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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Houdini (1953)

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Pay a dollar to see a man in love with death! Watch Tony Curtis saw Janet Leigh in two! From his start at the Coney Island sideshows to London, Paris and Berlin, the career of legendary escapologist Harry Houdini is charted in a screenplay by Philip Yordan adapted from the book by Harold Kellock which plays fast and loose with the facts, including his tragically early death. Houdini (Tony Curtis) meets Bess (Janet Leigh) while trying out his early magic acts and they marry quickly and move in with his mother (Angela Clarke). He takes a regular job in a locksmith factory but tries to escape from a safe and Bess finally agrees to go to Europe with him instead of putting a downpayment on a house with prize money earned when he escapes from a straitjacket at a Halloween show for magicians. That’s when he becomes obsessed with Otto von Schweger, the only other man to have done so. (He develops a fatalistic belief that good things happen to him on Halloween). Bess joins him on the road as his assistant and becomes a star attraction. He becomes infamous after escaping a police cell at Scotland Yard but is too late arriving at von Schweger’s home to meet the man, who had just died. He left him a miniature of a man in a glass case and it becomes Houdini’s obsession. When his mother dies he wants to make contact with her and loses himself for two years. A journalist persuades him to expose fake spiritualists and then he returns to the one trick that remains … Curtis and Leigh were husband and wife and Hollywood’s darlings when they made this and they’re utterly charming together – she’s beguiling, practical and loving, he’s obsessive, devoted and brilliant:  they practically sizzle on screen.  Director George Marshall stages this beautifully in a production that is a triumph of design, colour and performance with great costumes by Edith Head. Demonstrating Houdini’s focus using a bauble on a chandelier as an objective correlative is a brilliant example of how this is visualised. A splendid, tense, thrilling, witty and romantic biography from the Golden Age of Hollywood with wonderfully imagined tricks and illusions.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

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Aka Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Men Tell No Tales. Thanks to the Australian government’s tax incentives, that Pirates-shaped gap in my life has finally been plugged with a new instalment in the delayed series. I love these films, and all pirate films, and have had to sate myself with the genius Black Sails in the interim (I have one series to go, so no spoilers please! I’m still not over Charles Vane’s execution!). This is number 5 in the franchise and it operates as a kind of unofficial reboot because it has been (gasp) 14 long years since the first film, Curse of the Black Pearl, was released. And it’s aptly returned to this for most of the bones in terms of story, character and structure, even if this has way more shaggy-dogness about it in an untidy set of plot mechanics. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann vows to find Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to right the wrong on his father who’s abiding in a watery limbo on the Flying Dutchman. He knows that the Trident of Poseidon will break the curse. Death meanwhile lurks on the high seas in the form of Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghostly crew who cannot set foot on dry land – also condemned and cursed by Sparrow’s antics. An astronomer Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario) is being executed as a witch in St Martin where a bank is being opened – and this is where Captain Jack makes his spectacular reappearance with his unruly and disgruntled crew led by Kevin McNally, with their awful ship in dry dock where they’re all broke. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is summoned by Henry to help out and he is ironically reunited with a daughter who doesn’t know the provenance of the map she seeks … Colourful, silly, not entirely logical and definitely rehashing plot points from the earlier films particularly the first one, this is handled pretty well by Norwegian directing duo Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg working from a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, with a story by Nathanson and Terry Rossio.  The young lovers story gets a run-through, the Barbossa plot gets a very fitting conclusion, there’s a fascinating flashback (I want one to give me skin like that in real life) and there are homages here and there to make you smile – the zombie sharks being a reference to the original summer blockbuster granddaddy of them all, the ghost crew a nod to the original’s skeleton crew, Depp taking his Robert Newton/Keith impersonation to new heights of pantomime, a great Paul McCartney cameo and a bank robbery like no other. Some of the lines could have done with a rewrite – especially the jokes which are heavy on the misogyny; and there’s no real mad surrealism which has graced previous episodes (is there anything as wild as the hallucination of the ship on dry land and the multiple Jacks?!). While most of the legendary tropes are present bar a real Brit villain the last action sequence is so darned complex I genuinely forgot what it was about. But it’s full of fun and wild adventure and I for one love this series even if number 4 fell far short of expectations. Thwaites and Scodelario make a pretty useful couple to base the next set of films, kicking some new plotlines into touch. What do you want – live action Space Mountain?! Hoist the mainbrace! Wahey me hearties! More!

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.

