Tarka the Otter (1979)

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Henry Williamson resisted Walt Disney for years and eventually succumbed to having his nature classic adapted by wildlife documentary maker David Cobham when he was persuaded by his son Harry, a musician. Narrated by Peter Ustinov from a script co-written by Gerald Durrell we are presented with the life cycle of an otter:  from his birth, through the death of his father, separation from his mother, the gruesome death of his sibling in a trap, mating with White Tip who is the mother of his pups, to an epic conclusion against the otter hound bent on his death. We see Tarka through the seasons and experience the world from his perspective, a kind of anthropomorphism that Williamson resisted. As my own little Tarka (named after this wonderful hero) slept on the couch throughout, I wept.

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Ivanhoe (1952)

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Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) is determined to right the wrong of kidnapped Richard the Lionheart’s predicament, confronting his evil brother Prince John (Guy Rolfe) and Norman knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders). His own estranged father Cedric (Finlay Currie) doesn’t know he’s loyal to the king but feisty Rowena (Joan Fontaine) is still his lady love although his affections are now swung by the beautiful Jewess Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), daughter to Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer), who is almost robbed by the knights and whose fortune can aid the King. Robin Hood appears and Ivanhoe joins forces with him and his men, there’s jousting at the tournament and love lost and won, and a trial for witchcraft ….  Adapted by AEneas MacKenzie from the Walter Scott novel, this was written by Noel Langley and Marguerite Roberts, whose name was removed subsequent to her being blacklisted. It’s glorious picture-book pageantry in Technicolor, such a wonderful change from those grim grey superhero and historical excursions to which we are being currently subjected in the multiplex. Everyone performs with great gusto, there’s chivalry and action aplenty, a great baddie, a kangaroo court, a ransom to be paid, a love triangle, a king to rescue, costumes to die for and properly beautiful movie stars performing under the super sharp lens of Freddie Young to a robust score by Miklos Rozsa. It was the first in an unofficial mediaeval MGM trilogy shot in the UK, followed by Knights of the Round Table and The Adventures of Quentin Durward, all starring Taylor (Robert, that is) and shot by Richard Thorpe. Prepare to have your swash buckled. Fabulous.

Bambi (1942)

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A recent documentary about Walt Disney barely revealed anything about the man. For that, you watch the films. This is the high point of his achievements:  an adaptation of a book by Austrian writer Felix Salten, it is the story of a young fawn (a white tail) whose life in the meadow and the forest is mirrored by the changing seasons, his friendships with woodland creatures, death, dealings with hunters, all animated impressionistically and vividly. I can barely watch this because tears prick my eyes from the moment it starts and those memories of my first childhood viewing never leave me. It is simply stunning, moving, funny, brilliant and devastating, underscored by classical music tropes and songs. Directed by David Hand, leading a team of exquisitely gifted sequence directors, writers and artists, produced by Walt Disney. A film for the ages.

Couple in a Hole (2015)

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A title that does what it says on the box?! That’s just what this is. A Scots couple live in a hole in the Midi-Pyrenees.  He goes out and forages, she mostly stays in. Very feral and even primal. But … why? When she gets stung by a spider he has to find a pharmacy and he becomes frenemies with a local who ironically caused their cave-dwelling but we find that out incrementally, when the man’s wife starts to lose it big time. Paul Higgins and Kate Dickie are the couple, and their performances are marvellous in their complementary polarities:  she’s a traumatised agoraphobe wife, he’s a sociable supporter hunter gatherer who likes to eat sausage. Jerome Kircher is the farmer who killed their son and Corinne Masiero is the wife who finally can’t take the guilt. There is an unexpected ending and yet for a film that rests entirely on metaphor (we’ve all been in one…) it’s not unacceptable. Extraordinary in many ways with an exceptional soundtrack by Geoff Barrow. Written and directed by Tom Geens. One of the year’s best films.

Krampus (2015)

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Ever dreamed of spending Christmas without your family when everything seems like it’s going to Hell in a handcart? Well young Max (Emjay Anthony) swaps one kind of home invasion (aunt, uncle, cousins and great-aunt) for another (a German folkloric nightmare) when he wishes exactly that. Grandma Omi (Krista Stadler) knows it’s all down to what she did as a kid back in Austria but that doesn’t stop the demons being unleashed, starting with an ominous looking snowman in the yard, a power cut and a big sister kidnapped on the way to see her boyfriend in a snowstorm. There are noises in the attic and suddenly there are psychotic gingerbread men, Teddy bears and porcelain dolls on the prowl and that’s before the elves get started. Way to see your obnoxious cousin disappear up the chimney! NRA supporting uncle Howard (David Koechner) figures there’s only one way to deal with the invaders, since you can’t placate a crazy cookie.  I know how you feel about family at Christmas too (aw! really?!)  but even I find this veering on the violent end of the spectrum – tho hey, what about that staple gun! Starring Toni Collette and Adam Scott as the put-upon PC hosts who become really quite ingenious with their home cleaning solutions. Written by Todd Casey, Zach Shields and director Michael Dougherty, responsible for Trick ‘r Treat. Only if  Gremlins really doesn’t do it for you. I must start looking for those baubles …

Corpse Bride (2005)

