Videodrome (1983)

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This has something you don’t have Max. It has a philosophy. And that’s what makes it dangerous. Max Renn (James Woods) is the director of a UHF TV channel operating out of Toronto in the early 80s looking for new material. He picks up a channel specialising in torture and violence which appears to be operating out of Pittsburgh. When his new girlfriend radio host Nikki Brand (Blondie’s Debbie Harry) disappears and turns up in one of their snuff movies he finds out too late that his violent hallucinations are happening because of what he’s been exposed to on videotapes which aren’t being broadcast at all – they’re being targeted at powerful people to exert mind control in a disintegrating society … David Cronenberg’s film has such a predictive quality despite some yucky special effects by Rick Baker. Made a decade before the internet became public, this is a satirical disquisition on the dangers of virtual reality and the closing of the distance between hard and soft technology – just watch what Woods does with his own abdomen, the new slot for a live VCR that has a direct connection with his brain! After Scanners made him famous this is the body horror that Cronenberg brought to bear on the idea of censorship and the belief run riot in those days that watching violent films bred violence in the viewer.  Woods’ ‘paranoid intellectualism’ as Cronenberg has it is just the disparaging stance that this subject needs to express this film’s very black comedy.  Long live the new flesh indeed.

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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.

Houseboat (1958)

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Try to be a parent, not a policeman. When newly widowed Tom Winters (Cary Grant) arrives back to the home of his sister-in-law (Martha Hyer) he finds his three kids in understandable disarray and doesn’t want to leave them in her care. But they don’t fit easily into his life at the State Dept. in Washington.  Younger son Robert (Charles Herbert) takes off at a classical concert with the grown up daughter Cinzia (Sophia Loren) of a renowned visiting conductor who returns him to the family’s apartment the following day. Not knowing who she is, Tom asks her to be the family’s maid. She’s unhappy tagging along with her father so she joins them, dressed to the nines. He decides to remove everyone to Carolyn’s guesthouse – which is destroyed by a train when the tow truck driver Angelo (Harry Guardino) is distracted at the sight of Cinzia en route to the new location. He gives Tom his neglected houseboat as compensation. Unable to cook, launder or sew, Cinzia miraculously brings Tom together with his lost children as the houseboat lurches, cuts loose and gradually settles into metaphorical balance. She has to avoid the leers of Angelo while Tom is rationally persuaded into proposing marriage to freshly divorced Carolyn who’s been in love with him since she was 4 and he married her older sister:  he is blissfully ignorant of Cinzia who desperately craves his attention …  There’s so much music in this very fun romcom it might as well be a musical:  from the orchestral pieces to Sophia’s regular songs – Bing! Bang! Bong! being the most popular on a very bouncy soundtrack. Gorgeous stars, funny kids, agreeable supporting performances and a good setup combine to make this a delightful, charming ode to simply being: dolce far niente, as Loren urges. I couldn’t agree more! There’s a great scene in a laundromat when Grant gets embroiled in women’s gossip. Written by Jack Rose and director Melville Shavelson, with an uncredited screenplay by Betsy Drake (aka Mrs Cary Grant) who was supposed to co-star – until her husband allegedly had an affair with Loren on The Pride and the Passion, a liaison long over by the time filming on this commenced. Awkward!

Peyton Place (1957)

