Vita and Virginia (2019)

Vita and Virginia

I’m exhausted with this sapphic pageant. Lauded author Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) meets fellow author best-selling Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) in London in the 1920s when their paths cross unexpectedly since they usually move in very different social circles. Vita is a married bisexual adventuress who envies fragile Virginia’s literary abilities which have earned her a reputation as an eccentric. Vita’s public escapades with women have earned the wrath of her mother (Isabella Rossellini) who regularly threatens her with losing custody of her young sons, especially after her latest foray to France which she did while dressed as a man. Despite both of the writers being married, they embark on an affair that disturbs Virginia but later inspires one of her novels, Orlando, about a hero who turns into a heroine who turns out to be a fiction …. A fearless adventuress who trades on passion, pain and fantasy. Those famously fashionable writerly Bright Young Things Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West get a New Romantic makeover with a few disquisitions about the state of things gender thrown in for good measure and an electronic score (from Isobel Waller-Bridge to enhance the feel of a retro prism being applied. Thus are modern values impressed upon a story that commences with Vita and her gay diplomat husband Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) discussing the idea of the marriage contract on the radio. Eileen Atkins adapts her play with director Chanya Button and despite the talents involved and the ghastly Bloomsbury characters it’s a fairly stillborn affair. The big ironic trope operating across the narrative is Vita’s capacity for experience while Virginia is the only writer of the two capable of actual feeling and expressivity:  she is the more literary gifted and the one who can translate their experience (or her view of it) into something like a great book. The other irony is perhaps that the script is never elevated to the quality of Woolf’s writing. There are some horrifically camp men, terrible scenes with Virginia losing her sanity for brief periods of time (cunningly evoked by visual effects) and some nice letter-reading when Vita goes abroad and tells Virginia about the travels she has been unable to persuade her to take with her. Basically Vita is an incorrigible, conscience-free flirt and Virginia is an incredible intellect, barely of this earth, all shadow to Vita’s colours.  I have fallen in love with your vision of me, Vita tells the woman who has immortalised her as Orlando. We can see she’s not like that at all. It’s not just the men who can’t deal with women’s grey matter. With notable costume design by Lorna Marie Mugan, perhaps the most truly shocking thing about this is that Sky Cinema screened it as a 12s despite the graphic sexual content. Mary Whitehouse, where are you when you’re needed?! It’s all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words

The Big Circus (1959)

The Big Circus

You are a human bullet … blasted out of a mighty cannon! Bankrupt circus owner Hank Whirling (Victor Mature) manages to get his show back on the road, but has reckoned without the reaction of his disgruntled former partners, who are determined to see him fail just when he needs to impress a banker who is determined to inspect the business. He has to take on Randy Sherman (Red Buttons) to watch the spending. He also has to keep a close eye on his younger sister Jeannie (Kathryn Grant) and a daredevil high-flyer Zach Colino (Gilbert Roland), who rashly promises to perform the stunt of the century but amid a series of supposed accidents that turn out to be the work of a saboteur they have to make it to New York before Hank’s former partner Jules Borman (Nesdon Booth) … You face the snarling fangs of the King of Beasts! Written by Charles Bennett and Irving Wallace from a story by producer/auteur Irwin Allen, this is a splendidly splashy spectacular, bursting with vigour and vitality, just the ticket for a family entertainment in these (non-) testing times. Spills, thrills and elephants with dramatic acrobatics, an escaped lion, attempted sabotage and financial finagling. Mature was almost on the skids but he does very well here. Rhonda Fleming is excellent in the supporting role of PR Helen Harrison and has some bright scenes. With Vincent Price as your ringmaster and Peter Lorre as Skeeter the clown where better to turn than this well-constructed mystery?!  Directed by Joseph M. Newman. Roll up! Roll up!

Ice Station Zebra (1968)

