Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)

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Aka Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.  The devil assumes many forms. Copenhagen police say otherwise, but amateur scientist Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond) who studies ice crystals in a university lab thinks her young Inuit neighbour Isaiah (Clipper Miano) was chased by an adult before he fell to his death from the roof of their apartment block. The daughter of an Inuit who spent her childhood in Greenland, Smilla learns that the boy’s father died while working for Dr. Andreas Tork (Richard Harris) in Greenland who heads a mining company and she is directed by former accountant Elsa (Vanessa Redgrave) to get an Expedition Report from the firm’s archive.  She asks her father Moritz (Robert Loggia) for help interpreting the information but has to deal with his young girlfriend who resents her interference in their life. After sharing her murder theory with a mysterious neighbour called The Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne) who never seems to go to work, she pursues her suspicions and her life is endangered as the impact of a meteorite hitting Greenland in 1859 is revealed in a reanimated prehistoric worm which proves toxic to human organs Why does such a nice woman have such a rough mouth? Peter Høeg’s novel was very fashionable in the Nineties and encompasses so many issues – identity, language, snow and ice, ecology and exploitation, friendship and bereavement, medical issues, astronomy, being far away from home, being motherless … that you can quite see how difficult it would be to fillet from this a straightforward thriller which is what the cinema machine demands. Ann (Ray Donovan) Biderman does a good job streamlining the narrative threads which form an orbit around Ormond who has a tremendous role here but director Bille August doesn’t really heighten the tensions  sufficiently quickly that they materialise as proper threats. What works as a literary novel seems rather far-fetched on screen when stripped of all those beautiful words. Nonetheless it’s a fascinating story and it’s a shame Ormond’s feature career never had the momentum it once seemed to possess. Costuming by Marit Allen. The way you have a sense of God I have a sense of snow

The Facts of Life (1960)

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Am I really going to San Francisco to spend the weekend… with the husband of my best friend? When neighbours Kitty Weaver (Lucille Ball) and Larry Gilbert (Bob Hope) meet it’s irritation at first sight but there’s an undeniable attraction which they eventually act upon during the annual neighbourhood vacation in Acapulco when they’re forced to spend it together. Problem is, they’re both married, she to habitual gambler Jack (Don DeFore), he to perfect homemaker Mary (Ruth Hussey) and they both have two children. They vow to take off together after circumstances and regular encounters at social gatherings mean they keep running into each other but a messed up drunken assignation at a motel makes them rethink. Then things change after Larry finds out that Kitty has written a note to Jack to tell him she’s leaving him when the pair take go to San Francisco for the weekend during the winter vacation … This is my first affair, so please be kind. A breezy but cold-eyed comedy of suburban middle class adultery is not necessarily what you might expect with that cast, but that’s what legendary screenwriting partners Norman Panama and Melvin Frank created and it’s very well played by the leads who of course are both peerless comedy performers and this is the third of the four films they made together. It’s as though Johns Cheever and Updike decided to up sticks and go Hollywood and take all the baggage of midcentury masculinity with them. Panama and Frank are of course great comic screenwriters.  Their first screen credit was on Hope’s 1942 movie My Favorite Blonde and later work with him includes Road to Utopia, Monsieur Beaucaire and an uncredited rewrite of The Princess and the Pirate so they know his strengths (they are his, as it were) and they turn a messy uncomfortable familial disruption into an easily enjoyed romcom whose moral messiness is tidied into great dialogue and barely concealed social anxiety.  This is the essence of comedy and it’s their forte. There are some shockingly barbed exchanges and there are excruciating sequences when the couple discuss the legal and financial ramifications of two divorces and realise when they’re finally alone together that they’re probably mismatched; when they almost get found out by neighbours at San Francisco Airport the tension is horrific.  There’s a notable score by Johnny Mercer and Leigh Harline with the title song performed by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé and while Frank gets the sole directing credit, it appears Panama co-directed. There’s an unexpectedly conventional titles sequence designed by Saul Bass, putting us right in the mood for the tenor of that era’s comedy style and it all looks beautiful in monochrome thanks to cinematographer Charles Lang. Night-time Los Angeles looks glossy even in black and white.  It’s an interesting one to compare with another film about an extra-marital suburban affair filmed the same year, Strangers When We Meet. Played a beat slower with a fraction less of the leads’ comedy mugging and shot in colour, this could match its melodramatic tone. Are you sure you’re with the right woman?

