Holmes & Watson (2018)

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He and I co-detectives? Not I. Not here. Not even in my rapturous moments of private fantasy! Renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) join forces to investigate a mysterious murder threat upon Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) at Buckingham Palace. It seems like an open-and-shut case as all signs point to Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), the criminal mastermind and longtime nemesis of the crime-solving duo. Both men are diverted by American women – Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her companion Millicent (Lauren Lapkus) whom she insists is her electric shock treatment subject, a woman reared by feral cats. When new twists and clues begin to emerge, the sleuth and his assistant must use their legendary wits and ingenious methods to catch the killer who may have been hiding in plain sight very close to home I have the oddest feeling. Like knowing, but the opposite. Blending the steampunk approach of the Robert Downey films and the flash-forward visual detection of Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV Sherlock, this also has anachronistic shtick (Titanic in the life of Queen Vic, anyone?) and a cheeky reference to one of the more arcane Holmes incarnations in the casting of Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – TV’s House, geddit?! (That’s a scene that doesn’t work, sadly). Some of the best sequences and laughs are with Hall and Lapkus, between the misogyny and the bits about nineteenth century medical treatments, with some genuinely amusing romantic farce and bromantic jokes.  This is beautifully shot by Oliver Wood, exquisitely designed by James Hambidge and costumed by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Naturally it’s only a matter of time until someone says No shit Sherlock and it’s from the mouths of Dickensian runts straight out of Oliver!  There’s a funny passing song that occasions a joke about musicals when the film finally lets rip à la The Muppets giving it more promise than it delivers and there are some highly contemporary visual and political references. So there’s wit and invention aplenty but it’s not quite clever enough all the time. Rather like Holmes. Minus the innuendo and lewdness this could have been a marvellous comic outing for children, agreeably silly with some easy but amusing targets but you know, these guys, they just can’t help themselves, with Ferrell doing too much of what he likes as the ultimate defective detective and Reilly as his hapless foil, a Johnson in more ways than one (until the roles get switched, which happens constantly and is confusing). The ladies are fantastic and Fiennes brings that immaculate class as is his wont and manages to be the only one who doesn’t actually twirl that comedy moustache; while Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald and Steve Coogan (as a one-armed tattooist) get their moments of infamy. Written and directed by Etan Coen. No, not that Coen, obvs. Terrible and clueless but not totally awful. Go figure.  A sniff of morning cocaine always helps the brain

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The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Dumbo (2019)

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You should listen to your kids more. Struggling travelling circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists a former equestrian star, WW1 amputee Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and son Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for Dumbo, a baby elephant born with oversized ears to Mrs Jumbo. When the family discovers that the animal can fly, it soon becomes the main attraction — bringing in huge audiences and revitalizing the run-down circus. His mother is separated from him leaving him distraught then his magical ability draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life entertainment venture Dreamland where he intends his spirited  Parisian trapeze artiste Colette Marchant (Eva Green) will use the little fellow in her act…  You have something very rare. You have wonder. You have mystique. You have magic. In this latest pointless live-action remake of Disney’s brilliant animated features, Ehren Kruger’s screenplay (welcome back to the big leagues) has to tread a fine line between the exigencies of the House of Mouse with its unadulterated classic sentiment and the Gothic flourishes and flawed excesses of director Tim Burton who reassembles some of his usual actors (DeVito, Green, Keaton) alongside Disney’s latest humanoid fave, Farrell. Dumbo is the greatest animation ever made and a personal favourite, an utterly beguiling story of grave majesty and emotionality. This is never going to reach those heights no matter how many high wire acts, freakshows and armless motherless humans are dramatised as reactive tropes, how many of the circus’ darkest inclinations are exhibited, how many cartoon baddies (with Afrikaaner accents) are on standby, how good Keaton (as the anti-Walt Disney!) and DeVito are, how sweet the family message. The Art Deco interiors and production design are splendid, there is real jeopardy and the CGI elephants are beautiful, but you don’t need elephants to save your blank-eyed expressionless soul (Parker has no acting ability whatsoever) which is this film’s message. It expands on the original adaptation of Helen Alberson’s book and it’s not the anticipated travesty that  the horrific Alice in Wonderland was for the same auteur pairing but that’s not saying much.  If you really want to do something for the plight of their species stop all those vile African natives and American trophy hunters from brutally killing them and ensuring their imminent extinction. Back to the drawing board. Fly, Dumbo … fly

