Otley (1968)

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If they are the cowboys we’re supposed to be the Indians. Gerald Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) is a petty crook and wannabe antique dealer mistaken for a British secret agent when he sleeps on a couch belonging to his friend Eric Lambert (Edward Hardwicke) who’s really a suspected influence pedlar and document smuggler and who is found murdered while Otley wakes up two days on the runway at Gatwick. Otley trails double agents and double martinis at a posh cocktail party before discovering the villains have the cooperation of top government officials. He’s pegged to pose as a possible defector to oust the criminal mastermind who plans to sell stolen documents vital to national security to any enemy agent with the most money. British secret agent Imogen (Romy Schneider) first has Otley beaten up by her thugs before combining forces to go after the real villains …  I was last year’s winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Award for Lethargy. Directed by Dick Clement and co-written with his regular collaborator Ian La Frenais, this adaptation of a novel by Northern Irish author Martin Waddell is funny and characterful, laced with real wit and a bright British cast including James Bolam (from Clement and La Frenais’ The Likely Lads), Alan Badel as MI5 overlord Hadrian, James Villiers as the resurrecting spy Hendrickson, Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mum and you can see the shared mannerisms), Geoffrey Bayldon as a police superintendent, Freddie Jones as an epicene gallerist, the dulcet tones of radio DJs Pete Murray and Jimmy Young, and Leonard Rossiter – as a hitman! Great mileage is got out of the mistaken identity scenario, everyone changing sides constantly, with Courtenay wonderfully charismatic as the feckless cheeky chappie protagonist street trader in way over his head between teams of rival spies who believe everyone has a price, while Schneider has fun as the perky intelligence agent. With fantastic location shooting (by Austin Dempster), the action scenes are atypical of the spy genre although the golf course sequence will remind you of a certain Bond movie, a titles sequence in Portobello Road market shows uncooperative shoppers staring into the camera as it tracks back from Courtenay strolling among the stalls and shops, there’s a rumble among the houseboats at Cheyne Walk, a sequence at the Playboy Club and a disastrous driving test that turns into a nutty car chase. This comic approach to the wrong man spy thriller is uniquely entertaining. Damian Harris, Robin Askwith and Kenneth Cranham play kids and the music and theme song are by Stanley Myers. I’m Gerard Arthur Otley and I’ve had enough

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If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

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Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street. In early 1970s Harlem, daughter and wife-to-be Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James), who goes by the nickname Fonny. Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together, but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman he has never met by a grudge-bearing beat cop Officer Bell (Ed Skrein). Tish’s mom Sharon (Regina King) determines to get justice for her prospective son-in-law and tracks down the rape victim who has disappeared to her home country; while her husband Joseph (Colman Domingo) and Fonny’s dad Frank (Michael Beach) have a more pragmatic approach and resort to theft to make money. Meanwhile, Tish is pregnant and Fonny is in prison …  Love brought you here. Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary success with the singular Moonlight has led him to adapting James Baldwin, a classic author who has been underrepresented insofar as screen adaptations are concerned and this shares that film’s flaws with scenes of charming and alarming domesticity alternating with slowed-down moments of expressionist beauty and entire sequences of unremitting tedium – Fonny’s conversations with Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry) are a case in point. Not content to both under- and overdramatise the story, this draws into its narration a bigger issue about police brutality, corruption and racism, overloading the slight balance which then relies in turn on terrific performances which are rather unhinged by a comic book crooked cop as stooge. Enchantingly scored by Nicholas Britell who enlivens a very uneven, occasionally wearying experience. Written and directed by Jenkins. I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life

Bande a Part (1964)

