A Month by the Lake (1995)

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My father taught me it’s better to observe than to be observed.  It’s 1937. Miss Bentley (Vanessa Redgrave) is making her annual pilgrimage to Lake Como, the destination she frequented with her late father. She’s an unmarried woman of a certain age, the sporty delight of gorgeous young Italian men and a jolly hockey sticks type who fraternises with the ladies of the establishment (mainly Alida Valli). Then she spots a newcomer, Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox) with whose ears she becomes obsessed and whom she attempts to attract while beating him at tennis and making him miss the steamer back to the hotel. When a young Italian family employ a new American nanny Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman) straight out of finishing school he mistakes the girl’s earnest gesture upon his early leavetaking – and returns. The complications that arise are gently dramatised and the unfolding romances culminate in a broadcast that reminds us that this is the last such summer for several years… This is a charming and subtle comedy of flirtation, manners and misunderstandings. H.E. Bates’ novella gets a thorough treatment from Trevor Bentham and is really well acted by Redgrave who channels her inner Joyce Grenfell, fusing boyishness with withheld emotion:  she has a particularly funny scene when handsome young gun Vittorio (Allesandro Gassman, son of actor/director Vittorio) attempts to seduce her. She conquers him with the camera she carries everywhere. Produced by Fox’s younger brother Robert (previously married to Redgrave’s daughter, Natasha Richardson) this almost-family affair was filmed around Varenna, Bellagio and Lierna and it looks utterly splendid. A lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon – or indeed a month. Directed by John Irvin.

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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Raymond Shaw is the nicest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever met. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is nothing of the sort. He’s a nasty friendless well-connected Sergeant returning from the Korean War whose domineering widowed mother (Angela Lansbury) is now married to McCarthyite Senator Iselin (James Gregory) and she really is the power behind the throne:  he’s so dim he has to look at a bottle of ketchup to remember the number of Communists he says are in the State Dept. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is plagued by dreams of brainwashing and he’s not the only one. He investigates the possibility that there’s a sleeper agent in his platoon:  but what’s the plan? And when he discovers it’s Shaw, what is he programmed to do? And who could be his US control? This astonishing blend of Cold War paranoia, satire, political thriller and film noir is as urgent as it’s ever been. Brilliantly constructed visually – look at the cutting from dream to reality to TV coverage – by John Frankenheimer, in George Axelrod’s adaptation of the Richard Condon novel, this is even better tenth time around. This hugely controversial film was released during the Bay of Pigs crisis. The title has entered the lexicon and it became the go-to explanation for the major assassinations – both Kennedys and even John Lennon. This was Sinatra’s second film about a potential Presidential murder (he starred in Suddenly eight years earlier) and he stopped its distribution following the JFK assassination – but not due to personal sensitivities, moreso that his profit participation wasn’t being honoured by United Artists. His involvement was such that even a nightclub is named Jilly’s. Lansbury is simply masterful as the monster mother but the book’s incest theme is played down. What you will be left wondering in the aftermath of the film’s shocking impact is just why did Janet Leigh refer to the Chinese?! Amazing.

American Honey (2016)

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I feel like fucking America! Whether you like this will depend on a) your tolerance for drug-addled amoral teenagers whose greatest ambition is to get knocked up and live in a trailer and if b) you don’t mind losing 157 minutes of your precious life to an almost pointless unendurable movie. Strange newcomer Sasha Lane is Star, a black girl from a dysfunctional and abusive background who falls for the spiel of magazine crew guy Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and joins this rag-tag band of scuzzy losers as they run around house to house in middle America, selling subscriptions and led by she-wolf leader Krystal (Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter). Star has sex with Jake after he steals a car owned by some well-heeled cowboys who rescue her from his abuse on the roadside – and this is after she sees him rubbing down Krystal’s shapely rear in a stars and stripes bikini. This being a movie, people act a lot like life – incoherently and inconsistently. When he takes the money she makes and drops her, she still wants him. She makes more money from giving an oil rig worker a handjob:  and he’s vile enough to criticise her. She still wants him. Krystal tells Star that she was handpicked by Jake and he fucks all the new girls – it’s his job. At the end, when there’s another apparently symbolic sequence with an animal – the only sign that there might be in this three-hour slog any indication of narrative rigour – you pray for her suicide:  or your own. What seems like artlessness is actually faux realist laziness. Were there NO editors available?? And for a movie that styles itself as a musical with all the group singalongs there’s extremely dodgy sound mixing.  I’m not arguing that the meth-taking underclass needs culling but they do exist and I’m hopeful that they don’t all listen to (c)rap. See Spring Breakers for a far more controlled (and much shorter) exposition of American youth. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who was inspired by a New York Times article.

