The Grim Reaper (1962)

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Aka La commarre secca/The Skinny Gossip. Don’t you know you fool, there are no limits to love.  When a prostitute is murdered in a Roman park a series of male suspects are brought in by the police for questioning … Based on a story by Pier Paolo Pasolini, to whom he had recently been apprenticed, Bernardo Bertolucci made his directing debut aged 21 and he and Sergio Citti wrote this crime drama which has some striking cinematography. The film follows the men, one of whom is a petty thief who follows lovers to steal their radios while they’re otherwise engaged. Teodoro a soldier (Allen Midgette) provides information that leads to another man, and so on. This is typical Pasolini in a sense in its concern with young men making their way in the world – but it also has distinctive structural touches owing perhaps a little of its idea to Rashomon and some visual flourishes that make it distinctive. One shot in particular – a reverse track through a tunnel while Teodoro squats in the rain, laughing, watched by whores, is memorable. The men are all shot pitilessly in harsh light against a white background lending their testimony an air of desperation and underlining the brutality of the murder.  Over the course of the film a narrative is created around them and the fate of the dead woman, lying on the banks of the River Tiber, spiralling towards a desperate conclusion.

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Before the Revolution (1964)

Before the Revolution

What do you think you’re up to ?  Revolution?  Parma, 1962. Student Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) struggles to reconcile his communist beliefs with his lifestyle. After his best friend Agostino (Allen Midgette) drowns, he breaks up with the nice middle class girl Clelia (Cristina Pariset) he’s been dating. When his parents invite his mother’s younger sister Gina (Adriana Asti) to stay they have a passionate affair … What David Thomson describes as a film characterised by romantic disenchantment was Bernardo Bertolucci’s audacious sophomore outing. Shot when he was just 22 and directly after his apprenticeship to Pasolini, it’s a striking piece of work, conjoining sex and politics directly and unapologetically. Bertolucci’s screenplay confronts the difficulties of post-war life in Italy in a loose adaptation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma and examines the legacy of fascism while Fabrizio considers the merits and issues within the Italian Communist Party.  Distinguished by Vittorio Storaro’s black and white cinematography and a score by Ennio Morricone, this is an astonishingly assured piece of work, announcing the director’s philosophical intent with a quote from Talleyrand as the narration begins in a film which has its roots in the Nouvelle Vague style, bristling with ideas and a signature that’s already fully formed.

Me and You (2012)

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Aka Io & Te. You have nine lives like a cat. Introverted Italian teenager Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) tells his parents he’s going on a skiing holiday but instead hides out for a week in the unused basement of their home, a conflict-free zone, spending part of the time with his 25-year old arty half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco) whose fragility and jitteriness are revealed to be the consequence of a drug addiction.  She starts to help him see the world differently … Me and you, if we didn’t have our own point of view, we’d be the same, right? Without a point of view, we’d stop fighting each other, and accept reality for what it is, without judging it. Undoubtedly Bertolucci’s ill-health contributed to his return to Italian-language cinema with this chamber piece.  It was his last film and bears his immense sympathy for the teenage condition, out of step with family and the wider world.  The relationship between brother and sister is nicely teased out, working out the best way to negotiate a way back into society. His relationships and exchanges with his mother (Sonia Bergamasco) and grandmother (Veronica Lazar) add mordant humour to the situation. It’s a small scale – even claustrophobic – drama of formal challenges, intimately reminding us of the great director’s concerns over the decades but pivoting to the psychological rather than the sexual. The screenplay is by Bertolucci with Niccolò Ammaniti, Francesca Marciano and Umberto Contarello, from the YA novel by Ammaniti. Nobody can hurt you when you’re high

Nicolas Roeg 15th August 1928 – 23rd November 2018

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I can’t think how anyone can become a director without learning the craft of cinematography. I was very glad later when I was directing that I wasn’t in the hands of a cinematographer and hoping that he would do it well. I would know what he was doing, and we could discuss how that scene would look. It was just lucky in a way that I didn’t go to film school and just learned all this on the floor.

