The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

The Miracle of Morgans Creek

Listen, Zipper-puss! Some day they’re just gonna find your hair ribbon and an axe someplace. Nothing else! The Mystery of Morgan’s Creek! Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is a small-town girl with a soft spot for soldiers. She wakes up one morning after a wild farewell party for a group of them  departing for service to find that while drunk the night before, she married a soldier whose name she can’t remember, except that “it had a z in it. Like Ratzkywatzky … or was it Zitzkywitzky?” She thinks they both used fake names and she doesn’t know how to get in touch with him or even what he looks like. The matter is complicated when she learns that she became pregnant that night as well. Hapless Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), a local who’s been classified 4-F [unfit for active military service] who has been in love with Trudy for years, steps in to help out, but her over-protective policeman father (William Demarest) gets involved and complicates matters. Before long, Norval is arrested on 19 different charges, and then he finds himself on the run as an escaped prisoner. All seems lost until Trudy gives birth to sextuplets. At that point Governor McGinty (Brian Donlevy) and The Boss (Akim Tamiroff) step in:  cue the happy ending! … The responsibility for recording a marriage has always been up to woman. If it wasn’t for her, marriage would have disappeared long since. No man is going to jeopardize his present or poison his future with a lot of little brats hollering around the house unless he’s forced to. It’s up to the woman to knock him down, hogtie him, and drag him in front of two witnesses immediately if not sooner. Anytime after that is too late. Reuniting most of the cast of Preston Sturges’ 1940 outing The Great McGinty (Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Porter Hall, Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff) in the same roles, this was shot in 1942 but not released by Paramount for another two years:  sensitivities were high when the US joined in the war effort and the War Dept didn’t want people to think badly of departing soldiers; plus the studio was trying to keep the auteur’s output on a leash because he shot so many films. And then there were the censorship problems which left Sturges with just ten pages of script going into production because of fears that Trudy’s situation might be likened to the Virgin Birth of religious lore. Sturges defended the text because he said it was intended to “show what happens to young girls who disregard their parents’ advice and who confuse patriotism with promiscuity.” It’s a breathtaking farce, played with astonishing energy and commanded by Sturges like a steam train driving through contemporary mores and family values. This is one of the reasons I was disappointed not to see inside his writing room at Paramount on the studio tour! Wildly funny, brilliant and daring, it’s a bona fide classic.

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Solaris (2002)

Solaris 2002

It seems to be reacting:  almost like it knows it’s being observed.  Clinical psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is hired by the DBA corporation to investigate the unexplained behavior of key scientists (including Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies) on space station Prometheus orbiting the planet Solaris. They are traumatised by a phenomenon which appears to have caused the suicide of his friend Dr Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur). Once aboard he too falls victim to this unique world’s mysteries as well as to an erotic obsession with someone he thought he had left behind, his late wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) who appears beyond his dreams. Are the remaining crew crazy? Is he?... Who is it? What is it? Does it feel?  Can it touch? Does it speak? Stanislaw Lem’s classic novel was adapted for Soviet TV in 1968 ; and then in 1972 to acclaim by the great Andrei Tarkovsky. Therefore it would appear at first glance to be rather unnecessary for an American auteur filmmaker (Soderbergh shot and edited this too) to take on an unoriginal project and remake an acknowledged classic of world cinema. The additions to Lem’s and Tarkovsky’s narratives take the form of flashbacks, creating a tapestry of memories – real and otherwise. It establishes the parameters of Chris’ beliefs, upholstering his character and clarifying the nature of his obsession, building towards a solution for his guilt and a hope of redemption via virtual reality. It’s beautifully designed and looks splendid but somehow it’s hard to care beyond the immediate attractions. Cleverly constructed to form a logical continuum between time, space and memory, it lacks the mystery of really great sci fi in which the universal and the personal become interwoven to the point of being indistinguishable so it’s ironic that despite this being the narrative’s overt theme, it never really lifts off, even if it’s half the length of Tarkovsky’s inimitable and admittedly ponderous version. Produced by James Cameron.