Vice (2018)

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How does a man go on to become who he is? Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is responding to 9/11 with other White House officials. We flash back and forth to his drunken antics as a young man, getting kicked out of Yale, his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) setting him on the straight and narrow when he’s a drunken linesman and then getting into Washington out of Wisconsin U as an intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and seeing everything close up and personal during the Nixon era. Rumsfeld’s abrasiveness gets them distanced from the office, where Cheney overhears the President discussing the secret bombing of Cambodia with Kissinger (Kirk Bovill). His father in law appears to murder his mother in law (never investigated) and Cheney and Lynne form a tighter family unit. He becomes Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) while Rumsfeld is Secretary of Defence and he is introduced by Antonin Scalia (Matthew Jacob) to the Unitary Executive Theory. He has his first coronary while running to represent Wyoming and Lynne campaigns for his seat in the House of Representatives. He then becomes Secretary of Defence under George H. Bush during the Gulf War. When younger daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out, he resigns to prevent media scrutiny. He is CEO at Halliburton when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) asks him to be his running mate in 2000 but he demurs and says he’ll help select that individual. But when he satisfies himself that Bush Jr. is incompetent he gets him to promise that mundane issues like energy and foreign policy be left to him and he accepts the role and sets up offices in every possible executive area … He would be a dedicated and humble servant to power. How is it that some of the most penetrating films about politics have been made by comedy auteur Adam McKay? Is this the only way we can take our reality nowadays? Perhaps. This freewheeling exercise in postmodernism is incredibly formally inventive, audacious even, and the film actually stops and the credits roll for the first time at 47 minutes. And then we kickstart into the real story, once again, back to 9/11 and the film’s narrator (a great joke, by the way) asks us why on earth was Cheney having a private talk with his lawyer David Addington (Don McManus) in the middle of this unprecedented act of terror? Amid the family dramas, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War on Terror, Halliburton’s involvement, the Crash,and everything else that has beset the US since that date, Cheney was the real power behind the White House controlling everything, even the terms of public discourse – ‘global warming’ became ‘climate change’, and so on. Sometimes the synoptic approach is genuinely funny, sometimes it feels too episodic. The film is all about heart – heart attacks, a heart transplant, the heart of power and family. Cheney’s final monologue tells us what we already know and Bale offers a robust picture of a seemingly bland man pummeled into unchecked power by an ambitious wife who himself becomes an untameable and unstoppable juggernaut, he’s everywhere, all of the time, at every formative event in recent Republican Party history. It’s a jigsaw puzzle moving backwards and forwards through the decades that pieces together how one person’s worldview came to predominate in the culture. Irreverent, entertaining and fairly shocking, this will make you laugh and hurl, sometimes simultaneously. Vice is the word. You have to remember that if you have power people will try to take it away from you – always

The Man Who Wanted to Fly (2018)

