Isle of Dogs (2018)

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I used to sleep on a lamb’s wool beanbag next to an electric space heater. That’s my territory, I’m an ‘indoor’ dog.  By executive decree all the canine pets of Megasaki City are exiled to a vast garbage-dump called Trash Island following an outbreak of flu. 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin) sets off alone in a miniature Junior-Turbo Prop and flies across the river in search of his bodyguard-dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). There, with the assistance of a pack of newly-found mongrel friends led by Chief (Bryan Cranston) and including Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), he begins an epic journey that will decide the fate and future of the entire Prefecture…  I wish somebody spoke his language. The films of Wes Anderson have a signature – a look and tone that is unmistakable:  flat, square and symmetrical compositions filled with collectibles adorning an arch and ironic narrative with an amusing bittersweet undertow. The term ‘quirky’ is often used in reviews. His high point has been The Grand Budapest Hotel, a live-action comic drama that used ingenious tropes to express deeply felt ideological and emotional issues: Ralph Fiennes was rightly recognised for his performance in the lead (and should have won the Academy Award); The Royal Tenenbaums has become a definitive NYC movie, often referenced in fashion. He works with a repertory of actors who are now as well known for their association with him over the past two decades as for their other work:  he makes them hip, they lend him gravitas. He alternates these outings with animation/stop-motion effects-led films of which this is one and it’s probably his least appealing – with ineffectual dry humour, a grey palette and fairly expressionless humans (Japanese, and rather blank) turning what should have been a feather-light confection into a dreary one hundred minutes. The wry expressivity of the voice actors is lost in uncompelling characterisations that come off as flat as the drawings. The linguistic jokes are put in an occasional set of (obviously droll) sub-titles so small they are hard to read. It feels like there’s nothing at stake although it’s life and death and there’s a family reunion at hand. A quest narrative needs to have jeopardy but it’s stilted and gives little to the viewer. The best thing about this is the title. Say it a few times and you understand what this is actually about. It’s a shame but, you know, nobody died. Anderson’s screenplay is from a story by himself & Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura. Narrated by Courtney B. Vance.

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The Tamarind Seed (1974)

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She could be one of our most important agents over here. On holiday from her job in the civil service at the Home Office, Judith Farrow (Julie Andrews) heads to the Caribbean after ending a love affair with married Government minister Richard Paterson (David Baron). On Barbados she is befriended by debonair Russian Feodor Sverdlov (Omar Sharif). The two quickly fall in love despite his married status, but Judith’s feelings are tested when Sverdlov is revealed to be a Russian agent eager to win her over to his cause. Back in London, intelligence officer Jack Loder (Anthony Quayle) is aware of a mole in the Government and is convinced Sverdlov is trying to recruit Judith as a Soviet spy.  She is instructed never to see him again, but can’t shake the attachment and soon finds that both of their lives are in danger … With titles by Maurice Binder and a resonant piano-based score by John Barry, you’d almost think you were in a James Bond film. Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Evelyn Anthony’s 1971 novel is true to its sense of high romance, urgent drama and deep-seated tensions stemming from the clash of ideologies pulsing beneath the lust. Andrews and Sharif are extraordinarily well-matched in this stylish epic, with gorgeous photography by Freddie Young in what is a charged if relatively well-heeled and glossy depiction of the Cold War, with betrayal and assassinations and embassy parties. Perfect for a dull September evening. A few days to convince her that she is doing it for love

