The Remains of the Day (1993)

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There are times when I think what a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life. In 1930s England James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) serves as butler to the doltish Lord Darlington (James Fox). Stevens is so dedicated that he forgoes visiting his father (Peter Vaughan) on his deathbed in order to serve a bunch of blackshirts dinner. He overlooks Darlington’s Nazi sympathies and growing anti-Semitism even dispensing with the service of two young Jewish refugees who he knows will be returned to Germany. Twenty years after the disgraced Darlington’s death and in the wake of the Suez Crisis Stevens tries to make contact once again with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), Darlington’s head housekeeper who married their former colleague Benn (the late and lamented Tim Pigott-Smith). He travels to see her in the West Country and in the course of his trip begins to regret his blind loyalty and servitude to his former master who pursued a libel case to the detriment of his reputation and whose American critic Congressman Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve) now owns Darlington Hall. Stevens now works for him and his life is utterly unfulfilled. He must make up for lost time. The Merchant Ivory team regroup with their Howards End stars and the amazing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prize winning novel ponders class relations, political naivete and the lack of wisdom in relationships at every conceivable level. A friend of mine commented caustically on it at the time of its release, The fireplaces are wonderful. And it’s true, they are, but that is much too reductive of a project which  cannot translate the more subtle nuances of the novel instead transmitting through performance on a sometimes barely perceptible register of glances or a slight movement what mere writing cannot – the affect of loss and its immense impact on the totality of a life. Hopkins has one of the most difficult roles of his career – the stubborn butler who simply cannot accept the limitations of his boss or his father’s revelation. His refusal to admit emotionality is devastating. His humiliation at the pleasure of his lordship’s house guests makes you squirm on his behalf. Thompson is heartbreaking as the woman who loves him but hurts him rather than tell him directly. Their final leavetaking is horrifying in its simplicity and tragedy. There are two other exquisite scenes and they both predominantly feature fingers:  when Stevens finds his father collapsed and must wrench his fingers from a trolley after the old man has had a stroke;  and when Miss Kenton prises with great difficulty a novel from his own hand to declare rather disbelievingly that it is only a sentimental romance. The fear of embarrassment is all over this epic tale of a country’s honour in microcosm. It is an achievement that seems much larger in retrospect than a quarter of a century ago. A stylish, intelligent, immensely moving drama.

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The Island (2005)

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I have discovered the Holy Grail of science – I give life! Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) lives in a sterile colony, one of thousands of survivors of The Contamination who dream of going to The Island. One of his friends is Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) and she doesn’t believe him when he dreams things he knows he hasn’t experienced and then discovers they are clones waiting to have their organs harvested for humans outside somewhere:  he sees a moth in a ventilation shaft when visiting his engineer friend McCord (Steve Buscemi). They are really living in an elaborate organ lab run by Merrick (Sean Bean) who hires mercentary Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) when Lincoln and Jordan escape to the real world … McGregor and Johansson are superb as the clones who realise their humanity and make you stick with a drama that takes a little while to get going in that sterile facility that we have seen a hundred times. But when it takes off it never stops and it’s pretty heart-pounding. This takes potshots at eugenics, organ harvesting, the modern day obsession with breeding that leads to murderous mass surrogacy programmes, and ultimately the kind of control by tech billionaires that we all rightly fear:  the penultimate scene using a gas chamber tells you all you need to know about where we are all heading in this Nazified world of ours which seems even more relevant 12 years after this was released. The ultimate irony about this clone drama is that it is itself a clone – of a novel called Spares and 1979 movie The Clonus Horror to the extent that a massive seven-figure settlement was made by DreamWorks to the plaintiffs for their legal claim. Nonetheless it’s a gripping portrait of futureshock and all that it implies for contemporary life. Be very afraid. 2019 is just a breath away! Screenplay by Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci from a story by Caspian Tredwell-Owen. Directed by Michael Bay.

