Life finds a way …

We need reminding of plain facts. Only Jeff Goldblum could do it for us today.

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

Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)

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Aka Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.  The devil assumes many forms. Copenhagen police say otherwise, but amateur scientist Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond) who studies ice crystals in a university lab thinks her young Inuit neighbour Isaiah (Clipper Miano) was chased by an adult before he fell to his death from the roof of their apartment block. The daughter of an Inuit who spent her childhood in Greenland, Smilla learns that the boy’s father died while working for Dr. Andreas Tork (Richard Harris) in Greenland who heads a mining company and she is directed by former accountant Elsa (Vanessa Redgrave) to get an Expedition Report from the firm’s archive.  She asks her father Moritz (Robert Loggia) for help interpreting the information but has to deal with his young girlfriend who resents her interference in their life. After sharing her murder theory with a mysterious neighbour called The Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne) who never seems to go to work, she pursues her suspicions and her life is endangered as the impact of a meteorite hitting Greenland in 1859 is revealed in a reanimated prehistoric worm which proves toxic to human organs Why does such a nice woman have such a rough mouth? Peter Høeg’s novel was very fashionable in the Nineties and encompasses so many issues – identity, language, snow and ice, ecology and exploitation, friendship and bereavement, medical issues, astronomy, being far away from home, being motherless … that you can quite see how difficult it would be to fillet from this a straightforward thriller which is what the cinema machine demands. Ann (Ray Donovan) Biderman does a good job streamlining the narrative threads which form an orbit around Ormond who has a tremendous role here but director Bille August doesn’t really heighten the tensions  sufficiently quickly that they materialise as proper threats. What works as a literary novel seems rather far-fetched on screen when stripped of all those beautiful words. Nonetheless it’s a fascinating story and it’s a shame Ormond’s feature career never had the momentum it once seemed to possess. Costuming by Marit Allen. The way you have a sense of God I have a sense of snow

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

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There’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive. Britains’ top agent James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is entrusted with the responsibility of protecting Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) the daughter of M’s (Judi Dench) college friend, an oil tycoon murdered while collecting money at MI6 in London. While on his mission in Kazakhstan, he learns about an even more dangerous plot involving psychotic villain Renard (Robert Carlyle) and teams up with nuclear physicist Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) while enjoying a romance with the woman he’s been sent to protect … This is a game I can’t afford to play. Brosnan is back and he’s a charmingly effective Bond in a literally explosive set of action sequences packed with non-stop quips, assaults and well-choreographed kinetic adventures commencing with a bomb in MI6 HQ. Marceau is lovely as his marvellously outfitted female foil, Carlyle is a useful if underexploited villain and Richards is perfect as the preposterously beautiful nuclear physicist whose name gives rise to some great puns in the climactic scene. The only inconsistency is M being made a dupe but you can’t fault the transition from Q to R (John Cleese as a Fawlty-ish successor) or the casting of Robbie Coltrane as a bumptious Russian casino proprietor. The screenplay is credited to Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade from a story devised with Bruce Feirstein but weirdly somebody forgot to mention spy mastermind Ian Fleming. The title song performed by Garbage is composed by David Arnold and the legendary lyricist Don Black. The endless fun is directed by Michael Apted. You can’t kill me – I’m already dead

 

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)

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I didn’t invent the cosmos I just explain it. In the early 1900s in upstate New York wacky inventor Andrew Hobbs (Woody Allen) and his wife Adrian (Mary Steenburgen) invite the priapic internist Maxwell Jordan (Tony Roberts) and his latest lover free-thinking nurse Dulcy Ford(Julie Hagerty) together with Adrian’s cousin, the dry philosophy professor Leopold Sturges (José Ferrer) and his fiancée Ariel Weymouth (Mia Farrow) for a weekend house party. However Andrew was in love with Ariel a long time ago and Maxwell falls for her while it transpires Maxwell and Adrian may know each other a little better than Andrew realises … If marriage is the death of hope then the night before marriage there’s still hope. A bucolic excursion involving three mismatched couples who find sexual joy in each other’s partners, all to the music of Mendelssohn and loosely adapted from Bergman’s 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night while Gordon Willis delights in the landscape and the endless possibilities of the play of sunlight. A frisky, frothy confection that without any big revelations or confrontations (beyond the use of a skilfully aimed arrow) risks being seen purely as a parody yet in its humorous dealing with matters sexual and intellectual manages to arrive at a few truisms about human behaviour and frailty as well as the idea that there might be some form of existence beyond rational explanation. Or it’s just a nutty sex comedy with a few references to Shakespeare and hints of enchantment via a whirring magic lantern. Steenburgen and Hagerty are both ideally cast while Farrow replaced Diane Keaton and would remain Allen’s muse for another dozen films. Nothing is real but experience

