Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut.jpg

When this was first released I saw it with a friend who promptly re-christened it Mouth Wide Open because I nodded off pretty quickly and woke suddenly during the orgy and announced, Clearly nobody here has ever been to one. And a shocking 18 years later it is still sad to see that Kubrick’s last film doesn’t have the intended shock value, the performances are variable and it’s very difficult to understand how it could have taken 400 days to shoot what are primarily lengthy talking scenes albeit the famously nitpicking Kubrick reconstructed Greenwich Village in London because of his fear of flying. Frederic Raphael updated Schnitzler’s early 20th century Vienna-set Traumnovelle to late 1990s New York City where Alice (Nicole Kidman) confesses to wealthy doctor husband Bill (Tom Cruise) that she fantasised sexually about a Naval officer she saw one day at a hotel where they were staying. Bill then descends into a long night of soul-searching and sex as he imagines what his wife might have done had she made the choice to cheat. He helps a wealthy patron Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) save a whore who’s OD’d during sex, attends a masked orgy on Long Island (a kind of warped tribute to North by Northwest) where his former med school chum is providing musical accompaniment in a blindfold and back in the city realises he’s being followed but it’s more than an existential threat. When Ziegler tells Bill that he’s fortunate not to know the names of the very powerful people in disguise at the sex party you don’t know if it’s raising questions about the Bilderberg group or another political conspiracy at large but it seems pretty daft. Whether you view this as an ineffectual satire of marriage or a cautionary commentary about sexually transmitted disease (there’s a telling scene featuring a prostitute and HIV) or perhaps a plain silly excursion into unerotic escapades, the press at the time made hay of the fact that the married couple at its centre saw their relationship disintegrate in real life and were divorced not long afterwards. The soundtrack which is principally two ominous notes would disgrace a five year old after their first piano lesson. Inexplicable in oh so many ways and yet fascinating and strangely memorable in visual loops precisely because it’s Kubrick. And the last word uttered (by Kidman) is … not expected in such a conservative outing and thereby enhances the legend.

The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man poster.jpg

Western pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in post-WW2 Vienna at the invitation of old schoolfriend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to find that he is just in time for his funeral. British military intelligence in the form of Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) makes his acquaintance while Holly believes there was a third man present at Harry’s mysterious death and he finds himself falling for Harry’s lover Anna (Alida Valli). There are some films whose imagery is practically enamelled in one’s brain and this is one of them, regularly voted the greatest British film ever (despite the crucial involvement of David O. Selznick) with its unforgettable score, the shimmering rain-slicked streets, the chase through the sewers, the treacherous manchild, the funeral, the theatre, the appalling talk at the British Council, the cuckoo clock speech, the Prater … A combination of spy thriller, spiv drama, film noir, character study, western, romance, this was an unusually brilliant collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, whose friend Kim Philby was a source of much of the story. And this is ultimately a film about stories and storytelling. But nothing can explain this film’s legend – not even Orson Welles’ tall tales – it must be seen to feel that tangible atmosphere, those shadows, the light at the end of the tunnel, those canted angles, that amazing sense of place. My book on its complex origins, production and afterlife in radio and TV is published today on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Trouble-Harry-Third-Man-ebook/dp/B072BTQN48/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1494840986&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon.

The Trouble With Harry The Third Man book cover.jpg

High-Rise (2016)

High Rise movie.jpg

How do you adapt and replicate JG Ballard’s dyspeptic dystopian worldview when it’s so site- and time-specific? Screenwriter Amy Jump took his 1975 novel, a cautionary tale of the collective unconscious in a tower block for posh people, and left it there – in 1975, when the shock of the future was immanent.  Sick building syndrome wasn’t a thing then but anyone who’s ever lived in an apartment knows how much further consensus must reach in order not to descend quickly into chaos with fellow inhabitants – overflowing dustbins, thin walls, the smell of cooking, that neighbour who conducts noisy sex sesssions on their balcony, the drug dealer who calls the wrong door number at six in the morning with the come-down heroin for speeders. Yes, we’ve all sadly been there. Here the sickness is apparently part of the deep-seated anti-social need for anarchy rooted in the perfect design of the building itself, whose architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives on the top floor, apparently dictating things not so benignly, his wife riding around on a horse like a latterday Marie Antoinette. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is the physiologist (specialty:  peeling faces from skulls) who moves in and his neighbour documentary maker Wilder (Luke Evans) unravels and seems to contaminate everyone else. Laing has guilt about his treatment of a colleague (he jumps off the building, no diving board required) and the non-stop erotic parties turn into something mad and dark and murderous.  The descent into atavism is slick and fast and people are screwing each other, torturing rivals and giving into all sorts of debased derangement. There are so many cars in the huge carpark nobody can find their own. The trash isn’t collected. The electricity’s off. There are bodies in the swimming pool. We go back to where we entered this horror story,  eating a dog on the balcony. The names have a lot of meaning – Laing clearly harkens to that scourge of psychiatric voodoo RD Laing, Wilder says it all (this is a battle between id and superego) and Royal is the out of touch monarch whose plans for society are rampantly expunged as people become convinced that the higher the floor the happier they’ll be.  The plebs are closing in. A design for life. Capitalism rocks! Un film de Ben Wheatley.

