Otley (1968)

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If they are the cowboys we’re supposed to be the Indians. Gerald Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) is a petty crook and wannabe antique dealer mistaken for a British secret agent when he sleeps on a couch belonging to his friend Eric Lambert (Edward Hardwicke) who’s really a suspected influence pedlar and document smuggler and who is found murdered while Otley wakes up two days on the runway at Gatwick. Otley trails double agents and double martinis at a posh cocktail party before discovering the villains have the cooperation of top government officials. He’s pegged to pose as a possible defector to oust the criminal mastermind who plans to sell stolen documents vital to national security to any enemy agent with the most money. British secret agent Imogen (Romy Schneider) first has Otley beaten up by her thugs before combining forces to go after the real villains …  I was last year’s winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Award for Lethargy. Directed by Dick Clement and co-written with his regular collaborator Ian La Frenais, this adaptation of a novel by Northern Irish author Martin Waddell is funny and characterful, laced with real wit and a bright British cast including James Bolam (from Clement and La Frenais’ The Likely Lads), Alan Badel as MI5 overlord Hadrian, James Villiers as the resurrecting spy Hendrickson, Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mum and you can see the shared mannerisms), Geoffrey Bayldon as a police superintendent, Freddie Jones as an epicene gallerist, the dulcet tones of radio DJs Pete Murray and Jimmy Young, and Leonard Rossiter – as a hitman! Great mileage is got out of the mistaken identity scenario, everyone changing sides constantly, with Courtenay wonderfully charismatic as the feckless cheeky chappie protagonist street trader in way over his head between teams of rival spies who believe everyone has a price, while Schneider has fun as the perky intelligence agent. With fantastic location shooting (by Austin Dempster), the action scenes are atypical of the spy genre although the golf course sequence will remind you of a certain Bond movie, a titles sequence in Portobello Road market shows uncooperative shoppers staring into the camera as it tracks back from Courtenay strolling among the stalls and shops, there’s a rumble among the houseboats at Cheyne Walk, a sequence at the Playboy Club and a disastrous driving test that turns into a nutty car chase. This comic approach to the wrong man spy thriller is uniquely entertaining. Damian Harris, Robin Askwith and Kenneth Cranham play kids and the music and theme song are by Stanley Myers. I’m Gerard Arthur Otley and I’ve had enough

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Lost in London (2017)

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Hollywood is almost like Royalty Without Borders. Woody Harrelson comes offstage from a dour drama in London to see he’s made headlines on a tabloid following an orgy with three women. He tries to persuade his wife Laura (Eleanor Matsuura) to leave a restaurant where she’s been dining with their small daughters before she sees the news but she returns to their hotel without him and he goes off drinking with an Arab prince, landing at a nightclub where he’s initially refused entry. Inside he meets his buddy Owen Wilson who berates him for his stupidity at not paying 30K to keep the story out of the papers and then they argue about their respective careers and get into a fistfight. The police are called and Woody gets assistance from a singer (Zrinka Cvitesic) who gives his last £50 to a wheelchair-bound beggar who Woody knocks over to retrieve the money before running off in a taxi where he breaks an ashtray. He flees the scene, only to be arrested in a playground and Irish cop Paddy (Martin McCann) seems bribable with a call to Bono of U2. Except when he talks to him he tells him he hasn’t made a good album since October … In the real world Wes Anderson is a Woody Allen wannabe. He hasn’t made a good film since Bottle Rocket. And come to that, neither have you. Presumably inspired by Birdman, this behind the scenes look at an actor’s wild night out in London was based on something that happened to debut writer/director movie star Harrelson 15 years previously  – and it’s shot in one take – and was livestreamed to a presumably gobsmacked audience in London’s Picturehouse Cinema at Piccadilly Circus and 500 cinemas around the US as it was being made! So far, so unprecedented, and it’s a little ropy to begin with, understandably, mostly due to the movement and some tricky performances from a cast of 30 actors: in reality just before they hit the streets they got the news (which we get from the top ‘n’ tail filmed segments added in post) that one of their locations, Waterloo Bridge, was closed off due to the discovery of an unexploded bomb. You have to admire the chutzpah of a crew who did it anyway! More than that, it’s witty, self-lacerating, and abounds with good energy, philosophical insights and jokes into fandom and celebrity (it might even be a mockumentary such is the extent of the mistaken identity and snide remarks about the last time Harrelson was in a good movie or even sexy). It even has a dream sequence with Willie Nelson playing to Harrelson. Except for the last part which fast forwards to morning (in name only as it’s night for day!) and the imminent trip to Neasden Studios to go to the Harry Potter set to prove Woody’s not a completely deadbeat dad, this is what it is: a live movie shot in a single (admittedly rather murky) take (by Jon Hembrough and Nigel Willoughby). And that’s pretty remarkable. What you are about to do is beyond crazy. Don’t do it!