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

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I’ve seen things I never thought could happen happen. In 1946 London-based writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James) begins exchanging letters with residents on the island of Guernsey, which was German-occupied during WWII after one of them, pig farmer Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) comes into possession of her copy of Essays of Elia. Her new book of humour enables her to buy a decent home but it doesn’t fit her down to earth style and she stays in a bedsit in a boarding house.  Her publisher Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode) is urging her to go on a proper publicity tour but she is restless. Romanced by US Army officer Markham Reynolds (Glen Powell) who fills her home with daily bouquets and dances her around the finest venues in London, the letters from the quaintly named book club pique her curiosity. Feeling compelled to visit the island, she starts to get a picture of what it was like during the occupation but her desire to write an article for The Times elicits opposition, particularly from Amelia (Penelope Wilton) who regarded the mysteriously absent club member Elizabeth (Jessica Browne Findlay) as her daughter yet whose little child is being reared by Dawsey. When things get difficult at the guest house run by Charlotte Stimple (Bronagh Gallagher) Juliet takes refuge with gin-maker Isola (Katharine Parkinson) and Eben the postmaster (Tom Courtenay) is always at hand with support and a telephone line …. The little-acknowledged German occupation of the Channel Islands and its very complex legacy is often the forgotten part of what went on during World War 2 in the British Isles. Mary Ann Shaffer’s novel, inspired by a visit there, was completed posthumously by her niece, Annie Barrows, and the screenplay by Kevin Hood, Don Roos and Tom Bezucha (the latter two substantial directors in their own right) transcends the material, bringing to life an extraordinary episode in fictional form. The story of Elizabeth and her transgression is wrought exponentially not necessarily because anyone wants Juliet to know the story but precisely because their own prejudices and beliefs are called into question, as well as a sense of guilt over the outcome, which is of course the big reveal. Perhaps James and Huisman are not ideally meant in movie star heaven – Powell is a much more obvious fit, a good guy, a sparky romantic lead and a well-meaning operator who helps solve the puzzle of Elizabeth, but in matters of the heart, we never know how other people work and the obvious is not always right.  More than that, this explores the real dilemma that a writer has:  confronting her failure as a serious biographer (The Life of Ann Brontë sold 28 copies – “worldwide,” as her publisher helpfully contributes to a roomful of rapt readers of her Izzy Bickerstaff book). So the frothy crowd-pleasing delights on English foibles she is now expected to produce frustrate her when she is confronted by real emotion after wartime’s effects are truly felt by British victims of the Nazi regime who don’t want fairy stories told about them.  It is the resolution of both story problems that produces the conclusion and that is the real achievement of this melding of fact and the manufacture of fiction. Above all, this is a film about the joy of reading. Beautifully shot on location with great production design and attention to historical detail, this is quite spellbinding. Directed by Mike Newell.

Adrift (2018)

Adrift 2018

Come sail with me. In 1983 Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) and her new boyfriend Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) couldn’t anticipate that they would be sailing directly into one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history. They have met on Tahiti and he is hired to deliver a yacht to San Diego, her hometown, which she had no desire to see any time soon.  In the aftermath of the late season storm, with the boat pitch poled, Tami awakens to find Richard badly injured and the Hazana in ruins. Everything is broken, smashed and scattered, the cabin half-full of water, the masts broken clear off and the sails waterlogged and floating useless nearby;  the navigation system, and the emergency position-indicating radio device, were broken. With no hope of rescue, Tami must now find the strength and determination to save herself and the only man she has ever loved who is lying on the aft deck, ribs broken, leg shattered, guiding her in calculating their position using a sextant and working out the latitude on the ship’s maps. All the time she is trying to avoid the storm that is tagging them to try and make it to Hawaii despite having drifted north in a potential search area of 1,500 miles – and that’s only if anyone has noticed their disappearance…  Since this is adapted from Oldham’s book Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea we know she survived this appalling experience:  this shows us how, more or less. It’s written by David Branson Smith,  Aaron Kandell and Jordan Kandell and their interpretation may be faithful to the account and what Oldham did to survive although it’s somewhat creative in what actually occurred during the 41-day long ordeal. It starts with a shocking scene following the storm and then cuts back and forth from the aftermath to the couple’s meeting on the Pacific island where they fall in love and eventually (and reluctantly on Oldham’s part) take the job to deliver the yacht on behalf of a London couple who know Richard. He is a decade older than Tami and a failed naval cadet who is living his dream sailing the world alone – until he meets her and proposes marriage. Director Baltasar Kormákur’s handling of the alternating scenes is expert – there’s a good balance between the evolving romance and the disastrous trip as we learn how this woman who Richard describes as ‘wild’ uses her every wile to make it. Woodley is happily convincing as the daredevil 23-year old reluctantly caught up in a terrible dilemma due to her relationship .We’ve been here before (to some extent) with Robert Redford in All is Lost but there is a twist which will either make you throw your popcorn at the screen or sigh with relief that you haven’t had to go through this entirely scarifying experience yourself. And it doesn’t overstay its welcome, always a joy. What’s it like sailing out there on your own?

