Capricorn One (1978)

A funny thing happened on the way to Mars. Three astronauts Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston) and John Walker (O.J. Simpson) are about to launch into space on the first mission to Mars. But when a mechanical failure surfaces that would kill the three men, NASA chief Dr James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) removes them from the Capricorn One capsule otherwise their funding will be pulled by Washington. To prevent a public outcry, NASA secretly launches the capsule unmanned and requires the astronauts to film fake mission footage in a studio in the middle of the desert. They do so under fear of their families being killed on a plane bringing them back home. However, the plan is compromised when ambitious TV journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) starts reading deeply into a message Brubaker has broadcast to his wife Kay (Brenda Vaccaro) after his friend at NASA Elliot Whitter (Robert Walden) suddenly disappears when he detected the TV signals ahead of the capsule transmissions. When Caulfield’s brakes are tampered with he visits Mrs Brubaker at home to watch some innocuous home movies which confirm his suspicions that the mission is faked then finds the FBI in his apartment framing him for drug possession … With that kind of technology you can convince people of almost anything. Conspiracy theories ahoy! Director Peter Hyams’ screenplay exploits the story that won’t go away about the televised Apollo moon landing and extrapolates a juicy suspenser with an amiable cast. Not in the same league as the major paranoid thrillers of the era, it’s still bright and breezy and pretty plausible given the deniability factors and the political mood. Of cult value for the (non-)performance of Simpson with Karen Black along to help the wonderfully ironic Gould (whose dialogue is superior to the rest of the cast’s) get his man. And then there’s a crop dusting scene that of course recalls North by Northwest – in reverse! With Kojak at the helm! Godalmighty this is a lot of fun but there’s one horrifying scene in the noonday sun that will make you weep. It’ll keep something alive that shouldn’t die

Kings of the Road (1976)

Aka Im Lauf der Zeit (In the Course of Time). How do you live? While travelling his route along the rural border between East and West Germany, solitary film projector repairman Bruno Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) meets depressive paediatrician and linguist Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler) when the latter attempts suicide by driving his car into a shallow lake following the breakup of his marriage. The two form a genuine friendship as Robert accompanies Bruno on the road to fix equipment in deserted and dilapidated cinemas. They discuss the decline of German film, the hegemony of America culture and their challenging relationships with women. Robert stops at his home where he discusses his unhappiness about his mother’s death eight years earlier with his printer father (Rudolf Schundler) whom he believes disrespected her. Bruno and Robert then encounter a third man (Marquard Bohm) whose wife drove their car into a tree the night before. They stay with him until the repair service turns up. Bruno decides to break off from his work to go to his childhood home on the Rhine and he and Robert take a motorbike with sidecar and a boat to get there but Bruno cannot bring himself to spend the night in the house. They return to the border where they ultimately part ways, with Bruno from his truck watching Robert on a train as their paths cross on the railway line. Then Bruno talks to a woman (Franziska Stoemmer) whose father refuses to screen new films at his cinema because he believes modern work exploits people … For the first time I see myself as someone who’s something in a certain time and that time is my history. Perhaps the quintessential Wim Wenders film, this road movie is an inky black and white portrait of the psychological state of Germany thirty years after the war, which has never really ended in its impact – empty roads, filled with signifiers of a depressed and separated nation and a people whose heads are singing along to American songs while contemplating suicide. The film ends at a border sign. For Wenders this is both an American-style film filled with air and space and music and occasional political references (including a funfair’s cigarette lighter made from a cast of Hitler’s head); and a conversation about the boundaries between geography and cinema, a dialogue about the colonising of the German consciousness, which he allows a character to state explicitly. This reflexive iteration gives the form a new European stamp, bringing it all back home, accidentally on purpose, colonising the ultimate American film form. In the end, film yields to the reality of geopolitics with American-ness a permanent inhabitant even if the troops are mostly dispersed and the Soviets are entrenched, at least for the time being. They are out of sight except as newspaper headlines. Hearts and minds:  the perverse antithesis to tourism as the uninvited guest lingers in ways that cannot be explained, only imagined. There are things that might shock, such as when Vogler defecates in the open air (an image that once seen is never forgotten) and the general sense of masculine despair. The third of Wenders’ road trilogy. Shot by Robby Muller with music by Axel Linstaedt. The Yanks have colonised our subconscious