Risky Business (1983)

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What was it about Chicago’s North Shore that inspired such good movies in the 80s? It’s hard to believe but it’s 34 years since Tom Cruise became a star – and this smart, tart satire about sex and money is the reason why. Joel Goodson (Cruise) is mostly a good boy but his grades are not top notch and his dad is trying to get him into Princeton. The folks are going out of town for the weekend so it’s time to bust out some bucks and deliver some guys of their innocence courtesy of some hookers after one attempt goes wrong. One of them is Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) who as well as spending the night, has an idea for some moneymaking activities to pay her bill – and the damage to the family Porsche – which coincide with the visit from the Princeton rep (Richard Masur): Joel has turned his folks’ house into a brothel. He makes a pile of money. Then Lana’s pimp (Joe Pantoliano) wants a piece and holds the furniture ransom.  Cruise is flawless in Paul Brickman’s directing debut (working from his original screenplay.) We all know the iconic moments – Cruise dancing in his pants, his winning smile, the sex act on the train (the last time Cruise knowingly participated in such a thing onscreen – and performed to Phil Collins of all people!) but it’s a sharp social commentary too, with a great soundtrack courtesy of Tangerine Dream (remember them?!) as well of course as Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll. This was really on the money and retains its impact. Classic.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

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Truncated and abbreviated to 125 minutes from its intended original 200+ minute running time it might well be, but there is much to love about this Billy Wilder-IAL Diamond screenplay adaptation of everyone’s favourite ‘tec. With two stories instead of the four plus a flashback (apparently available on Laserdisc – remember them?!), Robert Stephens is the intuitive one with Colin Blakely as Watson, whom he pretends to a forward Russian noblewoman is gay to get out of fathering her child. Then he is taken in – for a spell – by a German spy masquerading as a woman in peril (Genevieve Page) with a detour to Scotland where a Jules Verne-esque submersible, Trappist monks and dwarves at Loch Ness are involved in an elaborate scheme which even attracts the attention of Queen Victoria. Brother Mycroft shows up in the person of Christopher Lee. Warm, witty, compassionate and sad, with a beautiful sense of irony, this is the underrated but gorgeously charming film that inspired the current BBC show. Happy International Sherlock Holmes Day!

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

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Charlie Hunnam is Conor McGregor;  Jude Law is a gay biker. Well, sue me, but that’s how it looks – at least when they eventually put the lights on. Anyone would think it was the Dark Ages!! I don’t like the aesthetics of this, several shades of gunmetal grey (not quite fifty) with CGI action sequences of swords and sorcery disguised in smoke-filled slomo montage concealing the joins. I needed a filter just to see those enormo elephants wreaking havoc on Camelot courtesy of Mordred. Uncle Vortigern (Law) murders King of the Britons Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) after Uther’s slain Mordred, in front of toddler Arthur (Oliver Zac Barker, an early Hunnam) and the boy is reared in a Londinium brothel. He becomes an MMA superstar until his whereabouts are eventually detected and he pulls the sword from the stone. Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) is the witchy figure who helps him find his true self while he gathers his father’s old circle including Little Finger, sorry Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen), sorry,  and his East End Lock Stock geezer crew led by Neil Maskell, and eventually sees the path to taking power from his evil uncle. Not that he wants it because he can’t remember a jot. All of which is well and sometimes quite good. The symmetrical structure and the Oedipal narratives (more than one) make this potentially fertile territory – as if the Arthurian legends weren’t already sufficient. The backstory to Arthur’s situation is revealed in his relationship with the sword (stop me before I say Freud – TOO LATE!!!) and his regular dreams/visions supply the origins to the tale. And that contributes to the impoverishment of Hunnam’s inhabiting of the role:  aside from his problematic vocal delivery  (where was the director? and it’s not just him, a lot of people give bad line readings here not helped by being buried in the mix) he never has the epiphanies required in this heroic journey, their substitutes are inserted at the wrong times in the wrong way (sorry about the fixation issue) preventing full characterisation. He is a side character to the gathering visions when he should be leading the action. Every time there’s an exciting moment and a revelation it’s ruined by a stupid repetitive flashback. One great realisation, at the right time, would have made this work while his essential self emerged. Arthur never has his big orgasmic truth. The moments of personal evolution are soaked in stupidity and obliterated by the context. We know Hunnam can act so this is at the writers’ door. And I am chair of the Eric Bana fan club (ahem) so I wanted to see way more of him and his dastardly brother’s infighting. I’m loath to call this a remake since it’s been conceived as a wholly unnecessary origins story but it could have been made into a really decent piece of storytelling if Guy Ritchie had been taken away from it at some point instead of getting high on Game of Thrones (even Michael McElhatton has a role here as if we needed any more proof of where this is coming from) and going full throttle digital because there are scenes that really pull things together. And then … Sometimes less really is more. It’s not as bad as mainstream critics are claiming but it needed cooler heads in the editing room:  it’s a romance, Guy! Never mind getting the missus to drag Arfur into the lake! Give him some air! Written by Ritchie and Joby Harrold and producer Lionel Wigram from a story by executive producer David Dobkin, Harrold and some mediaeval dudes. There’s an outstanding score by Daniel Pemberton.