The Country Girl (1954)

The Country Girl movie.jpg

This is the film that earned Grace Kelly her Best Actress Academy Award and nowadays her performance looks better than ever:  look at what she has to do. She plays the dowdy, dependable but once glamorous wife of faded alcoholic Broadway star Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) whose chance at a comeback is created by temperamental director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) against his backers’ better judgement. Dodd believes Kelly’s a suicidal drinker but she’s actually fronting for the massive insecurity of her husband, an habitual and chronic liar who’s using their son’s death in his care as an excuse for his cowardliness and retreat to the bottle. Kelly has to keep him going while the out of town previews go badly and go along with his stories to Dodd, who thinks she’s destroying him until he finally sees Frank on a bender and Frank confesses. Then Dodd realises his antipathy is based on his pure misogyny – he’s down on marriage since he cheated on his ex-wife obviously – and thinks he’s in love with her. Kelly thinks she is sympathetic to him too but she wants her husband’s comeback to work too. This Clifford Odets story is adapted very well by producer/director/writer George Seaton with key observational touches – there’s a lovely bit where Kelly overhears the audience’s opinions in the interval and smiles to herself – in between the big scenes, which are adorned with some crackling expository and personal dialogue. One of Crosby’s final lines is to die for. However he overplays his moroseness and Holden is occasionally too strident although that’s probably the Odets character – making Kelly’s job of pivoting between the pair that much harder. Some of her best moments are beautifully adorned by Victor Young’s supremely subtle score. A cracking backstage drama that deals with addiction, bereavement, guilt, grief and a dying marriage:  you know, the little things. Now, let’s put on a show!

Women of Twilight (1952)

Women of Twilight.jpg

Sylvia Rayman’s startling 1951 play about unmarried mothers became the first British film to receive the new ‘X’ certificate. Adapted by Anatole de Grunwald and directed by Gordon Parry, we enter with a very young and beauteous Jerry Nolan (Laurence Harvey) singing to his lady love fellow nightclub performer Vivianne Bruce (Rene Ray).  When she discovers she’s pregnant he’s arrested for murder and she finds herself looking for a home to sit things out during his court case. She winds up living under the sadistic Mrs Alistair  (Freda Jackson) who runs a somewhat sleazy Hampstead establishment which turns out to be a baby farm where she’s aided and abetted by a slovenly housemaid, Vida (Jessie Smithson). Vivianne rejects a newspaper offer of £500 for her story and is unable to deal with the illness accompanying her pregnancy. Vivianne’s only real friend is room mate Chris (Lois Maxwell) who supports her when Jerry is hanged, but whose child she neglects and he dies in her care when Chris is away for a few days to be reunited with her fiance.  The singular Ray  (later a novelist and the Countess of Midleton!) plays Vivianne half-distracted, half-deranged by grief. Then the half-wit kitchen girl confesses to her that she’s had a deformed child whom Mrs Alistair killed and buried in the garden behind the house. Mrs Alistair overhears Vivianne’s plans to tell the police and throws her down a staircase, bringing on the birth of Jerry’s illegitimate child … This was groundbreaking stuff and it boasts an array of very vivid performances, making this a thoroughly gripping experience. Harvey’s big scene before his death is really something but all the roles are so well written – including Dora Bryan as Olga, a streetwise ‘slut’ as Alistair calls her, Dorothy Gordon as Sally the mad one, and Joan Dowling as the giggler (she would commit suicide two years later when she found husband Harry Fowler was having an affair). Jackson really lets loose in her final scenes and Ray is so odd that she’s quite unforgettable. Extraordinary stuff.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty and the Beast 2017