Effie Gray (2014)

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He must be mad.  Young virginal Effie (Dakota Fanning) marries art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) shortly after her family has endured financial hardship. When she enters his family home she finds that he has an unhealthy relationship with his mother (Julie Walters) and his father (David Suchet) is genially oppressive. On their wedding night her husband looks at her with … distaste. And never touches her. Her mother in law insists on dosing her with some strange herbal concoction that knocks her out. Mingling with the great and the good she finds a sympathetic friend in Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson) the wife of his patron at the Royal Academy and she suspects all is not right particularly on a visit to their stifling home during a spectacularly awkward dinner.  On a trip to Venice it is assumed that Ruskin is quite mad and Effie is pursued by Raffaele (Riccardo Scarmarcio) who almost rapes her. When Ruskin commissions a portrait of himself from his protege John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) the trio decamp to the countryside and an affection grows between the two young people:  it is clear Effie is starved of genuine human warmth. She summons her little sister Sophy (Polly Dartford) to visit her and makes a plan to escape… This project had a very troubled birth following two plagiarism suits against actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson. Notwithstanding the issues that caused the script to be redrafted this doesn’t come to life – something of an irony given that the living Effie was immortalised as the suicided Ophelia by Pre-Raphaelite Millais. Fanning isn’t the most energised or personable of performers at the best of times but she really is given little here and the interrelationships aren’t especially well exposed. Wise has likewise little to do except look pained and self-absorbed:  mission accomplished. It may well be true but it doesn’t mean it works on the screen. For a story with so much scandalous content this is a disappointment on a massive scale. Look at the paintings instead. That’s Tiger Lily Hutchence as the young Effie in the opening scene and how lovely it is to see Claudia Cardinale as the Venetian viscountess. Directed by Richard Laxton with some staggeringly beautiful landscape photography by Andrew Dunn.

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

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Aka Desert Attack. Two million men. Two million stories. This is one that happens to be true. Captain Anson (John Mills) is dying for a drink but he has to leave his post in Tobruk before the Germans invade and make his way with a medical unit by field ambulance (nicknamed Katy) to Alexandria in Egypt. He has to travel with MSM Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews) and a couple of nurses, Diana Murdoch (Sylvia Syms) and Denise Norton (Diane Clare). They make their own way when they get separated from the rest of their colleagues and come cross a South African officer Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle) who wants a lift to the British lines.  They are fired on by the German Afrika Corps and Denise is shot through the walls of the vehicle. When van der Poel approaches the Germans they withdraw. Anson is suspicious. Van der Poel cannot be parted from his backpack – he shows Anson a couple of bottles of gin and the Brit comforts himself with dreams of a a drink in Alexandria. Pugh is suspicious when van der Poel doesn’t know how to make tea the (British) Army way and is convinced he’s seen an antenna in the backpack. When van der Poel goes off again at night they shine the ambulance lights on him and he gets stuck in quicksand and they have to decide what to do with a German spy … This is a classic British fifties wartime adventure, with John Mills at the peak of his career exploiting notions of his occasionally abject masculinity and he’s especially impressive here, battling alcoholism and exhaustion. Syms has a very good role as the woman who appears to understand him while Quayle is excellent as the interloper with a diplomatic way about him and the brute strength required to push the ambulance when it gets stuck in an escarpment. Christopher Landon adapted his own Saturday Evening Post articles (and then a 1957 novel) with T. J. Morrison and it was directed with verve by J. Lee Thompson. This got a whole new lease of life thirty years ago when the final sequence was used as an ad by Carlsberg because as everyone knows and John Mills says, Worth waiting for. Iconic.

Two Rode Together (1961)

