Happy 85th Birthday Ronald Harwood 9th November 2019!

Birthday greetings to that prolific and gifted playwright and screenwriter Ronald Harwood whose interest in the stage and World War 2 as well as the wider political world has gifted us with such profound work over the past six decades. A brilliant adapter of other people’s work also, his majestic achievement with The Pianist reminds us that he always gets to the heart of the matter. Happy birthday Mr Harwood!

Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

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Aka Island of the Burning Damned/Island of the Burning Doomed. We must avoid injecting fear into an already dangerous situation. Novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson) run a pub called The Swan on the island of Fara, on the English coast.  Jeff hires former lover Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow) as his secretary and she arrives in the middle of an unseasonal and stifling heatwave – it’s winter, yet unusual things are occurring with cars stalling and TVs blowing up and sheep are dying inexplicably. Scientist Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee) arrives and rents a room at The Swan, setting up motion sensor cameras and taking soil samples and Jeff confronts him about what might really be happening and discovers that extra-terrestrials are in their midst so it’s time to get local doctor Vernon Stone (Peter Cushing to lend assistance as the temperatures rise and everyone seems to be losing their mind and what on earth is down in the gravel pit? … If the heat goes on like this it could very likely drive us insane!  Adapted by Ronald Liles from John Lymington’s novel, this had previously been adapted for broadcast by ITV in their Play of the Week slot in 1960 and Doctor Who husband and wife screenwriting team Pip and Jane Baker were hired to do this rewrite. This Hammer Films iteration has the key players in the studio and is all the better for it: that alien protoplasm ain’t got nothing on these guys, living in a pressure cooker of sex and fear. It’s nice to see Patrick Allen – that terrifying voice that so dominates my childhood memories is actually quite the thesp:  hark at him explain to his wife what the deal is with the smouldering minx Angela:  I wanted her! I wanted her body! It was completely physical, I promise you! while Lee is his usual earnest self as the de rigeur scientist, completely rational for a change, with Cushing, as ever, battling evil.  Merrow is marvellous as the vamp, going crazy, like everyone, in the sweltering heat. Satisfying sci fi very well handled by Terence Fisher. He’s a peculiar chap – but he’s got guts

 

Torture Garden (1967)

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I am very well known for my excursions into the unexplored regions of the mind. If five visitors will pay extra, devilish sideshow carny torture act Mr Diablo (Burgess Meredith) promises people an insight into their real natures – violent, greedy and ghoulish – as they experience a taste of their future. Adapted by Robert Bloch from his own short stories, this contains four, plus a postscript, all directed by Freddie Francis in their fourth collaboration.  Look at the shears!  Enoch: Greedy playboy Colin Williams (Michael Bryant) takes advantage of his dying uncle Roger (Maurice Denham) and falls under the spell of Balthazar, a man-eating cat. Terror Over Hollywood:  Anyone who knows the titles of all the films I’ve made since 1950 deserves a break.  Starlet Carla Hayes (Beverly Adams) discovers her immortal celluloid co-star Bruce Benton (Robert Hutton) like all other movie stars is an android and the secret cannot be made public. Mr Steinway:  You really do love music, don’t you? A possessed grand piano called Euterpe becomes jealous if concert pianist owner Leo Winston’s (John Standing) new lover Dorothy Endicott (Barbara Ewing) and takes revenge. The Man Who Collected Poe:  He really was the greatest collector. He even collected Edgar Allan Poe himself.  Poe collector and obsessive Ronald Wyatt (Jack Palance) murders another collector Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing) over a very desirable item he refuses to show him only to find it is Poe (Hedger Wallace) himself...  These stories progressively improve with great production design, sharp narrative turns and surprises aplenty, until the masterful final Poe pastiche and an ingenious twist ending. A wonderfully spinechilling Amicus anthology practically perfect for Halloween. Produced by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg.