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Aka Band of OutsidersA Who-Dunit, Who’s Got-It, Where-Is-It-Now Wild One From That “Breathless” director Jean-Luc Godard!  Smalltime crooks and cinéphile slackers Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) spend their days mimicking the antiheroes of Hollywood noirs and Westerns while pursuing the lovely Odile (Anna Karina) whom they meet at English class. The misfit trio upends convention at every turn, through choreographed dances in cafés or frolicsome romps through the Louvre trying to set a record for fastest circumnavigation. Eventually, their romantic view of outlaws pushes them to plan their own heist, but their inexperience may send them out in a blaze of glory – just like their B-movie heroes … Isn’t it strange how people never form a whole?Ostensibly an adaptation of a novel called Fool’s Gold by Dorothy Hitchens, that’s just a skeleton on which the mischievous Jean-Luc Godard drapes his love and admiration of Hollywood genres (and Karina) over a series of apparently improvised riffs in this lightly constructed charmer. A few clues for latecomers: Several weeks ago… A pile of money… An English class… A house by the river… A romantic young girl... It’s a splendidly rackety affair, with several standout scenes providing the postmodern matrix for much of pop culture (and a name for Quentin Tarantino’s production company). It’s Godard at his most playful, joyous and audience-pleasing, exploring what it’s like to not want to grow up and how it’s always possible to have fun with like-minded people. Then, you go a little too far and someone goes and spoils it all for everyone. Maybe. Sheer pleasure. Godard said of the dance scene: “Alice in Wonderland as re-choreographed by Kafka”. A minute of silence can last a long time… a whole eternity

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

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This isn’t happening. After returning home from the Vietnam War, veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) struggles to maintain his sanity. Plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks, convinced he is in Hell when he travels on the subway, Singer rapidly falls apart as the world and people around him morph and twist into disturbing images. Girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) and ex-wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalember), try to help, but to little avail. Even Singer’s chiropractor friend Louis (Danny Aiello), fails to reach him as he appears to descend into madness… There is no out of here. You’ve been killed, don’t you remember? Bruce Joel (Ghost) Rubin’s impressionistic screenplay about life and death gets a hallucinatory treatment by director Adrian Lyne in an unforgettable psychological portrait that seems to be about PTSD but morphs into something else entirely, a metaphysical enquiry about perception. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth. Better seen than explained, this leaves its audience in emotional distress, occupying a hellish reality where demons seem to pursue you in the subway. Robbins and the late Peña are wonderful playing out this magnificent fever dream, while Maurice Jarre’s score is a lament for the ages. See. According to this, you’re already dead

Fame (1980)

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I mean, if I don’t have a personality of my own, so what? I’m an actress! I can put on as many personalities as I want! Accepted in the Drama department of New York’s High School for the Performing Arts are sensitive Montgomery MacNeil (Paul McCrane) who thinks he’s gay, Doris Finsecker (Maureen Teefy), a shy Jewish girl, and brash Ralph Garci (Barry Miller) who succeeds after failed auditions for Music and Dance. In the Music department, Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri) is an aspiring keyboardist whose electronic equipment horrifies Mr. Shorofsky (Albert Hague), a conservative music teacher. Lisa Monroe (Laura Dean) is accepted in the Dance department, despite having no interest in the subject. Brazen Coco Hernandez (Irene Cara) is accepted in all three departments because of her all-around talent. Leroy Johnson (Gene Anthony Ray) goes to the school, performing as part of a dance routine for an auditioning friend, but the dance teachers are more impressed by his talents than hers. We follow the progress of the students through four years of high school until it’s time for graduation …  I’s young, I’s single, and I loves to mingle! Time to ‘fess up:  like all kids of the Eighties my Thursday nights were Top of the Pops followed by Fame, the TV show inspired by this Alan Parker film. And two of the highlights of my life were – therefore – seeing the back of Lee Curreri at NBC when he was recording a kids’ show; and some years later, Debbie Allen (Lydia the taskmaster dance teacher) leading the parade at New Orleans Mardi Gras, cher! That’s the fame of Fame, which had us delirious on all platforms before the term came into use. Its diverse cast pleases millennial taste although the un-PC jokes (about being gay, Jewish, black, female) would probably tee off some. It’s an equal opportunities offender! Personable, characterful, there’s one for everybody in the audience which is why everyone could relate. It’s bold and dramatic and fun and the Hot Lunch sequence makes you squeal with sheer enjoyment while the songs are just great.  Some of the plot lines strain to reach a conclusion and it’s not exactly tied up with a big red bow at the end, but you know, it’s kinda wonderful in an enervating way and no way can you not sing with delight and dance yourself dizzy watching it again! The film within a film is The Rocky Horror Picture Show and for those of us who used to go see it as a weekly performing event it’s a fabulous aide memoire. Shot at a time when Annie and Grease were on Broadway, this is a liberating, joyful viewing experience and the cast are wildly talented and charismatic in a NYC before it was cleaned up.  It’s simply teeming with infectious energy, danger, ambition and inchoate teenage rage. Written by Christopher Gore.  Music is the hardest profession of them all

