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 occasional 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

Mapplethorpe (2018)

Mapplethorpe

The shy pornographer. After he bails on the Pratt Institute, horrifying his conservative family, Robert Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) leaves for New York City where he lives on the wild side and teams up with another wannabe artist, Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón).  They set up home together at the Chelsea Hotel where they discover their artistic abilities and dream together. However Mapplethorpe is gay and Smith disappears to enjoy a hetero marriage when she is supplanted by curator and collector Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) who takes Mapplethorpe as one of his lovers.  He becomes his benefactor and backer and shows him some nineteenth century photographs that open up Mapplethorpe to the possibilities of the medium, having two exhibitions simultaneously, one high-art, one erotic, showing both sides of his artistry. A symbiotic relationship is born, albeit Mapplethorpe continues to party and sleep around as his success grows. He falls for black model Milton Moore (McKinlay Belcher III) but when Milton finds his diaries he believes he’s being used fetishistically and abandons him. Mapplethorpe’s lifestyle verges on the reckless, between sex and drugs, but he is now famous and celebrated.  His younger brother Edward (Brandon Sklenar) whom he barely knows is training in the technical side of the medium and joins him as his assistant.  When Edward displays his own talent, Mapplethorpe doesn’t want the competition and tells him to stop using the family name. Wagstaff has AIDS but Mapplethorpe refuses to be tested. When he is dying, Patti visits. He gets Edward to take one more photograph of him… I’m an artist. I would have been a painter, but the camera was invented. Luckily for me. Unsurprisingly considering the subject matter and the fact that this was made in co-operation with the Mapplethorpe Foundation, this contains an array of graphic and pornographic images, all by Mapplethorpe himself.  That’s only disconcerting when Matt Smith is in the same scene as Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits. The value here is not intrinsic in the dramatic exposition but in the ideas it espouses and the path it traces as Mapplethorpe finds his medium – from drawing and making jewellery to figuring out that his narcissism offered a view on masculinity previously unexplored (or exposed in public). You’re the Jekyll and Hyde of photography. He’s not an easy character to portray or to like because his essence lies in provocation and attention-seeking and Smith’s performance is not terribly convincing in a role that is better written than it is acted. Nor does the script deal with the essential lesson that this is a man who knew he wouldn’t live long and was prepared to die for his art. Beauty and the Devil are sort of the same thing to me. The relationship with Patti Smith doesn’t quite ring true either.  The film is about how photography evolved as Mapplethorpe’s own high-contrast signature developed – as he repeatedly says, Look at the blacks. It’s the revolution in image-making to replace the affect and emotion of painting that holds the eye. The context in which the drama is produced is a major factor in the narrative and the celebrities of the day become his models but NYC has cleaned up a lot since the filthy Seventies and if the Chelsea Hotel looks grimy enough for anyone and the spectre of AIDS haunts every frame a cleaned-up look still expresses a dispiriting social scene. The chronological approach that dogs biographical film drama doesn’t add a lot here but the punctuation – setting up famous photographs and then showing the real thing – is a useful technique of juxtaposition that adds to the tension of creation:  these pictures still manage to shock, captivate and provoke. Mapplethorpe died thirty-one years ago this week. Directed by Ondi Timoner (on Kodak film) from a screenplay co-written with Mikko Alanne, based on a screenplay by Bruce Goodrich. They call it playing chicken with the avant garde

Laura (1944)

Laura

I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom. Manhattan Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder by shotgun blast to the face of beautiful Madison Avenue advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) in her fashionable apartment. On the trail of her murderer, McPherson quizzes Laura’s arrogant best friend, acerbic gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) who mentored the quick, ambitious study; and her comparatively mild but slimy fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), the kept man of her chilly society hostess aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). As McPherson grows obsessed with the case, he finds himself falling in love with the dead woman, just like every other man who ever met her when suddenly, she reappears, and he finds himself investigating a very different kind of murder... I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes.  A rough around the edges cop falls in love with a dead woman who isn’t dead at all. What a premise! Vera Caspary’s novel (initially a play called Ring Twice for Laura) is the framework for one of the great Hollywood productions that started out under director Rouben Mamoulian who was fired and replaced by the producer, Otto Preminger. The screenplay is credited to Jay Dratler and Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt while Ring Lardner Jr. made uncredited contributions. I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor’s children devoured by wolves. The haunting musical theme complements the throbbing sexual obsession that drives the narrative, a study of mistaken identity on every level with a sort of necrophiliac undertaste. It’s a great showcase for the principals – Webb as the magnificently scathing epicene Lydecker (a part greatly expanded from the source material);  Tierney in the role that would become her trademark, a woman who couldn’t possibly live up to her reputation;  and Andrews, who would collaborate many times with his director as the schlub who refers to women as ‘dames’.  Few films boast this kind of dialogue, and so much of it: I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm. So many scenes stand out – not least McPherson’s first encounter with Lydecker, resplendent in his bathtub, typing out his latest delicious takedown; and, when McPherson wakes up to find Laura’s portrait has come to life, as in a dream. In case you’re wondering, in a film that should have a warning about exchanges as sharp as carving knives, this is where Inspector Clouseau got his most famous line: I suspect nobody and everybody. The portrait at the centre of the story is an enlarged photo of Tierney enhanced by oils; while the theme by David Raksin (composed over a weekend with the threat of being fired by Twentieth Century Fox otherwise) quickly became a standard and with lyrics by Johnny Mercer a hit song by everyone who recorded it. The cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is good enough to eat. A film for the ages that seethes with sexuality of all kinds. Simply sublime. You’d better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll finish up in a psychiatric ward. I doubt they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse

5 Flights Up (2014)

5 Flights Up

Aka Ruth & Alex; Life Itself. Who’d have thought that the whole of my life’s work is worth less than the room it was painted in? After forty years in the same building, ageing retired couple former teacher Ruth (Diane Keaton) and artist Alex Carver (Morgan Freeman) can’t manage the stairs very well any more so they put their Brooklyn apartment on the market using her realtor niece Lilly (Cynthia Nixon). As people pass through the property they think about what has happened there over the years and its significance to their relationship. When it looks like they have a viable offer, they visit a few places themselves and feel compelled to bid on one immediately; their dog Dorothy has to be taken to the veterinarian but Alex is initially reluctant to pay for the surgery she requires to repair a ruptured disc; a terrorist story in the area is unfolding on the TV … Do we really want someone like her living here? Adapted by Charlie Peters from Heroic Measures, a novel by Jill Ciment, Richard Loncraine directs two of the best actors of their generation sensitively and with a lot of humour so in spite of the ticking clock motif on the real estate deal this becomes a rumination on life, love, marriage and community and the stuff that really matters but it’s not exactly gentle. It touches on issues of race and society without making huge drama out of them:  the TV story about the alleged terrorist provides some opportune comments about prejudice. There are nice bits with the same people showing up at the different open houses so that mini-storylines run under the main narrative. It’s mellow entertainment with a resolution that isn’t terribly surprising but wraps things up satisfyingly. Maybe views are for younger people who still have things to look at

Out of Blue (2019)

Out of Blue

Can you explain your place in the universe? When well-connected black hole expert and astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) is found shot at a New Orleans Observatory, police detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) is put in charge of the investigation and questions her co-worker, observatory manager Professor Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) and her teaching colleague boyfriend Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors). When she encounters Jennifer’s father Colonel Tom Rockwell (James Caan) she finds an intimidating figure, a well-known local businessman, famous soldier and POW who walks on a cane. His wife Miriam (Jacki Weaver) is a fidgeting fusspot, the twin sons Walt and Bray (Brad and Todd Mann) argumentative and odd. Their office is dominated by a family portrait. Similarities are noted by her colleague Aaron Tevit (Tony Silvero) and reporter Stella Honey (Devyn A. Tyler) with the unsolved murders of other blonde thirtysomething women from decades earlier where items were exchanged with the victims. Mike pursues the idea that Tom might have been responsible but then it becomes clear that Jennifer killed herself. When Mike finds a familiar brooch among Jennifer’s collection of vintage clothes and costume jewellery questions of the cosmos start to inform the solution … The catastrophic death of a star brings new life to the universe. We are all stardust.  This adaptation of Martin Amis’ 1997 genre novel Night Train has some changes but mostly it bears the marks of writer/director Carol Morley, a singular talent who likes to compose a flat frame with just enough textural detail to suggest complexity, a taste that lends itself perfectly to this atmospheric thriller which shows a less travelled side of New Orleans. Mike is a troubled former alcoholic with a spare lifestyle; while Jennifer’s home is filled with nick nacks and her recorded talks anchor the narrative:  We spend our lives trying to get to the heart of this dark energy. It’s other people who point to the clues in the past – a TV journalist and another police officer. The similarities to the .38 caliber gun murders are inescapable – the victims are all blonde and of a certain age and the killings stopped when Jennifer was born. The intriguing use of imagery – not just fetish objects like blue marbles, a pot of handcream, but the confusion as to whether Mike is fantasising, dreaming or even remembering – is conjoined with the theme of the stars and their influence. And with a hint of Chinatown hanging over a story about family and power, there’s a cute reference when Miriam leaps into Mike’s police car and pulls her nose: You know what happens to very nosy people?  They lose their noses! We are reminded of Polanski. The narrative raises questions about how society deals with war – just what kind of man walks out of three years’ imprisonment a hero? Clarkson is great as this unconventional woman who lets loose in a strip club:  There’s many ways to be a woman. There are black holes in the story itself with a wry running joke about cats in boxes (and not just Schrödinger’s). In my experience usually what’s in a sealed box is dead. In the end, this is not just about the murder mystery, it’s about where we come from, who we are, what formed us and what happened to us. In that sense, the final sequence is truly a revelation of personal history in a unique procedural narrative which grapples with a bigger cosmic picture. Produced by Luc Roeg with a score by Clint Mansell. The past is messy

