From Russia With Love (1963)

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Blood is the best security in this business.  Russians Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and Kronsteen (Vladek Shybal) who are deployed by SMERSH (a crime syndicate to whom key Russian agents have transferred their allegiance) are out to snatch a decoding device known as the Lektor, using the ravishing Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) from the Soviet embassy in Istanbul to lure James Bond into helping them. Bond willingly travels to meet Tatiana in Istanbul, where he must rely on his wits to escape with his life in a series of deadly encounters with the enemy including his stalker Red Grant (Robert Shaw) masquerading as an English gentleman agent called Nash; while his presence in Turkey inflames Anglo-Russian tensions even as he takes his lead from Karim Bey (Pedro Armendariz) She should have kept her mouth shut. The first great Bond film and the second in the series, with a story by Irish screenwriter Johanna Harwood from Ian Fleming’s novel then increasingly loosely adapted by Richard Maibaum (and an uncredited Berkely Mather aka John Ewan Weston-Davies) although it should have been written by Len Deighton but he worked too slowly.  (Harwood worked for producer Harry Saltzman and also wrote on Dr No and would make uncredited contributions to the screenplay adaptation of Deighton’s The Ipcress File). This moves like the clappers taking inspiration from North by Northwest and The Red Beret and has everything you want in a spy thriller: wit, ingenuity, Cold War problems (SMERSH is replaced by SPECTRE so as not to antagonise the Russkies a year after Cuba, but we know that), a revenge plot devised by a chess grand master, a dangerous journey on the Orient Express, a psychotic peroxide assassin (a brilliant Shaw) and a sadistic Lesbian Colonel with killer heels (the unforgettable Lenya). She had her kicks! In many ways it’s the truest to Fleming of all the films. You may know the right wines, but you’re the one on your knees. How does it feel old man? Smart, well-staged and action packed, from the fantastic pre-titles sequence (the first in the series) to the nailbiting climax, this is directed by Terence Young whose own wartime exploits and personal style were intrinsic to coaching Connery in how to present himself. And what about the Lionel Bart title song performed by Matt Monro! This was the first Bond proper with all the distinctive elements intact: the theme song, the gadget, that titles bit, Blofeld (played here by Anthony Dawson) as the ultimate rogue with his lovely white furry pussycat, Desmond Llewelyn appears as Boothroyd from Q branch, and the promise of a return bout (in this case, Goldfinger). The central relationship between Bond and Tatiana has a real humanity that is missing from other Bond girl romances – Bianchi is quite charming in the role. Edited by Peter Hunt, who would direct O.H.M.S.S. Tragically Armendariz was suffering from cancer during production and took his own life afterwards. Don’t leave me. Never leave me

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Angelica (2017)

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You pursue your own desire at your family’s expense. In the Victorian era, a young wife Constance (Jena Malone) and her husband Dr Joseph Barton (Ed Stoppard) go through a difficult time in their marriage after the arrival of their baby Angelica,  heightened by a mysterious ghost that enters their house. They have been advised to stop having sex following a traumatic birth and Barton is wholly frustrated by his wife bringing their daughter into the marital bed and eventually insists Angelica have her own room. When he resumes sex with Constance little Angelica experiences shared visions with her mother which become dangerously physical – but only in the child’s room.  When Constance pays a visit to Barton’s workplace she discovers he is carrying out horrific animal experiments.  Housekeeper Nora (Tovah Feldshuh) advises Constance to consult her spiritualist friend Anne Montague (Janet McTeer) whose intervention gives her small respite. Then Barton finds his daughter’s bed on fire and believes his wife is mad … My child suffers pain the precise moment I am submissive to my husband. Adapted from Arthur Philips’ titular novel, this is a precisely nuanced treatise on sexual repression in the Victorian era. Told in the form of an extended flashback from the sick bed of Angelica’s mother (with Malone playing the grown up Angelica) where she wants to explain the disappearance of Barton when Angelica was young, it utilises every trope from Gothic literature to dramatise the horrors of desire unleashed.  An exquisitely beautiful, rather mysterious film about women’s power that is let down only by the rather underpowered acting of the leads. Written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, whose father is fabled Pop Art legend Roy, with mesmerising production design by Luciana Arrighi. The mother’s confession has a suitably ironic (actual) climax.  Find your pleasure elsewhere

 

The 15.17 to Paris (2018)

