Where There’s a Will (1936)

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A merry Christmas, girls and boys / I’ve brought you jewels, instead of toys / In spite of what you think / it seems to me I’ve earned a drink. A bumbling incompetent solicitor Benjamin Stubbins (Will Hay) is tricked by some American gangsters into helping them pull off a robbery …  Hardly the jewel in old school Brit comic (and pilot and astronomer…!) Hay’s crown (that’s Oh, Mr Porter!), this saw him team up with a good team but it’s a blink and you’ll miss it affair, aside from a few edits to produce visual payoffs on lines.  There’s fun with the office repartee between him and the truculent youth he employs (Graham Moffatt) and it’s an opportunity to see former Ziegfeld girl Gina Malo as a wisecracking moll. She spent the better part of her film career in operatic musicals in Britain.  It all ends as you think it might at a Christmas party and guess who’s Father Christmas? The screenplay is by Sidney Gilliat and Leslie Arliss with additions by Hay, director William Beaudine and Robert Edmunds.

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45 Years (2015)

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It’s funny how you forget the things in life that make you happy. In the week leading up to her 45th wedding anniversary, retired teacher Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) is perturbed by the arrival of a letter in German to her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) informing him of the discovery of his former girlfriend’s body which was trapped in a Swiss glacier following an accident during a holiday 50 years earlier.  He was her next of kin and he never told Kate. The news affects Kate in ways she can’t articulate but as she prepares for their party, a delayed 40th celebration due to Geoff’s ill health, she realises that her marriage was built as a reaction to the shaky foundations of her husband’s previous life … Director Andrew Haigh adapted the short story In Another Country by David Constantine and it doesn’t start particularly promisingly. A letter arrives in the home of a comfortably-off couple. There’s a quiet ripple effect which builds towards the retractable ladder up to the attic where photographs and old film slides are stored, attaining the properties of a horror trope. She is angry that he has gone up there to look at the artifacts of a life which was never hers. The fact that the ex is called Katya horrifies Kate – it’s so close to her own name. Theirs is a childless marriage. And when she pries she sees that her predecessor was apparently pregnant at the time of her death. She understands very late in life that her marriage is rather a sham and far from the happy union she had believed. And it’s too late to do anything about it. The past intrudes on the present in the most active of ways. He is so disturbed he takes up smoking again, so does she. She thinks she can smell Katya’s perfume in the house. She now knows the reason they kept German Shepherds as their substitute children. The fissure that trapped Katya is now a crack in what seemed to be a happy marriage. The Norfolk Broads provide a stark juxtaposition with the Alpine Mountains that gave the shambling irritable Geoff a vibrant, thrilling relationship before they ever met. The musical choices suggest that Geoff might have been responsible for Katya’s death after she flirted with their mountain guide. Rampling’s characteristic subtlety is put to great use here because the totality of the story’s emotion must unfold in her silent unravelling at the conclusion – someone she never knew died a long time ago but it’s her grief about her marriage which dominates the narrative as the ageless love of her husband’s youth is perfectly preserved in his mind and she is now falling apart. The cinematography by Lol Crawley is quite unforgiving but the leads offer exquisitely nuanced performances in simply edited frames. Quite haunting.

Lady Bird (2017)

