Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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When this was first released I saw it with a friend who promptly re-christened it Mouth Wide Open because I nodded off pretty quickly and woke suddenly during the orgy and announced, Clearly nobody here has ever been to one. And a shocking 18 years later it is still sad to see that Kubrick’s last film doesn’t have the intended shock value, the performances are variable and it’s very difficult to understand how it could have taken 400 days to shoot what are primarily lengthy talking scenes albeit the famously nitpicking Kubrick reconstructed Greenwich Village in London because of his fear of flying. Frederic Raphael updated Schnitzler’s early 20th century Vienna-set Traumnovelle to late 1990s New York City where Alice (Nicole Kidman) confesses to wealthy doctor husband Bill (Tom Cruise) that she fantasised sexually about a Naval officer she saw one day at a hotel where they were staying. Bill then descends into a long night of soul-searching and sex as he imagines what his wife might have done had she made the choice to cheat. He helps a wealthy patron Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) save a whore who’s OD’d during sex, attends a masked orgy on Long Island (a kind of warped tribute to North by Northwest) where his former med school chum is providing musical accompaniment in a blindfold and back in the city realises he’s being followed but it’s more than an existential threat. When Ziegler tells Bill that he’s fortunate not to know the names of the very powerful people in disguise at the sex party you don’t know if it’s raising questions about the Bilderberg group or another political conspiracy at large but it seems pretty daft. Whether you view this as an ineffectual satire of marriage or a cautionary commentary about sexually transmitted disease (there’s a telling scene featuring a prostitute and HIV) or perhaps a plain silly excursion into unerotic escapades, the press at the time made hay of the fact that the married couple at its centre saw their relationship disintegrate in real life and were divorced not long afterwards. The soundtrack which is principally two ominous notes would disgrace a five year old after their first piano lesson. Inexplicable in oh so many ways and yet fascinating and strangely memorable in visual loops precisely because it’s Kubrick. And the last word uttered (by Kidman) is … not expected in such a conservative outing and thereby enhances the legend.

Rear Window (1954)

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Grace Kelly had one hour to choose between returning to work with Alfred Hitchcock or taking the part of the girl in On the Waterfront. She chose this. And a good thing too, because it was written with her in mind. At the director’s suggestion, radio writer John Michael Hayes had got to know her on and off the set of Dial M for Murder and designed the role adapted from a story by Cornell Woolrich around Kelly’s authentic persona and that of his wife, a former model. It was by working with Hitchcock that Kelly learned to work with her whole body. He listened to her and she loved his jokes – they shared a filthy sense of humour. She plays Lisa Carol Fremont, a high society NYC mover and shaker who’s in love with photojournalist James Stewart, stuck looking out his window at his neighbours’ apartments while laid up with a broken leg. She’s desperately in love with him but he wants to get rid of her – then she becomes a gorgeous Nancy Drew when he suspects one of his neighbours has murdered his wife. Only then does he realise what he’s got. She’s the action girl of his dreams. When you go to Paramount Studios you can see the four-wall facility that Hitchcock used to create the biggest set built there but sadly nothing remains of this paean to onanism, voyeurism, narcissism and whatever other perversion you’re having yourself. Oh, and scopophilia. In theory, this is all about Stewart but really it’s all about Kelly – and the biggest joke here of course is that the most beautiful woman in the world wants him and he doesn’t get it. Not really. Not until she becomes a part of the unfolding events he watches through his viewfinder. Kelly’s entrance is probably the greatest afforded any movie star. Her costumes alone tell a great story. MGM never knew what to do with her so loaning her out wasn’t a problem.  The theatre owners knew who the real star was – and put her name up on their marquees above anyone else’s. Audiences adored her. She was the biggest thing in 1954. And this witty, clever study of a man afraid of marriage is for most people Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. For more on Kelly’s collaborations with Hitchcock, which are the peak of both their careers, and the high point of midcentury cinema, you can see my essay Hitchcock/Kelly at Canadian journal Offscreen:  https://www.offscreen.com/hitchcock-kelly.

