Chariots of Fire (1981)

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Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder.  In the early 1920s, two determined young English runners train for the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Christian born to Scottish missionaries in China, sees running as part of his worship of God’s glory and refuses to train or compete on the Sabbath. Cambridge student Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) overcomes anti-Semitism and class bias, but neglects his beloved sweetheart Sybil (Alice Krige) in his single-minded quest and then there is the opportunity to prove themselves at Olympics where they will encounter the world’s fastest runners, a pair of Americans … Lauded at the time of release, and prompting screenwriter Colin Welland’s famous but empty threat, The British are coming! this now plays like a very staid exercise frozen in aspic despite the lively intellectual drive – reconciling notions of religion, duty, patriotism, obsession, love – and the wonderful cast. This mostly true story has its moments but they are heavily signposted. The title sequence on the beach of the athletes training in slow motion to Vangelis’ outstanding electronic score is justly famous and it’s repeated at the conclusion. In between are conflicts played out both on the track and off it and there’s a Greek chorus of sorts by John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson (of all people!) whereby a streak of prejudice and elitism in the echelons of academia is revealed. The issue of race – both kinds – is repeated in Abrahams’ choice of coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) who is half Arab and brings the taint of professionalism into play. Produced by David Puttnam, executive produced by Dodi Fayed and directed (in his feature debut) by adman Hugh Hudson who does his best to dress up a low budget epic. The tragic coda to the film if not the story is that two of its stars, Charleson, and Brad Davis (who plays Jackson Scholz), died of AIDS within 18 months of each other a decade later.

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Psycho II (1983)

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Remember Norman: only your Mother truly loves you.  22 years after he’s been incarcerated in a psychiatric institution Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is back in Fairvale California, only to find his hotel run down under the management of Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz). Despite a new friendship with a waitress, Mary (Meg Tilly) and a job bussing tables at a diner, Norman begins to hear voices once again. Mary moves into Norman’s house as his roommate but no matter how hard he tries, Norman cannot keep Mother from returning and coaxing him to unleash the homicidal maniac within but then it transpires that Mary’s mother is in town – and she’s Marion Crane’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) …Written by Tom Holland, this won’t erase your memories of Hitchcock’s seminal thriller and it stands alone, not adapted from Robert Bloch’s own sequel. It has the courage of its predecessor’s convictions and plays with Hitchcock’s tropes (and his cast) with just the right emphasis. Perkins is the same nervy antagonist and Tilly is an excellent foil. Director Richard Franklin has fun with re-staging some famous scenes and manages to make quite the suspenseful thriller – right until the end! Talk about a twist(ed) conclusion!

Message in a Bottle (1999)

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Choose between yesterday and tomorrow.  During her morning jog on the beach, journalist Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn) discovers a bottle protruding from the sand. Inside it, she finds a heartbreaking, anonymous love letter. After her paper publishes the letter, Osborne tracks down the letter’s reclusive author, world-weary widower Garret Blake (Kevin Costner), in the Carolinas. But, as Osborne finds herself falling hopelessly in love with Blake, she becomes wracked with guilt over the real impetus for her visit. As she deals with her own marital mishaps and life back in Chicago with her young son Jason (Jesse James) she can’t bring herself to be truthful with Garret, all the while exploiting his personal tragedy for her newspaper… Adapted by Gerald Di Pego from the Nicholas Sparks novel, it took me a while to see this:  it was released February 1999 and I was travelling from N’Orleans to New Jersey and it seemed to me to be always playing a township or three too far to travel that snowy Spring. It was worth waiting for. It’s a gloriously romantic confection, with conflict, high stakes and a guilty secret or two at its core – there are real lessons to be learned here from the grown-ups with mirroring marital and parenting dilemmas. Penn is terrific as the journo who is basically a stalker and Costner is perfect as the romantic foil whose life is much more complex than she suspects. And guess who plays his father? Paul Newman, that’s who. There are nice bits in the office with Robbie Coltrane revelling in the role of editor and Illeana Douglas as her best friend at work while John Savage is impressive as Costner’s brother in law. This works because it’s tough on the characters even through a rose-tinted lens and the ending, well, it’s not easy but it’s immensely satisfying. It was the first Sparks novel to be adapted to the screen. Love letters?  Message in a bottle? A tragic sacrifice? Death? I hear ya. Just gorgeous cinematography by Caleb Deschanel and music by Gabriel Yared. Sniff. Directed by Luis Mandoki.

