Harper (1966)

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Why so fast, Harper? You trying to impress me? Struggling private eye Lew Harper (Paul Newman) takes a simple missing-person case that quickly spirals into something much more complex. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), recently paralysed in a horse-riding accident, wants Harper to find her missing oil baron husband Ralph, but her tempestuous teenage stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) thinks Mrs. Sampson knows more than she’s letting on… The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise. Brilliantly adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 mystery The Moving Target featuring private eye Archer, renamed here because Newman believed the letter ‘H’ to be lucky following Hud and The Hustler. With that team you know it’s filled with zingers, like, Kinky is British for weird. Macdonald’s roots in the post-war noir world are called up in the casting of Bacall, who reminds us that it was The Big Sleep, among other films based on books by the great Raymond Chandler, that brought this style into being. Of course Macdonald’s own interpretation is consciously more mythical than the prototypical Chandler’s, with allusions to Greek tragedy in its familial iterations but it continues in that vein of a ferociously stylish, ironic, delightfully cool appraisal of California’s upper class denizens and their intractable problems. Newman is perfectly cast as a kind of wandering conscience with problems of his own, while Janet Leigh as his ex-wife, Robert Wagner as a playboy, Julie Harris as a junkie musician, Shelley Winters as a faded movie star, Robert Webber as her criminal husband and Albert Hill as a lovelorn lawyer, all add wonderful details to this portrait of a social clique. A flavoursome, perfectly pitched entertainment with lovely widescreen cinematography by Conrad Hall and oh so wittily and precisely staged by director Jack Smight, underscored by the smooth Sixties jazz orchestrations of Johnny Mandel with an original song by Dory and Andre Previn. I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test

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St Agatha (2018)

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Your name is … Agatha! In October 1957 pregnant con woman Mary (Sabrina Kern) leaves her boyfriend Jimmy (Justin Miles) when a scam goes wrong and takes refuge at an isolated Georgia convent but soon finds out that things are not quite as they seem and has to escape before Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennessy) and her cohorts harm her and her baby … Get your hands off me you bitches! This hopped-up interpretation of what Catholic nuns do to single mothers starts with a claustrophobe’s nightmare – being locked in a coffin: so as someone who baled on my last MRI scan, I was duly entrapped in a story which is a very twisted take on Christian origins. Shot beautifully by Joseph White with gauzy filters lending the convent’s surrounding forest an air of supernature and the entire production an atmosphere which sustains the suspense with the backstory dropped in to illustrate Mary’s family issues. These bewitching scary nuns sure know how to welcome strangers – Mother Superior declares that she too was an unwed mother (the Senator dumped her!) and the scratching sounds in the attics and the bizarre bird-feed vomit in the coffin treatment just confirm Mary’s suspicions that all is not quite right. With its dense flock wallpaper and red lights in the basement this place resembles a brothel. Soon Mary aka Agatha recognises a fellow con in Mother Superior. When Jimmy shows up to try to get Mary back she finds the nuns have guns and they won’t stop short of murder to save the babies to sell them to donors! The books must be balanced and the story takes off. There is quite literally a twist ending when you can take succour from the uses to which you can put a freshly cut umbilical cord:  a logical conclusion to the mediaeval torture that is childbirth. All hail virgin martyrs! Written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Michaels, Sara Sometti Michaels and Clint Sears.  Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. You’ve seen what I’m capable of. What kind of mother would I be?

Performance (1970)

