Hello Down There (1969)

Hello Down There

Aka Sub-a-Dub-Dub. Pretty goldfish, we could have a whale of a time. Marine scientist Fred Miller (Tony Randall) talks his aquaphobic romance novelist wife Vivian (Janet Leigh) into spending thirty days in an experimental home he’s designed for boss T.R. Hollister (Jim Backus) in order to secure funding. But he’s got to take the entire family to live ninety feet under the sea in The Onion and that means their teenage son Tommie (Gary Tigerman) and daughter Lorrie (Kay Cole) who happen to be on the verge of signing a record deal for their pop group led by her boyfriend Harold (Richard Dreyfuss) and his brother Marvin (Lou Wagner). A rival designer, Mel Cheever (Ken Berry) from Undersea Development literally rocks their boat with his sea bed dredging and then a hurricane strikes …  Doctor, I think you’ve been smoking my bananas. An underwater musical? Why not? This blends 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Lost in Space and precedes TV’s The Partridge Family with its band of teenyboppers. Boasting a baby submarine, a seal called Gladys who loves watching the washing machine churn in the ultra mod interior, two helpful dolphins called Duke and Duchess bobbing about the lounge and Roddy McDowall as Nate Ashbury, a wunderkind hepcat music mogul, what more could you possibly want Daddy-o? Oh yes – sharks. And here it is – Dreyfuss’ first encounter with the pesky creatures – who insist on paying the Onion a visit when Leigh mistakenly flushes the trash without first incinerating it. It’s soft-hearted nutty family fun but it’s clearly nodding to Leigh’s fear of water (after Psycho!) and the only person getting their keks off regularly is Randall so whatever floats your boat. Dreyfuss’ songs are sung by composer Jeff Barry and Merv Griffin appears as himself when the kids get to perform on his show from their new abode. Harvey Lembeck appears as a sonar operator on a passing ship which misinterprets the signals from the kids’ songs as enemy activity prompting political anxiety. A real blast from the past. Written by John McGreevey and Frank Telford from a story by Ivan Tors and Art Arthur. Directed by cult sci fi fave Jack Arnold with those marvellous underwater sequences shot by Ricou Browning at Miami’s Seaquarium and in the Bahamas.  One of a unique group of films featuring the point of view of a fish. That’s all we need – more sharks!

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)

The Pink Panther Strikes Again

Do you know what kind of bomb it was?/The exploding kind. Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) escapes from a mental hospital and determines to commandeer a Doomsday machine invented by Dr Hugo Fassbender (Richard Vernon) in order to wipe out the entire world if necessary – just as long as he can kiss his bête noire Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) farewell. He kidnaps Fassbender and his daughter Margo  (Briony McRoberts) and holds them captive in his Bavarian castle but not willing to take any chances, he also hires a series of hitmen (Eddie Stacey, Herb Tanney, Terry Maidment) to help out. Meanwhile, Clouseau is diverted by the attentions of alluring Russian spy Olga (Lesley-Anne Down) …  Now we’ll see who has the last laugh. They’ve all betrayed me, and now they will have to pay. What shall I destroy? Buckingham Palace? Too small. How about London? Not big enough. England! Yes, England. In which Dreyfus becomes a kind of Blofeld-styled criminal mastermind crossed with Count Dracula, the animated titles pastiche so many genres it’s just a shame they don’t get to pay homage to them all (including Edwards’ wife Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music!). Not as well constructed as the preceding films, this genre mashup does pay dividends in the expertly engineered sight gags and one extended action sequence involving Lom, Sellers and the redoubtable Burt Kwouk as Cato. Some might take issue with the scene in the gay club and the crossdressing performers but this is a scenario that Edwards would plunder to astonishing effect in the later Victor/Victoria. There’s a packed ensemble of English actors and it’s only a shame that the great Leonard Rossiter hasn’t more to do as Clouseau’s shocked opposite number. Look quickly for Omar Sharif as an Egyptian hitman while Byron Kane does a Kissingeresque Secretary of State. Lots of fun but not for the purist – even though it had me from the moment Lom’s eye twitched. Written by Frank Waldman and director Blake Edwards. I thought you said that your dog didn’t bite!/That is not my dog