Green for Danger (1946)

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‘In view of my failure—correction, comparative failure—I feel that I have no alternative but to offer you, sir, my resignation, in the sincere hope that you will not accept it.’  Full stop. During a German bombing raid on rural southeast England during World War II, a hospital undergoes heavy shelling. Postman Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott) dies on the operating table when a bomb explodes in the operating room. But when Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) dies after revealing that this is not the first patient of anaesthetist Barney Barnes (Trevor Howard) to die under suspicious circumstances, Scotland Yard’s  Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) is brought in to investigate… Knotty, fast-moving, hilarious and satirical, this is one of the very best British films, a murder mystery (a variant on the country house genre) that thrives on dismantling the very conventions of cinema at that time – if you can tell one of the female characters from the other (Sally Gray, Rosamund John, Campbell… ) you’re a better man than I, which is kinda the point of this! From the team of Launder and Gilliat, with Claude Gurney and Gilliat adapting Christianna Brand’s wartime novel this moves like the clappers and you won’t realise whodunnit until it’s too late – just like the droll Cockrill!  It was the first film to be shot at Pinewood in the aftermath of WW2 and the production design and sense of fear and enclosure works perfectly. The plot is ingenious and even while everyone’s being offed in highly unsentimental fashion you’ll struggle to figure it out despite the structure. Sim is wonderful but he’s matched all the way by Leo Genn as the Harley Street surgeon. And all the while the German doodlebugs (V1 bombs) keep everyone in a state of terror.  Brilliant.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015)

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She would rather live with a producer than her children. The great Swedish actress is recalled through her diaries and letters (voiced by Alicia Vikander), photographs and any amount of home movies which she shot compulsively.  She believed she was only truly alive when she was being photographed and described her home life away from the studio in Hollywood as ‘being locked in a suitcase suffocating.’ Following the early death of her mother this was a little girl cosseted by her father who documented her on camera and even Alfred Hitchcock (‘he brought out the best in me’) declared she took film more seriously than real life. Her father died young too and this leaves something of a Freudian association trailing throughout the film with her evident need to be constantly photographed and speaking other people’s lines.  Following drama school and early success in Swedish cinema she was discovered by Hollywood and arrived there to work with David O. Selznick whose colleague Kay Brown became her agent and lifelong friend. She abandoned her little girl and doctor husband for various lovers including Robert Capa (who wouldn’t sacrifice his short-lived career for her) and then Roberto Rossellini whom she pursued until he hired her for a film and she had his illegitimate child. She couldn’t adjust to his filmmaking style – she was no improviser and writing dialogue was contrary to her training. Her husband divorced her and got custody of Pia, while, after having more children by Rossellini,  the director abandoned Bergman for another woman (in India) who had yet another of his illegitimate children and Bergman then took off for Paris with a lover of her own. She saw her children in Italy once a month, more often when daughter Isabella (who became an actress) developed scoliosis. Daughter Pia discusses her mother’s obsession with Joan of Arc from an early age as being evidence that she wanted to make her name. There are many newsreel excerpts and interviews about her chaotic intercontinental life, pursued by paparazzi and condemned by various authorities until director Anatole Litvak declared in the mid-50s that she was the only actress he could consider for the role of Anastasia and an Academy Award for her performance smoothed her way back into the Hollywood fold. Despite her shortcomings and basically abandoning her young, her adult children (presumably with the benefit of relatively old age) describe her in contemporary interviews  as being totally charming with eldest daughter Pia even declaring, I craved having more of her. Stig Björkman’s film is a stunning evocation of a unique, peripatetic life which despite the rather unsettling morality of its fame-seeking subject simply exudes joy and contains many insights into the acting mind. Written by the director with Stina Gardell and Dominika Daubenbuchel with a great score by Michael Nyman, topped with a song by Eva Dahlgren in the closing credits.

