Fear in the Night (1972)

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Aka Dynasty of Fear/Honeymoon of Fear. Your pretty little brand new wife.  The fragile wife Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson) of teacher Robert (Ralph Bates) is attacked in the bathroom of her boarding house by a man with a mechanical arm but nobody believes her and she is briefly institutionalised prior to his taking a job at a small prep school outside London run by Michael Carmichael (Peter Cushing) a mysterious figure whose wife Molly (Joan Collins) Peggy instantly dislikes. Soon Peggy identifies Carmichael’s arm from the earlier attack and left alone by Robert one evening takes out the shotgun to exact revenge when Michael is visiting her but for some reason he can’t be killed. When Robert returns a plot is revealed in a school that isn’t open at all  … I spilled something. The contours of this resemble another school thriller, the French classic  Les Diaboliques, which director (and writer/producer) Jimmy Sangster had already transposed into a Hammer film for Seth Holt in A Taste of Fear a decade earlier. The marital triangle contrived here with co-screenwriter Michael Syson is more straightforwardly adapted in this version, with the relentless pressure on Peggy like a time bomb waiting to go off in the audience as well in what is also an alternate take on Gaslight. The very ordinariness of the physical situation somehow makes it horribly plausible and Geeson’s torment is clarified in her impressively detailed performance. It’s a fantastic role for her but Collins doesn’t get enough to do (even as a trigger happy sculptress!) and never shares time with Cushing, her screen husband. There’s an excellent use of flashbacks and a wonderful plot twist. And there’s a shot of Cushing – when he’s shot! – that I’ll never forget. Never mind his arm, what about those spectacles … I’ll find Michael. And if he’s still alive I’ll kill him!

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Us (2019)

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Once upon a time, there was a girl and the girl had a shadow. The two were connected, tethered together. Accompanied by her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), son Jason (Evan Alex) and daughter Zora (Venus Williams lookalike Shahadi Wright Joseph), Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) returns to the lakeside home at Santa Cruz CA where she grew up. Haunted by a traumatic experience from 1986 when she entered the funhouse at the pier and encountered her doppelganger, subsequently becoming electively mute,  Addie grows increasingly concerned that something bad is going to happen but agrees to go to the beach where they meet their friends Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their twin daughters. They have a better house, car and boat than the Wilsons. Jason wanders off at the beach and Addie grows frantic. Her fears soon become a reality when four masked strangers descend upon the house, forcing the Wilsons into a fight for survival. When the masks come off, the family is horrified to learn that each attacker takes the appearance of one of them and they have to fight to the death with Addie finally facing up to what happened thirty years ago … Who are you people?/ We’re Americans. Dontcha just hate it when the people who break into your home look exactly like you? This second outing for Jordan (Get Out) Peele gives the game away when it enters comedic territory for its second hour. And in the penultimate sequence, when Gabe says to the children Leave it to your mother, she’ll know what to do, we get a hint as to the final twist – and precisely what he may have known about his wife all along. You’ll probably figure it out from the poster. This take on – what? impostor syndrome? race relations? slavery? the Other? the base versus the superstructure? people who live underground in tunnels?! rich versus poor? Mexico?! –  wants to be so much more than it is. On the other hand, it nods towards horror tropes quite cleverly with Nyong’o being a very modern Final Girl – of a sort. It’s not remotely scary despite its publicity campaign. There are a lot of rabbits:  breeding like … I don’t know, people who want to make the US great again?! The tilt towards pantomime brings out some spectacularly bad acting – thank you, Ms Moss! – and rather rubs our faces in some crude rap to make a point about society and Reagan-era politics with a telling mention of South of the Border and then goes and robs the ending from the great Mad Men. What a cheek! It’s well set up and crafted but has some diffuse ideas about things that remain stubbornly unresolved so ultimately isn’t about anything at all, if you ask me. Sigh. Too many twins around here

The Favourite (2018)