Great Expectations (1998)

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Why had she told me?  She told me to wound me. Orphan Finn (Jeremy James Kissner) is being raised by his older sister Maggie (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend Joe (Chris Cooper) a fisherman on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Finn fatefully makes the acquaintance of an escaped con, mobster Arthur Lustig (Robert De Niro) whom he tries to help get away from the police but the man is caught. He helps crazy old Nora Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft) and her beautiful niece Estella (Raquel Beaudene) by doing the gardening around their old mansion. Finn shows the old woman his art and she has him do a portrait of Estella.  When they are teenagers Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) reveals in a passionate encounter that she knows Finn (Ethan Hawke) is in love with her, then disappears to study in Europe. In the ’80s a mysterious lawyer Jerry Ragno (Josh Mostel) turns up and offers to finance a show of Finn’s work in New York where he pursues his career in art, leaving the fishing business where he’s been working with Joe for years. He once again encounters his beloved Estella, now engaged to rich, snobby Walter (Hank Azaria)…  I’m not going to tell the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.  Director Alfonso Cuarón glories in the ironic world envisioned by Dickens now transposed to a very different, much lusher and contemporary locale by screenwriter Mitch Glazer. With the incredible production design and setting on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Paradiso Perduto the overgrown and crumbling tropical mansion decaying around Miss Havisham’s newest iteration, her every appearance serenaded by Bésame Mucho, the scene is set for a very modern retelling of a tragic romance. With Pip as Finn the lovelorn child and artist, surrounded by the wonders of Nature, the opportunity to relate the love story through pictures gives it a different level of expressionism.  Paltrow is the epitome of the cool Nineties blonde – think Carolyn Bessette, as she may have done, and her impossible persona of Estella and the snobby world of tastemakers she inhabits makes sense. Bancroft is perfectly lurid as the sad and wicked old dame to whose wise words Finn is deaf – his love for Estella is simply too overwhelming as her revenge plot against treacherous men unfolds. The contrast between the wonderfully blue seas and overgrowing gardens familiar to us from a few great private eye novels (and even Grey Gardens) with New York’s glittery art scene couldn’t be more pronounced and Uncle Joe’s arrival at Finn’s opening night is horribly embarrassing and sad. The shocking return of Magwitch/Lustig is perfectly achieved and we see Finn finally grow up in this tragically transforming tale from innocence to experience. A bewitching, stylish interpretation with stunning photography and lighting by Emanuel Lubezki and art by Francesco Clemente. The voiceover from Finn’s older and wiser perspective was written by David Mamet. What is it like not to feel anything?

Death Wish (1974)

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I mean, if we’re not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when they’re faced with a condition or fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide? Once a mild-mannered liberal, New York City architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) snaps when intruders break into his home, murdering his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and violently raping his daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan). On a business trip to Tucson, Arizona he is given a gift from a client Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a revolver he uses to patrol the streets when he returns home when he realises his ideals have been completely compromised in the worst possible way. Frustrated that the police led by Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) cannot find the intruders, he becomes a vigilante, gunning down any criminal that crosses his path. Then the public finds his vigilanteism heroic… Wendell Mayes adapted Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel which arose from his own spontaneous reaction to being a crime victim. Under the direction of Michael Winner this exploitation fare becomes a muscular revenge thriller, brilliantly honing Bronson’s persona to effectively express what any normal individual might feel like doing – but would restrain themselves from actually pulling the trigger. His transformation is key to establishing the audience’s empathy. You’ll have fun identifying the thugs – watch for Jeff Goldblum. Also in the cast:  Stephen Elliott, Paul Dooley, Christopher Guest and that’s Olympia Dukakis in the precinct. The cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz is realistic and the score by Herbie Hancock immersive, making for a powerfully atmospheric narrative. Probably Winner’s best film. Fantastically judged and controversial, this is for anyone who’s ever felt f****d over.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

