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 odd 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

Vita and Virginia (2019)

Vita and Virginia

I’m exhausted with this sapphic pageant. Lauded author Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) meets fellow author best-selling Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) in London in the 1920s when their paths cross unexpectedly since they usually move in very different social circles. Vita is a married bisexual adventuress who envies fragile Virginia’s literary abilities which have earned her a reputation as an eccentric. Vita’s public escapades with women have earned the wrath of her mother (Isabella Rossellini) who regularly threatens her with losing custody of her young sons, especially after her latest foray to France which she did while dressed as a man. Despite both of the writers being married, they embark on an affair that disturbs Virginia but later inspires one of her novels, Orlando, about a hero who turns into a heroine who turns out to be a fiction …. A fearless adventuress who trades on passion, pain and fantasy. Those famously fashionable writerly Bright Young Things Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West get a New Romantic makeover with a few disquisitions about the state of things gender thrown in for good measure and an electronic score (from Isobel Waller-Bridge to enhance the feel of a retro prism being applied. Thus are modern values impressed upon a story that commences with Vita and her gay diplomat husband Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) discussing the idea of the marriage contract on the radio. Eileen Atkins adapts her play with director Chanya Button and despite the talents involved and the ghastly Bloomsbury characters it’s a fairly stillborn affair. The big ironic trope operating across the narrative is Vita’s capacity for experience while Virginia is the only writer of the two capable of actual feeling and expressivity:  she is the more literary gifted and the one who can translate their experience (or her view of it) into something like a great book. The other irony is perhaps that the script is never elevated to the quality of Woolf’s writing. There are some horrifically camp men, terrible scenes with Virginia losing her sanity for brief periods of time (cunningly evoked by visual effects) and some nice letter-reading when Vita goes abroad and tells Virginia about the travels she has been unable to persuade her to take with her. Basically Vita is an incorrigible, conscience-free flirt and Virginia is an incredible intellect, barely of this earth, all shadow to Vita’s colours.  I have fallen in love with your vision of me, Vita tells the woman who has immortalised her as Orlando. We can see she’s not like that at all. It’s not just the men who can’t deal with women’s grey matter. With notable costume design by Lorna Marie Mugan, perhaps the most truly shocking thing about this is that Sky Cinema screened it as a 12s despite the graphic sexual content. Mary Whitehouse, where are you when you’re needed?! It’s all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words

The Big Circus (1959)

The Big Circus

You are a human bullet … blasted out of a mighty cannon! Bankrupt circus owner Hank Whirling (Victor Mature) manages to get his show back on the road, but has reckoned without the reaction of his disgruntled former partners, who are determined to see him fail just when he needs to impress a banker who is determined to inspect the business. He has to take on Randy Sherman (Red Buttons) to watch the spending. He also has to keep a close eye on his younger sister Jeannie (Kathryn Grant) and a daredevil high-flyer Zach Colino (Gilbert Roland), who rashly promises to perform the stunt of the century but amid a series of supposed accidents that turn out to be the work of a saboteur they have to make it to New York before Hank’s former partner Jules Borman (Nesdon Booth) … You face the snarling fangs of the King of Beasts! Written by Charles Bennett and Irving Wallace from a story by producer/auteur Irwin Allen, this is a splendidly splashy spectacular, bursting with vigour and vitality, just the ticket for a family entertainment in these (non-) testing times. Spills, thrills and elephants with dramatic acrobatics, an escaped lion, attempted sabotage and financial finagling. Mature was almost on the skids but he does very well here. Rhonda Fleming is excellent in the supporting role of PR Helen Harrison and has some bright scenes. With Vincent Price as your ringmaster and Peter Lorre as Skeeter the clown where better to turn than this well-constructed mystery?!  Directed by Joseph M. Newman. Roll up! Roll up!

