Witness (1985)

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We’re all happy that you’re going to live, John Book.  After witnessing a brutal murder, young Amish boy Samuel (Lukas Haas) and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) seek protection from police officer John Book (Harrison Ford). When Book uncovers evidence of police corruption involving narcotics lieutenant James McFee (Danny Glover), Book must take Rachel and Samuel, and flee to the Amish countryside where Rachel grew up. There, immersed in Amish culture and tradition, Book and Rachel begin a cautious romance while he tries to fit in and the enemy closes in …  I just don’t like the idea of my son spending all this time with a man who carries a gun and goes around whacking people! Great films tend to create a narrative fulcrum based on juxtaposition and opposites:  here we have simplicity and purity versus corruption and violence, delicacy versus roughness, city versus country, child versus man. Written by Pamela Wallace and Earl Wallace and William Kelley, this was director Peter Weir’s entree to the American mainstream after a decade of extraordinary work in his native Australia. It also marked Harrison Ford’s acceptance into the acting world proper after a decade as action superstar courtesy of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. His relationships with Rachel and Samuel and his willingness to look silly – that sheepish grin when he’s in Amish clothing! – signalled a new level of sensitive and complex personification.  With a barn-building sequence out of the Dutch masters,  a romantic dance scene that is one of the sexiest ever made, and a conclusion that ratchets like a vise-like grip closing on the protagonists with an astonishing climax in a grain silo out of silent horror cinema, this is made by a master craftsman at his most cinematic and beautiful. Maurice Jarre’s score is legendary. An American classic. No. Try not. Do or do not

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On Chesil Beach (2017)

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We’re not two old queers living in secret on Beaumont Street. We’re man and wife!  It’s 1962.  New graduates historian Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and musician Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are nervously about to consummate their marriage in a seaside hotel in Dorset.  The waiters bring a roast dinner to their suite and make fun of them, practically sniffing the virginity in the ether. As the couple prepare to disrobe and attempt foreplay they recall the moments that brought them to this situation:  his chaotic home where his headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) has to deal with a brain injured wife (Ann Marie Duff) and two twin girls;  her engineering company owner father (Samuel West) and academic mother (Emily Watson) who are on the one hand consumed with matters of class and on the other distracted, the wife looking down on her husband rather! Edward and Florence recall their first meeting at Oxford, when he had nobody to tell about his first in History from UCL and she’s the stranger at the CND gathering who lets him know she got a First too, but in music;  when she walked seven miles from the train to meet him at the cricket club where he works; when she got his mother to paint a ‘forgery’ of her favourite painter, Uccello. The memories come rushing in as she lies on the bed issuing instructions and he fumbles and then she rejects him and rushes to the beach … Ian McEwan’s novella was never going to be simple to adapt.  Part of its bittersweet sting lies in the acute choice of words which cannot be replicated on screen.  It’s a romance lacking in passion and the flashback structure literally interrupts the non-coitus. The suggestion that Florence has endured abuse at the hands of her nasty father on a boating trip is skilfully and subtly worked into the story but still doesn’t fully explain her frigidity. (The tennis match she observes between Edward and her father clues us in a little more.)  Her disgust at the contents of a sex manual suggests that of a child not a grown woman and isn’t sufficiently elaborated considering the company she and her family keep (her mother is a friend of Iris Murdoch) and her deep emotionality performing music in a quartet is surely not that of someone who doesn’t understand desire. The book does something extraordinary in demonstrating in just a few pages how Edward’s life pans out and it is utterly devastating, elaborating directly how this single night has sabotaged his life. This melancholy adaptation works on some levels:  for one,  the production design whose attention to period detail gives us an innate sense of the era’s propriety and indicators of class and behaviour.  There are brave performances too:  Ann Marie Duff spends half of hers topless, brain damaged from being hit by a train door on the local platform;  Ronan and Howle do very well in suggesting the naivete that seemingly plagued newlyweds of the era. In essence the relationship fails because of Edward’s pride and Florence’s prejudice and it’s hard to dramatise although his taste in music (jazz, rock and roll) versus hers (strictly classical) sums it up – together however they lack erotic obsession or straightforward lust and this tentative attempt flounders for the same reason as their wedding night:  nobody just goes for it and Florence just won’t shut up. But unsatisfying as this is there’s a porno shot you won’t forget in a hurry. Adapted by McEwan and directed by Dominic Cooke.

