Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

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The measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it. Dutchman Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason) living in the 17th century, is not permitted to rest until he finds a woman who loves him enough to die for him. In 1930s Spain where his body is fished out of the water, he meets the reincarnation of a woman from his dead past Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner) and falls in love. The story progresses to a hair-raising reconciliation of past and present as she becomes engaged to besotted racing driver Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick) while also juggling with the affections of ardent matador Juan Montalvo (Mario Cabré) whose mother has predicted their union … There’s something beyond my understanding. There’s something mystical about the feeling I have for you. Albert Lewin’s cult film is weirdly compelling and boring all at once:  a woman who drives men wild with desire is herself obsessed with a man who has been condemned to wander the earth forever. This legend is elevated to almost mythic quality in a production that is beautiful, sensuous and strange, and that’s just Gardner. There are lengthy exchanges of meaningful dialogue, lusty looks and a gorgeous shadow hangs over every Technicolor frame. Never mind the melo, feel the drama. That’s not me as I am at all. But it’s what I’d like to be

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Half Magic (2018)

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Why are we sitting around talking about how sad our lives are? Three women utilise their newly formed sisterhood to battle sexism, bad relationships and low self-esteem. Honey (Heather Graham) works for a self-absorbed actor (Chris D’Elia) who treats her terribly and she splits with him in a script meeting and gets her feminist idea past s producer Linda (Rhea Perlman). I’m sick of watching women get stabbed in movies, she declares. Eva (Angela Kinsey) is a successful fashion designer who can’t get over her divorce from artist husband Darren (Thomas Lennon) who claims that her financing of his education emasculated him so now he’s with a twenty-year old. Lick it Candy (Stephanie Beatriz) works in a candle store and she believes the wax objects have magical powers so they wish for what they desire after attending a crazy vagina-worshipping workshop led by Valesca (Molly Shannon). They soon find the secret to ultimate fulfillment by embracing their wild sexual adventures… I want to have hot sex with someone who’s nice to me. Frank and funny, this explicit take on the female experience aims low (literally, at clitoral orgasms) and high (at drug users, natch!) and at narcissistic men including actors who get their rocks off at making sexually active women suffer in their movies and video games. Heather Graham is making her writing/directing debut and we can infer that she knows whereof she speaks:  she’s playing an aspiring screenwriter who’s assisting Peter the actor and we first meet them having uncomfortable sex (for her, not him). He’s so vile that he takes credit for breaking up with her retrospectively – and immediately – despite the fact that she’s breaking up with him at a production meeting in front of other people. When she’s finally having a proper orgasm with a wild drug-taking artist Freedom (Luke Arnold from TV’s Black Sails) she met at a club she experiences religious guilt (Johnny Knoxville cameos as Father Gary declaiming from the pulpit). She wants to communicate her joy by making her female characters empowered on the screen but meets with the old argument:  Sex and violence is a proven formula that makes a profit  Nonetheless her co-writer John (Michael Aronov) endorses everything she says and even loves her other screenplays.  Eva makes horrible drunken phonecalls to her ex but a chance encounter with an old friend Mark (Jason Lewis) gives her a sexual experience she’d never had with her husband.  And Candy needs to get her boyfriend to commit but she keeps doing her laundry and he’s with other women. They all have to give themselves a break, stop being masochistic and learn to love themselves – first. If they resort to a little magic to make it through the day and create sisterly solidarity, well, why not. A game cast makes this very watchable and Graham’s sweet wide-eyed act is still going strong – she looks at least twenty years younger than she should!  There are some good jibes at Hollywood films and sycophancy which everyone of the female persuasion will appreciate. Note to self:  when making a film in which I’m starring remember to include a sex scene with a hot guy from Black Sails. What a way to debut. Yes to orgasm!

