The Happy Prince (2018)

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Intimacy in the sewers followed by fantasy in the gods, and then, total silence.  As he flees England to France in the wake of his release from prison, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) tries to reestablish his life, finish his writing work and disdain his lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Colin Morgan) whose father the Marquis of Queensberry had him gaoled for his homosexuality following a libel suit.  All the while he is hounded by the press who have made his life a misery in a society  whose denizens once enjoyed being sent up by him but which are now all too happy to shun him. He is assisted in exile by his literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and loyal friend, journalist Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). But when his identity is revealed to a hotel proprietor following a fracas with bullying English tourists, he is obliged to take up residence in Paris where he slides into dissolution, corresponds with Bosie and is cut off by his wife Constance (Emily Watson) on the advice of her solicitors… There is no question that Everett achieves something rather special here:  he inhabits Wilde with the kind of comfort that can only come from someone who has long shepherded this project as well as playing him a number of times on stage;  the acknowledging that Bosie was truly Wilde’s Achilles heel – he simply cannot resist the nasty little bugger, a beauty, a nauseating irresponsible temptress in male clothing, a sop to Wilde’s vanity.  He is his downfall and he is simply irresistible. Everett doesn’t spare Wilde physically either – bloated, drugging and drinking, wearing rouge, he’s a braggart whose survival depends on his wit yet he says he found God in gaol:  in that cell there was only himself and Christ. He has lost his strength yet he musters a violent thug within to confront holidaying yobs who recognise him in France:  that their showdown occurs in a church is a nicely Wildean touch. He finishes De Profundis;  he tells the story of The Happy Prince both to his sons in flashback and to the two street boys he befriends in the Parisian underworld. The multi-faceted backwards and forwards in time structure should confuse but doesn’t because the focus is all on Oscar:  and Everett is savage as appropriate.  This is a self-inflicted theatrical exit, fuelled by lust and blind obsession, invariably leading to terrible pain which he seems unable to stop. We are watching a great writer decompose, in all the senses that that term might conjure. There are all kinds of second-tier attractions:  the mood of melancholy offset with famous bons mots and rueful self-examination;  the locations;  the portrayal of male friendship and loyalty;  the hypocrisy writ large even within Oscar’s own worldview because he tells people what they need to hear even when everyone concerned knows it’s not true (Ross truly loves him and Wilde loves him back, just not in the same way);  his thoroughly wistful longing to see his small children again which grieves him terribly;  Everett’s old pal Béatrice Dalle (from Betty Blue) turning up as the proprietress of a risqué bar;  the interweaving of onstage characters from Wilde’s plays with his real-life associates; the wondrous score by Gabriel Yared. Frisky, fruity and just a little salty – rather like the man himself. It’s a heartbreaking  and profoundly literary valentine, wise and witty and immensely good. What a debut for Rupert Everett, film writer and director.  Surely Love is a wonderful thing

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Out of Africa (1985)

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I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a failed love affair in Denmark the aristocrat Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) sets out for the white highlands of Kenya where she marries her lover’s brother Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer).  She is intent on dairy farming, Bror instead spends their money on a coffee plantation. After discovering Bror is unfaithful when she contracts syphilis, Karen develops feelings for British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) but he prefers a simple lifestyle compared to her upper class affectations. She separates from Bror and sets about remaking her home to his taste. The two continue their relationship until a series of events force Karen to choose between her love life and her personal growth as an individual … Like a lot of people, I imagine, I first heard of Isak Dinesen (or Karen Blixen) courtesy of The Catcher in the Rye. If it was good enough for Holden Caulfield, I figured, I’ve got to check it out. And that was my introduction to a great writer whose life is immortalised here in the form of La Streep while the less than glamorous Finch Hatton is personified by Redford. History is rewritten right there! But their chemistry is so right. Streep is wonderful as the woman who finally finds herself, Redford is great as a hunter who simultaneously deplores environmental destruction – these are fantastic star performances.  So the school, the farm, that’s what I am now Director Sydney Pollack later regretted that he didn’t shoot this in widescreen and you can see why. This is a film of big emotions in a breathtaking landscape that dwarfs the concerns of the little people, aristos or not. There are fabulous, memorable scenes:  when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair; when they play Mozart on the gramophone to monkeys and Denys remarks that it’s their first exposure to humans; when he takes her flying; when she begs for land for the Kikuyu. And when she leaves.  If you like me at all, don’t ask me to do this Altering the focus of Dinesen’s writing somewhat to the personalities rather than the issues that actually drove Dinesen and the contradictions within Finch Hatton, it’s a glorious, epic and tragic romance sensitively performed, with a meticulous score by John Barry. Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay was adapted from three sources:  Dinesen’s Out of Africa;  Judith Thurman’s biography Isak Dinesen:  The Life of a Story Teller;  and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski. He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast

