The Witches (1990)

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You can never be sure if it’s a witch you’re looking at or a kind lady. Little American boy Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is holidaying with his Norwegian grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) who regales him with stories of witches, female demons masquerading as normal women but possessing undending hatred of children.  Helga’s best friend in childhood was entrapped by one of them in a painting and eventually faded from view. When Luke’s parents die his grandmother becomes his guardian and sends him to boarding school where he evades the attention of one such witch (Anne Lambton) and during the holidays at a seaside resort Luke become aware that witches are holding their annual British convention as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston).  When he and another boy Bruno (Charlie Potter) are in their midst they encounter a life-changing transformation into mice and have to avoid all sorts of predators as they try to escape to safety experiencing an actual cat and mouse chase … Real witches hate children! Adapted by Allan Scott from Roald Dahl’s darkly comic book, the biggest surprise to fans of Nicolas Roeg is that he directed it (perhaps not when you consider he had young sons at the time) but it has some of his recognisable tropes as well as a crew of his regular collaborators, including Scott, costumier Marit Allen and editor Tony Lawson in a production from Henson Studios with all that firm’s puppeteering and effects skills to the fore. The trick of balancing realism with fantasy, humour with horror, and scares for children (Roeg edited out more morbid material after seeing one of his children’s reactions) with jokes for adults, is perfectly achieved in this ambitious comic drama with Huston camping it up appositely to Zetterling’s caring grandmother. How is the room service here?/Diabolical./ Good! A third of the film is the adventure the boys have as mice, attempting to avoid becoming part of the hotel’s dinner menu, and there’s a marvellous payoff with formerly fat Bruno achieving his mother’s (Brenda Blethyn) ambition that he lose weight. The (happy) ending is different from that in the book and Dahl hated it and threatened to publicly campaign against it (Jim Henson dissuaded him) but overall it retains his casual cruelty and wit. Stanley Myers’ score is amped up with excerpts from Dies irae here and there to sound like Berlioz’ The Witches’ Sabbath. Shot in Bergen, Newquay and at Bray Studios, this was the last feature to involve the great Henson and the final one of Dahl’s books to be adapted prior to his own demise. A foolish witch without a brain, must sizzle into fire and flame! A witch who dares to say I’m wrong, will not be with us… VERY LONG!

 

 

Joker (2019)

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Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?  Former psych hospital inmate, children’s party clown and wannabe standup Arthur ‘Happy’ Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his sick mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of appearing on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) cheesy nightly TV show which they watch together. Gotham City is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished with billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in the running for Mayor. Penny was a former employee in the Wayne household and repeatedly writes him letters asking for money. Arthur suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and depends on social services for medication and weekly meetings with a social worker. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun for self-defence. Arthur invites his neighbour, cynical single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz), to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating. When he witnesses three Wall Street guys harassing a woman on the subway train he opens fire and kills them and the city is suddenly awash in a movement of men in clown masks that threatens violent disorder in copycat clown costumes  … I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it’s a comedy. A perverse DC origins story written by director Todd Phillips with Scott Silver, this owes much to its setting – 1981, a city on its haunches, with human filth and institutional grime, and cinematic influences: Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and of course Taxi Driver (Paul Schrader’s real-life inspiration was Arthur Bremer) which is interesting in the light of the maestro’s recent (highly derogatory) comments on superhero movies. And there’s Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin himself, De Niro, as the Jerry Lewis-type prism for Arthur’s fantasies of celebrity. And it’s modelled on classic psychodrama, up to a point. It hedges its bets by flailing determinedly in all directions ticking the usual boxes – sociological, pathological, neurological, daddy issues, a mad mother, illegitimacy, until its second hour descends into predictable ultraviolence (after that first exhibition at 30 minutes) albeit with this raft of reasons the wind at his back, you can’t blame Arthur, which is of course the whole point of this graphic novel brought to life. He’s a product of everything around him as well as the noises in his head so there’s no mystery left unturned. That neurological condition that makes him laugh long and loud and inappropriately turns into an unwelcome noise in the audience’s collective head too because we can see as he cannot that his talent lies not in comedy but in killing. Gotham City is no longer a pretend New York because the first three victims of Arthur’s vigilanteism are Wall Street employees of his all-powerful putative father, which is how the Wayne story is woven into this tapestry of excuses as if someone had written an elaborate series of backstories and decided to use every single one of them:  Oedipus writ large in a realist portrait of Bernhard Goetz-era NYC. There is literally nothing left to chance or ponder about this ugly individual and as we all know, bastards always blame other people and seek revenge for their no-name status. In this amorality tale he murders his mother to attempt to get close to his alleged father. And we all know what happens to Thomas Wayne because the Batman universe is ours.  It’s difficult to fault Phoenix’s bravura performance but much hinges on his harelip and innate ugliness which he just accentuates into unpleasant anorectic thinness to manufacture an urban monster. This Joker isn’t funny any more. How bizarre that the wonderful River Phoenix died 26 years ago today and it’s his brother Leaf who’s making the headlines. I feel like I know you – I’ve been watching you forever