Torn Curtain (1966)

Torn Curtain

How do you like playing the dirty defector? During a trip to Copenhagen, American physicist and rocket scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) is attending a conference with his lab assistant and fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) and he picks up a telegram and tells her he is going to Stockholm. She follows him as he travels to Berlin where he publicly announces he is defecting to pursue his research for the Soviet Union. During a trip to a farm Michael meets a ‘farmer’ contact (Mort Mills) and it is clear that he is on a secret spying mission for the US. At the farmhouse he is watched by his official guard Herman Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who suspects what he is doing and Michael and the farmer’s ‘wife’ (Carolyn Conwell) are forced to kill him. He travels to Leipzig and tells Sarah what is really going on. He goes to the University in an attempt to persuade Professor Lindt (Ludwig Donath) to share his secrets but the man realises Michael has little to share and calls the authorities and the chase to catch him with Sarah commences … I forbid you to leave this room! A Hitchcock film in which various getaways are staged using bicycles, buses and boats, this is the one that forced him to conclude he no longer wished to work with stars. And what stars! Newman, who had already played a variation on this role in The Prize and Andrews, the world’s favourite actress at the time. They were not the choice of the director but of moneyman Lew Wasserman who probably played too large a role in his career and contributed to what could be described as his decline in the Sixties. And it’s true that they are weirdly mismatched. Nonetheless there is ample opportunity for local actors, Lila Kedrova, Tamara Toumanova and Ludwig Donath to shine. Peter Lorre Jr even has an uncredited role as a treacherous taxi driver! Many feel this is one of Hitchcock’s lesser films and one might ask, given that he had originated the Cold War spy thriller genre with a masterpiece, North By Northwest, why he felt he had to make another one. But we forget how fascinating the Iron Curtain was, and not just to filmmakers. What an opportunity to look at a society where spying on people wasn’t confined to Government but permeated everyday life – most Germans were snoops and tattle tales, and not in a good way. The landscape is another reason – all that flat land. (A reminder of the crop dusting scene…). The opportunity to kill someone in virtual silence because there’s a taxi driver outside the door – and what a sequence that is, using whatever comes to hand in a farmhouse kitchen.  Hitchcock told Truffaut in their famous interview that the point of that was to demonstrate how hard it actually was to kill somebody, something that the conventions of the contemporary spy thriller avoided. There is a sense in which Hitchcock is playing his greatest hits – the set pieces are fun and  quite reminiscent of ones he did earlier. Perhaps that’s understandable given that this was his fiftieth film and projects he felt more deeply about had failed to get off the ground. Despite being inspired by the defections of famed British traitors Burgess and Maclean the script originally focused on the female character and so Irish writer Brian Moore whose gynocentric novels were so acclaimed did the original draft. At that point Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant were Hitchcock’s dream cast – a replay of old attractions. But when that changed he got Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall to rewrite and the story was radically altered but Moore still got sole credit. (Moore repaid the slight by caricaturing Hitchcock in his novel Fergus). There are some horribly clunky visuals that make it obvious this was shot on the Universal lot – very unlike a director who should have been at the peak of his powers. Is he deliberately making the artificiality of the genre more transparent?! Even more oddly, Hitchcock dumped Bernard Herrmann’s unsatisfactory score (which you can find on the DVD and watch it again) and commissioned John Addison to do the version used on the theatrical release – viewing this with a different musical accompaniment alters the affect (something that a Channel 4 documentary demonstrated twenty-plus years ago). Fascinating, suspenseful and altogether necessary and not just for Hitchcock completionists. You told me nothing! You know nothing!

