Knives Out (2019)

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I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects.  When crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies just after his 85th birthday, inquisitive Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives at his estate to investigate despite the presence of police officers (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan). He sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind the writer’s untimely demise as each of the family members and the immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who cared for Harlan is questioned in turn. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a successful businesswoman with a an unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson) and a layabout son Ransom (Chris Evans). Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing company his father founded for his writing output, but they’ve been fighting. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is an advocate of self-help and has been helping herself to the old man’s money. His ancient mother (K Callan) never seems to die. Harlan’s devoted nurse Marta then becomes Harlan’s most trusted confidante but who hired him in the first place? … This is a twisted web, and we are not finished untangling it, not yet. The closed-room murder mystery is a staple of crime fiction and it’s not necessarily where you’d expect writer/director Rian Johnson to turn after a Star Wars episode (The Last Jedi) although it harks back to his debut, Brick, a take on Chandler/Hammett with teenagers. The touchstones are pretty clear:  Agatha Christie; the game (and film) of Clue(do); Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark; and some of the grasping familial mendacity we recognise from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If truth be told, it’s not very mysterious and barely suspenseful with two big twists a regular filmgoer or mystery reader will see through easily which means that they of course are not the point. It’s the dismantling of those hoary old tropes that provides the narrative motor. Much of the entertainment value derives from game comic playing by an established cast with a soupçon of political commentary provided by the nurse’s immigrant status which leads to a good line featuring Broadway hit Hamilton and everyone gets her native country wrong, one of the running jokes. Another is her need to vomit when telling a lie. The other one is stretching out the syllables in Benoit’s name so it sounds like Ben wa although personally I find Craig more prophylactic than sex toy and his ‘tec is Poirot X Columbo with an affected drawl. It looks quite sober and already feels like Sunday evening TV. For the undemanding viewer. CSI KFC!

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

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Aka Die Ehe der Maria Braun. I don’t know a thing about business. But I do know what German women want. You might even say I’m an expert on it. Near the end of World War II, Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch), who is immediately sent off to battle at the Russian front before the marriage can be consummated. When the war concludes, Maria believes that Hermann is dead. The new widow tries to make a go of life on her own and she starts working at an Allied bar, where she meets black American GI Bill (George Byrd). They start a relationship that is interrupted when Hermann returns unexpectedlyyy. During a scuffle between the men, in the heat of the moment Maria accidentally kills Bill. Hermann takes the blame and goes to jail, while Maria begins a hard new life and builds an empire of her own … He kept me warm on those cold nights after the war. Practically a German take on Mildred Pierce with the miraculous Schygulla giving Joan Crawford a run for her money (Fassbinder had intended the role for Romy Schneider) in the post-war noir-ish businesswoman stakes, this is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fiercely sardonic take on marriage and money set in a new kind of Germany with a nod to Brecht. Life for women involves transactional sex which is justified as the ultimate practicality: I don’t care what people think. I do care what you think. And you’re not having an affair with me. I’m having an affair with you. The entire text bleeds fascism – how politics is funneled through culture to create a political landscape, whether we like it or not, infecting everyone who inhabits it.  This is the first of Fassbinder’s three Wirtschaftswunder films and is a key work of the New German Cinema with an ending that literally detonates before your eyes. Eva describes herself as the Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle and this dissects desire in all its forms. The screenplay is by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Mörthesheimer who also wrote the dialogue with director Fassbinder, based on his outline (and he plays a small role in the drama).  It’s a perfect blend of subject matter, realisation and performance, graced with stunning cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. Reality lags behind my consciousness

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

Downton Abbey (2019)