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Or, Carry On Up the Queen. People are shitting in the streets. It’s what passes for political commentary. In 1708 England is at war with the French. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne at Hampton Court, and her close friend, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), governs the country in her stead, the real power behind the throne, while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When Sarah’s down on her luck cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives Sarah employs her as a servant but the young woman’s charm endears her to the Queen and she espies an opportunity to return to her aristocratic roots. A game of oneupmanship between the cousins commences, just as the Government requires the Queen’s advice on continuing the war in France led by Sarah’s husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) and the leader of the opposition (Nicholas Hoult) tries to get secrets from the royal household out of Abigail …  You look like a badger. Let’s talk about camerawork. Low angles to be precise. Constantly. And the odd fisheye lens. And you know what? Tom Hooper isn’t misdirecting. Is there a reason then? Perhaps to detract from the hollow sound that empty laughter produces. That, and the foghorn-like score which drove me demented: you’ll think you have Tourette’s. This is overtly ‘satirical’ without however the political consciousness to raise the puerile humour into something attaining relevance. Pointless, in other words. The lauded performance by Colman is a series of tics rather than a complete characterisation;  while the one moment of authentic feeling arrives forty-five minutes into the running time and happens to involve bunny rabbits – the Queen has one for each child she lost in childbirth. That’s a lot of cute rabbits. With nary a care for consistency, a hefty use of the ‘c’ word (I don’t care) and some Lesbian antics there’s probably a case to be made for this as an extended TV sketch of the type that French and Saunders did thirty years ago. They mercifully concluded, contained by content and common sense. This just goes on and on and on to no particular end (there isn’t one, in fact). Tedious. Stone and Weisz have one note to play and do it repetitively. As does everybody else. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what now passes for an art film – sound and fury etc. Another two hours of my life have evaporated as the lessons of Monty Python go unheeded by the Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos and writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. A dismal farce that fails as biography. That din in my head. Will it ever go away?! There’s always the rabbits. And Horatio, the Fastest Duck in the City. Let’s shoot something

Peter Rabbit (2018)

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You mustn’t be afraid to toss and fluff, toss and fluff! Peter Rabbit (James Corden), his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail and cousin Benjamin Bunny are finally freed of their dastardly rabbit-catching nemesis Mr McGregor (Sam Neill) . But when his prissy nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) is fired from Harrods and inherits the house, they are in for a tough time of it  – until he catches the eye of wannabe artist Bea (Rose Byrne) the rabbit-loving neighbour … I’ve got nothing against the countryside, I just find it disgusting. In which Beatrix Potter’s magical stories are transformed into a contemporary exercise in slapstick  and frat parties with a simpering Gleeson and a grinning Byrne. Corden (the man voted Most Hated by the crew of Into the Woods) leads them all a merry chase but the physical comedy is cut badly and Gleeson’s feet and face are disembodied from what could have been a more Keatonesque performance as the security ratchets up a notch and the rabbits have to become more ingenious in their quest for lettuce. The action becomes inventive then gets merely repetitive and eventually exhausting, the occasional visual treats superseded by an insensitivity that isn’t remotely Potteresque. There are some good recurring jokes – like the cockerel who’s astonished that the sun comes up – every day! Written by director Will Gluck and Rob Lieber. At least Rachel Ward gets to voice Josephine Rabbit and her hubby Bryan Brown is Peter’s dad, parenting from beyond the grave. Small mercies.

Local Hero (1983)

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How do you do business with a man who has no door?  Up-and-coming Houston oil executive ‘Mac’ MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) gets more than he bargained for when a seemingly simple business trip to Scotland changes his outlook on life. Sent by his colorful boss Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) to the small village of Ferness, Mac is looking to buy out the townspeople and their properties so Knox Oil can build a new refinery. But after a taste of country life Mac begins to question whether he is on the right side of this transaction …  It’s their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can’t eat scenery!  Writer/director Bill Forsyth’s greatest work will remind you of Ealing Comedy and I Know Where I’m Going: wonderful antecedents and references but not entirely true to the atmosphere of this very magical film, operating with the underlying power of a fairytale. It’s primarily a film about characters and their interactions and it’s absolutely low-key and exact, sidelining whimsy for revelation.  This is truly a fish out of water scenario, about a man learning to live to a different beat in an utterly alien landscape. Lancaster’s inevitable arrival brings a sense of transcendence to the film, augmented by marvellous cinematography courtesy of Chris Menges and a legendary score by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler. I’ve been a fan of Forsyth since I nearly choked to death laughing at That Sinking Feeling so it’s sad that he never had the long career that would have been predicted. This is a romance between people and land and sky and the immensity of living a small life, alive to the wonder. The sun, moon and stars were aligned when they made it.