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Just because something looks ugly doesn’t mean that it’s morally wrong. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. She longs to go to an eastern college in “a city with culture”. Her family is struggling financially, and her mother, a psychiatric nurse working double shifts (Laurie Metcalf) tells her she’s  ungrateful for what she has. She and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) join their school theatre programme for a production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, where Lady Bird meets a boy called Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges). They develop a romantic relationship, and, to her mother’s disappointment, Lady Bird joins Danny’s family for Thanksgiving. Their relationship ends when Lady Bird discovers Danny kissing a boy in a bathroom stall. At the behest of her mother, Lady Bird takes a job at a coffee shop, where she meets a young musician, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). He and Lady Bird begin a romantic relationship, and she and Julie drift apart. After the beautiful Jenna (Odeya Rush), one of the popular girls at the school, is reprimanded by Sister Sarah (Lois Smith) for wearing a short skirt, Lady Bird suggests the two bond by vandalizing the Sister’s car. Lady Bird gives Danny’s grandmother’s home as her address to appear wealthy. She drops out of the theatre programme. At the coffee shop, she consoles Danny after he expresses his struggle to come out. After Kyle tells her he is a virgin, she loses her virginity to him, but he later denies saying this. Jenna discovers that Lady Bird lied about her address. Lady Bird discovers that her father (Tracy Letts) has lost his job and has been battling depression for most of his life. Lady Bird begins applying to east-coast colleges with her father’s support despite her mother’s insistence that the family cannot afford it. She is elated to discover that she has been placed on the wait list for a New York college. She sets out for her high school prom with Kyle, Jenna, and Jenna’s boyfriend, but the four decide to go to a party instead. Lady Bird asks them to drop her off at Julie’s apartment, where the two tearfully rekindle their friendship and go to the prom together. After graduation, Mom finds Lady Bird applied to an out of state school and they stop talking. Lady Bird celebrates her coming of age by buying cigarettes and a lottery ticket and a copy of Playgirl, passes her driver’s test first time and redecorates. She gets into college in NYC and Mom refuses to see her off at the airport, has a change of heart and drives back, but Lady Bird has already left.  In New York, Lady Bird finds thoughtful letters written by her mother and salvaged by her father, and begins using her birth name again. She is hospitalized after drinking heavily at a party. After leaving the hospital, she observes a Sunday church service, then calls home and leaves an apologetic message for her mother… Very novelistic and composed of many vignettes, this leaves a rather odd feeling in its wake: a sense of dissociation, perhaps. It’s a more modest success than its critical reception would suggest with the exceptional characterisation of Metcalf and Letts emphasising the continuities in relationships that are at the screenplay’s heart. It’s about a self-centred teenager (is there any other kind) finding herself in a nexus of people who are themselves struggling and lying and just making it through the day. Ronan is playing an avatar for debutant writer-director Greta Gerwig and it’s a Valentine to her hometown but it also functions as a tribute to misguided, confused, artistically oriented kids who want something else other than their uncultured boring origins but they don’t know quite what. Ronan’s performance doesn’t feel quite as centred as it needs to be. It has its moments but they’re mostly quiet ones with the mother-daughter frenemy status the quivering fulcrum around which everything orbits. Somehow this is less than the sum of its parts and it had a curiously deflating effect on the audience with whom I watched it. Hmmm…

To Rome With Love (2012)

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The kid’s a communist, the father’s a mortician. Does the mother run a leper colony?  Four tales unfold in the Eternal City. Architect John (Alec Baldwin) encounters American architecture student Jack (Jess Eisenberg) living in Rome with girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and whose romantic woes remind him of a painful incident from his own youth; retired opera director and classical music recording executive Jerry (Woody Allen) discovers that his daughter Hayley’s (Alison Pill) future father-in-law is a mortician with an amazing voice, and he seizes the opportunity to rejuvenate his own flagging career; a young couple Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi) have separate romantic interludes; a spotlight shines on an ordinary office clerk (Roberto Benigni) who becomes a celebrity overnight, hounded by TV journalists and paparazzi… Another Woody Allen film shot in Yerp that seemed like much less than the sum of its parts at the time but has worn well and is a mature entertainment, modelled on the portmanteau films made by a lot of Italian auteurs in the early Sixties. When I first saw this I thought it took a great deal of imagination to cast puddingy little Ellen Page as the voracious bisexual femme fatale wooing Eisenberg but obviously someone had the inside track. Baldwin is good as the man musing on his own foibles and the integration of his character as Jack’s invisible friend is nicely achieved. Allen is very funny as the man who has to get a shower on stage at the Opera so that the mortician will reach his peak performance and while we might wince at Penelope Cruz being cast as a prostitute entering the wrong hotel room and embarrassing a young man about to meet the in-laws, it’s actually a lot of fun – as is his fiancée’s own pre-marital adventure. Benigni’s overnight fame is a nod to Allen’s earlier Celebrity albeit with more humanity.  It’s nicely played by a really interesting ensemble – the incredible Ornella Muti shows up as famous Italian actress Pia Fusari in Milly’s story! – and like all of Allen’s lighter work it just gets better with each viewing, Darius Khondji’s mellow cinematography bathing us all in Roman light. Allen originally called this Bop Decameron but nobody got it …