Solaris (2002)

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It seems to be reacting:  almost like it knows it’s being observed.  Clinical psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is hired by the DBA corporation to investigate the unexplained behavior of key scientists (including Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies) on space station Prometheus orbiting the planet Solaris. They are traumatised by a phenomenon which appears to have caused the suicide of his friend Dr Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur). Once aboard he too falls victim to this unique world’s mysteries as well as to an erotic obsession with someone he thought he had left behind, his late wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) who appears beyond his dreams. Are the remaining crew crazy? Is he?... Who is it? What is it? Does it feel?  Can it touch? Does it speak? Stanislaw Lem’s classic novel was adapted for Soviet TV in 1968 ; and then in 1972 to acclaim by the great Andrei Tarkovsky. Therefore it would appear at first glance to be rather unnecessary for an American auteur filmmaker (Soderbergh shot and edited this too) to take on an unoriginal project and remake an acknowledged classic of world cinema. The additions to Lem’s and Tarkovsky’s narratives take the form of flashbacks, creating a tapestry of memories – real and otherwise. It establishes the parameters of Chris’ beliefs, upholstering his character and clarifying the nature of his obsession, building towards a solution for his guilt and a hope of redemption via virtual reality. It’s beautifully designed and looks splendid but somehow it’s hard to care beyond the immediate attractions. Cleverly constructed to form a logical continuum between time, space and memory, it lacks the mystery of really great sci fi in which the universal and the personal become interwoven to the point of being indistinguishable so it’s ironic that despite this being the narrative’s overt theme, it never really lifts off, even if it’s half the length of Tarkovsky’s inimitable and admittedly ponderous version. Produced by James Cameron.

The Tamarind Seed (1974)

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She could be one of our most important agents over here. On holiday from her job in the civil service at the Home Office, Judith Farrow (Julie Andrews) heads to the Caribbean after ending a love affair with married Government minister Richard Paterson (David Baron). On Barbados she is befriended by debonair Russian Feodor Sverdlov (Omar Sharif). The two quickly fall in love despite his married status, but Judith’s feelings are tested when Sverdlov is revealed to be a Russian agent eager to win her over to his cause. Back in London, intelligence officer Jack Loder (Anthony Quayle) is aware of a mole in the Government and is convinced Sverdlov is trying to recruit Judith as a Soviet spy.  She is instructed never to see him again, but can’t shake the attachment and soon finds that both of their lives are in danger … With titles by Maurice Binder and a resonant piano-based score by John Barry, you’d almost think you were in a James Bond film. Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Evelyn Anthony’s 1971 novel is true to its sense of high romance, urgent drama and deep-seated tensions stemming from the clash of ideologies pulsing beneath the lust. Andrews and Sharif are extraordinarily well-matched in this stylish epic, with gorgeous photography by Freddie Young in what is a charged if relatively well-heeled and glossy depiction of the Cold War, with betrayal and assassinations and embassy parties. Perfect for a dull September evening. A few days to convince her that she is doing it for love

