The Wolf Hour (2019)

The Wolf Hour

I don’t like to leave here. In 1977’s summer heatwave, New York City descends into violence with looting and rioting. Once-celebrated feminist author June Leigh (Naomi Watts) is afraid to leave her grandmother’s South Bronx walkup while the city burns. But it’s nothing new – she hasn’t left in years. Her groceries are delivered by Freddie (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from the store; she’s afraid to touch the garbage piling up on the floor with the noise of insects inside; the only contact she has with people is over the telephone. She can’t write the novel she’s been threatening for a long time. She is tormented by someone ringing her doorbell several times a night. She leaves a message for her sister Margot (Jennifer Ehle) to ask for money. When Margot shows up and evinces despair at June’s living conditions we recognise something traumatic has happened and a TV recording reveals an interview she did about her novel The Patriarch that created a devastating chasm in her family. Then the lights go out … The world gives back what you give to it. A weirdly timely look at the paranoia of someone who’s afraid to leave their own home – Watts even dons a facemask when her sister does the cleanup, afraid there’s a dead body on the premises. June looks out at the world in a state of some distress. It’s initially a portrait of a paranoid individual, then it’s a glimpse at the observational lifestyle of a particularly nervy and reclusive writer, then it’s a portrait of a someone suffering trauma. The arrival of three people trigger the action and story development – Freddie from the store who wants to wash himself in her bathroom; Officer Blake (Jeremy Bobb), a creepy policeman answering her call for help a week late with designs on her; Billy (Emory Cohen) the rent boy who gratifies her need for sex and finally checks out what’s happening downstairs – are classic dramatic characters. It’s the call from her agent that makes June wake up however with a month to produce her work. The tension as we wait to see if Freddie makes that drop is stomach churning. When Watts lets go and dances to music (in a score composed by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans) we empathise with her brief liberation from a hibernation that is clearly outside her control. Written and directed by Alistair Banks Griffin, this is strangely comforting lockdown viewing when everything is back to basic survival mode. Is that you?

Appointment in Berlin (1943)

Appointment in Berlin

That’s the whole point of Secret Service – to prevent people suspecting. In 1938 disillusioned and recently disgraced RAF officer Wing Commander Keith Wilson (George Sanders) risks his life in Berlin by broadcasting pro-Nazi propaganda as a cover for counter-espionage. His broadcasts have a military code enabling British manoeuvres. He falls in love with Ilse (Marguerite Chapman) sister of a high-ranking Nazi Rudolph von Preising (Onslow Stevens) and forges links with journalist Greta van Leyden (Gale Sondergaard) who is actually a spy as well and when a message needs to be taken to Holland he’s the only one left standing … If you are going in at the deep end you may as well do it for England. In a rare tragic role, Sanders scores as the officer whose disgust at Britain’s politically neutral stance prior to WW2 leads him to become a pariah – lending him handy cover when England expects. The question of identity hovers over every scene here as Ilse’s transformation is nicely nuanced whereas Sondergaard’s situation is more extreme and her ending is well staged. There’s an amusing double act from a pair of American neutrals whose constant haranguing of supposedly treacherous Wilson adds humour to proceedings – inevitably they assist in his time of need. Nice references to Goebbels and his role in the manufacturing of truth. An interesting propaganda picture of pre-war problems and the reason why cross-border co-operation was required. Michael Hogan and Horace McCoy wrote the screenplay based on B.P. Fineman’s story.  Directed by Alfred E. Green. It’s finally happened

Happy 60th Birthday Psycho (1960) 16th June 2020!

Psycho theatricalJanet Leigh in PsychoPSYCHO shower scene stills

The film that changed everything premiered on this day at the DeMille Theater in New York City sixty years ago. From its mordant premise to its stunning performances and exquisite mise-en-scène, the cod Freudianism and the cutting – culminating in the shower scene, that masterpiece of montage, this is Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. Happy birthday to Psycho!