Knight and Day (2010)

Knight and Day

Sometimes things happen for a reason. June Havens (Cameron Diaz) is a car fanatic preparing to board a flight back home for her sister’s wedding when she bumps into Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) in the middle of a busy airport. A few minutes later, they’re making small talk on the plane when June excuses herself to the bathroom, and all hell breaks loose in the fuselage. By the time June emerges with her makeup fixed and ready for some romance, Roy has killed everybody on board, including the pilots. After crash-landing the plane in a darkened cornfield, Roy tells June that she should expect a visit from government agents, but warns her that by cooperating with them she risks almost certain death. He drugs her and she wakes up at home the following day, and his prediction comes true when June is confronted by a group of CIA agents who come under heavy fire while bombarding her with questions about her mysterious companion who it transpires is a lethal CIA operative who is to be feared. Suddenly, Roy is back, whisking June away to safety and away from her ex, fireman Rodney (Mark Blucas).  Before long the girl who never travelled far from home and doesn’t even possess a passport is off on an impromptu global adventure that takes her from the Azores to Austria, France, and Spain. Somewhere in all of the confusion and gunfire, June begins to forge a bond with Roy, a disgraced spy who’s trying to clear his name while trying to avoid being murdered. Unfortunately, it’s never quite clear whether he’s one of the good guys and by the time he reveals that he’s attempting to protect a valuable new energy source, a never-ending battery hidden in a toy knight and created by an autistic wunderkind called Simon Feck (Paul Dano), he’s got to protect him from not just his former colleague Fitz (Peter Sarsgard) but also a gang keen to get it for themselves … Nobody follows us or I kill myself and then her. A completely nutty action comedy with thrills, spills and mayhem is just what the doctor ordered so here it is, a star vehicle perfectly tailored to the respective talents of Cruise and Diaz, previously paired in the rather (in)different Vanilla Sky and taking place on planes, trains, automobiles and motorbikes. And yet they weren’t meant to be the stars when this was originally mooted and of the twelve writers – you read correctly, twelve – only one, Patrick O’Neill, gets credited. It takes some narrative shortcuts – every time June might pose a problem, Roy drugs her – but he doesn’t take advantage (no, really!) and she has some skills, and she gets to use them in the wittiest way possible no matter that she might fire off in all directions. Totally left field, barmy fun with amazing stunts, a stunning car-bike chase in the middle of a bull run and a nice twist ending. That’s Gal Gadot as a spy in a restaurant. Directed by James Mangold. Who are you?

Dorian Gray (1970)

Dorian Gray

Aka The Secret of Dorian Gray/Il dio chiamato Dorian/Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray. One day when even you’ve become an old and hideous puppet this will still be young. London student Dorian Gray (Helmut Berger) is the subject of a portrait by society painter Basil Hallward (Richard Todd) whose clients hedonistic aristos Lord Henry Wotton (Herbert Lom) and his wife Gwendolyn (Margaret Lee) take a fancy to him. Meanwhile he has fallen in love with aspiring actress Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl) as she rehearses Romeo and Juliet. She makes him think about someone other than himself for a change. As Basil completes his portrait Dorian finds himself obsessed with his painted image and swears that he will trade his soul to remain young. His relationship with Sybil grows complicated and argumentative and she is killed when she is knocked down by a car. Dorian is heavily influenced by Henry who has him sleep with Gwendolyn and Dorian then becomes immersed in society as a kind of gigolo who makes other people famous, be they men or women. However as the portrait begins to reveal his age and escalating depravity he hides it away from sight where it changes appearance and becomes ugly and Dorian ends up killing Basil when he says he’s not responsible for the alterations.  Dorian is conscious of the peril of his situation, particularly when Henry introduces him to Sybil’s double, a woman married to a scientist embarking on research into rejuvenation … Everything is yours. Take it. Enjoy it. The most beautiful man of this or any time stars in a European co-production of the greatest work of literature by the greatest Irish author and it’s updated to the flashy, groovesome Seventies. What bliss is this?! With equal parts tragic romance and fetishistic kink it easily falls into the category of trash yet the moral at the centre – the idea that youth is beautiful in itself, not just for what it can obtain – gives it a lingering value. The god-like Berger is perfectly cast as the impossibly erotic creature who transitions from youthful selfishness to graceless decadence, and his sleazy polymorphous journey through the fashionable world of swinging London is both quaintly dated and oddly touching, principally because of the relationship with Liljedahl (best known for her soft-core films in her home country of Sweden) and Berger’s consistent performance, beset by narcissistic fascination, bewildered by loss. It is precisely because this plugs into the truly pornographic ideas behind the 1890s textual aesthetics that it seems oddly perfect as an adaptation despite the occasional surprise – a bit of S&M in a stables, plus it’s not every day you see Lom approach a beautiful young man to have his wicked way with him. The screenplay is credited to giallo director Massimo Dallamano, Renato Romano, Marcello Coscia and Günter Ebert, from  Oscar Wilde’s indelible novel. The contemporary score is composed by Peppino De Luca and Carlo Pes. Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff and Harry Alan Towers for American International Pictures. You only have a few years to live really fully

