The Odyssey (2016)

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Aka L’Odyssée.  A whole world waiting to be discovered. I’m just old enough to remember re-runs of Jacques (-Yves) Cousteau’s TV show – a weekly adventure in the ocean depths with a vast array of colourful marine life on display. He was a superstar who has all but vanished from contemporary iconography: a diver, oceanographer, inventor and TV personality who demonstrated that we only know the surface of the world’s oceans – he brought us what lies beneath. Director Jérôme Salle and co-writer Laurent Turner take memoirs by Cousteau’s chief diver Albert Falco aka Bébert (Vincent Heneine) and his son Jean-Michel (Benjamin Lavernhe) and create a portrait of the life of this man over thirty years, from his days in the French Navy (and an accident preventing his continuing as a pilot) whose passion for diving became a way of life, a journey encompassing family, the co-invention of the aqualung, fame, world travel and the neverending desire to achieve more.  His groundbreaking film The Silent World was the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or. The tensions with his son Philippe (Pierre Niney plays him as an adult) are exacerbated first by boarding school and later at the caricature he feels his father has become.  JYC admits he should never have had children. His wife Simone (Audrey Tautou) is now old and alcoholic, just as she threatened years earlier when she discovered his philandering. When he arrives back at The Calypso (funded by his mother in law’s jewellery) wearing a red beanie, he announces It’s telegenic. Jean-Michel returns after years studying architecture but it’s the other relationships which dominate JYC’s life, principally with his financiers.  I feel like I’ve spent my entire life chasing money. His quest for money dominates his life while Philippe’s spirals in another direction – the environment, triggered when he sees the ship’s cook dumping the trash in the water and his own work as a cinematographer and filmmaker diverges from the family business. On this issue father and son finally come back together but only when JYC’s sponsorship dries up.  Inspired yet again by Jules Verne, they travel on a foolhardy mission to Antarctica and see the true wonder of the world:  from taking money to promote oil exploration, Cousteau starts the Society that bears his name and tries to save the oceans, bringing the attention of the world to the imminent tragedy of pollution. It’s handsomely photographed by Matias Boucard but finally the difficulty reconciling the father and son drama with the story of the ego that brought the wonderful world of the sea to the screen proves as challenging as it was in reality, even with that awesome cast: Wilson is terrific as the marvellously charismatic pioneer whose travels are finally brought to an end by a tragedy. It’s all about him, after all.

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The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

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Are you normal?  What is normal?  Harvard psychologist and inventor Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) has the good fortune of having two women in his life – his eventual wife and colleague Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) who is denied her PhD because of her gender and their mutual lover, student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) the niece of the birth control activist, Margaret Sanger, whose feminist mother Ethel, Sanger’s sister, abandoned her to the care of nuns. Marston creates the DISC theory of Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance which he lectures on to besotted female students.  In addition to helping him perfect the lie detector test, they form a ménage à trois which leads to the academics being fired from their University jobs and moving to the burbs where the two women inspire him to create one of the greatest female superheroes of all time, beloved comic book character Wonder Woman as their unconventional lifestyle and penchant for S&M causes problems for the legitimate and illegitimate children they raise together…  This sly old dissertation on American values is told in a series of flashbacks as Marston is forced to defend his comic book’s content to Josette Frank (Connie Britton) inquisitor in chief at the Child Study Association of America in the post-war era as comic books were literally burned, Hitler style, in the streets. No fool she as she knows all the moves, BDSM or no.  It’s amusing to see the trio’s relationship revealed first with the lie detector machine and then in the den of iniquity lorded over by Charles Guyette, the G-string king (JJ Feild) while outwardly life in the burbs goes on as per usual. This is an origins story with a difference and if it plays rather fast and loose (or restrained, whichever you’d prefer) with the lasso of truth, then it’s fun and imaginative and very well performed – interpreted, written and directed by Angela Robinson. Produced by Amy Redford.

Key Largo (1948)

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You don’t like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don’t you? If it doesn’t stop, shoot it. World War II vet Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) visits Key Largo to pay his respects to the family of his late war buddy, McCloud attempts to comfort his comrade’s widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall) and wheelchair-bound father James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), who operate a run-down hotel. But McCloud realises that mobsters, led by the infamous Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), are staying in the hotel. When the criminals take over the establishment, conflict is on the cards with murder and mayhem ensuing as a hurricane approaches … Director John Huston and Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’ s 1939 is stunning entertainment, see-sawing as violently as the weather that eventually challenges the survivors of Rocco’s plan.  Stars blend perfectly in cracking classical Hollywood entertainment – Robinson and Barrymore are quite brilliant, as are Bogie and Bacall, paired again (and finally) after To Have and Have Not, with Claire Trevor giving an Academy Award-winning performance as the tragic moll. Literally thrilling, awash with high points and a memorable Max Steiner score.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