The Girl With a Pistol (1968)

The Girl With a Pistol

Aka La Ragazza con la Pistola. Her you should kill – not you! In a small village in Sicily, Assunta (Monica Vitti) is seduced by Vincenzo (Carlo Giuffré) after he kidnaps her thinking she’s her fat cousin and takes her to his remote country home. He plans to dishonour her and thereby win her hand in marriage. However she likes sex so much it frightens him and he runs away the day after they become lovers. According to the local traditions Assunta and her sisters are unable to marry unless someone in the family kills the offender and restores the family’s honour. She leaves for England where Vincenzo has fled. Assunta finds herself intimidated by the different culture, but transforms herself into a Swinging Sixties mod and resolutely travels to Edinburgh, Sheffield, Bath, and London in search of Vincenzo in order to kill him. She befriends rugby player John (Tony Booth) in Sheffield and tries to locate Vincenzo in Bath where hospital staff cover for him. After an accident, Assunta is hospitalised; she meets a cute and lovelorn failed suicide Frank Hogan (Corin Redgrave) who takes her blood donation and who advises her to forget about Vincenzo, and to devote herself to him. Dr Osborne (Stanley Baker) takes her to a gay pub and shows him Frank’s cheating ex – a man. She falls for divorced and soon she creates for herself a new and wonderful life in England but there’s still the matter of Vincenzo … The ones who cut their wrists always remember to bring their blood group. Directed by Mario Monicelli, a name not really remembered now but he was a masterful comedy auteur and this was nominated for an Academy Award. Vitti previously performed in his 1964 film High Infidelity and 1966’s Sex Quartet (aka The Queens). Luigi Magni and Rodolfo Sonego’s script capitalises on Vitti’s top comic talent and her glorious beauty:  we really don’t believe she’s a dowdy country girl, do we? Her transformation into a London fashionista is very amusing and her deadpan delivery really works. It’s nice to see some familiar British faces like Redgrave and Booth (with Johnny Briggs making a small splash) and it all looks like a terrific jaunt with good jokes about translation and kilts. And, she gets hers, just not in the way she planned. It’s an interesting companion piece to view alongside her other British film, Modesty Blaise and there’s plenty of nutty, good looking fun even if Vincenzo’s parting comments leave a sort of nasty aftertaste. My aim was not good!

Europa (1991)

Europa theatrical

Aka Zentropa. I thought the war was over. Just after World War II Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American of German descent takes a job on the Zentropa train line in US-occupied Germany to help the country rebuild. He becomes a sleeping-car conductor under the tutelage of his drunken uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård). He falls under the spell of the mysterious Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa) daughter of Zentropa railway magnate Max (Jørgen Reenberg) whose friendship with US Colonel Harris (Eddie Constantine) has raised hackles. Her gay brother Lawrence (Udo Kier) is the family embarrassment because like Leopold he didn’t serve his country. Leopold inadvertently becomes embroiled with a pro-Nazi fascist organisation known as the Werewolves who are conspiring to overthrow the state. Simultaneously being used by the US Army, Leopold finds neutrality an impossible position … I understand unemployment in Germany a lot better now. It costs too much to work here. Danish auteur Lars von Trier made this great train thriller long before he became a trying controversialist down the Dogma 95 rabbit hole. It plugs into that febrile post-war atmosphere which we already know from films of the late 40s like Berlin Express as well as sensational character-driven pre-war comedy thrillers like The Lady Vanishes. It’s the final part of the director’s first trilogy (following The Element of Crime and The Epidemic) and it gained a lot of kudos upon release, particularly for its visual style, principally shot in black and white with rear projections in colour (photographed by Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski and Jean-Paul Meurisse) lending an eerie aspect to what is already an innovative production, shifting tone as surely as it shifts pigments. The hypnotic (literally) narration by Max von Sydow lulls you into submission like the mesmerising shuffle of the carriages along the tracks; while the charm of the leading man on his journey which is physical, emotional and political, all at once, carries you through a sensitive yet experimental scenario.The miraculous editing achievement is by Hervé Schneid. It feels like a new kind of film is being born, reformulating the grammar of the language with its surrealist nods and noir references. A cult item from the casting of Kier and Constantine alone, with Sukowa’s role harking back to her Fassbinder films, this is a classic of modern European cinema. Written by von Trier (who appears as a Jew) & Niels Vørsel with a shooting script by von Trier & Tómas Gislason. You have carried out your orders. Now relax

 

 

Grey Gardens (2009) (TVM)

