The Witches (1990)

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You can never be sure if it’s a witch you’re looking at or a kind lady. Little American boy Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is holidaying with his Norwegian grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) who regales him with stories of witches, female demons masquerading as normal women but possessing undending hatred of children.  Helga’s best friend in childhood was entrapped by one of them in a painting and eventually faded from view. When Luke’s parents die his grandmother becomes his guardian and sends him to boarding school where he evades the attention of one such witch (Anne Lambton) and during the holidays at a seaside resort Luke become aware that witches are holding their annual British convention as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston).  When he and another boy Bruno (Charlie Potter) are in their midst they encounter a life-changing transformation into mice and have to avoid all sorts of predators as they try to escape to safety experiencing an actual cat and mouse chase … Real witches hate children! Adapted by Allan Scott from Roald Dahl’s darkly comic book, the biggest surprise to fans of Nicolas Roeg is that he directed it (perhaps not when you consider he had young sons at the time) but it has some of his recognisable tropes as well as a crew of his regular collaborators, including Scott, costumier Marit Allen and editor Tony Lawson in a production from Henson Studios with all that firm’s puppeteering and effects skills to the fore. The trick of balancing realism with fantasy, humour with horror, and scares for children (Roeg edited out more morbid material after seeing one of his children’s reactions) with jokes for adults, is perfectly achieved in this ambitious comic drama with Huston camping it up appositely to Zetterling’s caring grandmother. How is the room service here?/Diabolical./ Good! A third of the film is the adventure the boys have as mice, attempting to avoid becoming part of the hotel’s dinner menu, and there’s a marvellous payoff with formerly fat Bruno achieving his mother’s (Brenda Blethyn) ambition that he lose weight. The (happy) ending is different from that in the book and Dahl hated it and threatened to publicly campaign against it (Jim Henson dissuaded him) but overall it retains his casual cruelty and wit. Stanley Myers’ score is amped up with excerpts from Dies irae here and there to sound like Berlioz’ The Witches’ Sabbath. Shot in Bergen, Newquay and at Bray Studios, this was the last feature to involve the great Henson and the final one of Dahl’s books to be adapted prior to his own demise. A foolish witch without a brain, must sizzle into fire and flame! A witch who dares to say I’m wrong, will not be with us… VERY LONG!

 

 

The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

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There’s no reason to be scared. A frustrated pianist who spent four years at Juilliard, music journalist Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) is thrilled to interview virtuoso Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens). Duncan, however, is terminally ill and not much interested in Myles until he observes that Myles’ hands are ideally suited for piano. Suddenly, he can’t get enough of his new friend and thinks he should perform; while his daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins) thinks Myles should act, and Myles’ wife, Paula (Jacqueline Bisset), who believes he has a great novel in him, becomes suspicious of Duncan’s intentions. Her suspicions grow when Duncan dies and Myles mysteriously becomes a virtuoso overnight... Hands like yours are one in a hundred thousand.  Adapted from Fred Mustard Stewart’s novel it’s easy to dismiss this as an unambiguous Faustian followup to Rosemary’s Baby but it’s better than that. Once-blacklisted screenwriter Ben Maddow does a fine job (on his final screenplay) in conveying the book’s deep sense of dread and Jurgens is terrifying as the man whose influence stretches beyond mere existence. It’s set in California in a change from the original New York location. No matter how lusciously lovely it looks (courtesy of William W. Spencer), it’s shot through with death and strangeness, odd setups, underpinned by Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score (and a guy called Liszt) and highly effective performances, particularly by Bisset who is fantastic as the horrifyingly cuckolded wife, and by the imposingly scary soul-switching Satanist Jurgens. I feel unfaithful – he’s like three different men, says Bisset after having sex with the newly-transfused Alda.  Even Parkins impresses as the seductive daughter whose own father clearly loves her outside the usual limits. Unfortunately Alda is the weakest link and seems more like a lucky social climber. It remains a terrifying film, with glorious visual insinuation and eerie dream sequences, wonderfully directed by Paul Wendkos. The only feature production by legendary TV producer Quinn Martin.  Success makes you miserable, doesn’t it

The Beach House (2019) (TVM)