 

La peau douce (1964)

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Aka Silken Skin/ Soft Skin. I’ve learned that men’s unhappiness arises from the inability to stay quietly in their own room. While flying to Lisbon, Portugal to give a lecture, writer and magazine editor Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly), encounters beautiful air stewardess Nicole (Françoise Dorléac) and winds up spending the night with her at the hotel where they both happen to be staying. What was intended to be a one-night stand becomes a tumultuous extramarital affair once he returns to Paris and his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti) and little daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin) . Pierre tries to keep the affair secret but arranges a lecture trip to Reims which he thinks he can use as cover for their relationship but when his wife suspects him, she snaps and determines to enact terrible revenge … Ever take a good look at yourself? This passionate tale of adultery still stirs the emotions, firstly through the extraordinary performance of Dorléac (who used to be viewed as the more talented of those two famous French acting sisters, the younger being Catherine Deneuve) before her tragic demise. It’s heightened by an outrageously urgent and eloquent score by Georges Delerue and photographed with his usual limpid approach by Raoul Coutard, lending tenderness to the sexual attraction as it is complicated by the usual deceptions, occasionally tipping into farce. This guy cannot stop himself from doing the wrong thing at every juncture. Every car trip turns into an imperilled journey, planting the seeds of a wholly unnecessary tragic dénouement. A totally ordinary story is elevated to something like a thriller by staging, characterisation and pace. All the leads are tremendous:  Desailly is a wholly inadequate lover and husband, Dorléac a perfectly modern young woman, Benedetti an exquistely melodramatic woman scorned, as she sees it. An elegant disquisition on the unfairness of love, missed opportunities and the passing of youth as a tawdry and rather unmotivated love triangle falls apart. Written by director François Truffaut with Jean-Louis Richard (who has an uncredited role as a man harassing Franca in the street), this tale of amour fou is almost operatic in its pure conventionality and one ponders its morbid focus when one realises it was mostly shot at Truffaut’s own apartment with the suspenseful influence of Hitchcock fresh in his mind after a summer interviewing the great man for the classic tome, Hitchcock/Truffaut.  The ending is gobsmacking. Think of me

All About Nina (2018)

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Let me take care of you. Thirtysomething Nina Geld’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) passion and talent have made her a rising star in the NYC comedy scene, but she’s an emotional mess offstage. Her married policeman lover Joe (Chace Crawford) resorts to violence when she goes back to her apartment with a one-night stand where she finds that he’s let himself in. She takes a cab to Joe’s house  to show his wife what’s going on and gets told to leave the city. When a new professional opportunity arises in Los Angeles, she moves west and house-shares with spiritual author Lake (Kate del Castillo) who tries to get her out of her comfort zone when she sees her pain.  Nina is forced to confront her own deeply troubled past just as an unexpected romance with Rafe (Common) begins to thrive… Let’s take things one step at a time. The debut film of writer/director Eva Vives, this demands and gets a barnstorming performance from Winstead who has to go on an emotional rollercoaster – from horrific stories about her father to the unexpected delight of having a potentially successful relationship rather than a familiar series of sexual hit and runs, which just triggers more self-destructive behaviour. From its truisms about showbusiness and a possible opportunity to appear on an SNL clone whose top dog Larry Michaels (Beau Bridges) pits all contemporary female standups against each other in an audition;  dealing with the fallout of trust issues from child abuse; to what it takes to go viral and whether that makes you popular or untouchable; this treads with a sureness all the way until the very end when it ultimately fails to deliver an answer but has Nina back onstage, where she really lives. As unpredictable as watching a standup having a meltdown – which is what this is all about, and quite as thrilling. Winstead is brilliant in a frank, raw and revelatory performance.

Annie Hall (1977)