The Shack (2017)

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If anything matters then everything matters. After suffering the loss of his younger daughter Missy (Amélie Eve) to a kidnapper following the carelessness of his older daughter Kate (Megan Charpentier) while on a camping trip Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) spirals into a deep depression that causes him to question his innermost beliefs and threatens his  relationship with his remaining family including his wife Nan (Radha Mitchell) and son Josh (Gage Munroe). Facing a crisis of faith, he receives a mysterious letter urging him to an abandoned shack in the Oregon wilderness. Despite his doubts, Mack journeys to the shack which he recognises as the location where his daughter’s bloodied dress was found and as he prepares to wreak his revenge he encounters an enigmatic trio of strangers led by a woman named Papa (Octavia Spencer), her son Jesus (Aviv Alush)  and a woman called Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara). Through this meeting, which reveals his problems and past through visions and journeys, Mack finds important truths that will transform his understanding of his tragedy and change his life forever… Being a Sunday it seems appropriate to visit that little genre of Christian movies – oh, give me some old time religion already.  William P. Young’s underground bestseller was taken up by Octavia Spencer as a production project and joins a group of films that have flourished in the last few years tackling thorny issues under the rubric of acceptance and forgiveness and all that jazz. Mack’s background as the witness to his father’s abuse of his mother will hit a lot of targets about the origins of emasculation but Worthington’s somewhat strangulated performance doesn’t really assist the character’s trajectory from Doubting Thomas to True Believer. It may not be your bag and this has a whiff of TV movie about it but the cast is attractive and in a world where Spencer is God I’ll take my chances.  You’ll believe you can walk on water. Adapted by John Fusco and Andrew Lanham & Destin Cretton and directed by Stuart Hazeldine. Paradise is shot by Declan Quinn. Amen to that.

Miss Sloane (2017)

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Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.  Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) remains one of the most sought-after lobbyists in Washington, D.C. She will do or say anything to get ahead of the competition. When asked to help oppose a bill that imposes regulations on firearms, she instead joins a scrappy boutique firm led by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) that represents the backers of the law. Her defiant stance and determination to win now makes her the target of powerful new enemies who threaten her career. We find her facing a congressional hearing headed up by Senator Ronald Sperling (John Lithgow) where the needling gets to her and she breaks legal advice to plead the Fifth to respond to a petty point about Indonesia and opens the door to an onslaught of past crimes in the name of getting ahead on Capitol Hill … This wordy worthy drama is hard to take:  Chastain is as we have come to expect – technically adept, capable of delivering very prolix speeches but essentially unsympathetic (not that she cares) in spite of this being about a very current hot button topic – gun control and the powerful lobby that comes out to vote no matter what. Written by Jonathan Perera and directed by John Madden, this is literate, middle of the road social consciousness drama only rendered tolerable by performance and ultimately some finessed construction and screw-tightening towards the conclusion. But like Chastain’s other film this year, Molly’s Game, the stakes aren’t high enough to make us do anything more than yawn at these horrible people.