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Aka Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. With the season of spookiness upon us it’s time to look at this stop-motion animation, a reverie of marriage and death and multiple scary lairy characters. In a monochrome world shy sweet pianist Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) is about to marry Victoria (Emily Watson) by arrangement through socially ambitious parents when a branch from a tree drags him to the land of the dead where murdered Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) wants to marry HIM. She reunites him with his dead pet dog as the newly married man (albeit to a dead woman) descends to a paradoxical world of colour which is great fun but he needs to get back to reality to ensure Victoria isn’t ensnared in a marriage to villainous Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant) who is eventually revealed to be the fiance who murdered Emily! If it’s a little incoherent on the story level it’s fun to watch, with some star talent having fun – Enn Reitel as the maggot/conscience in Emily’s brain, Christopher Lee as Pastor Galswells, Joanna Lumley as Victoria’s mother and composer Danny Elfman as a one-eyed skeleton (modelled on Sammy Davis Jr.). It’s maybe too smooth for stop-motion (using a different camera than the one on Nightmare Before Christmas) but it’s always good to watch Burton’s macabre work at Halloween. Screenplay by John August, Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler based on characters created by Burton and Carlos Grangel.

Claws (1977)

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You’re hanging around fighting with another bear when some a-hole hunters come along and spot their chance and shoot you and then THEY get upset after getting in your business.  So you just go after them best you can and hunt them right back … boy scouts, campers, rangers, whatever strays across your wooded path. Bears had a moment in the Seventies and this followed Grizzly (1976) and is of course named to cash in on a certain shark who was similarly bothered in his natural habitat. An ode to overpopulation by humans, guns and general silliness led by Jason Evers. I’m with the bears on this one. They rock!

 

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

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Giulietta Masina suspects that her event manager husband is a philanderer and a mystic confirms her worst fears so she hires a private eye to follow him and get the proof. That’s it, in a nutshell. Except it’s SO much more. She’s more contained, conventional, bourgeois than her cliquey flamboyant friends who show up to have a seance to celebrate her birthday. They all have artistic lives, huge hats, exotic lovers and her equally worldly sisters have beautiful little children to add injury to insult. The woman next door entertains her lovers in a tree house:  when Giulietta returns her cat she demurs from their offer to join them. She enters a world of fantasy and flashback, frequently finding an amusing correlative on TV for her woes and Fellini indulges his wife’s character in all kinds of daydreams and psychic excursions, memories of frightening nuns from childhood, intimations of sex in a brothel. She’s so different from the artificial environment in which she finds herself which is incredibly photographed and looking as fresh as if it were made yesterday. The images are like jolts to the senses:  this was the maestro’s first feature in colour and boy did he revel in its painterly possibilities with Gianni De Venanzo’s cinematography making pictures that sing. Critics argue about the film’s significance and whether it was his explanation to Masina for his own extra-marital life, but it is sheerly wondrous, a throwback to when films mattered.

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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Bryce Dallas Howard ran around Jurassic World in high heels so donning the garb of forest ranger Grace should come pretty easy, dontcha think? Her stepdaughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) finds little Pete (Oakes Fegley) deep in the woods her uncle Gavin (Karl Urban) is busy upending. Pete’s folks died in a car crash 6 years earlier and he’s been living there with his best friend Elliott. Who happens to be a dragon, the kind that Grace’s dad (Robert Redford) has been telling her about for years, since her mother died when she was five. Grace’s boyfriend (Wes Bentley, welcome back) reads Pete the storybook that is his only remaining possession and Natalie has a copy – his own is the giveaway to Elliott’s cave, which Gavin quickly exploits … I don’t know about you but the last time I cried at a movie was … The Passion of Joan of Arc. And  Running On Empty. And ET, of course. (More than once but decades apart.) Amazingly, this out-Spielbergs Spielberg in Disney’s own remake of its 1977 musical which I have never been able to get through, despite – or maybe because of – Helen Reddy. This is straight drama and the casting is spot-on, the tone is perfectly managed and the overall effect is funny, smart, touching, witty, scary and magical. Absolutely wonderful. Now how often can you say that? And during the worst summer in living movie memory. There is a message of course – about conservation, family, decency, hunting … You can figure that out yourself. Get your tissues ready. Written and directed by David Lowery, with Tony Halbrooks also credited for writing, based on the original screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein.

The Survivalist (2015)

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Paintball was never like this. Or maybe if Samuel Beckett set Godot in Norn Iron after the oil supplies dried up …it would be. Ah, that’s it. Martin McCann is burying someone. He’s a paranoid hermit whose veggie forager lifestyle in this post-apocalyptic world is upset by the arrival of a feral old woman (Olwen Fouere) and her daughter (Mia Goth) and after the girl exchanges sexual favours they agree a grudging truce and hang around longer than one night. The women are planning on killing him but an assailant captures the girl and shoots him. He knifes the stranger and the women remove the bullet and cauterise the wound which needs maggots to heal. Then with an attack by 6 men on the garden they revert to Plan A while the girl tries to perform an abortion on herself … This triangular relationship based on uneasy silences, danger and treachery has a constant shifting centre and revolves around two shells and a bullet. There is minimal dialogue but the performances and Damien Elliott’s photography contribute texture to an atmospheric drama that is probably science fiction, but with added cannibalism. Yum. Written and directed by Stephen Fingleton, who  originally made this as a short called Magpie with more or less the same cast.