Dorian Gray (1970)

Dorian Gray

Aka The Secret of Dorian Gray/ Il dio chiamato Dorian/Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray. One day when even you’ve become an old and hideous puppet this will still be young. London student Dorian Gray (Helmut Berger) is the subject of a portrait by society painter Basil Hallward (Richard Todd) whose clients hedonistic aristos Lord Henry Wotton (Herbert Lom) and his wife Gwendolyn (Margaret Lee) take a fancy to him. Meanwhile he has fallen in love with aspiring actress Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl) as she rehearses Romeo and Juliet. She makes him think about someone other than himself for a change. As Basil completes his portrait Dorian finds himself obsessed with his painted image and swears that he will trade his soul to remain young. His relationship with Sybil grows complicated and argumentative and she is killed when she is knocked down by a car. Dorian is heavily influenced by Henry who has him sleep with Gwendolyn and Dorian then becomes immersed in society as a kind of gigolo who makes other people famous, be they men or women. However as the portrait begins to reveal his age and escalating depravity he hides it away from sight where it changes appearance and becomes ugly and Dorian ends up killing Basil when he says he’s not responsible for the alterations.  Dorian is conscious of the peril of his situation, particularly when Henry introduces him to Sybil’s double, a woman married to a scientist embarking on research into rejuvenation … Everything is yours. Take it. Enjoy it. The most beautiful man of this or any time stars in a European co-production of the greatest work of literature by the greatest Irish author and it’s updated to the flashy, groovesome Seventies. What bliss is this?! With equal parts tragic romance and fetishistic kink it easily falls into the category of trash yet the moral at the centre – the idea that youth is beautiful in itself, not just for what it can obtain – gives it a lingering value. The god-like Berger is perfectly cast as the impossibly erotic creature who transitions from youthful selfishness to graceless decadence, and his sleazy polymorphous journey through the fashionable world of swinging London is both quaintly dated and oddly touching, principally because of the relationship with Liljedahl (best known for her soft-core films in her home country of Sweden) and Berger’s consistent performance, beset by narcissistic fascination, bewildered by loss. It is precisely because this plugs into the truly pornographic ideas behind the 1890s textual aesthetics that it seems oddly perfect as an adaptation despite the odd surprise – a bit of S&M in a stables, plus it’s not every day you see Lom approach a beautiful young man to have his wicked way with him. The screenplay is credited to giallo director Massimo Dallamano, Renato Romano, Marcello Coscia and Günter Ebert, from  Oscar Wilde’s indelible novel. The contemporary score is composed by Peppino De Luca and Carlo Pes. Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff and Harry Alan Towers for American International Pictures. You only have a few years to live really fully

Vita and Virginia (2019)

Vita and Virginia

I’m exhausted with this sapphic pageant. Lauded author Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) meets fellow author best-selling Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) in London in the 1920s when their paths cross unexpectedly since they usually move in very different social circles. Vita is a married bisexual adventuress who envies fragile Virginia’s literary abilities which have earned her a reputation as an eccentric. Vita’s public escapades with women have earned the wrath of her mother (Isabella Rossellini) who regularly threatens her with losing custody of her young sons, especially after her latest foray to France which she did while dressed as a man. Despite both of the writers being married, they embark on an affair that disturbs Virginia but later inspires one of her novels, Orlando, about a hero who turns into a heroine who turns out to be a fiction …. A fearless adventuress who trades on passion, pain and fantasy. Those famously fashionable writerly Bright Young Things Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West get a New Romantic makeover with a few disquisitions about the state of things gender thrown in for good measure and an electronic score (from Isobel Waller-Bridge to enhance the feel of a retro prism being applied. Thus are modern values impressed upon a story that commences with Vita and her gay diplomat husband Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) discussing the idea of the marriage contract on the radio. Eileen Atkins adapts her play with director Chanya Button and despite the talents involved and the ghastly Bloomsbury characters it’s a fairly stillborn affair. The big ironic trope operating across the narrative is Vita’s capacity for experience while Virginia is the only writer of the two capable of actual feeling and expressivity:  she is the more literary gifted and the one who can translate their experience (or her view of it) into something like a great book. The other irony is perhaps that the script is never elevated to the quality of Woolf’s writing. There are some horrifically camp men, terrible scenes with Virginia losing her sanity for brief periods of time (cunningly evoked by visual effects) and some nice letter-reading when Vita goes abroad and tells Virginia about the travels she has been unable to persuade her to take with her. Basically Vita is an incorrigible, conscience-free flirt and Virginia is an incredible intellect, barely of this earth, all shadow to Vita’s colours.  I have fallen in love with your vision of me, Vita tells the woman who has immortalised her as Orlando. We can see she’s not like that at all. It’s not just the men who can’t deal with women’s grey matter. With notable costume design by Lorna Marie Mugan, perhaps the most truly shocking thing about this is that Sky Cinema screened it as a 12s despite the graphic sexual content. Mary Whitehouse, where are you when you’re needed?! It’s all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words