Downhill (2020)

It wasn’t nothing – at all. It was something. Pete Stanton (Will Ferrell) and his lawyer wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are holidaying in Ischgl, Austria with their young sons Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford) when a close call with an avalanche brings all the pre-existing tensions in their relationship to the fore after Pete runs with his mobile phone instead of ensuring his family’s safety. Publicly, Billie says it’s because Pete is mourning his father, dead eight months earlier. Their sexually forthright tour guide Lady Bobo (Miranda Otto) makes them uncomfortable but Billie starts to feel the seven year itch. Pete is in contact with his colleague Zach (Zach Woods) who’s on a whistlestop, country-a-day trip to Europe with girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao) and he invites them both to visit without informing Billie who promptly tells them about how he left the family in the lurch when he thought the avalanche was going to kill them. Then she has an assignation with a very forward ski instructor … Dad ran away. The American remake of Swedish filmmaker’s Ruben Ostlund’s fantastic 2014 black comedy Force Majeure is that rare thing – it works of itself, it’s subtle, funny, striking and just the right duration. If its sketchiness occasionally lacks the dark dynamism of the original and doesn’t capitalise on Ferrell in particular, it replaces it with some obvious sexual jokes but never loses the central conceit – the total failure of communications between two grown ups who cannot face the truth of their relationship. We’re in a stock image right now. Louis-Dreyfus’ outburst in front of Zach and Rosie is astonishing – and using the kids to back her up is a step even she eventually concedes is a bit de trop. Ferrell’s riposte – going apeshit in a nightclub off his head – doesn’t play the same but he’s a simpler, selfish beast. This is real battle of the sexes territory. The conclusion – when Billie tries to make Pete look good in front of their sons – suggests that this icy marriage might not even last to the end of the credits. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash who co-wrote the screenplay with Jesse Armstrong. Every day is all we have

Red Joan (2019)

Socialists can have glamour. Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is a widow living out a quiet retirement in the suburbs when, shockingly, the British Secret Service places her under arrest. The charge: providing classified scientific information – including details on the building of the atomic bomb – to the Soviet government for decades. As the interrogation gets underway, Joan relives the dramatic events that shaped her life and her beliefs. As a physics student at Cambridge in the Thirties, young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is befriended by beautiful Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes) who grew up together after Sonya was orphaned and their relationship is more like that of a brother and a sister than cousins. Joan falls in love with the intense intellectual Leo. He goes to Russia in 1939 and is stuck there when war breaks out. Joan takes a job as assistant to married scientist Prof. Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) at the wartime Tube Alloys project planning an atomic bomb for Britain. Leo returns from the Soviet Union and asks her to pass information but she refuses. She starts sleeping with Max on a trip to Canada where an encounter with Leo (now based in Montreal) sees her refusing once again to be a spy. Back in England she watches horrified the newsreel footage of the bombing of Hiroshima and finds herself sympathetic to the Soviet cause. But she accuses Leo of using her and then finds him dead, an apparent suicide. She tries to make contact with Sonya again … We’re not on the same side any more. Adapted from Jennie Rooney’s titular novel (based on the life of Melita Norwood) by Lindsay Shapero, this spy drama is meticulously made and attractively played by a talented cast. (If Tom Hughes isn’t the next James Bond I’ll eat one of the extravagant hats on display here). However some crucial plot points and revelations are played down in a badly mismanaged script which effectively diffuses any suspense into two near-identical scenes of the police staging a search of the Alloys department to find evidence about the supply of information to the Soviets. The flashback structure doesn’t always come off, the passage of time isn’t demarcated well and the relationship between Dench and her barrister son Nick (Ben Miles) doesn’t hit the dramatic point required: in fact his father’s identity isn’t clear in a parallel plot with Sonya’s pregnancy in the 1930s. The real culprit recruiting people to the Russian side is far too obvious, the tension is flat and it’s paced poorly. Not what you expect from a director of the calibre of Trevor Nunn but the story is intriguing nonetheless and Cookson does well with the role. Beautifully shot by Zac Nicholson. Is anything you ever told me actually true?

