They Met in the Dark (1943)

They Met in the Dark

Aka Dark End. An old friend of mine. Met him this morning. When Navy Commander Richard Heritage (James Mason) is cashiered by Commander Lippinscott (David Farrar) after accidentally revealing important manoeuvres during World War 2 because he’s been framed by Nazi spies, he recalls how his troubles began.  He sets out to clear his name by seeking out Mary (Patricia Medina) the Blackpool-based manicurist with the charm bracelet who set him up by stealing Allied secrets for a ring of Fifth Columnists led by theatrical agent Christopher Child (Tom Walls). But she is found dead at the rural cottage of two old mariners by their niece Laura Verity (Joyce Howard) who’s visiting from Canada.  When Richard shows up looking for Mary they immediately suspect each other and wind up in the local police station. The pair’s stories are not believed by police and they team up, on and off, as well as trying to avoid each other, criss-crossing the country to uncover the involvement of several of the agency’s performers including The Great Riccardo (Karel Stepanek) who are part of a well run organisation communicating in musical notes … I’m in command again tonight. Brittle dialogue, charming actors and a narrative regularly interrupted by song performances make this a quaint excursion into wartime espionage activities in that unique Venn diagram crossover area of showbiz and the British Navy with an almost satirical edge. It’s overly long and rather uneven in mood but the shifts from dangerous to jaunty are so much fun as they seem to forget the plot and go up another entertaining alley that you’ll enjoy the variety, from the monocled Fritz Lang-a-like farceur Walls essaying his Nazi agent; to an occasionally dubiously motivated Mason and very charismatic and resourceful Howard who make for a Hitchockian couple in a film that has several scenes harking back to both The Lady Vanishes and The Thirty Nine Steps with a very effective scene in a tunnel. Phyllis Stanley has some rare lines as singer Lily Bernard and there’s a terrific ensemble to enliven the action. You’ll forget about Mason’s comedy beard which is cleverly (and thankfully) removed in the second scene in the hotel spa where the suspense plot all begins. Fun, with a cast list as long as your arm to the extent that the opening credits conclude etc etc etc.  Adapted from Anthony Gilbert’s novel The Vanished Corpse with a screenplay by Basil Bartlett, Anatole de Grunwald, Victor MacLure, Miles Malleson and James Seymour. Directed by Karel Lamac. She’s not just a starstruck young girl, you know

Genesis P-Orridge 22nd February 1950 – 14th March 2020

Farewell to provocateur, artist, composer and all-round avant garde industrial pioneer Genesis P-Orridge, late of COUM Transmissions, Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV.

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?

Simon and Laura (1955)

Simon and Laura alt

I have acted with octogenarians, dipsomaniacs, dope-fiends, amnesiacs, and veteran cars. When television producers select warring married actors Simon Foster (Peter Finch) and his wife Laura (Kay Kendall), to be the subjects of a live television series documenting a completely happy marriage, they appear to be the perfect choice by chirpy producer David Prentice (Ian Carmichael) but they’re only chosen because the Oliviers aren’t available. On camera, the couple is caring and supportive of each other in the daily one-hour long show. In reality their relationship is rocky but because the show is a hit, Simon and Laura try to keep up the facade until cracks start to surface and romantic complications with the production staff threaten to upset the publicity machine and finally they go off-script on live TV … Do you know what happens when you allow yourself to be regularly exhibited in that glass rectangle? As a response to the incoming threat of TV which was more than existential but factual with the introduction of a new independent channel in addition to BBC, this adaptation of Alan Melville’s stage play by Peter Blackmore elides the situation into a marital farce in which the battling opposites learn to live with one another. The running joke about scripted reality shows is surprisingly pertinent today. See that the script stresses the solidarity of the home. Even what once was called a public intellectual, in the shape of journalist and commentator Gilbert Harding, makes an appearance, describing the dangers inherent in appearing on television:  the  reflexive ironies proliferate.  I find the rapier thrust of Madam’s conversation highly stimulating! The inimitably elegant Kendall is perfectly cast and gets a few barbs that recall her real-life (as it were) career as well as having some opportunities for slapstick antics; while Muriel Pavlow is terrific as the show’s scriptwriter Janet Honeyman, in an engaging cast filled with familiar faces like Richard Wattis, Thora Hird and Alan Wheatley. Finch is good in his first leading role in a British film as the put-upon middle-aged hubby who thinks it’s all rather beneath him but he’s almost upstaged by the obnoxious know it all kid (Clive Parritt) playing his TV son. Television? You call that a wonderful job? Three weeks’ rehearsal, not enough money to cover your bus fares out to Lime Grove, technical breakdown in your one big scene, and no repeat performance? No, thank you. (The line about the Oliviers must have been a little odd for him to hear after his affair with Vivien Leigh). A terrific satirical premise that blends Taming of the Shrew with the growing pains of TV, played at a rate of knots. Great fun. Directed by Muriel Box with beautiful production design by Carmen Dillon and costumes by Julie Harris. We’ll mirror the lives of an ordinary, happily married husband and wife!