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Nothing lasts. Elderly Irish bachelor Bobby Coote has always wanted to fly, He lives with unmarried brother Ernie in rural County Cavan, Ireland where each pursues different interests. Ernie likes CB radio, movies, cultivating a garden and feeding the birds. Bobby likes making and repairing clocks and violins and he finally has the money to buy a microlight which he stores in his friend Sean’s custom-made hangar and they clear a landing strip in Sean’s field which his wife looks upon askance … I wouldn’t want that fella flying over me.  The Coote brothers are enormously engaging, very different characters who think about things but see the funny side too. They live in what one might term genteel squalor but have great TV equipment and nippy little cars. Bobby’s music habit brings him out a little more with evenings at Gartlans’ thatched pub in Kingscourt while Bobby prefers to stay home watching spaghetti westerns. Bobby celebrates Christmas with friends;  Ernie cooks a turkey leg for one and eats it alone.  Ernie has postcards from all over the world from his radio contacts but doesn’t think he’d like travelling;  Bobby worked in England on the motorways for a couple of years but didn’t much fancy the life over there. Their youngest brother fell into a canal in England the previous year. Neither of them has had relationships that might have started a marriage and family. TV interviews with the brothers from forty years earlier show a pair of good looking dapper young men;  Ernie comments on the changes time has wrought. A home movie shows a friend he used to go fishing with who is dead;  Bobby shows family photos of those departed. The midpoint sequence when Bobby gets a call from the microlight centre in Newtownards informing him that he’s been sold a pup requiring an expensive overhaul is understated and moving.  But he doesn’t give up. This story of seemingly unfulfilled lives and loneliness should be sorrowful but instead it’s a triumph of small-scale ambition that eventually soars in glorious skies. The ending makes you cheer. Beautifully made with some stunning overhead photography by Dave Perry. Produced by Cormac Hargaden and Trish Canning and directed by  Frank Shouldice. You’ve got me pulled!

Serenity (2019)

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Reel him in.  Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fishing boat captain who leads tours off the tranquil enclave of Plymouth Island in the Florida Keys with assistant Duke (Djimon Hounsou) motivated by eventually catching a big tuna he calls Justice. He enjoys sex for money with Constance (Diane Lane) but his life is disturbed by inexplicable visions that seem to connect him with the son he hasn’t seen since his time in Iraq. His routine is soon shattered when his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) tracks him down. Desperate for help, Karen begs Baker to save her and their son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) from her abusive husband, criminal Frank Zariakas (Jason Clarke). She wants Baker to take the violent brute out for a fishing excursion – then throw him overboard to the sharks. But a late night visit from a mysterious company representative Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong) throws a spanner into the works … A hooker that can’t afford hooks. I like a boat thriller. Something about the infinite dramatic possibilities played out on the finite dimensions of a floating vehicle, all at sea. Like Knife in the Water. Masquerade. Dead Calm. There are enough clues in this gorgeous looking melodrama that things are off – the World’s Greatest Dad mug; the seemingly telepathic connection with Patrick; the inter-cutting with Patrick creating a world in which he is catching fish on his computer; and the frankly hysterical sex scene with McConaughey and Hathaway, a ludicrous interplanetary femme fatale, on a boat lurching in a rainstorm:  she promptly gets up and puts on her trenchcoat and hat and trots off up the pier. Bonkers. McConaughey strips off regularly evoking quite a different take on the inspirational Moby Dick: Mobile Dick, perhaps. Sex with your ex, indeed. Lane out-acts everyone by being discreet; Hounsou mutters incomprehensibly bizarre aphorisms like he’s read them off a matchbook, everyone else speaks in similarly random non sequiturs. I would have laughed out loud but I struggled to hear much of the unintentionally hilarious dialogue.  I get the meta stuff and video games but like I said, I also like a boat thriller. This ain’t it. Bad and utterly irrational, like you would not believe. Written and directed by Steven Knight. If someone invented me, how come I know who I am?