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Boy I wish real life was like this. Neurotic NYC comic and TV gag writer Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) looks back on his relationship with insecure aspiring club singer Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) and wonders where it all went wrong. He recalls how they first met playing tennis with his actor friend Rob (Tony Roberts) who moves to LA;  his first marriage to Allison (Carol Kane); and his second to Robin (Janet Margolin);  and how when Annie moved in with him he became totally paranoid and thought everything she did spoke to infidelity. When they visit Rob in LA she meets music producer Tony Lacey (Paul Simon) at a party and on the couple’s return flight to NYC they agree they should split up and she returns to LA to be with Tony … That sex was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing. Co-written with Marshall Brickman, this collage-like film is episodic, digressive, farcical, filled with running jokes, surreal flashbacks and pieces to camera on subjects as diverse as masturbation and being Jewish and Marshall McLuhan (who shows up in a line at the movies). Alvy’s whole problem is a premise derived from the great philosopher Groucho Marx – he can’t be with any woman who would want to be with him. In this battle of the sexes territory there are only departures and very few arrivals. It’s a breezy affair that exists on a tightrope of suspended disbelief and charming performances and Keaton’s is a delight. The supporting cast is outstanding and Jonathan Munk as the flame-haired kid Alvy constantly kissing girls in class is hilarious with adult Alvy moving through these flashbacks as though he’s in Wild Strawberries. Roberts is great as Alvy’s grasping sidekick. And Allen? Well it’s quintessential Woody and at least partly autobiographical. Hall is Keaton’s birth name while he calls himself ‘Singer’:  Freud is never too far away in a film which coasts on psychoanalytic concepts. Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love. Elsewhere there’s Shelley Duvall, Colleen Dewhurst, Christopher Walken as Annie’s brother and for real nerds that’s Sigourney Weaver meeting Alvy at the movies in the last shot. The film’s surprisingly delicate piecemeal structure is held together by Alvy’s narration and according to editor Ralph Rosenblum was put together in post-production:  when Alvy is speaking to camera he’s making up the story that isn’t shot.  Allen is one of the best writers around though and these addresses don’t just fill gaps, they create allusions and deepen the theme. It’s a landmark Seventies film.  A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (2019)

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Hey that’s no way to say goodbye. Documentary maker Nick Broomfield charts the story of the enduring love affair between writer and singer Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne Ihlen, a young married woman and mother, who spent time together on the Greek island of Hydra in the Sixties, the era before mass tourism.  They made each other believe they were beautiful and she lived with him and took on the role she had previously performed for her writer husband.  It transpires Broomfield knew them both and also fell in love with Marianne who later pushed him to make his first film back in Wales. Cohen’s career is etched against the backdrop of the relationship and it is echoed in the songs he wrote in Marianne’s honour and memory including Bird on a Wire. I was possessed, obsessive about [sex], the blue movie that I threw myself into [and] blue movies are not romantic. However it’s mostly about Leonard, and even Nick. I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web/ Is fastening my ankle to a stone.  In some ways this is a bad trip in more ways than one as the film makes clear, with alterations in lyrics making over the original conditions in which they were written. Leonard earned the nickname Captain Mandrax thanks to his gargantuan appetite for drugs.  Hydra became a playground for the wealthy, awash with illicit substances and countercultural encounters structure the narrative as much as Leonard’s songs. Various interviewees agree that poets do not make great husbands.  I was always trying to get away. So what did Marianne do that made her such a significant muse, and not just to Leonard? She had a talent for spotting talents and strengths in people.  After eight years together during which Leonard went from being a penniless poet to a nervous stage performer when Judy Collins discovered him and he became a star overnight, Marianne had had enough. He had an obsessive love of sex which he dutifully indulged while she stayed on the island. When she was summoned she joined him but things did not work and her little son suffered. She endured Leonard’s constant infidelities on the road and she was replaced by Suzanne (Elrod) whose relationship with Leonard overlapped with her own, and one day spider woman Suzanne turned up on the doorstep in Hydra with their toddler son Adam, ready to move in.  So Marianne moved on. Leonard had found himself to be a born performer and she no longer had a role, this sensitive woman who didn’t draw or paint or write yet whose value as muse was frequently cited by Leonard in public, on stage, in interviews. Thereafter there were telegrams to her and invites to concerts when she returned to Norway and remarried and settled into a suburban lifestyle and their relationship fizzled into a kind of long-distance friendship which ended poignantly. Broomfield reveals that on one visit to him in Cardiff Marianne had to go away one day to abort Leonard’s baby – one of several she had by him. One friend comments that if anyone were to have had his children it should have been her. Instead it was the universally disliked Elrod. Marianne and Leonard’s relationship wasn’t the only casualty, as Broomfield finds in this picture of the early hippie lifestyle with its bohemian leanings and open marriages. There are accounts of mental illness and suicides including the sad account of the Johnstons, the friends who made his arrival in Greece so happy and easeful. Re-entering the real world following the isolation of this island adrift from the world was anything but happy. This is a complex story with many participants and audio interviews old and new are interspersed with superb archive footage (some by DA Pennebaker), numerous photographs and revealing chats with friends, bystanders and musicians who survive to tell the tale of this mysterious love.  It is about Broomfield’s own loyal friendship with Marianne. Finally, it is about people finding themselves through each other and a story almost mythical in musical history which has so nourished the world’s imagination. So long, Marianne

