Julieta (2016)

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The abject maternal has long been a strong component of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s oeuvre and in this striking adaptation of three Alice Munro stories from Runaway he plunders the deep emotional issues that carry through the generations. On a Madrid street widowed Julieta (Emma Suarez) runs into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) who used to be her daughter’s best friend. Bea tells her she met Antia in Switzerland where she’s married with three children.  Julieta enters a spiral of despair – she hasn’t seen Antia since she went on a spiritual retreat 12 years earlier and she now abandons lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) on the eve of their departure for Portugal. She returns to the apartment she lived in with Antia when the girl was an adolescent and hopes to hear from her, the birthday postcards having long ceased. We are transported back to the 1980s when on a snowy train journey to a school in Andalucia Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) resisted the advances of an older man who then committed suicide and she had a one-night stand with Xoan (Daniel Grao). She turns up at his house months later and his housekeeper Marian (the heroically odd Rossy de Palma) tells her his wife has died and he’s spending the night with Ava (Inma Cuesta). Julieta and Xoan resume their sexual relationship and she tells Ava she’s pregnant and is advised to tell Xoan. And so she settles into a seaside lifestyle with him as he fishes and she returns with her young child to visit her parents’ home where her mother is bedridden and her father is carrying on with the help. Years go by and she wants to return to teaching Greek literature, which has its echoes in the storytelling here. The housekeeper hates her and keeps her informed of Xoan’s onoing trysts with Ava;  her daughter is away at camp;  she and Xoan fight and he goes out fishing on a stormy day and doesn’t return alive. This triggers the relationship between Antia and Bea at summer camp which evolves into Lesbianism albeit we only hear about this development latterly, when Bea tells Julieta that once it become an inferno she couldn’t take it any more and Antia departed for the spiritual retreat where she became something of a fanatic.  Julieta’s guilt over the old man’s death, her husband’s suicidal fishing trip and her daughter’s disappearance and estrangement lead her to stop caring for herself – and Lorenzo returns as she allows hope to triumph over miserable experience. There are moments here that recall Old Hollywood and not merely because of the Gothic tributes, the secrets and deceptions and illicit sexual liaisons. The colour coding, with the wonderfully expressive use of red, reminds one that Almodovar continues to be a masterful filmmaker even when not utterly committed to the material;  and if it’s not as passionate as some of his earlier female dramas, it’s held together by an overwhelming depiction of guilt and grief and the sheer unfathomability of relationships, familial and otherwise. Suarez and Ugarte are extremely convincing playing the different phases of Julieta’s experiences – how odd it might have been in its original proposed version, with Meryl Streep in the leading role, at both 25 and 50, and filming in English. I might still prefer his early funny ones but a little Almodovar is better than none at all.

Cafe Society (2016)

