Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

American Honey (2016)

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I feel like fucking America! Whether you like this will depend on a) your tolerance for drug-addled amoral teenagers whose greatest ambition is to get knocked up and live in a trailer and if b) you don’t mind losing 157 minutes of your precious life to an almost pointless unendurable movie. Strange newcomer Sasha Lane is Star, a black girl from a dysfunctional and abusive background who falls for the spiel of magazine crew guy Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and joins this rag-tag band of scuzzy losers as they run around house to house in middle America, selling subscriptions and led by she-wolf leader Krystal (Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter). Star has sex with Jake after he steals a car owned by some well-heeled cowboys who rescue her from his abuse on the roadside – and this is after she sees him rubbing down Krystal’s shapely rear in a stars and stripes bikini. This being a movie, people act a lot like life – incoherently and inconsistently. When he takes the money she makes and drops her, she still wants him. She makes more money from giving an oil rig worker a handjob:  and he’s vile enough to criticise her. She still wants him. Krystal tells Star that she was handpicked by Jake and he fucks all the new girls – it’s his job. At the end, when there’s another apparently symbolic sequence with an animal – the only sign that there might be in this three-hour slog any indication of narrative rigour – you pray for her suicide:  or your own. What seems like artlessness is actually faux realist laziness. Were there NO editors available?? And for a movie that styles itself as a musical with all the group singalongs there’s extremely dodgy sound mixing.  I’m not arguing that the meth-taking underclass needs culling but they do exist and I’m hopeful that they don’t all listen to (c)rap. See Spring Breakers for a far more controlled (and much shorter) exposition of American youth. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who was inspired by a New York Times article.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) gets along far better with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than with his parents so when the old man dies, with his eyes missing and a strange creature hiding outside his apartment in the bushes, Jake recalls all the stories he told him about living in a magical place during WW2. After several sessions with therapist Dr Golan (Allison Janney) he convinces his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales where he is befriended by some Peculiars, enters a derelict mansion through a portal in a cave and encounters the very much alive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who lives in this weird time loop with all the weirdly gifted kids whom his grandfather told him about. They have to ward off a powerful enemy who feast on the children’s eyes, led by Samuel L. Jackson who delivers his now customary cod-threatening performance and after taking Miss Peregrine, the children must engage in a final face-off (or eye-off…) in a theatre in modern-day Blackpool. Jake himself has a special power which can save them all … There’s a level of ordinariness to this which is irritating. It’s well set up, with Tim Burton returning to contemporary Florida (remember the achingly wonderful Edward Scissorhands?) and the problematic father-son dynamic that fuels some of his better work. However there’s no real sense of mystery or fabulism that would bring this to a different realm. What is best about it? Probably the Ray Harryhausen-style doll animations. Emotions lie half-buried in the middle of this – about being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, hating your dumb parents and only finding your true family because you possess an understanding of life that other people don’t (seeing invisible monsters is inordinately helpful). Oh well – there’s a good joke about the evil motivations of psychiatrists, though. Adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Ransom Riggs, and apparently a lot of changes took place in the writing. Very, very uneven.

Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

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The Sutton family headed by sadistic and conventional middle class pharmacist father Mervyn Johns lead a stultifying and cruel Victorian existence;  innkeeper’s wife Googie Withers plots a way out of her nasty marriage by luring the oppressed younger Sutton (Gordon Jackson) into a friendship that will gain her access to his poisons and frame him for her husband’s murder while she carries on with her lover. This airless drama has much to recommend it in terms of setting – there are some rare scenes between gossiping women at the Oyster Bar – and performance, especially Withers, whose fabulous face and figure scream sex. However its emphasis on the unfortunate children of Johns, including an ambitious daughter who wants to make her way as a concert singer, somewhat dissolves the drama’s potential. It’s difficult to believe that Withers will give up as easily as she does – Johns simply doesn’t possess that kind of power outside the four walls of his home. Nonetheless, it was the wonderful Robert Hamer’s atmospheric debut and we love his films, don’t we?  It’s a fairly damning take on 1880s standards. Adapted from Roland Pertwee’s play by Diana Morgan. An Ealing production. And for trivia fans, yes, Roland was the father of Jon Pertwee, some people’s best ever Dr Who!