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Quality is a very good thing in a roll of cloth but it’s very dull on a big date. Mike Rossi (Lee Phillips) arrives in the small New England town of Peyton Place to interview for high school principal, usurping the favourite teacher (Mildred Dunnock). He drives past a shack where Selena Cross (Hope Lange) lives with her mother (Betty Field), little brother and drunken stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Selena’s best friend is the graduating class’s star student and wannabe writer Allison Mackenzie (Diane Varsi) whose widowed mother Constance (Lana Turner) has a clothing store and immediately attracts Mike’s interest. Allison has a crush on Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) heir to the local fabric mill but he only has eyes for trashy Betty (Terry Moore). Allison confides in Norman (Russ Tamblyn) whose watchful mother has altogether too much to do with her shy son. All of the characters attempt to assert their individuality and grow up but malicious rumours, a rape and a suicide followed by a murder are just around the corner as Lucas forces himself on his stepdaughter and Constance reveals to Allison the truth about her obscure origins; then the newspaper carries a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor … Even decades after Grace Metalious’ novel was published it bore the whiff of scandal and my eleven-year old self carried it as though it were dangerous contraband – which of course it was, for about a minute. Part of its attraction was the back cover photograph of the authoress, a gorgeous young thing with a Fifties Tammy ponytail wearing a plaid shirt, cut offs and penny loafers – it was years before I would learn that this was a model (paid tribute by a shot of Allison in the film) and that Metalious was in reality a bloated alcoholic who died not long afterwards:  not such a role model after all!  The bestselling exposition of a horribly inward looking and vicious group of people in an outwardly lovely small town in Maine gets a meticulous adaptation by John Michael Hayes who was working carefully around the censor yet still managed to craft a moving even shocking melodrama from some explosive storylines arranged through the seasons. Lange comes off best in a film which has some daring off-casting – including Turner as the frigid so-called widow, cannily using her star carnality against the character. (In reality she would encounter her own extraordinary scandal with teenage daughter Cheryl within a year of this film’s release). Lloyd Nolan playing the local doctor has a field day in the showstopping courtroom revelation telling some vicious home truths amid some frankly disbelieving onlookers including the unrepentant gossips. Tamblyn gets one of the roles of his career as Norman, the son who is loved just a little too much by his mom… I hadn’t seen this in a long time but much to my surprise was immediately humming along again with the wonderfully lyrical score by Franz Waxman. In many ways this evocative drama sums up the morality of the Fifties even while being set on the eve of WW2 and the early Forties. A very pleasant, beautifully made and surprising reminder of a book whose opening line I’ve never forgotten:  Indian Summer is like a woman … Ah! The film is sixty years old this year. Directed by Mark Robson.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

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There are times when I think what a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life. In 1930s England James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) serves as butler to the doltish Lord Darlington (James Fox). Stevens is so dedicated that he forgoes visiting his father (Peter Vaughan) on his deathbed in order to serve a bunch of blackshirts dinner. He overlooks Darlington’s Nazi sympathies and growing anti-Semitism even dispensing with the service of two young Jewish refugees who he knows will be returned to Germany. Twenty years after the disgraced Darlington’s death and in the wake of the Suez Crisis Stevens tries to make contact once again with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), Darlington’s head housekeeper who married their former colleague Benn (the late and lamented Tim Pigott-Smith). He travels to see her in the West Country and in the course of his trip begins to regret his blind loyalty and servitude to his former master who pursued a libel case to the detriment of his reputation and whose American critic Congressman Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve) now owns Darlington Hall. Stevens now works for him and his life is utterly unfulfilled. He must make up for lost time. The Merchant Ivory team regroup with their Howards End stars and the amazing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prize winning novel ponders class relations, political naivete and the lack of wisdom in relationships at every conceivable level. A friend of mine commented caustically on it at the time of its release, The fireplaces are wonderful. And it’s true, they are, but that is much too reductive of a project which  cannot translate the more subtle nuances of the novel instead transmitting through performance on a sometimes barely perceptible register of glances or a slight movement what mere writing cannot – the affect of loss and its immense impact on the totality of a life. Hopkins has one of the most difficult roles of his career – the stubborn butler who simply cannot accept the limitations of his boss or his father’s revelation. His refusal to admit emotionality is devastating. His humiliation at the pleasure of his lordship’s house guests makes you squirm on his behalf. Thompson is heartbreaking as the woman who loves him but hurts him rather than tell him directly. Their final leavetaking is horrifying in its simplicity and tragedy. There are two other exquisite scenes and they both predominantly feature fingers:  when Stevens finds his father collapsed and must wrench his fingers from a trolley after the old man has had a stroke;  and when Miss Kenton prises with great difficulty a novel from his own hand to declare rather disbelievingly that it is only a sentimental romance. The fear of embarrassment is all over this epic tale of a country’s honour in microcosm. It is an achievement that seems much larger in retrospect than a quarter of a century ago. A stylish, intelligent, immensely moving drama.