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

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I’ve seen things I never thought could happen happen. In 1946 London-based writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James) begins exchanging letters with residents on the island of Guernsey, which was German-occupied during WWII after one of them, pig farmer Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) comes into possession of her copy of Essays of Elia. Her new book of humour enables her to buy a decent home but it doesn’t fit her down to earth style and she stays in a bedsit in a boarding house.  Her publisher Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode) is urging her to go on a proper publicity tour but she is restless. Romanced by US Army officer Markham Reynolds (Glen Powell) who fills her home with daily bouquets and dances her around the finest venues in London, the letters from the quaintly named book club pique her curiosity. Feeling compelled to visit the island, she starts to get a picture of what it was like during the occupation but her desire to write an article for The Times elicits opposition, particularly from Amelia (Penelope Wilton) who regarded the mysteriously absent club member Elizabeth (Jessica Browne Findlay) as her daughter yet whose little child is being reared by Dawsey. When things get difficult at the guest house run by Charlotte Stimple (Bronagh Gallagher) Juliet takes refuge with gin-maker Isola (Katharine Parkinson) and Eben the postmaster (Tom Courtenay) is always at hand with support and a telephone line …. The little-acknowledged German occupation of the Channel Islands and its very complex legacy is often the forgotten part of what went on during World War 2 in the British Isles. Mary Ann Shaffer’s novel, inspired by a visit there, was completed posthumously by her niece, Annie Barrows, and the screenplay by Kevin Hood, Don Roos and Tom Bezucha (the latter two substantial directors in their own right) transcends the material, bringing to life an extraordinary episode in fictional form. The story of Elizabeth and her transgression is wrought exponentially not necessarily because anyone wants Juliet to know the story but precisely because their own prejudices and beliefs are called into question, as well as a sense of guilt over the outcome, which is of course the big reveal. Perhaps James and Huisman are not ideally meant in movie star heaven – Powell is a much more obvious fit, a good guy, a sparky romantic lead and a well-meaning operator who helps solve the puzzle of Elizabeth, but in matters of the heart, we never know how other people work and the obvious is not always right.  More than that, this explores the real dilemma that a writer has:  confronting her failure as a serious biographer (The Life of Ann Brontë sold 28 copies – “worldwide,” as her publisher helpfully contributes to a roomful of rapt readers of her Izzy Bickerstaff book). So the frothy crowd-pleasing delights on English foibles she is now expected to produce frustrate her when she is confronted by real emotion after wartime’s effects are truly felt by British victims of the Nazi regime who don’t want fairy stories told about them.  It is the resolution of both story problems that produces the conclusion and that is the real achievement of this melding of fact and the manufacture of fiction. Above all, this is a film about the joy of reading. Beautifully shot on location with great production design and attention to historical detail, this is quite spellbinding. Directed by Mike Newell.

Eureka (1983)

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Aka River of Darkness. Once I had it all. Now I have everything. After 15 years of searching on his own, Arctic prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men when he literally falls into a mountain of gold in 1925. Twenty years later in 1945, he lives in luxury on Luna Bay, a Caribbean island that he owns. His riches bring no peace of mind as he feels utterly besieged:  he must deal with Helen (Jane Lapotaire), his bored, alcoholic wife; Tracy (Theresa Russell), his headstrong daughter who has married Claude Van Horn (Rutger Hauer) a dissolute, philandering, narcissistic social-climber; and Miami mobsters Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci), who want the island to build a casino off the Florida coast but Jack is resistant to gambling and their frontman Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) cannot persuade him to do a deal with them. I never made a nickel off another man’s sweat. When Jack is brutally murdered, his son-in-law, Claude, is arrested for the crime and put on trial … One of Nicolas Roeg’s most underrated achievements, this pseudo-biography is a fascinating portrayal of perversion and power, obsession and dread. The texture of the film, contained in lush colour coding, symbols of the occult and the ever-present stench of sex, oozes corruption and greed, decay and desire. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Marshall Houts’ book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? an account of that real-life murder in the 1940s, in which the author suggests that Meyer Lansky had Oakes killed [Pesci’s role is based on the gangster albeit this carries the conventional disclaimer], this exhibits all the familiar Roegian tropes. It also has echoes of Orson Welles as character, a director who hit the cinematic motherlode first time off the blocks and spent the remainder of his life in a kind of desperation (or so people would like to think). Hence McCann feels larger than life and is dramatised as such with Wagner soundtracking his great – almost psychedelic – discovery and Yukon poet Robert Service’s words Spell of the Yukon amplifying its myth. It isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold The allusions to Citizen Kane are clear and the portentous character of prostitute/fortune teller Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes) would appear to have at least superficial similarities with Oja Kodar, Welles’ last companion. One moment of rapture followed by decades of despair. The first line of dialogue we hear is Murder! and there is a structure which suggests destiny is being fulfilled. This is a story about disparate characters connected by blood and a morbid wish for ecstasy which suggests life but actually propels towards death. Russell’s testimony in court is gripping and Hauer as the playboy driven by the Kabbalah and other elements of the supernatural is just as good. Hackman is Hackman – he totally inhabits Jack, this man whose greatness is envied by all but whose happiest time was in the wastes of Alaska so long ago, basking in heat and light now but longing for snow.  It is this man’s ability to function as a totally singular individual that creates the chasm between himself and others, gangsters or not.  Internally he knows it is Frieda who led him to the gold that made him the richest man in the world but he decries notions of luck or superstition. His murder is an accurate depiction of what happened to Oakes and it’s terribly gruesome – sadistic and heartless. The first part of the film could be from silent movies – and the bizarre aphoristic dialogue is laughable except that it sets up the sense of supernature which dominates the narrative. Shot by Alex Thomson, edited by that magician of jagged mosaic Tony Lawson, and scored by Stanley Myers (including wonderful double bass solos composed and performed by Francois Rabbath), if this sometimes feels that it has not fully committed to the melodramatic mode (there are a lot of genres at work), the threads of gold and blood make it a satisfying and disturbing watch, with some extraordinary performances bolstering the overall effect. This is all about signs and meaning.  A mystery. The end of the beginning