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I’ll tell you this: the only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Right? Am I right? You with me?After killing a rival in self-defence, South London gangster Chas (James Fox) must flee both from the law and from his boss, Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon). He eventually moves into a Notting Hill guest house owned by Turner (Mick Jagger), a former rock star who lives with his two female companions Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton). Chas presents himself as juggler Johnny Dean. Chas and Turner initially clash, but Turner becomes fascinated with Chas’ life as a criminal. Through drugs and a series of psychological battles with Turner, Chas starts a relationship with Lucy and emerges a different man… Nothing is true, everything is permitted. “You do not have to be a drug addict, pederast, sadomasochist or nitwit to enjoy Performance,” wrote the New York Times reviewer, “but being one or more of those things would help.” The notorious film that made a Warner Bros. exec vomit, this directing collaboration between screenwriter Donald Cammell and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg remains a landmark of Sixties cinema and is Mick Jagger’s acting debut. It started out as a crime drama with an American crim on the lam and when it was shot in 1968 became a very different animal, an experimental and eye-opening analysis of sexual identity, exploring ideas of performance and madness culled from Antonin Artaud. Set in a frankly decadent Swinging London with graphic scenes of sex and drug use, its trippiness, use of real-life gangsters like John Bindon and riffing on the relationships between Pallenberg and Cammell (her ex), Pallenberg and Jagger (their intimate scenes were allegedly the real thing) and Pallenberg and Richards (offscreen) resulted in a screenplay drawing on Pallenberg’s own experiences which were used in Cammell’s screenplay which she co-wrote. There was a change in the plans for the soundtrack which was no longer going to be by The Rolling Stones following the tricky sex on the set:  Jack Nitzsche stepped in. Apparently Pallenberg wasn’t even aware there was a gangster plot until she saw the final cut. Breton had been part of a three way relationship with Cammell and never made another film. John Lennon’s white Rolls Royce makes a cameo appearance. It’s an astonishing and influential piece of work that was slaughtered by the critics – who are now lining up to call it a masterpiece. C’est la guerre. I need a bohemian atmosphere! I’m an artist, Mr. Turner. Like yourself  MM#2350

 

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

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This doll had almost been loved to death. You know, love inflicts the most terrible injuries on my small patients. When American single mother Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) reports her small daughter as missing after she dropped her at nursery school when she arrives in London, Scotland Yard Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) investigates and begins to wonder if the child isn’t a figment of the woman’s imagination. Her relationship with her journalist brother Steven (Keir Dullea) also raises questions … Ever heard him read poetry? It’s like a Welsh parson gargling with molasses. Adapted for producer/director Otto Preminger from Evelyn Piper’s (domestic suspense pioneer Merriam Modell who also wrote The Nanny) New York-set novel by husband and wife team John and Penelope Mortimer after unsuccessful attempts by Ira Levin  and Dalton Trumbo, this fits into the director’s psychological noir films where the escalating of suspense is less interesting than the sheer strangeness of people’s lives. From the intricate editing and soundtrack alternating between Paul Glass’ score and rock songs by The Zombies (including one that comments on the action) to the title sequence by Saul Bass, this is a beautiful interrogation of the space between what is real and unreal. Sumptuous looking, it’s a film that simply glides on the surfaces of a society that has not yet erupted into sexual freedom and that knowledge feeds into the solution of the mystery which is altered from the source novel. There is an astounding supporting cast including Clive Revill, Noël Coward (as Ann’s landlord who’s into S&M memorabilia), Lucie Mannheim, Martita Hunt, Finlay Currie and Megs Jenkins.  Olivier has top billing but it’s all about the brother and sister and both the young actors do very well. During production Lynley and Dullea discovered not only that they had in common an Irish heritage but they even shared living relatives in Ireland which makes sense when you look at them, echoing the implication of incest in the story. Lynley claimed that Dullea bore the brunt of Preminger’s legendary bullying. Noël Coward (No autographs please but you may touch my garment) didn’t think much of Dullea as an actor either. He apparently walked up to him on the set one day and whispered, “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.” Dullea had the last laugh – Stanley Kubrick offered him the lead in 2001: A Space Odyssey after seeing this.  He didn’t even have to audition. I have some more African heads in my apartment. Small, pickled ones. Do drop in anytime you care to meet some unsuccessful politicians

The Lost City of Z (2016)