 

The Constant Gardener (2005)

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This is one we can save.  Assigned to a new post, reserved British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) relocates to Kenya with his new wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an activist for social justice. She is engaged on a hunt for the people behind a Big Pharma test of a dangerous AIDS drug being conducted on expendable local TB sufferers.  Her own child is born dead in an African hospital and a young girl in a neighbouring bed dies after taking the drug. When Tessa is found murdered out in the wilderness, circumstances point to her friend, Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), who has been agitating for the truth with her, but it is soon clear that he’s not the killer. Grief-stricken and angry, Justin sets out to uncover who is responsible for Tessa’s murder and in the process, he unearths some disturbing revelations – including that some of his cohorts in Government might be behind it. He also really discovers the woman he married … John le Carré is a remarkable novelist:  for five decades he has been writing books that point the finger through the prism of genre and in the Noughties he decided to take aim at the self-appointed God-like pharmaceutical companies that dominate so much of contemporary existence – and survival – and the countries whose internecine deals allow them to kill their own at will. Jeffrey Caine does a great job at filleting the story so it’s clear who the bad guys are – there are degrees of grotesquery here and it’s certainly not kind on African savagery either. A horrifying tale of corruption that, knowing its author, is all too true. Terrifically performed by the leads with good support from Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Huston. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. No drug company does something for nothing.

The Man Who Never Was (1956)

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If we can get Gerry to move one weapon – a battery or even a gun – it’s going to save a lot of lives.  In 1943 the Allies are preparing to invade Sicily during World War II and British naval intelligence agent Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) hatches a cunning plan to fool Germany into believing the Allies’ true target is Greece. Concocting a fictitious British officer ‘Major William Martin’, with an unwitting patriot put on ice in a London mortuary, Montagu gathers false top-secret documents and personal letters to plant upon a corpse that will wash ashore in Spain at Huelva where the local German spy will presumably investigate his authenticity and the neutral Spanish Government share the documents with the Abwehr. But the investigations of a German undercover agent Irishman Patrick O’Reilly (Stephen Boyd) in London could potentially expose the fraud and scupper the landing in Sicily … Sensitive to a fault, this depiction of the true-life British WW2 scam known as Operation Mincemeat is wonderfully written by Nigel Balchin (adapted from Montagu’s book), persuasively performed by a terrific cast and crisply directed by Ronald Neame. This particular plan was to prove a turning point in the war and it was (Ripley’s here) based on the Trout memo of 1939 written by Rear Admiral John Godfrey and his right-hand man a certain Lt. Commander Ian Fleming.  The scenes with the father of the unknowing volunteer and the disposal of his body in the Mediterannean are treated with dignity.  Gloria Grahame’s performance as the lovelorn flatmate of secretary Pam (Josephine Griffin) is striking and the scene when O’Reilly calls on the women to verify the minutiae of the non-existent Martin’s life is unbelievably tense. It didn’t quite happen that way because the British had controlled the German spy network through the Double-Cross System, a fact that was not made public at the time this was made. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant story efficiently told,  also documented in columnist Ben MacIntyre’s book Operation Mincemeat which I heartily recommend. Watch for Joan Hickson (TV’s Miss Marple) as O’Reilly’s landlady and Cyril Cusack as the taxi driver/spy. Montagu himself appears uncredited as an Air Vice Marshal and a certain Winston Churchill appears in voice only!