 

Radio Days (1987)

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Who is Pearl Harbour? Narrator Joe (Woody Allen) tells the story of two burglars in his childhood neighbourhood of Rockaway Beach, NY, who get caught when they answer the phone to participate in a live radio competition back in the medium’s golden age. The songs trigger childhood memories and we are taken back to his life as a child as Young Joe (Seth Green) immediately prior to and during World War 2 where his mother (Julie Kavner) served breakfast listening to Breakfast With Irene and Roger and his father Martin (Michael Tucker) keeps his occupation a secret from the family until Joe finds out he’s a taxi driver when he hails a cab.  Joe’s favourite show is The Masked Avenger so he has a healthy fantasy life but when he spots a Nazi submarine on the shoreline he fails to alert anyone because he thinks they won’t believe him. Unmarried Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) lives with them and is constantly going out with losers. Joe has heard stories about radio stars and we learn about Sally White (Mia Farrow) a hatcheck girl with acting dreams and a bad accent who sleeps with big names including Roger to get ahead but always gets left behind until she gets her big break when she witnesses a murder … He’s a ventriloquist on the radio! How can you tell he’s not moving his lips? As any fule kno, Rockaway Beach is one of the most inspiring spots in New York. Winning, winsome and witty, this series of vignettes is stitched together with what can only be described as love with nods to famous radio stories including Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, here interrupting a fogbound assignation. One of the funniest tales involves a sportscaster prone to melodrama regaling his audience with the story of a blind one-legged baseball star. Farrow and Wiest get two of the best character arcs, the former’s Singin’ in the Rain-ish storyline turning her from squeaky-voiced trampy wannabe actress to Louella Parsons-type gossip columnist via a run-in with a sympathetic mob hitman Rocco (Danny Aiello) from the old ‘hood; while the latter is terminally disappointed in love including a necessarily brief romance with a white-suited Tom Wolfe lookalike bemoaning the loss of his fiancée who turns out to have been a man called Leonard. Music and songs churn and curdle the endless embarrassment and kind hearted acts as friends, family and neighbours get on with their daily lives when war breaks out. Memories of Annie Hall abound in the voyeuristic kids whose new teacher Miss Gordon (Sydney Blake) turns out to be the exhibitionist they’ve been watching surreptitiously when they were out spotting German aircraft. Brimful of nostalgia and told with fond humour, this concludes on a bittersweet note as these little lives filled with crazy incidents and relatable attitudes acknowledge that they exist vicariously through what is the soundtrack of their lives, driven by the music of all the era’s greats with everyone from Artie Shaw to Duke Ellington and Xavier Cugat featured in the world of this kaleidoscopic narrative, like a lovingly reproduced living postcard. A beautiful, intensely funny and deeply affectionate work of art. I wonder if future generations will ever even hear about us

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972)

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TB or not TB, that is congestion.  A set of wild skits loosely based upon scenarios suggested by questions raised in Dr David Reuben’s 1969 book (Are Transvestites Homosexuals? etc), this is Allen at his loosest, most surreal, tasteless and gag-driven. Between Allen’s role as Fool to the court of an English King (Anthony Quayle) and ending upskirt of the Queen (Lynn Redgrave) in a series of Shakespearean riffs; Gene Wilder’s medic (Dr Doug Ross, no less) getting caught in flagrante with a sheep (who’s wearing a garter belt); a parody of TV’s What’s My Line featuring perverts and Regis Philbin playing himself; Allen’s Fellini-esque director marrying a woman (Louise Lasser) who can only orgasm in public places à la Monica Vitti; a runaway giant breast al fresco in a sendup of Frankenstein, Ed Wood and The Blob; and the tour de force finale featuring Allen playing a sperm in scientist Tony Randall’s Fantastic Voyage through a man’s brain (What Happens During Ejaculation?) while Burt Reynolds mans the phones; this is uneven, hideously funny and somehow manages to be a perfectly dotty time capsule that sums up the issues affecting men and women fifty years ago. Or not. I found I could make a man impotent by hiding his hat!