Cries and Whispers (1972)

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It is early Monday morning and I am in pain.  At the turn of the twentieth century, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) slowly and painfully dies of cancer in the family’s country home. Her sisters are so immersed in their own problems that they can’t offer her the support she needs as she goes through a nightmare of torture. Shallow Maria (Liv Ullmann) is wracked with guilt at her husband’s suicide following his discovery of her  affair. Self-loathing, suicidal Karin (Ingrid Thulin) seems to regard her sister with revulsion. Only Anna (Kari Sylwan), the deeply religious maid who lost her young child, seems able to offer the solitary dying Agnes solace and empathy as her condition deteriorates and her sisters are helpless in their eternal feuding … Ingmar Bergman went as far as he could in Persona to explore identity:  here he holds up a mirror to the pain we cause each other even as death stares us in the face. It is so stark a confrontation and so formal a construct that it shocks. He described it simply as a chamber play in red about a dying woman and her sisters. The colour scheme devised with cinematographer Sven Nykvist seems to ooze life and threaten death and the filtered photography has a quality that niggles the brain. This is pessimistic and filled with dread, certainly, but it is also haunting and unforgettable, a master at work in a film that excited global audiences and earned multiple Academy Award nominations.

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Incredibles 2 (2018)

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I am using technology to make people lose faith in technology. Helen Parr/Elastigirl (voice of Holly Hunter) is in the spotlight after being hired to re-popularise superheroes for the company DevTech run by Winston Deavor (voice of Bob Odenkirk) with techo savvy provided by his genius sister Evelyn (voice of Catherine Keener).  That leaves Bob (voice of Craig T. Nelson) at home with teenage Violet (voice of Sarah Vowell) who can turn invisible and little brother Dash (voice of Huck Milner) who can move like lightning to navigate the day-to-day heroics of normal life as a house husband. It’s a tough transition for everyone, made tougher by the fact that the family is still unaware of baby Jack-Jack’s (Eli Fucile) emerging superpowers which an unfortunate raccoon discovers first. When an anonymous villain hatches a brilliant and dangerous plot enslaving the planet to the will of the Screenslaver, the family and Lucius/Frozone (voice of Samuel L. Jackson) must find a way to work together again which is easier said than done with Mom being deviated from the original plan to fight crime by the villain whose authoritarian desires are worse than anyone can imagine … They may be retro-future styled (Dementia 13 is playing at the cinema) but the Incredible family are dealing with some twenty-first century issues particularly the use of entertainment devices to divert attention away from what’s really important. They’ve been away for a long time but their return to the summer blockbuster season is welcome even if like most animations it’s probably twenty minutes too long.  It arrives in an arena vastly overpopulated by superhero movies albeit it steers its own way through different issues than those driving the Marvel universe or the dark-hearted DC line. There are some highly amusing sequences especially with Jack-Jack who has such great abilities even designer Edna Mode (voice of writer/director Brad Bird) doesn’t mind doing some babysitting. The warning about technology comes in a package that is itself the product of huge cinematic developments on small screens since the first Pixar film came out 14 years ago – how ironic! The action scenes are a blast. Very entertaining and a lot funnier than the average animated sequel. I hate superheroes and I renounce them!

 

Psyche 59 (1964)

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It’s the welfare state. Once they nationalised sex people began to lose interest.  Allison Crawford (Patricia Neal) lost her sight in an accident at her home when she was about to give birth. Married to businessman Eric (Curt Jurgens) she is disturbed when he declares her ravishing younger sister Robin (Samantha Eggar) is not welcome at their house that summer following her divorce in America. However it’s too late, she is arriving imminently. At lunch with Robin, Allison tells her that doctors insist her blindness is psychologically induced but she has no memory of the events leading up to the incident, so her condition persists as ‘hysterical blindness’. Robin pursues a relationship with Eric’s employee Paul (Ian Bannen) but a long-buried memory of Eric’s adultery emerges for Allison as the sisters go to their grandmother’s (Beatrix Lehmann) house in the country with Allison’s young daughters, one of whom she has never seen. When Eric and Paul join them there are terrible tensions and Robin acts out and causes an accident that prompts the return of Allison’s vision – a fact that she keeps to herself… Adapted by Julian Halevy (aka blacklisted writer Julian Zimet) from the novel Psyche 63 by Françoise des Ligneris this is a little-seen melodrama that is worth checking out. The violence of the emotions is what is so striking, reflected in some shot compositions in a film that is a psychological drama but operates like a suspense thriller.  The mystery of Allison’s blindness is front and centre and her grandmother’s obsession with horoscopes guides some of the action. How Allison’s senses – particularly auditory – are heightened is compounded by the significance of objects and her perception of people’s conduct. The way her unconscious knowledge of the affair conducted under her nose is unravelled is fascinating:  she is never fully paranoid but the little teasers of other people’s behaviour fit in with what she knows in her heart to be true. Eggar and Neal are very good as the chalk and cheese sisters – Eggar in particular is a revelation as the screwed-up good time girl determined to taunt Jurgens – and the penultimate scene with Jurgens is quite jaw-dropping. Directed with real verve and distinction by Alexander Singer, who is responsible for the wonderful cult entries A Cold Wind in August and Glass Houses, but worked primarily in TV. There’s some terrific photography by Walter Lassally.