It seems a little odd to suggest the obvious – that this remake isn’t as good as the original – until you recall that the 1991 animation was the first one to be nominated for the Academy Award as Best Picture. While a little flawed, it didn’t outstay its welcome. The opening narration here seems to go on for about a half a day. As voiceovers go, it’s redundant if you stick to the Show Don’t Tell rule of cinematic story:  we can SEE what’s happening as Belle (Emma Watson) trots around the village waving her book-reading superiority at her fellow natives. Gaston (Luke Evans) is a bumptious character, hilariously played and sets the tone proper with his antics chasing ‘the most beautiful girl in the village’ (hmm….) His self-love is reflected in the slavering attentions of sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) and the opening sequence culminates in an outstandingly well done groupsing at the local inn.This is one of the film’s best scenes. Meanwhile, Belle’s papa Maurice (Kevin Kline) needs to travel for his work and promises to bring her back a rose – like he does every year. And when he finds the enchanted castle where Beast (Dan Stevens, who makes a very wan prince indeed) resides reclusively since having a spell cast upon him years earlier … Belle arrives to save him and swaps places and the rest you know. The animated houseware is now characterised through CGI and voiced among others by Ian McKellen (Cogsworth – he previously worked with director Bill Condon in the wonderful Gods and Monsters), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Stanley Tucci (Cadenza) and most disappointingly, Emma Thompson (Mrs Potts) whose harsh faux Cockney cannot approximate to the warmth and sheer incomparable charisma of Angela Lansbury. The whole film is shot in an incredibly dark palette which renders the experience quite difficult – made worse in 3D – and the staging is very awkward in places: the first ballroom scene, featuring the famous dance between Belle and Beast is really underwhelming (remember the brilliance of the original?) suggesting a lack of attention not just to famous musicals of the past but basic dance steps, decent choreography and a sense of magic which is nonexistent at what should have been the story’s high point. The shots are completely wrong for such a sequence. There are great life lessons in the story – misunderstanding people on the basis of their appearances, the swift way in which groups become mobs and the way that Belle is told of her mother’s death is very well done but the narrative momentum is lost to bad handling. The outstanding performance is by Luke Evans, literally pitch perfect in an overly long underimpressive production. Maybe if they hadn’t been so hellbent on making something so politically correct/gay/racially diverse they’d have had a monster film.There’s always La Belle et la Bete.

The Last Detail (1973)

The Last Detail poster

I am the motherfucking shore patrol! Jack Nicholson was one of the biggest stars of the 70s after Easy Rider and this adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s terrific novel is one of the key buddy movies of the period. Nicholson plays Billy ‘Badass’ Buddusky, Signalman First Class who’s awaiting orders at Norfolk naval base with Richard ‘Mule’ Mulhall (Otis Young) when they are directed to escort young Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to prison in Maine in the depths of winter.  He tried to steal $40 from a charity collection box – and the problem is it’s a favourite of his commanding officer’s wife so he’s got eight years for his efforts.  They set out on a Bon Voyage tour of the north east, getting into all sorts of scrapes and seeing the virginal Larry’s miserable home in Philadelphia en route.  Screenwriter Robert Towne, working for the first (but not the last) time with director Hal Ashby radically altered Ponicsan’s Camus-loving protagonist with his beyond-beautiful wife and recast him as a more ultimately compromised man, adding him to the gallery of unformed underachievers that populates his screenplays:  J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, George Roundy in Shampoo, Mac in Tequila Sunrise.  All of these men are compromised in their need for the means to survive. Of these characters, it could be said that Buddusky (certainly in Towne’s interpretation of the original character as conceived by Ponicsan) is actually the least tragic (he does not succumb to the fate administered in Ponicsan’s novel, thereby rendering the title meaningless!), the most pragmatic – and the most well-adjusted. Towne’s interpretation of Buddusky aligns him in the vanguard of New Hollywood in its politicised, anti-authoritarian heyday.  While his work on the film was undoubtedly influenced by his producer (Gerald Ayres) and director (particularly, it seems, by Ashby), he wrote it with Nicholson in mind and it copperfastened his position as upcoming screenwriter in the early Seventies.  Nicholson’s casting also helped get the film made – the original draft screenplay had ‘342 fucks.’ (There were 65 in the final release.) However Towne had also envisioned the film being cast with Rupert Crosse who died before it got the greenlight so the spotlight of the film now shifted more completely to Nicholson, and the script’s emphasis was therefore changed: Nicholson simply did not have the same kind of relationship with Otis Young, Crosse’s replacement. It was now truly a star vehicle. Meadows was played by Texan newcomer Randy Quaid, who towered over Nicholson, lending even more comedy to the situation. (John Travolta made it to the last two but it was Quaid’s height which lent his character even more poignancy.) It took Nicholson’s winning the Best Actor award at Cannes to get Columbia to finally release the film which was a long time in the editing room. Nicholson still regards it as his best role – Chinatown notwithstanding! Ribald, profane, oddly touching and screamingly funny, this is a tonally perfect comic drama and one you won’t forget in a hurry. For more on it and the significance of Nicholson’s work with his greatest collaborator, screenwriter Robert Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489670058&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Candyman (1992)