Only You (1994)

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Faith (Marisa Tomei) believes from a childhood episode with a ouija board that it’s writ in her destiny to marry ‘Damon Bradley.’ So she calls off her wedding to a podiatrist and runs away to Venice with BFF and sister in law Kate (Bonnie Hunt) to locate an elusive man who is a colleague of her husband-to-be flying there that day. They have to go to Rome to track him down. When she meets cute a man who helps with her shoe (Robert Downey) he claims to be him. But after a romantic evening he says his name is actually Peter Wright and he really has fallen in love with her. Then he gives in and apparently assists in her quest to find this fabled individual who really is in Italy. Mild, not as good as you’d wish but never as bad as you’d dread, this modern spin on Cinderella from Diane Drake is a decent romcom with delightful leads, a fantastic supporting turn from Hunt, stunning scenery and a fetishist’s appreciation of fine footwear. You want more? Sheesh! Directed by Norman Jewison.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

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The blackest of comedies, this, a satire about looks and cosmetic surgery and Hollywood that 25 years later looks a lot like contemporary society’s obsession with plastic even if it doesn’t actually predict the rise of the D-listers famous for selling sex tapes to fund their face changing which everyone pretends not to notice (seriously:  when did plastic surgery get so bad? It used to work! Nobody noticed Gary Cooper’s facelift! Or Alain Delon’s!). Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are friends who have wildly different career trajectories (prescient…) when Meryl makes off with Bruce Willis, a talented plastic surgeon who keeps the actress wealthy while her roles diminish. Goldie meanwhile spends years sitting in front of the TV getting fat obsessing over what might have been. Seven years later … Goldie is shrunk and madeover and arrives to take what’s rightfully hers – Bruce, now an alcoholic mess – while Meryl is having it away with anyone twenty years younger. Meryl avails of a potion for eternal life sold from a Gothic castle in the Hollywood Hills by Isabella Rossellini, a sex goddess witch with a Louise Brooks ‘do who looks 25 but is actually 71. Thus Bruce and Goldie’s plot to kill her off fails and she then kills Goldie – who also gets to live forever while Bruce wonders what on earth he can do to escape them when they go to a party at Isabella’s which happens to be Night of the Living Hollywood Dead… Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script is pretty smart but goes for easy targets in horror instead of the social mores it’s ostensibly attacking.  There are nice bits – Goldie’s insight with her therapist;  Sydney Pollack as the doctor finding Meryl has no heartbeat after her head’s twisted back to front and she’s sitting up talking to him in his Beverly Hills surgery; the party at Isabella’s with an orchestra led by Ian Ogilvie and we recognise some very famous dead faces dancing – but in the main it’s a totally OTT effects fantasia, a singular failing of director Robert Zemeckis whose work I preferred in the days of Used Cars and Back to the Future.  One thing is sure in the 37-years-later last segment – these ladies don’t age quite the way they want to! For romance novel fans, yes, that’s Fabio playing Isabella’s bodyguard. Golly!

Tootsie (1982)

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Dustin Hoffman is the out of work actor (twenty years and counting) who can’t even play a tomato without creating friction. His agent, Sydney Pollack (the film’s director after Dick Richards then Hal Ashby didn’t do it) has to tell him he’s unemployable. The real-life actor’s legendary on-set behaviour is tapped here for the obnoxious New Yorker who cross-dresses and becomes a hit on a dreadful daytime hospital soap where he falls hopelessly in love with Jessica Lange, the star who’s schtupping the nasty director, Dabney Coleman (always a joy).  With Bill Murray as Hoffman’s deadpan playwright roomie, Charles Durning as Lange’s widower farmer dad who falls for ‘Dorothy’ and Teri Garr as his actress best friend the cast is an Eighties joy. The chaos behind the scenes is something of a movie myth but none of it shows onscreen. Sitcom maestro Larry Gelbart wrote the story with Don McGuire (adapting McGuire’s early 1970s play) but Pollack (who compulsively hired and fired screenwriters) and Hoffman (in a role first offered to Peter Sellers, then Michael Caine!) put more through their paces – Murray Schisgal, Barry Levinson and Elaine May. Despite this, the story goes down smooth as butter even if the central conceit is as ludicrous as making Bruce Jenner Woman of the Year. Condescending to women? Just a bit! But extremely funny. Hoffman was distressed to learn that even with makeup he would never be an attractive woman and confessed that this epiphany led him to regret all the conversations with interesting women he might have missed. Oh, the humanity!

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

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This is just too cool for school. Much heralded for starring Madonna, it’s a brilliant study of female friendship and a treasure hunt and small ads and being a magician’s assistant and a bored New Jersey housewife! Susan Seidelman’s sophomore outing hit all sorts of buttons but mostly it was the trendsetting pop star’s clothing that made people sit up and take notice of this loose take on Celine and Julie Go Boating (not that the fans realised this was what it was). Writer Leora Barish (Craig Bolotin did uncredited additions) turns it into an American genre piece, with magician’s assistant Susan (Madonna) making off with some valuable Egyptian earrings from her criminal boyfriend and keeps up with her friend Jim with notices in the newspaper which alert wealthy Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) to their meeting in Battery Park. She follows the engaging kook not realising when she acquires her cool jacket from a thrift store that she is now on the hook for witnessing something she knows nothing about and the key in the pocket could literally unlock a Pandora’s box of problems and murder … Engagingly written, performed and staged, with Aidan Quinn providing love interest and Laurie Metcalf some rich quips, this tale of girl power seems like a movie from another planet nowadays. And that’s not a bad thing! Get Into The Groove! Watch out for the great comic Steven Wright, John Turturro, Richard Hell, Ann Magnuson, John Lurie and Shirley Stoler. What a cast from the NYC underground/alt scene! And what a prophetic title this is:  where has the director disappeared? Seriously, The Hot Flashes? Desperately Seeking Susan Seidelman!