Queen of Earth (2015)

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Two girls and a guy at a cabin in the woods. One of the girls is a nut job. All the ingredients you need for an Eighties horror fest. Yet this being a product of the school of mumblecore it’s really a talkfest about friendship after Elisabeth Moss’s father has died, her boyfriend has cheated and Katherine Waterston isn’t that close to her any more. Poor Patrick Fugit turns up and Moss is so out of it she doesn’t even remember him from being in the cabin with them same time last year. ‘Auteur’ Alex Ross Perry is the next big thing and this came showered with so many adulatory reviews I was prepared for something special – like Bergman’s Persona. Except Moss’ insanity is clear from the first frame, I like neither actress and given that I can’t even make it through to the end after three attempts I can’t tell you if it ends up with a chainsaw but Dear God I hope it does. Fourth time lucky. The poster is lovely.

The Love Lottery (1954)

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Long before George Clooney thought of it, matinee idol Rex Allerton (David Niven) decamps to Lake Como to escape the hordes of girlie fans who besiege him everywhere he goes, even in his dreams:  this commences with one such nightmare when he’s torn to pieces at a premiere by the adoring mob who all look like Peggy Cummins. He falls for mathematician Anne Vernon who’s doing the calculations for gangster Herbert Lom that blackmail him into being the prize in a worldwide raffle. This mild satire from Ealing has some ambition but the writing doesn’t really hold up – the story by Charles Neilson-Terry and Zelma Bramley Moore was written by Harry Kurnitz and producer Monja Danischewsky. There are some good scenes and Niven does a lot with thin material with Vernon making hay as the clever woman who eventually falls for his charms. The attempt to marry his lady love in church is good but the payoff gag with Cummins isn’t really done as well as it could have been. There are a lot of short dream sequences which detract from the narrative momentum but on the plus side it’s beautifully shot by Douglas Slocombe and edited by Seth Holt, directed by Charles Crichton. And Humphrey Bogart does everyone a favour by showing up in a cameo.

Mrs Pollifax – Spy (1971)

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A widowed retiree volunteers her services to the CIA and finds herself drugged in Mexico City and handcuffed to Darren McGavin on a plane to Albania. A different kind of gap year, perhaps. Rosalind Russell herself adapted the promising book by Dorothy Gilman (one of a series) in a production by her husband, Frederick Brisson. Instead of the fun travelogue spoof you might expect of the era, it’s a mostly dull stint in an Albanian prison (an hour…) with just a few colour shots in Mexico and an awful lot of sparse mountains. Remind me never to go to the land of Enver Hoxha or even Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which looks like an utterly miserable substitute. Unremarkable, to say the very least. It was Russell’s last film. Directed by Leslie Martinson.

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

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This gloriously romantic if somewhat synoptic adaptation of Hemingway’s partly autobiographical classic is let down only by the occasionally ill-chosen shot of lollipop lady Helen Hayes, whose disproportionately short stature and large head look hugely comical beside the elegant Cooper, the forever Hemingway avatar. He’s the WW1 ambulance driver who falls in love with an English nurse over the objections of jealous CO Adolphe Menjou. When they are reunited and have a proper relationship Menjou deploys her to another hospital and the lovers’ letters are intercepted by him to try and split them up. Cooper eventually deserts his post to find her, now dying after delivering their stillborn son. Filled with brilliant setpieces and moments of true romance by screenwriters Benjamin Glazer and Oliver H.P. Garrett and the master director, Frank Borzage whose compositions (shot by the amazingly talented DoP Charles Lang) are quite breathtaking. A Pre-Code masterpiece with some astonishing intimations of sex. Happy Valentine’s Day!