Fragment of Fear (1970)

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She said no – “over my dead body”. Hence, her dead body. Tim Brett (David Hemmings) is a former drug addict who has written a book about his experience. He has been clean for about a year. He had recently become acquainted with his aunt Lucy (Flora Robson), a philanthropist who expresses interest in helping some of Tim’s former acquaintances. She is found murdered in Pompeii. Tim starts a relationship with Juliet Bristow (Gayle Hunnicutt), the woman who found his aunt’s body, and they are soon engaged. When the police investigation stalls,  Tim begins to ask questions of some of his aunt’s acquaintances who are all in a seaside care home. He then begins to receive warnings from unknown persons to stop his inquiries. He meets an elderly woman on the train. She hands him a note of supposed comfort, asking him to read it at home. The note turns out to be a warning about leaving matters to the police, apparently typed on his own typewriter. There’s also an ominous laugh recorded on Tim’s own tape recorder, indicating that someone was in his flat. Tim is then visited by a police sergeant, Sgt. Matthews (Derek Newark), who informs him that the woman on the train had lodged a complaint against Tim. After the woman is also killed, Tim finds out that there is no sergeant by that name working at the police station. He is then assaulted on the streets at night by two men who leave him lying on the ground with a hypodermic needle. Tim throws the needle down a gutter. He makes contact with a secret government agency which tells him that they are after the people who are threatening him, but all is – again – not what it seems to be and Tim and Juliet’s wedding fast approaches… Paul Dehn’s adaptation of John Bingham’s novel is interesting on a number of levels:  the performances of Hemmings and Hunnicutt, who were married at the time;  and the allusions to the government agency because Bingham was acknowledged as the model for George Smiley. Then there’s Yootha Joyce, forever trapped as Mildred in TV’s George and Mildred, here she’s truly sinister as the nasty proprietress of the old folk’s home where all manner of viciousness is evident. Hemmings is fine as the apparently delusional addict. He was a charismatic actor and such a beautiful icon of the mid-Sixties and the counter culture it’s hard to recall his fading from the scene to production and TV directing with anything other than regret:  this, after all, is the little boy singer who inspired Benjamin Britten to write Miles in The Turn of the Screw and the young man who brought Antonioni to decadent Swinging London for Blow-Up.  This outing is far more conventional genre material, but fascinating nonetheless for the central couple’s interactions and ideas about paranoid conspiracies, soon to be a ‘thing’ in cinema. There’s a terrific supporting cast including Mona Washbourne, Arthur Lowe, Daniel Massey, Adolfo Celi, Roland Culver and Wilfrid Hyde-White. Directed by Richard  C. Sarafian (who had worked with Hunnicutt on the previous year’s Eye of the Cat) who keeps the psychological issues on the boil, this has an astonishing jazz score by Johnny Harris which would be used to advertise Levis in the 90s in a memorable Kung Fu scenario by Jonathan Glazer. Shot by Oswald Morris.

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The Constant Gardener (2005)

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This is one we can save.  Assigned to a new post, reserved British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) relocates to Kenya with his new wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an activist for social justice. She is engaged on a hunt for the people behind a Big Pharma test of a dangerous AIDS drug being conducted on expendable local TB sufferers.  Her own child is born dead in an African hospital and a young girl in a neighbouring bed dies after taking the drug. When Tessa is found murdered out in the wilderness, circumstances point to her friend, Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), who has been agitating for the truth with her, but it is soon clear that he’s not the killer. Grief-stricken and angry, Justin sets out to uncover who is responsible for Tessa’s murder and in the process, he unearths some disturbing revelations – including that some of his cohorts in Government might be behind it. He also really discovers the woman he married … John le Carré is a remarkable novelist:  for five decades he has been writing books that point the finger through the prism of genre and in the Noughties he decided to take aim at the self-appointed God-like pharmaceutical companies that dominate so much of contemporary existence – and survival – and the countries whose internecine deals allow them to kill their own at will. Jeffrey Caine does a great job at filleting the story so it’s clear who the bad guys are – there are degrees of grotesquery here and it’s certainly not kind on African savagery either. A horrifying tale of corruption that, knowing its author, is all too true. Terrifically performed by the leads with good support from Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Huston. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. No drug company does something for nothing.