Game of Thrones 2011 – 2019

Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you. Farewell, then, Game of Thrones. The final episode is dramatic, tragic, just, witty and true. Reader, I wept. What will I do for the next 9 years? When you play a game of thrones you win or you die

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

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

Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)

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Aka SarabandNo one’s safe in love. In the 18th century, Sophie Dorothea (Joan Greenwood) is forced into marriage with Prince George Louis (Peter Bull), an aristocrat destined to inherit the British crown as George I. But when he becomes king, Sophie meets suave Swedish mercenary Count Philip Konigsmark (Stewart Granger) with whom she falls in love.  They decide to flee England together, abandoning her horrific marriage. Their scheme is discovered  however and the lovers must figure out a way to escape while Philip’s previous lover Countess Platen (Flora Robson) plots revenge … My sisters have been liberal with their favours in half the courts of Europe.  Doomed romance! Beautiful costumes! Colour cinematography! John Dighton and Alexander Mackendrick’s adaptation of Helen Simpson’s melodramatic novel about the Hanoverian claim to the British throne hit the ground running for Ealing with the man chat show host Michael Parkinson described as resembling a Maltese pimp setting hearts and more aflutter. Greenwood’s husky voice alone is worth the price of admission. This lavish post-war tale was just what the doctor ordered with the exigencies and privations the nation was suffering in the aftermath of combat. Françoise Rosay makes a wonderfully superior Electress Sophia while Anthony Quayle and Michael Gough line up among the ensemble and the score by Alan Rawsthorne is just swoonsome. Fabulously entertaining, overblown saucy fluff directed by Basil Dearden and produced by Michael Balcon and Michael Relph.  I hear she doesn’t want me for a husband. Well, I sympathise with her – I don’t want her for a wife

The Exception (2016)

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I may not rule in Germany but by Christ I rule in my own house! It’s 1940.  German soldier Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) goes on a mission to investigate exiled German Monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer). The Kaiser lives in a secluded mansion (Huis Doorn) with his wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) in the Netherlands, and as Germany is taking over the country, the authorities are concerned that Dutch spies may be watching the Kaiser. As Brandt begins to infiltrate the Kaiser’s life in search of clues, he finds himself drawn into an unexpected and passionate romance with Mieke (Lily James), one of the Kaiser’s maids who is concealing the real reason for her own presence in the household… Remember, at the age of four he bit the Duke of Edinburgh on the leg. The soldier is earnest, the Kaiser is sly and the maid is sultry – and each of them has a conflict of interest:  plum roles nicely played by a game cast with Ben Daniels lending good support as the Kaiser’s assistant.  Each of the leads has a big scene in which they reveal what they’re really about and Plummer is particularly impressive as the wily old king who seems to be losing his marbles but as he points out at a crucial moment, he is not a hypocrite.  Courtney is haunted by images from his nightmarish experiences in Poland where he saw what the SS was really about.  James has lost her husband and family to the Nazis. This is a bizarrely appealing, sexy film (James immediately strips for Courtney when they first encounter each other – and why not?) that answers the question nobody ever asks:  where on earth did the Kaiser go when the Nazis jackbooted Germany into submission? If it weren’t for the full frontal nudity this might almost fit into the genre of films made during WW2 itself while reminding us that the German army was not necessarily united in support of the SS or any other wing of the Fuhrer’s movement. The facial reactions to Himmler (Eddie Marsan!) and his shocking storytelling over dinner are priceless.  And who can argue with a secret message from Churchill? You’ll find yourself thinking vaguely of The Remains of the Day but this is a tasteful entertainment of a different variety with the rather odd effect of having you sympathise somewhat with a known anti-semitic emperor. Adapted by Simon Burke from The Kaiser’s Last Kiss by Alan Judd, this is the debut of David Leveaux and very picturesque it is too. They are the rule – you are the exception

Ludwig (1973)