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I may well be dead – just not typed.  IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a pernickety type who lives by the time on his wristwatch. When he hears the voice of author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) in his head  he thinks he’s going crazy but then discovers that he is the ill-fated protagonist of her latest novel.  While Eiffel’s assistant Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) tries to cure the author’s case of writer’s block, Harold and a professor of literary theory Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) set out to find the woman and make her change her story from tragedy to comedy.  Meanwhile, Harold falls for one of his delinquent auditees, baker and Harvard Law dropout Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and wants to do something meaningful with his life. It’s essential to ensure that Eiffel doesn’t let him die but when Hilbert reads the book he declares it’s her masterpiece and Harold simply must succumb to her ending … Quirky, funny rumination on protagonists, motivation, narration, literary theory and (accidents of) fate – with Ferrell playing low-key to the point of diffidence and Thompson practically persecuted when she realises she is writing about a real living person and has the power to control him – the problem is, all her subjects die.  Great jokes about academia and storytelling (‘little did he know’ is the omniscient phrase that gives away to Hilbert that Harold is sane!). This may come off as a lesser iteration of Charlie Kaufman or even Woody Allen but it’s charming and funny – and cleverer than thou.  Written by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster.

Their Finest (2016)

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Why do you think that people like films? It’s because stories are structured; have a shape, a purpose, a meaning; and when things gone bad they’re still a part of a plan; there’s a point to them. Unlike life. In 1940 London former secretary and comic strip writer Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to insert more realistic female banter in propaganda films. She’s shacked up with failing war artist Ellis Cole (Jack Huston) who becomes jealous of her job while he can’t get an exhibition of his work. She starts working on a story from the newspapers about identical twin sisters who supposedly rescued soldiers at Dunkirk but discovers it was exaggerated. While she is struggling with the screenplay she falls for screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and rows with self-centred actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) whose career is basically at an end.  All the while the German bombs rain down on London and they’ve got to use an American war hero (Jake Lacy) who’s never acted before , turning journalistic fiction into a movie to entertain the masses and get America into the war … There’s a great idea buried here under a mound of rubble caused by the German bombs. Gaby Chiappe’s adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a drama and at its heart is an issue of research – and the lack of it. There are some good insights into the kind of wartime propaganda inserted into films of the era and nice pastiches but they’re overly obvious. The second (major) death is quite laughable which is presumably not what was intended. Rachael Stirling offers some terrific oppositional feminism as Phyl from the Minstry and Nighy steals every scene as the actor who turns out to be human after all. Jeremy Irons enjoys himself as the Secretary of War.  Another somewhat tentative tragicomic British film from Danish director Lone Scherfig (after An Education and One Day) with Arterton more or less delightful in a performance which attempts depth but drops the Welsh accent PDQ and Nighy gives his best Leslie Howard, sort of.  Harmless and inoffensive irony which I suppose is a kind of propaganda in itself.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

 

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I want you to do something. I want you to get yourself out of the bed, and get over to the window and scream as loud as you can. Otherwise you only have another three minutes to live. Due to a glitch on the phone line, cough drop queen Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), a spoiled controlling heiress confined to a wheelchair, overhears a conversation about a plan to kill a woman. Unable to leave her home or reach her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) – who’s employed as one of her wealthy father’s many powerless company vice-presidents – and written off by the police, Leona struggles to uncover the truth through a series of phone calls that only lead her deeper into a mystery, which may involve her college love rival, Sally (Ann Richards), and a scheme to sell pharmaceuticals on the black market. As she speaks to different people, flashbacks illuminate the plot but she struggles to find Henry and then she thinks she hears somebody downstairs … Lucille Fletcher’s radio play was called the best ever written by none other than Welles – and he would know. Stanwyck’s hysteria is irritating and wholly appropriate – sweating it out at the end of the line, curtains billowing into her luxurious bedroom where she is literally an unmoving target in a nailbiting thriller which never lets you go as it plays out in real time. This is a superbly controlled noir Gothic thriller with just enough breathing space in the flashbacks until the inexorable, horrible finale – and that last line of dialogue! Adapted by Fletcher and directed by Anatole Litvak.