Evita (1996)

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Statesmanship is more than entertaining peasants. 1952 Buenos Aires: a film in a cinema is stopped by the newsflash that Eva Peron (Madonna) is dead. Flashback to years earlier: a little girl running into a church and placing flowers on the body of the man who was her father before she is hustled out. 1930s:  Eva Duarte is sleeping with a tango singer Magaldi (Jimmy Nail) before making her name as a radio actress and then befriending a powerful man Colonel Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce) at a fundraiser following an earthquake. She becomes his mistress and encourages and hustles for him as he parlays his way to power, using her broadcasting nous to raise support for him during his imprisonment by political rivals who fear his rise. Throughout this larger than life musical drama (entirely sung through) Che Guevara (Antonio Banderas) is the shapeshifting commentator on the sidelines, positioning us in the narrative, until the final – unthinkable – departure of Evita. This is a robust, admirable adaptation by director Alan Parker and Oliver Stone of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice behemoth that bestrode theatre in the 1970s after its introduction as a concept album – a musical drama that deconstructs the life of the Argentine bastard who became an actress and whore before marrying the dissolute Peron and utilising her powers of demagoguery to help him and his Nazi thugs to Government. All of this is contextualised under the guise of sympathy for the impoverished masses of which she believed she was one because she was the illegitimate offspring of a married middle class man.  The story problem here is the persona of Evita herself – she’s a narcissistic exhibitionist whose principal passion is herself and this presents the issue of empathy for the viewing experience. It’s an epic political pageant but it’s politics as psychodrama:  you can admire the scale but it’s a mirthless spectacle about horrendous people. Madonna does an excellent job with the songs but her limited technical acting abilities aren’t helped by the parameters of the role itself, which is primarily declarative in function. The first opportunity she really gets to properly emote is on her deathbed: everything else is essentially a con job of presentation, inherent to the character herself. Banderas and Pryce are commentators and therefore essential to the interacting of the personal with the political on a broad canvas shot in muted amber tones which is admittedly captivating and occasionally jaw-dropping in ambition. There are some wonderful visual flourishes and pastiche references to classical filmmaking (Parker even makes a cameo appearance). At its heart this is a vengeful journey into fascistic madness framed by two funerals.  It’s certainly interesting to see this again (in any form) in the week in which the Perons’ successors are finally sentencing the pilots who carried out the murders of tens of thousands of dissidents by dropping them in the shark-infested Atlantic 40 years ago rather than wasting time torturing them – so many people had already invested their energies doing that and it was obviously tiring them out. Can you imagine what these toxic avengers would have done if they’d been allowed on the Falklands? Oh what a circus, oh what a show.

Union Pacific (1939)

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First time I’ve discarded aces for a queen! President Lincoln signed off on the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act to authorise pushing the Union Pacific Railroad west across the wilderness toward California. However now that Lincoln is dead financial opportunist Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) hopes to profit from obstructing it. Chief troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) has his hands full fighting Barrows’ agent the gambler Sid Campeau (the wonderfully devilish Brian Donlevy). Campeau’s partner veteran Dick Allen (Robert Preston) is Jeff’s war buddy and rival suitor for Irish rail engineer’s daughter Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck). Who will survive the effort to push the railroad through at any cost? And who will win Molly? Cecil B. DeMille’s rousing, sprawling western was in the vanguard of historical tales bringing together the rival attempts at forming a national history – and this all culminates at Promontory Point Utah when Leland Stanford drove a ceremonial spike to unite this with the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. Filled with great starry performances this is history on a human scale. Despite Stanwyck’s typical luminosity and McCrea’s decency and likeability,  it’s probably Preston who comes off best, even photographically, in his showy role. Filled with fighting, shooting, murder, building and dismantling, Indian attacks, drinking, gambling, love and death, with one killing from the window of a train that is shocking to this day, this is truly a film for the ages. A splendid, zesty example of the power of classical Hollywood. Written by Walter DeLeon, Jack Cunningham and C. Gardner Sullivan, adapting Ernest Haycox’ novel Troubleshooter. This is the first ever winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes – awarded in 2002 due to the debut Festival’s cancellation following the outbreak of WW2!