 

Hot Air (2019)

Hot Air

Power down people. The American Dream is dead and buried. You’re dancing on its grave. Conservative radio host Lionel Macomb (Steve Coogan) spends his days broadcasting on hot button topics.  His life is completely turned upside down when his 16-year-old niece Tess (Taylor Russell) suddenly shows up, her addict mom, Lionel’s sister, Laurie (Tina Benko) in rehab. His long-suffering girlfriend Valerie Gannon (Neve Campbell) takes her under her wing but the teenager questions everything Lionel stands for and what he believes in while he is in a ratings war with his protegé and rival Gareth Whitley (Skylar Astin) whom Tess unwittingly assists …  My job is to make fools look foolish. Steve Coogan’s radio host is a long way from his legendary smug idiot Alan Partridge and yet they have something of a cousinly relationship – a guy who is so cocooned in his beliefs he can’t see the wood for the trees. He needs to be taught a lesson and it comes in the clichéd. form of a relative (and a black one at that) he didn’t really know existed who gives him the opportunity to change a life he didn’t know needed any alteration. Indeed, he has some self-knowledge but what he lacks is sentiment and his unresolved issues from growing up orphaned then abandoned by his feckless older sister have supposedly produced what one protester (and former employee) describes as toxic talk. What does he need to do? He needs to listen. It’s smooth and there are some zingers but it’s not really surprising in terms of linking the personal and the political: the idea that all conservative talk show hosts require is a happy childhood and good parenting to make them decent human beings is a rather naïve skew on the rationale for contemporary partisanship. Right wings hosts using the echo chamber of the airwaves as therapy? If you like:  this just doesn’t have the courage of its convictions, if it has any at all. Written by Will Reichel and directed by Frank Coraci. You become the thing you’re running from

 

Micki + Maude (1984)

Micki and Maude

I’m so hung over my head feels like a tuning fork. TV reporter Rob Salinger (Dudley Moore) desperately wants to be a father but his ambitious lawyer wife Micki (Ann Reinking) wants to be a judge and hasn’t time for a baby just now. When Rob has an affair with beautiful cellist Maude (Amy Irving) she shocks him when she informs him she’s pregnant and he determines to divorce Micki. But at the dinner he’s arranged to break the bad news Micki announces she’s finally pregnant and has to be on bed rest for the duration of the pregnancy.  Rob doesn’t want to ruin things so he marries Maude, pretending that he’s divorced Micki and lives with both women bigamously until their anticipated due dates coincide and they give birth in neighbouring suites at the same hospital … When Daddy retires he’s going to take up decorating full time. Blake Edwards’ marital comedy is heartwarming and funny and depends upon his usual quotient of farce although that is mostly confined to the final trimester of this battle of the sexes outing. John Pleshette is Rob’s TV director, looking and sounding not a little unlike Edwards himself;  Edwards’ ensemble regular Richard Mulligan plays Rob’s best friend, his TV producer; Wallace Shawn is a doctor; and there’s a wonderful Meet the Parents sequence when Rob is introduced to Maude’s father, Barkhas Guillory (H.B. Haggerty) a mean-looking wealthy wrestler who’s surrounded by much bigger colleagues like André the Giant. And he wants to buy the couple a house in the Hollywood Hills that he plans to decorate himself. In a film that could be purely stereotypical, this is turning some tropes upside down. And, in time-honoured fashion befitting a comedy expert, Edwards brings it all to a very satisfying, sincere conclusion, helped by Moore’s sweet performance as the politest bigamist in town. Great fun. Written by Jonathan Reynolds. It won’t get the fat gene