 

Since You Went Away (1944)

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Jane, dear, I’m terribly proud of the way you’ve grown up. I’m sorry Pop missed it. When her husband  Tim leaves to fight in World War II, housewife Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) must struggle on alone to raise their two daughters, Jane (Jennifer Jones) and Bridget (Shirley Temple) in their midwestern town. With a tight budget, Anne is forced to take in two lodgers, elderly ex-soldier Col. William G. Smollett (Monty Woolley) and handsome Lt. Tony Willet (Joseph Cotten), a friend of Tim’s. However, loyal maid Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel) stays on unpaid and the makeshift household pulls together through home front hardships. Jane falls for Tony who is smitten with Anne, but when Smollett’s son Bill (Robert Walker) shows up, despite disappointing his father after failing West Point, Jane transfers her affections to him If only he could have been with me the day I went, all by myself, to the Statue of Liberty and read what it says there for the whole world to see. Do you know it? Anne Hilton, did you ever read it? Adapted by producer David O. Selznick from Margaret Buell Wilder’s eponymous novel, this is a super smooth and overlong helping of Americana from the home front, drenched in detail and emotion and amplified by the luxe shooting style of cinematographers Lee Garmes and Stanley Cortez.  It’s funny and sweet and heartwarming and touches on issues of post-combat injury with its depiction of military casualties. It’s a sweeping portrait of anxiety and unease at a troubling time when everyone is playing the same game of waiting to see if and when men will come home. Colbert does a fine job as the harried mother trying to make ends meet and dealing with the vagaries of fussy Smollett while Tony clearly wants more than friendship from her. Agnes Moorehead is superb as a catty, conscience-free neighbour. Temple is a revelation as the teenager while Jones is the romantic, wavering between crushes and finally falling for someone of her own age, with tragic consequences. Everyone is searching for a meaningful role. Directed by John Cromwell, who would later suffer under the HUAC blacklist, with uncredited work by Edward F. Cline, Tay Garnett and the ubiquitous Mr Selznick, who was also sleeping with Jones whom he later married when she and then-husband Walker divorced. Don’t you want to say good-bye?

Canadian Pacific (1949)

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I’m sorry about your father. I’ve learned, though, that in this country if I draw faster, I keep living. Engineer Tom Andrews (Randolph Scott) is carrying out a survey for the Canadian Pacific Railway and finds a pass through the Rockies that will prove vital for its construction. He tells boss Cornelius Van Horne (Robert Barrat) he is resigning his post to marry Cecile Gautier (Nancy Olson) and it is she who informs him about the problems with fur trader Dirk Rorke (Victor Jory) who wants the railroad stopped because he controls the Indians and trappers and believes their livelihood is now under threat. Tom and demolitions expert Dynamite Dawson (J. Carrol Naish) are almost killed when Rorke uses explosives to sabotage their plans and Tom’s life is saved by construction camp doctor and pacifist Quaker Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt). Then Rorke incites the local Indians to get involved… I thought you’d changed. But it takes courage not to kill and shed blood. Colourful account of the settling of the North West which doesn’t remotely relate to the truth, but, hey, who’s counting. The Indian attack is quite spectacular. Scott is typically robust and Olson is fine in her film debut while Wyatt has an unusual role, pleading for peaceful resolution amid the chaos. Written by Jack DeWitt and Kenneth Garnet and directed by Edwin Marin with beautiful location photography by Fred Jackman Jr shot in Alberta and British Columbia, at Banff, Lake Louise, Kicking Horse Pass, Morley Indian Reserve and Yoho Valley. There’s a rousing score by Dmitri Tiomkin. Do you want to die?! Then you’re either a fool or a saint!