A Man and a Woman (1966)


Aka Un homme et une femme. If I had to go through this again what would I do? Widowed script girl Anne Gauthier (Anouk Aimee) travels from her home in Paris to Deauville to visit her little girl Francoise (Souad Amidou) at boarding school in Deauville. She accepts a lift back with racing driver Jean-Louis Duroc who is a widower visiting his little boy Antoine (Antoine Sire). A friendship blossoms into romance but she can’t tell him her husband Pierre (Pierre Barouh) is dead and speaks of Pierre in the present tense, confusing their perceptions of each other. His wife Valerie (Valerie Lagrange) committed suicide when she saw him in a near-fatal accident and believed he died. But he survived. Now when he races in icy conditions on the Riviera in the Monte Carlo rally Anne watches the coverage on the radio (voiced by presenter Gerard Sire, father of Antoine) and sends him a telegram saying she loves him and he drives back north in his Mustang to see her  …  Why? Just your everyday story of a widowed script girl meeting cute with a widowed racing driver. From this slim premise evolved a glorious melodrama. Two of the most beautiful people to ever grace the earth in a romantic movie about movie-making and romance: this is how the Nouvelle Vague was repackaged and commercialised by writer/director Claude Lelouch and it was a cultural phenomenon in its day, a Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film and Original Screenplay as well as a huge box office success on both sides of the Atlantic. Shot quickly with just seven crew on a low budget, the flashy techniques were born of necessity. Different black and white film stocks were used until an American distributor contributed more money upfront enabling Lelouch to buy colour film. The old cameras used had to be covered in blankets to protect them from wintry damp – there was a lot of rain on those supposedly exotic resort locations: the antithesis of glamour. Yet did any actors ever wear sheepskin coats so well?! Trintignant was on board first and it was he who suggested Aimee as his co-star when Lelouch asked him who would be his ideal woman. They were old friends. When she closes her eyes during their scenes of radiant intimacy she paradoxically creates an even more empathetic heroine, this woman who can’t come to terms with her husband’s death.  This is always about how the mind works to permit people to fall in love in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy. Danger underlines everything – these men who love Anne dally with it in their daily occupations. Hope is a little beyond her, the future unthinkable.  Isn’t death the ultimate subject of all art? The film’s conclusion was kept secret from Aimee:  that’s real surprise registering on her gravely luminous face. The score by Francis Lai is simply unforgettable. It was written before the production commenced and Lelouch used playback during the scenes to inspire the performers who where encouraged to improvise their dialogue. Lelouch said of working with Trintignant: I think Jean-Louis is the actor who taught me how to direct actors. We really brought each other a lot. He changed his method of acting while working with me, and I began to truly understand what directing actors was all about, working with him. I think the relationship between a director and actor is the same relationship as in a love story between two people. One cannot direct an actor if you do not love him or her. And he cannot be good if he or she does not love you in turn.  How astonishing has Trintignant been in the evolution of contemporary romantic dramas? Starting with And God Created Woman, A Man and A Woman, through Amour, he is the cornerstone of how we perceive the male psyche from the 1950s onwards. He will celebrate his 90th birthday December 2020. Co-written with Pierre Uytterhoeven. Not just a film, this is a landmark in cinema. If you ever find yourself in Deauville you can book into the suite named for the film at the Hotel Barriere Le Normandy. Some Sundays start well and end badly