State Secret (1950)

State Secret larger

Aka The Great Manhunt. It’s very gratifying to think that a doctor can still perform a non-political operation. American doctor John Marlowe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) is visiting England when he is deployed to Vosnia, a small middle European country where people speak Esperanto. He finds that he is there to operate on the country’s dictator who dies during brain surgery but is replaced by a look-alike. As one of the few who know, Marlowe is hunted by the country’s secret police who are intent on shooting to kill because the dictator’s death must be kept secret. Marlowe flees and seeks the help of music hall performer Lisa Robinson (Glynis Johns). They blackmail Balkan smuggler Karl Theodor (Herbert Lom) into helping them. Pursued across the country, they are on the point of escaping when Karl is shot and killed and Lisa is wounded. Marlowe could escape without her but remains. Government minister Colonel Galcon (Jack Hawkins) arranges a ‘shooting accident’ for Marlowe but as Marlowe walks to his fate, the false dictator’s speech is being broadcast on the radio. Shots are heard and Galcon confirms that the stand-in has been assassinated and realises that it may all be over for him … Have you changed your mind?/No, I’ve just lost it. Loosely adapted from a Roy Huggins novel by director Sidney Gilliat, this is a cracking thriller as you’d expect from one of the writing team (with producer Frank Launder) behind Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich It’s nicely shot by Robert (The Third Man) Krasker who has fun at the start with some point of view shots underscoring Fairbanks’ narration and Trento and the Dolomites make great locations although the locals weren’t too happy during production with post-war communist feelings at fever pitch. The suspense quotient is upped by a superior score from William Alwyn. The version of Esperanto here is made up of Latin and Slavic languages but the universal language is thrills and it has more of those when Johns joins the chase 45 minutes in and Lom cracks wise as the shyster because Fairbanks is a fairly flavourless lead. Every time I have a haircut I’ll be thinking of you

Climax (2018)

Climax

I’m so happy. I couldn’t be happier. Winter 1996. A French street dance troupe led by Selva (Sofia Boutella) and Lou (Souheila Yacoub) is rehearsing at an empty boarding school in the middle of a forest on the eve of a tour.  LSD-laced sangria apparently made by their manager Emmanuelle (Claudia Gajan Maull) causes their jubilant after-party to descend into a dark and explosive nightmare as they try to survive the night – and find out who’s responsible – before it’s too late and they become even more animalistic… No need to do it all right now.  Argentinian-French controversialist Gaspar Noé’s dance film straddles wild and violent horror and thriller tropes, more or less riffing on ideas about creation (followed by swift destruction), while also indulging his largely unprofessional acting cast in improvisational techniques that devolve into highly sexualised discussions.  This is a low-budget production made quickly and chronologically and without scripted dialogue, located in one set.  There are several uninterrupted takes, the lengthiest of which lasts 42 minutes, strikingly shot by Benoît Debie who also worked on Enter the Void. The opening scene – blood on snow – is fantastically drawn, a painterly portent of what’s to come in three chapters, Birth is a Unique Opportunity, Life is a Collective Impossibility and Death is an Extraordinary Experience, split more or less between the performing first half to the after effects and the horrendous comedown. Based on an incident that actually befell a group of French dancers in the 90s, the excesses are all the director’s own blend of hysteria and provocation in an immersive trip to Acid Hell – with a techno soundtrack. Probably the oddest musical ever made, welcome to the crazy, pulsating, sensory inferno that is other people and their micro-dosing, graphically illustrating the very thin veneer of civility that protects us from each other. I don’t want to end up like Christiane F, you know?

Whitney (2018)