High Life (2018)

High Life

Nothing can grow inside us. Monte (Robert Pattinson) and a baby girl called Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) are the last survivors of a dangerous mission on the edge of the solar system. He dumps bodies in astronaut suits into space and rears the child as he continues his work. Flashbacks reveal that it is a spaceship filled with prisoners, chief among them mad scientist Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) who wants to breed a new generation of humans and gives the male criminals (André Benjamin, Ewan Mitchell) drugs in exchange for their semen on a trip that will not end in survival. Captain (Lars Eidinger) appears ineffectual while the women (Mia Goth, Claire Tran, Agata Buzek) resist male attention and don’t want to be forcibly impregnated. As the reproductive experiment takes shape a storm of cosmic rays hits the ship and tempers run high … You’ve become a shaman of sperm. Filmmakers can take a funny turn when they start making films in a language not their own. This screenplay by that singular director Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau with collaboration by Geoff Cox and additional writing credited to Andrew Litvack (and an uncredited contribution by Nick Laird) is a case in point as her first excursion into English is deeply strange and a reworking of many tropes and themes in the genre. For the first half hour you have to really like the sound of a baby crying;  the rest of the film is mostly about bodily fluids – their source, their harvesting, their destination – interspersed with acts of violence. Pattinson lends it his intensity but to what end? Well, a black hole, if you must know. Not so much a space mission as emission, this is really a hymn to onanism:  truly a mystery, all coming and no going in an exploration of sci-fi as inner space, in and out of hand. She is perfection

Wonder (2017)

Wonder

There are no nice ones. After two dozen surgeries to get 10-year old August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) seeing and speaking he’s still terribly disfigured but mom Isabelle (Julia Roberts) has decided it’s time for him to go to regular school after years of educating him at home. It’s the first time he’s gone out without wearing his astronaut helmet. Dad Nate (Owen Wilson) and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) help out but it’s mainly been Isabelle who’s done the heavy lifting and Via has been left out and retreats to her estranged grandmother (Sonia Braga) in Coney Island when she needs attention. Auggie meets the wise and kind school principal Mr Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) who has him introduced around the school by some kids but Auggie still gets bullied terribly. He wins over some students through his smarts, especially at science where he’s top dog. However when he wears a different Halloween costume than the one his friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) expects, Auggie overhears him saying something terrible and it seems like everything is lost … Not everything in this world is about you. A film about facial disfigurement that manages to be truly humane without ever stooping to the mawkish or trite? Surely some mistake. And maybe it’s Mask. Well, that was then, this is now. This adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel is a kind of miracle of text and performance and not just by that fine young actor Tremblay. Everyone here gets their moment in a family that has other problems – sister Via is overlooked, Isabelle doesn’t speak to her mother, the marriage is strained because of the constant caring needed for Auggie. Isabelle had a promising career and was mid-thesis when Auggie came along and her life was put on hold. Roberts never looks for pity in the role and the plot keeps everyone afloat.  Even Daisy the dog needs more from the family members than they realise. That’s good writing. The screenplay is by Jack Thorne, Steven Conrad and director Steven Chbosky, who knows something about young people as we know from that other marvellous film about kids, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on his own book. Right here the issues of middle school, our responsibilities to others, competitive friendship and rivalries are nailed with precision. Auggie can’t change the way he looks so maybe we can change the way we see

Highly Dangerous (1950)