 

The Leisure Seeker (2017)

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It’s just something I really need to do with your father.  Retired English teacher John Spencer (Donald Sutherland) and wife Ella (Helen Mirren) take off in their RV without telling anyone in order to escape a probable nursing home (him, with Alzheimer’s) and a punishing chemo regime (her, for cancer). They abandon grown up son Will (Christian McKay) who cares for them each day, despite knowing it’s his sister Jane (Janel Moloney) who’s the favoured offspring and college professor a comfortable couple of hours away. The siblings are up the walls about the disappearance. Even neighbour Lillian (Dana Ivey) is out of the loop. The couple negotiate the Seventies vehicle down the east coast via camp sites, diners, the world’s slowest police chase, historical re-enactments, a stint in a home and occasional beaches, to their eventual destination, the home of John’s hero, Ernest Hemingway, in Key West.  En route their journey has revelations, massive doses of forgetfulness, a holdup, a posh hotel, a terrible (unconscious) admission, illness and phonecalls home… Michael Zadoorian’s novel is adapted by Italian director Paolo Virzi, making his English language feature debut, with Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi and Francesco Piccolo, and it bears up considerably better than you might think. This isn’t just down to the playing of the leads, who are brilliant, although Mirren’s Savannah accent slips a lot.  There are lovely moments particularly when Sutherland is regaling waitresses with lines from his favourite books and when one confesses she’s done her thesis on it he’s in hog heaven. Ella prefers the movie adaptations. They are a joy to watch, sparking off one another and falling into old habits and new ideas.  Their life together is recalled in tranquil bouts of watching slides on a sheet outside the RV at night when they’re camping. Their days are about coping and how exhausting it is to be a carer and to be ill but also how genuinely in love they have been and how that materialises in their concern for one another. Sutherland’s recurring obsession with Mirren’s first boyfriend from fifty years earlier has a funny payoff.  How she deals with his husbandly failing is hilarious.  His physical response to one medication is … unexpected! But its success is also to do with the deep understanding of Alzheimer’s which causes bouts of memory loss and bullying all too familiar to anyone with a relative suffering its predations – I laughed aloud with recognition far too many times.  While this is concerned with ageing in a semi-comic context it’s a very pointed narrative about the ways in which older people are made feel lousy about their right to exist, how they are treated when they are beginning to become infirm and the radical element here is how one couple choose how to live and exit gracefully when they take the opportunity (even if one of them doesn’t really know what in hell is going on). Immensely enjoyable.

 

Hereditary (2018)

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All I do is worry and slave and defend you, and all I get back is that fucking face on your face! Miniaturist artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) lives with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their strange looking 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Charlie Shapiro). At the funeral of her mother, Ellen, Annie’s eulogy explains their fraught relationship. When Steve is informed that the grave has been desecrated, he keeps it secret, while Annie thinks she sees Ellen in her workshop. At a bereavement support group she reveals that, growing up, the rest of her family including Ellen suffered from mental illness. Daughter Charlie, who likes decapitating birds, sees Ellen, to whom she was especially close, several times.  Ellen’s miniatures reveal that Ellen wanted to breastfeed the girl herself.  Following a terrible accident and another family death Ellen’s difficult relationship with Peter is revealed. She is approached by support group member Joan (Ann Dowd) who persuades her to join her in trying to contact lost loved ones. When Annie attempts to do so at the house she unleashes powerful forces which she knows signify a malign connection only she can stop but her husband just thinks she’s mentally ill …  Ari Aster’s debut feature as writer/director has given Toni Collette a return to the genre that made her world famous nineteen years ago in The Sixth Sense. That was another film about failing families and strange relations and her art works have a prophetic and odd quality which pervades the film itself using the family home as a kind of dollhouse where female power is entrapped.  (Feel free to add your own theatrical metaphor).  Collette doesn’t have all the operatic colours in her performance one is led to expect (although her weird trousers assist in her levitating) considering the importance attached to Greek mythology. At its heart this is about the mother from hell, trying to protect her family from terrible self-knowledge. It could have gone in another more troubling direction. Things are left unsaid, and that’s a good confident script, but it also means certain elements are simply not clarified:  is Steve a psychiatrist? Why is Charlie’s disfigurement not mentioned?  The trail towards the mystery’s solution is cleverly laid even if it’s a particularly slow burn. This is a film which has a split identity:  on the one hand it’s a maternal melo or psychodrama, crossing generations;  on the other it’s a horror homage owing a very large debt to Rosemary’s Baby in particular and therein lieth a problem for this viewer at least. When I finally figured out the plot hook – which actually made me laugh but also made me remember to always trust my prejudices – once the quiet stuff ended about 90 minutes in, I took umbrage at the slight at Roman Polanski which is tasteless if oblique, considering the weight one attaches to certain rumours spread about him in the wake of his wife’s murder. Meta? Yes. Clever? Not especially. But the admonition to Get Out obviously calls up another satirical family horror. This one doesn’t have that film’s sociopolitical critique but it does remind us that true horror resides right there in your family if you look hard enough. Right inside the dollhouse.