Torture Garden (1967)

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I am very well known for my excursions into the unexplored regions of the mind. If five visitors will pay extra, devilish sideshow carny torture act Mr Diablo (Burgess Meredith) promises people an insight into their real natures – violent, greedy and ghoulish – as they experience a taste of their future. Adapted by Robert Bloch from his own short stories, this contains four, plus a postscript, all directed by Freddie Francis in their fourth collaboration.  Look at the shears!  Enoch: Greedy playboy Colin Williams (Michael Bryant) takes advantage of his dying uncle Roger (Maurice Denham) and falls under the spell of Balthazar, a man-eating cat. Terror Over Hollywood:  Anyone who knows the titles of all the films I’ve made since 1950 deserves a break.  Starlet Carla Hayes (Beverly Adams) discovers her immortal celluloid co-star Bruce Benton (Robert Hutton) like all other movie stars is an android and the secret cannot be made public. Mr Steinway:  You really do love music, don’t you? A possessed grand piano called Euterpe becomes jealous if concert pianist owner Leo Winston’s (John Standing) new lover Dorothy Endicott (Barbara Ewing) and takes revenge. The Man Who Collected Poe:  He really was the greatest collector. He even collected Edgar Allan Poe himself.  Poe collector and obsessive Ronald Wyatt (Jack Palance) murders another collector Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing) over a very desirable item he refuses to show him only to find it is Poe (Hedger Wallace) himself...  These stories progressively improve with great production design, sharp narrative turns and surprises aplenty, until the masterful final Poe pastiche and an ingenious twist ending. A wonderfully spinechilling Amicus anthology practically perfect for Halloween. Produced by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg.

 

Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998) (TVM)

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I want to be loved. 1940s New York City: Jacqueline Susann (Michele Lee) is a second-string theatre actress and well-known party girl who turns to journalism following her marriage to press agent turned producer Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though constantly surrounded by the glitterati of the theatre and social scene she doesn’t achieve celebrity status herself and has to endure the tragedy of a brain-damaged son who has to be institutionalised. Then when she’s 47,  she publishes the raunchy bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls. Outwardly committed to publicising her work and involved in regular cross-country media campaigns, she privately battles cancer and constantly questions her troubled relationship with her society portraitist father Robert (Kenneth Welsh) who never got around to finishing her picture …  Everything I do is for you. Everything I make is for you. Treading much straighter territory than Isn’t She Great (the Bette Midler version) this adaptation by Michele Gallery of Barbara Seaman’s biography Lovely Me ironically strays indirectly and presumably unintentionally into camp now and then, and it doesn’t really do justice to the genius of its subject but Lee is excellent as this spiky confrontational woman who did things her own way. For anyone interested in the backstage antics of NYC’s post-war theatre scene with big personalities like Ethel Merman (Gloria Slade), the evolution of publishing and the making of the notorious film of Susann’s most famous novel with Barbara Parkins (Annie Laurie Williams), Patty Duke (Melanie Peterson) and the lovely Sharon Tate (Leila Johnson), there are residual attractions, but the drivers of this biopic are the private tragedies of the woman who revolutionised modern publishing by establishing her own critic-proof brand of sex and sass. Directed by Bruce McDonald. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you never stay in. My life is never going to be dull

American Animals (2018)