Eureka (1983)

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Aka River of Darkness. Once I had it all. Now I have everything. After 15 years of searching on his own, Arctic prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men when he literally falls into a mountain of gold in 1925. Twenty years later in 1945, he lives in luxury on Luna Bay, a Caribbean island that he owns. His riches bring no peace of mind as he feels utterly besieged:  he must deal with Helen (Jane Lapotaire), his bored, alcoholic wife; Tracy (Theresa Russell), his headstrong daughter who has married Claude Van Horn (Rutger Hauer) a dissolute, philandering, narcissistic social-climber; and Miami mobsters Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci), who want the island to build a casino off the Florida coast but Jack is resistant to gambling and their frontman Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) cannot persuade him to do a deal with them. I never made a nickel off another man’s sweat. When Jack is brutally murdered, his son-in-law, Claude, is arrested for the crime and put on trial … One of Nicolas Roeg’s most underrated achievements, this pseudo-biography is a fascinating portrayal of perversion and power, obsession and dread. The texture of the film, contained in lush colour coding, symbols of the occult and the ever-present stench of sex, oozes corruption and greed, decay and desire. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Marshall Houts’ book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? an account of that real-life murder in the 1940s, in which the author suggests that Meyer Lansky had Oakes killed [Pesci’s role is based on the gangster albeit this carries the conventional disclaimer], this exhibits all the familiar Roegian tropes. It also has echoes of Orson Welles as character, a director who hit the cinematic motherlode first time off the blocks and spent the remainder of his life in a kind of desperation (or so people would like to think). Hence McCann feels larger than life and is dramatised as such with Wagner soundtracking his great – almost psychedelic – discovery and Yukon poet Robert Service’s words Spell of the Yukon amplifying its myth. It isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold The allusions to Citizen Kane are clear and the portentous character of prostitute/fortune teller Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes) would appear to have at least superficial similarities with Oja Kodar, Welles’ last companion. One moment of rapture followed by decades of despair. The first line of dialogue we hear is Murder! and there is a structure which suggests destiny is being fulfilled. This is a story about disparate characters connected by blood and a morbid wish for ecstasy which suggests life but actually propels towards death. Russell’s testimony in court is gripping and Hauer as the playboy driven by the Kabbalah and other elements of the supernatural is just as good. Hackman is Hackman – he totally inhabits Jack, this man whose greatness is envied by all but whose happiest time was in the wastes of Alaska so long ago, basking in heat and light now but longing for snow.  It is this man’s ability to function as a totally singular individual that creates the chasm between himself and others, gangsters or not.  Internally he knows it is Frieda who led him to the gold that made him the richest man in the world but he decries notions of luck or superstition. His murder is an accurate depiction of what happened to Oakes and it’s terribly gruesome – sadistic and heartless. The first part of the film could be from silent movies – and the bizarre aphoristic dialogue is laughable except that it sets up the sense of supernature which dominates the narrative. Shot by Alex Thomson, edited by that magician of jagged mosaic Tony Lawson, and scored by Stanley Myers (including wonderful double bass solos composed and performed by Francois Rabbath), if this sometimes feels that it has not fully committed to the melodramatic mode (there are a lot of genres at work), the threads of gold and blood make it a satisfying and disturbing watch, with some extraordinary performances bolstering the overall effect. This is all about signs and meaning.  A mystery. The end of the beginning

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

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That’s what you call karma and it’s pronounced Ha! In 1979 young Donna (Lily James), Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davis) graduate from Oxford University — leaving Donna free to embark on a series of adventures throughout Europe starting in Paris where she has a one-night stand with Harry (Hugh Skinner). She feels her destiny lies in Greece, specifically on the island of Kalokairi. She misses the ferry and hitches a ride on a boat owned by handsome Swede Bill (Josh Dylan) who drops her off to participate in a race but promises to return. On the island she immediately feels at home and sings at the local taverna. During a storm she seeks help to rescue a horse on the property where she’s squatting and English architect Sam (Jeremy Irvine) comes to her aid. They fall for one another and start a relationship – until she finds a photograph in his desk and he admits he’s engaged. In the present day, Donna’s daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has finished off the renovation Donna always dreamed of but her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper) is doing a hotel management course in New York and a storm threatens the opening party. Her plans to reunite with her mother’s old friends and boyfriends on the Greek island may be scuppered although Dad (Pierce Brosnan) is at hand to help out … Crosscutting between past and present, drawing parallels between the mother and daughter, this aims to fill the awkward moral gaps the first film (and original musical) opened.  It has cinematic ambition its shambolic predecessor lacked and the flaws are more obvious as a result. Written by director Ol Parker with Richard Curtis and using plot from Catherine Johnson’s original this tells a lot of what we know. The choreography is horrible, the laughs cheap and most of the best songs were already used up so we get a lot of lesser tracks only diehard ABBA album owners might know: this really only gains momentum an hour in when Dancing Queen (finally!) gets a run through and the boyfriends in their present-day versions show up – thank goodness for Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard (who gets to wear a fat suit as his twin in a funny scene). Cher’s much-trumpeted appearance as Streep’s mother is brief but frightening – she looks like Lady Gaga (same surgeon, methinks). The Bjorns make surreptitious appearances early on; Meryl Streep’s younger iteration has brown eyes (whoops) but she can sing;  everyone sings, more or less; Andy Garcia is a Mexican managing the Bella Donna and guess who he used to date? And so on. Truly terrible. Resistance is futile.