The Verdict (1982)

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Sometimes people can surprise you.  Sometimes people have a great capacity to hear the truth.  Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a lawyer. Or he was. He’s a washed up alcoholic ambulance chaser who’s reduced to scouring the obits for clientele. When former partner Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) puts a straightforward medical negligence case his way, he’s inclined to take the settlement from the Archdiocese of Boston whose hospital doctors anaesthetised a pregnant woman into a coma four years earlier. Her sister and brother-in-law have been devastated. Then he makes the mistake of visiting her and his humanity is reawakened … David Mamet adapted the novel by Barry Reed and it’s as much a character study as a legal thriller but it’s all that too. However it has a rare quality – elegance and even eloquence, all the while hitting the generic markers. Polanski says films are made up of moments and we have a raft of them here. The moment when Galvin’s Polaroid of his client is developing in front of her comatose vegetative body is haunting:  it’s when he rediscovers his own dignity while bearing witness to her lack of it entirely. When the biased judge (Milo O’Shea) tries to dissuade him from taking the case, clearly on the side of Ed Concannon (James Mason), the attorney for the Catholic Church of whom Mickey declares, He’s a good man?  He’s the Prince of fucking Darkness! And we know this of course because we’ve all seen Salem’s Lot. When Concannon removes his coat from the judge’s armoire we have the proof that the judiciary is corrupt. It’s subtle but keen social signalling, he’s a bagman for the boys down town, as Frank realises. Frank is tempted by a wonderfully hooded divorced woman Laura (Charlotte Rampling) who just happens to turn up in his favourite Boston watering hole. We sense she’s no good but she’s an alcoholic too and her codependency draws us in. And seventy minutes into this well-structured exposition she triggers Frank’s turnaround: I can’t invest in failure any more. Frank is loaded up on bad witnesses but one is missing and it’s his last minute journey that turns into a dark night of the soul as well as a time of enlightenment.  Mamet’s then wife Lindsay Crouse is brilliant as a nurse scorned.  Frank’s exhausted closing to the jury is riveting. We become tired of hearing more lies. We become dead. But director Sidney Lumet uses silence as brilliantly as dialogue. Look at the way he shoots the NYC street scene between Mickey and Frank when Mickey has something terrible to tell him. Masterful. Frank’s hungover mornings on the couch, his afternoons on arcade games, his evenings alone with the bottle, are as significant to this narrative as his defeatist courtroom attitude.  This is one of Newman’s greatest performances – he allows that absurdly handsome face to look tired, the rightful appearance for an old soak – but it’s also a great portrait of the Catholic Church as a corrupt corporation and a reminder to never give up on those who do not have a voice. A wonderful film about adults coping in a mire of payoffs and professional malpractice and personal failure.

