Celebrity (1998)

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I’ve become the person I’ve always hated, but I’m happier. Novelist Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) is in a crisis – he’s got writer’s block and everything is falling apart and his two critically panned novels are such failures he has to work as a travel writer.  It was seeing all the losers at his high school reunion that triggered his decision to divorce his sexually bashful and rather neurotic wife, Robin (Judy Davis), and he dives into a new job as an entertainment journalist. His assignments take him to the swankiest corners of Manhattan, but as he jumps from one lavish party to another and engages in numerous empty romances, with some seriously combative actresses and models keeping him busy, he starts to doubt the worth of his work. He’s writing screenplays on the side to keep in the creative game hoping some of his interview subjects will give him the time of day. Meanwhile, top TV producer Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna) falls for Robin and introduces her to the world of celebrity. Suddenly she finds herself with a TV show and Lee finds himself competing with his ex-wife … The celebrity-packed ensemble in this Woody Allen film cannot conceal that this is one of the many in his body of work which disappoints – that said, there are some great lines, filled with truth about the horrors of middle life:  the sheer mundanity of marriage, the compromises, the failures, the lack of a career, the diverging paths couples might take following their divorce. And there’s a truly horrible scene when Lee meets one of the critics who wrote a devastating review of one of his books. There’s not a little self-parody in this monochrome outing (shot by Sven Nykvist), with Tony sneering about film director John Papadakis (Andre Gregory), He’s very arty, pretentious, one of those assholes who shoots all his films in black and white. Branagh isn’t a great lead for such material in which he is basically a hammy avatar for all Allen’s own starring roles and his accent occasionally grates:  as he treads and sleeps his way through New York society you wonder at his unfeasible romantic success. Davis isn’t a whole lot better. But there are many bright moments in this unfocused work, as actors, artists and models step forward and do their ‘bit’ with some bristling lines in a film which in another universe might have wanted to be La Dolce Vita but is really a cynical trawl through misplaced modern values while paradoxically extolling them. There’s a very funny scene when Robin asks a prostitute Nina (Bebe Neuwirth) who’s been on her show for some training in oral sex and her mentor chokes on a banana. We even muster sympathy for the besotted Lee when he scorns his devoted book editor galpal Bonnie (Famke Janssen) for the unreliable actress Nola (Winona Ryder) and has to watch her rip up the only copy of his third, potentially brilliant novel and see the pages fly away from a boat at South Street Seaport. A Nobel Prize-winning author whom she’s also editing turns out a surprisingly similar book on the same subject (this happened to a friend of mine minus the outing to Sweden). Donald Trump makes an appearance as an interviewee, declaring his intention to tear down St Patrick’s Cathedral and replace it with a Big Beautiful Building and Leonardo Di Caprio plays a bratty druggy movie star into threesomes – and foursomes. Bruce Jay Friedman makes his second 1998 movie appearance (the other was You’ve Got Mail) most likely because he used to write fake stories about celebrities for fan magazines! There’s a unique opportunity to visit the late, lamented Elaine’s where Woody used to play clarinet every Monday night (hence his absence from the Academy Awards over the years). Like a lot of Allen’s work, both lesser and greater, this feels a lot better now that a lot of time has passed even if it’s a tad overlong. Weird. I wrote about you before I even knew you existed.

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Jumanji (1995)

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You’re playing the game I started in 1969.  In 1869 in New Hampshire two men bury a board game. 100 years later young Alan Harris (Adam Hann-Byrd) can do nothing right for his exacting father (Jonathan Hyde) who owns a shoe factory and intends that Alan go to the same prep school he attended. Alan invites schoolfriend Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy) over and when they play the board game he found after being chased by bullies he gets sucked into it and she runs from the house. 26 years later orphaned siblings Peter (Bradley Pierce) and Judy Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst) move to the town with their aunt (Bebe Neuwirth). While exploring the old mansion she got at rock bottom price, the youngsters find a curious, jungle-themed game called Jumanji in the attic. When they start playing, they free the adult Alan Parrish (Robin Williams), who’s been stuck in the game’s inner jungle world for decades.  They go in search of the adult Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) who’s now a psychic with an extreme need for therapy. They join forces and if they win Jumanji, the kids can free Alan for good – but that means braving giant bugs, ill-mannered monkeys and even stampeding rhinos as well as a killer big-game hunter who bears a distinct resemblance to Alan’s father … Adapted from Chris Van Allsburg’s eponymous novel by Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh and Jim Strain, this is a superb, action-packed family adventure that never loses sight of the father-son story at its heart principally because the characters are highly relatable. Dunst plays a compulsive liar while her brother is more sensitive but they’re not obnoxious and their aunt’s impoverished attempts at parenting are entirely understandable. Particularly when a monkey takes over her car. When Robin Williams is unleashed from the game in full survival mode from the hellish jungle he’s absolutely on it with a few nice put-downs that aren’t too cruel for a school age kid. It’s great fun to see Pierce transform into a monkey – complete with tail. This is resolved wonderfully and directed at a terrific pace with superb design at every level. Cracking! Directed by Joe Johnston.