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Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood straight outta the Bronx  c.1935 to work with his movie agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and falls for his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Everything looks beautiful, bathed in magic moment sunshine and swoony evening light and people talk about Irene Dunne and Willie Wyler but it turns out Vonnie is Phil’s mistress and he leaves his wife to marry her leaving Bobby brokenhearted and back in his beloved Bronx working front of house for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in a glamorous nightclub. He marries divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively) whom he promptly rechristens Vonnie. She has a baby and her time is taken up caring for her. Then Phil and Vonnie visit while passing through NYC and a romance of sorts recommences but as Bobby realises, Vonnie (this Vonnie) is now his aunt … This is a film of two halves, which do not mesh.  The leads are in their third film together but Stewart is much too modern to play her role, Eisenberg is quite weird – that hunched-shouldered look doth not a schlub make – and the good performances are in supporting roles:  Jeannie Berlin and particularly Ken Stott as the Dorfman parents, Stoll, who is literally criminally underused and Stephen Kunken as the brother in law who inadvertently causes Bobby’s sister Evelyn to have Ben murder their neighbour. Despite the episodes of violence, the talk about what is reality and what is cinema, and the central idea about marriage and what people do to keep relationships going despite clear incompatibility – and there’s a strange (self-?) reference to a man with a teenaged mistress… – this just doesn’t work. The faraway looks in the leads’ eyes at the unsatisfying and inconclusive climax, a country apart, merely highlight the vacuum at the story’s centre. Minor Allen to be sure. It looks great though, so thank you Vittorio Storaro.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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When this was first released I saw it with a friend who promptly re-christened it Mouth Wide Open because I nodded off pretty quickly and woke suddenly during the orgy and announced, Clearly nobody here has ever been to one. And a shocking 18 years later it is still sad to see that Kubrick’s last film doesn’t have the intended shock value, the performances are variable and it’s very difficult to understand how it could have taken 400 days to shoot what are primarily lengthy talking scenes albeit the famously nitpicking Kubrick reconstructed Greenwich Village in London because of his fear of flying. Frederic Raphael updated Schnitzler’s early 20th century Vienna-set Traumnovelle to late 1990s New York City where Alice (Nicole Kidman) confesses to wealthy doctor husband Bill (Tom Cruise) that she fantasised sexually about a Naval officer she saw one day at a hotel where they were staying. Bill then descends into a long night of soul-searching and sex as he imagines what his wife might have done had she made the choice to cheat. He helps a wealthy patron Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) save a whore who’s OD’d during sex, attends a masked orgy on Long Island (a kind of warped tribute to North by Northwest) where his former med school chum is providing musical accompaniment in a blindfold and back in the city realises he’s being followed but it’s more than an existential threat. When Ziegler tells Bill that he’s fortunate not to know the names of the very powerful people in disguise at the sex party you don’t know if it’s raising questions about the Bilderberg group or another political conspiracy at large but it seems pretty daft. Whether you view this as an ineffectual satire of marriage or a cautionary commentary about sexually transmitted disease (there’s a telling scene featuring a prostitute and HIV) or perhaps a plain silly excursion into unerotic escapades, the press at the time made hay of the fact that the married couple at its centre saw their relationship disintegrate in real life and were divorced not long afterwards. The soundtrack which is principally two ominous notes would disgrace a five year old after their first piano lesson. Inexplicable in oh so many ways and yet fascinating and strangely memorable in visual loops precisely because it’s Kubrick. And the last word uttered (by Kidman) is … not expected in such a conservative outing and thereby enhances the legend.

Vanilla Sky (2001)

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Life is but a dream. Within a dream. Within a dream?! Since nobody concerned with this ever really knew what it was about, with 5 possible interpretations of the ending (and there is an alternative ending too…) there’s no reason why the little people should venture a suggestion. It might be that a vanity project for The Cruiser about a feckless publisher (Cruise) who inherited the business from his late papa and winds up in some sort of lucid dream courtesy of a tech company promising eternal life hit the complicated role spot. He romances Sofia (Penelope Cruz) a woman he’s met courtesy of his writer friend Brian (Jason Lee). The other woman, who leaves him disfigured in a car crash is f***buddy Julie played by Cameron Diaz, who’s very good;  while Kurt Russell is the court-appointed psychologist deployed to find out WTF is up with the man behind the mask and his weird visions. A remake of Spanish film Open Your Eyes/Abre los ojos, also starring Cruz, perhaps this was just some kind of Scientology wet dream gone wrong in another case of Let’s remake that movie because all films in other languages seem so much smarter than ours even when they’re utter nonsense. Who can tell?! Wake up, people keep telling Cruise. I know! I know! A very strange misstep for Cruise and Cameron Crowe, but it looks great thanks to John Toll and there’s a fascinating soundtrack (Nancy Wilson, well done). It certainly doesn’t help that the ending involves a skyscraper – in a film released three months after 9/11. Incomprehensible!

A Foreign Affair (1947)

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When tightly wound Iowa Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) arrives in rubble-strewn Berlin on a fact-finding mission about GI morals she doesn’t reckon on falling for smooth-talking black marketeer Captain Pringle (John Lund) or indeed his mistress Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich) whose ex is a former Nazi high commander… Billy Wilder was stationed in his favourite city for the US military in 1945, years after he’d fled when Hitler came to power. He was shocked by everything he saw and was charged with reorganising the entertainment industry and editing footage from the camps. He shot film of the city and instead of going to a mental hospital when he discovered what the Nazis had done to his only family, returned to Hollywood where he made a crazed Bing Crosby movie about interspecies breeding in the Tirol called The Emperor Waltz. Then he returned to this subject – post-war Berlin and how diplomacy was a thin veneer over a lot of mucky surviving and blind eyes being turned to the reality – via a story by David Shaw. It caused a lot of censorship problems for Paramount, where the interiors were shot, while locations filming took care of the exteriors. Dietrich is the only possible person to be Erika, the slinky seductive songstress who winds everyone around her finger delivering louche songs by Frederick Hollaender that speak to her own background on the cabaret scene in the city. She and Arthur are cannily deployed against one another and this led to serious frostiness on the set. The politics of occupation and accommodation and the pointlessness of reeducating the shameless were never so hilariously depicted and this wasn’t even screened in Germany until 1977. Nobody gets out of this unscathed. Adapted by Robert Harari and written by Wilder and Charles Brackett. You can read more about this in my article on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/billy-wilders-a-foreign-affair.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