Ladies of the Chorus (1948)

Ladies of the Chorus colour reissue

Her mother is a one-man security council. Single mother Mae Martin (Adele Jergens) and her daughter Peggy (Marilyn Monroe) are Broadway showgirls performing in the same show. But when the lead performer Bubbles La Rue (Marjorie Hoshelle, uncredited) in the burlesque walks out, Peggy finds herself catapulted to overnight fame as the star attraction of the revue. May tries to advise her about people who might try to take advantage of her, including her new socialite boyfriend, Randy Carroll (Rand Brooks) because of a similar experience that befell her back in the day. Peggy falls for him anyway, and he quickly proposes marriage. But he has difficulty telling his own mother (Nana Bryant) about his fiancée’s background and Mae decides against revealing the truth about their showbiz life when the future in-laws finally meet … When are you going to let me feel grown up? Written by Joseph Carole and Harry Sauber, this B movie was Monroe’s first big role and also her ticket out of Columbia Pictures – to looking for another studio contract. While she acquits herself reasonably well in this conventional story of the star is born variety, there is no true sign of the real-life star she would become four years later once she had taken more acting classes and perfected other facets of her screen persona:  that performance is yet to be matched to the specific look she would refine to her own inimitable affect and there are a couple of shots of her in repose that are downright unflattering. Nonetheless she gets to demonstrate her singing and dancing chops as the burlesque queen facing a dilemma. Jergens seems crazy young to be her mother (she was nine years Monroe’s senior) but her situation is explained in a flashback and she takes off her wig several times revealing supposedly grey hair beneath, to dramatic effect. Bryant gets to play the equal opportunities mother-in-law who spins a nice ending out of the setup. There’s a frankly odd number involving dolls and an utterly weird entrance by an interior decorator with a small soundalike ‘son’. Directed by Phil Karlson.  You’re never too old to do what you did

Affair in Trinidad (1952)

Affair in Trinidad

It’s dangerous to presume with the Trinidad lady. Post-war Trinidad and Tobago, a territory under British control. When nightclub performer Chris Emery (Rita Hayworth) discovers that her husband Neil has died in suspicious circumstances, initially thought to be suicide, she resolves to help the local police Inspector Smythe (Torin Thatcher) and Anderson (Howard Wendell) find his killer. Soon she is caught between two men, her late husband’s suave foreign friend Max Fabian (Alexander Scourby), who has designs on her; and her brother-in-law, Steve Emory (Glenn Ford), who arrives on the island and begins his own investigation into his sibling’s death since he cannot take the suicide verdict remotely seriously due to a letter his brother sent him. As evidence begins to point to Max as the killer and her feelings for Steve grow, Chris finds herself in an increasingly dangerous situation with a political plot that threatens the stability of everyone around her, even her homeland of the United States The worst tortures are the ones we invent for ourselves. Reuniting the stars of that perverse noir Gilda, this essays a variation on the theme but this time the S&M is ingrained in the political subtext of Nazis planning an attack on an unsuspecting US from the British-controlled Caribbean. Hayworth was making her comeback after four years away from the screen gadding about with the jet set and getting married and what have you. She is at her most lustrous and dazzling, singing, dancing to calypso and generally slinking around being sexily begowned by Jean Louis; while Ford is befuddled and anxious, as befits the role of the concerned brother-in-law investigating murderous island-hopping foreigners. The script by Oscar Saul and James Gunn is just ringing with memorable lines decently distributed through a wonderfully sinister ensemble nourishing a rich atmosphere. Valerie Bettis snarls vixen-like among the Germans she accompanies; and even Juanita Moore as housemaid Dominique gets her moments – This one is a man. The other is a shadow of him.  The gallows humour doesn’t end there as tensions escalate and intentions are clarified – Even at the risk of dislocating your personality, try to be calm. You’ll recognise the references – Notorious, Casablanca, even All About Eve. Fabulous stuff, nimbly directed by Vincent Sherman and produced by co-writer Virginia Van Upp who devised the story with Bernie Giler. I am just a pawn, a weak man. I am very easily dominated!