IT Chapter Two (2019)

It Chapter Two

I can smell the stink of fear on you.  Defeated by members of the Losers’ Club, the evil clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) returns 27 years later to terrorise the town of Derry, Maine, once again and children start disappearing. Now adults, the childhood friends have long since gone their separate ways and are scattered over the US. Town librarian Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) calls the others home for one final stand. Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a successful mystery novelist in Los Angeles married to successful actress Audra Phillips (Jess Weixler). Like the others he is haunted by what happened but mostly because he has forgotten or blocked things from his mind – he sought revenge for the loss of his little brother Georgie. His on-set issues with the director (Peter Bogdanovich) of and adaptation of one of his novels arise from the ending which nobody likes, not even his wife, who’s been lying to him for years. Bespectacled and foul-mouthed Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) has become a successful stand-up comic in Los Angeles.  The overweight little boy Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) is now a handsome successful architect living in Nebraska. Hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) is a risk assessor in NYC and his marriage to Myra seems to mirror his relationship with his mother. Georgia accountant Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) cannot bear the idea of a return to the town because he is simply too afraid. The group’s only girl Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is a successful fashion designer whose violent marriage replicates the bullying she endured as a child. Damaged by scars from the past, the united Losers must conquer their deepest fears to destroy the shape-shifting Pennywise – now more powerful than ever… You know what they say about Derry. No one who dies here ever really dies. The second half of Stephen King’s IT has a lot to overcome 2 years after the first instalment and 29 years after it was brought to the TV screen in a mini series. Burdened by over-expectation, hype, and a (mis)cast lacking chemistry, this sequel to the beloved and hugely successful first film aspires to the condition of Guillermo Del Toro movies for some percentage of its incredibly extended running time and wastes a lot of it delving into the past in several rather unnecessary flashback sequences in which some transitions work brilliantly, others not so much. However the mosaic of personal history and occasional flashes of insight accompanied by some black humour restore the narrative equilibrium somewhat even if we all know this is not really about some clown-spider hybrid living in the sewer beneath a small town in Maine. Bill’s arc with his writing is a metaphor for the need to find an ending to a lifetime of latent fear for all the protagonists (it hasn’t stopped him being a bestseller). Grappling with the psychological impact of trauma, child abuse and guilt, this movie is all about burying their root cause:  way to avoid therapy, dude. Surely Pennywise is the ultimate recidivist in a movie where home is a word not just to strike fear but actually has to be carved into someone’s chest rather than being uttered aloud. This is a group of adults who notably have not reproduced.  In the attempt to join up all their experiences coherently there is a ragged logic but it tests the viewer’s patience getting there and after a protracted standoff with Pennywise there is a partly satisfying conclusion where the past has to be physically revisited and replayed, even if the film never reaches the emotional depths or charm one would expect, perhaps because the reality of Pennywise is not more artfully probed:  those character threads are left fraying at the edges. A delight lies in seeing author King playing the pawnbroker selling Bill his old bike and refusing Bill’s offer to sign his novel  – because he doesn’t like Bill’s endings. It could be King’s comment on half the films he’s seen adapted from his own books, especially relevant in a movie that quotes The ShiningAdapted by Gary Dauberman and directed by Andy Muschietti.  You haven’t changed anything yet. You haven’t changed their futures. You-you haven’t saved any of them

Bergman: A Year in a Life (2018)