Bewitched (2005)

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Way back when, a friend saw a movie before me and her review was succinct:  “The fireplaces were marvellous.” And, aside from a wonderful cat called Lucinda who greatly resembles my own lovely Frodo, for a while that’s pretty much how I felt about this Nora Ephron outing – exacerbated in no small way by the fact that at the screening I attended there was a soundtrack of contemporary music for the first 10 minutes – the projectionist’s personal choice. So much for postmodernism – for that’s exactly what this is, an interweaving of the old TV show with a modern interpretation of how a reboot is put together by egomaniac freshly divorced and failing film star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) who bumps into the best nose-twitcher in LA, Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman). She’s a newbie to the Valley in an effort to enter the mortal realm and be normal – so she becomes an actress. Only in LA. She falls hard for Jack but his weaselly agent Ritchie (Jason Schwartzmann) rubbishes the idea in her hearing. She wants to put a spell on him and it works, for a while. The scriptwriter (Heather Burns, who also acted for Ephron in You’ve Got Mail) gives her great lines and shows up Jack/Darrin. “Nobody likes Darrin!” he whines when the preview numbers are in and she’s a hit and he’s not. Nora and Delia Ephron wrote this with Adam McKay who’s long been house writer/director of that bromance crew led by Ferrell. Here, warlock dad (Michael Caine) isn’t too impressed with the real world translation of immortal shenanigans but co-star Iris playing Endora (Shirley Maclaine) literally puts a spell on him because she’s got a witchy secret of her own. Halfway through Isabel rewinds her spell on Jack and their story re-starts – right in the middle of his guest interview with James Lipton, which is absolutely appropriate. Steve Carell and Carole Shelley have nice bits as Uncle Arthur and Clara, Ferrell gets to go naked in front of Conan and Nicole has a ball in a light as air souffle, just as Ephron would have served up for one of her carefully constructed meals, with an I Love You scene that perfectly fuses the structural ambitions of this postmodern romcom. Are Isabel and Jack in love with each other? Their characters? The idea? Themselves? That is the question … “I’m about to be killed by a fictional character!” squeaks Jack at one point. Well, duh. And the kitchen is marvellous!

Doctor Strange (2016)

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At last. A superhero film I can get behind even if Robert Downey Jr isn’t in it. There is actual dialogue – as opposed to a (c)rap soundtrack substitute for the Asian market. There is humour, much of it deriving from the ubiquitous character’s name. There is – shock – even a vaguely comprehensible story and a sense of its own ridiculousness. And also – and this is crucial – it’s under two hours.(Knowing when to leave is a biggie in my book.) This episode from the Marvel multiverse is about gifted arrogant neurosurgeon  Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who loses the use of his hands in a car crash. His career is over. When conventional medical procedures don’t help he resorts to a spiritual odyssey in Nepal (Tibet won’t work for the sensitive Chinese, sadly) where he encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton in kung fu monk mode) and learns to subsume his ego to permit him access to mystic powers. Right there you have ingredients mashed up from James Bond, The Lost Horizon and Doctor Kildare. Cumberbatch is fantastic even when his own clothes are hitting him. (And you’ve got to admit that a man with that watch collection has oodles of style – particularly when he chooses to wear Jaeger-LeCoultre! Even the product placement is stylish.) Except you also have the crazed Master Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, still seeking a sibilant replacement app) who wants to use dark powers to end the world and engage on some seriously impressive building-bending and folding in Greenwich Village and Hong Kong, the likes of which we haven’t seen since architectural origami exercise Inception. The effects are so good you’re left wondering why they couldn’t do something about that unsightly mole on Dr Christine Palmer’s face – Rachel McAdams is otherwise funny in a role that requires some very good real world reactions. Strange’s mission becomes that of intermediary between the world as we know it and the forces beyond. His self-discovery has global implications and reconciling what the Ancient One is really made of is central to what he becomes. It’s not just time that’s relative here – mor(t)ality too. Sidekick librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) enjoys a very humorous relationship with the new mandala master in his cloak of levitation. Steve Ditko’s comic book hero gets a fast and furious makeover from writer/director Scott Derrickson with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill. Physician heal thyself ! And then some. Pretty great. With a neat cameo from Stan Lee himself reading The Doors of Perception to drop an implicit joke about hippies and drugs… Ho ho ho! Make sure you sit out half the credits for a preview of coming attractions …