Animals (2019)

Animals

You’re my team. Long-time friends and party-lovers Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) navigate life and love in Dublin, Ireland. However, when wannabe writer Laura becomes engaged to concert pianist Jim (Fra Fee) her lifestyle of drinking, drugging and sleeping around alongside barista Tyler becomes unstuck, threatening their friendship. Tyler attends Laura’s family gatherings revolving around her parents and pregnant older sister (Amy Molloy). When Laura fancies poet Marty (Dermot Murphy), whom Tyler also likes, the difficulties intensify, and Laura thinks of moving out of the nice Georgian flat subsidised by Tyler’s late father, while Laura’s novel gets nowhere, now ten years in the writing…  Sorry girls, didn’t mean to get all holy on you there with my burning bush. With its action transposed from Manchester to Dublin, Emma Jane Unsworth adapts her much-loved novel. It’s energetically directed by Australian Sophie Hyde (her second feature after 2013’s 52 Tuesdays) who does a fine job commandeering two of the most endearing female friends explored on film in a long time, in all their unpleasant, messy, extreme, inglorious situations. The moon has married us both.  Grainger exhibits wonderful poise on her soulful journey through sex and love, while Shawkat is as convincing as ever, an established comic performer relishing the role of a thirtysomething wild child whose balance is undone, spinning into infinity, all to the backdrop of a quasi-bohemian arts scene where happiness is just a stolen bottle of MDMA away. A graphic depiction of problematic modern femininity which is subversive and true. Was any of it real?

An Inspector Calls (1954)

An Inspector Calls

We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. In 1912 Inspector Poole (Alastair Sim) arrives at the wealthy Birling household as he investigates the apparent suicide that afternooon of Eva Smith (Jane Wenham), a young working-class woman. He arrives in the middle of a dinner party and slowly reveals how each family member, including stern patriarch Arthur Birling (Arthur Young) and his uptight wife, Sybil (Olga Lindo), daughter Sheila (Eileen Moore), future son-in-law Brian Worth (Gerald Croft) and finally his own son Eric (Bryan Forbes), could all have had a hand in Eva’s death…  We all started like that, so confident and pleased with ourselves, and then he started asking us questions.  J.B. Priestley’s 1945 blend of closed-room suspenser and drama of conscience is a fascinating theatrical exercise adapted by Desmond Davis retaining Priestley’s rather blustering retro-fitted comment about complacency ahead of a war that couldn’t possibly happen in those halcyon pre-WW1 days. With the casting of Sim (famously Inspector Cockrill) you know this isn’t going to play out conventionally but each family member plus Worth has their flashback to their supposed involvement and the implications grow of a politically loaded social threat:  the father set in motion the girl’s downfall because he didn’t want to pay more than subsistence wages and feared her collectivist instincts so fired her.  It’s a canny work, toying with all kinds of prejudices and fears, ultimately summoning the supernatural to extinguish the guilty parties who are all, in their way, corrupt. Directed by Guy Hamilton. You and I aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner here

 

Parasite (2019)

Parasite

Aka Gisaengchung. They are nice because they are rich. Student Min (Seo-joon Park) is going abroad and while he is away, he asks his impoverished friend Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) to tutor Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), the young girl whom he loves by take over the private tuition in English he has been doing at the Parks’ family home. Ki-woo has done the university entrance exam four times but for whatever reason – likely poverty – he has not started a course of studies.  Some bluffing is required, with documents forged by his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park) who is also something of a talented actress. Both skills will prove useful in what becomes an ambitious Kim family project in deception and subterfuge to get out of their sewage-flooded semi-basement hovel: sister Ki-jung takes over as the troubled younger son’s art teacher and his father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) replace the family chauffeur and the housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), a woman inherited from the original owner, but they cannot reveal their family connection. What nobody but Moon-gwang knows is that the architect designed a secret bunker beneath the basement. When the Parks go on a camping holiday Ki-woo and his family take up temporary residence … We don’t need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next. Even if the country gets destroyed or sold out, nobody cares. Got it? South Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho hit the awards season jackpot with this black tragicomedy about class war and resentment. It’s set up as a kind of home invasion comedy but curdles into a dramatic commentary about class difference and the gulf of understanding between the haves and have-nots, culminating in mindless murder. It’s overlong and overdone and the dénouement is clearly planted in the seething danger underscoring  Ki-taek’s face, cheeks pinpricked with anger at the boss’ comments about his subway odour, but it’s redeemed by some unexpected moments, biting lines and something of a twisted ending. Not then the work of art much-touted by many critics, rather a triumph of marketing, a social farce bearing a touch of the Downton Abbeys coupled with an overriding problem – it is simply not possible to empathise with a single character. Don’t believe the hype. Co-written with Han Jin-won.  Rich people are naive. No resentments. No creases on them

