1917 (2019)

1917

If you fail, it will be a massacre. During World War I in the trenches close to the front line, two British soldiers Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) receive seemingly impossible orders. In a race against time, they have to cross over into enemy territory to deliver a message to the Devons Regiment – not to go over the top, in a change of plan that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades including Blake’s own brother from falling into a German trap... Brimming with award season nominations, already garlanded with some and its director and co-writer Sam Mendes (with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) pronouncing on the virtues of pacificism, this is chiefly noted for the supposed virtuosity of its being an apparently seamless one-take drama shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Newsflash:  it is a dull and irritating exercise entirely lacking in character development, boasting minimal plot, cursory and random dialogue, little forward propulsion until the 75th minute and thereafter it continues to play out in real time, with a wholly foreseeable ending. What is the problem? The script, the script, the script. It’s unthinking, immature and poorly conceived. The camera has a perspective, the script lacks a point of view. World War 1 was a senseless slaughter of boys led by blinkered generals. There are images of bodies both human and animal. Death was in the trenches and in the air. We know. There are great war films, and not just about World War 1, although La Grande Illusion, All Quiet on the Western Front, Gallipoli and Paths of Glory immediately come to mind when that subject arises. World War 2 has a plethora, most recently, Saving Private Ryan, which sensibly – necessarily – pulls back from its extraordinarily immersive half-hour opening sequence at the Normandy Landing to give the shocked audience a breather from the shockingly unleashed violence and drive towards death and to establish characters, context and narrative.  It is a classic of modern cinema. Dunkirk attempts to converge three stories in parallel without having a scintilla of memorably comparable affect because it seems, like another of Christopher Nolan’s films, Inception, to derive from a gamer’s sensibility, visor firmly clamped around the viewer’s eyes to prevent any kind of peripheral vision. Elem Klimov’s Come and See is an astonishing – almost incomparable – film that lingers long in the memory for its brutal tale of a teenager on the Russian front lines. Hamburger Hill tells the ‘Nam story from the perspective of grunts and it’s devastating; Apocalypse Now takes a literary exercise and converts it to cinematic hallucination. I could go on. This? A cameraman tracks back for ten minutes in an unaltering medium two-shot in a trench making for a queasy opening, and then follows the pair of protagonists until two inevitably become one; then he enters a nightmarish world of a (finally) changing landscape and the dreary grey palette of northern France (actually Wiltshire) gets some studio lighting at last. The idea of presenting the story in real time derives from a mistaken sensibility that has a paradoxically theatrical affect preventing any level of deep character engagement:  and on that subject, it would help to have an attractive protagonist. MacKay communicates precisely nothing but he is given very little to work with. Ordinariness has its own rewards, just not for an audience. There is an old saw that goes, Don’t shoot the messenger. Well, if they had shot the right one, they might have had a film. Ostensibly, this is a film about war. Actually, it’s a film about avoidance. Hope is a dangerous thing

How Awful About Allan (1970) (TVM)

How Awful About Allan

It’s not your ordinary family reunion. Years after being blamed for the fire that killed their father Raymond (Kent Smith) and suffering from psychosomatic blindness, Allan Colleigh (Anthony Perkins) is released from a mental hospital to stay with his disfigured sister Katherine (Julie Harris) and begins to hear voices when mysterious boarder Harold who has throat problems moves in. Meanwhile his ex-fiancée Olive (Joan Hackett) resumes contact and reports that Katherine’s ex-boyfriend Eric (Trent Dolan) is in town, something Katherine denies.  Allan believes Eric and Harold are one and the same …  The home and the property are both valuable and they’re half mine. We’re in true cult territory here with a collaboration between novelist Henry Farrell (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? etc) and director Curtis Harrington with Farrell adapting his 1963 novel which was complimented by none other than Dorothy B. Hughes in The Washington Post. Both men can be considered auteurs in their own right while Perkins of course gave one of the greatest performances in cinema under the direction of Hitchcock but arguably never escaped the shade of Psycho and in truth is replaying some of its more emotive notes here. The cinematography has not aged well but the individual elements and Perkins’ presence compensate in this rather sub-par suburban Gothic with his tape recording of his suspicions the inner voice that drives the narrative. Perkins and Hackett would be reunited three years laster for The Last of Sheila, an intricate shipboard parlour game mystery which he co-wrote with Stephen Sondheim. An ABC Movie of the Week from Aaron Spelling Productions.  We’ll have our afflictions in common, won’t we