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Truncated and abbreviated to 125 minutes from its intended original 200+ minute running time it might well be, but there is much to love about this Billy Wilder-IAL Diamond screenplay adaptation of everyone’s favourite ‘tec. With two stories instead of the four plus a flashback (apparently available on Laserdisc – remember them?!), Robert Stephens is the intuitive one with Colin Blakely as Watson, whom he pretends to a forward Russian noblewoman is gay to get out of fathering her child. Then he is taken in – for a spell – by a German spy masquerading as a woman in peril (Genevieve Page) with a detour to Scotland where a Jules Verne-esque submersible, Trappist monks and dwarves at Loch Ness are involved in an elaborate scheme which even attracts the attention of Queen Victoria. Brother Mycroft shows up in the person of Christopher Lee. Warm, witty, compassionate and sad, with a beautiful sense of irony, this is the underrated but gorgeously charming film that inspired the current BBC show. Happy International Sherlock Holmes Day!

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

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Charlie Hunnam is Conor McGregor;  Jude Law is a gay biker. Well, sue me, but that’s how it looks – at least when they eventually put the lights on. Anyone would think it was the Dark Ages!! I don’t like the aesthetics of this, several shades of gunmetal grey (not quite fifty) with CGI action sequences of swords and sorcery disguised in smoke-filled slomo montage concealing the joins. I needed a filter just to see those enormo elephants wreaking havoc on Camelot courtesy of Mordred. Uncle Vortigern (Law) murders King of the Britons Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) after Uther’s slain Mordred, in front of toddler Arthur (Oliver Zac Barker, an early Hunnam) and the boy is reared in a Londinium brothel. He becomes an MMA superstar until his whereabouts are eventually detected and he pulls the sword from the stone. Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) is the witchy figure who helps him find his true self while he gathers his father’s old circle including Little Finger, sorry Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen), sorry,  and his East End Lock Stock geezer crew led by Neil Maskell, and eventually sees the path to taking power from his evil uncle. Not that he wants it because he can’t remember a jot. All of which is well and sometimes quite good. The symmetrical structure and the Oedipal narratives (more than one) make this potentially fertile territory – as if the Arthurian legends weren’t already sufficient. The backstory to Arthur’s situation is revealed in his relationship with the sword (stop me before I say Freud – TOO LATE!!!) and his regular dreams/visions supply the origins to the tale. And that contributes to the impoverishment of Hunnam’s inhabiting of the role:  aside from his problematic vocal delivery  (where was the director? and it’s not just him, a lot of people give bad line readings here not helped by being buried in the mix) he never has the epiphanies required in this heroic journey, their substitutes are inserted at the wrong times in the wrong way (sorry about the fixation issue) preventing full characterisation. He is a side character to the gathering visions when he should be leading the action. Every time there’s an exciting moment and a revelation it’s ruined by a stupid repetitive flashback. One great realisation, at the right time, would have made this work while his essential self emerged. Arthur never has his big orgasmic truth. The moments of personal evolution are soaked in stupidity and obliterated by the context. We know Hunnam can act so this is at the writers’ door. And I am chair of the Eric Bana fan club (ahem) so I wanted to see way more of him and his dastardly brother’s infighting. I’m loath to call this a remake since it’s been conceived as a wholly unnecessary origins story but it could have been made into a really decent piece of storytelling if Guy Ritchie had been taken away from it at some point instead of getting high on Game of Thrones (even Michael McElhatton has a role here as if we needed any more proof of where this is coming from) and going full throttle digital because there are scenes that really pull things together. And then … Sometimes less really is more. It’s not as bad as mainstream critics are claiming but it needed cooler heads in the editing room:  it’s a romance, Guy! Never mind getting the missus to drag Arfur into the lake! Give him some air! Written by Ritchie and Joby Harrold and producer Lionel Wigram from a story by executive producer David Dobkin, Harrold and some mediaeval dudes. There’s an outstanding score by Daniel Pemberton.