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You Americans can’t take credit every time evil is defeated. In the early evening of August 21, 2015, a terrorist attack on Thalys train #9364 bound for Paris is thwarted by three young Americans on holiday in Europe. Their lives are followed from childhood at school together in Sacramento through finding their footing in life, to the series of unlikely events leading up to the attack when Anthony Sadler suggests they go backpacking together after military training in Portugal.  Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos wants to visit his penpal in Berlin and U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone joins them from the US and they are confronted by a gunman with 300 rounds of ammunition intending to carry out an atrocity on the 500 passengers … My God is bigger than your statistics. A unique project from Clint Eastwood, who has form in extolling the heroism of American servicemen (pace American Sniper, Flags of Our Fathers).  Dorothy Blyskal’s screenplay is based on the book by Sadler, Skarlatos, Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern. What’s extraordinary is that it stars the very men who saved lives on the Amsterdam-Paris Express. Structurally, this posed problems because the incident to which everything leads only took a couple of minutes in real time. So, interspersed with a few scenes on the train as the attack unfolds, the bulk of the story is flashbacks and backstory – Anthony (Paul-Mikél Williams) and Alek (Bryce Gheisar) grow up with single moms in California until Alek is sent to live with his father in Oregon on the advice of the head teacher (Thomas Lennon) who believes the kids should be medicated for attention deficit disorder. Teamed up with misfit black kid Spencer (William Jennings) they love nothing better than playing war games and checking out WW2 battle plans. The teachers at their school (apparently with the exception of their history teacher) are male bullies which leads to unanswered questions about how these boys derived their special brand of bravery later on:  Anthony ends up working at Jamba Juice and enters his beloved military the hard way;  Alek joins the National Guard;  Spencer is in the Air Force. Spencer tells us with a smile when the boys first becomes friends, Black people don’t hunt. Their communication through their different paths is primarily via Skype. Anthony’s training is tough – he doesn’t get into his preferred area of service due to depth perception issues;  he has headphones clamped to him when the attack begins.  This is one of the ironic issues in the narrative, none highlighted because no theme beyond heroism is explored.  Since the real action is not until the film’s final sequences, the men’s friendship through adulthood is traced against their differing choices, with Alek winding up in Afghanistan, bored out of his brains doing the equivalent of mall security because as he relates, It’s all about ISIS now and they’re not here. The big irony of course is that it’s in their downtime that these soldiers encounter an Arab terrorist, on their European trip;  the moment of grace occurs when his machine gun jams as Anthony rugby tackles the assailant- a one in a million chance, Alek says.  There is only one serious casualty, Frenchman Mark Moogalian, while the terrorist has a concealed knife which he uses to slice Anthony’s neck, thankfully not fatally. Englishman Chris Norman was not hurt. The story concludes at the Elysée Palace, with real coverage of President François Hollande commending the men for their bravery. How amazing is that? The most exciting thing to happen to me on that train was meeting the son of a famous German writer who was reading the handwritten manuscript of a friend’s first novel. Who knows what anyone would do if something serious were to happen? This tells us and in precise detail. There is another issue at stake:  since he was a young boy Sadler was clearly preparing himself for greatness. That it occurred on a civilian trans-European train in the tourist season is immaterial. Islamic violence is now an everyday occurrence in the real world outside of battlegrounds;  it’s preparedness that matters. This is practically an experimental film and it walks a very difficult line between authenticity and dramatic tension but it is probably far too real to succeed as an entertainment.  These guys may not be actors and the narrative may cleave to actuality (even the scenic shots of Rome, Venice and Berlin) and the banality of real life (including poor line delivery) but when you think about it, they rock. Since you asked, the shooter, Ayoub El Khazzani, did not play himself.  There is a message in this film and if you didn’t get it, Hollande quotes Sadler: In a moment of crisis I would like people to understand that you need to do something

 

 

Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Nothing is what it seems. Grieving over the accidental death of their daughter, Christine (Sharon Williams), John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) leave their young son Johnny in an English boarding school and head to Venice where John’s been commissioned to restore a church. There Laura meets two ageing sisters (Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania) who claim to be in touch with Christine’s spirit. Laura takes them seriously, but John scoffs until he himself catches a glimpse of what looks like Christine running through the streets of Venice. Unbeknownst to himself, he has precognitive abilities (which might even be figured in the book he’s written, Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space) and the figure of local Bishop Barrigo (Massimo Serato) seems to be a harbinger of doom rather than a portent of hope.  Meanwhile, another body is fished out of the canal with a serial killer on the prowl …  Director Nicolas Roeg made one masterpiece after another in the early 1970s and this enjoyed a scandalous reputation because of the notorious sex scene between Christie and Sutherland which was edited along the lines of a film that Roeg had photographed for Richard Lester, Petulia, some years earlier. The clever cross-cutting with the post-coital scene of the couple dressing to go out for dinner persuaded people that they had watched something forbidden. That aside, the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant is a clever mix of horror, mystery, enigmatic serial killer thriller and a meditation on grief. All of that is meshed within a repetitive visual matrix of the colour red, broken glass and water. None of that would matter were it not for the intensely felt characterisation of a couple in mourning, with Christie’s satisfaction at her dead daughter’s supposed happiness opposed to Sutherland’s desire to shake off the image of the child’s shiny red mackintosh – the very thing that leads him to his terrible fate. Some of the editing is downright disturbing – particularly a cut to the old ladies busting a gut laughing whilst holding photographs, apparently of their own family members. John’s misunderstanding of his visions coupled with the literal crossed telephone line from England creates a cacophony of dread, with Pino Donaggio’s score and Anthony Richmond’s limpid shots of Venice in winter compounding the tender horror constructed as elegiac mosaic by editor Graeme Clifford. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius? Probably. I couldn’t possibly comment.  I never minded being lost in Venice.

Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)

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These girls in love never realise they should be dishonestly honest instead of honestly dishonest. American secretary Maria (Maggie McNamara) is a newcomer to Rome, seeking romance. I’m going to like Rome at any rate of exchange, she declares. She moves into a spacious apartment with a spectacular view of the city, with agency colleague Anita (Jean Peters) and the more mature Frances (Dorothy McGuire) who’s working for the reclusive novelist (Clifton Webb). They fling their coins into Rome’s Trevi Fountain, each making a wish. Maria is pursued by dashing Prince Dino di Cessi (Louis Jourdan) whom she steadfastly deceives about her origins and interests which she regrets upon meeting his mother; Anita finds herself involved with a forbidden coworker, translator and wannabe lawyer Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi) on an eventful trip to a family celebration at their mountain farm; and Frances receives a surprising proposal from her boss John Frederick Shadwell (Clifton Webb) for whom she has nursed a well-known crush since she came to Rome 15 years earlier. They move through the worlds of society, art and music. But there are complications – not to mention strings attached, which prove surprisingly moving. All three women return to the Trevi where the water is switched on again, as though just for them … Adapted by John Patrick from John H. Secondari’s novel, this is the glossy, beautiful movie that brought tourists in their millions to Rome, its Technicolor process luxuriantly wallowing in the staggering architecture and location scenery heightened by CinemaScope. From the title tune by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn (delivered by Sinatra), to the pure romance (with some surprisingly tart insights about feminine deception and compromise) and gorgeous scene-setting, this is just dreamy. Directed by Jean Negulesco.

Effie Gray (2014)

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He must be mad.  Young virginal Effie (Dakota Fanning) marries art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) shortly after her family has endured financial hardship. When she enters his family home she finds that he has an unhealthy relationship with his mother (Julie Walters) and his father (David Suchet) is genially oppressive. On their wedding night her husband looks at her with … distaste. And never touches her. Her mother in law insists on dosing her with some strange herbal concoction that knocks her out. Mingling with the great and the good she finds a sympathetic friend in Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson) the wife of his patron at the Royal Academy and she suspects all is not right particularly on a visit to their stifling home during a spectacularly awkward dinner.  On a trip to Venice it is assumed that Ruskin is quite mad and Effie is pursued by Raffaele (Riccardo Scarmarcio) who almost rapes her. When Ruskin commissions a portrait of himself from his protege John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) the trio decamp to the countryside and an affection grows between the two young people:  it is clear Effie is starved of genuine human warmth. She summons her little sister Sophy (Polly Dartford) to visit her and makes a plan to escape… This project had a very troubled birth following two plagiarism suits against actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson. Notwithstanding the issues that caused the script to be redrafted this doesn’t come to life – something of an irony given that the living Effie was immortalised as the suicided Ophelia by Pre-Raphaelite Millais. Fanning isn’t the most energised or personable of performers at the best of times but she really is given little here and the interrelationships aren’t especially well exposed. Wise has likewise little to do except look pained and self-absorbed:  mission accomplished. It may well be true but it doesn’t mean it works on the screen. For a story with so much scandalous content this is a disappointment on a massive scale. Look at the paintings instead. That’s Tiger Lily Hutchence as the young Effie in the opening scene and how lovely it is to see Claudia Cardinale as the Venetian viscountess. Directed by Richard Laxton with some staggeringly beautiful landscape photography by Andrew Dunn.

