How To Murder Your Wife (1965)

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Follow the adventures of America’s favorite hen-pecked boob! Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) is a successful cartoonist with his syndicated Bash Brannigan strip and happily single, cosseted by his disdainful valet Charles (Terry-Thomas) who maintains the status quo which includes his weight. That’s until Stanley gets drunk at a friend’s bachelor party and impulsively proposes to the beautiful woman who pops out of the cake (Virna Lisi). Once sober and back home the next morning with a total stranger, he regrets the decision, but she won’t agree to a divorce – she’s Italian! And doesn’t speak a word of English until she stays up all night watching TV. During the day she cooks him delicious fattening meals and he can barely jog around the gym any longer. Stanley jokingly vents his frustrations in his comic strip by having the main character kill his wife with Charles  returning to the fold in his usual role of photographer in chief. But when his actual wife goes missing and Stanley is arrested for her murder, he has a change of heart – then there’s a trial and he has to find a way to demonstrate that he doesn’t always draw cartoons from pre-photographed scenarios … Written and produced by George Axelrod and directed by Lemmon’s regular collaborator, Richard Quine, this is as good-looking as we’ve come to expect of the team and is a lot of fun. Part of the charm is in the casting which has some fantastic supporting characters, especially Eddie Mayehoff as Harold Lampson, Stanley’s lawyer, who himself harbours fantasies about murdering his own wife, Edna (Claire Trevor) an Italophile who suspects Stanley of foul deeds. Lisi is a delight as Mrs Ford (we never learn her real name) and this was the first of her Hollywood films in which she was clearly being groomed to emulate Marilyn Monroe, whose death pose (itself widely acknowledged to have been carefully staged) she unfortunately emulates in one of Stanley’s fantasies while she is asleep. And what about that white gown! Fabulous. Nonetheless, despite the misogynistic aspects, this is great fun and … the women have the last (gap-toothed!) word. As it should be.

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Cleopatra (1963)

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Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus. The Seventh Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) manipulates and falls in love with both Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) in her ill-fated attempt to save the Egyptian empire from a takeover by the Roman Empire. This love triangle is one of the most famous ever to be captured on film, with betrayal by trusted Octavian (Roddy McDowall), the murder of Caesar, the escape of Cleopatra who has borne Caesar’s son and the final, terrible defeat at Actium in Greece … What gets lost in the palaver about this truly epic historical saga which ruined Twentieth Century Fox for a while is just how good it is:  how it measures the scale of the action to the depth of performance. Elizabeth Taylor is imperious, vulnerable, scathing, dictatorial, brilliant and moving: What can I do? Where can I go in a world suddenly without you? You believe her. And she is matched by the acerbic Harrison, the slyly snide McDowall (we’re a long way from Lassie!), loyal Rufio (Martin Landau) and what about the very sad end of Burton whose line to Octavian makes you gulp with emotion:  Is there nobody who would grant Antony an honourable way to die? Oh! Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by C.M. Franzero and the histories by Plutarch, Appian and Suetonius the much-laboured upon screenplay is by Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, and director Joseph Mankiewicz who certainly suffered for everybody’s art as the man to take over the botched first attempt aborted in London and relaunched at Cinecitta in Rome. As legendary as this is for its effect on Hollywood, what shouldn’t be forgotten is what a brilliant spectacle it is. It’s quite breathtaking.

Belle de Jour (1967)

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A quoi penses-tu? Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve), belle ménagère parisienne ennuyée et frigide, ne parvient pas à réconcilier ses fantasmes masochistes avec sa vie de tous les jours aux côtés de son mari Pierre (Jean Sorel), chirurgien couronné de succès. Lorsque son copain Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) mentionne un bordel secret de haut niveau dirigé par Madame Anais (Geneviève Page), Séverine commence à travailler dans la journée sous le nom de Belle de Jour: elle ne travaille qu’entre 1400 et 1700 heures. Elle perd son instinct frigide avec son mari et commence à avoir des relations sexuelles avec lui. Mais quand un de ses clients, un gangster nommé Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), devient possessif et tire sur son mari dans un accès de pique, elle doit essayer de retrouver sa vie normale mais Henri est déterminé à lui faire part de ses soupçons … La satire magistrale de Luis Bunuel est une adaptation du roman de Joseph Kessel de 1928 et l’interprétation de Jean-Claude Carrière et Bunuel n’est rien moins qu’ingénieux – à parts égales la comédie noire et la fantaisie surréaliste. La performance de Deneuve est tendue et évasive, terne et autosatisfaite, la bourgeoise ultime – juste regarder sa réaction à l’assistante du tenanciere de la maison close qui compatit à devoir satisfaire le grand Chinois avec une boîte mystérieuse: Deneuve savoure le sexe avec lui et le sourire de son chat tout. Il y a tant de choses à recommander sur ce travail audacieux d’un auteur dans son apogée: la cinématographie de Sacha Vierny vient d’être créée; les costumes d’Yves Saint-Laurent en font l’ultime film de mode; le terme «belle de jour» est maintenant un jargon commun de son incarnation précédente comme un jeu de mots sur le terme français «belle de nuit» ou prostituée. C’est tout simplement magnifique. Voyez-le avant de mourir.


