The Lighthouse (2019)

 

Bad luck to kill a sea bird. Two lighthouse keepers Ephraim Winslow akaThomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Defoe) try to maintain their sanity while living on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s. A storm strands them on the remote location and they turn on each other …  Tall tales. A two-hander co-written by Max Eggers with his brother, director Robert, leaving only Poe’s title from what was originally supposed to expand on his short story, this is verging on the unwatchable, an overly long student short truly better talked about than seen.  And I don’t want to talk about it. This makes you feel like you’re there and not in a good way. Exhausting, with these big performances and the  often impenetrable maritime lingo. Good grief. But it’s over now. How long have we been on this rock? Five weeks? Two Days? Where are we? Help me to recollect

Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019)

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

Aka Portrait de la jenue fille en feu. Will you be able to paint her? Painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is instructing a class of art students in Paris. They ask her about the origins of a painting and she reminisces: France, 1770. Marianne is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) a young woman who has just left the convent and is at home on a remote island off the coast of Brittany. She is a reluctant bride to be and her mother the countess (Valeria Golino) wants Marianne to paint her portrait in secret for an arranged marriage to a nobleman suitor in Milan whose visual approval is required. The last male artist failed in his mission and Marianne must study Héloïse without her knowing. Marianne accompanies her on her daily walk under the pretence of being her companion but observes her carefully and paints her secretly. Is that how you see me? When she reveals her identity and Héloïse dislikes the portrait Marianne destroys it, to the rage of the countess who goes away for a while as long as Marianne agrees to do another portrait, this time with her subject’s full co-operation. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s. The women fall in love and Héloïse reads Orpheus and Eurydice by firelight to Marianne and Héloïse’s servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) whose pregnancy the women help to end. As Marianne finishes the portrait and the countess is returning they must accept what happens next … Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth. French writer/director Céline Sciamma’s historical romance is stately, elegant and well framed:  this is a picture of female solidarity and love, grounded in the most obvious of ideas – the female gaze in a patriarchal world – in a film about looking and perception. We are going to paint. This is about turning around and acknowledging and engaging with what you see – and making a choice. The performers look and watch and are passive aggressive as society dictates they must be with their taboo affair, illuminating each other’s lives in secret. How people see each other has rarely been so truthfully portrayed. A profound, at times magical, meditation on what it means to be a woman, this is beautifully and carefully staged, with nothing excessive or ornamental and driven by stunning performances. The digital cinematography by Claire Mathon is so exquisite there are candlelit scenes you will want to reach out and touch and hang on your wall. This show and tell is far from still life. If you look at me, who do I look at?

The Golden Child (1986)

The Golden Child

Use the dagger to kill the child. When a Tibetan boy, the mystical Golden Child (J.L. Reate), is kidnapped by the evil Demon Sardo Numspa (Charles Dance) and his troupe of weird minions, humankind’s fate hangs in the balance. In Los Angeles, the priestess Kee Nang (Charlotte Lewis) seeks the Chosen One, who will save the boy from death. When Nang sees social worker Chandler Jarrell (Eddie Murphy) on television discussing job which focuses on finding missing children, she solicits his expertise, despite his scepticism over being the chosen one. Though Jarrell doesn’t believe in mysticism, his investigation leads him to some flabbergasting evidence on the trail of Numspa starting in Chinatown where Kala the Oracle (Shakti Chen) inform him of the importance of his quest, to the mountains of Tibet where Chandler can obtain the dagger to free The Golden Child  … These magnificent Americans – so much power and so little idea what to do with it. Never mind that this is one of the oddest movies in the careers of all concerned, it was one of the weirdest hits of the Eighties. It doesn’t quite do the deep-dive into mysticism and martial arts you expect and it steers just wide of too much threat, with Dance a terrific baddie. Murphy is charming as ever but has to do a lot of the heavy lifting in his scenes with Lewis.  Written by Dennis Feldman and directed by Michael Ritchie. If you took the short path and reached enlightenment before tomorrow who wouldn’t want you for a husband?