Le Bonheur (1965)

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Aka Happiness. Happiness is perhaps submission to the natural order. In suburban Paris, young joiner François (Jean-Claude Drouot) lives a very contented life with his dressmaker wife Thérèse (Claire Drouot) and their two small children. Despite his apparent satisfaction, François takes a mistress named Emilie (Marie-France Boyer) who works at the post office and he doesn’t feel the least bit of remorse for his philandering. He tells his wife and is astonished that she’s upset. While he is able to justify loving both women, the infidelity results in tragic real-life consequences I have enough joy for both of you. There is so much joy in this film with the flowers and food and babies and general air of happiness, intimate displays of sex (the central couple were married in real life) and sensuality abounding in this working class family. The juxtaposition of the romantic with the daily grind amid the bucolic – even idyllic – setting (ravishingly shot by Jean Rabier and Claude Beausoleil) and the crummy reality of a marriage betrayed, the ease with which one wife can be replaced with another, these are the stuff of life, the nasty realities with which Agnès Varda engaged and discoursed upon so supply and clearly. A cunning exploration of the callousness of men, designed to appear observational and non-judgmental in a blaze of beautiful colours and Mozart. A wolf in sheep’s clothing with an ending that made me gasp the first time I saw it. I am happy and free and you’re not my first man

The Lost City of Z (2016)

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You’re a long way from Government now. At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is encouraged by his superiors to redeem his family name following his father’s dissolute actions, ruining the Fawcett reputation.  Although married to the supportive Nina (Sienna Miller) with a young son and one on the way, he journeys across the Atlantic to South America to carry out a survey of the Amazon in order to help adjudicate borders and to establish national territories.  On board the ship he encounters Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson)  a man who knows the rainforest. He joins the party which includes aide-de-camp Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and they go into the Amazon, where they experience the surreal pleasures of an opera in the middle of the jungle and discover evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation that may have once inhabited the region, triggered by stories told them by their guide. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment back in London when he reports his findings, which contradicts their bias against indigenous populations as savages, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, Costin and Manley, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. After another set of discoveries he is challenged by biologist James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) who falsely claims they left him for dead so Fawcett leaves the Royal Geographical Society. He is injured on the Somme when he fights in WW1 but in 1925 when his son Jack (Tom Holland) grows up he wants to help his father pursue his obsession and find the City of Z that Nina found out about in a conquistador text at Trinity College Dublin... To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? It comes off a little like Fawcett of Amazonia at first but then this James Gray film establishes its own insistent rhythm with a hallucinatory bent that comes first from obsession and then with repetition. Indeed one is forced into a world recognisably that of David Lean but also Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (quite literally, at the opera) and perhaps Conrad. However the difference is in the doggedness and the feminine element – here Nina plays a crucial part in Percy’s evolving obsession when the document she finds fuels the fire in his belly and ironically leads to increased separation. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, this has some of the usual flaws besetting Gray’s films – a kind of muted incompleteness or psychological lack and a physical darkness – but the facts of the story, the deadly nature of the pursuit and the fascinating history compensate and it has a decent pace. Hunnam grows into the role as the story progresses, caring about slavery and native peoples and expressing proper awe at the sight of sculptures and ancient artefacts; and Miller is fine as the proto-feminist who reads from the letter she wrote when she thought she wouldn’t survive childbirth:  as she tells her husband, “You haven’t even seen it for two minutes,” when he protests the jungle is no place for a woman and takes off yet again leaving her pregnant. It’s an admirable corrective to the standard male-oriented expedition narratives, with an amazing coda. In the end, this is actually spellbinding. There is great irony deployed: Fawcett meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Ireland and years later in South America he sees the story about his assassination and is told it will trigger a great war:  his escape across the Atlantic was precisely to avoid conflict and now he is going to be catapulted back into something quite dreadful.  He has a wonderful wife and happy domestic life yet he is truly at home in an utterly alien environment where the natives happily shoot poison arrows. He goes back, again and again, despite ridicule and disputes. He has a higher aim and it becomes something verging on mystical. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and score by Christopher Spelman are quite wondrous at times. Executive produced by Brad Pitt. There is no going back. We are already here

The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950)