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

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Everybody got honourable mention who showed up. Opthamologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) wants to preserve his marriage to Miriam (Claire Bloom), and his dangerous brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) comes up with what appears to be the only viable solution – murder. Initially he is plagued with guilt about his infidelity and confides in his Rabbi client Ben (Sam Waterston) whom he is treating for sight loss. However when he becomes certain that his neurotic and hysterical mistress Dolores (Anjelica Huston) is about to tell his wife about their four-year long affair, Judah agrees to Jack’s plan. Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) is a documentary maker whose films make no money and he spends his afternoons at the movies with his orphaned niece. His wife Jenny (Joanna Gleason) chides him for his failure and refuses to have sex with him but things seems to be resolved when her brother, horribly successful TV comedy producer Lester (Alan Alda) says he can make a film about him, which introduces him to associate producer Halley (Mia Farrow), who shares his love of movies Without the law it’s all darkness. A film of two halves in which Allen tries to unite the ideas of tragedy and comedy – happily Alda is at hand to illustrate it via Oedipus Rex using the hoary saying, Comedy is tragedy plus time. It’s a wholly ironic work in which Huston’s death should trigger guilt in Landau but he escapes scot-free while his rabbi advisor ends up with sight loss; and Allen’s character who wisely advises his orphaned niece about life through daily trips to the movies doesn’t see what’s clear to his wife – that the object of his affection Farrow is in lust with the obnoxious Alda. Meanwhile his philosophical hero Professor Louis Levy (Martin S. Bergmann) whose interviews form a Greek chorus of morality for a proposed film commits suicide. That the entire tragicomedy is concluded in a wedding is the greatest irony of all in a work which balances like the finest of high wire acts. God is a luxury I can’t afford

 

 

 

Instant Family (2018)

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Is it a problem, the whole white saviour thing? Building contractor Pete Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) and his interior designer wife Ellie (Rose Byrne) have a perfect life, flipping houses and making money. However their child-free status is starting to get to Ellie and she persuades Mark to think about fostering. They train under the supervision of social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) and get overwhelmed when they encounter wisecracking 15-year old Lizzie (Isabela Moner) but she has a little brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz) and the couple don’t want to break up the family, whose crack addict mom is in jail.  The honeymoon period is followed by serious tantrums and disruption … If I chatted to a random kid in the park I could get arrested.  A film constructed on such a hideously sentimental premise you might not look beyond the awesome shabby chic interiors and hear some very shrewd and witty observations about race, parenting and family.  But what the hell were they thinking to deploy the great Joan Cusack as the weirdo in the last scene? Cringe! Must be the flu meds. Ahem. Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders. I never get tired of watching white people fight

Little Women (2019)

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If the main character’s a girl she has to be married at the end. Or dead. In 1860s New England after the Civil War, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) lives in New York and makes her living as a writer and teacher, sending money home, while her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris under the aegis of her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Amy has a chance encounter with Theodore Laurence aka Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a childhood crush from the upper class family next door who proposed to Jo but was ultimately rejected. Their oldest sibling, Meg (Emma Watson) is married to impoverished tutor John Brooke (James Norton) ,while shy sister Beth (Emma Scanlen) develops a devastating illness that brings the family back together under the leadership of their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) who is sad about her husband (Bob Odenkirk) being away in the War as a volunteer for the Union Army. As Jo recalls their experiences coming of age, she has to learn the hard way from a newspaper editor Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) and a fellow schoolteacher Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) that her writing needs a lot of work if it’s to authentically represent her talentI will always be disappointed at being a girl. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved American classic jumps around pivotal episodes and reorders them from present to past and back again, back and forth, to create a coherent, rising and falling set of emotions. Each sister has a distinct personality and aspirations;  each is valid, according to their wants and needs and desires; and each is bestowed a dignity. Ronan shines as Jo but all four are carefully delineated and Pugh as selfish Amy has the greatest emotional arc but she should sue the costumier for failing to tailor her clothes to her stocky figure. Watson isn’t quite right for Meg and her lack of technique is plain. Somehow though it’s always poor Beth who doesn’t get what she deserves:  charity does not begin at home in her case. Some things never change. Despite the liberties taken structurally the story feels rather padded and at 135 minutes it could do with at least 20 minutes being cut because the screenplay keeps retreading the same territory and spoonfeeds the audience in issues of equality and womanhood with whole dialogue exchanges that sound as though they’ve come from a contemporary novel. Even Marmee confesses to being angry all the time. The issue of copyright introduces an aspect of authorship in the last section which has a few different endings. Being a creative writer is one thing;  being an editor is quite different. Each serves a purpose and that is to serve the story well. A film that ultimately has as little faith in its audience as publisher Mr Dashwood has in his readership, this is undoubtedly of its time and it can stand the tinkering that has introduced Alcott’s own story into the mix with the ultimate fairytale ending for any writer – holding her first book in her hands.  Produced by Amy Pascal, who also worked on the 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong. Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for

 

 

The Facts of Life (1960)