East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden

The way he looks at you. Sorta like an animal. In 1917 Salinas Cal (James Dean) and Aaron (Richard Davalos) Trask are the sons of decent farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) who is chairman of the local wartime draft board. Both compete for his attention but Cal has discovered that the mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) they were told was long dead is in fact the madam of a whorehouse in Monterey, 15 miles away. He borrows money from her to profit from a rise in the bean farming market intending to repay his father for his failed experiment in freezing food for long-haul shipping.  But his father prefers Aaron’s announcement of his engagement to Abra (Julie Harris) whom Cal starts to desire just as Aaron feels pressure to enlist and Cal decides to surprise him … I’ve been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn’t even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don’t want it anymore… I can’t use it anymore. I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off. Was there ever a more important or sinuous entrance in the history of cinema than James Dean’s arrival here? The way he moves, coiled like a caged animal set to pounce, slinking along like a cat, then hunched and feral, infiltrating our consciousness and catalysing our puzzlement and desire? I first saw this aged 12 and that’s the perfect age to watch it for the first time, this story of bad parenting, bullying, abandonment, sibling rivalry, envy and first love, all choreographed to the backdrop of the outbreak of WW1 in a masterful adaptation (by Paul Osborn) of the last section of John Steinbeck’s great 1952 novel. Everything about it is right:  the shooting style laying out the gorgeous landscape of Salinas, alternately warm and sunny, chill and foggy; the wide screen that’s barely able to contain the raw emotionality; the marvellous, occasionally strident score by Leonard Rosenman with its soaring, sonorous swoops. And there’s the cast. Jo Van Fleet gives a great performance (in her screen debut) as the wild whoremongering mother  – just look at her strut when we first see her (this is a film of brilliant entrances), providing the angular example of difference to this half-grown boy of hers; Massey is upstanding, a self-righteous, arrogant man, given to sermonising, incapable of leading by empathy; Harris is generous to a fault, allowing Dean to be everything, all at once, boy, man, lover. He burns up the screen with playfulness, confusion and rage. His scenes with Davalos, the Abel to his Cain, bespeak a softness and eroticism rarely equalled and play into the latterday perceptions of his orientation – or perhaps director Elia Kazan just understood how he needed to be in the part, getting into your head by whatever means necessary. Kazan recalled the audience reaction to Dean at the first screening and said that kids were screaming and yelling and practically falling over the balcony to get closer to him, they went wild. That’s how he makes you feel, James Dean. You want to get closer to him. You want to be him. This is really where that sensation began:  of feelings being teased, opened up, acknowledged. Once seen, never forgotten. You’re a likeable kid

A Place in the Sun (1951) Titles Sequence

A Place in the Sun poster

One of the most rousingly romantic scores by Franz Waxman introduces this superb exercise in melodrama directed by George Stevens. Mike Nichols said he learned everything he needed to know about directing by watching this over and over again. Mandy Merck wrote a brilliant book about its origins, including the anti-capitalist source novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser; a failed attempt by Sergei Eisenstein to film it; an adaptation by Josef von Sternberg; and the eventual acclaimed production written by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, starring a sixteen-year old Elizabeth Taylor whose stunning beauty is matched by the legendary Montgomery Clift in scenes that literally take the breath away. If you want to remember what true star power is, watch this film. My review of the Merck book can be found here:  https://offscreen.com/view/hollywoods_american_tragedies

 

