A Christmas Carol (1938)

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Keep Christmas in your own way and let me keep it in mine. On Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) is visited by the spirit of his former partner, Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll). The deceased partner was as mean and miserly as Scrooge is now and he warns him to change his ways or face the consequences in the afterlife… Humbug, I tell you. Humbug! Charles Dickens’ sentimental novella gets a fine adaptation by Hugo Butler and a delicate, sprightly production by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and director Edwin Marin. Everything is beautifully staged and nicely played by a very apposite cast. There is a deal of magic with the ghosts (Lionel Brabham, Ann Rutherford and D’Arcy Corrigan) and some excellent scene-setting and romance between Fred (Barry MacKay) and Bess (Lynne Carver). The atmosphere is well sustained and it’s a very enjoyable rendition that tugs at the heartstrings even if the 1951 British adaptation is a personal favourite. The countdown begins… It’s the only time when human beings open their hearts freely

Holmes & Watson (2018)

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He and I co-detectives? Not I. Not here. Not even in my rapturous moments of private fantasy! Renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) join forces to investigate a mysterious murder threat upon Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) at Buckingham Palace. It seems like an open-and-shut case as all signs point to Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), the criminal mastermind and longtime nemesis of the crime-solving duo. Both men are diverted by American women – Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her companion Millicent (Lauren Lapkus) whom she insists is her electric shock treatment subject, a woman reared by feral cats. When new twists and clues begin to emerge, the sleuth and his assistant must use their legendary wits and ingenious methods to catch the killer who may have been hiding in plain sight very close to home I have the oddest feeling. Like knowing, but the opposite. Blending the steampunk approach of the Robert Downey films and the flash-forward visual detection of Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV Sherlock, this also has anachronistic shtick (Titanic in the life of Queen Vic, anyone?) and a cheeky reference to one of the more arcane Holmes incarnations in the casting of Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – TV’s House, geddit?! (That’s a scene that doesn’t work, sadly). Some of the best sequences and laughs are with Hall and Lapkus, between the misogyny and the bits about nineteenth century medical treatments, with some genuinely amusing romantic farce and bromantic jokes.  This is beautifully shot by Oliver Wood, exquisitely designed by James Hambidge and costumed by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Naturally it’s only a matter of time until someone says No shit Sherlock and it’s from the mouths of Dickensian runts straight out of Oliver!  There’s a funny passing song that occasions a joke about musicals when the film finally lets rip à la The Muppets giving it more promise than it delivers and there are some highly contemporary visual and political references. So there’s wit and invention aplenty but it’s not quite clever enough all the time. Rather like Holmes. Minus the innuendo and lewdness this could have been a marvellous comic outing for children, agreeably silly with some easy but amusing targets but you know, these guys, they just can’t help themselves, with Ferrell doing too much of what he likes as the ultimate defective detective and Reilly as his hapless foil, a Johnson in more ways than one (until the roles get switched, which happens constantly and is confusing). The ladies are fantastic and Fiennes brings that immaculate class as is his wont and manages to be the only one who doesn’t actually twirl that comedy moustache; while Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald and Steve Coogan (as a one-armed tattooist) get their moments of infamy. Written and directed by Etan Coen. No, not that Coen, obvs. Terrible and clueless but not totally awful. Go figure.  A sniff of morning cocaine always helps the brain

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

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That’s poetry, not proof. It’s 1927. The Magical Congress of the USA is transferring Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) to be tried for his crimes but he escapes with the aid of his associate Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie). In London, Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) encounters Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) an old pure-blood classmate from Hogwarts who has always been somewhat disturbed and is now engaged to Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who works in the Auror office at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Newt turns down the request to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) in Paris but Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) persuades him to change his mind because Grindelwald is searching for Credence in order to help him implement a New World Wizarding Order … She has eyes just like a salamander. The JK Rowling franchise trundles on and it gets off to a speedy start, with Grindelwald assuming someone else’s identity and making good his escape. This triumph of production design and effects has lots of things to recommend it, not least big plot moves in a heavily stuffed story that’s laced with humour and irony. It’s based on the pull of family ties – brothers, sisters, the need to know your true identity – and that’s what balances a fun adventure that has a lot of good moments, a more rounded and sympathetic Newt and a great sense of jeopardy from Depp as the deranged proto-fascist albino seeking to elevate wizards above muggles. Familiar faces, well developed characters, a lot of narrative threads and a lot more to come. Adapted by Rowling and directed by David Yates. We were closer than brothers

Sudden Fear (1952)