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Ludwig. He loved women. He loved men. He lived as controversially as he ruled. But he did not care what the world thought. He was the world. Munich 1864. Young Ludwig (Helmut Berger) is crowned King of Bavaria and sets up financing his composer friend Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard) whom he hopes will be his intimate friend. When Wagner betrays him with married Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano) he leaves Munich but Ludwig continues to support him. Ludwig’s cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider) wants to set him up with her sister Sophie (Sonia Petrovna) but it’s Elisabeth that Ludwig wants. He retreats into the world of imagination, soundtracked to Wagner’s compositions, even when the 1866 Austro-Prussian war happens and his brother Otto (John Moulder-Brown) and cabinet cannot persuade him to take a side. Despite his burgeoning homosexuality he is persuaded to marry Sophie by his advisor Count Durckheim (Helmut Griem). Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 when Bavaria loses a deal of sovereignty to Prussia, Otto is hospitalised to treat his declining mental health. Ludwig is absorbed by his extravagant building projects including Neuschwanstein Castle and becomes involved with actor Josef Kainz (Folker Bohnet) and starts hosting orgies. He ignores Elisabeth. Word of his behaviour spreads to the Bavarian cabinet so that by 1886 it’s time to draft in the doctors … Mad, bad and dangerous, that was Ludwig’s reputation and Luchino Visconti’s lush, beautiful account doesn’t exactly clarify matters about his decline and mysterious demise even though it creates a fully fleshed world, dictated by the preferences of the protagonist himself. Partly the confusion has to do with what version you have the opportunity to watch. With five different cuts varying from two to four hours in length (I have watched two, the latest being the 226 minutes version as Visconti intended) this is something of a frustration in anyone’s language;  and, at the point in Visconti’s career where decoration was slowly supplanting dramatic tension, the joy in seeing Berger and Schneider exchanging sweet nothingness is replaced by a kind of exhaustion. Beauty can do that to a person. Breathtaking? It’s all that. And less, and less, if you see the shorter cuts with some of the gay stuff removed for censorship reasons. To the detriment too of dramatic logic. Yet this is quite a rounded vision of Germany’s intellectual and cultural aspects in the latter half of the nineteenth century, bristling through a nation-state’s growing political personality as a kind of warped belle époque happens. Visconti had a stroke after filming which led to all manner of issues for a production that happened when his long-cherished Proust project failed to come to fruition.  It’s a tribute to his protegé Berger really, who totally inhabits the role from boy to man with remarkable, emotive physicality in this inscription to a sorrowful life (the Italian dub is voiced by Giancarlo Giannini); while Schneider was returning to the role of Sissi (which had made her famous throughout Europe in a series of much-loved films) as a favour to the director.  Written by Visconti with Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, this was shot on the original locations, which adds immensely to the overwhelming spectacle, a great immersion into big characters and the way they made their lives matter.

Red Sonja (1985)

Red Sonja

If you yield only to your conqueror then prepare to be conquered – Amazonian!  In the prehistoric Hyborian Age, power-hungry Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman) captures the priestesses guarding the Talisman, a mystical orb that created and can destroy the world. But one of the priestesses Varna (Janet Agren) escapes and seeks out her warrior sister, Red Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen), to warn her about Gedren’s plan for world domination. Lord Kalidor of Hyrkania (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the Talisman’s keeper, insists on helping Sonja, and though she scorns the assistance of any man, she soon gains respect for Kalidor’s fighting prowess…  I don’t need eyes to find you I can smell you at a hundred pacesFrom a lively, funny screenplay by George (Flashman) MacDonald Fraser and Clive Exton adapted from Marvel’s character Red Sonya of Rogatino (created by Roy Thomas), this is a gloriously silly swords, sanda(h)ls and sorcery romp with vengeful barbarian babe Nielsen basically engaging in very extended foreplay with sidekick Schwarzenegger, who thrusts valiantly throughout. There’s a lot of fun with young Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr.) and his faithful manservant Falkon (Paul L. Smith) when the four team up to go after the talisman. With a vivid score by Ennio Morricone, this excapist fun moves like the clappers and is all satisfyingly done in 86 trim minutes – a lesson that could be learned by contemporary blockbuster bores. Directed by Richard Fleischer. This is the way I came in, you fool!

Fire Over England (1937)

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Forgive him, Excellency. His father’s ashes blow in his eyes and he cannot see. Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) is dealing with her country’s deteriorating relationship with Spain. Michael Ingolby (Laurence Olivier), a naval officer whose father was killed fighting the Spanish, volunteers to go undercover in the Spanish court when Hilary Vane (James Mason) is killed while spying but before the names of the conspirators are revealed.  He learns plans are afoot to send an armada to ambush the British navy. Meanwhile, the aging Elizabeth, who has fallen for the dashing Ingolby, struggles with his fixation on one of her beautiful ladies-in-waiting Cynthia (Vivien Leigh). In Spain things get complicated when Ingolby tells Elena (Tamara Desni) of his real identity and she tells her husband palace governor Don Pedro (Robert Newton)… In the Old, power. In the New, gold. The first time that Leigh was paired with Olivier in a vehicle tailored for her by Alexander Korda, this wonderful production is unfortunately shot in monochrome – a shame because the colour production stills of this gorgeous pair in each other’s arms are just swoonsome. Adapted from A.E.W. Mason’s novel by Clemence Dane and Sergei Nolbandov, this has a deal of wit, particularly a wonderful dinnertime disquisition on prudence by Ingolgy. Robson is superb as Queen Bess and Raymond Massey is excellent as Philip II. It’s effectively shot by James Wong Howe and scored by Richard Addinsell but languishes in comparison with the following year’s Technicolor Hollywood production The Adventures of Robin Hood. Directed by William K. Howard. Everybody should come to me first