 

The Beguiled (2017)

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You vengeful bitches! I had high hopes for Sofia Coppola’s take on the Don Siegel Southern Gothic movie that made such a difference to our perception of Clint Eastwood way back when. Coppola has created such an interesting catalogue of films that are female-centred and immediately recognisable from their diffused palettes, lens flare, sense of mystery,soundtracks, alienation from family and the ultimate unknowability of teenaged girls. Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, the Irish soldier of fortune fighting for the North lying wounded in the woods near Martha Farnsworth’s boarding school for young ladies in deepest Louisiana when he is found by little girl Amy (Oona Laurence) on her daily mushroom-picking trip. She drags him back to the almost derelict building and the decision is made not to report him to the Confederates passing through the area despite the objections of staunch loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice, who was so great in The Nice Guys). There are only five students and the eldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) is the woman most obviously hot to trot – sad and clearly desperate for a man and a reason for escape. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney while he is unconscious and there are a lot of shots of water pooling in the cavities of his neck and abdomen. His objectification is writ large by the simple expedient of not having the camera include his face. Farnsworth admits to having had a man before the war when McBurney asks but as each of the girls enters his room to get a look at him and steal a kiss (a foxy Fanning) he realises he can play them off against each other. He learns to walk again and helps out, cutting wood and generally being the maintenance man. But all the while he has become the women’s fantasy. The problems really begin when each of them finds out what he is doing with the others. When Edwina invites him to her room after a particularly excruciating dinner and dance in this Gothic manse, she finds him having sex instead with Carol and takes terrible revenge …. And Farnsworth aims at keeping him there forever. There is something not quite right about the film. The control and the tone never really articulate the plot’s inherent collective madness, something that was so brutally effective in the earlier adaptation. The photography doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bruce Surtees’ work and that is surprising given Coppola’s customary attention to appearances (and the consequently unfortunate effect on the way Kidman appears). The relative containment of the story to the building doesn’t really work since so many of the shots are repetitive and one has the paradoxical desire to see more of the outdoors. Coppola has dropped some of the previous film’s elements – the black servant, the flashbacks to Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother – and this vacuum is not replaced with enough plot to sustain the story’s mordantly black tone. The performances are uniformly good and Dunst and Fanning are obviously back working again with Coppola. (And if you still haven’t watched Marie Antoinette go look at it now to watch Dunst give a complete performance as the child bride.) Farrell gives a good account of himself as a man who can’t believe his good luck even if it’s quite disconcerting to hear him speaking in an Irish accent. The young kids are very good in their roles and while Dunst’s part is not written especially well the sex scene with her buttons spilling over the floor is one of the best things in the film. Fanning is just a little too odd – but she has definitely grown up since Somewhere. Laurence is especially good as the little girl who stands up for McBurney right up until he hurts her little turtle Henry. The revenge is all too clearly telegraphed in a way that it wasn’t in the earlier film and that is the ultimate disappointment:  the staircase scene is thrown away.  There are some nice touches – the use of jewellery (Coppola loves fetishising sparkly objects) and costume and some Hitchcockian shots of the women’s hairstyles from behind. But it can’t make up for the lack of real tension. There is good use of music – that’s Mr Coppola’s band Phoenix reinterpreting Monteverdi’s Magnificat on the soundtrack and there’s apposite use of Stephen Foster’s song Virginia Belle.  Overall however this just doesn’t work the way you want it to do and despite its relatively short length (94 minutes) for a contemporary film it has its longeurs. Coppola adapted the original screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, a woman who was writing pseudonymously as ‘Grimes Grice’ which is the name mysteriously used on the film’s credits. Despite my reservations about this,  I find Coppola a fascinating – even beguiling! – director and I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s new book about her in the latest issue of Offscreen which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