Whitney 2018

Her parents were preparing her for legacy music. Kevin Macdonald’s documentary about Whitney Houston was made with the co-operation of her family and is executive produced by her agent Nicole David, one of several associates interviewed here, and he has access to the music, so it’s a different creature to Nick Broomfield’s film on the subject, Whitney:  Can I Be Me. Macdonald admirably makes this a story of a time and place by dint of regular montages placing us in a year – culturally, socially, politically – with news and current affairs footage and symbols giving a firm context. And it’s jarring to hear Houston’s brother tell us how she got her name – their mother, the famous backing singer Cissy Houston, liked ‘a white sitcom’ on TV so named her for the actress Whitney Blake. Racism of all kinds looms large in this story. Newsreel footage of the Newark riots and the bodies of black men killed by the police remind us of what life was like for black people in New Jersey in the Sixties. Her father John is called both a dealmaker and a hustler, a man who gained powerful status in local circles, and he nicknamed their light-skinned daughter ‘Nippy’ because she was a beautiful but tricky child, and she was bullied in the neighbourhood. She sang in the church choir and sometimes sang backup for her mother who was trying to launch a solo career that didn’t take off. When her parents divorced following her mother’s affair with their church pastor, Whitney left home as soon as possible and moved in with her friend Robyn Crawford who she had met aged 16. Her brothers were aware that Robyn was a Lesbian. One interviewee says that these days Whitney’s sexuality would be designated ‘fluid’ while her longtime hairdresser and friend Ellin Lavar says Houston loved sex, with both men and women and discussed it with her to an embarrassing degree. Whitney modelled but soon sang on her own and two big labels courted her and she signed with Arista’s Clive Davis. He announced her to the world on the Merv Griffin Show and the footage of her singing Home from The Wiz is spinetingling. It is used on the audio track later in a different context in the film, to chilling effect. One contributor talks about the issue of ‘double consciousness’ – the problem that a black entertainer has in having to satisfy a white country and a black world, but in this context it could also refer to Houston’s sexuality and the difference between being Nippy and being Whitney, a stage character. Macdonald does not shirk from the role of the black community – divided on colour lines of its own – and the pressure it exerted on Houston directly or otherwise. In the Eighties, Rev. Al Sharpton appeared in front of her venues with signs calling her ‘Whitey’ Houston (ironically his TV condolences are aired when her death is announced); and of course there is the infamous incident at the 1989  Soul Train awards when the audience booed her – presumably for not being black enough, for having sold out, for singing pop and being brilliant at it. She was asked in an interview why she thought it might have happened – and she claimed she didn’t know. It was the kind of bullying that had provoked her parents into sending her to a private Catholic school in the first place. That was the night she met bad boy (and acceptably black soul singer) Bobby Brown – the ghetto type the Houstons had wanted to keep her away from – and the conclusion is that the couple who would marry and have a child were mutually co-dependent. As her star rose with The Bodyguard, his could never hope to meet it, a year after she had performed The Star-Spangled Banner at the Superbowl, an appearance that still stuns the viewer and nailed her ability and popularity simultaneously when the US was at peak patriotism following the Gulf War. Her Bodyguard co-star, Kevin Costner, was proud of the fact that their interracial kiss was such a significant shot in the film – pointing out the 180 degree camera move, replayed here. (How odd that thirty-plus years after Island in the Sun this should still be a contentious point [and odder still that when he gave a eulogy at her funeral his entrance was greeted with booing by the black attendees – not something mentioned here]. Odder still to a white viewer is Lavar saying that she and Houston were afraid of making the film because they were so outnumbered in the middle of ‘all these white people’:  racism is a beat constantly underpinning the narrative.) She was a good actress. I always used to tell them, Whitney’s in there somewhere. But she’s trapped. That film and the theme song I Will Always Love You (written by Dolly Parton) made her a global superstar:  she is shown being comforted by Nelson Mandela when she gave the first concerts in South Africa after he came to power.  She could find nuance in songs that even the writers didn’t know was there. That record got a British woman gaoled for a week when she drove her neighbours nuts playing it 24/7. An Arab version played endlessly on his campaign trail propelled Saddam Hussein to power. When Brown is asked directly by Macdonald about Houston’s drug use he refuses to discuss it – and perhaps given that it was her own brothers (two full, more half-) who admit introducing her to drugs when she was still a child, he has a point, despite the tabloid headlines about their married lifestyle and on-camera evidence produced here about their home lives (which they eagerly broadcast in their horrifying reality TV show). About two-thirds of the way through the film is the big revelation: her brother Michael volunteers the idea that it’s something in a person’s childhood that drives them to drug use and declares that as a boy he was abused by a female relative. Then Whitney’s aunt says the singer revealed her own experience to her of abuse by the same woman when they were discussing their daughters – this is supposedly why Whitney was afraid to leave Bobbi Kristina (called Krissie) at home while she toured:  the same female relative was her cousin Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s sister, another singer). Dee Dee is shown in TV clips from the Sixties, a dour-looking heavy-browed character. Bizarrely, Houston is pictured in one home movie lying on a bed under a huge photo of the sinister woman. For all her concerns about her own daughter, Krissie was an unstable cocaine addict by 18 and in and out of rehab, unsurprisingly given what family and friends say she was growing up around [and her own dreadful death, replicating her mother’s, is recounted here]. Houston made a lot of magazine headlines (the National Enquirer alone was running almost weekly updates for a decade) for her drug use; and many more complications arose from 1999 onwards when she signed a $100 million contract for new recordings. By that point she knew her father and accountant had been robbing her blind and her father then sued her – for $100 million. Once her father had taken over managing her there were many members of her family riding the gravy train, other than her mother and Robyn, who was invited to tender her resignation, a decision Whitney endorsed, despite the fact that Robyn had been doing her best to protect her from the sharks throughout her career. I don’t think she knew the layers being created by others. After an excruciating performance in honour of fellow fame victim Michael Jackson, a car crash interview with Diane Sawyer did not help. She had to quit rehab after 8 months because the money ran out. Then there was appalling evidence of her drug-ravaged singing voice in mobile phone footage of one of her last concerts, with one concert goer offering that a dead rat would have performed better. Years were spent pointlessly attempting to record new music, recalled with tragic diplomacy by the producer Joseph Arbagey, who remembers her disappearing for weeks at a time behind her hotel room door and returning emaciated.  Many millions of dollars were expended on the fruitless project. No longer fit to perform, she was given a lifeline in a remake of the movie Sparkle, a lodestone film from her childhood that had starred Irene Cara. She played the mother. Her agent says that Whitney had been clean throughout the production and didn’t go home for three or four days after the job was done but at the time she wasn’t aware of it until her driver told her Whitney simply didn’t board the flight and eventually asked him to drive her cross-country to her home. Her agent refers to it as ‘that hole’ in Atlanta.  We don’t need to be told what followed. Despite the access, the film still feels curiously incomplete, as if the dots have not been joined: sex abuse, parental ambition and divorce, drugs, Lesbianism, being a light-skinned black in a community divided, being a black singer performing pop songs better than anyone ever had. Cause and effect are not entirely or convincingly linked. Perhaps because this is the official version, unlike Broomfield’s, who talked to Robyn. Or perhaps because the person at its centre had stopped doing what she was good at long before her incredible demise in a bathtub in a Hollywood hotel while her aunt went out to get her donuts with sprinkles and found her dead when she returned just thirty minutes later, as she tells us. The camera enters the hotel room and tracks into the bathroom where Houston was discovered face down in the water. Graced with the voice of an angel in the body of a beautiful black woman exploited by all the people she trusted most in a divided industry produced in a divided country, this biography is a tale of total tragedy, something that regularly occurs in the music business but it’s a story that shows absolutely nobody in a good light, not even Houston herself. It was in every sense a life half-lived. Whitney Houston died 11 February 2012. I’m pissed off. And people think that it’s so damn easy