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Am I really going to San Francisco to spend the weekend… with the husband of my best friend? When neighbours Kitty Weaver (Lucille Ball) and Larry Gilbert (Bob Hope) meet it’s irritation at first sight but there’s an undeniable attraction which they eventually act upon during the annual neighbourhood vacation in Acapulco when they’re forced to spend it together. Problem is, they’re both married, she to habitual gambler Jack (Don DeFore), he to perfect homemaker Mary (Ruth Hussey) and they both have two children. They vow to take off together after circumstances and regular encounters at social gatherings mean they keep running into each other but a messed up drunken assignation at a motel makes them rethink. Then things change after Larry finds out that Kitty has written a note to Jack to tell him she’s leaving him when the pair take go to San Francisco for the weekend during the winter vacation … This is my first affair, so please be kind. A breezy but cold-eyed comedy of suburban middle class adultery is not necessarily what you might expect with that cast, but that’s what legendary screenwriting partners Norman Panama and Melvin Frank created and it’s very well played by the leads who of course are both peerless comedy performers and this is the third of the four films they made together. It’s as though Johns Cheever and Updike decided to up sticks and go Hollywood and take all the baggage of midcentury masculinity with them. Panama and Frank are of course great comic screenwriters.  Their first screen credit was on Hope’s 1942 movie My Favorite Blonde and later work with him includes Road to Utopia, Monsieur Beaucaire and an uncredited rewrite of The Princess and the Pirate so they know his strengths (they are his, as it were) and they turn a messy uncomfortable familial disruption into an easily enjoyed romcom whose moral messiness is tidied into great dialogue and barely concealed social anxiety.  This is the essence of comedy and it’s their forte. There are some shockingly barbed exchanges and there are excruciating sequences when the couple discuss the legal and financial ramifications of two divorces and realise when they’re finally alone together that they’re probably mismatched; when they almost get found out by neighbours at San Francisco Airport the tension is horrific.  There’s a notable score by Johnny Mercer and Leigh Harline with the title song performed by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé and while Frank gets the sole directing credit, it appears Panama co-directed. There’s an unexpectedly conventional titles sequence designed by Saul Bass, putting us right in the mood for the tenor of that era’s comedy style and it all looks beautiful in monochrome thanks to cinematographer Charles Lang. Night-time Los Angeles looks glossy even in black and white.  It’s an interesting one to compare with another film about an extra-marital suburban affair filmed the same year, Strangers When We Meet. Played a beat slower with a fraction less of the leads’ comedy mugging and shot in colour, this could match its melodramatic tone. Are you sure you’re with the right woman?

Tickle Me (1965)

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He handles himself very well. Unemployed rodeo rider Lonnie Beale (Elvis Presley) arrives in the desert town of Zuni Wells looking for work on the recommendation of a friend who is nowhere to be found so he starts singing at a club where Vera Radford (Julie Adams) offers him a job handling horses at her Circle-Z ranch. It’s actually a fitness spa filled with young women shaping up and Lonnie follows one of the girls, Pam Merritt (Jocelyn Lane), to a ghost town called Silverado where one of her relatives allegedly buried a treasure. At the Circle-Z she suffers repeated attempted kidnappings when word of her inheritance gets out. She, Lonnie and ranch hand Stanley Potter (Jack Mullaney) re-enact western characters in a parody sequence and Lonnie goes back on the road but his phone calls to Pam go unanswered and his letter is Returned to Sender. Stanley locates Lonnie and they follow Pam to Silverado and a storm ensues and they are pursued by supposed ghosts who really want the treasure … I can see it now:  cowboy marries millionaire divorcee. An unusually playful Elvis comedy thanks to Three Stooges scribes Edward Bernds and Elwood Ulman who apply the rule of slapstick to half the scenes in a film that feels like it’s a year long instead of its sprightly 91 minute running time. Luckily the last third strays into amusing haunted house territory at least making an attempt at a genre workout in a story that suffers from a plethora of studio-bound outdoor scenes which is a pity because when they get into those Jeeps and cut a swathe through the desert it’s quite tolerable fun. Otherwise it’s refreshing in the #MeToo era to see The King being sexually harassed by his lady boss Adams.  The songs are all old recordings and the film saved Allied Artists from bankruptcy. Directed by Norman Taurog. I’ve heard of this happening to secretaries before but this is ridiculous

Knives Out (2019)

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

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

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

Address Unknown (1944)

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The quicksand of despair – and just before we died a man pulled us out. When Martin Schultz (Paul Lukas), a German expatriate art dealer living in the US, visits his homeland, he begins to get attracted by the Nazi propaganda and breaks ties with his close Jewish friend, Max Eisenstein (Morris Carnovsky) whose daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens) an aspiring actress is engaged to marry his son Heinrich (Peter Van Eyck) and she has accompanied Martin to Munich to pursue her career for a year. But Martin is swiftly recruited by Baron von Friesche (Carl Esmond) to work in the Culture Ministry with devastating repercussions … You can’t sit on two stools at once. At least not here in Germany. Kressmann Taylor’s 1938 novella sounded a gunshot over the ramparts about the dangers of Nazism and the screenplay by Herbert Dalmas does it justice – and then some. Director William Cameron Menzies deploys the style of German Expressionism (shot by Rudolf Maté) in the service of all that is decent and the escalating tension is brilliantly paced. The near-lynching of Griselle at the theatre is shocking and concludes in the tragic manner you know to expect. The atmosphere of intimidation and dread is expertly sustained while Lukas’ encroaching guilt over his role in the desperate developments in Germany grinds to a logical conclusion in the form of coded communication as the visuals veer from film noir shadows to straightforward horror mise en scène. A superb evocation of how two intertwined families suffer in the murderous Nazi terror. The old Juncker spirit and German arrogance are gone