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You’re taught your entire life that what you do matters and that you’re special. In 2003 Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) are four friends who live an ordinary existence in Kentucky. Spencer is a budding artist and following his visit to the Special Collections room at Transylvania University in Lexington, he informs Lipka of the contents. Lipka comes up with the idea to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the school’s library:  it involves tying up the librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) and making off with the Audubon book, Birds of America, the most valuable one there. They lose their nerve at the first attempt which they prepare for by dressing up as old men. They plot a different approach for the second attempt. As one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history starts to unfold, the men question whether their attempts to inject excitement and purpose into their lives are simply misguided attempts at achieving the American dream and Spencer gave an auction house in NYC his real-life cell phone number with his dumb message on it … How can I tell you if I’m in or I’m out without telling me the first thing about what I might be in or out of.  Writer/director Bart Layton takes a true crime and spins it into something stylish but problematic, a treatise on all-American stupidity. Interviews with the real-life perpetrators, rather humbled after the fact, are interspersed with the narrative drama, which gives it a melancholy quality but the consequent issues in pacing don’t always lead to a pleasing viewing experience. It’s not set up correctly, working against any possibility of suspense. The second attempt at the heist is permitted to progress unimpeded by anything other than the protagonists’ staggering ineptitude. The outcome is inevitable and famous. The film does however blend fact and fiction and the interviews form a kind of Greek chorus, baiting us with the various points of view, Rashomon-like, and at one point even inserts Spencer into the action, albeit briefly. And it does boast Udo Kier in the cast. One day you’ll die

 

That Hamilton Woman (1941)

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Aka Lady Hamilton/The Enchantress.  They told us of your victories but not of the price you paid!  When small-town courtesan Emma Hart (Vivien Leigh) finds herself married off by her indebted uncle to British Ambassador to Naples, elderly widower Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), her world is turned upside down. Just as Emma is finally settling into her new life as Lady Hamilton, she meets British naval hero Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) who vociferously opposes Napoleon’s growing empire and the two fall madly in love. However, their forbidden romance is soon threatened by the ever-growing shadow of the Napoleonic Wars... What a century it’s been: Marlborough rode to war, and Washington crossed the Delaware. Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette. The last of the Stuarts. Peter the Great. Voltaire. Clive of India. Bonaparte. The framing story of this famous propaganda work created by producer/directorAlexander Korda is that of Emma Hamilton ensconced in debtor’s prison in France, regaling her incredulous fellow prisoners with her incredible life story and her grand romance. That this involved once notorious real-life lovers, then married couple, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier (reunited by Korda from Fire Over England), must have been catnip to audiences. Indeed the film’s tagline boasted,  The Year’s Most Exciting Team of Screen Lovers! Its role in attracting the US into a total war nobody wanted is debatable. In fact Korda was accused of espionage, a charge he only escaped because his hearing coincided with Pearl Harbour:  special relationship?! There are always men, who for the sake of their insane ambition, want to destroy what other people build. The screenplay by Walter Reisch and R.C. Sheriff (with two of Nelson’s speeches contributed by Winston Churchill) condenses a lot of historical material and Olivier is perhaps a bit too slow but this is compensated for with the range of emotions Leigh explores to charismatic effect. Shot in the US, it looks gorgeous courtesy of Rudolph Maté’s intricate cinematography and the sumptuous design by Vincent Korda and Lyle Wheeler, with beautiful costuming by René Hubert,  while the romantic score is composed by Miklós Rózsa. There is no ‘then’. There is no ‘after’

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

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Do you remember, Clive, we used to say: ‘Our army is fighting for our homes, our women, and our children’? General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), who’s overseeing an English squad of the Home Guard in 1943, is a veteran leader who doesn’t have the respect of the men he’s training and is considered an old duffer who’s out of touch with what’s needed to win the war. But it wasn’t always this way. Flashing back to his early career in the Boer War and World War I, we see a dashing young officer whose life has been shaped by three different women (all played by Deborah Kerr), and by a lasting friendship with German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) as he rises through the ranks of the British Army but now uncomfortable with the modern concept of ‘total war’… In Germany, the gangsters finally succeeded in putting the honest citizens in jail. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s portrait of a lovable man at sea with contemporary combat was incredibly contentious, disliked by Churchill, and cut to pieces so that it’s very rare to see it as it was intended by the talented pair whose satirical but sympathetic bent is at full tilt over 163 minutes with Livesey giving the performance of his career, ageing and irascible, but once a dashing young blade with the world at his feet. The character was created by David Low in his comic strip but Powell and Pressburger claimed this narrative grew out of a scene dropped from their previous film One of Our Aircraft is Missing and editor David Lean said it would be a good idea for a film. Beautifully shot, designed and told, with Kerr impressive (and credited for her three separate if complementary roles) as iterations of the ideal woman. The unlikely friendship between two honorable military men even as their countries are at war is distinctive and moving, commencing with a duel and then years later, when Theo seeks asylum from the Nazis he appeals to his friend, now a high-ranking officer in England. Possibly Powell and Pressburger’s greatest work, certainly their most ambitious, etched in compassion. Restored by Martin Scorsese and Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. Clive, my English is not very much but my friendship for you is very much