The Passionate Stranger (1957)

Aka A Novel Affair. You see! You shut me out! Just like the others! Upper-middle-class housewife Judith Wynter (Margaret Leighton) is a best-selling author of steamy bodice-rippers. As her beloved husband Roger (Ralph Richardson) convalesces from polio and is now presently wheelchair-bound, the couple’s new Sicilian chauffeur Carlo (Carlo Justini) discovers Judith’s latest manuscript about a housewife unhappily married to a disabled man she despises and has a passionate affair with the family chauffeur. He jumps to conclusions that create increasingly awkward situations for them all as he attempts to imitate lines and scenes from her book which features a concert pianist with a jealous and disabled husband and a lusty Sicilian driver … There are stories all around you if you know where to look. There’s probably one right under your nose. From husband and wife producing and directing team Sydney and Muriel Box (who also co-wrote the screenplay) this fitfully amusing comedy has a fatal flaw – the film within a film which is made in colour and lasts more than half of the film overall is very heightened reality and played too straight:  the hilarious silent movie in Singin’ in the Rain should have been the model for this, or even the Gainsborough romances, instead it’s a bourgeois melo. Then in the return to monochrome ‘reality’ in the final third there is a slippage of tone when Carlo’s plan to imitate the book goes very wrong and a tragedy seems on the cards. It pulls back just in time but the narrative emphasis is at fault. Nonetheless it gives Patricia Dainton a delightful chance to change pace from sly Scottish-accented housemaid Emily to coquettish plotter Betty while Richardson is a grumpy old man and Leighton is a more extreme incarnation of her writer self. Megs Jenkins is a pub landlady in the film within a film. Made at Shepperton with exteriors at Chilworth in Surrey. I do not forget! I never leave you! Ever!

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Everything is flat and empty here. There’s nothing to do. In 1951 Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) are high-school seniors and friends inAnarene, North Texas. Duane is dating Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), who Sonny considers the prettiest girl in town. Sonny breaks up with his girlfriend Charlene Duggs. Over the Christmas holiday Sonny begins an affair with lonely Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) the depressed wife of high-school “Coach” Popper (Bill Thurman) who is secretly gay. At the Christmas dance Jacy is invited by Lester Marlow (Randy Quaid) to a naked indoor pool party at the home of Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette) a wealthy young man who seems a better romantic prospect than Duane. Bobby tells Jacy that he isn’t interested in virgins and to come back after she’s had sex. Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) bans the boys from his cafe, pool hall and cinema when they mistreat their retarded friend Billy (Sam Bottoms) taking him to a prostitute who beats him for making a mess. Sam dies while the boys are on a road trip to Mexico and leaves his property to different people, including Sonny. Jacy invites Duane for sex in a motel and eventually breaks up with him by phone, eventually losing her viriginity on a pool table to her mother’s lover Abilene (Clu Gulager). Sonny fights with Duane over Jacy  and Duane leaves town to work on the rigs out of town. Jacy sets her sight on Sonny and they elope to her parents’ fury. The war in Korea provides an escape route for Duane but there’s one last picture show on before the cinema closes down forever … Nothing’s ever the way it’s supposed to be at all. They say the third time’s the charm and so it was for neophyte director Peter Bogdanovich in this adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel about kids growing up in small town North Texas which he co-wrote with the author as well as wife Polly Platt, who was the production designer and collaborator with Bogdanovich on all his films. (Then he fell in love with his young leading lady Shepherd, but that’s another story). The film was shot in black and white following advice from Orson Welles, Bogdanovich’s house guest at the time (and the best book on Welles derives from this era of their wide-ranging conversations, This Is Orson Welles, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum).  The cinematography rendered by Robert Surtees is simply exquisite, the attention to detail extraordinary but this is no nostalgic trip down memory lane. The universally pitch-perfect performances exist in this very specific texture as a kind of miracle, duly rewarding Johnson and Leachman at the Academy Awards. But Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mom Lois has some of the best lines and delivers them with power. She and Shepherd have one amazing scene together. This is a coming of age movie but it’s also about ageing and loneliness and deception and disappointment and it’s the acknowledging of the sliding scale of desperation where the emotions hit gold. And there are juxtapositions which still manage to shock – like when Sonny looks out the window to see one horse mount another while a great romantic poem is being read in class. The realisation that Sam’s great love was Lois and vice versa. The callous way sexual manipulation is used as a casual transaction for the bored. There were controversies over scenes of sex and nudity which didn’t make it into the initial release but those parts were restored in 1992 by Bogdanovich so that the full potential of the story could be contextualised. A poignant Fordian masterpiece now firmly imprinted as an American classic.  You couldn’t believe how this country’s changed