A Good Year (2006)

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Ridley Scott wanted to make something light and local near his home in the South of France and someone suggested he adapt a Peter Mayle book. Instead they met up and had a chat and developed a story which became a different sort of film for Scott (and a somewhat altered version of the story in the subsequent novel by Mayle) with Russell Crowe as Max Skinner the uptight London City broker inheriting his uncle’s estate which he hasn’t been back to in ten years – despite having been brought up there. He falls for a local restaurateur (Marion Cotillard) and tries to sell up with the incursion of his uncle’s illegitimate daughter (Abbie Cornish) throwing an ownership spanner in the works, especially since she’s an oenologist. There’s mischief afoot back at work, a subplot about the vines and wine appellation with local Francois (Didier Bourdon), and flashbacks to Max’s childhood (he’s played by Freddie Highmore) with Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) and none of the stories really work in tandem with odd shifts in tone, but it looks beautiful and the women are great. Crowe would be much better served with a humorous role in The Nice Guys. Written by Marc Klein.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

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The blackest of comedies, this, a satire about looks and cosmetic surgery and Hollywood that 25 years later looks a lot like contemporary society’s obsession with plastic even if it doesn’t actually predict the rise of the D-listers famous for selling sex tapes to fund their face changing which everyone pretends not to notice (seriously:  when did plastic surgery get so bad? It used to work! Nobody noticed Gary Cooper’s facelift! Or Alain Delon’s!). Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are friends who have wildly different career trajectories (prescient…) when Meryl makes off with Bruce Willis, a talented plastic surgeon who keeps the actress wealthy while her roles diminish. Goldie meanwhile spends years sitting in front of the TV getting fat obsessing over what might have been. Seven years later … Goldie is shrunk and madeover and arrives to take what’s rightfully hers – Bruce, now an alcoholic mess – while Meryl is having it away with anyone twenty years younger. Meryl avails of a potion for eternal life sold from a Gothic castle in the Hollywood Hills by Isabella Rossellini, a sex goddess witch with a Louise Brooks ‘do who looks 25 but is actually 71. Thus Bruce and Goldie’s plot to kill her off fails and she then kills Goldie – who also gets to live forever while Bruce wonders what on earth he can do to escape them when they go to a party at Isabella’s which happens to be Night of the Living Hollywood Dead… Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script is pretty smart but goes for easy targets in horror instead of the social mores it’s ostensibly attacking.  There are nice bits – Goldie’s insight with her therapist;  Sydney Pollack as the doctor finding Meryl has no heartbeat after her head’s twisted back to front and she’s sitting up talking to him in his Beverly Hills surgery; the party at Isabella’s with an orchestra led by Ian Ogilvie and we recognise some very famous dead faces dancing – but in the main it’s a totally OTT effects fantasia, a singular failing of director Robert Zemeckis whose work I preferred in the days of Used Cars and Back to the Future.  One thing is sure in the 37-years-later last segment – these ladies don’t age quite the way they want to! For romance novel fans, yes, that’s Fabio playing Isabella’s bodyguard. Golly!

Nightcrawler (2014)

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What a character Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is – petty thief turned news stringer, a hollowed out husk of a ghoul, shooting pictures of the grisliest crime scenes in LA, an autodidact with a taste for death trying to impress a news director (Rene Russo) on the vampire shift competing with all the other TV outlets in the area. This modern day Taxi Driver goes even further in Dan Gilroy’s screenplay, providing a window into the colluding audience’s bloodlust for murder and suffering. The scene-setting is extraordinary, the performances utterly committed and brilliant. Compelling, horrible, wonderful and probably a modern classic.

The Two Jakes (1990)

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We’re approaching Jack Nicholson’s landmark 80th birthday and he’s not very far from our minds anyhow, is he? Nobody dislikes this guy, a Seventies superstar whose offscreen life never threatened his essential abilities to act better than most anyone else. Two Jakes is the continuing story of Jake Gittes whom Nicholson inhabited so memorably in the classic Chinatown, a mythos of Los Angeles created by Robert Towne as part homage, part interrogation of that great city and its wobbly foundations. Now it’s post-WW2 and Gittes is hired by another Jake, Berman (Harvey Keitel) to do a routine matrimonial job. Gittes leads Berman to his wife’s lover, whom he murders. He’s Berman’s business partner. We return to the world of deceit and conspiracy that characterises film noir, albeit we are in living colour with a fabulously feline Madeleine Stowe as a very fatale femme.  It isn’t always a success and while the voiceover narration is true to the style it’s not always satisfying in a plot which might have been tightened a tad had screenwriter Robert Towne been around to finish it, an issue that caused trouble for Nicholson, who directed this outing. However there’s a lot to savour – it looks amazing and there’s a flavoursome soundtrack by Van Dyke Parks. It makes me wish we could finally have the last part of Towne’s projected LA trilogy. For more on this see my book about Robert Towne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1492610518&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

Psycho (1998)