Shark (1969)

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Aka Man-Eater. Some of my best friends are Americans. Caine (Burt Reynolds) is an arms dealer who finds himself stranded in a Sudanese port after seeing his latest stash of weaponry blown to smithereens during an unfortunate encounter on a dangerous mountain road. He gets hired to help Professor Dan Mallare (Barry Sullivan) and his assistant and daughter Anna (Silvia Pinal) to hunt for some treasure lying somewhere onboard a sunken vessel and sees a way to recoup his losses but they’re not telling him the entire truth about their project … Can you handle a witch?/Honey, I was delivered by one. With some smart lines, great underwater photography and Burt Reynolds in a film directed by Sam Fuller, what’s not to like? Fuller wanted his name taken off this Victor Canning adaptation (by John T. Dugan and an uncredited Ken Hughes) because the producers exploited the terrible on-set death of a stuntman (he was attacked by a white shark). The film was taken off his hands but his name was left under the title. It’s nice to see Sullivan reunited with his director from Forty Guns and Reynolds is more than adequate in an underwritten role as the guy who literally gets out of his depth. Burt and Sylvia get to recreate Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s romance in a beach scene straight out of From Here to Eternity and Arthur Kennedy drinks his way to the acting honours as the alkie doctor who has to perform surgery in the middle of a bad case of the DTs. That boy dies, you’ve caught your last fish There are some underdeveloped plot threads (like Caine’s friendship with the kid, played by Charles Berriochoa) in this hijacked film, with melodrama corrupting the intended cynicism and iconoclasm but there are good bits with Enrique Lucero as Barok, a crooked cop. It turns into a shaggy dog story with sharks and treasure and Burt in one great chase at the start and some mesmerising marine scenes. You ain’t seen nothin’ until you see Burt wrestle a shark. It was shot in Mexico in 1968 (and it’s good to see Pinal in an American film) but mostly withheld for years until it was briefly released on a double bill with a biker movie. An interesting glimpse into maverick Fuller’s clashes with producers, one is left to ponder what might have been especially with the changed ending but there is still wit, style and machismo. You can dive any time you feel like it and as far as I’m concerned you can stay down there

Boogie Nights (1997)

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We’re going to make film history right here on videotape. In LA’s San Fernando Valley in 1977, teenage busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) gets discovered by porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who’s on the lookout for new talent.  He transforms him into adult-film sensation Dirk Diggler. Brought into a supportive circle of friends, including fellow actors Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Dirk fulfills all his ambitions, but a toxic combination of drugs and egotism threatens to take him back down to earth.  As 1979 rolls into 1980 the business is changing and Horner is under pressure to switch to video despite his ambitions to be an auteur and he has to make a tough decision when financier The Colonel James (Robert Ridgely, who died shortly after production and to whom the film is dedicated) is caught with an underage girl who’s OD’d …  Diggler delivers a performance worth a thousand hard-ons. Bravura filmmaking from Paul Thomas Anderson which takes lurid content and spins it into a surprisingly sweet morality tale about the lowlifes behind pornos. The leading men are a study in contrasts:  Horner is a clever but kind director who doesn’t flinch from hardcore; while Diggler is the dumb box of rocks who has an enormous penis that dazzles. The running joke about Little Bill (William H. Macy) and his insatiable wife has an unbelievable climax; the revenge Rollergirl takes on a boy from high school is horrifying; and the wrap up sequence of redemption and closure for this makeshift family is fine drama. The final reveal is the money shot that we’ve all been waiting for. Reynolds won the Golden Globe and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Clever, amusing and humane, this is one of the best films of the Nineties.

The Tamarind Seed (1974)

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She could be one of our most important agents over here. On holiday from her job in the civil service at the Home Office, Judith Farrow (Julie Andrews) heads to the Caribbean after ending a love affair with married Government minister Richard Paterson (David Baron). On Barbados she is befriended by debonair Russian Feodor Sverdlov (Omar Sharif). The two quickly fall in love despite his married status, but Judith’s feelings are tested when Sverdlov is revealed to be a Russian agent eager to win her over to his cause. Back in London, intelligence officer Jack Loder (Anthony Quayle) is aware of a mole in the Government and is convinced Sverdlov is trying to recruit Judith as a Soviet spy.  She is instructed never to see him again, but can’t shake the attachment and soon finds that both of their lives are in danger … With titles by Maurice Binder and a resonant piano-based score by John Barry, you’d almost think you were in a James Bond film. Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Evelyn Anthony’s 1971 novel is true to its sense of high romance, urgent drama and deep-seated tensions stemming from the clash of ideologies pulsing beneath the lust. Andrews and Sharif are extraordinarily well-matched in this stylish epic, with gorgeous photography by Freddie Young in what is a charged if relatively well-heeled and glossy depiction of the Cold War, with betrayal and assassinations and embassy parties. Perfect for a dull September evening. A few days to convince her that she is doing it for love

Alone in Berlin (2016)