Candyman poster.jpg

Your friends will abandon you. So true. Clive Barker’s stories terrify me and The Forbidden in The Books of Blood series is a brilliant conflation of fairytale and horror, laced with social commentary about contemporary urban life in the parts of town you drive by pretty damn quick. Transferred by writer/director Bernard Rose to the Chicago Projects, this takes on a terrifyingly current resonance. Rose said when he recce’d Cabrini Green he sensed ‘palpable fear.’ The wonderful Virginia Madsen is researching urban legends with her postgrad colleague Kasi Lemmons while her sceptical lecturer hubby Xander Berkeley is carrying on with another student. The legend of Candyman exerts a hold over a ghetto building whose architecture mimics her own apartment block so she can forensically experience the way the idea literally infiltrated a drug-infested black community where vicious murders are taking place. She befriends a young mother and the graffiti pointing her to the origins of the story lures her back and she encounters the man whose name you do not want to say five times …. Bloody, sensual, exciting and a trip for the brain, this story of a tragic monster born of slavery is incarnated in the elegant, noble charismatic form of Tony Todd, blessed with a deep voice, a fur-trimmed greatcoat and a hook for a hand and boy does he use it to win the woman of his life, hypnotising her into his romantic history. Incredible from start to bloody  finish, this is a brilliant exercise in genre, tapping into primal fears and political tensions and putting the sex into bee stings. Thrilling, with great cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond – get that titles sequence! – and an urban legend of a score by Philip Glass. Poetic and fabulous. Sweets to the sweet!

Our Brand is Crisis (2015)

Our Brand is Crisis movie poster.jpg

Taking a comical look at the US’s interfering with the electoral process in South America is a big leap from pure comedy into cutting edge satire:  not something for which either screenwriter Peter Straughan or director David Gordon Green are known. This version of a 2002 election in Bolivia which saw James Carville’s company deployed to get a problematic President Pedro Gallo (Joaquim de Almeida) re-elected is somewhat botched both in concept and execution. Sandra Bullock is the anchor of this mismanaged screenplay as the alcoholic depressive retired consultant drafted in to help defeat Victor Rivera, who’s being advised by her arch-rival, Billy Bob Thornton. They have history. It’s not pleasant. She suffers brutal altitude sickness and believes the candidate is hopeless until she pulls out her Machiavelli handbook and gets to work. There’s some fun – physical and verbal – but it’s not really sharp enough to score points. It substitutes a soft centre for what should have been scathing political commentary. And the cinematography is horrible.

Payment on Demand (1951)

Payment  On Demand movie poster.jpg

Bette Davis was reunited with her A Stolen Life director Curtis Bernhardt for this divorce drama that sees her screen persona keenly picked apart and reconstituted as she squares off against husband Barry Sullivan. She’s the San Francisco socialite who’s worried about her daughter’s relationship with a lower class guy when hubby arrives home to tell her he wants to split. Perfectly judged flashbacks reveal the dissolution of their relationship from its earliest days in hardscrabble families through marriage, business, children and society, until the dread day when she is told by her friends that her beloved has been carrying on with a woman and “she’s not even young!” That woman is Frances Dee, a university professor with interests and taste until the private eye’s flashbulbs intrude. Davis goes hell for leather for the money she helped hubby make. The screenplay by Bernhardt and Bruce Manning cleverly interpellates the journey from brittle/skittish to brutal/scathing, a diad that the audience knew characterised Davis’ own growth as a star and her capacity for both vulnerability and cruelty. She plays it to the hilt with good support from Sullivan and in the film’s most potentially mawkish scene she is brilliant – with her back to camera. This encapsulates Davis’ acting persona and it’s a winner. For more on her dualistic performances you can see my essay on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/double_life_part_1.