My proudest moment was one afternoon in Nic Roeg’s study when he patted me on the shoulder and said, Very good. Very good! He was referring to my screenplay, a script for a short film which I had persuaded my producer Roeg should direct. He was my favourite director, after all, if you removed Alain Resnais from the equation (I treasure a lovely letter Resnais wrote to me explaining he couldn’t meet me because he was shooting a film. I completely understood). I had written my film for a certain actor and this was my second, exhausted tilt at the windmill. And Roeg had agreed. I was stunned. It was a work which needed someone who understood imagery but wouldn’t be hamstrung by it, liked a fluid camera and was comfortable dealing with humorously dark erotic drama. Who else? He had learned his craft working on some of the most beautiful films of the Sixties as cinematographer, including Doctor Zhivago (which he quit because he needed more freedom than Lean would allow), Casino Royale, Far From the Madding Crowd and perhaps crucially, Petulia, which is a kaleidoscope of visual and narrative montage honed to a smooth entirety. I took a look at all the walls lined with books (an entire shelf on the Kabbalah, courtesy of Eureka), many photos of his ex-wife and muse Theresa Russell (although I wasn’t sure that they had divorced), and of their sons, one of whom was about to model for Harper’s Bazaar.  His current reading included The Sexual Life of Catherine M. It was on top of a stack of books on his desk which looked down onto the street – Miranda Richardson (who went on to star in Puffball) lived opposite.  He had recently met with a former colleague of mine to discuss making a feature script based on Ivanhoe – that company had had two different takes on the material but the boss wanted the lesser of them. Roeg shared my very low opinion of both the project and this bottom of the barrel individual (who was fronting for a very famous director) so we had even more ground in common as well as a shared love of the original novel. When my producer showed him some artwork for my prospective film he dismissed it and just pointed at the script, and said, It’s all there. The greatest compliment I could ever receive. I had grown up watching Walkabout and The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don’t Look Now (very late at night) and I read about Bad Timing for years before I could see it:  that film alone shaped my view of cinema and a lot more besides: I was completely obsessed by it and was amazed to discover I wasn’t the only one (see the video clip below of critic Mark Cousins when he introduced it on BBC2’s Moviedrome). His AIDS public service ads voiced by John Hurt terrorised my generation as kids. His films swamped my brain: I adored his gleeful wit, his painterly freedom and his narrative ease, which belied complex character and depth-charged psychology. These mosaics of memory and meaning dominated my own psyche. Roeg’s son wanted a huge amount of money upfront for his father, the producer went nuts, my film never got made for reasons never made clear to me and my leading man is currently playacting in a jungle. I weep at the thought of all the talentless goons churning out dross over the past twenty years while Roeg struggled for finance to make any project that matched his majesty. What a remarkable, transgressive, fascinating filmmaker he was. I just worshipped this man who fell to earth. I am devastated by his loss.

 

MM#2100

Spellbound (1945)

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If there’s anything I hate, it’s a smug woman. Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives at Green Manors, a Vermont mental hospital, to replace the outgoing hospital director, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll).  Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), a psychoanalyst, discovers he is an impostor. The man confesses that the real Dr. Edwardes is dead and he believes he might have killed him, but cannot recall anything. Dr. Peterson, however is convinced he is innocent and joins him on a quest to unravel his amnesia through psychoanalysis…That Freud stuff’s a bunch of hooey/Oh, you are a fine one to talk! You have a guilt complex and amnesia and you don’t know if you are coming or going from somewhere, but Freud is hooey! *This* you know! Hmph! Wiseguy.  Adapted by Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht (with uncredited contributions from David O. Selznick’s psychiatrist May Romm!) from the 1927 novel The House of Dr Edwardes by Hilary Saint George Saunders and John Palmer, this is the Hitchcock film that brought Salvador Dali to Hollywood and those dream sequences (only 2 of the original 20 minutes remain) are a fascinating component of a film that also boasts notable theremin work in the score by Miklós Rózsa. Peck and Bergman are quite wonderful in a story that has a solidly suspenseful plot with many surprises. It’s a mad film that isn’t so much directed as orchestrated and the melodramatic flourishes are perfectly pitched. A brilliant synthesis of talents and ideas that were all aswirl as Freudianism gripped America, awash with dream symbolism and nutty psychoanalysis, it is also fascinating to see Michael (Mikhail) Chekhov, the acting coach who famously trained talents as diverse as Marilyn Monroe and Jack Nicholson, in the role of Dr Alex Brulov, Constance’s mentor. Hitchcock regular Carroll is good as the inscrutable head of the hospital, while Rhonda Fleming has a nice supporting role as a patient.  Good night and sweet dreams… which we’ll analyze at breakfast