Christopher Strong (1933)

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Aka The Great Desire and The White Moth. Don’t ever stop me doing what I want. Fascinating and startling Pre-Code drama starring Katharine Hepburn not as the eponymous Member of Parliament but a daring aviatrix modelled on Amy Johnson. Lady Cynthia Darrington meets the married Sir Christopher (Colin Clive) at a party and they can’t help but fall for each other. His wife, Lady Elaine (!) (the fabulous Billie Burke) worries about their daughter but the frankly virginal Cynthia stirs Christopher, especially when she dons a silver moth costume for a fancy dress ball and to hell with marriage and flying… for a while. The clever way to illustrate sexual congress – a bedside lamp switched on with just Hepburn’s bangled wrist in shot as we see from a clock it’s the wee small hours – the use of altimeters not just as a signal for her ambition but a correlative for this extra-marital relationship – and of course Hepburn’s striking look in her second film appearance – make for a stylish Art Deco picture. Cynthia’s final flight after she discovers her pregnancy still gives her an opportunity for personal expression and record-breaking and it is this aspect – and the fact that the film was directed by Dorothy Arzner (with a little help from silent director Tommy Atkins who also assisted on Hepburn’s debut Morning Glory) – means this was rehabilitated over the years by feminism. Adapted from Gilbert Frankau’s novel by Zoe Akins. Quite dazzling.

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Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998)

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The post-feminist take on Cinderella, or how you can get your man and still retain your dignity and read Utopia without feeling guilty. Susannah Grant is a sassy screenwriter and this fairytale is plonked right into history as the Queen of France (Jeanne Moreau) regales the Brothers Grimm the story of Danielle, the unfortunate girl whose father has married a right cow (Anjelica Huston) with two daughters (Megan Dodds and Melanie Lynskey) and then he goes and dies and leaves her in their terrible hands. Drew Barrymore is the girl who loses her shoe after making it to the ball, Dougray Scott is the well-read but out of control prince who doesn’t want to settle down in organised matrimony to the dismay of his parents. This is smart and witty without the pantomime that usually accompanies the story and Barrymore is just about perfect as you’d expect in a gorgeous looking outing shot on location in France.  The final twist is but well deserved! Great fun. Directed by Andy Tennant.

Julieta (2016)

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The abject maternal has long been a strong component of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s oeuvre and in this striking adaptation of three Alice Munro stories from Runaway he plunders the deep emotional issues that carry through the generations. On a Madrid street widowed Julieta (Emma Suarez) runs into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) who used to be her daughter’s best friend. Bea tells her she met Antia in Switzerland where she’s married with three children.  Julieta enters a spiral of despair – she hasn’t seen Antia since she went on a spiritual retreat 12 years earlier and she now abandons lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) on the eve of their departure for Portugal. She returns to the apartment she lived in with Antia when the girl was an adolescent and hopes to hear from her, the birthday postcards having long ceased. We are transported back to the 1980s when on a snowy train journey to a school in Andalucia Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) resisted the advances of an older man who then committed suicide and she had a one-night stand with Xoan (Daniel Grao). She turns up at his house months later and his housekeeper Marian (the heroically odd Rossy de Palma) tells her his wife has died and he’s spending the night with Ava (Inma Cuesta). Julieta and Xoan resume their sexual relationship and she tells Ava she’s pregnant and is advised to tell Xoan. And so she settles into a seaside lifestyle with him as he fishes and she returns with her young child to visit her parents’ home where her mother is bedridden and her father is carrying on with the help. Years go by and she wants to return to teaching Greek literature, which has its echoes in the storytelling here. The housekeeper hates her and keeps her informed of Xoan’s onoing trysts with Ava;  her daughter is away at camp;  she and Xoan fight and he goes out fishing on a stormy day and doesn’t return alive. This triggers the relationship between Antia and Bea at summer camp which evolves into Lesbianism albeit we only hear about this development latterly, when Bea tells Julieta that once it become an inferno she couldn’t take it any more and Antia departed for the spiritual retreat where she became something of a fanatic.  Julieta’s guilt over the old man’s death, her husband’s suicidal fishing trip and her daughter’s disappearance and estrangement lead her to stop caring for herself – and Lorenzo returns as she allows hope to triumph over miserable experience. There are moments here that recall Old Hollywood and not merely because of the Gothic tributes, the secrets and deceptions and illicit sexual liaisons. The colour coding, with the wonderfully expressive use of red, reminds one that Almodovar continues to be a masterful filmmaker even when not utterly committed to the material;  and if it’s not as passionate as some of his earlier female dramas, it’s held together by an overwhelming depiction of guilt and grief and the sheer unfathomability of relationships, familial and otherwise. Suarez and Ugarte are extremely convincing playing the different phases of Julieta’s experiences – how odd it might have been in its original proposed version, with Meryl Streep in the leading role, at both 25 and 50, and filming in English. I might still prefer his early funny ones but a little Almodovar is better than none at all.