Somebody Up There Likes Me

Maybe Chicago’s got a heart but I ain’t found one.  Young Italian-American Rocky Barbella (Paul Newman) endures abuse from his father (Harold J. Stone) and despite his mother (Eileen Heckart) and her constant efforts to intervene he messes with small-time crime with his streetwise friend Romolo (Sal Mineo).  His consequent run-ins with the law lead him in and out of detention centers and prisons. When it seems he has it together, Rocky is drafted into the wartime Army but can’t stick the regime and goes AWOL. He takes up boxing to earn quick money with coach Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane), but when he discovers he has a natural talent in the ring, he builds the confidence to pursue his love interest, Norma (Pier Angeli), and fulfill his potential as a middleweight fighter. Pressured to take a bribe, his reputation takes a major hit.  He doesn’t know how to redeem himself except by fighting …  Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Rocky Graziano’s autobiography is full of clichés – but they’re good ones because they’re true. Filled with big, dramatic performances and great action which is what you want from a gutsy story of an abused child through his spells in juvie and prison and the Army, this is a wonderful portrait of NYC and its denizens and the final bout is heart-stopping. The right hooks aren’t confined to Rocky, Lehman’s dialogue is ripe with zingers:  The trouble with reading the phonebook is you always know how it’s going to come out.  Gleaming monochrome cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and a song by Perry Como add to a magnificent movie bio experience but one is forced to ask what Paul Newman’s career would have looked like if its intended lead James Dean hadn’t died before this went into production:  his Rebel co-star Mineo (who looks altogether lustrous) bolsters the teen crim story and the beautiful Angeli was engaged to Dean for a while (as well as doing The Silver Chalice with Newman). His ghost is everywhere. Look for Robert Loggia and Dean Jones down the cast list.  Directed by Robert Wise.

Woman on the Run (1950)

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It’s no use honey once they’re gone, they’re gone.  When he witnesses a gangland murder whilst out walking his dog at night in San Francisco, artist Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) goes on the run to avoid being killed himself. His wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan) seems almost apathetic about finding him when questioned by police detective Harris (Robert Keith), due to their marital problems. However, after learning from his doctor that Frank has a grave heart condition, Eleanor teams up with persistent reporter Dan Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe) to help track down her husband with only a cryptic letter to go on. She tries to evade the police’s surveillance team and in the course of her search she finds she has new love for Frank but is unaware that the killer may be closer than she knows… Fantastically nifty and smart post-war noir, with wonderful location shooting (Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, the Art Gallery, Telegraph Hill) and a gripping performance by the leading lady who delivers great barbs and has a grabby sidekick in the scene-stealing Rembrandt the dog.  Sylvia Tate’s short story was adapted by Alan Campbell and director Norman Foster (an associate of Orson Welles), with a dialogue assist by Ross Hunter and its sharpness immeasurably assists a pacy genre entry. The impressive roller coaster finale was shot at Santa Monica Pier. Underrated

Odd Man Out (1947)

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If you get back to your friends, you’ll tell ’em I helped you. Me, Gin Jimmy. But if the police get you, you won’t mention my name, huh?  Johnny McQueen (James Mason) has been in hiding in Kathleen Sullivan’s (Kathleen Ryan) home for the past six months since his escape from prison. He’s the leader of a political group (the Organisation, code for the IRA) that needs funds although his compatriots think he’s not up to the task:  he believes negotiating with the other side might get them further than attacking them.  Nonetheless he takes part in a raid on a bank but it goes wrong and he’s shot as he kills a cashier. Pat (Cyril Cusack) drives off before Johnny can get into the getaway car and the gang are the subject of a manhunt while Johnny is left to struggle on his own relying on help from passing strangers …  R.C. Sheriff adapted F.L. Green’s novel and while it’s not named, this is clearly set in Belfast. Mason is rivetting as the terrorist who’s experiencing his delirious last long night of the soul in a film that is equal parts documentary and pretentious psychological thriller, with wonderfully atmospheric canted angles and shadows from Robert Krasker’s cinematography. The supporting players are largely drawn from the ranks of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre – including Robert Beatty, W.G. Fay, Joseph Tomelty, Noel Purcell, Eddie Byrne and Dan O’Herlihy. Albert Sharpe (presumably fresh off Finian’s Rainbow on Broadway, where he made his fortune) plays a bus conductor. Robert Newton impresses as the wild philosophising artist painting Johnny. While some exteriors were shot in Belfast it would appear a great many scenes were done in London including a reproduction of the famous Crown Bar, which was actually a set at D&P Studios. A powerful and gripping drama, this remains one of the great British films, an unconventional, potent and poetic treatise on compromise, brutality, daring and death centering on a passive protagonist around whom much of the plot revolves. Out of the ordinary. Directed by Carol Reed. MM #1800.