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The beach house is not so much a place as a state of mind. Caretta (Minka Kelly) is a successful copywriter at a Chicago advertising firm but when she loses her job to her colleague and boyfriend she returns to South Carolina to Primrose Cottage, the beach house holiday home she thought she’d left behind.  She has rejected her Southern roots having left 15 years earlier, never wishing to go back until her mother Lovie (Andie McDowell) lures her there for a week in the summer. Lovie has taken in a young woman Toy (Makenzie Vega) whose family has thrown her out due to an unplanned pregnancy. Toy’s presence makes Caretta bristle with jealousy.  Flo (Donna Biscoe) helps out with the house and along with Lovie assists other locals to rescue wild loggerhead turtles during their spawning cycle but Caretta feigns disinterest in the area and the environment. She has not inherited her mother’s love of the place.  It is the only place I have ever felt like myself, says Lovie. It is my home. As Caretta helps repair the shabby house she renews acquaintance with an old boyfriend Brett Beauchamps (Chad Michael Murray) who has built up his boating business and never wants to leave.  Secrets soon start to emerge, starting with brother Palmer (Donny Boaz) who lives in the family home two hours away with his wife and children and who only sees dollar signs at the beach house which Lovie discovers he has mortgaged behind her back after leaving him to handle her finances. He has inherited far too much of his late father’s character and the brother and sister’s sibling rivalry reappears.  Eventually the rhythms of the island open Caretta’s heart in wonderful ways but she discovers that her mother has only one summer left to live and just prior to her unhappy marriage had a relationship of true love that could yet yield a welcome outcome … This may come as a surprise but not everyone wants to spend their day staking turtle rods. Executive produced by Andie McDowell, this adaptation by Maria Nation of Mary Alice Monroe’s almost literal fish out of water 2002 novel is so gorgeous that you may find yourself actively contemplating a picturesque death by the seaside, and not for the first time, when you consider that it is basically the adopted daughter of Beaches. Beautifully shot (by Peter Wunstorf), paced and performed, it’s skilfully handled by storied editor/writer/director/producer Roger Spottiswoode.  Lovely entertainment for a September Sunday. I’m still me, aren’t I?

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (2019)

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He would craft mythical tales into voyages of the mind. Filmmaker Werner Herzog and author Bruce Chatwin became fast friends when they encountered one another in Australia in 1983. Herzog was researching Where the Green Ants Dream, Chatwin his book Songlines. They talked nonstop, bonding over their shared love of the sacrament of walking which they both believed had therapeutic even mystical qualities. Herzog narrates the story of their friendship and Chatwin’s travels and books over the course of eight chapters, commencing with The Skin of the Brontosaurus, an object in the family’s cabinet of curiosities that was really skin and fur from a sloth but which was one of the many pieces inspiring Chatwin to travel – or walk – the world, emblems of places he wanted to visit, or as Herzog says, points of a compass. Using some voice recordings of Chatwin reading from his work, archive footage and excerpts from Herzog’s own films, and interviews, he traces their interweaving stories across the continents from the neolithic structures at Avebury in Wiltshire to Australia and South America and West Africa, to the Priory in Wales that was his sanctuary, and demonstrates how their journeys and interests intersected:  Herzog famously walked to see Lotte Eisner in Paris and used Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Uidah as the basis of Cobra Verde, a film set in another deranged landscape starring Klaus (Fitzcarraldo) Kinski who biographer Nicholas Shakespeare says might best represent Chatwin as an older man, had he lived. Herzog never saw Chatwin’s annotated copy of the screenplay and Shakespeare reads out what the author thought of Herzog:  a compendium of contradictions;  remote and alone. Chatwin had led a highly promiscuous life as a bisexual and was dying of AIDS when Herzog showed him Herdsmen of the Sun, the last images he saw.  Chatwin told Herzog he was dying and Herzog reports that he responded, I can see that. As he lay dying he gifted Herzog his leather rucksack, a totem and talisman in this film about people finding their tribes – it not only played a role in Herzog’s Scream of Stone, it may have helped save Herzog’s life when he could sit on it during a particularly dangerous ice storm. Herzog defuses the myth. Chatwin asked Herzog to help him end his life and Herzog offered to either bash his head in with a baseball bat or shoot him. In fact Chatwin didn’t want his friend to see him die and was lapsing in and out of consciousness and he watched the film when he came to every so often and died shortly afterwards. As Herzog reads extracts from Chatwin one senses the echoes of his own autobiography:  One of the essential locations where he would find his inner balance.  Chatwin had liked Herzog’s film Signs of Life because, Herzog says, he was searching for strangeness.  The myth continues until the final chapter The Book is Closed when Herzog reads Chatwin’s last handwritten words, Christ wore a seamless robe. Talking with academics, correspondents, climbers and Chatwin’s widow Elizabeth, Herzog shapes the contours of an adventurous nomadic life that vibrates to this day, traced along the planet’s navigational lines and proving its very pulse. He was the internet

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

Here and Now (2018)