Grey Gardens 2009

Everyone thinks and feels differently as the years pass by. Long Island, the mid-70s. The documentary filmmakers Albert (Arye Gross) and David Maysles (Justin Louis) are showing some of the footage they’ve shot about former members of NYC high society 79-year old Edith Bouvier Beale (Jessica Lange), the sister of Black Jack Bouvier, father of Jackie Kennedy (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her daughter 57-year old Little Edie (Drew Barrymore) to the pair. The women are living in a decrepit dirty house in East Hampton filled with cats and other stray animals and we learn how they wound up in poverty without electricity and running water, starting in the Thirties when Little Edie refused to marry any pig-headed momma’s boys bachelors and wanted a career on the stage. When her father Phelan (Ken Howard) divorces her mother she lives in the city and tries out for shows and models and falls into an adulterous relationship with Julius ‘Cap’ Krug (Daniel Baldwin) a married member of Truman’s administration. Her father tries to end it but it’s Cap who finishes with Edie and she retires to the beach house effectively replacing the attentions of her mother’s former lover, children’s tutor Gould (Malcolm Gets) and never leaves …  I don’t think you see yourself as others see you. In 1975 Albert and David Maysles released their eponymous documentary about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin and people were horrified. It was deemed tasteless and exploitative, its stars clearly not fully compos mentis and their sad lives in a state of utter disarray and poverty. What it lacked was context and that sin of omission is repaired here as we enjoy a series of flashbacks starting in 1936 when Little Edie is such a loser on the husband-hunting trail that would settle her for life while her parents’ marriage falls apart – a situation that would eventually leave her mother and herself penniless and isolated. It’s rare to see a TV movie made with such care and complexity; the word apoplectic appears at key points and has a different resonance on each occasion. Perhaps the makers understood the term palimpsest. This certainly fills the gaps the initial documentary leaves but it also restages certain scenes from Grey Gardens (1975) and the framing story as the women watch clips of their lives unspooling on the wall of the decaying house elicits some priceless reactions by the mother and daughter. This is really a story of women who are left behind and the limited options available even to the supposedly fortunate daughters of the very wealthy:  a priest reporting to Phelan Beale about Little Edie’s behaviour at a party sets the ball rolling disastrously. It’s a deeply felt film about performance on several levels and Barrymore is quite astonishing playing Little Edie in different phases of her life. Her failed debutante, girl about town and finally recluse are brilliantly developed. Her devastation and consequent alopecia when Krug tells her she has naïvely mistaken their sexual escapades for a special relationship is heartbreaking. The possibilities for misunderstandings multiply over the decades and Barrymore masters that flat affectless Boston brahmin drawl, offsetting the emotions in counter intuitive fashion. The final performance for a gay crowd at a NYC club before she leaves the State for good is good natured. Maybe she was in on the joke – at last. Throughout she seems to drift in and out of different kinds of consciousness. We know she definitely can’t stand another winter in the freezing cold of Long Island. She is matched in a different register by Lange whose role requires quite a different set of nuances not to mention a love of cats. There’s a very enlightening sequence when the newspapers break the shocking story about Jackie O’s sad cousins living in squalor and the woman herself visits and promises to have the place redecorated. Little Edie delights in lying to her that she should have been First Lady instead if Joe Kennedy Jr had lived despite having only seen him once at a party. Jackie sadly agrees:  not the anticipated reaction. The Edies enjoy the deceit, setting the scene for their final reconciliation when they finally forgive each other for the destruction of their lives. Perhaps justice is finally done for these eccentrics whose destinies were dictated by men. Written by Patricia Rozema and director Michael Sucsy. Grey Gardens is my home. It’s the only place where I feel completely myself

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991)