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It’s like living in a factory. It’s 1927. Excitement is high at Downton Abbey when the Crawley family headed by Robert, Earl Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) learn that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to visit. Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) is perturbed that Maud, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) Queen Mary’s lady-in-waiting, is included in the tour. Maud is Robert’s cousin and her closest relative. The two families have fallen out over who should inherit Maud’s estate, Robert or Maud’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton). Tom Branson (Allen Leech) makes nice with a stranger known only as Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore) who he believes is keeping him under surveillance for his Irish Republican sympathies. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) scrambles to get the household ready but butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is proving inadequate to the task and Carson (Jim Carter) is quickly summoned out of retirement. But trouble arises when the cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Daisy (Sophie McShera), housekeeper Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and the rest of the servants learn that the king and queen travel with their own chefs and attendants – so when the Royal Page of the Backstairs (David Haig) arrives with the entourage the stage is set for a showdown below stairs Secrets always muddle things. Julian Fellowes returns to the big screen with a country house tale nearly two decades after Gosford Park which inspired the hugely successful Downton Abbey TV show in the first place. There’s less plot than one of those episodes and it picks up approximately 18 months after the last one but the characters are so barely skimmed over and it all looks so pretty you’ll hardly notice – the only possible controversy is with an attempted royal assassination, trouble with the monarch’s daughter Princess Mary’s (Kate Phillips) marriage, Barrow’s trip to the Twenties equivalent of a gay rave, Lady Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) mysterious retreat from independence into the world of ladies who lunch (which she only addresses late in the story) and a lightly trailed retirement of the world’s favourite pantomime Dame Maggie who lands all of the best lines. Well she would, wouldn’t she. Even Isis the dog makes a return albeit she isn’t called. Nary a hint of revolution save a mention of the General Strike which leads the Dowager Countess to observe that she noticed her maid was rather curt to her. Featherweight entertainment, as light and fluffy and non-calorific as one of Mrs Patmore’s soufflés. Directed by Michael Engler.  I know I’m going to forget my lines

 

Deadline USA (1952)

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A journalist makes himself the hero of the story. A reporter is only a witness. New York City newspaper The Day is in money trouble. Even though editor Ed Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart) has worked hard running the paper, its circulation has been steadily declining. Now the widow (Ethel Barrymore) of the paper’s publisher wants to sell the paper to a commercial rival, which will most likely mean its end. Hutcheson also worries that his estranged ex-wife Nora (Kim Hunter) is about to remarry. His only hope of saving the paper is to increase the numbers by finishing his exposé on a dangerous racketeer Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel) before the sale is made final after a reporter is badly beaten up investigating the murder of a girl called Bessie Schmidt who may have been Rienzi’s mistress while her brother Herman (Joe De Santis) had dealings with him... Stupidity isn’t hereditary, you acquire it by yourself. Twentieth Century-Fox and writer/director Richard Brooks were a good fit:  a studio that liked pacy stories paired with a filmmaker whose toughness had a literary quality and a fast-moving narrative style.  Both parties wanted message movies and the message here is A free press, like a free life, sir, is always in danger. The newspaper is broadly based on New York Sun which closed in 1950 (and it was edited by Benjamin Day) although according to Brooks’ biography it was more or less based on New York World which closed in 1931. The casting is great with Bogart excellent as the relentlessly crusading editor who acts on his principles while all about him tumble to influence and threats, trying to peddle the truth rather than the expeditious. Barrymore towers in her supporting role as the publisher and their conflict with her daughters is the ballast to the crime story, with the marital scenario giving it emotional heft. Jim Backus does some nice work as reporter Jim Cleary:  For this a fellow could catch a hole in the head. A cool piece of work, in every sense of the term. Watch for an uncredited James Dean as a copyboy in a busy montage. That’s the press, baby. The press! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!

Dementia 13 (1963)

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Aka The Haunted and the HuntedI think you should spend more time with your wife to be. After John Haloran (Peter Read) dies suddenly, his wife Louise (Luana Anders) fears she will be denied his inheritance and conceals the death. She travels from the US to join the rest of the Haloran family at their Irish estate, Castle Haloran, as they hold a memorial for John’s young sister, who died in a lake eight years ago. Her brothers-in-law Billy (Bart Patton) and Richard (William Campbell) perform a strange ritual. Louise schemes to convince her mother-in-law Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne) that she can speak with the dead child. However, this plan is interrupted by an axe murderer on the loose and family members start dying off, one by one.  Local medic Dr Justin Caleb (Patrick Magee) attempts to solve the mystery  It’s a true sign of the late, great lord y’are. A neat little slasher made by producer Roger Corman with funds left over from The Young Racers (and three of the stars, Campbell, Anders and Magee), this is Francis Ford Coppola’s proper debut following two nudie pics. It’s nicely shot on location in Ireland (at Ardmore Studios, Howth Castle and Dublin Airport) by Charles Hannawalt.  It’s an effective little slasher flick made in the mould of Psycho, with some new sequences shot by Jack Hill when Coppola’s original didn’t fit Corman’s exacting requirements with a tacked-on prologue done by Monte Hellman. It’s a good role for the underrated Anders, one of my favourite actresses of that era and there’s oodles of atmosphere with the murderer appearing out of the dark in the many murder sequences, making superb use of the picturesque setting. Who could have guessed that the director of this story about family business would turn into America’s version of Luchino Visconti in less than a decade with The Godfather?! He made a wax doll to relieve his guilt