					

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

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Have you ever noticed how everything seems better at Christmas? It’s Christmas Eve. Kermit the Frog is Bob Cratchit the put-upon overworked office clerk of stingy boss Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine). Miss Piggy is his wife (their family are quite the example of inter-species marriage with Robin playing Tiny Tim) and other Muppets –  Gonzo, Fozzie Bear and Rizzo (who are Dickens and his friend) and Sam the Eagle – weave in and out of the story, as Scrooge reluctantly agrees to give his book keepers a day off. Scrooge falls asleep and receives a visit from his late business partners the Marley Brothers (Statler and Waldor) who warn him to repent or he will live to regret his ways. Then he is visited by the Ghosts of three Christmases – past, present and future. They show him the error of his selfishness but he seems past any hope of redemption and happiness until a vision illustrates that not everything valuable is a financial transaction … Dickens’ melodramatic classic gets a sharp treatment that oozes wit, wisdom and charm in an adaptation by Jerry Juhl that avoids the most sentimental and condescending aspects of this morality tale. Stunningly made and told, with Caine’s underplaying of the old miser merely heightening the immense charm of the enterprise, brilliantly offset by the songs of Paul Williams and music by Miles Goodman. Funny, inventive, smart and humane. Probably the best Christmas film ever. Directed by Brian Henson. 

Cat People (1982)

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You think it’s love but it’s blood.  Irena Gallier (Nastassia Kinski) has a dark family secret, one that resurfaces dramatically when she reconnects with her estranged brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). She moves into his home in New Orleans but when he disappears for a few days during which a vicious murder occurs, Irena finds herself enamored with zoologist Oliver Yates (John Heard) whom she meets in the city zoo. As her brother makes his own advances toward her she begins to experience feelings which she knows make her different to other humans. Oliver’s colleague Alice (Annette O’Toole) is suspicious of this beautiful naive woman whose eyes betray her.  It’s not long before the dangerous curse of the Gallier clan rears its feline head and Irena finds out her parents were brother and sister, descended from leopards who mated with humans and who transform back to their original species after coitus… I was prepared to dislike this as much as I did the first time I saw it, which was a long time ago. Paul Schrader’s adaptation or remake (with Alan Ormsby) of DeWitt Bodeen’s supremely gripping horror fantasy for producer Val Lewton forty years earlier seemed to have been trashed to make an exploitative wild sex fantasy with the undertow of nastiness which I always found to be Schrader’s troubling trademark. This time around however I found it compelling, daring and even – yes – moving. This fantastical mix of zoology, myth and desire is audaciously put together with some very telling references – a scene in a river straight out of Italian rice movies; a setup to remind us of Richard Avedon’s portrait of Kinski with a python the previous year; and the overriding idea of sex’s transformative power. The occasional forays into fantasy land are utterly beguiling. With that cast and their contrasting performing styles it’s hard to pick out a favourite because it’s so well written and their roles so well determined that they do completely different things. If it were left to my cat Gilbert, he’d point out McDowell’s because of the utterly arresting incarnation of half-man half-cat on the bathroom floor (a scene that disgusted me when I first saw it…) which made him sit right up, presumably recognising kin. Kinski has a terrific time in her difficult role which is literally a sex kitten who becomes a cat woman; while Heard is the man obsessed who has to do things most men wouldn’t mind in order to set her free. Meet the parents would have been quite the feat in this case. It’s a remarkable achievement and I’m thrilled to have seen it again to revise my smart ass opinion from years ago. A nightmarish portrayal of a sexual awakening that has touches of greatness, adorned by a magnificent score by Giorgio Moroder and that song by David Bowie. Wow!

Paddington 2 (2017)

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Exit bear, pursued by an actor. Paddington is now settled with the Brown family and wants to earn money for a beautiful pop-up book of London which he finds in Mr Gruber’s antiques shop as a gift for Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday. He takes a series of odd jobs which all end up more or less in chaos. When the family attend a funfair opened by thespian neighbour Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) he lets slip to the self-absorbed one about the book and nobody notices Buchanan’s interest. Paddington then disturbs a burglary at Mr Gruber’s and gets put in prison after chasing the thief and being charged himself:  the pop-up book was stolen, leaving far more ostensibly valuable items behind. The family work to get Paddington out of prison, with Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) doing artist’s impressions of him from witness descriptions. She can’t convince Henry (Hugh Bonneville) of Buchanan’s guilt – he’s too preoccupied by his own midlife crisis. Buchanan has the book and dons a series of theatrical disguises to follow the clues around great city landmarks to an immense treasure. Meanwhile, in prison, Paddington has convinced the brutal cook Nuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) to make marmalade sandwiches and change the menu and get the prison warder to read everyone bedtime stories:  everyone is his friend … This is a fiendishly inventive and funny narrative whose winning spirit is in every frame. Grant has a whale of a time as a splendidly awful actor who now does dog food commercials (his agent Joanna Lumley explains he can only act on his own) while the Brown family’s attempts to prove Paddington’s innocence rely on each of their particular talents:  Judy (Madeleine Harris) writes her own newspaper while Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) aka J-Dog is intimately acquainted with steam trains. Mary’s in training for a cross-Channel swim which comes in amazingly handy. Fizzing with irreverent whimsy, dazzling production design, joyful exuberance, sorrow, good manners, respect and – gulp – love, this is, in the words of choreographer Craig Revel Horwood (responsible for Grant’s incredible jailhouse hoofing in the credits), Fab-U-Lous.  Adapted by Simon Farnaby and director Paul King from those unmissable books of my childhood by Michael Bond. This little bear is the best superhero ever. Just wonderful.