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You’re a long way from Government now. At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is encouraged by his superiors to redeem his family name following his father’s dissolute actions, ruining the Fawcett reputation.  Although married to the supportive Nina (Sienna Miller) with a young son and one on the way, he journeys across the Atlantic to South America to carry out a survey of the Amazon in order to help adjudicate borders and to establish national territories.  On board the ship he encounters Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson)  a man who knows the rainforest. He joins the party which includes aide-de-camp Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and they go into the Amazon, where they experience the surreal pleasures of an opera in the middle of the jungle and discover evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation that may have once inhabited the region, triggered by stories told them by their guide. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment back in London when he reports his findings, which contradicts their bias against indigenous populations as savages, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, Costin and Manley, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. After another set of discoveries he is challenged by biologist James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) who falsely claims they left him for dead so Fawcett leaves the Royal Geographical Society. He is injured on the Somme when he fights in WW1 but in 1925 when his son Jack (Tom Holland) grows up he wants to help his father pursue his obsession and find the City of Z that Nina found out about in a conquistador text at Trinity College Dublin... To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? It comes off a little like Fawcett of Amazonia at first but then this James Gray film establishes its own insistent rhythm with a hallucinatory bent that comes first from obsession and then with repetition. Indeed one is forced into a world recognisably that of David Lean but also Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (quite literally, at the opera) and perhaps Conrad. However the difference is in the doggedness and the feminine element – here Nina plays a crucial part in Percy’s evolving obsession when the document she finds fuels the fire in his belly and ironically leads to increased separation. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, this has some of the usual flaws besetting Gray’s films – a kind of muted incompleteness or psychological lack and a physical darkness – but the facts of the story, the deadly nature of the pursuit and the fascinating history compensate and it has a decent pace. Hunnam grows into the role as the story progresses, caring about slavery and native peoples and expressing proper awe at the sight of sculptures and ancient artefacts; and Miller is fine as the proto-feminist who reads from the letter she wrote when she thought she wouldn’t survive childbirth:  as she tells her husband, “You haven’t even seen it for two minutes,” when he protests the jungle is no place for a woman and takes off yet again leaving her pregnant. It’s an admirable corrective to the standard male-oriented expedition narratives, with an amazing coda. In the end, this is actually spellbinding. There is great irony deployed: Fawcett meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Ireland and years later in South America he sees the story about his assassination and is told it will trigger a great war:  his escape across the Atlantic was precisely to avoid conflict and now he is going to be catapulted back into something quite dreadful.  He has a wonderful wife and happy domestic life yet he is truly at home in an utterly alien environment where the natives happily shoot poison arrows. He goes back, again and again, despite ridicule and disputes. He has a higher aim and it becomes something verging on mystical. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and score by Christopher Spelman are quite wondrous at times. Executive produced by Brad Pitt. There is no going back. We are already here

Kissing Candice (2017)

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I don’t know if I’m dreaming or I’m awake. Lonely and bored small-town teen Candice (Ann Skelly) dreams of a more exciting life and is rescued from an epileptic episode by a stranger Jacob (Ryan Lincoln). Becoming obsessed with this young man who has materialised from her vivid dreams and into her real life, she finds herself being drawn in and entangled with a dangerous local gang he’s in which is led by Dermot (Conall Keating) whom her policeman father Donal (John Lynch) suspects when local boy Caleb (Jason Cullen) disappears… It was a lot safer here during the Troubles. Written by first-time director Northern Irish Aoife McArdle (who has a background in music videos and commercials) this Irish film has plenty of imagination and a hallucinatory style but is an untethered narrative with no real logic. The dreamy ambience is strained by the social realist setting on a grim border county housing estate where Candice’s fantasies provide an escape valve from the bleakness while her friendship with Martha (Caitriona Ennis) allows for some barbed humour. The writing unravels, careening between the real world gang plot and the abstract coming of age/mental health line, but it has a kind of sleepwalking atmosphere. Now the mad ones have the run of the place

Under the Volcano (1984)

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He on whose heart the dust of Mexico has lain, will find no peace in any other land. A day in the life of a man in 1938. Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) is an alcoholic former British consul living in Quauhnahuac, a small Mexican town. As the local Day of the Dead celebration gets underway, Geoffrey drowns himself in the bottle, having cut himself off from his family, friends and job. When he goes missing, his ex-wife, actress Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), who has returned from the US in the hopes of resurrecting their relationship, convinces his half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) to conduct a last-ditch search for him, hoping that Hugh might be able to rescue her self-destructing husband… How, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken? Adapted by Guy Gallo (his only screenplay to date) from Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 masterpiece, this late John Huston film (and he rejected over 20 versions of the screenplay over the decades) is a powerhouse film: brilliantly interpreted by everyone concerned. Reunited with his director following Annie, Finney offers one of his great performances, committed and charismatic, as the dissolute man who nonetheless has a core of humanity. Huston said of it, I think it’s the finest performance I have ever witnessed, let alone directed.  Huston had lived in Puerto Vallarta for a period and shot The Night of the Iguana there as well of course as having made one of his other films in Mexico – maybe his best ever, full stop – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Clearly the country brought something special to his aesthetic – and vice versa. There is nothing more real than magic. Here the various elements churn and dissect a life, symbolised in the wonderful titles sequence. It’s marvellous to see Katy Jurado as Senora Gregoria, a key supporting character in this drama that constantly threatens us with being on the brink of something – death? Truth? War? It was originally written by Lowry in 1936 but underwent many rewrites. It’s so special it’s the subject of two documentaries including the Oscar-nominated Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, in which Lowry’s words are read by Richard Burton, who Huston had hoped to cast as the lead right after they shot Iguana. Quite, quite the film then, with a legacy all its own. Hell is my natural habitat