Tracks (2013)

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I just want to be by myself. If you read books like The Heroine’s Journey you’ll learn that what every girl really needs at some point is some time by herself – a separation of sorts, from the noise, from the world, from the patriarchal expectations …. all that jazz. And in 1977 Australian Robyn Davidson had just about enough of all the rubbish in life and decided to trek 1,700 miles from Alice Springs via Ayers Rock and the Western Desert to the Ocean – with Diggity the dog and Dookie, Bob, Sally and Baby Goliath, four camels that she trained and befriended. The problem of financing necessitated a sponsor and that came in the form of National Geographic magazine which sent freelance photographer Rick Smolan to shoot the story and he met up with her once a month, in various states of disrepair and anguish. Mia Wasikowska has the role of her life, encountering her real self, solitude, loneliness and loss. It’s a remarkable, demanding performance in this adaptation by Marion Nelson of Davidson’s memoir, which took 25 years to get to the big screen after many false starts. Adam Driver is the unfortunate guy whose expressions of concern for his occasional travelling companion are so regularly rebuffed while the inevitable publicity brings unwelcome meetings with an inquisitive public and there’s an especially amusing incident when Robyn’s mentor Mr Eddie (Rolley Mintuma) scares them off with a presumably typical Aboriginal attitude. This is a beautifully crafted film, memorably shot and simply bewitching, with layers of meaning about personhood, the environment and the ecology of animal and human friendship. One of my favourite films of 2013. Directed by John Curran.

Ivanhoe (1952)

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Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) is determined to right the wrong of kidnapped Richard the Lionheart’s predicament, confronting his evil brother Prince John (Guy Rolfe) and Norman knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders). His own estranged father Cedric (Finlay Currie) doesn’t know he’s loyal to the king but feisty Rowena (Joan Fontaine) is still his lady love although his affections are now swung by the beautiful Jewess Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), daughter to Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer), who is almost robbed by the knights and whose fortune can aid the King. Robin Hood appears and Ivanhoe joins forces with him and his men, there’s jousting at the tournament and love lost and won, and a trial for witchcraft ….  Adapted by AEneas MacKenzie from the Walter Scott novel, this was written by Noel Langley and Marguerite Roberts, whose name was removed subsequent to her being blacklisted. It’s glorious picture-book pageantry in Technicolor, such a wonderful change from those grim grey superhero and historical excursions to which we are being currently subjected in the multiplex. Everyone performs with great gusto, there’s chivalry and action aplenty, a great baddie, a kangaroo court, a ransom to be paid, a love triangle, a king to rescue, costumes to die for and properly beautiful movie stars performing under the super sharp lens of Freddie Young to a robust score by Miklos Rozsa. It was the first in an unofficial mediaeval MGM trilogy shot in the UK, followed by Knights of the Round Table and The Adventures of Quentin Durward, all starring Taylor (Robert, that is) and shot by Richard Thorpe. Prepare to have your swash buckled. Fabulous.