Trumbo (2015)

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You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy.  In the early Forties in Hollywood Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is the highest paid scriptwriter but he’s also a member of the Communist Party. In a 1947 purge led by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott) Trumbo and several of his fellow writers are hounded into appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington where they go off-script and ten of them wind up being imprisoned and their careers are ruined. When they get out they have to rebuild and face down their betrayers as they scrabble to write for the black market … Adapted from Bruce Cook’s biography of the blacklisted screenwriter, this is so good on so many levels. It takes a relatively complex history of the Hollywood anti-communist campaign and makes it understandable and it comprehensively names all the people who were behind it as well as communicating the terrible fear that descended upon the creative industries when what America was really fighting was creeping liberalism (which it learned decades later and which was also feared by the communists). It accurately portrays the documented differences among the Hollywood Ten and how they were perceived by their peers (not entirely positively especially following their self-aggrandising performances at the HUAC hearings) and the terrible compromises and betrayals between friends:  Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) didn’t work for a year and gave names of those men already behind bars. How to win against the oppressive Hollywood machine drives so much of their post-prison experience – sue them like the composite figure of Arlen Hird (Louis CK) wants to do? or do what they’re good at and beat the bastards at their own game? like Trumbo does – and how apposite that Trumbo was selected to rewrite Spartacus after winning the Oscar for both Roman Holiday and The Brave One under a front and then a pseudonym. What raises this again above other films dramatising the same situation is the sheer wit and brio with which it is written and performed – which you’d frankly expect of anything with Trumbo’s name attached:  kudos to John McNamara. It also clarifies the extent to which this was a self-administered situation – these guys were screwed over by the studios voluntarily, not Government decree. Cranston is perfect in the role which is suffused with sadness and smarts and he embodies the writer we all really want to be – smoking like a train, drinking like a fish, tranked up on benzedrine and writing in the bathtub. A wonderfully ironic touch for a man who didn’t wallow. It’s wonderful to watch him deal with his daughter Nicola (Elle Fanning) become as politicised as him and he must assume a different parental role as she matures:  he admires her but he can’t be disturbed to get out of the tub and celebrate her birthday because he’s got a deadline.  There are great scenes:  when Trumbo notices that Robinson sold a Van Gogh to pay for the writers’ legal defence;  the writing of the cheapie scripts for the King Brothers. This is a complicated portrait of a fascinating and contradictory individual. Diane Lane has a thankless and almost dialogue-free part as his brilliant wife Cleo but her charismatic presence transforms her scenes:  she is duly thanked by Trumbo in the film’s final scene in 1970 during a Writers Guild ceremony. John Goodman is fantastic as the Poverty Row producer Frank King who meets a Motion Picture Alliance thug with a baseball bat and leaves him in no doubt as to what will happen if he gets the way of his hiring Trumbo because he’s in the business for money and pussy and doesn’t care about politics.  There’s a fantastic scene sequence that illustrates the different working methodologies of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger:  Trumbo played them off one against the other to get his credits restored. The best tragicomic moment is perhaps in the clink when Trumbo encounters his nemesis J. Parnell Thomas who’s been imprisoned for a real crime – tax evasion. Trumbo was however convicted of one thing – contempt. He was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and this film does not shirk from that fact.  Directed sensitively and with panache by Jay Roach who has made a film that is literate, eloquent and humane. I am Spartacus.