American Woman (2018)

American Woman

We’re supposed to just sit here and wait. In a small blue-collar town in Rust Belt Pennsylvania, a 32-year-old single woman Debra Callahan’s (Sienna Miller) teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes missing. Left to raise her infant grandson Jesse (Aidan McGraw/Aidan Fiske) alone, she desperately seeks the answers behind her daughter’s disappearance while her sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) and mother Peggy (Amy Madigan) lend their support but Police Detective Sergeant Morris (E. Roger Mitchell) has no leads. After years of re-training at college and abandoning her habit of sleeping with married men, indulging a horrific coercive relationship and living from hand to mouth waiting tables, she has a job in administration and a prospective younger husband Chris (Aaron Paul) whom she marries after a couple of months but eventually life comes crashing down again …You think you’re special. More than anything else, this tale of working class people concerns the pain and difficulty of single motherhood (like mother, like daughter, both teen moms) which creates a cycle of poverty, low paid work and promiscuity. The story of generational mistakes is a somewhat run of the mill and depressing exercise, not caring to particularise the different phases of femininity save in its biological underpinnings which is after all a zero-sum game:  no matter what you do, you’re wrong and you’re trapped. Melodrama is substituted for mystery and Bridget’s disappearance is all but forgotten while life is dramatised as a series of betrayals. It finally obtains a power and focus in the closing sequences when Debra achieves a meeting with her daughter’s (inevitable) killer in prison: we just see the reflection of his face on hers, before they have an unheard conversation that leads Debra to Bridget’s final resting place, buried with his other victims. She is just a number in the earth now. Ironically, Debra now looks younger than she did eleven years earlier because is no longer the trashy tramp she essayed to survive:  with an answer to what happened she has a kind of equilibrium, at last. Very well performed by a great cast – how good is it see Amy Madigan even in a small role. Miller is superb, encompassing her character’s stop-start odyssey of rage in the smallest of gestures. Written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Jake Scott. This is it Mom. The moment you’ve been waiting for for forty years

Hot Air (2019)

Hot Air

Power down people. The American Dream is dead and buried. You’re dancing on its grave. Conservative radio host Lionel Macomb (Steve Coogan) spends his days broadcasting on hot button topics.  His life is completely turned upside down when his 16-year-old niece Tess (Taylor Russell) suddenly shows up, her addict mom, Lionel’s sister, Laurie (Tina Benko) in rehab. His long-suffering girlfriend Valerie Gannon (Neve Campbell) takes her under her wing but the teenager questions everything Lionel stands for and what he believes in while he is in a ratings war with his protegé and rival Gareth Whitley (Skylar Astin) whom Tess unwittingly assists …  My job is to make fools look foolish. Steve Coogan’s radio host is a long way from his legendary smug idiot Alan Partridge and yet they have something of a cousinly relationship – a guy who is so cocooned in his beliefs he can’t see the wood for the trees. He needs to be taught a lesson and it comes in the clichéd. form of a relative (and a black one at that) he didn’t really know existed who gives him the opportunity to change a life he didn’t know needed any alteration. Indeed, he has some self-knowledge but what he lacks is sentiment and his unresolved issues from growing up orphaned then abandoned by his feckless older sister have supposedly produced what one protester (and former employee) describes as toxic talk. What does he need to do? He needs to listen. It’s smooth and there are some zingers but it’s not really surprising in terms of linking the personal and the political: the idea that all conservative talk show hosts require is a happy childhood and good parenting to make them decent human beings is a rather naïve skew on the rationale for contemporary partisanship. Right wings hosts using the echo chamber of the airwaves as therapy? If you like:  this just doesn’t have the courage of its convictions, if it has any at all. Written by Will Reichel and directed by Frank Coraci. You become the thing you’re running from