I am a Camera (1955)

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I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.  In the 1950s the writer Christopher Isherwood visits his London club and discovers that he has arrived in the middle of a book launch by a woman called Sally Bowles and regales his friends with stories of their life together just before the Nazis ascend to power in 1930s Berlin. Chris (Laurence Harvey), an aspiring novelist from England and ‘confirmed bachelor’ meets vivacious cabaret entertainer Sally Bowles (Julie Harris) at a nightclub where she’s performing her act and an unusual friendship is born. She moves into his boarding house and their lives become inextricably intertwined as he struggles to write and she tries to make her way with men, a ‘future would-be film star’ as she tells the landlady (Lea Seidl). As Sally feeds her extravagant tastes, Chris goes along for the ride and they are financed by American Clive Mortimer (Ron Randell) until their pal, Fritz (Anton Diffring), encounters trouble after ingratiating himself with Natalia Landauer (Shelley Winters) the daughter of a wealthy department store owner and confesses he himself has been concealing his Judaism. Meanwhile the Nazis bully people on the streets prior to a popular election result … Adapted from the play by John Van Druten, itself based on Goodbye to Berlin, part of the memoirs of writer Christopher Isherwood, this story also served as the inspiration for the later acclaimed musical Cabaret which Bob Fosse turned into a garish and extraordinary fascist-baiting extravaganza. This adaptation by John Collier of Van Druten’s play is of an altogether more modest variety but is entertaining for all that – the charming Harvey (I’m prejudiced, I love him) and the winsomely over the top Harris are wonderful together in their drab bedsits as they try to make their lives fit their pretensions. The treatment got a lot of criticism at the time and you might even be vaguely shocked by what Sally does in the aftermath of her abortion which is characterised as a false pregnancy here. It still ran into censorship problems because there are no moral lessons. Isherwood himself didn’t like it at all and believed Harris to have been ‘mis-directed’ (she had won the Tony for the role on Broadway) but it was his life of course so he could say what he liked. (Me no Leica.) Watch for Patrick McGoohan as a Swedish Water Therapist! Directed by Henry Cornelius.

My Bloody Valentine (1981)

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It happened once, it happened twice. Cancel the dance, or it’ll happen thrice. Ten years ago, an inexperienced coal miner named Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles) caused an accident that killed five men and put a sixth, Harry Warden (Peter Cowper), into a coma. A year later, on Valentine’s Day, Harry woke up and murdered 22 people with a pickaxe before dying. Now Tom has returned home, still haunted by the past. And something else is back in Harmony: a pickaxe-wielding killer in a miner’s mask, who may be the ghost of Harry, come to claim Tom and his friends.  The accident long forgotten, the dance resumes. Many of the town’s younger residents are excited about it: Gretchen (Gina Dick), Dave (Carl Marotte), Hollis (Keith Knight), Patty (Cynthia Dale), Sylvia (Helene Udy), Howard (Alf Humphreys), Mike (Thomas Kovacs), John (Rob Stein), Tommy (Jim Murchison), and Harriet (Terry Waterland). Of this group, Sarah (Lori Hallier), Axel (Neil Affleck), and the mayor’s returning son T.J. (Paul Kelman) are involved in a tense love triangle. … This Canadian exploitationer is notorious for its gore and violence which led to it being heavily cut but it has become something of a cult item due to its status in the vanguard of the slasher genre. What’s striking about it at this distance is how it treats its subject – seriously! You may think twice about using a nail gun after this. Written by John Beaird with a story by Stephen Miller, this is directed by George Mihalka.  And this holiday serial killer flick gave a certain great band their name. For that at least we are grateful.