It (2017)

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Aka It:  Chapter One. Go blow your dad you mullet-wearing asshole. Stephen King’s 1986 novel gets the big screen treatment here after a 1990 TV two-parter that has a fond place in many people’s memories.  It sticks with the first part of the novel – the kids’ experiences, and moves them forward, to the late Eighties. In 1988 Derry, Maine, little Georgie sails his  paper boat and it floats down a drain in a rainstorm and he is pulled in by Pennywise the Clown, becoming one of the town’s many missing kids. When school’s out next summer his older brother Bill sets out to find him with a bunch of other kids who all have their issues:  big mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, germophobe Stan, overweight newbie Ben, pretty Bev (the subject of false sex rumours) and black home-schooled Mike.  They are the Losers Club and have various problems with the parental figures in their lives. Ben’s research in the library proves that Derry has a very high mortality rate particularly when it comes to kids and every 27 years this demonic shapeshifting character manifests through their fears when he reappears to feed. But in the midst of their search they have to avoid the Bowers Gang, horrible greasers who violently terrorise them as they search the area’s sewers to find the centre of Pennywise’s hellish underground activities … Part of why this works so well is that the kids are taken seriously and their problems in the world are immense:  we’re talking child abuse and Munchausen by proxy, to name but two. We feel for them because they are fully rounded characters who have legitimate reason to fear grown ups. A clown in the sewers is as nothing compared to Dad waiting in the hallway to feel you up. It’s a perfectly judged drama. Another reason this works is because it inhabits familiar territory for many of us who recall Spielberg films of the era – the sight of a squad of boys on bikes recalls ET – and the King drama Stand By Me which was so iconic and one that also treats its protagonists respectfully. We also think about The Goonies:  the spirit of adventure is overwhelmingly attractive despite the dangers to this bunch of nerds and scaredy cats.  The Netflix show Stranger Things is an overt homage to all of these, mixing up the paranormal, horror and nostalgia for thirty years ago and the presence of cool girl Winona Ryder is such a plus.  Adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman;  directed by Andy Muschietti who gives the scenes equal weight and doesn’t give into the massive temptation to exaggerate the horror element, allowing each character to fully blossom. This is a coming of age story with panache and clowns and a wonderful ensemble of wholly believable kids and Bill Skarsgard donning the whiteface. Personally I can’t wait for part two set 27 years from 1989 when It reappears: wouldn’t it be really meta to cast Molly Ringwald as the adult incarnation of the Molly Ringwald lookalike? Awesome idea!

Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

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The Sutton family headed by sadistic and conventional middle class pharmacist father Mervyn Johns lead a stultifying and cruel Victorian existence;  innkeeper’s wife Googie Withers plots a way out of her nasty marriage by luring the oppressed younger Sutton (Gordon Jackson) into a friendship that will gain her access to his poisons and frame him for her husband’s murder while she carries on with her lover. This airless drama has much to recommend it in terms of setting – there are some rare scenes between gossiping women at the Oyster Bar – and performance, especially Withers, whose fabulous face and figure scream sex. However its emphasis on the unfortunate children of Johns, including an ambitious daughter who wants to make her way as a concert singer, somewhat dissolves the drama’s potential. It’s difficult to believe that Withers will give up as easily as she does – Johns simply doesn’t possess that kind of power outside the four walls of his home. Nonetheless, it was the wonderful Robert Hamer’s atmospheric debut and we love his films, don’t we?  It’s a fairly damning take on 1880s standards. Adapted from Roland Pertwee’s play by Diana Morgan. An Ealing production. And for trivia fans, yes, Roland was the father of Jon Pertwee, some people’s best ever Dr Who!

 

The Dressmaker (2015)

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Tone is a hard thing to pull off in a movie. Black comedy is probably the  most difficult of all but when it works it’s rewarding. This starts like a western with a train pulling into a wretched early Fifties Outback town of shacks and small minds but instead of a gunslinger or a sheriff disembarking it’s a dressmaker: her weapon of choice? A Singer sewing machine. The music underlines our anticipation of tumbleweed blowing through the unmarked streets. It’s rare enough to hear the names Vionnet or Balenciaga but in this context it’s disturbing. Kate Winslet is Tilly Dunnage, newly returned from Paris by way of Spain and London and Italy. “Why would a beautiful and clever girl like you come back here?” an old crone neighbour asks her. Turns out she was banished as a young girl, accused of murdering a boy whom we see in flashbacks. She has no recollection of killing him and her alkie mother Molly (Judy Davis) engages in verbal fisticuffs with her about that and everything else as Tilly cleans her up, gets a shedload of clients and changes the way all the women dress; the policeman (Hugo Weaving) apologises for sending her away while testing her textiles; a rival dressmaker turns up halfway through; and a sexy neighbour Teddy  (Liam Hemsworth) makes a relationship possible, if only temporarily. This is a compelling revenge western, with Winslet relishing the possibilities of the femme fatale/sharpsewer in this genre-busting adaptation of  Rosalie Ham’s novel  by director Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan. Laughs are to be had at the effect of a great dress on an Aussie Rules game, a screening of Sunset Blvd., the Cinderella transformation of Gertrude (Sarah Snook) into ‘Trudy’ and a supreme act of sabotage. A dish best served cold, performed with great galloping gusto by all concerned.