The Hand of Night (1968)

The Hand of Night

Aka Beast of Morocco. I’m a harbinger of death and desolation. Paul Carver (William Sylvester) is a guilty widower grieving the deaths of his wife and children in a car accident when he takes an unusual and hazardous job accompanying archaeologist Otto Gunther (Edward Underdown) and his assistant Chantal (Diane Clare) on a North African tomb-hunting expedition. They learn of a legend involving a female Moorish vampire who haunts the tomb taking her revenge against men. Before long, Paul has succumbed to the seductive wiles of a mysterious Moroccan woman Marisa (Alizia Gur) whom he first encounters at Gunther’s party but who nobody else apparently saw. She begins to bend him to her will and he follows Omar (Terence de Marney) around the city looking for her, finding her in an apparently abandoned palace where her sirens dance for him. It is left to Chantal to come to his rescue, but her attempts place her in even greater jeopardy; ultimately it is Paul who has to break free of Marisa’s evil clutches and destroy her before she destroys him… I know that a man can misunderstand himself but surely not forever. Good looking cult item shot on location in Morocco in 1966 best seen as a moody piece of low budget work with an intermittently interesting score by Joan Shakespeare, blessed with omens and portents and second sight and a very alluring vampire. Strange to say the most appealing aspects are the rather realistic approach, blending the touristic filming style with local storytelling, Dracula, mummy myths, a vanishing castle and the opportunity to see stalwarts of British Bs in a very different setting. It fits in more with the European vampire films of the era than anything being made in the UK. It was British-Hungarian Clare’s last film and she’s very good indeed;  fans of the genre remember her for Witchcraft and The Plague of the Zombies. The stunningly beautiful Gur, who was a former Miss Israel, had appeared in From Russia With Love and after this she would only record five more screen credits, all for TV. (Weirdly, as the daughter of German Jewish emigrants who fled Nazi Germany, she married two men boasting the initials SS.) Sylvester would go on to greater things with 2001: A Space Odyssey. An Associated British-Pathé production written by Bruce (Timeslip) Stewart and directed by Frederic Goode who had made another archaeology-themed film in North Africa a few years earlier, Valley of the Kings. For fans of such esoterica it’s interesting to compare with The Velvet Vampire, made a few years later. You seek the road into the dark

 

Tolkien (2019)

Tolkien

You’ll get your happy ending. Following the death of first his father then his mother, young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien finds love, friendship and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at boarding school who play sports and go to a tearoom each week and regale each other with their interests prior to going to University. Their brotherhood soon strengthens as Tolkien (Harry Gilby/Nicholas Hoult) weathers the storm of a tumultuous courtship with fellow orphan Edith Bratt (Mimi Keen/Lily Collins). From this impoverished childhood and a reliance on the kindness of strangers – Catholic Father Francis (Colm Meaney) who himself was a protegé of Cardinal Newman; and sponsor Mrs Faulkner (Pam Ferris) who takes him in; through the need for a scholarship to Oxford where after being sent down he meets a philologist Professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) who saves his linguistic bacon:  Languages never steal;  and the outbreak of World War I – he finds both his intellectual calling and his writing voice as he tries to find out what has happened to his closest friend, Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle) while the explosions and gunfire rage and play into his hallucinatory thoughts and childhood memories of the stories his mother told him. These early life experiences later inspire the budding author to write the classic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the RingsWe are your brothers through everything. We are an alliance – an invisible alliance.  The early life and influences of the legendary fantasy novelist are explored in this beautiful production which is engagingly staged and beguilingly played by a very sympathetic cast. The trench warfare scenes on the Somme in 1916 which frame the story are well done and transition extremely affectingly back and forth to Tolkien’s upbringing, the links with his novels well established without being laid on with a trowel (Ronald’s batman is called Sam). Rarer still is the fact that the younger incarnations of the protagonists are easily the match for their older namesakes in performing skill. If not now – when? Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford and directed by Dome Karukoski, this was made without the approval of Tolkien’s family yet it has a sensitivity to war and youth and writing that are heartfelt and extremely winning. Things aren’t beautiful because of how they sound. They’re beautiful because of what they mean

Joker (2019)