 

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

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Aka Nosferatu:  Phantom der Nacht. Ready my horse. I have much to do. Jonathan Harker(Bruno Ganz) is sent away to Count Dracula’s (Klaus Kinski) castle to sell him a house in Virna, where he lives. But Count Dracula is a vampire, an undead ghoul living off men’s blood. Inspired by a photograph of Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani), Jonathan’s wife, Dracula moves to Virna, bringing with him death and plague… Death is not the worst. There are things more horrible than death. Werner Herzog’s adaptation of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent classic Nosferatu, a haunting interpretation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 character (that became subject of a lawsuit), functions all at once as tribute, homage, pastiche, anti-horror, sombre literary work and a travelogue that treats seriously this Mitteleuropäischer world of vampires, dallying with Freud around the time Sigmund was developing his own ecstatic fantasy narratives. Kinski is a perfect Count, grotesque, funny and sympathetic and done up to resemble Max Schreck’s animalistic version, Ganz is great as the idiot husband prey to his client, while Adjani’s luminous beauty is put to perfect use and she gets a great payoff at sunrise in a transcendent scene. No less notable is Roland Topor as the maniacal Bremen realtor Renfield.  It’s not really a horror, in fact it feels in its elongated melancholy macabre mood closer to fairytale, but it is really Herzog at his most morbidly and poetically effective, with one of the best music scores you will ever hear (from Florian Fricke aka Popol Vuh) and unforgettable work by production designer Henning Von Gierke’s, costumier Gisela Storch and cinematographer Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein. A haunting and spectacular dance of death. Listen. The children of the night make their music

My Reputation (1946)

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You have to start being yourself. Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) is a newly widowed upper class mother to two boys Kim (Scotty Beckett) and Keith (Bobby Cooper) with a domineering mother (Lucile Watson). Her estate lawyer Frank Everett (Warner Anderson) dates her casually while her society friend George Van Orman (Jerome Cowan) decides she’d be the ideal mistress. Her friend Ginna (Eve Arden) whisks her away to Tahoe with her husband Cary (John Ridgely) where she meets Major Scott Landis (George Brent) when she’s lost skiing in the mountains. They become close very quickly part badly when he thinks she’s ready to be kissed but then he shows up in her hometown of Chicago where he’s temporarily stationed and she finally allows herself to think of another romantic relationship despite the gossips… The world allows considerable liberty to wives it has never allowed to widows. I notice, for instance, you’re no longer wearing black. One of Stanwyck’s greatest roles, she excels as the rather innocent widow who finally embarks on a relationship with a bluff man who won’t stand for any nonsense from the naysayers in her midst. And who better than Gorgeous George to save her from social suffocation?! Watson is great as the vicious old bat of a mother and Leona Maricle and Nancy Evans are good as the bitchy so-called friends. Arden is in good form as the real friend who does the necessary when Jess needs it. Expertly adapted by the estimable Catherine Turney from Claire Jaynes’ wartime novel Instruct My Sorrows, this plays to all of Warner Brothers’ strengths in female transformation stories – a woman who finds herself again despite a domineering mother, problem sons, pawsy males, social exile and doubt. A gloriously romantic drama with a wondrous score by Max Steiner. Directed by Curtis Bernhardt. I’ll never be lonely again

Venom (2018)