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

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It’s you Myra it’s always been you. Put-upon asthmatic househusband Billy Savage (Richard Attenborough) is persuaded by his wife Myra (Kim Stanley) a mentally ill medium to kidnap the daughter (Judith Donner) of a wealthy London couple (Mark Eden and Nanette Newman) so that she can locate the victim and tout herself as a successful psychic. Billy collects the ransom in a cat and mouse chase around telephone kiosks and Tube stations in the vicinity of Piccadilly Circus.  The couple pretend to the girl that she’s in a hospital but as Myra begins to lose her grip on reality and believes her stillborn son Arthur is telling her to kill the child Billy decides he must do the decent thing … Splendidly taut adaptation of Mark McShane’s novel by writer/director Bryan Forbes which makes brilliant use of the London locations and exudes tension both through performance and shooting style with the cinematography by Gerry Turpin a particular standout. There are some marvellous sequences but the kidnapping alone with John Barry’s inventive and characterful score is indelible and some of the train scenes are hallucinatory. It’s a great pleasure to see Patrick Magee turn up as a policeman in the final scene.

Ghost (1990)

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It’s amazing, the love inside. You take it with you. Potter Molly (Demi Moore) and banker Sam (Patrick Swayze) are young and in love and living together and planning on a long happy life together. When he’s murdered after uncovering a money laundering scheme run by his colleague Carl (Tony Goldwyn) at the bank where they work, Molly is distraught and attends a wacky fake medium Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) who pretends she communes with the dead. Then she’s shocked out of her own skin when Sam really speaks to her – only she can see him – and wants to let Molly know she’s in danger from Carl … Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay channels both religious belief (guardian angels in the form of ghosts) and the supernatural (vengeful spirits) in this odd mix of fantasy, ghost story and thriller. The weird thing is it actually works, and how. Why? Because the characters are totally believable and you want them to be happy. Plus it’s set in a very recognisable modern world of yuppies and charlatans. That’s a very canny approach to writing. People we really like, wonderfully played in a genre-bending comic-fantasy-drama. There are several standout scenes here but let’s face it, you’ll never look at a potter’s wheel the same way again. Wonderful! Directed by Jerry Zucker.

Houdini (1953)

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Pay a dollar to see a man in love with death! Watch Tony Curtis saw Janet Leigh in two! From his start at the Coney Island sideshows to London, Paris and Berlin, the career of legendary escapologist Harry Houdini is charted in a screenplay by Philip Yordan adapted from the book by Harold Kellock which plays fast and loose with the facts, including his tragically early death. Houdini (Tony Curtis) meets Bess (Janet Leigh) while trying out his early magic acts and they marry quickly and move in with his mother (Angela Clarke). He takes a regular job in a locksmith factory but tries to escape from a safe and Bess finally agrees to go to Europe with him instead of putting a downpayment on a house with prize money earned when he escapes from a straitjacket at a Halloween show for magicians. That’s when he becomes obsessed with Otto von Schweger, the only other man to have done so. (He develops a fatalistic belief that good things happen to him on Halloween). Bess joins him on the road as his assistant and becomes a star attraction. He becomes infamous after escaping a police cell at Scotland Yard but is too late arriving at von Schweger’s home to meet the man, who had just died. He left him a miniature of a man in a glass case and it becomes Houdini’s obsession. When his mother dies he wants to make contact with her and loses himself for two years. A journalist persuades him to expose fake spiritualists and then he returns to the one trick that remains … Curtis and Leigh were husband and wife and Hollywood’s darlings when they made this and they’re utterly charming together – she’s beguiling, practical and loving, he’s obsessive, devoted and brilliant:  they practically sizzle on screen.  Director George Marshall stages this beautifully in a production that is a triumph of design, colour and performance with great costumes by Edith Head. Demonstrating Houdini’s focus using a bauble on a chandelier as an objective correlative is a brilliant example of how this is visualised. A splendid, tense, thrilling, witty and romantic biography from the Golden Age of Hollywood with wonderfully imagined tricks and illusions.

Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard (1940)

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Nigel Morland’s series got one outing at least on film in this witty fast-moving episode in which the eccentric (code for overweight and smart) lady detective (Mary Clare) uncovers the plot behind the murders of two women who had visited the same (fake) medium at a psychic club. These stories began in the great era of detective fiction – between the wars – and the London setting is part of the attraction, not to mention having Mrs Pym outwit the commissioner at the Yard (Robert English). The psychic scenes are exceptionally well staged despite the low budget, it looks great and there’s the joy of seeing the deceiver’s assistant Miss Bell (Irene Handl) constantly hiding in cupboards. Richard Loddon (Nigel Patrick) is the journo interested in the story and romancing the woman set to be the next victim, Maraday Wood (Janet Johnson), who has a very healthy bank balance. Unusually for a Brit flick there are even shots fired and people murdered! The fact that a vacuum cleaner is involved is what is likely responsible for Clare’s good humour in the role.  She was one of Noel Coward’s favourite actresses and is probably best known to Hitchcock buffs as the sinister baroness in The Lady Vanishes – she also had a role as the mother in Young and Innocent. For fans of British cinema she was in both versions of Hindle Wakes and The Constant Nymph. With Edward Lexy as Detective-Inspector Shott and Anthony Ireland as Henry Menchen. Morland adapted his own character and director Fred Ellis and Peggy Barwell wrote the screenplay. Funny and enjoyable.

Jassy (1947)

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Norah Lofts’ novel got the full Gainsborough gothic melodrama treatment with director Bernard Knowles reuniting some of the stars of A Place of One’s Own and a screenplay adapted by Dorothy Christie & Campbell Christie and Geoffrey Kerr.  It was the first script ready to go when Sydney Box took over from Maurice Ostrer at the studio. Barney (Dermot Walsh) is the son of a dissolute squire (Dennis Price) who gambles away their wonderful country house Mordelaine and he befriends psychic gypsy Jassy (Margaret Lockwood) whom he rescues from a mob at a ducking pond. She knows the moment her beloved father is shot by the property’s new owner, Nick Helmar (Basil Sydney), and Helmar divorces his unfaithful wife. Jassy gets work as a maid at a school where Helmar’s daughter Dilys (Patricia Roc) befriends her and eventually takes her home as a companion, and Helmar gets her to run the household economically and then marries her when Dilys runs off to be with Barney’s rival, Stephen. Jassy recruits a disabled mute woman Elizabeth (Cathleen Nesbitt) to the household and when Helmar expresses displeasure at Jassy’s refusal to have sex with him – she’s had him sign over the house to her – Elizabeth starts poisoning him. Jassy goes on trial for his murder… Fabulously vivid tosh, with a luminous Lockwood (never mind Lindsay Anderson!) and a young Nesbitt getting a good opportunity for some last-minute courtroom histrionics in the studio’s only Technicolor production, shot by Geoffrey Unsworth. Lots of familiar faces – Linden Travers, Maurice Denham, Ernest Thesiger, Torin Thatcher et al enliven this overegged story.

The Spiritualist (1948)

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Aka The Amazing Mr XAlexis, do you think I’d make a good celestial companion? The wonderful Carole Landis committed suicide in the most horrendous way a couple of days before shooting began on this;  she was replaced by the estimable Lynn Bari, no mean actress in her own right. She’s widowed Christine Faber, haunted by the ghost of her late husband (Donald Curtis) rising from the surf, but a tall dark stranger (Turhan Bey) materialises who knows more about her than he ought, faking his way as a medium, and luring her into a dangerous game … With Cathy O’Donnell as her sister Janet and my sci fi heart-throb Richard Carlson as a lawyer, Harry Mendoza and Virginia Gregg rounding out the ensemble, we are taken into truly villainous territory with Bey making for an alluring bad guy who gets in way too deep.  In his eyes, the threat of terror! In his hands, the power to destroy! Crane Wilbur’s story was written for the screen by Muriel Roy Bolton and Ian McLellan Hunter and directed by Bernard Vorhaus. This film noir is gilt-edged thanks to the luminous cinematography by John Alton and good use is made of Chopin’s Prelude for Piano, opus 28 no. 4 in E minor. A special experience and one of my new favourite Forties movies! PS:  Wilbur was first cousin to Tyrone Power and he said of his work, I‘m going to give people what they want. Sensation, horror, shock. Send them out into the streets to tel their friends how wonderful it is to be scared to death.