Inferno (2016)

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Humanity is the disease, inferno is the cure. The second sequel to The Da Vinci Code begins horribly. By which I mean it looks like one of those cheapo knockoffs you see on The Horror Channel in the wee small hours (and otherwise). A lecturer (Ben Foster) throws himself off a tower after being chased. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, returning for the third entry in the series) wakes up in a hospital being tended by a doctor with an enormous overbite (Felicity Jones) – frightening in itself. She tells him he’s been shot while he has terrible hallucinations with blood pouring in torrents and people with faces back to front (you can see how that might happen given the company and a presumed brain injury). He’s lost his memory and has no idea how he’s wound up in Italy. Then some woman pretending to be police murders another doctor and the pair make away from the gunfire with some difficulty given he’s hooked up to IVs all over the shop. He’s been given a painting that depicts The Inferno but his copy contains elements that don’t belong in the original. And so we set off on a chase around the Uffizi and then we’re off to Istanbul and a rather interesting ending in a cave with shades of The Man Who Knew Too Much with some visits to the World Health Organisation in between. The visual palette is awful. It looks just like a brown below-par giallo. There is nothing to indicate that this is any good but its place in the Dan Brown symbology behemoth is typically humourless (despite the presence of the hilarious Paul Ritter) and unimaginative – let’s face it, we’re in Florence with a doctor called Sienna, which would indicate a left/right brain issue and not just Langdon’s. And so it goes. The lecturer though is revealed to be a billionaire keen to solve a global issue. We can all read the legal judgments on where Mr Brown got his stories:  I’ve read Lewis Perdue’s novels so I’ve a pretty good idea. However this is tampering with Dante. I know David Koepp is the rather gifted screenwriter entrusted with the book (and I must put my cards on the table and admit I’ve not read this one) and he’s not responsible for the choices of director Ron Howard (him again) or any aesthetic decisions. Hey – it’s an action thriller with Tom Hanks (paired again with Sidse Babett Knudsen after their desert romp …) and the world overpopulation problem. If you can find those old rose-tinted spectacles (literally) you might quite enjoy some of the incendiary scenes and a somewhat tantalising villain. And some running. Ho. Hum.

Only You (1994)

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Faith (Marisa Tomei) believes from a childhood episode with a ouija board that it’s writ in her destiny to marry ‘Damon Bradley.’ So she calls off her wedding to a podiatrist and runs away to Venice with BFF and sister in law Kate (Bonnie Hunt) to locate an elusive man who is a colleague of her husband-to-be flying there that day. They have to go to Rome to track him down. When she meets cute a man who helps with her shoe (Robert Downey) he claims to be him. But after a romantic evening he says his name is actually Peter Wright and he really has fallen in love with her. Then he gives in and apparently assists in her quest to find this fabled individual who really is in Italy. Mild, not as good as you’d wish but never as bad as you’d dread, this modern spin on Cinderella from Diane Drake is a decent romcom with delightful leads, a fantastic supporting turn from Hunt, stunning scenery and a fetishist’s appreciation of fine footwear. You want more? Sheesh! Directed by Norman Jewison.

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

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Woody Allen’s musical comedy is a delightful collage of Thirties movie genres – romance, screwball, ghost, crime, all told by the daughter DJ (Natasha Lyonne) of perpetually unlucky in love writer Joe (Allen) and his ex-wife Steffi (Goldie Hawn), who now lives in Upper East Side splendour with liberal lawyer Alan Alda, his engaged daughter Skylar (Drew Barrymore) and their right-wing son Scott (Lukas Haas) and 14 year old twins (Natalie Portman and Gaby Hoffman),  plus his ancient dad whose Alzheimer’s means he has to be supervised by their wicked Bavarian housekeeper. They have posh people problems ie none at all and when DJ pushes her father into a relationship with an unhappily married art historian patient Von (Julia Roberts) of her friend’s mother, a psychoanalyst, we get to see the sights in Venice where Joe affects a knowledge of Tintoretto to get into her good books. Everyone gets to sing (whether they can or not), there’s a dance routine in a maternity ward, a robbery involving one of Steffi’s pet criminals who breaks up Skylar’s relationship with Edward Norton, and it all culminates in a Duck Soup ball in Paris on Christmas Eve with Steffi and Joe recreating their romance from many years ago with a high-wire romantic dance by the Seine. Simply wonderful, nutty fun with a to-die-for soundtrack put together by Dick Hyman.

Cynara (1932)

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Fascinating pre-Code melodrama with Ronald Colman as the staid London barrister whose rock solid marriage to the disarming Kay Francis when she takes off for Venice with her flighty younger sister is challenged when Mephistopholean colleague Henry Stephenson manoeuvres him into a romance with attractive shopgirl Phyllis Barry. Cunningly adapted by Frances Marion and Lynn Starling from the novel by Robert Gore-Brown, this is structured as a flashback and there are some startling slices of dialogue to cut through the class froth. This is an opportunity to experience the fragrant charms of cult fave Francis while Colman is typically good. Directed by King Vidor.