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

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When we’re young, we looks at thing very idealistically I guess. And I think Woodsworth means that… that when we’re grow-up… then, we have to… forget the ideals of youth… and find strength.  1928 Kansas. High school football star Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) and his sensitive high school sweetheart, Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood), are weighed down by their parents’ oppressive expectations, which threaten the future of their relationship. Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) and Bud’s oil baron father (Pat Hingle) caution their children against engaging in a sexual relationship, but for opposing reasons: Deanie’s mother thinks Bud won’t marry a girl with loose morals, while Bud’s father is afraid marriage and pregnancy would ruin Bud’s future at Yale… One of the great performances, by Wood, in one of the great movies from a Hollywood negotiating carefully between outward sexuality and the censorship mores which wouldn’t be properly thrown out for another half-dozen years. William Inge’s screenplay of adolescent yearning and learning falls plumb in the middle of his own playwriting and screenwriting run, with director Elia Kazan expertly treading the lines governing behaviour and desire in a small-minded society living in stultifying olde worlde interiors. Wood gives a total performance:  from the poetry-loving 1920s kid to the girl who falls heavily for Beatty’s rich boy and doesn’t know what to do with the burgeoning wish for sex that overwhelms her very being.  She literally goes crazy for want of him. Beatty is a superb match for Wood in his screen debut: and how beautiful are they together?  He was an important actor for Inge, having done his only stage performance in A Loss of Roses. His soft questioning hooded face seems to hold all the answers to the playwright’s questions:  Is it so terrible to have those feelings about a boy?  Barbara Loden (Kazan’s future wife) is good as Beatty’s slutty sister Ginny and Hingle is superb as his demanding father facing ruin when the stock market fails. Christie is frightening as Mrs Loomis. There are a lot of scenes set around water – it forms part of the narrative’s sensual mythology that envelops the players:  they are literally drowning in love. Kazan coaxes hysteria from an actress who was herself troubled enough to go into analysis (it was her offscreen tormentors who really needed it) and her heartbreaking expressive emotionality makes this utterly unforgettable. This is a film that takes teenagers seriously. Moving like few other films, this is a stunning and tragic evocation of repression, lust, desire and love. Wood is simply great.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

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I need to get off this planet.  Crown Prince of Asgard Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is imprisoned on the planet Sakaar and he has a race against time on his hands to return to Asgard and stop the destruction of the world (Ragnarok) by the evil goddess of death, Hela (Cate Blanchett) – who turns out to be his sister. It means teaming up with his awful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who is alive after all but can he be trusted?  Dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is on hand to guide him … Written by Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost, director Taika Waititi responds to the humour in the material and the cast are given their funniest outing yet, with a great joke cameo at the beginning. Jeff Goldblum turns up as a Grandmaster glorying in gladiatorial contests and Bruce Banner aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) arrives to join The Revengers – as they call themselves – to help them take on their vicious sister. Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) joins in on this mission as a whole society is at stake with Heimdall (Idris Elba) trying to lead them to safety. There’s a lot of intentionally odd 80s-style effects, self-deprecating humour (Thor’s masculinity is tested with a haircut) and a lot of nicely set up action sequences. Good-natured comic book fun in the second Thor sequel and the seventeenth episode of the Marvel series.

Ocean’s Eight (2018)

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A him gets noticed, a her gets ignored. And we want to be ignored.  After she’s been released from prison, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) younger estranged sister of the late Danny, meets with her former partner-in-crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) to convince her to join an audacious heist that she planned while serving her sentence. Debbie and Lou assemble the rest of their team: Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter) a disgraced fashion designer who is deeply in debt with the IRS; Amita (Mindy Kaling) a jewellery maker keen to move out of her mother’s house and start her own life; Nine Ball (Rihanna) a computer hacker; Constance (Awkwafina) a street hustler and pickpocket; and Tammy (Sarah Paulson) a profiteer and another friend of Debbie’s who has been secretly selling stolen goods out of her family’s suburban home. Debbie is after a $150 million Cartier necklace, from the Met Gala in five weeks, and plans to use co-host Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), a dim-witted and snobby actress, as an unwitting mule who will wear the necklace into the gala. After the team manipulates Daphne into choosing Weil as her stylist, Weil and Amita go to Cartier to convince them to let Daphne wear the Toussaint, as well as surreptitiously digitally scan it to later manufacture a zircon duplicate but things start to unravel when the original is delivered on the day … A sequel (and spin-off) of sorts to the enjoyable Ocean’s Eleven franchise, this is produced by Steven Soderbergh who bowed out of directing duties in favour of Gary Ross who co-wrote this with Olivia Milch. Burdened perhaps by the poor reception afforded the all-female Ghostbusters, this is a far more confident and fun piece of work, tightly scripted with few lulls (maybe a short one, an hour in) and great casting, with several celebrity cameos:  even Anna Wintour makes an appearance when Tammy interns at Vogue, a nod to the films within a film (The First Monday in May, The September Issue) and of course Hathaway’s fashion film in which Wintour was played by Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada, so this is a kind of fan fiction on screen at least in part. The heist would be nothing without a revenge motif (Richard Armitage as artist/conman Claude Becker got Debbie put in the clink), an insurance investigation (my heart sank when James Corden appeared but forsooth! he doesn’t ruin it) and a twist ending. Bonham Carter’s turn as a kind of Oirish Vivienne Westwood is somewhat heartstopping but what I really want to know is where Bullock and Blanchett got their skin. Seriously.  A lot of fun, with brilliant shoplifting ideas.

The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.