Casino Royale (1967)

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You are joke shop spies, gentlemen.  The original James Bond (David Niven) is the debonair spy, now retired and living a peaceful existence. He is reluctantly called back into duty when the mysterious organization SMERSH begins assassinating British secret agents (through the medium of sex) and he is impersonated by six impostors and his return to service includes taking on the villainous Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) and baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) who is hired by Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress, the greatest Bond girl of all!) to be yet another iteration of the great spy as she plays both ends against the middle.  Then there’s Bond’s bumbling nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen)… Producer Charles Feldman acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel in 1960 but despite protracted negotiations with Eon could never agree terms so decided to send it up – everyone else was making Bond spoofs, so why shouldn’t he?  Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers play fast and loose with the source and it’s directed variously by Ken Hughes, John Huston (who gets blown up early on in the film as M/McTarry), Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish and an uncredited Richard Talmadge. Niven has fun in the film’s early sequence overlong though it is stretching credibility at its occasionally joyless spoofing. However there are compensations – Ursula and Peter’s sidelong romance;  motormouth comic Allen becoming silenced in the presence of his famous uncle;  Welles doing a magic trick. And what about Bond finding his illegitimate daughter Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) by Mata Hari?! Meta is the word. And I love seeing Charles Boyer and George Raft (as himself!), Deborah Kerr sending up her Oirish accent from Black Narcissus playing the nun-wannabe widow of Huston, French spy spoofer Jean-Paul Belmondo, TV stars Ronnie Corbett and Derek Nimmo (and Catweazle plays Q!) with starlets Jacky (Jacqueline) Bisset and Alexandra Bastedo. Mad and quite bad it might be – there’s a flying saucer! And cowboys! – but heck it’s also a lot of fun, dated as it is. The cinematography by Jack Hildyard, Nicolas Roeg and John Wilcox is decadence itself. And then there’s the Burt Bacharach soundtrack and that song:  the desert island classic…

Track of the Cat (1954)

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Got to keep drunk to forget I’m married to a clothes pin.  It’s the 1890s. In a snowbound homestead in Arizona, the Bridges family lives in contentious squalor. Brothers Curt (Robert Mitchum) and Harold (Tab Hunter) fight over the attentions of their beautiful neighbor, Gwen (Diana Lynn), while the boys’ boozing father (Philip Tonge) suffers under the abuse of their religiously minded mother (Beulah Bondi) who keeps spinster daughter Grace (Teresa Wright) under wraps. The family dysfunction only intensifies when a panther kills Curt’s timid brother, Arthur (William Hopper), and Curt sets out to slay the animal… There are traces of film noir leaving their track across this western, with its heightened stylised drama, vicious male-female antagonism and intense visuals, all complemented by contrasting performing styles. A.I. Bezzerides adapted Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel.  It’s directed by William Wellman, whose pet project this was, wanting to make a black and white film in colour and choosing some extremely interesting setups in collaboration with cinematographer William Clothier. It’s good to see Wright and Mitchum years after Pursued. Because it was produced by John Wayne’s company and didn’t do especially well it was taken out of distribution and remained unseen for many years due to his son’s refusal to have it put on DVD. Since his death his widow has made sure some previously lost films are now available. This is one of them.

Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) (TVM)

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Get off of me! You are going to forget once and for all about that filthy thing of yours! You’ll forget that you even have one of those things! Do you understand me, boy? Released from a mental institution once again, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) calls in to tell his life story to a radio host (CCH Pounder). Norman recalls his days as a young boy living with his schizophrenic mother (Olivia Hussey), and the jealous rage that inspired her murder. In the present, Norman lives with his pregnant wife psychiatrist Connie (Donna Mitchell), fearing that his child will inherit his split personality disorder, and Mother will return to kill again… Both a prequel and a sequel, this made for TV entry in the series has the original writer Joseph Stefano (never mind Alma Hitchcock’s contribution!) and a whole heap of interest to anyone who either visited the Universal FLA lot where it was shot (I have the shower curtain!) or was addicted to Bates Motel (to which it bears no relation, but you know what I mean).  Apparently Perkins wanted to have his Pretty Poison director Noel Black direct it from a screenplay by III scripter Charles Edward Poague but that film’s commercial failure meant a change in talent and Mick Garris was brought in to direct. Stefano didn’t like the violence in the preceding two films and ignored the backstory about Mrs Bates in II and the aunt in III.  Now, Norman Bates is married. Whatchootalkinabout?! Yup, they go there. Literally the unthinkable. And having a child. With a psychiatrist. Gulp … Pushing Freudian and schizoid buttons galore, Henry Thomas plays the young Norman in out of order flashbacks that clarify the events triggering the break in his personality with a path straight up to the first film.  Ironically this is probably the weakest of the sequels despite Stefano’s desire to have a psychologically accurate portrait of a cross-dressing mother-loving voyeuristic serial killer. But you just have to watch. Don’t you?! A  must for completionists.