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You know for a smart guy you really are a dumbass. TV investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is trying to take down Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the notorious and brilliant founder of the Life Foundation who is constantly announcing new supposedly life-enhancing initiatives.  Eddie opens up confidential files belonging to his district attorney fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) which causes her to lose her job and leave him. He is fired by his TV station for his impropriety. While investigating one of Drake’s experiments in symbiotes (aliens merging with humans), Eddie’s body merges with the alien Venom – leaving him with superhuman strength and power. Twisted, dark and fuelled by rage, Venom tries to control the new and dangerous abilities that Eddie finds so puzzling and yet so intoxicating but Drake sends out his team to ensnare him… Do you ever feel like your life is one monumental screwup? How bad is this? Perhaps it should have been called Contempt if that misnomer wasn’t already the title of a classic of French cinema. Dreadful acting (Hardy is no movie star, just a terrific actor prone to insane levels of idiot savant mugging way too early here, tipping us off about the high comedy to come), terrible writing, stupid plotting and lazy presumptions. It takes about forty minutes or so for this film to finally find its feet as a satirical fantasy by which time I had found myself wondering how many more superhero movies can deal with silly sloppy seconds, bizarre virtue signalling in diversity casting (this year’s Elon Musk avatar is played by a Pakistani) and dumb allusive socio-cultural commentary including a leading lady dressing like Britney circa Baby One More Time. However once Eddie is hilariously taken over by The Host I was moved to think about the magnificently bad Saoirse Ronan movie of that name; the fourth level of jihad (‘feast upon the infidel as would a parasite upon a host’) which of course is all about the Islamic takeover of the white world; and the edicts of mindfulness (proto-neo-liberal zealotry extolled by Google’s Jolly Good Fellow along with all other Big Tech surveillance monsters); and it was then that I realised that this is in fact an expertly crafted warning about all sorts of contemporary ills:  mass immigration, uncontrolled technology, globalisation, narcissism, unsupervised pharmaceutical experiments and endless superhero movies. Obviously it’s set in Northern California, the boomer and millennial nightmare running the world. It’s dark and Blade Runner-y, as if we needed reminding that Philip K. Dick was telling us all about fifty shades of surveillance for at least forty years in the last millennium. This, then, is what happens to the universe when you’re busy buying Starbucks coffee and checking your iPhone and doping yourself with anti-depressants that persuade you that totalitarianism is okay while disinhibiting your urge to protest, and scarfing medical marijuana which is the real cure for your paranoia about the internet, and, you know, there’s nothing wrong with anything, it’s your attitude to it that needs to be corrected because you’re pathological and everything Mark Zuckerberg does may not be ethical but by crikey it’s legal! Be afraid, suckers. Make the new the primary focus of your life. Jeff Pinker & Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel adapted the Marvel characters created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie and it was directed by Ruben Fleischer, responsible for an outing called Gangster Squad, a production that was so hypnotically awful I forgot what it was about while I was watching it (mission accomplished) to the point that I lost the plot and practically lost the will to live. Is it me? Even Jesus Christ himself would say, Enough. Get it over withCrucify me, guys. Instead we have expertly crafted lines like, God has abandoned us… I won’t. And the voice inside Eddie’s head that tells him, Your world is not so ugly after all.  And Anne finds that power is indeed a bit of a sneaky thrill: Oh  no! I just bit that guy’s head off!  Sheesh. Maybe this works after all, Spider-Man in reverse. Like civilisation, this is poisoned.

Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

Colette (2018)

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You’ve done something important. You’ve invented a type. After moving to Paris from the rural idyll of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye to marry her much older critic/publisher lover Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) known as ‘Willy’, young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) agrees to ghostwrite a semi-autobiographical novel for him. Its success soon ultimately inspires her to fight for creative ownership while working in his writing factory and overcome the societal constraints of the early 20th century as they share their lover duplicitous Louisiana debutante Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson), making them jealous of each other’s sexual escapades.  Colette has to write more and more to make ends meet as Willy fritters away the earnings made in his name alone. Colette begins a relationship with Missy (Denise Gough), a wealthy Lesbian who cross-dresses and this new lover accompanies Colette on a music hall tour as she attempts to assert her power away from Willy, performing controversial shows as an actress. Her life with Willy is fatally compromised when he sells the rights to her fictional character, ‘Claudine,’ the heroine of the bestselling series of books bearing his name but which are her life and thoughts entirely… You still need a headmaster. An attractive rites of passage narrative evoking a gauzy rural France and the late nineteenth century café society where men and women live radically different lives. That is, until Colette decides she wants what her philandering husband has and rails against the accepted norms even as he smooths and polishes her writing and adds the prurience that the pulp market requires. He is revealed as an increasingly tawdry, jealous type despite having an abundance of charm and social success. Her creative growth is calibrated against their mutual infidelity – interestingly with the same woman and then sated by different people.  The idea of identity and authorship and Willy’s liberal education of his innocent but yearning wife is portrayed as a drama of exploitation that has both profit and loss at its heart. This battle of the sexes biography plays out against the trials of the (re-)writing life and it elicits good performances but never really sparks the kind of emotional notes you would expect considering the astonishing story of this racy belle époque heroine, not to mention the sheer sensual joy of Colette’s body of work which came of age as the world embraced modernity. Written by director Wash Westmoreland and Rebecca Lenkiewica and the late Richard Glatzer to whom the film is dedicated. The one who wields the pen writes history