The Killing of Sister George (1968)

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I’m writing something very obscene about the British Broadcasting Corporation.  June (Beryl Reid) is an actress who portrays the popular Sister George, a district nurse in a popular BBC soap opera. The actress spends her time drinking and engaging in Lesbian sex with her much younger live-in lover, factory worker Alice also called Childie (Susannah York) due to her penchant for baby doll dresses and her devotion to her collection of dolls. A television executive, Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) decides she likes Alice and wants to write Sister George off the show after she’s molested two nuns in the back of a taxi, two Irish Catholic novitiates just off the boat. June watches as her behavior and insecurity and bullying drive Alice away and into the arms of Mercy.  George discovers the only job she is likely to be offered is that of a cow’s voice on a kids’ show … I can hardly put through to the Controller your allegation that you may have been bitten by two nuns. Robert Aldrich and screenwriter Lukas Heller broke new ground with this, made directly after The Dirty Dozen. Aldrich’s regular collaborator, Heller added a sex scene between Childie and Mrs Croft to Frank Marcus’ 1964 play which was responsible for the film’s X rating under the newly instituted censorship system in the US. There were also censorship problems in the UK (the BBFC website states that this has by far the largest file of any film submitted with the sex scene “by far the most explicit scene of lesbian physical love that has ever been submitted [for classification].” ). This was also the first film to show the inside of a Lesbian nightclub.   It fits into the rather cynical ‘hag’ template the pair pioneered with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  and Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte. Beryl Reid’s butch persona (well known from The Belles of St Trinian’s) adds a new twist to the format, with her tweedy randy predator meeting her match in Mrs Croft. Reid had played the role on stage and had its energy and complexity down to a T. This is a confrontational film about ageing, femininity, relationships and career and how they can all converge into a crisis at the whim of an executive’s pen. Fascinating on so many levels, with the central story’s blackly comic claustrophobia expressed through excellent design, this is great entertainment. What’s one looking for then, love and affection?

The Magus (1968)