Alone in Berlin English

We are all alone now. 1940 Berlin. Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleeson) is a factory foreman so devastated by his only son Hans’ death fighting in France that he starts composing postcards dedicated to resisting Nazism and Hitler and dropping them (small grains of sand in Hitler’s machine) in public places all over the city, a capital crime. His wife Anna (Emma Thompson) is an otherwise quiet woman, and their strained marriage now seems intractably gone, but she continues her work with the Nazi’s women league, so vehemently in the case of a senior Nazi official’s decadent wife whom she urges to get out and do something, that her colleagues have to apologise on her behalf, believing it to be due to her grief. However she joins in Otto’s campaign despite the danger and it spices up their life. Police detective Escherich (Daniel Brühl) is ordered to find the culprit as the cards multiply into over two hundred and the postwoman’s dim bulb ex-husband is fingered and let go when the cards continue after his death and the net tightens around the Quangels …  They hang women too.  Hans Fallada’s posthumously published 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone was inspired by a real-life example of bravery by a Berlin couple whose simple act of resistance earned them the wrath of the city’s police force and the Nazis. Actor Vincent Pérez makes his third feature as director and he doesn’t take chances in his leads – Gleeson and Thompson are reliably confident, bringing a quiet dignity to these ordinary unassuming characters whose rebellion is clamped down upon by the fascistic thought police (led by Brühl who gets his own violent comeuppance by virtue of the SS jackboot). Pérez adapted Fallada’s book with Achim von Borries and Bettine von Borries, a tribute to small-scale heroism derived from the Nazi’s files after the war.  It’s a small, slow film, gathering its tension from different sources – Gleeson’s inarticulate bull-headedness, Thompson’s supportive steadfastness, Brühl’s pursuit, the betrayals, the informers all bringing the criminal bravery to its evitable conclusion. Escherich’s investigation, partly conducted in admiration of his quarry, then in fear of the S.S. Officer Prall (Mikael Pesbranddt) beating him to a pulp, maps Quangel’s leafletting campaign of dissent in a manner that takes on the contours of the film M. This is a modest film about modest people who are pushed too far, too indecently to sit back and do nothing. With their son’s pointless death they have nothing left to them but the truth and memories of a happier time. Advanced in middle age they may be, but their act demonstrates that it’s never too late to become the person you were truly meant to be and become a heroic voice of dissent, social pressures notwithstanding. Meticulously shot by Christophe Beaucarne and scored by Alexandre Desplat, it takes its time (and perhaps a slightly underwhelming budget) to wind our characters inexorably toward an unavoidable fate. It’s hard to reconcile perhaps but 12 million Germans were active Nazis and only a few hundred of them were ever executed.  Now they run Europe and we’re all running after them like lemmings toward the cliff edge as this generation’s Fourth Reich assumes its creeping shape under cover of diversionary uncontrolled immigration in every direction. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Mothers, Hitler will kill your son, too

 

 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

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I’ve seen things I never thought could happen happen. In 1946 London-based writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James) begins exchanging letters with residents on the island of Guernsey, which was German-occupied during WWII after one of them, pig farmer Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) comes into possession of her copy of Essays of Elia. Her new book of humour enables her to buy a decent home but it doesn’t fit her down to earth style and she stays in a bedsit in a boarding house.  Her publisher Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode) is urging her to go on a proper publicity tour but she is restless. Romanced by US Army officer Markham Reynolds (Glen Powell) who fills her home with daily bouquets and dances her around the finest venues in London, the letters from the quaintly named book club pique her curiosity. Feeling compelled to visit the island, she starts to get a picture of what it was like during the occupation but her desire to write an article for The Times elicits opposition, particularly from Amelia (Penelope Wilton) who regarded the mysteriously absent club member Elizabeth (Jessica Browne Findlay) as her daughter yet whose little child is being reared by Dawsey. When things get difficult at the guest house run by Charlotte Stimple (Bronagh Gallagher) Juliet takes refuge with gin-maker Isola (Katharine Parkinson) and Eben the postmaster (Tom Courtenay) is always at hand with support and a telephone line …. The little-acknowledged German occupation of the Channel Islands and its very complex legacy is often the forgotten part of what went on during World War 2 in the British Isles. Mary Ann Shaffer’s novel, inspired by a visit there, was completed posthumously by her niece, Annie Barrows, and the screenplay by Kevin Hood, Don Roos and Tom Bezucha (the latter two substantial directors in their own right) transcends the material, bringing to life an extraordinary episode in fictional form. The story of Elizabeth and her transgression is wrought exponentially not necessarily because anyone wants Juliet to know the story but precisely because their own prejudices and beliefs are called into question, as well as a sense of guilt over the outcome, which is of course the big reveal. Perhaps James and Huisman are not ideally meant in movie star heaven – Powell is a much more obvious fit, a good guy, a sparky romantic lead and a well-meaning operator who helps solve the puzzle of Elizabeth, but in matters of the heart, we never know how other people work and the obvious is not always right.  More than that, this explores the real dilemma that a writer has:  confronting her failure as a serious biographer (The Life of Ann Brontë sold 28 copies – “worldwide,” as her publisher helpfully contributes to a roomful of rapt readers of her Izzy Bickerstaff book). So the frothy crowd-pleasing delights on English foibles she is now expected to produce frustrate her when she is confronted by real emotion after wartime’s effects are truly felt by British victims of the Nazi regime who don’t want fairy stories told about them.  It is the resolution of both story problems that produces the conclusion and that is the real achievement of this melding of fact and the manufacture of fiction. Above all, this is a film about the joy of reading. Beautifully shot on location with great production design and attention to historical detail, this is quite spellbinding. Directed by Mike Newell.