 

 

 

Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998) (TVM)

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I want to be loved. 1940s New York City: Jacqueline Susann (Michele Lee) is a second-string theatre actress and well-known party girl who turns to journalism following her marriage to press agent turned producer Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though constantly surrounded by the glitterati of the theatre and social scene she doesn’t achieve celebrity status herself and has to endure the tragedy of a brain-damaged son who has to be institutionalised. Then when she’s 47,  she publishes the raunchy bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls. Outwardly committed to publicising her work and involved in regular cross-country media campaigns, she privately battles cancer and constantly questions her troubled relationship with her society portraitist father Robert (Kenneth Welsh) who never got around to finishing her picture …  Everything I do is for you. Everything I make is for you. Treading much straighter territory than Isn’t She Great (the Bette Midler version) this adaptation by Michele Gallery of Barbara Seaman’s biography Lovely Me ironically strays indirectly and presumably unintentionally into camp now and then, and it doesn’t really do justice to the genius of its subject but Lee is excellent as this spiky confrontational woman who did things her own way. For anyone interested in the backstage antics of NYC’s post-war theatre scene with big personalities like Ethel Merman (Gloria Slade), the evolution of publishing and the making of the notorious film of Susann’s most famous novel with Barbara Parkins (Annie Laurie Williams), Patty Duke (Melanie Peterson) and the lovely Sharon Tate (Leila Johnson), there are residual attractions, but the drivers of this biopic are the private tragedies of the woman who revolutionised modern publishing by establishing her own critic-proof brand of sex and sass. Directed by Bruce McDonald. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you never stay in. My life is never going to be dull

La Belle et la Bete (1946)

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Children believe what we tell them.  Jean Cocteau’s masterful interpretation of the classic fairytale proved hugely influential on a certain Walt Disney – this is a film of actual moving parts with arms holding candelabra, illuminating and grasping. The tale of thwarted masculinity transformed by the love of a young woman finding her own way as she searches for her father starts out as a story of the quotidian but magic lies beneath:  the crystallising of the term magic realism. A truly beguiling fantasy, beautifully staged and intriguingly performed by Jean Marais as the monster/prince and Josette Day as Belle, this is a shimmering post-war dream of ornamentation and desire, a sensual miracle of cinema, a poetic exegesis on the liberating power of love. Co-directed by René Clément. How will I find my way home? I got lost in the forest

The Karate Kid (1984)

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Go find your balance. Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) moves West to Southern California with his embarrassing mother, Lucille (Randee Heller) and quickly finds himself the target of a group of school bullies led by Johnny (William Zabka) who study karate at the Cobra Kai dojo led by psycho Nam vet John Kreese (Martin Kove). Fortunately, Daniel befriends Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita), an unassuming Okinawan repairman at his apartment complex who just happens to be a martial arts master himself. He  winds up doing a lot of chores in exchange for karate lessons and starts putting together his own ideas about life from Mr. Miyagi’s aphorisms. Unfortunately, Daniel likes a lovely upper class girl at school Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) who also happens to be dating Johnny, who simply continues his campaign of bullying. Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing, training him in a more compassionate form of karate (Goju) and preparing him to compete against the brutal tactics of Cobra Kai … Come from inside you, always right picture. This fusion of Carrie with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Rocky (which shares director John Avildsen) is equal parts feel-good morality tale and teen fantasy, with a transformation story and a nice boy at its heart. Daniel is played beautifully by Macchio – goofy and cute, irritating and charming, all at once – while the bullies are clichés (maybe they all are) and the girl is just super nice. A little more heft is given the story with Daniel’s resentment at not having been given a choice at the house move, putting him into the path of these violent classmates whose actions are worthy of adult vigilantes (and numbering Chad McQueen in their midst); and Mr. Miyagi’s life isn’t a bed of roses either as Daniel discovers when he finds him drunk and reads a letter.  If you’re not up and cheering at the pleasing, rabble-rousing ending then you should probably check your pulse. It’s too long, but it’s pretty wonderful. And the soundtrack is fantastic.  Written by Robert Mark Kamen. Wax on, wax off