Gone to Earth (1950)

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Aka The Wild Heart. He put a spell on me, he did. Hazel Woodus (Jennifer Jones) is an innocent child of nature in the Shropshire countryside on the Welsh borders in 1897. She loves and understands all the wild animals more than the people around her. Whenever she has problems, she turns to the book of spells and charms left to her by her late gypsy mother.  Local fox-hunting squire Jack Reddin (David Farrar) sees Hazel and wants her, but she has already promised herself to the Baptist minister, Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack). She brings up a fox cub (Foxy) and is mother to him, insisting that he be part of her bridal party in the church. A struggle for her body and soul ensues and she turns to superstition to deal with her problems… Adapted from Mary Webb’s 1917 bodice-ripper, this is one of Powell and Pressburger’s odder films.  Given producer David O. Selznick’s involvement it’s no surprise that it stars his famously sibilant-averse wife Jones, who never seemed to age. She’s like a feral Scarlett O’Hara, feisty and strong-willed but ignorant in all essentials. Farrar makes a return to the P&P troupe, while Sybil Thorndike is excellent support playing mother to Cusack’s parson, a fine role for the Irish character actor. Hugh Griffith (as the wicked squire’s faithful man servant), Esmond Knight and George Cole get some good moments in the ensemble.  This is a stunning, full-blooded work in lush Technicolor with startling cinematography by the great Christopher Challis, relishing the opportunity to capture the strangeness and beauty of a very lovely part of the world which some readers might recall was the setting for some of Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series of books for adolescents. Narrated by Joseph Cotten.

 

Cujo (1983)

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There’s no such thing as a real monster. Only in stories. On the outskirts of Castle Rock, Maine, sweet family dog, the St. Bernard known as Cujo (Moe) is bitten by a bat when he’s out rabbiting.  He starts behaving oddly and becomes very aggressive in front of his owner, little Brett Camber (Billy Jacoby). As Cujo morphs into a dangerous beast, he goes on a rampage at the Camber family home and kills abusive mechanic dad Joe (Ed Lauter) after Brett and his mom Charity (Kaiulani Lee) make a run for it. Meanwhile, stay-at-home mom Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) has been carrying on with the town stud, her ex-high school boyfriend Steve (Christopher Stone) while her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) is working on advertising campaigns in the city. She swears to him that the adulterous relationship is over. When her car needs repairs she and young asthmatic son Tad (Danny Pintauro) get caught in Cujo’s crosshairs at the Camber garage where Cujo has now killed a visitor, Gary Pervier (Mills Watson). Stuck in their tiny car with a dead battery Donna and Tad have a frightening showdown with the crazed animal hoping he will be distracted every time the telephone rings but he’s tasted blood and wants fresh meat … Adapted by Don Carlos Dunaway and Barbara Turner (writing as Lauren Currier) from Stephen King’s novel, this is a rare horror – one that has to do entirely with the everyday and is completely plausible. As someone who was mauled by a dog when I was three years old and am still scarred physically and mentally from that incident, I find this film all too relatable. Sympathy for Donna and Tad is established in the carefully staged domestic scenes:  the distance from the light switch to his bed makes us empathise with this small boy and his fear of night monsters;  while Donna is a good woman bored in a big house all day long. And when she finally rejects Steve and she’s gone on her errand, he does what a scorned woman might – he takes a knife and tears up all the pillows so that the house is filled with downy feathers. We’re on her side. By the time the day’s pressures have built up, Donna and Tad’s imprisonment in the car when the battery runs down is positively sweat-inducing. As they suffer the effects of dehydration and the child becomes ill, the dog bounces off the car, bloodied from his kills. And when he finally gets a chunk of Donna, it’s truly terrifying. Her dismay when she sees the dog tackle the body of the policeman he’s savaged is completely convincing. Wallace is a marvel as the woman in jeopardy and this is fantastically efficient genre storytelling. Me? Been there, done that. I particularly enjoyed the cop’s death. So sue me. Directed by Lewis Teague.