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters

You’re flushing your career down the toilet for a cowhand. Corporate defence lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is approached by his grandmother’s farmer neighbour Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) to investigate the deaths of hundreds of his cattle in Parkersburg, West Virginia, probably due to a poisoning incident by manufacturer DuPont. The company’s lawyer Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) promises to help Robert but stalls so Robert files suit to get discovery and with nothing useful in an Environmental Protection Agency report he finds information about an unregulated chemical called PFOA which turns out to be Teflon – and it’s on and in everything including the water supply, poisoning with a substance the body cannot tolerate or absorb and causing six cancers and facial deformities. It transpires that DuPont carried out tests and did not make the findings public. The case drives Robert’s behaviour to cause his former lawyer wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) to worry for him and he eventually collapses from ill-health as the years wind on, with Wilbur and his wife Sandra (Denise Dal Vera) getting cancer from the infected water they’ve been consuming. They refuse DuPont’s offer of settlement – they want justice. Robert finds that Medical Monitoring is permitted in West Virginia and undertakes a class action lawsuit with the biggest sample of epidemiological data in history but after seven years there are still no results, his marriage is in difficulty and he’s taking yet another paycut  … Better living through chemistry. Adapted by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael  Carnahan from three articles in The New York Times and The Intercept, this is a grimy looking drama about corporate malfeasance that’s paced as slowly and deliberately as Bilott’s lawsuits, with some touches of conventional genre paranoia in one thriller sequence (in a car park, surprise surprise).  It unfurls chronologically, a decade-and-a-half-long story of terrible, destructive deceit – a toxic pollution arrangement covertly blessed by Government agencies, yet another searing indictment of structural inequality and the impunity with which big companies abuse power and kill people, no questions asked. It’s a David and Goliath procedural tale that has global ramifications and despite its desperately dull appearance and some flawed and oddly impersonal directing choices there are some great moments especially for Tim Robbins as Ruffalo’s boss; and Bill Camp, who exudes his usual authenticity beneath some truly eccentric eyebrows. Hathaway’s stay-at-home wife gradually gets a better arc than at first appears; while Ruffalo is shuffling and in pain, dressed in too-big clothes in a whistleblowing role that clearly is a labour of love, a wannabe Hulk gravitationally pulled to earth, feeling the hurt of all his sick, suffering and dying clients as he does his due diligence with dignity and perseverance. Stick with it. Like the Teflon on your frying pan that’s killing you every day. Directed by Todd Haynes. The system is rigged

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

You never, ever let an attractive woman take a power position in your home. Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra) is happily married to lab tech Michael (Matt McCoy) with a little daughter Emma (Madeline Zima) and when she attends a new obstetrician Victor Mott (John de Lancie) she feels she has been molested during what should have been a routine check-up. Michael encourages her to report Mott to the state medical board and other women follow suit.  Mott commits suicide by shooting himself before a legal hearing can take place and his pregnant widow (Rebecca De Mornay) loses her baby, has an emergency hysterectomy and is broke because her husband’s suicide voids an insurance payout needed for his victims and their fabulous modernist home is put up for sale. She presents herself to the Bartels as nanny ‘Peyton Flanders’ and endears herself to Emma; makes Michael’s married ex, realtor Marlene Craven (Julianne Moore) warn Claire about the danger of having a good looking nanny; and is witnessed by disabled handyman Solomon (Ernie Hudson) breastfeeding newborn baby Joey.  Peyton then reports Solomon falsely for sexually assaulting Emma, ensuring his exit from their home. She arranges an accident to happen to Claire in the greenhouse but when she realises Marlene is on to her, she changes her victim … He wasn’t examining me. It was like he was getting off on it. What if I accused him and I was wrong? How amazing to hear these words come out of Sciorra’s mouth 28 years after this was released and two months after her testimony about what happened to her at the hands of studio head Harvey Weinstein, who derailed her career. This nuttily addictive home invasion/yuppies in peril thriller from writer Amanda Silver (granddaughter of screenwriter Sidney Buchman) ticks so many boxes for female viewers it positively tingles – capturing women’s vulnerability on so many levels: tapping into fears about ob-gyn appointments, pregnancy, a husband’s wandering eye, younger prettier women and the systematic way in which one apparently benign interloper can utterly undo a family’s stability with her insidious attractiveness and manipulative charms. The scene when De Mornay nurses Sciorra’s child is … startling. This is my family! A deeply pleasurable exploitation thriller raised to the level of zeitgeist comment by virtue of taut writing, brilliantly stylish directing by Curtis Hanson and a pair of well managed, contrasting performances by the leading ladies who make this property porno utterly compelling. De Mornay’s unravelling is perfectly, incrementally established. And it’s a treat to see this good early performance by Moore, even if she’s the least believable smoker in screen history; while sweet and resourceful little Zima grew up to be the lethally Lolita-esque teenage sexpot in TV’s Californication. This ferociously slick fun is probably the reason most women wouldn’t have a nanny within a yard of their homes if it could possibly be avoided. Don’t f*** with me retard! My version of the story will be better than yours