Highly Dangerous

It may not interest you technically but for a large section of humanity it could be a matter of life and death. The British government asks entomologist Frances Gray (Margaret Lockwood) to go behind the Iron Curtain and examine insects that might be used as carriers to spread disease in germ warfare. Grudgingly accepting the job, Frances goes undercover as Frances Conway, a tour director looking for potential holiday destinations and meets tough American reporter Bill Casey (Dane Clark) in the process. Unfortunately, the chief of police Razinski (Marius Goring) quickly sees through Frances’ flimsy cover. Then her contact is murdered and his body left in her hotel room and Frances is taken into custody, prompting Casey to come to her aid… A few months ago some people were shot accidentally in the woods. It was terrible. A vehicle for Lockwood after a period doing theatre, Eric Ambler loosely adapted one of his novels (The Dark Frontier), changed the gender of the protagonist and it’s a spirited adventure. The Ruritanian setting hints at the comedy style, returning Lockwood to a kind of thriller along the lines of The Lady Vanishes – enhanced by the casting of Naunton Wayne as Frances’ recruiter, Hedgerley, Wilfrid Hyde White (after The Third Man) and Goring’s performance as a comedy police chief, enlivening the playfulness. Like The Third Man, Ambler’s script makes a meta issue of storytelling, there’s a torture scene in a TV studio-like location and there are references to soap opera and a character called Frank Conway, the star of a radio serial that Frances listens to for her little nephew and for whom she is re-named. Nicely done with a good mix of intrigue, suspense and fun led by Clark as the inadvertent hero of the situation. Directed by Roy (Ward) Baker. You just can’t do things like that in real life.

Elephant (2003)

Elephant

Get the fuck out of here, shit is going to happen. John (John McFarland) is being driven through the suburbs to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms). Alex (Alex Frost) is a talented pianist being bullied at Watt High School, Oregon. He and his best friend slacker Eric (Eric Deulen) play video games, watch a documentary about Nazis, have sex in the shower and load up on guns. On their way into the building wearing camo gear and carrying black bags, Alex warns John not to go in. Elias (Elias McConnell) goes round the hallways photographing other students before going to the school newspaper office to develop his pictures. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field with girlfriend Carrie. Bespectacled outcast Michelle (Kristen Hicks) runs through the corridors and escapes to the library to avoid sports. Three bulimic girls gossip and end up in the Ladies’ Room. When the boys fail to explode propane bombs and prowl the corridors and library shooting everyone on sight, Acadia (Alicia Miles) freezes and Benny (Bennie Dixon) helps her escape through a window … Damn, they shot him. Gus Van Sant’s meditative exploration of the moments leading up to a Columbine high school-like massacre looks and feels less assured than it did upon release. Perhaps because unlike its source material (Alan Clarke’s BBC film Elephant, which was about sectarian politics in Northern Ireland) it is politically rootless unless you regard teenage alienation as justification for genocide and the inclusion of a TV documentary about Nazism adequate as rationale for unleashing senseless violence upon your contemporaries. Perhaps that is the point – that children and guns are just not a good mix, teenagers are unknowable and basically ungovernable, allowing them too much time on their own is a really bad idea because literally anything could happen in those burgeoning adults. The over the shoulder tracking shots down the school corridors and their repetitive nature bring us back to the same moments again and again giving the narrative a poetic rhythm and spatial familiarity, as does the auditory track which occasionally lapses into silence and then white noise, particularly when Alex is sitting in the cafeteria and we get a hint of the killings to come. There is no doubt that the very boring nature of the scenario and the real-time pacing lends an incremental tension to the situation. The biggest problem here is that the affectlessness of the protagonists means a conventional drama cannot be constructed and a moral is hard to discern while the filmmaker is attempting to get into these boys’ brains. That is the core of the story: there are things that people simply cannot get to grips with. The moment when a teacher approaches a student who’s just been shot dead at a classroom door and treats it as if it’s normal is simply staggering. Screenplay by Van Sant with controversial ‘memoirist’ JT LeRoy and Diane Keaton credited as producers on a project that started life as a documentary. Most importantly, have fun