Jasper Jones (2017)

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It’s not my brand. It’s the late 1960s in the small town of Corrigan in Western Australia.  14 year old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is the son of writer Wes (Dan Wyllie) whose frustrated wife (Toni Colette) is a restless soul. Wannabe writer Charlie spends his days with his best friend Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Lu), a Vietnamese boy daily confronted with race hate in a place where young men are being sent to Vietnam. Eliza Wishart (Angouire Rice) daughter of the President of the town hall becomes more and more endeared towards Charlie and they bond over their mutual love of books. On Christmas Eve Charlie is unexpectedly visited by Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath) an outcast due to his mixed White-Aboriginal heritage and rebellious lifestyle. Jasper begs for Charlie’s help, and leads him to his private glade where Charlies is horrified to see Jasper’s girlfriend Laura Wishart, battered and hanging from a tree. Jasper, aware that he is likely to be blamed for Laura’s murder, convinces Charlie that they should hide the body, so they throw it into a nearby pond, weighted by a large rock. Jeffrey is passionate about cricket, but his attempts to join the Corrigan team are thwarted by the racism of the coach and other players. Eventually he finds himself batting in a game against a rival town, watched by Charlie, who has befriended Eliza, Laura’s younger sister. As Jeffrey wins the game on the last ball, Charlie and Eliza hold hands and embrace. A search for the missing girl is soon organised, focused on the idea that she may have run away. Jasper is interrogated roughly by the local police, but he soon escapes. Meanwhile tension builds in the town, as parents fear more disappearances, and townspeople search for someone to blame. The tension is funneled into strict curfews for the children as well as racial attacks on Jeffrey’s family. It is revealed that Charlie’s mother, increasingly disillusioned with life in Corrigan and her marriage, is having an affair with the Sarge involved with the investigation into Laura’s disappearance. Jasper believes that Laura’s murderer is Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving) an old recluse rumored to have done terrible things in the past. Jasper determines to confront Lionel on New Year’s Eve, and together with Charlie, goes to his house. Lionel manages to defuse Jasper’s aggression, and the truth comes out: Lionel is actually Jasper’s grandfather who had ostracised his son’s family knowing that he had married with an Aboriginal woman when Jasper was a baby. His daughter-in-law then took care of him, spurring a change of heart towards her. One night, she needed medical attention, and Lionel had attempted to race her to hospital. In his haste, however, he accidentally crashed his car, causing her death. The incident has left him guilty, broken, and ostracized by the townspeople. Ever since, Lionel has been trying to reach out to Jasper and apologise for his actions. On the same night, Charlie comes to Eliza’s window. They go to Jasper’s glade. Here Eliza tells Charlie that she knows everything about Laura’s death and hands him Laura’s suicide note which explains the incestuous rapes to which their father had subjected her and left her pregnant. Eliza witnessed her sister’s suicide by hanging and then Charlie admits to her that he and Jasper got rid of her body. After exacting a revenge on her father the secret remains with Charlie and Eliza and her mother, who destroys the note but Charlie’s own family is broken up when his mother leaves the small town which cannot contain her … Craig Silvey adapted his own novel with Shaun Grant.  Director Rachel Perkins sustains an admirable atmosphere and sympathy in what is essentially a family drama enlivened by what Freud ironically termed ‘romance’ with a supposed murder mystery at its centre. The playing is excellent by actors both young and old with a canny sense of what it is to be young and trying to figure out how adults inflict damage on everyone around them – this is practically a thesis on different models of fatherhood, but it’s so well constructed you don’t understand until the final shot. The mystery isn’t really the point either although there is a deal of suspense. It’s a film that perfectly captures what it is to be young, to love books and to be loyal to your friends and the myriad ways that kids find to survive their parents.  There are echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird and Stand By Me in the themes rendered here but it exists on its own merits as a complex coming of age drama with its distinctive setting and concerns.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

 