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They’re expecting a Messiah, a Moses, to deliver them from their bondage – and I’ve got to send them you! Cynical Texas marshal (James Stewart) and conscientious Army officer (Richard Widmark) are deputised to rescue white people kidnapped by Comanches years earlier but only when negotiations with them succeed. They get two of them back to camp – some mother’s son and a Mexican woman – but find they have completely forgotten their origins and a massive culture clash ensues with the boy killing the woman who is convinced she is his mother and Elena ostracised by white society for becoming an Indian squaw.  The casting of this John Ford western is interesting as Stewart wears his talismanic hat from the Anthony Mann westerns and pours cold water on everything while Widmark always tries to do the right thing; Shirley Jones makes an impact as the girl who can’t get her missing brother out of her mind. Ford didn’t want to make this since he felt he had said all he needed to say about this sort of thing with The Searchers and he was basically correct. But his new star, Stewart, and the widescreen shooting make this worth a watch and the double act at its heart is genuinely interesting. Adapted by Frank Nugent from Will Cook’s novel Comanche Captives.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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Even these days it isn’t as easy to go crazy as you might think. Divorced Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his smalltown practice in California after being away for a couple of weeks at a medical conference. Seems like half the population has been complaining of a mysterious feeling and then not returning, claiming to be better. And the other half says family members aren’t themselves – they’re impostors, lacking nothing except emotion. When his ex Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) returns from England after her own failed marriage they visit mystery writer Jack Bellicec (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) because his double is lying on the billiards table and frankly it freaks them out. Becky’s father is a little strange too and as for the local psychiatrist…. Soon it appears the whole town is being taken over by alien seed pods now being actively cultivated to make everyone the same. Whether you take this as ‘straight’ sci fi or horror (as if that were ever a thing), a political allegory (it works for  communism or fascism) or a warning about the homogeneity and groupthink of Fifties culture or even a comment on the brainwashing techniques used during the Korean War, this is brilliant cinema. From the sly innuendo of McCarthy getting back together with his ex, to the satirical thrusts at a humdrum life, this hasn’t aged a day. The scene when Teddy sees Jack’s double open his eyes while Jack is asleep is really thrilling. And as for the pods throbbing in the greenhouse! Adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from sci fi legend Jack Finney’s Colliers serial (later a novel) it was directed by Don Siegel. Whit Bisssell is the Dr in the concluding scenes and Sam Peckinpah plays Charlie the meter reader – he was director Siegel’s dialogue coach on this and four other of his Fifties films. The prologue and epilogue were added because the studio got cold feet over the pessimistic content –  but you will never forget the sight of McCarthy shouting at the trucks on the highway, and this was its original ending. Nevertheless, this is extraordinary, urgent and fiercely exciting, simply one of the best films ever made.

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.

Wind River (2017)

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How do you gauge someone’s will to live? I once knew a film producer who said the two rules of moviemaking were, Never make a western and Never make a film in the snow. Well thank goodness nobody told screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who makes his directing debut here following the screenplays for the extraordinary Sicario and Hell or High Water, two of the best films in the past decade. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is an agent (read:  animal catcher) for the US Fish and Wildlife Service working in the vast titular Native American reservation in Wyoming when he happens upon the body of a young woman Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) who was his own late daughter’s best friend. He’s seconded by a neophyte FBI officer Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to help her as she has no expertise in tracking or this mountainous terrain the size of Rhode Island with just 6 police officers led by Graham Greene. While Cory is still dealing with the fallout of a divorce, having to forego caring for his young son when his ex is out of town for a couple of days in order to look for the killers, we unspool through family photos and start to understand some of his motivation for helping this officer who doesn’t even have the right clothing for minus 20: Cory’s mother in law loans her her late granddaughter’s clothing with the warning, These are not a gift.  His young son is startled at the sight of this white girl in his dead sister’s clothes. Together Cory and Jane embark on a hunt when the coroner finds the girl has been likely multiply raped but drowned in her own blood because the alveoli in her lungs filled with freezing air as she ran barefoot from her assailants. She ran six miles. So it can’t officially be listed as murder. Then Cory finds a second body …  With all Sheridan’s films now we see a certain pattern:  the idea of borders, which also extend to different races and traditions and values transmuted through marriage, and of course singular acts of transgression which here comprise murder but obviously incorporate other acts of violation arising from untrammelled self-justification. It culminates in a chase and a shootout but concludes in an act of individual revenge on Wyoming’s highest mountain peak which calls to mind the work of James Stewart and Anthony Mann in their western collaborations.  Most debut writer/directors make the mistake of filing every hole with overwritten dialogue:  Sheridan is too shrewd for that.  He allows the pictures to speak for themselves, human nature to assert itself as it usually does and the dead bodies are permitted testimony to their brutal demise. He chooses to end on a frame that expresses friendship and acceptance.  (Followed by a piece of text which states that the only portion of the demographic not featured in Missing Person figures is Native American women.) It’s a very satisfying film – tense, character-driven, fast-moving and deeply felt – and it’s adorned with excellent performances and some beautifully mournful songs composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

Death on the Nile (1978)