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The Hitchcock film is so ingrained in the collective psyche it was some kind of madness to remake it shot for shot (almost – there are some surreal inserts.) When Gus Van Sant’s name was attached it didn’t even make lunatic sense. Nor the fact that some cast members (I mean you, Anne Heche) didn’t even seem to know the original. The cinematographer (Chris Doyle) didn’t even understand the point of some shots, it appears. If you can get past the fact that this is sacrilege; that paradoxically Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, the keeper of her father’s flame, approved it; and that huge dead-eyed Vince Vaughn was selected to play the delicate bird-like Norman Bates (okay, Vaughn is truer to Bloch’s image, but who but the indelible Anthony Perkins is Norman?!), this can be viewed as an interesting homage to the most important film in (some people’s) living memory. It is about identity and its negation;  the camera articulates vision and perception (just look! A crane shot introduces Marion Crane! And the final shot of her eye is the single most important image in cinema); and Anne Heche’s underwear is kinda wonderful – the whole first section of the film is all about the colour orange. It’s about a man in a dress pretending to be his dead mother, whose rotting corpse is in the fruit cellar. The original film was censor-bait – when Janet Leigh flushed her calculations down the toilet censorship was literally flushed away in American cinema: that doesn’t even register nowadays. It is a reverie about a kingdom of death, as Donald Spoto has it. Joseph Stefano’s screenplay (he had a lot of help from Mrs Hitchcock) is shot word for word;  and Bernard Herrmann’s score is reworked by Danny Elfman. So this is an empty act of nostalgia and avant-gardism inasmuch as it is doing a Warhol to something that effectively belongs to everyone. But it is Hitchcock. Not to be reproduced. Like I said, sacrilege.

King Kong (1976)

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Off to the ocean wave are we! Setting sail to exploit the untapped oil reserves on an undiscovered island – but lo! What have we here?! A beautiful scantily clad blonde (Jessica Lange) washed up in a dinghy, her life saved by walking out of a bad movie screening and managing to make good her escape from an exploding ship … Anthropologist Jack (Jeff Bridges) is mighty taken with her but when they meet the locals on said Indian Ocean island, a large wall indicates that all is not well. That’s when they meet Kong, the island god. And he’s a rather strapping fellow. But there’s a lovely white woman to offer in ritual sacrifice … Lorenzo Semple Jr (what a fantastic writer he was) adapted the screenplay from the Thirties classic (appropriately, one of my desert island faves, written by James Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace) but manages to make this its own beast, clarifying the tangled updated web of oil interests, (female) exploitation and animal welfare:  there’s no doubt whose side he’s on. The New York scenes are very well executed and the creature work by Carlo Rambaldi and Rick Baker is quite remarkable, a far cry from the CGI-fest of 2005. I’m with Pauline Kael on this one – it’s a comic strip romance that can make you cry. Take that, Tom Hiddleston, who recently stated (unironically uninformed perhaps) that his new remake is “uniquely set in the 1970s.” Bah, humbug, etc. No wonder Kong went on fire. Directed by John Guillermin.

Cruel Intentions (1999)

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Back in the day this contemporary uptown teen reworking of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (of course made into the great Dangerous Liaisons after Christopher Hampton’s acclaimed English-language stage adaptation) seemed pretty rad. Turning Sarah Michelle Gellar into a high school version of Madame Merteuil in a quasi-incestuous relationship with stepbrother Ryan Phillippe as Sebastian Valmont was, uh, even creepy. What happened to us? bleats the coke-addled one when she sees he’s fallen for the virtuous Annette (Reese Witherspoon) and their bet has gone hopelessly wrong. A Lesbo kiss between Gellar and the horny Cecile (Selma Blair), interracial sex they both have with Sean Patrick Thomas, and a great backup adult cast of Swoosie Kurtz, Christine Baranski and Louise Fletcher, with some more gay antics between Joshua Jackson and Eric Mabius, make this a viciously corrupt and sexy walk on the wild side of Central Park West, paving the way for the much-missed Gossip Girl. XOXO! Written and directed by Roger Kumble.

Ball of Fire (1941)

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Superb screwball comedy, based on a Billy Wilder story he co-wrote with Thomas Monroe subverting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Adapted by Wilder and collaborator Charles Brackett it becomes the tale of innocent grammarian Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) holed up in a NYC brownstone for four years with six other experts compiling an encyclopaedia who finds himself stumped when it comes to contemporary slang. A conversation with a delivery man leaves him at a nightclub where burlesque dancer and singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) performs with the Gene Krupa Orchestra and he enters a world of boogie woogie and moolah. Her gangster boyfriend Dana Andrews is on the lam and she needs to hide out to stop being forced to testify against him so feigning a cold takes up residence with the experts whereupon her illness is proclaimed “a slight rosiness in the laryngeal area” to which she retorts “It’s as red as The Daily Worker and just as sore!” Dialogue to die for, fabulous dresses (by Edith Head), a winning and unlikely romance (all the ‘dwarfs’ love her – the housekeeper, not so much), all are sublimated in a very odd shootout with Dan Duryea proving a patsy. Extremely funny indeed. Directed by Howard Hawks, this would eventually be remade by him as the musical A Song is Born.