Street Corner (1953)

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Aka Both Sides of the Law. Coppers in skirts. Pity they haven’t got something better to do.  Two London policewomen based at Sloan Street in Chelsea go about their daily lives involved in cases of child endangerment and larceny.  Sgt Pauline Ramsey (Rosamund John) and WPC Susan (Anne Crawford) deal with a woman Edna Hurran (Eleanor Summerfield) who’s rescued a boy from drowning. The surrounding publicity means she has to return to the Army from which she went AWOL to marry sickly David Evans (Ronald Howard) and must pay the price – until a reward is given to her and the newspaper story triggers the return of her first husband looking for a share:  they never divorced. A toddler wanders out on the ledge of her tenement building several storeys up. There are tense moments as Pauline saves her and then ruminates the possibility of adoption as her own child and husband were killed in a car crash and she thinks motherhood would be a better alternative to work. Then Susan finds the child’s mother, now remarried.  Shoplifter Bridget Foster (Peggy Cummins) faces a £5 fine and abandons her 15-month old son to her mother-in-law, taking up with Ray, a crim (Terence Morgan) who sees her at a nightclub. He’s involved in a heist on jewels  in a van and pawns them at Mr Muller’s (Charles Victor) but doesn’t like the price he gets and pays a return visit.  WPC Lucy (Barbara Murray) goes to get her hair done and spots Bridget which may lead her to the thieves … Jan Read’s story was adapted by Muriel and Sydney Box as a kind of followup to The Blue Lamp which had been a huge hit in England. Ostensibly a docudrama, this production cast well-known names as a kind of insurance policy – John was in several good films since wartime, while Cummins had made her name in America. There are some moments of humour in the police station – when an older woman reports a man following her, the Sergeant (male) remarks, ‘sounds like an acute case of wishful thinking’;  while a man in the raided nightclub says ‘my wife thinks I’m in Birmingham,’ which impresses precisely nobody.  There are interesting strands to the stories – the perceived fairness of the judiciary;  Muller’s experience of the Gestapo in Berlin which he likens to Morgan showing up pretending to be a policeman looking for a bribe; the issue of parenting – the child abuse of the toddler whose mother is now apparently uninterested in her welfare following her remarriage. Muriel Box’s direction is pretty rudimentary but her storytelling skill is evident and the conclusion, when all the stories are threaded together in a chase and courtroom and there is a satisfying drawing together of the various elements. How Morgan is caught is particularly good.  In the final scene sequence Cummins is outfitted in a beret so that she resembles the gangster’s moll she played in the incredible Gun Crazy but that film is in a different league to a more plodding police procedural, albeit its focus is on the female experience: working, single, marital, maternal, streetwise and otherwise.  Shot at Gate Studios, Elstree with some interesting location work on the streets of London which looks rather lacking in business in the era of rationing and is filled with blocks of modernist council flats. There’s an interesting score by Temple Abady and fun to be had spotting actors who would become better known, principally through TV roles:  Michael Medwin, Michael Hordern and Thora Hird.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