The Magus (1968)

The Magus

We have all been cast as the traitor for one simple reason:  we have all failed to love.  Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine) takes up a position as schoolteacher on the Greek island of Phraxos where his predecessor has committed suicide. He wants to write and to escape the pressures of his relationship with Anne (Anna Karina) an emotionally complex air hostess.  He becomes obsessed with a rich old man Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn) living in a big complex on the other side of the island who draws him into his odd domestic arrangements which include beautiful American actress Lily (Candice Bergen).  As Maurice starts to play mind games with Nicholas and tells him of his alleged involvement in the deaths of more than 80 villagers during the Nazi occupation, Nicholas loses his grip on reality – he doesn’t know if Maurice is a filmmaker, a psychiatrist, a Nazi collaborator or a demonic magician. They play a dice game which inevitably signals more than its elements. He is put on trial, with everyone from Maurice’s stories and films attending… The once fiendishly famous John Fowles adapted his own novel which no self-respecting student could be seen without.  He may have fallen out of fashion but his work is entrancing and important and if this doesn’t live up to its billing that can be laid at the door of Fowles himself and director Guy Green (Caine and Bergen certainly did). However, it’s a beguiling production, one of the best looking you will ever see courtesy of DoP Billy Williams (Green himself was of course an Academy Award-winning cinematographer) and in its narrative creases you might detect a kind of text much more acknowledged these days – psychogeography, the T.S. Eliot references hint at this of course although even entry level kids can rhyme off the line, No man is an island. Of course the Magus himself is a reference to the diabolical Aleister Crowley (whose home had been in Sicily) but Quinn’s character creates a backstory based in real-life horror and a mass execution, all the while taking on the physical qualities of a latterday Picasso. Fowles himself appears as a boat captain who speaks to Nicholas.  There’s a tremendous cast – including Julian Glover, Takis Emmanuel and Paul Stassino – telling a complex story of identity, responsibility, punishment and redemption that is streamlined to its essential parts and it adds up to something utterly beautiful.  We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

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Filigree, apogee, pedigree, perigee! During the Battle of Britain, Miss Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury), a cunning apprentice witch, decides to use her supernatural powers to defeat the Nazi menace. She sets out to accomplish this task with the aid of three  children who have been evacuated from the London Blitz and they go along to get along after a difficult introduction – they’re city kids stuck in the wilds of rural England and she’s forced to take them into her very big house where she serves healthy food which is utterly alien to them. Joined by the hapless Emelius Brown (David Tomlinson), the head of Miss Price’s witchcraft training correspondence school in London, the crew uses an enchanted bed to travel into a fantasy land and foil encroaching German troops as well as dealing with an unscrupulous conman … Well it’s a very snowy day here at Mondo Towers so there was nothing left but haul out Uncle Walt to toast up my chattering tootsies. This is a childhood favourite, a long and entertaining part-animated fantasy comic WW2 drama with not a little music thrown in to complete the Poppins-a-like formula perfected by the studio during the previous decade. Lansbury has the role purportedly rejected by Julie Andrews and David Tomlinson returns as the slightly bewildered adult male – albeit Mary Norton’s wartime books which provide the source material have no relation to the earlier film. The Magic Bedknob, Or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons and Bonfires and Broomsticks provide the arc of the narrative which is enlivened by integrated cartoon and musical sequences. Let’s face it, it takes the House of Mouse to turn WW2 into a delightful musical fairytale with songs by the Sherman brothers, a fantasy football match on a desert island, a resourceful Territorial Army and a very cool cat making for totally bewitching family fun. Hurray! Screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, directed by Robert Stevenson.