Fletch (1985)

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Are you putting a whole fist up there Doc? Irwin Fletcher (Chevy Chase) is an undercover reporter doing a drugs story while disguised as a homeless junkie on the beach when he’s approached by businessman Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson) to kill him for $50,000 because he’s got bone cancer. Fletch identifies himself as Ted Nugent. He then investigates this fascinating proposition, donning a myriad of disguises and identities (we particularly like the 49c teeth), getting mired in Stanwyk’s marital disarray, property deals, police corruption involving Chief of Police Karlin (Joe Don Baker) – and murder. And he gets to know Alan’s LA wife Gail (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) in a mutually satisfying fashion. Win! Gregory Mcdonald’s novel gets a fast-moving adaptation from Andrew Bergman, a director in his own right (there was some additional uncredited work by fellow writer-director Phil Alden Robinson.)  Chase gives the performance (or performances) that you’d expect – droll and deadpan, always amiable (yet plucky!) and the running joke about his bizarre expense claims is well done. Fine, funny lighthearted fare handled with his customary aplomb by director Michael Ritchie, energised by a typically zippy plinkety-plonk score from Harold Faltermeyer, the go-to composer for zeitgeisty mid-Eighties entertainment. Chase even dons an Afro to play basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There’s a wonderful supporting cast including Geena Davis in the newsroom, David Harper (of The Waltons!) as ‘teenager’ and Kenneth Mars:  we are thrice blessed!

The Island (2005)

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I have discovered the Holy Grail of science – I give life! Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) lives in a sterile colony, one of thousands of survivors of The Contamination who dream of going to The Island. One of his friends is Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) and she doesn’t believe him when he dreams things he knows he hasn’t experienced and then discovers they are clones waiting to have their organs harvested for humans outside somewhere:  he sees a moth in a ventilation shaft when visiting his engineer friend McCord (Steve Buscemi). They are really living in an elaborate organ lab run by Merrick (Sean Bean) who hires mercentary Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) when Lincoln and Jordan escape to the real world … McGregor and Johansson are superb as the clones who realise their humanity and make you stick with a drama that takes a little while to get going in that sterile facility that we have seen a hundred times. But when it takes off it never stops and it’s pretty heart-pounding. This takes potshots at eugenics, organ harvesting, the modern day obsession with breeding that leads to murderous mass surrogacy programmes, and ultimately the kind of control by tech billionaires that we all rightly fear:  the penultimate scene using a gas chamber tells you all you need to know about where we are all heading in this Nazified world of ours which seems even more relevant 12 years after this was released. The ultimate irony about this clone drama is that it is itself a clone – of a novel called Spares and 1979 movie The Clonus Horror to the extent that a massive seven-figure settlement was made by DreamWorks to the plaintiffs for their legal claim. Nonetheless it’s a gripping portrait of futureshock and all that it implies for contemporary life. Be very afraid. 2019 is just a breath away! Screenplay by Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci from a story by Caspian Tredwell-Owen. Directed by Michael Bay.

The Skull (1965)

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All I can say to you is keep away from the skull of the Marquis de Sade! This adaptation of Robert (Psycho) Bloch’s short story by producer Milton Subotsky whose Amicus Productioons made this is a credible chiller. Directed with his usual visual aplomb by the cinematographer Freddie Francis who made so many horrors and shockers as a director, it tells the story of esoterica specialist Dr Maitland (Peter Cushing) who acquires said skull from his usual source Marco (Patrick Wymark), paying no heed to the warnings about its peculiar effect on the owners including nineteenth century phrenologist (Maurice Good), the graverobber who boiled down the trophy and became the first in a series of men who turn into maniacal killers under its influence. Maitland wishes to return the skull when he learns it was stolen from fellow collector Sir Matthew (Christopher Lee), who doesn’t however want it back after the effect it had on him.  Maitland pays no heed … This boasts an array of cheaply achieved but remarkably atmospheric effects with the use of the point of view shot (from the skull!) a simple solution for both ramping up the tension and suggesting something diabolical at work. There’s a terrific kidnapping sequence which may or may not be a nightmare – including a red room! And a judge! Well played by a wonderful cast that includes Jill Bennett as Maitland’s wife, Nigel Green as the credulous Inspector and the leads are of course the stuff of legend. Beautiful to look at with an interesting score by avant garde composer Elizabeth Lutyens, who did several for Amicus.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies.  We are dealing with archetypes rather than real characters despite its biographical origins. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.