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Tap it gently. We’re not here to announce a film. In September 1939, confusion reigns when St Swithin’s Girls’ School is relocated to the countryside and accidentally billeted at Nutbourne College, a long-established boarding school for boys. The two heads, Wetherby Pond (Alastair Sim) and Muriel Whitchurch (Margaret Rutherford), try to cope with the ensuing chaos, as the children and staff attempt to live in the newly cramped conditions (it being impossible to share dormitories or other facilities), and seek to prevent the children taking advantage of their new opportunities. But with the domestic staff up in arms and departing, St Swithins’ home economics students are not really cutting the mustard and their parents are visiting… My mind is made up on one thing Miss Whitchurch: if I sink, you sink with me!  With titles by Ronald Searle and a cast that includes Joyce Grenfell, Guy Middleton and Richard Wattis (and an uncredited George Cole) you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d wandered into a St Trinian’s film by mistake. In fact that series’ authors, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, are responsible for this outing, which takes a superb cast and a tilt at bureaucracy, a dig at the post-war problems besetting 1950s Britain.  Some terrific setpieces include literally moving the goalposts when the parents’ tour coincides with the governors’ of the prestigious school where Pond is hoping to get his next appointment. We’re waiting for an explanation Mr Pond!/Can’t you see I’m trying to think of one? Adapted by John Dighton from his own play with Frank Launder. A lot of droll fun with Sim and Rutherford in their element. Call me Sausage!

A League of Their Own (1992)

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Every girl in this league is going to be a lady. In 1988 Dottie Hinson (Lynn Cartwright) is persuaded by her daughter to attend an event at the Baseball Hall of Fame commemorating the women’s league established during World War 2, when her husband had gone to fight and she was left looking after the farm with her younger sister. This prompts a flashback to the day a scout (Jon Lovitz)came calling and lured them into professional sport after candy bar mogul and Cubs owner Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall) decides to set up a new event with women athletes when the Major League games might be shut down for years. Dottie (Geena Davis) isn’t too keen despite being a great catcher.  But her younger sister and pitcher Kitty (Lori Petty) wants to make something of her life and they go together to try out at Harvey Field in Chicago and join a crew of other women doing something new:   a pair of New Yorkers, taxi dancer  ‘All the Way’ Mae Mordabito (Madonna) and her best friend, bouncer Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell);  soft-spoken right fielder Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram); illiterate, shy left fielder Shirley Baker (Ann Cusack); pitcher/shortstop and former Miss Georgia beauty queen Ellen Sue Gotlander (Freddie Simpson); gentle left field/relief pitcher Betty “Spaghetti” Horn (Tracy Reiner); homely second baseman Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh), first baseman Helen Haley (Anne Ramsay); and Saskatchewan native Alice ‘Skeeter’ Gaspers (Renee Colman). They and eight others are selected to form the Rockford Peaches, coached by Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) a former player and a drunk who wasted the last five years in a bottle and is only doing this for the money. But some of the women actually want to win even as their internal team rivalries threaten their potential … I have seen enough to know I have seen too much. What a great line! That’s one of the commentators on a high point of a game late in this marvellous film, which in its pitch (yes!) perfectly catches (yes, again!) the hopes, fears and achievements of the All- American Girls Professional Baseball League, a sporting institution established when the men went off to fight. From a story by Kelly Candaele and Kim Wilson, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel craft a screenplay that is characterful, witty, broad and specific, with each player given an arc to play beyond what’s on the field.  Davis is superb as the charismatic woman whose younger sister only sees a rival who has blocked her throughout her life and Hanks gives a perfect comic performance as the guy who finally touches base once again with his inner competitor when he needs to persuade others of their worth.  Moving and funny in turn, and a brilliant tribute to a little-known period in sport, this is a superb entertainment, proving director Penny Marshall’s hit with Big was no fluke. She was inspired to make this after seeing a 1987 documentary and she set the project in motion. What a gal. The credits sequence rounds it out with one of Madonna’s best songs (This Used to be My Playground) over a game with the older women and some inspiring photographs. Ladies, it’s been a thin slice of heaven