Pain and Glory (2019)

Aka Dolor y gloria. I don’t recognise you, Salvador. Film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is ageing and in decline, suffering from illness and writer’s block. He recalls episodes in his life that led him to his present situation – lonely, sick – when the Cinematheque runs a film Sabor he made 32 years earlier with actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) and they haven’t spoken since due to the performer’s drug use. But now Salva is in pain and following the reunion with Alberto prompted by his old friend Zulema (Cecilia Roth) will take anything he can including heroin to ease his pain from multiple disabling illnesses. He recalls his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) working hard to put food on the table;  moving into a primitive cave house; his days as a chorister whose voice was so beautiful he skipped class to rehearse and got through school knowing nothing, learning geography on his travels as a successful filmmaker. Now he is forced to confront all the crises in his life and his mother is dying … Writing is like drawing, but with letters. Pedro Almodovar’s late-life reflectiveness permeates a story that must have roots in his own experience. His protege Banderas gives a magnificent performance as the director pausing in between heroin hits and choking from an unspecified ailment to consider his path. The stylish visuals that often overwhelm Almodovar’s dramas are used just enough to textually express the core of the film’s theme – love, and the lack of it. Life is just a series of moments and they are recounted here with clear intent, plundering the past in order to reclaim the present. A triumph. Love is not enough to save the person you love

The Souvenir (2019)

You are lost and you will always be lost. London, 1980. Shy Knightsbridge-dwelling film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) gets involved with a mysterious older man Anthony (Tom Burke) who claims to work for the Foreign Office. While she starts working on a project and he disappears from time to time, she doesn’t suspect what is revealed at a dinner party by a guest – that he’s a junkie. When he steals all her belongings to score she appears to be reeled in to a deeper relationship with him. She doesn’t socialise as much with her old friends but they visit each other’s parents. Then following a trip to Venice when he realises she is aware of his habit she starts bringing him to housing estates to buy drugs and finally sees what is going on in his life until finally she sees him out of control … Don’t be worthy, be arrogant. It’s much more sexy.  Writer/director Joanna Hogg’s quasi-autobiographical tale turns on the passivity rather typical of her characters, upper middle class types stuck in situations they can’t quite recognise and then have trouble leaving.  Here it’s a story of her own youth when she fell in with a much older man who concealed his serious heroin problem from her and given the prevalence of that drug among the arty set in the era (read Will Self on the subject) her naivete is somewhat hard to credit. Realism is introduced by a very welcome soundtrack of songs by bands like The Pretenders and The Fall with those awkward dinner conversations punctuated by political talk – the IRA, the Middle Easterners holed up at the Libyan Embassy:  we even get to re-live the bomb that ended that particular siege.  There are urgent exchanges about movies. Then there are the barely comprehensible phone calls. The letters we can’t read.  It is amusing to see Swinton Sr. turning up in twinset and pearls – definitely not how she spent the Eighties, after all, with her forays in Derek Jarmanland. But it takes 83 minutes for Julie to do something active to end the relationship and it’s only when she sees Anthony’s drug paraphernalia at the flat and then he appears, strung out.  That’s a long time after he robbed all her possessions for a fix. She may be rather innocent in that sense but she has big ambitions and continues with her film: her obvious class status arises only when her Head of Production comments rhetorically, I don’t suppose you really have to think about budget in Knightsbridge, do you. Richard Ayoade gets a great scene when he obnoxiously ponders how a heroin addict and a Rotarian got together and Julie is utterly baffled:  she doesn’t know what track marks are.  The photo of Anthony in full beard in Afghanistan circa 1973 didn’t arouse any suspicions. For such a sophisticate you have to wonder, don’t you. The formation of an artist is tough to put together in the frustrating first hour but somehow in the second, it works, when you finally get intimations of an emotional undertow about to burst in a film that is chiefly of memory rather than strict narrative or depth psychology. I do what I do so you can have the life you’re having