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I’m so crazy about you I could break your bones. Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) is a successful and wealthy Broadway playwright who rejects actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) for her new production because he doesn’t look like a romantic leading man. When she meets him on a train bound for home back in San Francisco he insinuates himself into her life and she is swept off her feet, and marries him. He learns that she’s writing her will and intends leaving most of her money to a heart foundation and plots her murder with his girlfriend Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame). However Myra has accidentally left her tape recorder running and finds out their plan. She decides upon one of her own and plots it as she would one of her plays – to kill Lester and frame Irene for it. But while hiding in Irene’s apartment she sees her reflection with gun poised and alters her plan, terrified at what she’s become. Then Lester lets himself into the apartment … I like to look at you. Adapted by Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith from Edna Sherry’s 1948 novel, this is a superior noir melodrama, with Crawford at her sensational best in one of her key roles.  Everything about the production is top notch with wonderful design (Boris Leven and Edward G. Boyle) and shooting by Charles Lang, enhanced by the location and night-time street scenes. Palance matches Crawford – talk about a face off! – with some truly creepy affectations; while Grahame is entrancing as ever. But it’s Crawford’s show and the happiness slipping from that classic mask is something to see.  She was directed to an Academy Award nomination by David Miller (he was a very fine woman’s director.) The final sequence – the first half of which has Crawford hiding in a closet; the second with her being chased up and down the streets of San Francisco by Palance – is unbearably, brilliantly tense. Sizzling stuff. Executive produced by an uncredited Miss Joan Crawford.  Remember what Nietzsche says “Live dangerously!”

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

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This isn’t happening. After returning home from the Vietnam War, veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) struggles to maintain his sanity. Plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks, convinced he is in Hell when he travels on the subway, Singer rapidly falls apart as the world and people around him morph and twist into disturbing images. Girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) and ex-wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalember), try to help, but to little avail. Even Singer’s chiropractor friend Louis (Danny Aiello), fails to reach him as he appears to descend into madness… There is no out of here. You’ve been killed, don’t you remember? Bruce Joel (Ghost) Rubin’s impressionistic screenplay about life and death gets a hallucinatory treatment by director Adrian Lyne in an unforgettable psychological portrait that seems to be about PTSD but morphs into something else entirely, a metaphysical enquiry about perception. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth. Better seen than explained, this leaves its audience in emotional distress, occupying a hellish reality where demons seem to pursue you in the subway. Robbins and the late Peña are wonderful playing out this magnificent fever dream, while Maurice Jarre’s score is a lament for the ages. See. According to this, you’re already dead

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?

The Conversation (1974)

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There is no sound between human beings that I cannot record.  Surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired by the aide Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) to a client known only as The Director to tail a young couple, Mark (Frederic Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams). Tracking the pair through San Francisco’s Union Square, Caul and his associate Stan (John Cazale) manage to record a cryptic conversation between them but there is interference on the tape.  He falls out with Stan over his offensive use of religious words because he is Catholic. Tormented by memories of a previous case when he was hired by a government agency that ended in three murders, Caul becomes obsessed with the resulting tapes, believing the couple are in danger, constantly piecing it together, playing it on a loop until the recordings are stolen following a one-night stand with a woman he meets at a party and he is forced to hand over the photographs to the mysterious Director (Robert Duvall) …. Since when are you here to be entertained? Literally tapping into contemporary fears about privacy and surveillance this tense paranoid conspiracy thriller is in the vanguard of early 70s films feeding on political sleaze. He’d kill us if he got the chance.  Hackman is superb as the enigmatic loner, suddenly plunged into an ethical crisis and never further away from someone than when he’s standing right next to them.  He has a failed private life with an on-off romance (with Teri Garr) but his decency is incisively writ in his love of playing jazz saxophone (the instrument closest to the human voice).  His ethics finally overwhelm his professional safeguarding, his vanity triggering the fatal misunderstanding that twists the narrative’s direction because he is trapped in the words he has eavesdropped upon.  How fascinating that Francis Ford Coppola chose to write, produce and direct this after being mired in the moral murk of The Godfather. When he had to start production on the sequel to that box office smash Walter Murch took over post-production on this and the result is a bona fide Seventies classic released just a few months before the resignation of Richard Nixon, forever linking this with Watergate but also perhaps alluding to the fate of film directors at the mercy of their entourage, their audience and a narrative they cannot control. The mystery is compounded by an intriguing piano score by David Shire.  We’ll be listening to you

They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969)

