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

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister… and you murder your queen!  Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Catholic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne with the aim of also taking the English throne which is her birthright, guided by her adviser Bothwell (Martin Compston). However, Scotland and England fall under the rule of her cousin, the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Each young Queen beholds her ‘sister’ in fear and fascination. Mary has to deal with the ambitions of her bastard half-brother James Murray (James McArdle) and succumbs to the charms of the bisexual Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) in order to become a mother but his father (Brendan Coyle) has designs on power. Her reign attracts the hatred of Protestant reformer John Knox (David Tennant) who stirs up the natives against their tolerant Catholic ruler and calls her a whore. Elizabeth’s adviser Henry Cecil (Guy Pearce) carries out her bid to assist in driving a civil war designed to remove Mary from the throne… Do not play into their hands. Our hatred is precisely what they hope for. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you. Adapted from John Guy’s biography by Beau Willimon, it may seem hasty to declare that despite its raft of historical inaccuracies this still has a lot to recommend it, even if its PC multiverse of many races and choose-your-own-perversion plays into the right-on millennial world rather than the well documented dour backdrop of sixteenth-century Scotland (things are ever thus there…). Willimon is of course responsible for Netflix’s House of Cards and knows his way around politics and other games of thrones so the focus on the women struggling against the counsel of conniving men drives the drama forward while the plotting literally gallops apace. With Tennant doing Knox as the Comical Ali of fundamentalist Protestantism the odds of us supporting the bastard English Queen are low to zero, despite the crosscutting suggesting links both emotional and physical between these young rivals. The Virgin Queen is in fact more in touch with the reality of both of their situations, surrounded by controlling men, as the fabricated meeting between them (a liberty also taken in the 1971 version) clarifies: she recognises that Mary’s beauty, bravery and motherhood are both her greatest assets and her deepest flaws and have led to her downfall. She herself is more man than woman, she declares – her reign has made her thus. Ronan plays Mary as a variation on Joan of Arc – a sharp military mind with a conscience as transparent as her pallor and bright blue eyes (albeit Willimon writes her as a feckless Marie Antoinette a lot of the time), while Robbie’s Queen is the one beset with the miseries of the pox and a devious court craven by her power. They are both tremendous but this is really Ronan’s show, as the title suggests. Pearce, Lowden and Compston are particularly good in their treacherous sideshows. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see two of the best young actresses in the world leading a film of such affecting performances.  The final contrasting shots of Mary’s meeting with destiny and Elizabeth’s costumes and cosmetics literally solidifying into a stony inhuman edifice linger in the mind.  Directed by Josie Rourke. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991)

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Hello, dreamed of you. Love woke me. Artist Michèle (Juliette Binoche) who is losing her sight, encounters fire-eater Alex (Denis Lavant), a homeless guy with addiction problems.  They embark on an unlikely relationship at the Pont-Neuf in Paris, closed over the summer for repairs. They have to deal with a landlord of sorts (Klaus-Michael Grüber).  Leos Carax’s enervating romantic drama is beautifully shot by Jean-Yves Escoffier with a soundtrack featuring David Bowie, among others. Set during France’s 1989 Bicentennial celebrations this is a weirdly brutal, bewildering, compelling, rather magnificent oddity. Quite thrilling, like a nutty modern-day silent movie. Spot Edith Scob in the last scene, an homage to L’Atalante. Do you like it?/Yes./Yes yes or yes no?/Yes yes!

The Goose Steps Out (1942)

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O for Otto! Bumbling teacher William Potts (Will Hay) turns out to be the double of German General Muller, who the British have just captured. He is flown into Germany to impersonate the general and causes chaos and hilarity in a Hitler Youth college where the students are being trained to spy in Britain … Written by Angus MacPhail and John Dighton, based on an idea by Bernard Miles and Reg Groves, this is a souped-up Hay outing, co-directed by the star with Basil Dearden, who would of course become a filmmaker of note. (They had previously made The Black Sheep of Whitehall). Parlaying the usual array of schoolboy types and jokes in this espionage caper, Anne Firth makes for a comely Lena, the woman who would if Potts could, Peter Ustinov (in his debut) is a standout as Krauss  and Charles Hawtrey is Max, the boy who figures out precisely what is in their midst and does his best to help Potts make his escape. Diverting, funny, and well-staged, the action blends briskly with the comedy and concludes with a terrific finale in which Potts almost Blitzes London (again). There’s a funny scene involving English pronunciation – Leicester/Worcester/Bicester/Gloucester (helpfully written on a blackboard). If that sounds too complicated, just laugh at Hay giving Hitler’s portrait two fingers. Repeatedly. He does! Jingo all the way.  It’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me Goebbels