Ice Station Zebra

We operate on a first name basis. My name is Captain. Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson) captain of the American nuclear attack submarine USS Tigerfish (SSN-509) is ordered by Admiral Garvey to rescue the personnel of Drift Ice Station Zebra, a British scientific weather station moving with the ice pack. However, the mission is actually a cover for a classified assignment and he is obliged to take on board a British intelligence agent known only as ‘Mr. Jones’ (Patrick MacGoohan) and a U.S. Marine platoon; while a helicopter brings them Captain Anders (Jim Brown). The sub is also joined by Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) a Russian defector and spy who is a trusted colleague of Jones. As they try to break through the ice near the Orkney Islands when approaching the last position of ICZ the sub floods in an act of sabotage and it’s retrieved – just. But Lt. Mills (Murray Rose) is killed.  Ferraday suspects Vaslov and Jones suspects Anders. Ferraday orders the Tigerfish to surface and they find the weather station in ruins, the personnel nearly dead and Jones and Vaslov are soon discovered to be looking for something – a capsule, valuable to both sides in the Cold War, because it contains film of missile sites … I’ve saved a lot of lives by teaching men to jump when I speak. Notoriously the favourite film of one Howard Hughes, if ever there were a time to watch a long movie about the Cold War (actualised in freezing temperatures)… it’s now. I hadn’t seen this since I graduated from Jennings and Billy Bunter books to the oeuvre of Alistair MacLean aged  11 or thereabouts, so it’s both a time-warp exercise (when times were good!) and a deviation from a less visible issue tearing at the world’s synapses. (It makes one vaguely nostalgic for good old-fashioned political intrigue). There’s a deal of nudge-wink dialogue of the sticking torpedoes up spouts variety but the also the odd tart line such as Hudson grumbling at a nervous sailor’s prayer, Do you mind son, we’re trying to think.  Hudson is fine as the mariner under pressure but MacGoohan is particularly good in the most interesting role. Alf Kjellin impresses in his necessarily short sequences as Ostrovsky, the head of the Russian paras and it’s nice to see legendary footballer Jim Brown as Anders as well as actor/producer Tony Bill playing the quite showy role of Lt. Walker. Borgnine is much as you’d expect as a villain of sorts, a part intended for Laurence Harvey. There are some good setpieces centering on jeopardy – when the sub floods;  when some men fall into a crevasse once on icy territory; the tussle between Jones and Vaslov at the staion; and the final clincher which is literally a cold war shootout.  There are some clunky visual effects particularly in the latter stages but there are some fantastic underwater scenes too and the atmosphere is well sustained. It gains a frisson of recognition from knowing it’s based on two real incidents that apparently took place a) in 1959 near Spitsbergen, in Norway, involving a CIA/USAF strategic reconnaissance satellite called … Corona!;  and b) a few years later when two American officers parachuted to an old Soviet weather station.  Michel Legrand’s score is particularly effective in a film constricted by those claustrophobic physical locations and then there are those limitations imposed by all that political and generic roleplay. Adapted by Douglas Heyes, Harry Julian Fink and W.R. Burnett. Directed by John Sturges, who was responsible for the earlier MacLean adaptation, The Satan Bug.  I chose my side out of conviction not by accident of birth.

The Uncanny (1977)

The Uncanny

Horror author Wilbur Gray (Peter Cushing) tells publisher Frank Richards (Ray Milland) of his fear that cats are preparing to replace humans and regales him with three true stories that prove his point. London 1912. The cat gets everything. wealthy dowager Miss Malkin (Joan Greenwood) is planning to write her only nephew Michael (Simon Williams) out of her will, and bequeath her large fortune entirely to her large multitude of cats. When her maid Janet (Susan Penhaligon), hears the old woman making these changes with her lawyer Wallace (Roland Culver) she alerts Michael and they plan to destroy the last copy of the will locked in Miss Malkin’s bedside safe. Janet waits for the perfect moment to crack the combination but Miss Malkin catches her in the act and attempts to call the police, forcing Janet to kill her. But the cats witness everything and stop her from destroying their inheritance. Quebec Province 1975Why can’t you be more like Angela? She never puts a foot wrong. Young orphan Lucy (Katrina Holden), moves into her aunt Joan’s (Alexandra Stewart) home along with her pet cat Wellington. Her cousin Angela (Chloe Franklin), however, gets extremely jealous when she discovers that Wellington will be living with them, since she’s not allowed any pets herself. When her whining does little to change her parents’ (Alexandra Stewart and Donald Pilon) minds, Angela delights in getting both the cat and Lucy in trouble, prompting her fed-up father to bring Wellington to be put down. Wellington somehow finds his way home, and helps Lucy plot her revenge against the troublemaking Angela by shrinking her cousin down to the size of a toy. Hollywood 1936.  It was the cat that did it. B-movie star Valentine De’ath (Donald Pleasance) does away with his leading lady wife in an artfully arranged accident, persuading his producer Pomeroy (John Vernon) into handing over the role role to the actor’s vapid girlfriend Edina (Samantha Eggar) who calls him ‘VD’. As the two celebrate back at De’ath’s mansion, they are constantly interrupted by his wife’s cat, who is taking care of her newborn litter. De’ath hates the little creatures and drowns them all, but the mother cat escapes and follows him to the studio to take her revenge, eating through ropes to drop a light on his head and then shutting an iron maiden with his girlfriend inside… This British/Canadian Amicus anthology features a great cast but offers fairly slim pickings even if the theme of feline revenge is immensely appealing. It just doesn’t serve it with sufficient variety. There are some nice moments – including a photo of Pleasence in his Bond role, white pussycat on his lap;  but the framing story isn’t sufficiently surprising even with its twist ending. The cats are delightful, if somewhat intimidating. And hungry. Written by Michel Parry and directed by porn stalwart Denis Héroux.