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Don’t forget your poor old mother. Yowza yowza yowza! In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932 wannabe film director Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) encounters manipulative MC Rocky (Gig Young) when he wanders into a dance marathon on the Santa Monica Pier.  Rocky enlists contestants offering a $1,500 cash prize. Among them are a failed actress Gloria (Jane Fonda) whom he induces Robert to partner; a middle-aged sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons); delusional blonde Alice (Susannah York); impoverished farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). Days turn into weeks as the competition drags on and people either drop out or die. Rocky will do anything for publicity and initiates a series of gruelling derbies and nerves fray as exhaustion sets in … That soap’s a little hard. James Poe and Robert E. Thompson’s adaptation of the 1935 Horace McCoy novel plugs straight into its melodramatic core – a musical drama about economic despair. And the air of desperation hanging over these lost souls is like a fug, admirably sustained by director Sydney Pollack. Fonda is superb in a complex performance as the brittle cynic whose psychology is gradually broken while all around her succumb to the physical pressure. Her fear drives the story. How extraordinary to think that Charlie Chaplin had acquired the rights to the property eighteen years earlier, intending to cast his son Sydney opposite Marilyn Monroe in the roles played by Sarrazin and Fonda. It fell apart when Chaplin was refused re-entry to the US on foot of his political sympathies. When Fonda was approached by Pollack he asked her what she thought of the material and the character and she writes about it as a turning point in her career:  This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant. It also marked the beginning of Sarrazin’s years as a leading man – somehow he fell out of fashion in the late Seventies. He would die in 2011. There are some wonderful contrivances like the flash forwards that certain critics found irritating but it all works to build a mythic aspect. This is a stunning, disturbing indictment of social artifice and possesses a haunting quality, with its title becoming a catchphrase (and inspiring a hit song) and Gig Young’s fraudulent host inducing a kind of existential dread of showbiz ‘characters’. Maybe the whole world is like Central Casting – they got it all rigged before you ever show up

 

The Invasion (2007)

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Civilisation crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation, we are all capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this was not so, where every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence. Well, this is to imagine a world where human beings cease to be human.  In Washington, D.C. psychologist Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her colleague Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) are the only two people who are aware of an epidemic running rampant through the city. They discover an alien virus aboard a space shuttle that crashed during an unscheduled landing attempt that transforms anyone who comes into contact with it into unfeeling drones while they sleep. The government is calling it a flu virus. Carol realises her son Oliver’s (Jackson Bond) immune system holds the key to stopping the spread of the plague and she races to find him before it is too late but his father, politician ex-husband Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) has taken him out of state … The late great Jack Finney wrote some indelible sci fi that could be used to anatomise and exemplify social forces – so The Body Snatchers has had meaning for generation after generation, commencing with its first (quite brilliant) movie adaptation Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is the fourth effort and its muddled birth in some ways tarnished its critical reputation.  Written variously by David Kajganich and the uncredited Wachowski brothers/sisters and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel with uncredited reshoots by James McTeigue, the original story’s clarity is both lost and highlighted in its city setting:  the quick slide into conformity is more obvious than in the 1956 classic simply because there are so many more people whose transformation is visible on the streets.  The central irony – that a woman controlling her patients’ minds and feelings with pharmaceuticals is now objecting to a world in which by the icky expedient of vomiting on someone’s face or into their coffee (nice) everyone can live in peace minus their individuality or expressivity – is straightforwardly verbalised by Carol’s ex. But the quick running time and the conclusion – collective amnesia, luckily administered Governmentally with yet another vaccine – means the bigger picture of mind control by Big Pharma and Bigger Government (a nasty coinciding of socio-financial interests since, oh, the 1990s?) is sort of lost in a mish-mash of action with awkward acting compounding the stiff plotting. There is one really silly flash forward. Metaphor? Metonymy? How would I know? I am on Day 30 of Aussie flu and can’t get a shot to save my sniffles. But if I said I was depressed they’d be racing to inoculate, n’est-ce pas???…!!! Uneven, but relevant.

 

Jumanji (1995)

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You’re playing the game I started in 1969.  In 1869 in New Hampshire two men bury a board game. 100 years later young Alan Harris (Adam Hann-Byrd) can do nothing right for his exacting father (Jonathan Hyde) who owns a shoe factory and intends that Alan go to the same prep school he attended. Alan invites schoolfriend Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy) over and when they play the board game he found after being chased by bullies he gets sucked into it and she runs from the house. 26 years later orphaned siblings Peter (Bradley Pierce) and Judy Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst) move to the town with their aunt (Bebe Neuwirth). While exploring the old mansion she got at rock bottom price, the youngsters find a curious, jungle-themed game called Jumanji in the attic. When they start playing, they free the adult Alan Parrish (Robin Williams), who’s been stuck in the game’s inner jungle world for decades.  They go in search of the adult Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) who’s now a psychic with an extreme need for therapy. They join forces and if they win Jumanji, the kids can free Alan for good – but that means braving giant bugs, ill-mannered monkeys and even stampeding rhinos as well as a killer big-game hunter who bears a distinct resemblance to Alan’s father … Adapted from Chris Van Allsburg’s eponymous novel by Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh and Jim Strain, this is a superb, action-packed family adventure that never loses sight of the father-son story at its heart principally because the characters are highly relatable. Dunst plays a compulsive liar while her brother is more sensitive but they’re not obnoxious and their aunt’s impoverished attempts at parenting are entirely understandable. Particularly when a monkey takes over her car. When Robin Williams is unleashed from the game in full survival mode from the hellish jungle he’s absolutely on it with a few nice put-downs that aren’t too cruel for a school age kid. It’s great fun to see Pierce transform into a monkey – complete with tail. This is resolved wonderfully and directed at a terrific pace with superb design at every level. Cracking! Directed by Joe Johnston.