Wonder Boys (2000)

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Michael Chabon’s droll campus novel of dejected one hit wonder creative writing professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) gets a funny and tender adaptation from the late Curtis Hanson and writer Steve Kloves. James Leer (Tobey Maguire) is the weird and ubertalented student whose work is stupendously impressive so when agent Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr) arrives at a college event for aspiring authors he immediately transfers his affection from his transvestitite companion to this new kid on the block and a raucous weekend on and off campus ensues. At a party given by the Chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) – who happens to be Grady’s mistress – and her husband Walter (Richard Thomas) a valuable piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia is stolen,  the family dog is shot and the body hidden in a trunk, and tension rattles when Sara reveals she’s pregnant by Grady, whose wife has taken off to her parents’. Grady thinks James is a suicide risk so keeps him with him – along with the dead dog. It eventually dawns on him that James is a compulsive liar and a total liability. His fellow student Hannah (Katie Holmes) has a thing for Grady but he’s not into her which makes life at his house tricky – she’s renting a room there. Walter sends the police for James when he figures where the MM goods have gone. What happens to Grady’s new book manuscript and the car is just cringeworthy … This is so great in every department – the very texture of the emotions is in every gesture and expression, something that occurs when writing, performance and staging are in perfect sync. Hilarious, compassionate and endlessly watchable. And for anyone looking to complete their picture collection of Michael Douglas’ abject masculinity on film, there’s the image of him standing on the porch in a woman’s dressing gown – something to knock that Basic Instinct v-neck into a cocked hat. Cherishable.

Sideways (2004)

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Pinot’s a very thin-skinned grape, it doesn’t like light or humidity. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a wine-loving high school English teacher and wannabe author whose best friend actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is getting married next Saturday:  road trip! To California wine country, where he can educate Jack in the mysteries of tasting. Two middle aged men on an emotional journey, one a depressive mourning his marriage, the other a past-it who can’t wait to get it up. Maya (Virginia Madsen) is the college professor’s wife waiting tables who has the best palate for wine of any woman Miles has ever met and Jack fancies her smartass friend and single mom Stephanie (Sandra Oh). There ensue some funny sexcapades (Jack), sad drunk dials (Miles), terror on the golf course and major education in oenology:  sometimes all it takes is the feel of a bunch of grapes in the hand to get the mojo going and a bottle of wine can bring anyone back to life. The marvellous Maya turns out to be the woman who coaxes Miles to his truest expression. Funny, louche, and humane with killer lines and tone-perfect performances from all concerned. Beautifully written, staged and shot, this is the comical male midlife response to Thelma and Louise, minus the violence and police. Mature, full-bodied and earthy, it simply gets better every year. From Rex Pickett’s unpublished novel, adapted by Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne. Savour it.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

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Probably Roger Moore’s favourite of his non-Bond outings, this is a fascinating and underrated cult offering from a weird time in cinema. Basil Dearden adapted Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham with Armstrong and Bryan Forbes, who was newly running EMI Films and gave this the greenlight. It was part of a clutch of films starring big names they were planning to shoot on middling budgets – but they didn’t market this correctly and so it got left behind somewhere in cultdom. Moore is a City worker who has a terrible car crash (is it on the Westway?!) in his Rover (whatcha expect?!) and ‘dies’ in hospital where he suddenly has two heartbeats. Resuming his life he appears to be … someone else. He has a doppelganger and this Saintly family man now has a mistress (played by Olga Georges-Picot, to add to the Resnais-ishness of the time scheme) and has agreed to a marine technology deal to which he was previously opposed and he’s being followed by a silver Lamborghini Islero (super wows!). This conservative man suddenly has a more exciting other self … We are in the realm of ego and id, straddling traditional British horror haunting tropes in a very well-tuned drama, and the obliqueness of contemporary London makes it all the more unsettling. The final face-off in his own house where his wife and kids want him gone!! is pretty satisfying, leading to a brilliant car chase, fatal for one of the two Pelhams. Proof, if it were needed, that all film titles beginning The Man Who are pretty darned great actually. In horribly meta fashion and with a great dollop of strange karma, Dearden himself had a terrible car crash in west London a year later (this was his last film…) and died in a hellhole called Hillingdon Hospital where I myself had a very narrow escape but still bare the scars – which bizarrely caused me another injury today before I watched this again. You couldn’t make it up. Chin chin!