Joker.jpg

Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?  Former psych hospital inmate, children’s party clown and wannabe standup Arthur ‘Happy’ Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his sick mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of appearing on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) cheesy nightly TV show which they watch together. Gotham City is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished with billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in the running for Mayor. Penny was a former employee in the Wayne household and repeatedly writes him letters asking for money. Arthur suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and depends on social services for medication and weekly meetings with a social worker. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun for self-defence. Arthur invites his neighbour, cynical single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz), to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating. When he witnesses three Wall Street guys harassing a woman on the subway train he opens fire and kills them and the city is suddenly awash in a movement of men in clown masks that threatens violent disorder in copycat clown costumes  … I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it’s a comedy. A perverse DC origins story written by director Todd Phillips with Scott Silver, this owes much to its setting – 1981, a city on its haunches, with human filth and institutional grime, and cinematic influences: Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and of course Taxi Driver (Paul Schrader’s real-life inspiration was Arthur Bremer) which is interesting in the light of the maestro’s recent (highly derogatory) comments on superhero movies. And there’s Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin himself, De Niro, as the Jerry Lewis-type prism for Arthur’s fantasies of celebrity. And it’s modelled on classic psychodrama, up to a point. It hedges its bets by flailing determinedly in all directions ticking the usual boxes – sociological, pathological, neurological, daddy issues, a mad mother, illegitimacy, until its second hour descends into predictable ultraviolence (after that first exhibition at 30 minutes) albeit with this raft of reasons the wind at his back, you can’t blame Arthur, which is of course the whole point of this graphic novel brought to life. He’s a product of everything around him as well as the noises in his head so there’s no mystery left unturned. That neurological condition that makes him laugh long and loud and inappropriately turns into an unwelcome noise in the audience’s collective head too because we can see as he cannot that his talent lies not in comedy but in killing. Gotham City is no longer a pretend New York because the first three victims of Arthur’s vigilanteism are Wall Street employees of his all-powerful putative father, which is how the Wayne story is woven into this tapestry of excuses as if someone had written an elaborate series of backstories and decided to use every single one of them:  Oedipus writ large in a realist portrait of Bernhard Goetz-era NYC. There is literally nothing left to chance or ponder about this ugly individual and as we all know, bastards always blame other people and seek revenge for their no-name status. In this amorality tale he murders his mother to attempt to get close to his alleged father. And we all know what happens to Thomas Wayne because the Batman universe is ours.  It’s difficult to fault Phoenix’s bravura performance but much hinges on his harelip and innate ugliness which he just accentuates into unpleasant anorectic thinness to manufacture an urban monster. This Joker isn’t funny any more. How bizarre that the wonderful River Phoenix died 26 years ago today and it’s his brother Leaf who’s making the headlines. I feel like I know you – I’ve been watching you forever

 

Highlander (1986)

Highlander colour

There can be only one! Swordsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) from the Scottish Highlands known as the Highlander is one of a number of immortal warriors who can be killed only by decapitation. After initial training by another highly skilled immortal swordsman and metallurgist, Ramirez (Sean Connery), MacLeod lives on for several centuries, eventually settling in New York City, managing an antiques shop. After watching his first wife Heather (Beatie Edney) grow old he is unable to fall in love again however in 1985, he encounters police forensic scientist Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart). He also finds out that he must face his greatest enemy, the brutal barbarian Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who wants to kill MacLeod and obtain ‘the Prize’ – a special ability given to the last living immortal warrior: vast knowledge and the ability to enslave the entire human race. They play cat and mouse through the centuries until destiny arrives in a fight played out on NYC’s Silvercup Studios’ neon sign  … You won’t drown, you fool. You’re immortal! Music video director Russell Mulcahy made the transition to features with this deliriously nutty actioner, a time travel fantasy that seamlessly moves through the ages, imbued with the tropes of Arthurian myth, a beautiful woman handy in each of the three main centuries/locations, a supposedly Spanish-Egyptian Connery speaking in his usual cod accent, brilliant one-on-one combat and wonderfully cartoony car chases. Then there’s the odd impressive visual transition (Lambert’s face morphing into an NYC Mona Lisa mural); and a mini-pop video to soundtrack band Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever telling the story of Lambert’s relationship with Scots wife Edney until her demise, in a film that references everything from Citizen Kane to The Duellists and Star Wars. There are incidental pleasures, like spotting familiar faces such as James Cosmo and Celia Imrie. Some head shearings plus a sex scene put this out of reach of the kids but it’s fabulous fun and spawned any number of sequels and spinoffs. Written by Gregory Widen as a class project at UCLA, this had a rewrite by Peter Bellwood & Larry Ferguson. You only have one life

Bergman: A Year in a Life (2018)