I, Tonya (2017)

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There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants! In 1991, talented figure skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) becomes the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. We first see her as a three year old in 1970s Portland Oregon where her monstrous multiply-married mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) insists that she be mentored by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) at the local rink.  In 1994, her world comes crashing down when her violent ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) conspires with her moronic and delusional bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to injure Harding’s friend  and fellow Olympic hopeful and biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in a poorly conceived attack that forces the young woman to withdraw from the national championship. Harding’s life and legacy instantly become tarnished as she’s forever associated with one of the most infamous scandals in sports history…  When producer and star Robbie read Steven Rogers’s pitch black comedy she didn’t realise it was based on a true story (sort of). Her determination to bring this radical post-modern interpretation of one of the most notorious sporting crimes in the last quarter of a century to the big screen is testament to both her good taste and her chutzpah – this after all is her first starring role and she produced the film. She gives a powerhouse performance in a difficult role, delineating Harding’s evolution from white trash teen to triple axel-crushing rink monster routinely routed by snobby judges who want someone more ‘family’-friendly as their poster child and create the conditions for unconscious revenge against the powers that be. You were as graceless as a bull dyke. It was embarrassing! Janney’s performance has won all the awards (never forget she was everyone’s fave woman in the world in The West Wing) however she plays this crushing creature for a couple too many laughs.  It’s Robbie who has the tough job here – convincing us in this self-reflexive narrative that she really did deserve plaudits and not the horrifying level of domestic abuse which she came to expect after being reared by a veritable dragon in human form. Having each of the characters variously interviewed and breaking the fourth wall occasionally to ask why their contribution isn’t being featured at different points in the story reminds you that there are competing testimonies here.  The end credits, complete with real-life cringe-inducing footage of the ghastly individuals (this is really a documentary!) interspersed with Harding’s uplifting, magical performances makes you wonder how the poor girl ever survived the rank and file awfulness of her dreary Pacific north-west background. The interview with Hard Copy journalist Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) and the juxtaposition with the breaking news of OJ Simpson as the drama concludes in 1994 reinforces the underlying story of newsmaking in the 90s and how these two stories changed TV journalism forever. Brilliantly constructed and performed and well executed by Craig Gillespie. 6.0! Go Tonya!

Harvey (1950)

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Harvey has overcome not only time and space but any objections. Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a wealthy eccentric living with his sister and niece who enjoys a daily tipple especially when it’s with his best friend, a six foot three and a half inch rabbit, the titular Harvey. And Harvey is invisible, in Elwood’s words, a pooka (a ghost in Celtic mythology). When Elwood’s social-climbing sister Veta (Josephine Hull) tries to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium it’s she who winds up incarcerated after she admits she’s heard so much about the rabbit she sometimes sees him too…. Mary Chase’s hit Broadway play ran for a long time and it gets a delightful treatment here with Hull reprising her role:  one of the good visual jokes is her short stature. She has some nice jibes about psychiatry including, That’s all they talk about – sex. Why don’t they get out, take some long walks in the fresh air?! The sanitarium director Dr Chumley (Cecil Kellaway) tries to help Elwood but then he has some experiences with Harvey himself … Chase’s Irish Catholic background helped her conceptualise this invisible helpmate as a kind of friendly ghost and it was one of three of her plays translated to the screen. Delicately handled by director Henry Koster, this was adapted by Oscar Brodney (and an uncredited Myles Connolly) and is perfectly judged between staging and characterisation. Great performances make it an enduring entertainment.

Bambi (1942)

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A recent documentary about Walt Disney barely revealed anything about the man. For that, you watch the films. This is the high point of his achievements:  an adaptation of a book by Austrian writer Felix Salten, it is the story of a young fawn (a white tail) whose life in the meadow and the forest is mirrored by the changing seasons, his friendships with woodland creatures, death, dealings with hunters, all animated impressionistically and vividly. I can barely watch this because tears prick my eyes from the moment it starts and those memories of my first childhood viewing never leave me. It is simply stunning, moving, funny, brilliant and devastating, underscored by classical music tropes and songs. Directed by David Hand, leading a team of exquisitely gifted sequence directors, writers and artists, produced by Walt Disney. A film for the ages.