 

Everybody Knows (2018)

Everybody Knows

Aka Todos lo saben. It’s for our daughter. Laura (Penélope Cruz) and her two children travel from Argentina to her home town outside Madrid to attend her younger sister’s wedding, an old-style village party. The joyful family reunion soon turns tragic when her impulsive teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) gets kidnapped that night and a ransom is demanded without police involvement in order to guarantee the girl’s safety. Laura’s brother-in-law Fernando (Eduard Fernández) who is married to Laura’s older sister Anna (Elvira Minguez) and whose daughter Rocio (Sara Sálamo) has split from her husband, asks retired police officer Jorge (José Ángel Egido) for advice and he tells Laura she should suspect family members. Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) arrives from Argentina: not only is he not wealthy, he is bankrupt and unemployed, a recovering alcoholic who invokes God all the time. Her former lover Paco (Javier Bardem) who acquired some of her family’s land where he grows vines assists Laura and then she make a request of him which has the ultimate effect of revealing a dark web of hidden secrets that could have triggered the kidnapping in the first place … Why is she telling you now? Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi’s drama winds inexorably tighter until it has the viewer in a vise, quite unexpectedly, in a melodrama driven by suspicion. It starts as a conventional family gathering, devolves into a crime scenario and finally pivots on a revelation that supposedly nobody knew. It is that scintilla of knowledge, a closely guarded secret, which has brought about a reckoning. Real-life husband and wife stars Bardem and Cruz are as committed as you’d expect in an observational narrative which has a different kind of focus from the standard thriller setup – it’s shaped from ongoing family issues, unexpressed bitterness about money and who knows what kinds of resentments that have developed over the years. Only Paco, the outsider, whose roots are deep in the family circle, has the finances to secure Irene’s release but it will destroy him if he gives it up. This is a story that refuses the usual genre stylings and focuses on the familial – scrabbling for money in an impoverished if scenic setting, pushing people to make admissions they’d rather not, ending in a kind of fug of denial despite the crushingly obvious:  all families are built on secrets and lies and it takes just one expertly aimed splinter at the heart to rip them apart and yet people persist in acting as though nothing has happened. There is a sense of paralysis here that makes this frighteningly true to life. Everybody knows

Lord Jim (1965)

Lord Jim

What storm can fully reveal the heart of a man? Midshipman Jim Burke (Peter O’Toole) becomes second in command of a British merchant navy ship in Asia but is stripped of his responsibilities when he abandons ship with three other crew who disappear, leaving the passengers to drown.However the Patma was salvaged by a French vessel. Disheartened and filled with self-loathing, Jim confesses in public, leading to his Captain Marlow’s (Jack Hawkins) suicide and he seeks to redeem his sins by going upriver and assisting natives in their uprising against the General (Eli Wallach)… The weapon is truth. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel by writer/director Richard Brooks, this perhaps contains flaws related to the project’s conscientious fidelity to its problematic source. Overlong and both burdened and made fascinating by its pithy philosophical dialogue, O’Toole is another cypher (like T.E. Lawrence) burning up the screen with his charisma but surrendering most of the best moments to a terrific ensemble cast. The psychology of his character remains rather impenetrable. There are exchanges dealing with cowardice, shame, bravery, heroism, the meaning of life itself and the reasons why people do what they do – and the consequences for others. There is guilt and there is sacrifice, the stuff of tragedy, in a film bursting with inner struggle, misunderstandings, romantic complications and the taint of violence. Shot by Freddie Young, who does for the jungle what he did for the deserts of the aforementioned Lawrence of Arabia. When ships changed to steam perhaps men changed too