 

Le Week-End (2013)

Le Weekend

I’m amazed at how mediocre I’ve turned out to be. Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg Burrows (Lindsay Duncan) are a married academic couple from Birmingham advancing in age and tension. To mark their 30th wedding anniversary, the two embark on a trip to the place they honeymooned three decades before: Paris. Hoping to rejuvenate their marriage, the couple arrives in Paris only for things not to go as planned. Their honeymoon hotel is horrifying so Meg insists on booking into the best hotel in town. They eat lavishly and run out of a restaurant without paying. Their hi jinks re-ignite their romance. Their son wants to move back in but Meg is adamant he can’t, Nick fields the calls from back in England as Meg rages that he is too tolerant. Eventually, the two bump into Nick’s former Cambridge acolyte Morgan (Jeff Goldblum) who is now a philosophy star and they attend a dinner party at his posh Rue de Rivoli home that ultimately opens up a new view of life and love for the ageing couple… I knew this trip would be a fucking disaster. Author and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi’s fourth collaboration with director Roger Michell is all at once delightful homage, biting meditation on ageing and a thoughtful discourse on the absurd difficulties of sustaining an enduring marriage. It’s also a sly commentary on academic rivalry, PC-ness (Nick is being retired early because he told a black woman student she should spend more time on the books and less on her hair), wrongful assumptions about the person you know best and the real problems of intimacy after decades living in someone else’s pocket. This last five to ten years your vagina has become something of a closed book. Sentimental Broadbent is angry beneath that pleading surface;  flinty Duncan is superficially icy but truly loyal – and hot. When Morgan takes Nick’s raucous and self-pitying dinner party confession for a kind of Situationist performance and both husband and wife are disgusted by his ignorance of the truth when it’s laid bare, it is a joy to behold them unite again. And then, the ending, a glorious homage to Bande à part, re-enacting a scene in a simple but uplifting manner that might make you fear growing old just a little bit less. You’ll recognise Morgan’s son as Olly Alexander, of the band Years and Years. This is where I want to be forever

Animals (2019)

Animals

You’re my team. Long-time friends and party-lovers Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) navigate life and love in Dublin, Ireland. However, when wannabe writer Laura becomes engaged to concert pianist Jim (Fra Fee) her lifestyle of drinking, drugging and sleeping around alongside barista Tyler becomes unstuck, threatening their friendship. Tyler attends Laura’s family gatherings revolving around her parents and pregnant older sister (Amy Molloy). When Laura fancies poet Marty (Dermot Murphy), whom Tyler also likes, the difficulties intensify, and Laura thinks of moving out of the nice Georgian flat subsidised by Tyler’s late father, while Laura’s novel gets nowhere, now ten years in the writing…  Sorry girls, didn’t mean to get all holy on you there with my burning bush. With its action transposed from Manchester to Dublin, Emma Jane Unsworth adapts her much-loved novel. It’s energetically directed by Australian Sophie Hyde (her second feature after 2013’s 52 Tuesdays) who does a fine job commandeering two of the most endearing female friends explored on film in a long time, in all their unpleasant, messy, extreme, inglorious situations. The moon has married us both.  Grainger exhibits wonderful poise on her soulful journey through sex and love, while Shawkat is as convincing as ever, an established comic performer relishing the role of a thirtysomething wild child whose balance is undone, spinning into infinity, all to the backdrop of a quasi-bohemian arts scene where happiness is just a stolen bottle of MDMA away. A graphic depiction of problematic modern femininity which is subversive and true. Was any of it real?