Island of Terror (1966)

Island of Terror

Some peculiar goings on going on on this island!  On the remote Petrie’s Island off the east Irish coast a farmer goes missing and his wife contacts the police. Constable John Harris (Sam Kydd) goes looking for him and finds him dead in a cave without a single bone in his body. Horrified, Harris swiftly fetches the town physician Dr. Reginald Landers (Eddie Byrne) but Dr. Landers is unable to determine what happened to the dead man’s skeleton. Landers journeys to the mainland to seek the help of noted London pathologist Dr. Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing). Like Landers, Stanley is unable to even hypothesize what could have happened to Ian Bellows, so both men seek out Dr. David West (Edward Judd) an expert on bones and bone diseases. Although Stanley and Landers interrupt West’s dinner date with the wealthy jetsetter Toni Merrill, West is intrigued by the problem and so agrees to accompany the two doctors back to Petrie’s Island to examine the corpse. In order for them to reach the island that much faster, Merrill offers the use of her father’s private helicopter in exchange for the three men allowing her to come along on the adventure. Once back at Petrie’s Island, Merrill’s father’s helicopter is forced to return to the mainland so he can use it, leaving the foursome effectively stranded on Petrie until the helicopter can return. West and Stanley learn that a group of cancer researchers led by Dr. Lawrence Phillips (Peter Forbes-Robertson( seeking a cure for cancer, have a secluded castle laboratory on the island. Paying a visit to Phillips’ lab reveals that he and his colleagues are just as dead (and boneless) as Ian Bellows. Reasoning that whatever it is must have begun in that lab, West, Stanley and Landers gather up Phillips’ notes and take them to study them. From them they learn that in his quest to cure cancer, Phillips may have accidentally created a new lifeform from the siliconatom. Thinking the doctors are at the castle, Constable Harris bikes up there looking for them to tell them about the discovery of a dead, boneless horse, only to wander into the laboratory’s “test animals” room and be attacked and killed by an offscreen tentacled creature, the result of Dr. Phillips’ experiments. The creatures are eventually dubbed “silicates” by West and Stanley, and kill their victims by injecting a bone-dissolving  enzyme into their bodies. The silicates are also incredibly difficult to kill, as Landers learns when he tries and fails to kill one at the castle with an axe when they first encounter them. After learning all they can from the late Dr. Phillips’ notes, West and Stanley recruit the islanders, led by “boss” Roger Campbell (Niall McGinnis) and store owner Peter Argyle (James Caffrey, who seems to serve as Campbell’s second-in-command in an unofficial capacity), to attack the silicates with anything they’ve got. Bullets, petrol bombs, and dynamite all fail to even harm the silicates. But when one is found dead, apparently having ingested a rare isotope called Strontium-90 from Phillips’ lab (via Phillips’ accidentally irradiated Great Dane), West and Stanley realise they must find more of the isotope at the castle and figure out how to contaminate the remaining silicates with it before it is too late. They obtain enough isotope to contaminate a herd of cattle – at the cost of Stanley’s left hand, when he’s grabbed by a silicate – and the silicates feed on these and begin to die. The story ends with evacuation and … a twist. Rather unsatisfying outing from Hammer, despite the icky slimy tentacled monster and the expansive cast which also includes several Irish actors – making up for the lack of a location shoot (it was made at Pinewood). The most interesting part of this action-adventure-disaster is the electronic soundtrack by Malcolm Lockyer and the cool helicopters which photograph rather marvellously.

Malta Story (1953)

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They have many more planes. There’s not much to stop them. During World War II, British archaeologist turned photo-reconnaissance pilot Peter Ross (Alec Guinness) discovers that the Italians are planning a secret invasion of Malta, a strategically important island nation critical to keeping the Allied supply lines open. Though they have few resources left, Peter and his commanding officer, Frank (Jack Hawkins), resolve to fight off the enemy and save the island. At the same time, Peter struggles to keep his relationship with a local girl Maria (Muriel Pavlow) from falling apart. Her brother is discovered spying for the Axis powers and their mother (Flora Robson) is desperate to see him in British military prison …  The convoluted origins of this post-war propaganda outing typical of 1950s British studios lay in a book Briefed to Attack by Sir Hugh P. Lloyd and an idea by original director Thorold Dickinson and producer Peter de Sarigny with a story by William Fairchild (the three had a production company) which became a vehicle for the Ministry of Information:  it was a demonstration of the wartime co-operation between the air, military and naval services and the Siege of Malta was an appropriate backdrop. J. Arthur Rank hired Nigel Balchin to rewrite the script and Brian Desmond Hurst to direct. There are some good performances here in what is quite the morality tale – Hawkins in particular has to maintain a stiff upper lip while sending men to their certain death. And all for information about enemy movements. It’s an efficient mix of melodrama and action with romance and espionage, interspersed with very tense newsreel footage and the occasional shock – like the bombing of a local island bus from which some of our protagonists have just disembarked. The spy subplot could have done with more space in the narrative however. It’s nice to at least recognise this vulnerable island, subject as it was to so many Luftwaffe attacks. The final scenes – a death, the emphasis on the decisions required in wartime and the devastation of a loved one lost, are very effective.