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

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The measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it. Dutchman Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason) living in the 17th century, is not permitted to rest until he finds a woman who loves him enough to die for him. In 1930s Spain where his body is fished out of the water, he meets the reincarnation of a woman from his dead past Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner) and falls in love. The story progresses to a hair-raising reconciliation of past and present as she becomes engaged to besotted racing driver Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick) while also juggling with the affections of ardent matador Juan Montalvo (Mario Cabré) whose mother has predicted their union … There’s something beyond my understanding. There’s something mystical about the feeling I have for you. Albert Lewin’s cult film is weirdly compelling and boring all at once:  a woman who drives men wild with desire is herself obsessed with a man who has been condemned to wander the earth forever. This legend is elevated to almost mythic quality in a production that is beautiful, sensuous and strange, and that’s just Gardner. There are lengthy exchanges of meaningful dialogue, lusty looks and a gorgeous shadow hangs over every Technicolor frame. Never mind the melo, feel the drama. That’s not me as I am at all. But it’s what I’d like to be

A Simple Favour (2018)

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Are you going to Diabolique me?  Perky smalltown single mom and vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is swept away by her new friendship with the glorious Emily (Blake Lively) PR director to obnoxious NYC fashion maven Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend), too busy in her professional life to do anything but show up occasionally to collect her little son from school. While fellow moms inform Stephanie that she’s just a free babysitter she’s convinced she and Emily are best friends because they bond over a daily martini at Emily’s fabulous glass modernist house until one day she gets a call from Emily to look after her kid and Emily doesn’t return. Stephanie’s daily vlogs get increasingly desperate as the days wear on. After five days she can’t take it any more. She gets embroiled in a search along with Emily’s husband, the blocked author Sean Townsend (Henry Golding) for whom she has a bit of a thing until she decides to dress up and play Nancy Drew when she discovers Emily had a very good life insurance policy… She’s an enigma my wife. You can get close to her, but you never quite reach her. She’s like a beautiful ghost.  While the world gets its knickers in a twist about female representation along comes Paul Feig once again with an astonishing showcase for two of the least understood actresses in American cinema and lets them rip in complex roles that are wildly funny, smart and pretty damned vicious.  This adaptation by Jessica Sharzer of Darcey Bell’s novel has more twists and turns than a corkscrew and from the incredible jangly French pop soundtrack – which includes everyone from Bardot & Gainsbourg and Dutronc to Zaz – to the cataclysmic meeting between these two pathological liars this is bound to end up in … murder! Deceit! Treachery! Nutty betrayals! Incredible clothes! Lady parts! Revelations of incest! Everything works here – from jibes about competitive parenting and volunteering, to the fashion business, family, film noir, Gone Girl (a variant of which is tucked in as a sub-plot), heavy drinking, wonderful food, electric cars.  And again, the clothes! Kudos to designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus who understands how to convey personality and story. Never wear a vintage Hermès scarf with a Gap T-shirt. If you were truly Emily’s friend, you would know that It’s wonderfully lensed by John Schwartzman, one of my favourite cinematographers and the production design and juxtapositions sing. This is an amazing tour of genres which comes together in two performances that are totally persuasive – in another kind of film Kendrick and Lively might have to tell each other You complete me:  the shocking flashbacks to their pasts (which are both truthful and deceitful) illuminate their true characters. This is that utter rarity – a brilliantly complicated, nasty and humorous tale of female friendship that doesn’t fear to tread where few films venture. It’s an epic battle of the moms. Film of the year? I’ll say! I am so glad that this is the basis of my 2,000th post. Brotherfucker!  MM#2000