Lizzie (2018)

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Your face is familiar – perhaps it’s the scent that’s throwing me off.  In 1892 Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) lives a quiet life in Massachusetts under the strict rules established by her father, unscrupulous businessman Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) who has remarried to Abby (Fiona Shaw). Lizzie finds a kindred spirit in the new live-in Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), called ‘Maggie’ by everyone else since her real identity is immaterial, and friendship soon blossoms into a secret romance. Tension mounts in the Borden household, with Mr Borden raping Bridget with his wife’s knowledge, Lizzie’s maternal uncle town constable John Morse (Denis O’Hare) attempting to rape her, and all over the inheritance which will one day be hers and her sister Emma’s (Kim Dickens) but which Lizzie discovers is now intended for Abby. All the while, Andrew is receiving written threats to do with his acquisition of local land … This attachment you’ve formed is unhealthy, and it must end. We all know the rhyme even if we don’t quite know its origins:  Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.  How fascinating that one-time It Girl Sevigny shepherded this production and teamed up opposite current It Girl and European art house darling Stewart, who nailed her millennial credentials long ago but took a leftward swerve into seriously good auteur territory. This is almost Bergmanesque in its studied still centre, so that the final sequences revealing in flashbacks the violent axe-murders as they happened, give a virtually orgasmic climax to pent up anger: well if someone brutally killed your pets and served them up for dinner, wouldn’t you? How not to be a parent 101. This refusal of emotionality and virtually flat, undemonstrative performances, until the unleashing, almost deprives us of empathy – but not quite. The stars are terrific in this low-key presentation of a lurid story.  Written by Bryce Kass and impressively directed by Craig William Macneill.  And at last, we are on equal footing, father 

 

 

Juliet, Naked (2018)

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Every aspect of civilisation is going to the dogs, with the notable exception of TV. Annie (Rose Byrne) returned to her seaside hometown 15 years earlier to take over her late father’s history museum and is stuck in a long-term relationship with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) – a media studies lecturer at the local further education college and an obsessive fan of obscure rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke).  Crowe has been out of the spotlight for a quarter of a century and Duncan has gathered a couple of hundred of fellow devotees online on a website he has created in his honour. When the acoustic demo of Tucker’s hit record from 25 years ago surfaces at their house, its release leads to a life-changing encounter for Annie with the elusive rocker himself when he responds to a review she posts on Duncan’s website and they start to contact each other regularly, telling each other their problems. Duncan, meanwhile, is moving on and moving in with new colleague Gina (Denise Gough) leaving his Tucker shrine intact in Annie’s basement. Across the Atlantic Tucker’s life takes on a further twist when Lizzie (Ayoola Smart) one of his illegitimate children announces she is about to become a mother and he decides to pay a visit to the UK when she’s about to give birth. Tucker has children he doesn’t even know, while sharing a garage with the only boy who means anything to him, his newest son Jackson (Azhy Robertson).  The reality of his relationship with his famous muse from three decades earlier is gradually revealed following a medical emergency which brings all the children he has fathered to his hospital bedside..Are you telling me I have to know Antigone before I can understand The Wire? Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel by Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Evgenia Peretz and Phil Alden Robinson,  this comic account of romantic mismatches, irresponsible breeding, inheritance, missed opportunities and fandom gets a lot of traction from the casting of Hawke, practically a poster boy for Generation X since, well, Generation X had a name and Evan Dando et al slid off our collective radar even if we still have the mixtapes to prove there was life before the internet – which then gave rise to this new outlet for sleb cultdom. As one Miss Morrisette used to wail, Isn’t it ironic. O’Dowd is his usual doofus self while Byrne shines as the long-suffering woman who ponders motherhood following the decision not to be a parent – well, with that guy, who would?! There is an amusing moment when the reality of Annie’s online musings materialises on the beach and Duncan simply doesn’t recognise his lifelong hero who he believes is living on a sheep farm in Pennsylvania sporting a long white beard. It’s an amiable amble down collective memory lane without much surface dressing and despite some weird editing early on, it coasts on the performances but never reaches emotional heights, reflecting the music that Hawke performs in character.  Directed by Jesse Peretz, who, entirely coincidentally one presumes, used to play with The Lemonheads and who made his directing debut long ago with another Brit writer, First Love, Last Rites, an Ian McEwan adaptation.  He is currently making a TV version of Hornby’s much-loved High Fidelity.  I love it, the internet! God, you’re finally entering the modern age. Which site was it? One for clever people, no doubt. Hornyhistorians.com?