Welcome Stranger (1947)

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The doctor’s as good as Frank Sinatra! Old Dr. Joseph McRory (Barry Fitzgerald) of Fallbridge, Maine, hires a replacement for his two-month vacation sight unseen. When they finally meet, he and young Californian singing doctor Jim Pearson (Bing Crosby) don’t hit it off, but Pearson is delighted to stay, once he meets teacher Trudy Mason (Joan Caulfield) who volunteers at McRory’s clinic. Only McRory’s housekeeper Mrs Gilley (Elizabeth Patterson) is sympathetic and gives him helpful advice. However the other locals take their cue from McRory and cold-shoulder Pearson, especially Trudy’s stuffy fiancé. But then, guess who needs an emergency appendectomy and the doctors are forced to put aside their differences…  This re-teaming of Crosby with Fitzgerald after Going My Way was huge in 1947 and was heavily promoted by Paramount – this time instead of playing bickering priests, they’re bickering doctors. (They would be reunited again in Top o’ the Morning). The songs of Jimmy Van Heusen are liberally sprinkled throughout the story. Other than trilling, Crosby gives quite a lazy performance in an underwritten role, Fitzgerald has some quaint sayings while Caulfield is lovely, as usual. It’s nice to see Pa Kettle himself (Percy Kilbride) in the smalltown lineup. Written by  N. Richard Nash and Arthur Sheekman from a story by Frank Butler. Director Elliot Nugent makes an appearance as a medic in a scene directed by Billy Wilder.

Wonder Wheel (2017)

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Let me get to the story in which I am a character, so, be warned, as a poet, I use symbols, and as a budding dramatist, I relish melodrama and larger-than-life characters. Enter Carolina…In 1950s Coney Island Ginny (Kate Winslet) is an emotionally volatile former actress now working as a waitress in a clam house and married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a rough-hewn carousel operator who is stepfather to Ginny’s firebug son by her first husband. She’s having an affair with Mickey (Justin Timberlake) a handsome young lifeguard who dreams of becoming a playwright.  Ginny’s life is turned upside down when Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) from his previous marriage turns up in order to hide out from her gangster husband after giving evidence to the FBI. When Carolina meets Mickey the attraction is immediate and Ginny’s plans to leave Humpty are thrown into disarray … Everybody dies. You can’t walk around thinking about it/You’re talking to a lifeguard.  A tonally awkward and restive work from Woody Allen in which Winslet’s heavy approach shifts the emphasis to Ibsen while everyone else is playing light. (To be fair, the material starts out as a very theatrical setup with poorly staged monologues.) Vittorio Storaro’s odd cinematography with its use of orange and green filters doesn’t help the strangely altering atmosphere. However the film improves overall as it goes along, save for Winslet’s inappropriate pitch, especially when some of the Sopranos goons show up. Timberlake is okay as the Allen avatar, narrating to camera and breaking the fourth wall to put a quasi-dramatic spin on events as he pursues his ‘Masters in European Drama’ but a guy in an auteurist film from Allen falling for a mother and her daughter? I know it’s set at the beach, but it’s still rings too close to home and I don’t mean mine. You’ve been round the world/But you’ve been round the block

Age of Consent (1969)

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Aka Norman Lindsay’s Age of Consent. I think we’ve found a haven. We’ve got it made. Australian artist Bradley Morahan (James Mason) has become jaded by his life in New York City. His agent persuades him to rejuvenate his interest in painting and he takes off to an island on the Great Barrier Reef where he becomes acquainted with a young woman Cora (Helen Mirren) who sells fish to a local shop and whom he asks to model for him … You crazy virgin! Come back! It’s meant to be a compliment, you stupid bitch! The great Michael Powell’s next-to-last film, this is a breezy account of an artist, gamely played by Mason, who co-produced. The pair had wanted to work together for a long time before this came Powell’s way – he had even wanted to shoot a version of The Tempest with Mason and Mia Farrow. Another island story would have to do. Lindsay’s 1937 book was semi-autobiographical and while this is hardly a penetrating account of the production of great art it’s very attractive and nicely dramatised (with some significant changes to sybarite Lindsay’s material) by Peter Yeldham. Mason is typically convincing and empathetic but it’s Mirren in her first major role that you watch – this is a great showcase for her with its balance of comedy and drama including an excess of eroticism that proved too much for the censors back in the day.  Jack MacGowran has a lovely supporting role as Brad’s old flighty friend Nat and Neva Carr Glyn is larger than life as Cora’s coarse old gran, perhaps tilting the otherwise relaxed atmosphere somewhat. Mason has a lively sex scene with Clarissa Kaye whom he later married. This is a refreshing take on falling in love again with your art and your muse and nature and it’s beautifully shot by Hannes Staudinger with stunning underwater work by Ron and Valerie Taylor. Lindsay’s life would be revisited in Sirens.  Godfrey the dog is a delight. People misjudge her because her mother was the town bike. Cora’s different