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We have all been cast as the traitor for one simple reason:  we have all failed to love.  Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine) takes up a position as schoolteacher on the Greek island of Phraxos where his predecessor has committed suicide. He wants to write and to escape the pressures of his relationship with Anne (Anna Karina) an emotionally complex air hostess.  He becomes obsessed with a rich old man Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn) living in a big complex on the other side of the island who draws him into his odd domestic arrangements which include beautiful American actress Lily (Candice Bergen).  As Maurice starts to play mind games with Nicholas and tells him of his alleged involvement in the deaths of more than 80 villagers during the Nazi occupation, Nicholas loses his grip on reality – he doesn’t know if Maurice is a filmmaker, a psychiatrist, a Nazi collaborator or a demonic magician. They play a dice game which inevitably signals more than its elements. He is put on trial, with everyone from Maurice’s stories and films attending… The once fiendishly famous John Fowles adapted his own novel which no self-respecting student could be seen without.  He may have fallen out of fashion but his work is entrancing and important and if this doesn’t live up to its billing that can be laid at the door of Fowles himself and director Guy Green (Caine and Bergen certainly did). However, it’s a beguiling production, one of the best looking you will ever see courtesy of DoP Billy Williams (Green himself was of course an Academy Award-winning cinematographer) and in its narrative creases you might detect a kind of text much more acknowledged these days – psychogeography, the T.S. Eliot references hint at this of course although even entry level kids can rhyme off the line, No man is an island. Of course the Magus himself is a reference to the diabolical Aleister Crowley (whose home had been in Sicily) but Quinn’s character creates a backstory based in real-life horror and a mass execution, all the while taking on the physical qualities of a latterday Picasso. Fowles himself appears as a boat captain who speaks to Nicholas.  There’s a tremendous cast – including Julian Glover, Takis Emmanuel and Paul Stassino – telling a complex story of identity, responsibility, punishment and redemption that is streamlined to its essential parts and it adds up to something utterly beautiful.  We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time

On Chesil Beach (2017)

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We’re not two old queers living in secret on Beaumont Street. We’re man and wife!  It’s 1962.  New graduates historian Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and musician Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are nervously about to consummate their marriage in a seaside hotel in Dorset.  The waiters bring a roast dinner to their suite and make fun of them, practically sniffing the virginity in the ether. As the couple prepare to disrobe and attempt foreplay they recall the moments that brought them to this situation:  his chaotic home where his headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) has to deal with a brain injured wife (Ann Marie Duff) and two twin girls;  her engineering company owner father (Samuel West) and academic mother (Emily Watson) who are on the one hand consumed with matters of class and on the other distracted, the wife looking down on her husband rather! Edward and Florence recall their first meeting at Oxford, when he had nobody to tell about his first in History from UCL and she’s the stranger at the CND gathering who lets him know she got a First too, but in music;  when she walked seven miles from the train to meet him at the cricket club where he works; when she got his mother to paint a ‘forgery’ of her favourite painter, Uccello. The memories come rushing in as she lies on the bed issuing instructions and he fumbles and then she rejects him and rushes to the beach … Ian McEwan’s novella was never going to be simple to adapt.  Part of its bittersweet sting lies in the acute choice of words which cannot be replicated on screen.  It’s a romance lacking in passion and the flashback structure literally interrupts the non-coitus. The suggestion that Florence has endured abuse at the hands of her nasty father on a boating trip is skilfully and subtly worked into the story but still doesn’t fully explain her frigidity. (The tennis match she observes between Edward and her father clues us in a little more.)  Her disgust at the contents of a sex manual suggests that of a child not a grown woman and isn’t sufficiently elaborated considering the company she and her family keep (her mother is a friend of Iris Murdoch) and her deep emotionality performing music in a quartet is surely not that of someone who doesn’t understand desire. The book does something extraordinary in demonstrating in just a few pages how Edward’s life pans out and it is utterly devastating, elaborating directly how this single night has sabotaged his life. This melancholy adaptation works on some levels:  for one,  the production design whose attention to period detail gives us an innate sense of the era’s propriety and indicators of class and behaviour.  There are brave performances too:  Ann Marie Duff spends half of hers topless, brain damaged from being hit by a train door on the local platform;  Ronan and Howle do very well in suggesting the naivete that seemingly plagued newlyweds of the era. In essence the relationship fails because of Edward’s pride and Florence’s prejudice and it’s hard to dramatise although his taste in music (jazz, rock and roll) versus hers (strictly classical) sums it up – together however they lack erotic obsession or straightforward lust and this tentative attempt flounders for the same reason as their wedding night:  nobody just goes for it and Florence just won’t shut up. But unsatisfying as this is there’s a porno shot you won’t forget in a hurry. Adapted by McEwan and directed by Dominic Cooke.

Out of Africa (1985)

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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