Dolittle (2020)

Dolittle

The doctor is back. Eccentric Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) lives in self-imposed solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. Devastated by the death of his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak), his only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when little Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), accompanied by young orphan Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), asks him to assist young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) who has become gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark with Stubbins, now his new apprentice, on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure. He is pursued by Dr Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), a jealous medical school rival who is conspiring with evil courtier Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent) to kill the monarch. However he must don a disguise to fool his former father-in-law, the wild brigand King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) who still resents Dolittle for taking away his beloved late daughter. And to obtain the cure for the Queen of England, Dolittle must do battle with the mythical dragons that lie in his way but Müdfly gets there before himI’m too beautiful to die. A remake of the legendary 1967 musical flop (and Eddie Murphy’s 1998 dissociative iteration) based on Hugh Lofting’s Victorian friend of the animal world, from a screen story by Thomas Shepherd, this is written by director Stephen Gaghan & Dan Gregor & Dan Mand & Chris McKay. From squid and stick inset spies, to a parrot narrator (Emma Thompson), a gorilla answering the door and Downey essaying every accent in the British Isles while attempting to alight occasionally in Wales, this is a creature feature of a different variety. Unfairly maligned, this is mild entertainment determinedly pitched at a kiddie audience. It skips through a vaguely sketched plot that even has an Innermost Cave taken from the Hero’s Journey story model, giving Sheen mugging opportunities in another Blair-ite role; while Frances de la Tour has her impacted CGI dragon colon relieved in a leek-induced surgery clearly meant for bottom-obsessed children. This is wonky but it has a good heart and some inappropriately contemporary linguistic efforts to befriend an ethnic audience using a big-name voice cast for the CGI animals (including Ralph Fiennes as a troubled tiger called Barry, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Selena Gomez, Kumail Nanjiani), plus some of that toilet humour to ruffle the feathers. It’s far from a masterpiece but you know that already and Downey is, well, Downey. For some of us that’s plenty, even when his charm is severely tested talking down to the youngsters. Team work is dream work

Enemy Mine (1985)

Enemy Mine

Do you think we really are alone out here? During a late 21st century a war between humans and the reptilian Drac race,Bilateral Terran Alliance (BTA) spaceship pilot Willis E. Davidge (Dennis Quaid) ends up stranded after their dogfight ends up with them both crash landing on alien planet Fyrine IV with enemy soldier Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett Jr.). While both Willis and his Drac counterpart can breathe on the planet, the volcanic environment and its creatures are relatively hostile, forcing the two to trust each other and work together to survive. As time goes by, Willis and Jeriba become unlikely friends, though their unique relationship faces considerable challenges over three years and they save each other’s lives. Davidge dreams of spaceships and then sees human miners scavenging on the planet:  they have to avoided because they use Dracs as slaves. Then Jerry, who like all Dracs is asexual, reveals his pregnancy and dies in childbirth after bearing a baby son Zammis (Bumper Robinson) whom Davidge undertakes to raise and return to the Drac world … Don’t you ever get tired of reading that book?  Edward Khmara’s adaptation of Barry B. Longyear’s novella strains between creature feature and sci fi epic but succeeds on its own terms with a message of intrinsic humanity.  It harks back perhaps to the effects-laden production that was director Wolfgang Petersen’s previous outing, The Neverending Story, especially with Gossett’s lizard-like makeup, but the Why Can’t We All Just Get Along theme is well worked out in the inter-species friendship and Quaid is his typically charismatic self. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find it touching. It looks great and the beautiful score is by Maurice Jarre. That’s why when we walk or when we hunt we always walk in the direction of the rising sun

Deep Impact (1998)

Deep Impact.jpg

This is not a videogame, son. One year after teenage astronomer Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) spots a comet the size of Mount Everest heading for Earth, journalist Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) mistakes the scoop of a lifetime for a story about the mistress of the US President Beck (Morgan Freeman). Once she’s allowed into the loop of the Extinction Level Event with the rest of the press pack she finds that with one year to go before it could hit the planet there’s a plan to build a system of caves while a joint US/Russian spacecraft nicknamed Messiah being led by veteran astronaut Captain Sturgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) is going to try to intercept its path with nuclear weapons … People know you. They trust you. A disaster movie par excellence, this mixes up men on a mission and race against time tropes with ideas about God, friendship, family and the all-pervasive sense of doom that settles upon people learning of an entire planet’s imminent destruction and how they deal with it. Leoni doesn’t quite have the expressivity to offer a mature performance although her particular role is buttressed by the subplot of her unhappiness at her father Jason’s (Maximilian Schell) new marriage while her beloved mother Robin (Vanessa Redgrave) suffers. However the entire drama is well structured and tautly managed. Written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin (as a vague remake of When Worlds Collide, 1951) and expertly handled by Mimi Leder, better known for TV’s ER, some of whose alumni feature here. Let’s go home