Lured (1947)

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Would it be against Anglo-American tradition to tell a girl when the next audition is?Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball) is a London-based dancer who is distraught to learn that her friend Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) from the nightclub where she’s working has disappeared. She’s approached by Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), a Scotland Yard investigator who believes her friend has been murdered by a serial killer who uses personal ads to find his victims. The lure is poetry along the lines of Charles Baudelaire. Temple hatches a plan to catch the killer using Sandra as bait, and Sandra agrees to help. But complications arise when the mystery appears to be solved and Sandra becomes engaged to a nightclub owner and man about town Robert Fleming (George Sanders) with whom she’s already become acquainted and who shares his home with his business and legal partner Julian Wilde (Sir Cedric Harwicke) …  I’m not interested in references as much as character/I can see that for myself. Director Douglas Sirk commands this gamy mystery with verve, making a total entertainment from Leo Rosten’s screenplay, peopled with performers right in their characterful element delivering edgy lines with great wit. From the opening titles – a torch shining on the names – the mystery is driven with pace and style with running jokes (including a crossword filled in by H.R. Barrett, played by George Zucco) and enormous style.  Boris Karloff has a great supporting role as a formerly successful fashion designer living in a fantasy world while Sanders is suave as you like and Ball is … ballsy! Annette Warren, who dubs blonde club singer Ethelreda Leopold here, would also provides Ball’s singing voice in Fancy Pants and Sorrowful Jones. Gorgeously shot by Billy Daniels, this is a remake of a 1939 French film (Pieges) directed by Robert Siodmak. She’s won her spurs, she deserves to be happy

The Fallen Idol (1948)

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It’s things like that give secrets away. The young Anglo-French son of a diplomat, Philippe (Bobby Henrey), often finds himself alone at his house. To entertain him the butler Baines (Ralph Richardson) creates adventurous stories of his past. As a result, Phillipe sees the man as a hero.  He follows him one afternoon and unwittingly disturbs Baines’ extra-marital romance with Julie (Michèle Morgan). When Baines’ unpleasant wife (Sonia Dresdel) falls to her death, the police believe Baines was behind it. Philippe, who witnessed the event, will do anything to protect the butler but he only makes things worse by doing so… Where there’s life there’s hope. Director Carol Reed may have fallen out of fashion in the Sixties when the Movie auteurist critics were on the prowl but he had a remarkable way with actors and the performances he elicits here are touching. It’s an adaptation by William Templeton and Lesley of Graham Greene’s story The Basement Room.  It’s a startling evocation of the difference between a child and an adult’s perception of the world and how a young person can crucially misunderstand the games people play. Reed would return to the Belgravia location twenty years later for another story of a seven-year old boy, Oliver! Wonderfully staged and played with a creeping suspense as the police close in on Baines, this has an outstanding score by William Alwyn. We’ve got to think of lies and tell them all the time. And then they won’t find out the truth

The Disaster Artist (2017)