Baywatch (2017)

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I’m oceanic motherfucker.  The legendary Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) leads his elite squad of lifeguards on a beautiful California beaach. Joined by a trio of hotshot recruits (well, two, plus Jon Bass as Ronnie) including former Olympian Matt Brody (Zac Efron) aka The Vomit Comet and Summer (Alexandra Daddario), they ditch the surf and go deep under cover to take down ruthless businesswoman Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) whose devious plan to use Emerald Bay as a port for her drugs empire threatens the area… There’s a lot of fun to be had here, not least the fact that Efron is effectively playing a (brighter!) version of Ryan Lochte, whose antics made him notorious after the last Summer Olympics. There’s no ‘i’ in ‘team’ but there is a ‘me’ he declares – so we know his journey is to become a team player. Gurn … There’s a very funny scene in a morgue plus some graphic nudity courtesy of Ronnie’s inability to keep his togs on whenever a beautiful girl is in the vicinity. The Hoff makes an appearance but really, after the good guys do the right thing, this is all about hot bodies (male and female) in skimpy clothing and tribute is paid to the most famous TV slo-mo shot of all time.  The screenplay is by Damian Shannon & Mark Swift, from a story by Jay Sherick & David Ronn and Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant, based on the TV series which was created by Michael Berk & Douglas Schwartz and Gregory J. Bonann. Whew. Directed by Seth Gordon. Not as bad as you think it could be …

Celebrity (1998)

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I’ve become the person I’ve always hated, but I’m happier. Novelist Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) is in a crisis – he’s got writer’s block and everything is falling apart and his two critically panned novels are such failures he has to work as a travel writer.  It was seeing all the losers at his high school reunion that triggered his decision to divorce his sexually bashful and rather neurotic wife, Robin (Judy Davis), and he dives into a new job as an entertainment journalist. His assignments take him to the swankiest corners of Manhattan, but as he jumps from one lavish party to another and engages in numerous empty romances, with some seriously combative actresses and models keeping him busy, he starts to doubt the worth of his work. He’s writing screenplays on the side to keep in the creative game hoping some of his interview subjects will give him the time of day. Meanwhile, top TV producer Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna) falls for Robin and introduces her to the world of celebrity. Suddenly she finds herself with a TV show and Lee finds himself competing with his ex-wife … The celebrity-packed ensemble in this Woody Allen film cannot conceal that this is one of the many in his body of work which disappoints – that said, there are some great lines, filled with truth about the horrors of middle life:  the sheer mundanity of marriage, the compromises, the failures, the lack of a career, the diverging paths couples might take following their divorce. And there’s a truly horrible scene when Lee meets one of the critics who wrote a devastating review of one of his books. There’s not a little self-parody in this monochrome outing (shot by Sven Nykvist), with Tony sneering about film director John Papadakis (Andre Gregory), He’s very arty, pretentious, one of those assholes who shoots all his films in black and white. Branagh isn’t a great lead for such material in which he is basically a hammy avatar for all Allen’s own starring roles and his accent occasionally grates:  as he treads and sleeps his way through New York society you wonder at his unfeasible romantic success. Davis isn’t a whole lot better. But there are many bright moments in this unfocused work, as actors, artists and models step forward and do their ‘bit’ with some bristling lines in a film which in another universe might have wanted to be La Dolce Vita but is really a cynical trawl through misplaced modern values while paradoxically extolling them. There’s a very funny scene when Robin asks a prostitute Nina (Bebe Neuwirth) who’s been on her show for some training in oral sex and her mentor chokes on a banana. We even muster sympathy for the besotted Lee when he scorns his devoted book editor galpal Bonnie (Famke Janssen) for the unreliable actress Nola (Winona Ryder) and has to watch her rip up the only copy of his third, potentially brilliant novel and see the pages fly away from a boat at South Street Seaport. A Nobel Prize-winning author whom she’s also editing turns out a surprisingly similar book on the same subject (this happened to a friend of mine minus the outing to Sweden). Donald Trump makes an appearance as an interviewee, declaring his intention to tear down St Patrick’s Cathedral and replace it with a Big Beautiful Building and Leonardo Di Caprio plays a bratty druggy movie star into threesomes – and foursomes. Bruce Jay Friedman makes his second 1998 movie appearance (the other was You’ve Got Mail) most likely because he used to write fake stories about celebrities for fan magazines! There’s a unique opportunity to visit the late, lamented Elaine’s where Woody used to play clarinet every Monday night (hence his absence from the Academy Awards over the years). Like a lot of Allen’s work, both lesser and greater, this feels a lot better now that a lot of time has passed even if it’s a tad overlong. Weird. I wrote about you before I even knew you existed.

Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983) (TVM)

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I’d left it too late. That’s the funny thing – everyone thinks they’re exempt. It’s 1974, and Barbara Dean (Judi Dench) is a British assistant manager and loan officer in a foreign bank in Saigon.  She’s something of a depressive and has to ward off the advances of her co-worker Donald (Roger Rees) while her narration informs us she has been a woman of secrets ever since having an affair with a friend of her father’s at a very young age. She meets an American Bob Chesneau (Frederic Forrest) at the end of a party one night when she’s waiting for a taxi home. She has fended off the interest of Frank (Wallace Shawn), a US Embassy officer with whom she plays bridge. She and Bob begin a relationship and she realises that he’s not a cultural attaché but he works for the CIA and knows that the fall of South Vietnam is very near because sources suggest the North Vietnamese are stepping up plans to take Saigon. Things are heating up at the bank when a member of the public comes in armed with a gun demanding all his money. Barbara delays planning her departure even when she’s helping the locals get passports for their own hasty exits. Bob tries to persuade his boss Jack Ockham (Josef Sommer) and the US Ambassador (E.G. Marshall) to evacuate the South Vietnamese who have been working for them but the Ambassador wants to appease President Thieu’s regime. Bob and Barbara’s relationship suffers under the strain …  Made for Thames TV, this is a real auteur work – an original teleplay by theatrical giant David Hare and directed by Stephen Frears the year before he made The Hit. Dench was likewise a lady of the theatre albeit with some TV in the bag but it was a long time before America discovered her properly in Goldeneye. If the direction feels a little clunky at times, and perhaps it’s due to both the low budget and the schematic constraints of Hare’s writing, there are some good elements. There’s a nice juxtaposition when the Jolly Green Giants swoop into the city and White Christmas is on the soundtrack – as Bob has said, When the radio stations play all Bing Crosby Americans know it’s the end.  This is a rather obvious trope but is used to signify that the US military are really out of their depth. There’s a nicely mounted tension and the intermittent meetings between the US Ambassador and the nervy hard-drinking Ockham, with Shawn’s character providing a kind of Greek chorus, add to the sense of fear. Spooky to think that of the cast it’s Judi Dench who went from strength to strength while the marvellous Forrest has been more or less retired for decades. I haven’t seen him since he played in John Frankenheimer’s last movie 16 years ago, coincidentally another TV movie about Nam, Path to War. Now that is a real injustice. I miss him. George Fenton’s score is nicely understated.

 

The Night My Number Came Up (1955)

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They kept talking about the mainland.  They were in very heavy cloud.  It kept getting darker and darker … British Air Marshal Hardie (Michael Redgrave) is attending a party in Hong Kong when he hears of a dream, told by a pilot Commander Lindsay (Michael Hordern), in which Hardie’s flight to Tokyo on a small Dakota propeller plane crashes on a Japanese beach. Hardie dismisses the dream as pure fantasy, but while he is flying to Tokyo the next day, circumstances start changing to line up with the pilot’s vivid vision, including the plane they have to take and it looks like the dream disaster may become a reality… R. C. Sheriff’s screenplay is a game of two halves:  what happens in the first leg of the flight, when it doesn’t have quite the quota of components outlined by Lindsay;  but then the second leg has the flashy loudmouth businessman Bennett (George Rose) and all the fears of the passengers in the know about Lindsay’s prophetic dream start to manifest in their behaviour. Then they hit a storm, the wings ice up and they lose radio contact – and are to all intents and purposes lost. There are nice behavioural touches here, as people come to terms with their own beliefs in the supernatural or otherwise. There’s a nice ensemble including Ursula Jeans, Sheila Sim, Victor Maddern and Alfie Bass as a bolshie soldier. Director Leslie Norman found the original story, from the real-life journal of British Air Marshal Sir Victor Goddard in a 1951 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Ealing’s Michael Balcon wouldn’t let him write the script and turned it over to Sheriff whose efforts in the director’s opinion added nothing to the story. However the final twist is quite pleasing. Handled well. Almost as well as the flight itself!