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

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The measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it. Dutchman Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason) living in the 17th century, is not permitted to rest until he finds a woman who loves him enough to die for him. In 1930s Spain where his body is fished out of the water, he meets the reincarnation of a woman from his dead past Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner) and falls in love. The story progresses to a hair-raising reconciliation of past and present as she becomes engaged to besotted racing driver Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick) while also juggling with the affections of ardent matador Juan Montalvo (Mario Cabré) whose mother has predicted their union … There’s something beyond my understanding. There’s something mystical about the feeling I have for you. Albert Lewin’s cult film is weirdly compelling and boring all at once:  a woman who drives men wild with desire is herself obsessed with a man who has been condemned to wander the earth forever. This legend is elevated to almost mythic quality in a production that is beautiful, sensuous and strange, and that’s just Gardner. There are lengthy exchanges of meaningful dialogue, lusty looks and a gorgeous shadow hangs over every Technicolor frame. Never mind the melo, feel the drama. That’s not me as I am at all. But it’s what I’d like to be

Adrift (2018)

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Come sail with me. In 1983 Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) and her new boyfriend Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) couldn’t anticipate that they would be sailing directly into one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history. They have met on Tahiti and he is hired to deliver a yacht to San Diego, her hometown, which she had no desire to see any time soon.  In the aftermath of the late season storm, with the boat pitch poled, Tami awakens to find Richard badly injured and the Hazana in ruins. Everything is broken, smashed and scattered, the cabin half-full of water, the masts broken clear off and the sails waterlogged and floating useless nearby;  the navigation system, and the emergency position-indicating radio device, were broken. With no hope of rescue, Tami must now find the strength and determination to save herself and the only man she has ever loved who is lying on the aft deck, ribs broken, leg shattered, guiding her in calculating their position using a sextant and working out the latitude on the ship’s maps. All the time she is trying to avoid the storm that is tagging them to try and make it to Hawaii despite having drifted north in a potential search area of 1,500 miles – and that’s only if anyone has noticed their disappearance…  Since this is adapted from Oldham’s book Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea we know she survived this appalling experience:  this shows us how, more or less. It’s written by David Branson Smith,  Aaron Kandell and Jordan Kandell and their interpretation may be faithful to the account and what Oldham did to survive although it’s somewhat creative in what actually occurred during the 41-day long ordeal. It starts with a shocking scene following the storm and then cuts back and forth from the aftermath to the couple’s meeting on the Pacific island where they fall in love and eventually (and reluctantly on Oldham’s part) take the job to deliver the yacht on behalf of a London couple who know Richard. He is a decade older than Tami and a failed naval cadet who is living his dream sailing the world alone – until he meets her and proposes marriage. Director Baltasar Kormákur’s handling of the alternating scenes is expert – there’s a good balance between the evolving romance and the disastrous trip as we learn how this woman who Richard describes as ‘wild’ uses her every wile to make it. Woodley is happily convincing as the daredevil 23-year old reluctantly caught up in a terrible dilemma due to her relationship .We’ve been here before (to some extent) with Robert Redford in All is Lost but there is a twist which will either make you throw your popcorn at the screen or sigh with relief that you haven’t had to go through this entirely scarifying experience yourself. And it doesn’t overstay its welcome, always a joy. What’s it like sailing out there on your own?