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.

Paper Tiger (1975)

 

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There’s always a sense of satisfaction when you finally see a film of which you’ve been somewhat – if tangentially – aware for the longest time. And for reasons I could never have explained I associated this with Candleshoe, the mid-70s Disney film also starring David Niven, and weirdly there’s ample reason for this bizarre linkage here. He plays a Walter Mitty-type who is employed by the Japanese ambassador (Toshiro Mifune) in a fictional Asian country to tutor his young son (Kazuhito Ando, a wonderful kid) prior to their moving to England. He fills up the kid with stories of his WW2 derring-do which are quickly unravelled by sceptical Mifune and German journalist Hardy Kruger. But when he is kidnapped with the kid by political terrorists the kid’s faith in him – and the kid’s own ingenuity – help them make their escape and the ‘Major’ is obliged to step up to save them both from certain murder.  There are plenty of reasons why Jack Davies’ script shouldn’t work but the sheer antic chaos of Asia, Niven’s excited performance versus Mifune’s unwilling stoicism in the face of local political indifference, the welcome appearance of Ronald Fraser and good staging of decidedly un-Disney action sequences (interesting in terms of director Ken Annakin’s associations with the studio) make this a worthwhile trip down false memory lane (mine as well as Niven’s character’s). And there’s a notable easy listening score by the venerable Roy Budd.

The Dark Crystal (1982)

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A long time ago, on a planet far, far away … I had to be persuaded to watch quest narratives after mistakenly wandering into the Ralph Bakshi animation of Lord of the Rings instead of Superman at a very young and impressionable age. No such worries here. It’s a straightforward fantasy in all but one respect – it’s performed by animatronic puppets, and very attractive and convincing they are too, created by Jim Henson at his creature workshop. Jen (Stephen Garlick) is the last surviving Gelfling who has been raised by The Mystics. They need to restore balance to the world by replacing a shard in the eponymous crystal which has long stopped shining, otherwise the evil Skeksis will retain control of the universe. A prophecy foretells their defeat … On his journey he encounters Kira (Lisa Maxwell) and a romance of sorts develops as they tackle various obstacles – particularly the very funny vultures they are trying to vanquish. There is a highly amusing Delphic Oracle, witchlike Aughra, a hilarious pet (Fizzgig), impressive Longstriders, frightening Garthim (crab monsters) and tremendous production design so inventive and multi-faceted you want to dive through the screen. Gorgeous, magical, somewhat sinister and pretty much perfect. And it’s only 94 minutes long! Written by David Odell and directed by Henson with Frank Oz.

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!

Only You (1994)

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Faith (Marisa Tomei) believes from a childhood episode with a ouija board that it’s writ in her destiny to marry ‘Damon Bradley.’ So she calls off her wedding to a podiatrist and runs away to Venice with BFF and sister in law Kate (Bonnie Hunt) to locate an elusive man who is a colleague of her husband-to-be flying there that day. They have to go to Rome to track him down. When she meets cute a man who helps with her shoe (Robert Downey) he claims to be him. But after a romantic evening he says his name is actually Peter Wright and he really has fallen in love with her. Then he gives in and apparently assists in her quest to find this fabled individual who really is in Italy. Mild, not as good as you’d wish but never as bad as you’d dread, this modern spin on Cinderella from Diane Drake is a decent romcom with delightful leads, a fantastic supporting turn from Hunt, stunning scenery and a fetishist’s appreciation of fine footwear. You want more? Sheesh! Directed by Norman Jewison.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

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The blackest of comedies, this, a satire about looks and cosmetic surgery and Hollywood that 25 years later looks a lot like contemporary society’s obsession with plastic even if it doesn’t actually predict the rise of the D-listers famous for selling sex tapes to fund their face changing which everyone pretends not to notice (seriously:  when did plastic surgery get so bad? It used to work! Nobody noticed Gary Cooper’s facelift! Or Alain Delon’s!). Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are friends who have wildly different career trajectories (prescient…) when Meryl makes off with Bruce Willis, a talented plastic surgeon who keeps the actress wealthy while her roles diminish. Goldie meanwhile spends years sitting in front of the TV getting fat obsessing over what might have been. Seven years later … Goldie is shrunk and madeover and arrives to take what’s rightfully hers – Bruce, now an alcoholic mess – while Meryl is having it away with anyone twenty years younger. Meryl avails of a potion for eternal life sold from a Gothic castle in the Hollywood Hills by Isabella Rossellini, a sex goddess witch with a Louise Brooks ‘do who looks 25 but is actually 71. Thus Bruce and Goldie’s plot to kill her off fails and she then kills Goldie – who also gets to live forever while Bruce wonders what on earth he can do to escape them when they go to a party at Isabella’s which happens to be Night of the Living Hollywood Dead… Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script is pretty smart but goes for easy targets in horror instead of the social mores it’s ostensibly attacking.  There are nice bits – Goldie’s insight with her therapist;  Sydney Pollack as the doctor finding Meryl has no heartbeat after her head’s twisted back to front and she’s sitting up talking to him in his Beverly Hills surgery; the party at Isabella’s with an orchestra led by Ian Ogilvie and we recognise some very famous dead faces dancing – but in the main it’s a totally OTT effects fantasia, a singular failing of director Robert Zemeckis whose work I preferred in the days of Used Cars and Back to the Future.  One thing is sure in the 37-years-later last segment – these ladies don’t age quite the way they want to! For romance novel fans, yes, that’s Fabio playing Isabella’s bodyguard. Golly!