The Strange World of Planet X (1957)

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Now let me get this straight – this fiercesome contraption of yours went on working even when you switched off the current?! In the deepest English countryside Dr Laird (Alex Mango) and his team are playing around with the electro-magnetic field and the insects in the surrounding fields are getting big as you like because the energy has to come from somewhere. Gaby Andre (Michele Dupont) is a computer scientist who tries to help out following an accident that injures a lab assistant. When hipster alien Smith (Martin Benson) arrives to warn them to stop playing around with things they don’t understand it’s already too late the and the monster bugs are already on the rampage and don’t even talk about the hole they’ve torn in the iononasphere and people are becoming murderous because those cosmic rays are just wild … With far more fiction than science and less money than sense this cheap Brit monster movie has its moments – mostly when Forrest Tucker as expert Gil Graham smokes while wearing a tasty tweed jacket or the penultimate scenes of insect ravaging. Fun but even at 72 minutes this wears out its welcome pretty darn quick. Watch out for Dandy Nichols and this was Wyndham Goldie’s last film. Paul Ryder and Joe Ambor adapted Rene Ray’s novel and it was directed by Gilbert Gunn while the music from Robert Sharples’ theremin fills in the missing action. MM #1500

Deadfall (1968)

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How do you account for the fact the jewel thief is the one criminal that respectable people sympathise with? Cat burglar Henry Clarke (Michael Caine) checks himself into a Spanish sanitarium for alcoholics to befriend the wealthy Salinas (David Buck) in order to rob his mansion. He is visited in the clinic by Italian beauty Fé Moreau (Giovanna Ralli) and asked to join with her and her much older husband Richard (Eric Portman) in robbing Salinas’ place when he’s attending a concert. As a test run they break into another stately home. After risking his life on a ledge, Clarke becomes so angered by Richard’s failure to crack the safe that he digs it out of the wall and he drags it and its contents out of the house. Fé and Clarke begin an affair, which Richard doesn’t mind because he has a new young male lover. Fé buys a Jaguar convertible for Clarke and tells him the safe contained jewels worth at least a half-a-million dollars. Before the time comes to rob Salinas, Fé travels to Tangier without letting Clarke know she was leaving. Richard then reveals to Clarke that he betrayed his male lover to the Nazis and then impregnated the man’s wife. Their baby was Fé and she doesn’t know the truth. Clarke is devastated and breaks into Salinas’ mansion on his own. Fé returns and is shocked and disbelieving when Richard reveals the truth about their relationship. She races to the Salinas mansion and her arrival alerts a security guard who shoots Clarke coming out a window… Bryan Forbes adapted Desmond Cory’s novel which has the trappings of a Hitchcock suspense thriller but instead turns into a relationship melodrama with a rather disturbing Freudian twist. Forbes made some fantastic films in the Sixties and had previously teamed up with Caine, Leonard Rossiter (as Fillmore) and his wife Nanette Newman (the Girl here) in The Wrong Box but the setup takes too long, the key tryout burglary is crosscut with John Barry conducting a concert which is really strangely shot by Gerry Turpin (imagine how Hitch would have staged it – or just watch The Man Who Knew Too Much) and the strangulated diction of Portman makes you wonder why nobody thought of Curt Jurgens for the role. His dialogue basically states the film’s themes and his enunciation is horrifically enervating: I have no idea how Caine acted opposite him. On the plus side it’s mostly well shot save for that concert hall, Caine looks his beautiful feline best enhanced by the Spanish location tan and Barry’s score is deeply attached to the film’s strange emotions, even quoting himself by using the theme from Beat Girl to stress the decadence. And it’s nice to see the glorious Ralli at work as well as watching the great Catalan guitarist Renata Tarrago play the solo on stage. Clouds, silver linings, etc.

Collateral Beauty (2016)

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A bereaved advertising executive Howard Inlet (Will Smith) can’t get it together so his colleagues get together and decide that his letters to Death, Time and Love should be personified by actors to persuade him back to work so they can get their wage increases. In other words they try to make him think he’s living in a Hollywood fantasy circa 1942, a time when people really had something to worry about. Meanwhile one of his colleagues is dying and dealing with it manfully. When Howard meets a woman at a bereavement counselling session who’s grieving her six-year old daughter’s death from cancer he doesn’t realise she’s his wife. That’s the big reveal. This horrifying disquisition on the examined life is as refreshing as acid rain and another example of the bewildering spiral of decrepitude that Smith’s career has become. Another reason for him to boycott the Oscars, no doubt. Preserve us all from such contemptuous mindlessness. Those letters to the Universe? Keep them to yourself. Written by Allan Loeb and directed by David Frankel.