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La grande ambition des femmes est d’inspirer l’amour. Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot gets to flex his little grey cells on a luxury cruise through Egypt that is filled with eccentrics, madwomen and murderers.  Peter Ustinov plays the beloved Belgian for the first time in this plush, epic adaptation by Anthony Shaffer which is as much black comedy as murder mystery. Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) is the heiress who steals Simon Doyle (Simon McCorkindale) from her best friend Jackie (Mia Farrow) and the jilted one turns up on their honeymoon everywhere they stop – including Egypt. Poirot meets up with Colonel Race (David Niven) and a right motley crew of passengers on a paddle steamer tour, including a drunken romance writer Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) with her long-suffering daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey); kleptomaniac socialite Marie von Schuyloer  (Bette Davis, in Baby Jane eyeliner) and her decidedly masculine assistant and travelling companion Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith); Linnet’s greedy lawyer Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy); Linnet’s decidedly frisky French maid Louise Bourget (Jane Birkin). Turns out everyone on board had a good reason for killing Linnet. There’s also Jon Finch, Jack Warden and Sam Wanamaker for good measure. While we see Aswan, the Pyramids, Karnak and the Sphinx, we enjoy the trials and tribulations as these people knock up against each other and what unspools when Linnet is eventually murdered. Seeing Lansbury strongarm Niven into a dance is a particular delight. This is a great cast playing with evident relish. Gorgeously costumed by Anthony Powell, beautifully lit and shot by Jack Cardiff,  typically well scored by Nino Rota and handled with pace and humour by director John Guillermin, this is a leisurely and colourful Sunday afternoon treat.

Breaking Away (1979)

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– My dad told me Jesus never went more than fifty miles from home. – Look what happened to him! Dave (Dennis Christopher) and his high school friends are doing nothing for the summer other than getting fired from the A&P.  Mike (Dennis Quaid) is the former quarter back hero with no future, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is in love with his cashier girlfriend and waiting for the family home to sell so he can get out, and Cyril (Daniel Stern) hates his father. Nobody wants to go to college even though they’re living right on the edge of Bloomington campus. To the college kids they’re known as Cutters – working class kids destined for the quarries where they go swimming and laze around on summer days. Dave is obsessed with the Cinzano cycling team and his entire world revolves around cycle practice and Italy – he calls his father (Paul Dooley) Papa, christens his cat Fellini and his mother (Barbara Barrie) succumbs to his love of both opera and Italian food. Then he falls for college girl Catherine (Robyn Douglass) who’s dating hottie Hart Bochner and their rivalry ends up with an accident in the quarry and a fight in the cafeteria bringing Mike’s policeman brother into the fray. The Cinzano team arrives and Dave has to beg Papa for time off at his used car lot to participate in a race with them one weekend but the Italians cheat and Dave is shattered. Together with the Cutters he pulls himself together to enter an endurance race and he falls off the bike … Steve Tesich’s marvellous screenplay was based on a classmate at college so it’s a quasi-biographical piece as well as being a smart film about families, friendship and the issues boys face when they graduate high school and have no plans. It’s a beautiful, delicate, funny coming of age tale treated with the care that it requires by director Peter Yates and cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this and it gives me that warm fuzzy feeling that it did the first time round – a lot of the genius lies in pitch perfect performances with a cast that now rings of future stardom. Christopher (who is half-Italian) won a BAFTA for this and he would go on to star in cult entry Fade to Black but never attained the heights of Quaid in the Eighties and Nineties; Stern worked with Woody Allen and Haley made a comeback in the Noughties after becoming a director of commercials. Dooley and Barrie are fantastic as Dave’s bemused parents – his father’s working class aspirations are opposed by his mother’s fanciful thoughts and when Dave woos Catherine by singing an aria on campus it’s parallel cut with his mom doing exactly the same with a recording over a romantic dinner with Papa. Dooley’s realisation that his son is hurting when he finds out people cheat is brilliantly played:  they had already played father and son in Altman’s The Wedding. And the friends who have to face reality but give it their all when the chips are down – well, everyone wants friends like that. Gentle and tough, inspiring, funny and uplifting, with an ending to make the hardest heart happy, this is just cherishable. I thought we were going to waste the rest of our lives together.  I love love love it.