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

John Wick 3

John Wick, Excommunicado. In effect, 6:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. After gunning down Santino d’Antonio, a member of the shadowy international assassins’ guild the High Table, hit man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself stripped of the organisation’s protective services. There’s a $14 million bounty on his head and he is on the run in New York City, the target of the world’s most ruthless killers and he tries to locate the Elder (Said Taghmaoui) the only person above the High Table empowered to take the price tag off his head … He shot my dog/I get it. Starting quite literally from the last shot of the second film in the trilogy about the world’s calmest hitman, this is breathless action fare that starts in New York Public Library of all places setting things in motion with a crucifix necklace and a medallion. What better storage facility for your jewels? Then things get seriously international and move to Morocco and the desert as this violent quest for a kind of redemption gets underway while John reconciles with his origins: he is actually Jardani Jovonovich of Belarus, which we learn courtesy of a drop in at Anjelica Huston’s ballet school. Reeves is as Zen-like as ever even when offing everyone in sight and his dog is the dog’s, as they say, although he mostly keeps out of trouble by residing at the Hotel Continental. A sinuous exercise in ultraviolence, this is actually very beautiful to watch. With Ian McShane back as John’s dubious caretaker Winston, Halle Berry sharing his love canines and Laurence Fishburne giving this a Matrix-y feeling, this has a lot of good moments bookended by two extraordinary sequences of skillfully choreographed action with – what else – a cliffhanging ending. Written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams, based on a story by Kolstad. Directed by Chad Stahelski. It wasn’t just a puppy

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

The Dead Dont Die.jpeg

The world is perfect. Appreciate the details. In the sleepy small town of Centerville, Pennsylvania something is not quite right. News reports are scary with the earth tilting on its axis and scientists are concerned, but no one foresees the dead rising from their graves and feasting on the living, and the citizens must battle to survive. Chief  Robertson (Bill Murray) and his officer sidekick (Adam Driver) get to work dealing with the undead while Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) reluctantly accompanies them, terrified and Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) observes hostilities The only way to kill the dead is to kill the head. Well I didn’t see that coming. Jim Jarmusch making a zombie comedy? Things are getting exceedingly strange in the world of the cool Eighties auteur when he’s making a film that serves at least partly as an homage to George Romero with a side salad of Assault on Precinct 13 and a reference to Samuel Fuller. The title comes from a short story turned TVM written by Robert Psycho Bloch and it’s somewhat honoured here with a subplot about juvenile delinquents and the revenge they take. It’s something of a shaggy dog story with slow-running gags and the Murray/Driver double act offers deadpan self-conscious commentary on filmmaking indicating the lack of genre commitment, which may or may not irritate and take you out of the action the wrong way. In fact it makes it a bit of a zombie zombie film, if you think about it. There is a huge head count and most of the fun is in watching the different tools used to decapitate – guns, garden shears and, with her fierce Scottish accent and a samurai sword, funeral home proprietor Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton). Even sweet Selena Gomez is separated from her torso. Did I mention the UFO?! Thought not. A nicely made oddity shot with typical aplomb by Frederick Elmes. This is definitely going to end badly

Catch-22 (1970)

Catch 22.jpg

Help the bombardier. Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) an American pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II attempts to cope with the madness of armed conflict. Convinced that everyone is trying to murder him, he decides to try to become certified insane but that is merely proof that he’s fully competent. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian has to resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation... All great countries are destroyed, why not yours? Not being a fan of the rather repetitive and circular source novel aids one’s enjoyment of this adaptation by director Mike Nichols who was coasting on the stunning success of his first two movies (also adaptations), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, which was also adapted by Buck HenryThe critical reception for this resisted adulation instead focusing on a flawed construction which really goes back to Joseph Heller’s book and does not conform to the rules of a combat picture as well as contracting the action and removing and substituting characters. But aside from the overall absurdity which is literally cut in an act of stunning violence which shears through one character in shocking fashion, there is dialogue of the machine gun variety which you’d expect from a services satire and there are good jokes about communication, following orders, profiteering and stealing parachutes to sell silk on the black market.  There are interesting visual and auditory ways of conveying Yossarian’s inner life – in the first scene we can’t hear him over the noise of the bombings, because his superiors are literally deaf to what he’s saying, a useful metaphor. The impressionistic approach of Henry’s adaptation is one used consistently, preparing the audience for the culmination of the action in a surreal episode worthy of Fellini. I like it a lot, certainly more than the recent TV adaptation and the cast are just incredible:  Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen and Orson Welles among a large ensemble. Even novelist Philip Roth plays a doctor. It’s shot by David Watkin, edited by Sam O’Steen and the production is designed by Richard Sylbert. Where the hell’s my parachute?