Palm Beach (2019)

Palm Beach

It’s what they’ve dreamed of for themselves is not what they’ve turned out to be. Frank (Bryan Brown) is flying in his lifelong friends for his big birthday at his beautiful home overlooking the bay at Palm Beach, north of Sydney. Now retired from his tee-shirt business which made him very wealthy, he and his wife Charlotte (Greta Scacchi), feckless son Dan (Charlie Vickers) and medical student daughter Ella (Matilda Brown), are hosting the remaining members of The Pacific Sideburns, the band he managed in the Seventies who made the cover of Rolling Stone back in 1977 when they had their one big hit song. Now Leo (Sam Neill) is a journalist based in New Zealand, married to teacher Bridget (Jacqueline MacKenzie) and stepfather to her teenage daughter Caitlyn (Frances Berry). Billy (Richard E. Grant) is an ad man married to actress Eva (Heather Mitchell) who thinks at 60 she’s too young to be cast as Nicole Kidman’s mother. Holly (Claire van der Boom) is the daughter of their late lead singer Roxy and she arrives with her lover, an older man called Doug (Aaron Jeffery) in tow. Tensions erupt over money, career, cars and homes and then there’s a secret which has been niggling at someone’s conscience … The Pacific Sideburns go down as the voice of adult incontinence. Directed by that lovely actress Rachel Ward (who is of course married to leading man Brown), who co-wrote the screenplay with Joanna Murray-Smith, in her second theatrical outing behind the camera, this is a kind of Big Chill for a different generation and at a different stage of their lives. Fans of Australian cinema will be thrilled with the cast (which also includes blow-ins Grant and Scacchi), with Neill and Brown co-starring for the fifth time. This time out they’re in a production about rites of passage among friends (and frenemies) which isn’t afraid to be tough on its characters, none of whom is without baggage or post-60 year old issues. There are all kinds of relatable tensions over ageing, health and money with the added frisson of questionable DNA. The issue of whether Dan might be fathered by Leo becomes the main plank of the narrative particularly since Frank and Dan are permanently at daggers drawn. But Billy – who has made an ad for adult diapers in France using the band’s big hit – is envious of Frank’s money and taunts him about the chimneys on a neighbouring property blocking the view so often that Frank does something about it, leading to the film’s comic high point:  retirement is not for chickens, as his anti-depressants prove. Bonding over building a pizza oven is no picnic. It’s pretty hard to bond with the Gestapo, growls Sam Neill. The women have their own problems but try to get them out of their system with some therapeutic white wine-assisted yoga by the pool and tough conversations with their terminally self-obsessed men. The father-son relationship between Frank and Dan results in a terrible accident and it finally brings them all to their senses in a well managed conclusion to the comedy drama. This family affair also involves Brown and Ward’s real-life daughter as Frank’s daughter; while the film within a film is Ward’s 2001 short, The Big House. The songs are by the band The Teskey Brothers in a soundtrack peppered with great tunes. An extremely winning production with fantastic performances and smart writing, this is an amazing showcase for New South Wales in a location familiar to viewers of TV’s Home and Away. Very easy watching indeed. I’m on my way ASAP, especially if I can stay in that magnificent beach house. I call it uninvited clarity