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We just have to stick together. We do that, we can win. Four high school kids discover an old video game console in detention in their high school basement. Spencer is a nerd beset with allergies, Fridge is a footballer who needs help with his homework, Bethany is a narcissistic beauty addicted to her iPhone and Martha is a friendless brainiac who has no fun. They are sucked into the game’s jungle setting, literally becoming the adult avatars they chose:  Spencer is now explorer and archaeologist Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) who has no weakness (except he’s still shy),  Fridge is zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart) who can’t eat cake,  Martha is curvy martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) who can be killed by venom and Bethany is an overweight male middle-aged cartographer Prof. Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji – you must survive it. To beat the game and return to the real world, they’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives by returning a jewel to a Jaguar mountain shrine, discover what Alan Parrish left 20 years ago, and change the way they think about themselves – or they’ll be stuck in the game forever.  They have to dodge treasure hunter Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), a corrupt archaeologist, and his henchmen, a crew of evil bikers plus a herd of rampaging rhinoceros, They enlist the help of Alex (Nick Jonas) who has one life left and is afraid to lose it and get stuck in here forever:  he thinks he’s been here a few months but he’s the kid from the Freak (Vreeke) House who disappeared in 1996 after getting lost in the original video game. They have to face up to their fears and join together to get out or it will be Game Over ... How can my strength be my weakness? A sequel and a reboot, this followup to the beloved adaptation of Chris van Allsburg’s book is PC, clever and fun, catering for nostalgia freaks harking back to 1930s jungle films, the 90s obsession with video games, and placating the millennial generation that thinks they can change their race and gender because, you know, it’s their human right and they can choose who they want to be and before they grow up and get real! (It’s not just a game… it’s a life lesson).  We no longer have the Jumanji board game that trapped Alan Parrish (Robin Williams, who’s mentioned here in tribute) but we do have all the ins and outs of a protagonist-led adventure where the rules always apply – until they need to be changed. There are a lot of bright moments – Jack Black the former mean girl coaching school swot Karen Gillan to flirt; tiny Kevin Hart realising he’s not the huge killer ball player any more; Johnson morphing into an unbelievably strong 6’5″ hulk from the puny geek with allergies:  his smoldering voice is hilarious and he just cannot get over the size of his arms. There are some fun penis jokes and a lot of throwaway lines that are laugh out loud good. Exceptionally well cast and performed, this is a very pleasant and funny entertainment that moves like the clappers. Written by Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner, from a story by Chris McKenna. Directed by Jake Kasdan.  Zoology, bitch!

The Hireling (1973)

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Was it very bad? In the years after WW1, Steven Ledbetter (Robert Shaw) is the chauffeur of widowed British socialite Lady Helen Franklin (Sarah Miles) at Bath in Somerset. As Ledbetter helps Lady Franklin to overcome her fragile state when she is released from a psychiatric facility, he falls in love with her, but their differences in social standing seem to prevent any chance of a romance. He is involved with Doreen (Christine Hargreaves), a waitress although he tells Lady Franklin he is married, believing it will stir her interest. Meanwhile, a war veteran and rising Liberal politician who knew her late husband,  Captain Hugh Cantrip (Peter Egan) becomes involved with Lady Franklin, while maintaining a relationship with Connie (Caroline Mortimer), a presumed war widow.  It leads to tension in her household:  this cad and user was Ledbetter’s commanding officer in the Great War … You need people now. A normal life. L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between had received a lauded screen adaptation a couple of years earlier so the author’s work seemed ripe for cinema and this repeated that film’s success at Cannes, winning the Grand Prix (now the Palme d’Or). Wolf Mankowitz’s interpretation of this take on class difference, post-war trauma and deception doesn’t have the other film’s power – but that work had an extraordinary pull from a child’s point of view of tragedy (plus it was adapted by Harold Pinter). However, as a primarily psychological exploration of romance, this film’s prime attraction is the scale of performance.  Miles and Shaw are superb:  he has no idea that his class can prevent her marrying him.  He has helped her recovery but she simply has no further use for him and it’s his devastation that propels the drama toward a suicidal conclusion. The critics didn’t like Miles but she’s fascinating in the role as she goes through bereavement caused by depression and then a kind of dissemblance, disdain and dismissal.  The showdown in the car is shocking – they are almost exchanging psyches. This is a work which is far less sentimental than the reviewers would have you believe, moving slowly and oddly, filled with beautiful landscapes dappled with low light and autumnal shades. It’s very well directed by Alan Bridges who seems to be rather forgotten now. Hartley lived long enough to enjoy the success of The Go-Between but he died in 1972, before this was released. It’s an intriguing film, worth repeat viewings. It almost seems … un-English. I don’t have anything to go back to now because everything is here with you