Legal Eagles (1986)

Legal Eagles

Objection, your honour. The defence has just fondled one of the jurors. Divorced New York City assistant District Attorney Tom Logan (Robert Redford) is busy alternately fighting and flirting with his defence lawyer adversary Laura Kelly (Deborah Winger) and her unpredictable artist client Chelsea Deardon (Daryl Hannah) who is on trial for a murder she did not commit and wraps Tom around her little finger as the case against her builds … I’m not going to lose him. Where is he? Truly a star vehicle from writer/director Ivan Reitman with Redford in his once-a-decade comedy but armed with a really good supporting cast too including Brian Dennehy, Terence Stamp, Christine Baranski and Davids Clennon and Hart. Styled as a Tracy-Hepburn battle of the sexes comedy it lacks the quickfire dialogue you’d expect and Winger plays her role kind of soft but Redford is really charming. The leads are slightly overwhelmed by Hannah, cast on point as the kooky performance artist in a story which recalls the scandal that descended upon the estate of Mark Rothko. The screenplay is by Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr., that powerhouse screenwriting partnership, from a story by Reitman and the screenwriters. It’s a bit overloaded for such lightweight fun but it does have a lovely sense of NYC and if you look quickly you’ll see a bottle of Newman’s Own salad dressing on Winger’s dining table. Do you always cross-examine people?/Only when they lie to me