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Aka Blue Night. I’m not done yet. Jazz singer/songwriter Vivienne (Sarah Jessica Parker) has just received a cancer diagnosis. She spends the day walking around New York City, meeting up with her manager Ben (Common) to discuss her upcoming tour, rehearsing with her backing band, telling her ex-husband Nick (Simon Baker) who has custody of their daughter Lucie (Gus Birney), dealing with her overbearing French-speaking mother Jeanne (Jacqueline Bisset), arguing with a taxi driver (Waleed Zuaiter), having an assignation with her drummer and romantic interest Jordan (Taylor Kinney) and reflecting on her life as she comes to terms with her mortality … First a tragedy, then a miracle. An homage to (if not a direct remake of) the late Agnès Varda’s 1962 nouvelle vague classic Cléo from  5 to 7, this is written by Laura Eason and capitalises on Parker’s association with NYC, that city which became so important televisually with Sex and the City in the same way that it has always been for cinema. Reconciling this star’s iconicity with latterday roles is proving problematic. Essentially this is about a woman in a state of perpetual avoidance (even in the course of just one day) and for a character and public persona notable for costume it will be a vast disappointment that until the very last scene she wears the same outfit throughout – save for a session in a boutique in a metaphorical attempt to alter her situation then she presents the dress as a gift to her truculent teenage daughter. This is an indication of a script that’s not altogether in tune with its somewhat dithering protagonist: Parker is not given enough to do and that is quite literally fatal considering this is a film concerning something going on in her head but despite the internalising of the dramatic performance at its centre there are some pithy lines. Vivienne (the irony extends to her name) is about to perform an anniversary gig at Birdland where 25 years earlier great things were forecast but a broken engagement last year somehow triggered a retreat. All of my albums have been triggered by all of my broken engagements, she deadpans to a noxious journalist who has never heard of Donald O’Connor. Renée Zellwegger as her friend Tessa brings a sharpness to a character which makes it more interesting than the scene that perhaps was written, while the scenes between Parker and Bisset are horribly convincing. The feature debut of commercials director Fabien Constant, this is notable for Parker’s quite odd performance of Rufus Wainwright’s marvellous song Unfollow the Rules, indicating that she’s not a jazz singer at all but a different animal entirely, a thread the narrative might have pursued (she still loves Belgian pop singer Lio), just like she should have kicked off her heels and got real, delving deeper into that fascinating hinterland where several interesting signposts are left dangling. I’d like to change the destination

All Is True (2018)

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I’ve just bought a pension. I can’t die for at least 10 years or I’ll be ruined. It’s 1613, and Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground and he decides he will never write again. Devastated, he returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death 17 years earlier of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis) he struggles to mend the broken relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters, Hamnet’s twin sister, spirited spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappy Susanna (Lydia Wilson) who is married to a noxiously stern Puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). He is forced to examine his failings as an absent husband and father when 28-year old Judith finally gets involved with a suitor alleged to have impregnated another woman and Susanna is accused of adultery … A garden ain’t a play. Screenwriter Ben Elton has been wowing on the small screen with his very clever parody of Shakespeare in Upstart Crow but this is only occasionally in the same pantomimic vein albeit its nod/wink title (the original title for The Life of Henry VIII) toys with the idea that this is anything other than a confection of falsehoods and assumptions.  And it is a bit of a joke to start with – an old conqueror finally comes home and gets in the way of his wife and has the temerity to mess up the garden she has so carefully cultivated for the last 20 years. And then there are all those long country evenings when all you have is a candle for company. Irony is writ large here. At its heart a melancholy meditation on age, family and what you leave behind, Shakespeare is confronted with the long-hidden truth of his young son’s death, a boy whom he believed to have been greatly talented but who had actually been presenting the work of his twin, who was left unable to read and write, being but a girl. The discovery is poignant indeed. There’s a sonnet-off  (# 29) when Will is confronted with another truth – that the now elderly object of his affection Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) is not interested in him but appreciates his art. How wonderfully odd that two of the great contemporary exponents of the Bard are quoting him at each other. Anne’s feelings are nothing – when the poems were published (illegally, without Will’s consent), he never thought about her reputation or what people might say. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The bedrock of his entire life it seems has been other people and what they say – what was said of his father, what was said of him, and now, what is said about his daughters, both caught up in scandals of their own. He is a man for whom all truth is literally relative. Retirement is not easy and revelations about what happened at home when he was enjoying fame and adulation come as a shock to someone for whom all the world’s a stage and now his daughters are ruining the name he literally wrote out of disgrace to redeem his father’s blackguarding. Branagh is very good, prosthetics and all, capable of being hurt and amusing and rueful. The motifs are striking in a beautifully shot production – two fires dominate the visuals: the opening conflagration at the Globe caused by a misfiring cannon in a production co-written with John Fletcher; and the smaller one in the grate when Judith attempts to destroy what Hamnet transcribed – because Will needs to believe it was his dead son who wrote the poetry and she is guilty at being a gifted woman because he has such a low opinion of her. And Will loves the word on the page – when he sees his son’s name written in the funeral record in the local church his face comes to life. Anne chides him that when Hamnet died he was busy writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dench is wise and moving in the role of the much older wife protecting him from terrible knowledge. However the slow pace and ruminative setting, autumnal and somewhat bucolic, hide the sad drama within. It’s stunningly shot by Zac Nicholson, not just allowing us to see the wide open spaces juxtaposed with interestingly shot and lit interiors – so many dimpled with pure candlelight as the sole source – but telling us that there is always a bigger story and hinting where to look. There are funny scenes with the ridiculously ingratiating local MP Sir Thomas Lucey (Alex Macqueen) and some wild put-downs. There’s even a jibe about authorship and how it was that a man who owns up to having lived such a little life could have ended up knowing everything. Lest we forget, Elton is the best Elizabethan historian we have, when you think about Blackadder. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is very lovely. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Nothing is ever true