Lucky (2017)

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The one thing worse than awkward silence is small talk. Every day in the desert town of Piru, California, 90-year old Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) does 21 reps of his 5 yoga exercises, drinks some milk, shouts Cunts! at the botanic garden that barred him for smoking and enters a diner owned by Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley) where he has a large milky coffee and does the crossword. Then he buys some smokes in Bibi’s (Bertila Damas) shop on his way back home, where he settles down to his TV quiz shows before heading to Elaine’s (Beth Grant), the local bar, where he chews the fat with a group of friends:  Howard (David Lynch) gets depressed about President Roosevelt, who, it transpires, is his tortoise,who outlasted Howard’s two wives and who’s disappeared; Paulie (James Darren) misses his late wife and Lucky reckons he is fortunate never to have married. Lucky falls over when he’s home alone (he’s always home alone) and winds up in hospital where the doctor Christian Kneedley (Ed Begley Jr) tells him he’s a medical wonder. The diner waitress Loretta (Yvonne Huff) calls to his house and they watch Liberace on TV and smoke grass and Lucky insinuates that he is homosexual and asks Loretta not to talk about it. At Elaine’s Howard is treated ingratiatingly by a lawyer Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston) he hired for end of life bequests who Lucky thinks is gaming his friend. Back at the diner he chats with Fred (Tom Skerritt) a tourist and fellow WW2 veteran and they share stories about the Philippines. At the birthday party of Bibi’s son, Lucky sings in Spanish and that evening finds his friends once again … All I can think is it’s a combination of genetic good luck and you’re one tough son of a bitch. Harry Dean Stanton was always old, or so it seemed. The first time we see Lucky outside it’s a conscious re-staging of that famous low angle medium close up from Paris, Texas. But now he’s thirty-five years older and it’s a different hat and he’s not on the move any longer, save for those few exercises on the floor of his house, and the furthest he walks is shuffling down the street of his small town for his unvarying daily routine. He’s an atheist looking at death and trying to figure out what matters. Every scene is detailed and deals with an aspect of philosophy, a preparedness for the next phase, set in motion by the definition of realism which Lucky finds in a dictionary when doing the crossword. It’s funny and humane and brought to life by effervescent performances from a range of actors you never dreamed of putting together, but here they are. Written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, this feels very elegiac but never depressing, more of a coming to terms with the inevitable, featuring some comic interludes which never intrude on the tone of the deep felt emotionality. Lynch has an extraordinary monologue about his tortoise that ends with the line: There are some thing in this universe that are bigger than all of us and that tortoise is one of them.  It’s a wonderfully humble moment and it crystallises the film’s central idea as well as reminding us what a lucky charm Stanton was for Lynch’s career. Those sunlit desert scenes are beautifully shot by Tim Suhrstedt while the songs are mostly by Elvis Kuehn but you’ll get a lump in your throat when you hear Johnny Cash singing Will Oldham’s I See a Darkness. Directed by veteran actor John Carroll Lynch, it ends on a shot of Lucky walking into the desert, sort of like President Roosevelt (the tortoise). A perfect conclusion to an incomparable career, this was the cherishable Stanton’s final film and he’s the leading man at last. I always thought that what we all agreed was what we were looking at

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