Dont Tell Mom the Babysitters Dead

I’ve had a very rough thirty-seven years and I need a break. Sue Ellen Crandell (Christina Applegate) has just graduated high school and her plans to join friends on vacation in Europe are ruined when her divorced mom (Concetta Tomei) decides to take off for two months to Australia leaving an elderly woman Mrs Sturak (Eda Reiss Merin) in charge of Sue Ellen and her twin Kenny (Keith Coogan) a stoner and slacker, 14-year old romantic Zach (Christopher Pettiet), 13-year old tomboy Melissa (Danielle Harris) and 11-year old TV addict Walter (Robert Hy Gorman). However Mrs Sturak dies of shock at the state of Kenny’s bedroom and after disposing of her at the local mortuary they realise she has taken the money for the summer. Sue Ellen draws the short straw and has to find a job. After failing miserably at a fast food place where she hits it off with co-worker Bryan (Josh Charles) she fakes her age and her way into an admin position at General Apparel West where designer boss Rose Lindsey (Joanna Cassidy) thinks she’s found an heir apparent.  While waiting for a paycheque she has to use petty cash to make the grocery bills and conceal her identity from office rival Carolyn (Jayne Brook) because she’s Bryan’s sister. Then the company runs into trouble and Sue Ellen’s unique (and recent) insights into teen fashion might just save the day … Did he just finish reading Dianetics or something? In which a grisly black comedy premise mutates into a tale of an accidental teenage career woman and her stoner brother who turns house husband chef, this is a feast in more ways than one:  the Nineties fashion, the role reversal whereby the kids assume adult roles more convincingly than the grown ups, and there’s a hilarious scene when Kenny chastises Sue Ellen for acting like an ungrateful spouse, home late after he’s spent the day cooking using Julia Child’s TV show to tutor him. Cassidy is outstanding as Sue Ellen’s boss who regresses to a candy-guzzling kid when her job is on the line, and an attractive cast of kids give spirited performances but it’s Applegate all the way. The imaginative use by David Newman of the Psycho score to see off Mrs Sturak is highly amusing. Written by Neil Landau and Tara Ison and directed by Stephen Herek. A relic of its era, in the best possible sense. Babysitters suck

Thunderball (1965)

Thunderball

A poker in the hands of a widow.  Two of NATO’s atomic bombs are hijacked by the criminal organisation SPECTRE, which holds the world to ransom for £100 million in diamonds, in exchange for not destroying an unspecified city in either the United Kingdom or the United States (later revealed to be Miami). The search leads James Bond (Sean Connery) to the Bahamas, where he encounters Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) the card-playing, eye patch-wearing SPECTRE Number Two whom he bests at the tables. Backed by CIA agent Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter) and Largo’s mistress Domino Derval (Claudine Auger) Bond’s search culminates in an underwater battle with Largo’s henchmen but time is running out … What strange eyes you’ve got. The one that caused the franchise a whole lot of legal issues in the ensuing years, this was also the one the audiences went bonkers for with Widescreen shooting, seriously glossy production values and slick underwater sequences that take up about a quarter of the overall running time which at two hours ten minutes was by far the longest in the series thus far. The legal issues arose because Ian Fleming’s 1961 novel was based on a story by producer Kevin McClory and was intended as the first in the series with a screenplay by them with Jack Whittingham. The new screenplay is by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins and it commences with an ingenious escape from a surprising funeral. The cat and mouse relationship between Bond and Largo is consistently surprising and satisfying; Celi is particularly good in the role. The production design by Ken Adam is quite breathtaking, the women are among the most beautiful of the era – Auger (Miss France, voiced by Nikki van der Zyl), Luciana Paluzzi as femme fatale Fiona Volpe, Martine Beswick as Paula Caplan, Bond’s tragic CIA ally, Molly Peters as physiotherapist Patricia Fearing – and Bond is actually saved by a woman. The gadgets include water-firing cannon affixed to the rear of the Aston Martin, a jetpack and a handbag-friendly Geiger counter. It all looks glorious and the incredible underwater work is shot by Ricou Browning although it’s not always clear what’s going on. The theme song by composer John Barry (returning to the franchise) with lyrics by Don Black is performed by Tom Jones who fainted in the recording booth as he sang the final note. What’s not to like? Directed by Terence Young in his third and final Bond outing. Remade 18 years later as Never Say Never Again, with Connery once more taking the lead in what was his final Bond film. Was ever a man more misunderstood?

Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations 1946

Pip – a young gentleman of great expectations! Orphaned Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip (Anthony Wager) lives with his older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe (Bernard Miles). He encounters runaway convict Magwitch (Finlay Currie) on the marshes and assists him with food and helps him cut himself free. However Magwitch is recaptured when he has a fight with a fellow escapee. An eccentric elderly spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) wants company for herself and her teenage ward Estella (Jean Simmons) a cruel but beautiful teenager who mocks Pip but with whom he falls in love from afar. Pip is apprenticed to a blacksmith when he turns 14 and Estella goes to France to become a lady. Years later Pip (John Mills) is visited by Miss Havisham’s lawyer Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) and he is to be the beneficiary of a mysterious benefactor to become a gentleman of great expectations in London where he befriends Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness) who tells him that Miss Havisham’s life is dedicated to revenge against men because she was jilted at the altar and Estella was brought up likewise. They are reunited when Pip is 21 and he visits Miss Havisham after getting his living stipend of £500 a year and he finds that Estella (Valerie Hobson) is engaged to a man she doesn’t love. Pip is visited by Magwitch who reveals he was his benefactor and that Miss Havisham was using him. He confronts her and she realises the great harm she has done and as Pip is leaving a terrible accident occurs. Magwitch should not be on the territory and is commiting a felony and Pip undertakes to help him escape England … I want to be a gentleman on her account. Director David Lean recalled a perfectly condensed theatre adaptation of the Dickens novel and wrote the screenplay with producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame and Kay Walsh. From its magnificent opening sequence on the marshes (shot by Robert Krasker) and the atmosphere conjured by the decaying mansion housing Miss Havisham, this is a film of such dazzling detail and character, brilliant playing and staging and flawless pacing, as to merit the description perfect. Lean came of age as a director and the cinematography by Guy Green and the soaring score by Walter Goehr pick out, express and complement the heart of the drama. It never dodges the little social critiques (Mills’ reaction to the public hangings) or the touches of humour (Pip popping Pocket in the jaw; his silly fashionable get up) nor the ideas of snobbery, stupidity, guilt or social injustice that characterise the text of the novel. The final scene, when Pip returns and throws light upon Estella is heartbreaking and delightful. A simply bewitching masterpiece. What larks!

England Is Mine (2017)

England Is Mine

Do you ever wake up and think, I wonder if I could have been a poet. Shy and sullen Steven Patrick Morrissey (Jack Lowden) is the unemployed and depressive son of Irish immigrants growing up in 1976 Manchester. Withdrawn and something of a loner, he goes out to rock gigs at night and then submits letters and reviews to music newspapers as well as keeping a diary. His father (Peter MacDonald) wants him to get a job, his mother (Simone Kirby) wants him to follow his passion for writing, and Steven doesn’t quite know what he wants to do. His friend, artist Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay) a nascent feminist, inspires him to continue to write lyrics and urges him to start to perform, but she eventually moves to London. Forced to earn a living and fit in with society his income from office work permits his gig-going but Steven’s frustrations and setbacks continue to mount. Although he eventually writes some songs with guitarist Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence) for the band The Nosebleeds until Duffy breaks it off, and he tries his hand at singing and enjoys it, nothing substantially changes in his life, and Steven seems at the end of his rope until another teenage fanboy who can play guitar Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) shows up on his doorstep in 1982… The past is everything I have failed to be.  A biography of The Smiths’ singer-songwriter and solo artist Morrissey before he became famous, this is hampered by the lack of The Smiths music (because the makers didn’t own the rights) but nonetheless forms another part of the puzzle that is is the man. In many respects it hymns the kitchen sink realist films that he himself paid homage in so many songs, colouring in his Irish background in the northern city of Manchester but pointedly avoiding his later songwriting and sexuality and stopping at the moment he meets Marr, the guitarist, which is where most of his fans come in. Instead it’s a portrait of a bedroom loner, a fan who fantasises about being famous and in that sense paints a fascinating picture Billy Liar-style of someone who manages to rise above their miserable circumstances and then (after the film) in protean style fashions fame from their influences and obsessions despite the apparent lack of propulsion in his life. In that sense, it’s a portrait of celebrity and how it can inspire people to escape their humdrum lives and find their own voice. The songs on the soundtrack from New York Dolls and Mott the Hoople to Sparks and Magazine are as much a part of the narrative as the arch teenage diary entries which echo the later mordantly amusing lyrics and the performance by The Nosebleeds is the most thrilling sequence in the film. Anyone who ever lived in Manchester will recognise the dreadful rainy place Morrissey wrote has so much to answer for. Director Mark Gill who co-wrote the screenplay with William Thacker gets into the head of one of the most singular talents ever produced on the British music scene and perhaps the best ever Irish band on the planet, The Smiths, the only band that mattered in the Eighties. He’s played quite charmingly by Lowden who livens up a drama that may cleave much too closely to the exhausting reality as lived in Northern England at the time. Today is Morrissey’s sixty-first birthday. Many happy returns! If there was ever a revolution in England, we’d form an orderly queue at the guillotine