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991)

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Hello, dreamed of you. Love woke me. Artist Michèle (Juliette Binoche) who is losing her sight, encounters fire-eater Alex (Denis Lavant), a homeless guy with addiction problems.  They embark on an unlikely relationship at the Pont-Neuf in Paris, closed over the summer for repairs. They have to deal with a landlord of sorts (Klaus-Michael Grüber).  Leos Carax’s enervating romantic drama is beautifully shot by Jean-Yves Escoffier with a soundtrack featuring David Bowie, among others. Set during France’s 1989 Bicentennial celebrations this is a weirdly brutal, bewildering, compelling, rather magnificent oddity. Quite thrilling, like a nutty modern-day silent movie. Spot Edith Scob in the last scene, an homage to L’Atalante. Do you like it?/Yes./Yes yes or yes no?/Yes yes!

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

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This is no longer a search it’s a rescue.  Meg Murry (Storm Reid) and her little brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), have been without their scientist father, Alex (Chris Pine) for five years, ever since he discovered a new planet and used the concept known as a tesseract to travel there. He’s left his scientist wife (Gugu Mbatha Raw) behind and a flashback clarifies why she thinks his theories went too far – and why he might have disappeared. Joined by Meg’s classmate Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) and guided by the three mysterious astral travelers known as Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) the children brave a dangerous journey to a planet that possesses all of the evil in the universe … Trust nothing. Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell have adapted Madeleine L’Engle’s fifty-four year old Young Adult classic and extracted all its mystery to make a bafflingly bland politically correct dumbfest which won’t fool the kids.  They certainly won’t relate to this brother and sister act. Even Zach Galifianakis’s usual gadfly act (as the Happy Medium!) is too old for this fairly charmless outing. Daft, mindless, life-affirming piffle which only requires a shedload of mind-altering substances to make you feel like you too are lost in the universe. Pass the opium. Please.  Directed by Ava DuVernay.  Do you realize how many events and choices that had to occur since the birth of the universe, leading to the making of you just exactly the way you are?

Lured (1947)

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Would it be against Anglo-American tradition to tell a girl when the next audition is?Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball) is a London-based dancer who is distraught to learn that her friend Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) from the nightclub where she’s working has disappeared. She’s approached by Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), a Scotland Yard investigator who believes her friend has been murdered by a serial killer who uses personal ads to find his victims. The lure is poetry along the lines of Charles Baudelaire. Temple hatches a plan to catch the killer using Sandra as bait, and Sandra agrees to help. But complications arise when the mystery appears to be solved and Sandra becomes engaged to a nightclub owner and man about town Robert Fleming (George Sanders) with whom she’s already become acquainted and who shares his home with his business and legal partner Julian Wilde (Sir Cedric Harwicke) …  I’m not interested in references as much as character/I can see that for myself. Director Douglas Sirk commands this gamy mystery with verve, making a total entertainment from Leo Rosten’s screenplay, peopled with performers right in their characterful element delivering edgy lines with great wit. From the opening titles – a torch shining on the names – the mystery is driven with pace and style with running jokes (including a crossword filled in by H.R. Barrett, played by George Zucco) and enormous style.  Boris Karloff has a great supporting role as a formerly successful fashion designer living in a fantasy world while Sanders is suave as you like and Ball is … ballsy! Annette Warren, who dubs blonde club singer Ethelreda Leopold here, would also provides Ball’s singing voice in Fancy Pants and Sorrowful Jones. Gorgeously shot by Billy Daniels, this is a remake of a 1939 French film (Pieges) directed by Robert Siodmak. She’s won her spurs, she deserves to be happy