Bergman a Year in a life.jpg

If you look for Ingmar Bergman the only place you find him is in his films.  Jane Magnusson’s film (in Swedish, Norwegian and English) was made to celebrate Ingmar Bergman’s 2018 centenary and pivots on 1957, a year in which he made two award winning films, a TV movie and he had four theatre smashes. How did he do it? What spurred this sudden surge in productivity and arguably his career masterpieces (Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal on film, Peer Gynt on stage)? (The biggest surprise is that once actor who saw Gynt describes it as follows:  This is all adventure movies rolled into one! Not what the viewer would expect of an auteur known for austere and sexualised work – he knew everyone would go to see Summer With Monika if he included nude shots). He worked quickly on low budgets and hadn’t even conceived of Wild Strawberries at the beginning of 1957 but it was released by the end of the year and is examined here as a version of himself, Viktor Sjöstrom might even be perceived as dead already, looking back upon his life with that wonderful combination of wistful yearning and regret while he journeys to collect his award. Bergman’s work rate can’t be explained scientifically – he certainly had a bad temper and was plagued by a rotten ulcerous stomach. One interviewee posits that his diet of yoghurt and Marie biscuits constituted what would today be called an eating disorder (he thought vegetables were evil).  Perhaps he had all kinds of hunger issues. He didn’t believe in therapy and claims in a TV interview to have visited a psychiatrist just once. (One actress contradicts his declaration that the doctor found him healthy). His relationships were complex and unfaithful, yielding 6 offspring by 1957 (he thought 5, and he would eventually father 9 in and out of marriages, one of whom didn’t know she was his illegitimate daughter until she was 22). He was involved with three women in 1957 other than his then wife and one was actress Bibi Andersson. Apart from anything else, he had a lot of people to support financially. It seems that in 1957 Bergman realised that his best source of material was himself and the film uses his achievements in that annus mirabilis as a prism to analyse his entire life and career. Fassbinder was on amphetamine. Maybe Bergman was on sexuality. When it came to Persona, a film interpreted here as a dramatising of his two sides, he commenced a relationship with Liv Ullmann who lived with him on his island, eventually bearing him another child and she cries when recalling that he was the best friend she ever had. Bergman describes the camera as seeing more than he ever did,  a phenomenal tool for registering the human soul and it is this journey into the soul that he believes he was on through his films. Perhaps his most beloved work is Fanny and Alexander but a long-suppressed interview with his brother Dag (recorded in the 80s) deflates Bergman’s claim of bullying by his father or a horrible time at school – it all happened, just not to him, but to Dag. Bergman’s flirtation with Nazism raises troubling questions – he claimed to have been sent on an exchange to Germany when he was a young child. However it happened in 1936 when he was 18 and his support of the regime lasted until 1946, long after the camps had been exposed. His biographer is conflicted about whether or not he was claiming to be a fascist acolyte as part of his extensive self-mythologising:  the son of a Jewish refugee in his father’s home seems to think so. And Bergman determined in the aftermath of that period that he would never engage politically in his films. There is no limit to what Bergman will do to get the best out of his actors. On Winter Light he had a doctor diagnose lead actor Gunnar Björnstrand with depression so that his reaction to illness could be caught on camera (and boy did it work). His relationship with other screen actors is more heartening:  instead of words he’d give you an emotional gesture, says one, so that that if they were quick enough and inventive enough they would pick up on it and use it in their characterisation. Barbra Streisand speaks of her envy watching him direct her then husband Elliott Gould in Bergman’s English-language debut The Touch, including one scene when he actually sat underneath the camera while Gould was being shot in close up and guided his performance. Gould himself says, There’s no one like Ingmar Bergman. An artist. A craftsman. A master. In later years Bergman’s antics directing theatre productions are remembered by victims as bullying, in a period when his celebrity and indulgence by the establishment was only tarnished by a highly public tax problem; while his personal life disintegrated in 1995 after the death of his fifth wife Ingrid von Rosen (the love of his life, he said) and he withdrew almost totally, albeit his last filmed interview reveals a sense of self-deprecating humour. His autocratic persona was out of time and he seemed to be jealous of younger men. His conduct toward lead actor Thorsten Flinck in The Misanthrope at the Royal Dramatic Theatre is horrible to hear. This is a fascinating, confounding and compelling portrait of a man whose importance to Swedish art is finally declared to be more influential than that of Strindberg with some jaw-dropping interviews from actors, technicians and colleagues.  Written by Mattias Nohrborg, this is a marvellous, informative documentary about one of the most important filmmakers in cinema. The now is all that exists