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No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Due to his knowledge of the native Bedouin tribes, British Army Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to Arabia to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and serve as liaison between the Arabs and the British in their fight against the Turks. With the aid of the native Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence rebels against the orders of his superior officer and strikes out on a daring camel journey across the harsh desert to attack a well-guarded Turkish port… The greatest film ever made? Probably. One of my more shocking cinematic excursions was to see this at London’s Odeon Marble Arch when it was re-released in a new print:  I hared to the early evening screening, thought I was incredibly late when I got my ticket because the foyer was deserted, ran upstairs two steps at a time and took my seat. And realised I was the only person there. This is one of the most feverishly protagonist-led narratives you will ever see, by which I mean that what you are seeing is the world created by Lawrence, whether or not it is true to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the entire facts of the matter or the man.  Like Psycho, everything in it exists to explain his perspective, his character, his essence. And it starts so shockingly, in a way that horrified me when I first saw it on TV one afternoon when I was probably nine years old:  his death in an English country lane on a summer’s day on a motorcycle. This frames an action adventure rooted in archaeology, espionage, politics, propaganda and the division of the vast desert lands and their warring tribes into convenient nation-states. It’s a narrative that is  free of women but includes issues of homosexuality and torture. It uses the trope of the journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) rewriting history as it is being made. It is filled with imagery that pulses through your brain – the arrival of Ali across the shimmering sands;  the (literal) match cut;  Lawrence shot from below in his white Arabic robes, stalking the hijacked train;  the magical appearance of water. I watch this on a regular basis and get lost in it every time. It’s extraordinary, arresting, brilliant, startling, stunning. O’Toole is utterly luminous as this complex man. Blacklisted Michael Wilson and British screenwriter Robert Bolt did drafts of the script and it may not be entirely historically accurate but it is true. Shot by Freddie Young, scored by Maurice Jarre, directed by David Lean. Magnificent. Happy Birthday to me.

The Colditz Story (1955)

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Escaping’s verboten, isn’t it? Allied prisoners of war who have tried to escape from other POW camps in Germany are sent of Oflag IV-C Colditz, a castle in Saxony which is the most secure holding place for the repeat offenders. At first, the different nationalities try to initiate their own independent escape plans, but these cause friction and conflict with the French tunnel collapsing on the British one and every escape being stopped by the Germans. Eventually, Colonel Richmond (Eric Portman), the Senior British Officer, steps in and suggests co-operation between the different contingents via the appointment of a number of Escape Officers:  Pat Reid (John Mills) represents the British. An agreement is reached and co-ordinated escape plans are set in motion. But soon, these too fail via early detection by the German guards. Eventually, a spy is discovered amongst the Polish captives and, after his removal, escape plans run more smoothly.  The prisoners of Colditz are high-spirited and eager to needle the Germans. There are many escape attempts made, both planned and opportune. For example, prisoners tunnel underground, leapfrog over fences during physical training, hide in mattresses being taken out of the camp. Some of these escapes are successful, some are not. The plans are always scuppered by the exit route from the camp and what to do to make it out of Germany. Mac McGill (Christopher Rhodes) comes up with a well thought out plan to escape disguised as German officers but his excessive height will compromise him and his fellow escapees. He is devastated but accepts the Colonel’s judgement. On the eve of the escape, he makes a reckless attempt to scale a wire fence during daylight and is shot dead by German guards.  Reid is at confused as to why Mac would do such a thing right before they can carry out their plan but the escape goes ahead…  This is a classic 1950s WW2 actioner, based closely on what actually happened. The efficient screenplay by director Guy Hamilton, Ivan Foxwell and William Douglas-Holme is adapted from Pat Reid’s autobiographical book. They even stage a version of an old Flanagan and Allen routine during the crucial escape, with Ian Carmichael and Richard Wattis doing the double act while the more important work goes on beneath the proscenium. Mills is the reliable Englishman while Portman is the troublesome snob – at first. Characterisation is deftly wrought in a typically broad selection of types and not merely among the British:  this is the Allied war effort in microcosm, with violence kept to a minimum and the end credits filling in the historical facts – Airey Neave was the first to break out from this supposedly impregnable fortress in 1942 but he wasn’t the last.  It’s never as exciting as you’d like but nonetheless it’s pretty fine escapist entertainment!