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If you look for Ingmar Bergman the only place you find him is in his films.  Jane Magnusson’s film (in Swedish, Norwegian and English) was made to celebrate Ingmar Bergman’s 2018 centenary and pivots on 1957, a year in which he made two award winning films, a TV movie and he had four theatre smashes. How did he do it? What spurred this sudden surge in productivity and arguably his career masterpieces (Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal on film, Peer Gynt on stage)? (The biggest surprise is that once actor who saw Gynt describes it as follows:  This is all adventure movies rolled into one! Not what the viewer would expect of an auteur known for austere and sexualised work – he knew everyone would go to see Summer With Monika if he included nude shots). He worked quickly on low budgets and hadn’t even conceived of Wild Strawberries at the beginning of 1957 but it was released by the end of the year and is examined here as a version of himself, Viktor Sjöstrom might even be perceived as dead already, looking back upon his life with that wonderful combination of wistful yearning and regret while he journeys to collect his award. Bergman’s work rate can’t be explained scientifically – he certainly had a bad temper and was plagued by a rotten ulcerous stomach. One interviewee posits that his diet of yoghurt and Marie biscuits constituted what would today be called an eating disorder (he thought vegetables were evil).  Perhaps he had all kinds of hunger issues. He didn’t believe in therapy and claims in a TV interview to have visited a psychiatrist just once. (One actress contradicts his declaration that the doctor found him healthy). His relationships were complex and unfaithful, yielding 6 offspring by 1957 (he thought 5, and he would eventually father 9 in and out of marriages, one of whom didn’t know she was his illegitimate daughter until she was 22). He was involved with three women in 1957 other than his then wife and one was actress Bibi Andersson. Apart from anything else, he had a lot of people to support financially. It seems that in 1957 Bergman realised that his best source of material was himself and the film uses his achievements in that annus mirabilis as a prism to analyse his entire life and career. Fassbinder was on amphetamine. Maybe Bergman was on sexuality. When it came to Persona, a film interpreted here as a dramatising of his two sides, he commenced a relationship with Liv Ullmann who lived with him on his island, eventually bearing him another child and she cries when recalling that he was the best friend she ever had. Bergman describes the camera as seeing more than he ever did,  a phenomenal tool for registering the human soul and it is this journey into the soul that he believes he was on through his films. Perhaps his most beloved work is Fanny and Alexander but a long-suppressed interview with his brother Dag (recorded in the 80s) deflates Bergman’s claim of bullying by his father or a horrible time at school – it all happened, just not to him, but to Dag. Bergman’s flirtation with Nazism raises troubling questions – he claimed to have been sent on an exchange to Germany when he was a young child. However it happened in 1936 when he was 18 and his support of the regime lasted until 1946, long after the camps had been exposed. His biographer is conflicted about whether or not he was claiming to be a fascist acolyte as part of his extensive self-mythologising:  the son of a Jewish refugee in his father’s home seems to think so. And Bergman determined in the aftermath of that period that he would never engage politically in his films. There is no limit to what Bergman will do to get the best out of his actors. On Winter Light he had a doctor diagnose lead actor Gunnar Björnstrand with depression so that his reaction to illness could be caught on camera (and boy did it work). His relationship with other screen actors is more heartening:  instead of words he’d give you an emotional gesture, says one, so that that if they were quick enough and inventive enough they would pick up on it and use it in their characterisation. Barbra Streisand speaks of her envy watching him direct her then husband Elliott Gould in Bergman’s English-language debut The Touch, including one scene when he actually sat underneath the camera while Gould was being shot in close up and guided his performance. Gould himself says, There’s no one like Ingmar Bergman. An artist. A craftsman. A master. In later years Bergman’s antics directing theatre productions are remembered by victims as bullying, in a period when his celebrity and indulgence by the establishment was only tarnished by a highly public tax problem; while his personal life disintegrated in 1995 after the death of his fifth wife Ingrid von Rosen (the love of his life, he said) and he withdrew almost totally, albeit his last filmed interview reveals a sense of self-deprecating humour. His autocratic persona was out of time and he seemed to be jealous of younger men. His conduct toward lead actor Thorsten Flinck in The Misanthrope at the Royal Dramatic Theatre is horrible to hear. This is a fascinating, confounding and compelling portrait of a man whose importance to Swedish art is finally declared to be more influential than that of Strindberg with some jaw-dropping interviews from actors, technicians and colleagues.  Written by Mattias Nohrborg, this is a marvellous, informative documentary about one of the most important filmmakers in cinema. The now is all that exists