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Just because you want it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.  In mid-1990s San Francisco acting wannabe Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) encounters the wild and unusual Tommy Wiseau in improv class.  Wiseau has an impenetrable accent, wads of cash and looks like a vampire.  When Greg screens Rebel Without a Cause for Tommy he’s blown away and immediately drives them down to Cholame to the scene of James Dean’s fatal crash.They throw in their lot to move to LA where he owns another property and Greg gets an agent while Tommy alienates the rich and famous. He decides to write his own movie for them to make together and funds it from his account ‘literally a bottomless pit’ as a teller regales producer Seth Rogen who plays the film’s script supervisor. He does everything but learn his lines and throws hissy fits lasting days particularly when Greg moves out to live with his actress girlfriend Amber (Alison Brie) who gets him a guest role on Malcolm in the Middle after they run into Bryan Cranston at Canter’s but Tommy makes him turn it down.  Tommy fires crew and he and Greg have a monster argument.  Months later Greg is back in theatre and the premier of The Room beckons. It promises to be horrendous so will Greg even attend? … The true story (adapted from Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book) of how a vaguely paranoid European immigrant to the US made a terrible vanity project film starring himself with his best friend Greg Sestero and unintentionally became a cult hero.  The genetically gifted Franco brothers (James played James Dean in the 2001 biopic, Dave looks more like Montgomery Clift with the passing years) have some serious bromance moments here. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the major irony here is perhaps that just as Tommy needed to take a step back and learn his lines, perhaps this production was just a tad hamstrung by his approval of the film in the first place so director/star James Franco never goes totally mediaeval on us although he gives it the old college try. The credits sequence is like a blooper reel – with a split screen showing us just how precise the film within the film is including the anatomically incorrect sex scene. Maybe it’s not the crazy fest you expect but it’s a charming tribute to the madness that is required to get movies made particularly when you’re paying for them yourself.

Arrival (2016)

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At the beginning of this film I wished I had paid more attention to my linguistics lecturers at college but that still wouldn’t have made me fluent in Farsi and Mandarin like Amy Adams nor even given me a passing ‘vocabulary word’ (a la Forest Whitaker, Army Colonel) in Sanskrit. Then I wished I’d had decent science teachers in high school who didn’t just chalk questions on the board and spend double periods drinking coffee in the staff room, so that I could be a brilliant theoretical physicist, like Jeremy Renner. Science and language are the source, dude. These unhappy unmarried geniuses are drafted in by the military to translate the aliens whose craft is one of 12 that have landed on Earth. So it’s off to Montana, just like in CE3K, that masterpiece of communication, where my desire for intergalactic travel was sparked. After all, how could aliens possibly be any worse than other humans? And since I saw another UFO over a hillside near my home on Saturday, I’m kinda in the mood, you know?! Halfway through this film it dawned on me that it had nothing to do with communicating with aliens and everything to do with the abject maternal. Because Amy is in mourning for her dead daughter. Just like Sandra was in Gravity. Cos women are incomplete without children (or with them, it seems. In space no-one can hear you scream giving birth). And Jeremy is … really her husband. And this is all to do with marriage breakdown. And for some reason, time is folding in upon itself and what matters not a jot is what the aliens are doing here because it’s all, you know, personal, so their Rorschach test blots on the invisible barrier have to do with a book Amy has yet to write about Heptapod language …and the child that hasn’t died yet because she hasn’t been born because Amy and Jeremy have just met! I thought this was going to be pretty great. But it’s not about world war or invasion. The aliens have visited Earth in an extreme case of marriage counselling. Did I completely misunderstand this film? Is it me?! I give up. There is a stupendous score by the estimable Jóhann Jóhannsson. Un film de Denis Villeneuve.

The Ghost Writer (2010)

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Aka The Ghost. Robert Harris’ wickedly sly satire on the Blair Prime Ministership gets the full Polanski treatment here – replete with a changed and very shocking ending (he does this – just ask Robert Towne!). Ewan McGregor is the unvarnished wideboy London sleb journo preyed upon to become the second ghost writer of Adam Lang (a brilliantly cast Pierce Brosnan) the former PM’s memoirs after the previous one allegedly committed suicide. He arrives to his isolated Elba-like Massachusetts retreat to find Lang is under investigation by the International Criminal Court over suspected rendition and torture for the benefit of the CIA. He begins to realise that under Lang’s suavely non-committal charm there may lie a secret that his predecessor uncovered and that he may in fact have been murdered … Harris’ own adaptation (with Polanski) is faithful to a blackly comic work with many witty characters and roleplays in particular that of Olivia Williams playing Lady Macbeth wielding power behind the throne. Brosnan is terrific as the famous charisma machine, Kim Cattrall is the cat’s pyjamas as Lang’s right hand woman (and we presume his mistress) while McGregor is perfect as the guy on the make who is pulled into something he doesn’t understand. Taut, oppressive, brilliant filmmaking with an exquisite, inventive score (his best?) by Alexandre Desplat and as for the ending … I was totally shaken by it. Stunning.