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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And that’s how you play Get the Guest. Edward Albee’s shocking 1962 play was bought by Jack Warner and the intention was to hire Bette Davis and James Mason – and how fun would that have been, having Davis quote herself with that unforgettable first line, What a dump!? But it’s Elizabeth Taylor who gets to declare the immortal line, squinting, bug-eyed with drink, into the harsh light after a night out on campus with unambitious lecturer hubby historian Richard Burton. When young marrieds George Segal and Sandy Dennis enter their den of iniquitous untruths and illusion their own marriage is laid bare as well in a devastating series of tragicomic slurs and fantasies, a miasma of lies, put downs and storytelling. Albee’s play was of course a profane satire about the sham foundations of marriage and social mores of the time;  this film helped dismantle the Production Code and was the first film Jack Valenti really had to look at in terms of what constituted entertainment for consenting adults. Albee said of the leads that Taylor was quite good while Burton was incredible. That’s in the eye of the beholder – in fact Taylor is extraordinary and it is remarkable that she gave her greatest exhibition of not merely star quality but intensely affecting emotional performances in works written by homosexual playwrights – one thinks of her in Suddenly Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, complex works that, like this, have a strain of flagrant misogyny running through them. Ernest Lehman did the adaptation which mostly cleaves to the play with just a couple of exceptions and it’s ‘opened out’ with the dance scene in the diner – and what a humdinger that is! What is perhaps most astonishing is that this was Mike Nichols’ directing debut, supposedly at Taylor’s insistence. Just look at the way he frames shots with Haskell Wexler as his DoP: he said he learned everything he knew about directing from watching A Place in the Sun. Taylor and Burton are at the apex of their careers here, particularly with regard to their joint projects. But despite the plethora of nominations it was she and Dennis who walked away with the Academy Awards – A Man For All Seasons took all the other big plaudits that year. There is a reason that Taylor is known for being the last great Hollywood star – and it’s right here. Phenomenal.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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How can you tell what’s a glitch and what’s me? In the near future Major (Scarlett Johansson) is a human enhanced with a cybernetic physique who’s been engineered to take on violent criminals. Rescued from a sinking boat that drowned her parents, she’s experiencing strange thoughts she cannot decipher. Meanwhile a terror group is attacking what appears to be the science project (2571) that created her in the first place – and she suspects her true origins are not what she’s been told. Partnered with a proper human, Pilou Asbaek from TV’s Borgen (aka Boring chez moi), she’s working for legendary Takeshi Kitano and appealing to the better instincts of the scientist (Juliette Binoche) who created her when things get rough. Then she meets the guy behind all the attacks and those memories or glitches remind her of something else than the past she’s been programmed with. Now she has to choose what side she belongs on. This is a perfectly judged adaptation (and remake) of an iconic manga/anime by Shirow Masamune, adapted by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger (haven’t heard from him in a while – welcome back). It’s reminiscent of a lot of other films – principally (and happily) Blade Runner – yet it’s done with a lightness of touch that escapes a lot of other future-genre cyborg outings. ScarJo is tremendous in the lead as the woman whose humanity overpowers the machine and seeks her origins. It plays perfectly into her star text, from her casting (we all know she’s Natasha in that comic book franchise) to that telling shot of her lying on her side in her panties in a Japanese skyscraper (remember the star-making shot in Lost in Translation?); while her pulchritude is aggressively put out there not just in her movement – barreling about, arms akimbo – but in that genital-free nudie action outfit as she powers through the air. It’s great to see Michael Pitt (billed as Michael Carmen Pitt) as her male Other or predecessor and the weirdly romantic way in which they look at each other and themselves as different evolutionary iterations of their selves in a world overwhelmed by technology companies, scientists interfering in conception (three parents, anyone?!) and where privacy is a thing of the past (sound familiar?). Whose memories does she experience? Rupert Sanders knows just how to stage this – there’s no excess, it’s just enough of everything and the science even works.  There are a lot of small things to appreciate in addition to the sweeping concept – the wonderfully 90s costuming by Kurt and Bart (I think I own one of those coats), the sweet way the animals are treated that’s so typical of anime and the mournful score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe. It’s also a great exercise in existential dread and marvellously free of the built-in snark that has come to distinguish most American live action comix of late. If it reminds me of anything else it’s Total Recall with Der Arnold’s line, If I’m not me den who de hell am I?! And what’s better than that? Great stuff.