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Genius (2016)

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You took the words right out of my mouth. In 1929 Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) is the successful book editor known for working with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West). He lives peaceably with wife Louise (Laura Linney) and their five daughters and is taken with the manuscript O, Lost by a new writer, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and agrees to work with him. Its success (with the title Look Homeward, Angel) causes issues between Wolfe and theatre designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) an older married woman with whom he is involved and the tensions escalate in the years it takes to produce his next book, Of Time and the River, which requires massive revision. He moves to Paris and upon his return to New York, he quarrels with Max and turns to another editor… Might want to read this one. Adapted by John Logan from the legendary biography of editor Perkins by A. Scott Berg, this was always going to be a tricky proposition:  how to you make the internal mechanics of the writing world interesting? How do you externalise the creative process? Here, it’s all about relationships. Perkins had the reputation he had because he knew how the writer’s mind worked and how to make a book sell and here it’s a talent dedicated specifically to the spectacularly gifted Wolfe, a seemingly rare genius who however needs someone to finesse his excessively prolix work. This is an acting masterclass with rhyming scenes and dialogue that must have been a dream to perform, rhythmic and quotable and filled with nuance and payoffs. To be a novelist, you have to select. You have to shape and sculpt. It’s telling that Fitzgerald and Hemingway are supporting characters working as a kind of echo chamber to the central story. Will anyone care about Thomas Wolfe in 100 years? Ten years? When I was young, I asked myself that question every day/ I used to trouble myself like that every day. Now I ask myself, “Can I write one good sentence.”  Wolfe and Berg are fully fleshed out, real and rumbustious and rich, with their letters used by Logan to create scenes that evoke difficulty and even jealousy with the women in their respective lives. The production design and editing are detailed and impactful but this is essentially illuminating about two men, big characters with a way with words, their working friendship and a thorough exposition of negotiating through a creative collaboration focusing on the importance of having the right editor for the right writer and the best book it is possible to produce. Fascinating and brilliantly acted, this is a buddy movie of a very different variety which ironically might need a little editing itself but it’s a great excursion into the business of big books and the world of the Great American Novelist. Directed by theatre grandee Michael Grandage. I don’t exist any more. I’ve been edited

The Children Act (2017)

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Life is more precious than dignity. London High Court judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) must decide if she should order a life-saving blood transfusion for a teen with leukaemia Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead) despite his parents’ (Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh) refusal to accept medical treatment because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Fiona’s home life adds extra pressure to the decision-making – she is deep in the middle of a marital crisis because her academic husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) declares his wish to pursue an affair with a colleague. She decides she must do something unconventional during the court case and pays a visit to Adam in hospital … Don’t you remember how we were? Don’t you miss that? This issue film is adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel and boasts a stunning performance from Thompson as the woman daily challenged by ethical matters which have life-enhancing (or -ending) consequences. Richard Eyre directs with customary rigour and nuance in beautifully photographed settings in the Law courts and the English countryside but it feels somewhat like flogging a dead horse, as it were, failing to offer a robust counter-argument to the rationale of assisting a person in peril, making Thompson’s Herculean efforts seem somewhat … in vein?! Perhaps it’s a topic better suited to the likes of Jodi Picoult but the interesting plot turn which suggests a much deeper seam of emotion is not exploited as deeply as one would hope. This court is a court of law not of morals