Phantom Thread (2017)

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Are you the enemy? It’s 1954.  In post-war London, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a fey, fastidious, fussy aesthete, and his unmarried sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are at the centre of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutantes and dames with the distinct style of The House of Woodcock. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young, strong-willed woman, a foreign waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover: she is literally his house model. Once controlled and planned, he finds his immaculately tailored life disrupted by love and Alma becomes jealous particularly when Reynolds agrees to create the trousseau for a Belgian princess and removes the message ‘not cursed’ from the lining. Then she poisons him on the eve of the wedding to try to create a catastrophe instead of a work of art…. That’s the theory. Everything about this is beautiful, detailed, pointed. What we don’t understand in the cheap seats is how a man like Reynolds Woodcock falls for a plain frumpy dull bovine German (or is she Danish? Dutch?) who to the untrained eye has absolutely nothing interesting about her except an unsophisticated desire for control and an uncontrolled appetite for jealousy. She’s a toddler, as one of his clients tells him. Yes, forty years younger than him and unformed, unlike his designs. This is a character study of three fusspots who don’t like each other and it’s pretty silly, like most couture. Paul Thomas Anderson makes fascinating, idiosyncratic films that mostly have a message be it about culture or circumstance. There are themes running through this like thread through a gown – jealousy, food, sex, creativity:  but they don’t go anywhere and the threadbare plot quickly unravels. Woodcock is clearly modelled on a couple of London couturiers and Cyril is out of Mrs Danvers but ultimately is soft centred. Alma? Don’t ask me. A German seeking revenge for the war?!  I care less. This is hard to fathom, often makes little sense and the conclusion is plain stupid no matter how it’s dressed up.

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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The truth does not make it easier to understand, you know. I mean, you think that you find out the truth about me, and then you’ll understand me. And then you would forgive me for all those… for all my lies. Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young writer, moves to Brooklyn (or The Sodom of the North as his father calls it) in the hot summer of 1947 to begin work on his first novel. As he becomes friendly with his upstairs neighbour Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her biologist lover Nathan (Kevin Kline), a Jew, he learns that Sophie is a Holocaust survivor. Flashbacks reveal her harrowing story, from pre-war prosperity to Auschwitz. In the present, Sophie and Nathan’s relationship increasingly unravels as Stingo grows closer to Sophie and Nathan’s fragile mental state becomes ever more apparent just as Sophie’s past haunts her … Alan J. Pakula abandoned his customary 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller style to adapt William Styron’s novel – and yet one wonders if the Nazi takeover and atrocities aren’t the perfect subject for such an approach? As it is this too-faithful work exercises a Gothic hold despite the dayglo colours of Nestor Alemendros’ cinematography.  Death is in the narrative cracks. MacNicol is strange enough to withstand the attention as the rather naif narrator, Kline epitomises the term kinetic in a tremendously physical interpretation of the disturbed Nathan as he literally envelops Streep, whose luminous moony pallor dominates every scene. The structure – revealing the tragic titular decision – is painstaking but it somehow works against the dramatic tension in a film that is too long and paradoxically fears taking a risk. It’s Streep who makes this work in a jaw-dropping performance which created her legend.

Black Narcissus (1946)

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I told you it was no place to put a nunnery! There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated … A group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), are sent to a mountain in the Himalayas. The climate in the region is hostile and the nuns are housed in an odd old palace, home to the Sisters of St Faith and previously home to the concubines of the General in the area. They work to establish a school and a hospital, but slowly their focus shifts. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) falls for a government worker, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), and begins to question her vow of celibacy. As Sister Ruth obsesses over Mr. Dean, Sister Clodagh becomes immersed in her own memories of love back in Ireland while their conflicts are put into relief by the forbidden desire between The Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who is of entirely unsuitable caste.  Sister Ruth’s psychological problems devolve into violent madness … Rumer Godden’s story gets the high-velocity melodrama treatment in this extraordinary interpretation of her story about religion in a colonial outpost. Alfred Junge created the illusion of the exotic in Pinewood (and a Surrey garden) with Jack Cardiff’s magical cinematography enhancing the impression of lushness.  The Renaissance light and shadows highlight the growing atmosphere of hysteria. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted an astonishingly sensual portrait of women in hothouse seclusion, lured to their various fates by a man in their midst as they wrestle with issues of conscience, race, sex and vocation. It has not lost its power to bewitch and Byron’s performance is unforgettable.