Valley of Love (2015)

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Les stars du film anciennement mariées Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) et Gerard (Gérard Depardieu) se retrouvent dans la vallée de la mort pour honorer le souhait de leur fils Michael qui s’est suicidé là-bas après avoir passé une semaine dans le parc national. Il a coupé le contact avec eux (mais surtout avec elle) à l’âge de 16 ans. Il a écrit des lettres à ses deux, expliquant qu’il veut qu’ils passent une semaine là-bas et il leur apparaîtra à la conclusion. Ils ratissent les charbons de leur situation actuelle, leur relation échouée avec lui et révèlent peu à peu des informations sur eux-mêmes (son mariage défaillant, sa santé défaillante) alors que autour de lui, l’Amérique se révèle dans des moments absurdes et même surréalistes: l’apparition du tennis est un ressortir. Leur culpabilité et leur horreur à ce que leur enfant a fait se manifeste différemment contre un paysage splendidement tourné qui aurait pu être utilisé pour un meilleur avantage. Ils sont engloutis par des marées d’émotion dans différentes scènes qui sont brillamment exécutées, alors qu’est-ce qui est nouveau? La musique de Charles Ives est habituée à un effet formidable dans ce voyage émotionnel étonnant de Christophe Offenstein dans des nuances de chaleur intolérable. Écrit et réalisé par Guillaume Nicloux. Huppert. Depardieu. Parfait.

 

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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It seems a little odd to suggest the obvious – that this remake isn’t as good as the original – until you recall that the 1991 animation was the first one to be nominated for the Academy Award as Best Picture. While a little flawed, it didn’t outstay its welcome. The opening narration here seems to go on for about a half a day. As voiceovers go, it’s redundant if you stick to the Show Don’t Tell rule of cinematic story:  we can SEE what’s happening as Belle (Emma Watson) trots around the village waving her book-reading superiority at her fellow natives. Gaston (Luke Evans) is a bumptious character, hilariously played and sets the tone proper with his antics chasing ‘the most beautiful girl in the village’ (hmm….) His self-love is reflected in the slavering attentions of sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) and the opening sequence culminates in an outstandingly well done groupsing at the local inn.This is one of the film’s best scenes. Meanwhile, Belle’s papa Maurice (Kevin Kline) needs to travel for his work and promises to bring her back a rose – like he does every year. And when he finds the enchanted castle where Beast (Dan Stevens, who makes a very wan prince indeed) resides reclusively since having a spell cast upon him years earlier … Belle arrives to save him and swaps places and the rest you know. The animated houseware is now characterised through CGI and voiced among others by Ian McKellen (Cogsworth – he previously worked with director Bill Condon in the wonderful Gods and Monsters), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Stanley Tucci (Cadenza) and most disappointingly, Emma Thompson (Mrs Potts) whose harsh faux Cockney cannot approximate to the warmth and sheer incomparable charisma of Angela Lansbury. The whole film is shot in an incredibly dark palette which renders the experience quite difficult – made worse in 3D – and the staging is very awkward in places: the first ballroom scene, featuring the famous dance between Belle and Beast is really underwhelming (remember the brilliance of the original?) suggesting a lack of attention not just to famous musicals of the past but basic dance steps, decent choreography and a sense of magic which is nonexistent at what should have been the story’s high point. The shots are completely wrong for such a sequence. There are great life lessons in the story – misunderstanding people on the basis of their appearances, the swift way in which groups become mobs and the way that Belle is told of her mother’s death is very well done but the narrative momentum is lost to bad handling. The outstanding performance is by Luke Evans, literally pitch perfect in an overly long underimpressive production. Maybe if they hadn’t been so hellbent on making something so politically correct/gay/racially diverse they’d have had a monster film.There’s always La Belle et la Bete.