. Drop the whole weird Swinging London thing and hang out with a few normal people

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

The Return of the Pink Panther

Compared to Clouseau, Attila the Hun was a Red Cross volunteer. The famous jewel and national treasure of Lugash, the Pink Panther, is stolen once again in a daring heist with only the trademark glove as evidence. Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) is rehabilitated from his demotion to the street beat by Chief Inspector Dreyfuss (Herbert Lom) of the Sureté and sets off on a mission to nab the notorious thief who is probably Sir Charles Lytton (Christopher Plummer). But when Clouseau carries out surveillance at his house in Nice he encounters his resourceful wife Claudine (Catherine Schell) who leads him on a wild goose chase to Gstaad… There’s something about a wife – even with a beard. Marking the return of both writer/director Blake Edwards (writing with Frank Waldman) and star Sellers to the series following a misguided iteration with Alan Arkin in 1968, this succeeds due to some fabulous slapstick set pieces with all kinds of ordinary things defeating the brainless Inspector – a blind bank robbery lookout with his minky (a scene that is actually gasp-inducing), a telephone, a vacuum cleaner, his own moustache and a fake nose. Great visual gags involving tiny vehicles (á la M. Hulot), an unfortunately located swimming pool, in-house martial artist Cato (Burt Kwouk) and some very funny verbals including Sellers’ horrific mangling of the French language make up for the deadening miscasting of Plummer in the role previously handled effortlessly by David Niven. Sellers is so hilarious as the anarachic disaster-prone idiot he had Schell giggling uncontrollably – and those takes are in the final cut! There’s also the priceless running joke of an increasingly deranged Lom and his gun lighter. If it’s in the first act … well, you know your Chekhov. Seriously funny at times with extraordinary titles designed by Richard Williams. With friends like you, who needs enemies?

The Fan (1981)

The Fan 1981

Dear Miss Ross, I’m your biggest fan. Broadway theatre star Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) is successful, famous and nervous about rehearsing for a new musical. She’s still in love with ex-husband Jake Berman (James Garner) who has moved on with a newer model, and his absence creates a void in her life. Despite her loneliness, she doesn’t reciprocate when a fan, record store assistant Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn), starts sending her letters which are intercepted by her loyal secretary Belle Goldberg (Maureen Stapleton). The letters exhibit an obsessive interest in Sally and become steadily more personal and explicit, causing Belle to warn him off. This angers Douglas so much that he starts getting violent, with everyone in Sally’s immediate circle being targeted Quick, let’s think of something funny. The kind of film you’d think wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting released in the wake of John Lennon’s murder (and Bacall lived at the Dakota building too), this is a mix of high end midlife backstage melodrama and slasher horror exploitation, with the first half hour’s truly terrible pacing and poor editing ultimately damaging it on both fronts albeit the balance is finally struck in the last third. Bacall seems to the manner born as the quick-tempered diva giving Belle a hard time, while both Hector Elizondo as the police detective Raphael and Garner are particularly at ease in their supporting roles with some real chemistry between them and the leading lady on the screen. A strange mix of genres that doesn’t work overall but it’s somehow satisfying to see Bacall cast as the Final Girl confronting her deranged fan and Stapleton is outstanding. The music is by the legendary Pino Donaggio and there’s the bonus of seeing Bacall hoofing on stage in the manner of her own hit Applause (based of course on All About Eve, whose plot this rather wickedly limns). Watch out for Dana Delany and Griffin Dunne in small roles while legendary columnist Liz Smith appears as herself (George Sanders proving dead and therefore unavailable). If it wasn’t for the stabbings this might have had something to say about the dangers of being a celebrity. Adapted by Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell from the novel by Bob Randall. Directed by Edward Bianchi and shot by an individual called Dick Bush. I rest your case.  I’m more than a fan, I’m a friend

You Only Live Twice (1967)

You Only Live Twice

Bad news from outer space. When an American space capsule is supposedly swallowed by a Russian spaceship it’s an international incident. James Bond has apparently been killed in Hong Kong but he is ‘resurrected’ following his own funeral and sent undercover to Japan to find out who is behind the political aggression and the owner of the mysterious spacecraft. However while Russia and the US blame each other and Japan is under suspiion, he discovers with the assistance of his Japanese opposite number Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tanba) that SPECTRE is responsible for this attempt to start World War III and uncovers a trail that leads to the mysterious Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) whose evil empire is run from the centre of a volcano … Now that you’re dead our old friends will perhaps pay a little less attention to you than before. The one where Bond turns Japanese and trains as a ninja. A carnival of implausibilities that has the benefit of some gorgeous Japanese locations, stylish direction by Lewis Gilbert and introducing cat-loving megalomaniac Blofeld in the form of Pleasence, who we only glimpse over his shoulder as he strokes his pussycat before the big reveal. What an amazing villain! And how ripe for parody! Roald Dahl’s screenplay may throw out most of Ian Fleming’s novel (there is ‘additional story material’ by Harold Jack Bloom) but he does something clever – he takes the title seriously and has the second half begin exactly as the first, replacing a US with a Soviet rocket and doing a Screenplay 101 with the differing outcome second time around. The Cold War/space race theme might remind you of a certain Dr Strangelove. There are some good media jibes – If you’re going to force me to watch television I’m going to need a smoke, says James before aiming his cigarette at the enemy; astonishing production design by Ken Adam; and very resourceful sidekicks in Aki (Akika Wakabayashi) and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama); as well as the series’ first German Bond girl, Karin Dor, aka Miss Crime, due to the number of thrillers she starred in. Sadly it doesn’t save her here. This is gorgeously shot by Freddie Young and the restoration is impeccable. The John Barry and Leslie Bricusse theme song is performed by Nancy Sinatra. For a European you are very cultivated!