The Grass is Greener (1961)

The Grass is Greener green

Our love for each other is founded on mutual distrust. In order to maintain their crumbling and damp stately home, Earl Vincent Rhyall aka Victor (Cary Grant) and his wife Lady Hilary (Deborah Kerr) reluctantly open it to coach parties of tourists, one of whom, American oil millionaire Charles Delacro (Robert Mitchum), falls for the lady of the manor. Feeling rather neglected, she begins to return his advances and spends four days with him at the Savoy in London. In order to win her back, the Earl has to call on the services of his old flame, Hattie Durant (Jean Simmons) and his very laconic, very English butler Trevor Sellers (Moray Watson) who’s really looking for material for a novel. When Hilary and Charles return to the manor, Victor decides there’s only one way to settle things and it’s straight out of the eighteenth century... That’s the way the world wags. It’s the third time Grant was paired with Kerr following Dream Wife and An Affair to Remember; ditto for Mitchum and Simmons after Angel Face and She Couldn’t Say No; and Mitchum had been memorably cast opposite Kerr in Heaven Knows Mr Allison and more recently in The Sundowners, also released in December 1960. Director Stanley Donen knew what he was doing with this immaculately polished stage adaptation by Hugh Williams and Margaret Vyner of their West End success. Yes, it’s theatrical but it’s beautifully mounted, the setting is fabulous and the Dior costumes wonderful (particularly Simmons’) and the cast really get their teeth into the smart dialogue. There are good in- jokes – including about Rock Hudson (originally intended for Mitchum’s role), a mutual friend of both men called ‘Josh Peters’ (a nod to Donen’s two young sons) and Paramount Studios. A class act, in every sense of the term, this was shot by Christopher Challis at Osterley Park, just outside London and the interiors were by Felix Harbord. There’s no honour where there’s sex

 

Home to Danger (1951)

Home to Danger

I never suspect anything, Sir. Barbara Cummings (Rona Anderson) returns to Britain following the death of her estranged, wealthy father who is believed to have committed suicide. It is expected that the bulk of the estate will pass to his business partner Hughes (Alan Wheatley). However, when the will is read out and she is reunited with her childhood sweetheart novelist Robert (Guy Rolfe) she is given most of the money as a gesture of reconciliation by her father. She clings to her belief that he did not kill himself and investigates the circumstances of his death. Before long, plots are being hatched to kill her and she is followed to her country house by Lips Leonard (Peter Jones) whose murder at the property leads Barbara and Robert to the backstreets of London and a drugs deal that implicates Hughes with Jimmy-the-One (Dennis Harkin) leading them to where it’s all at … Is this a new version of our old game? Probably of most interest nowadays for Stanley Baker’s early performance as a kind of wild-eyed half-wit called Willie Dougan who of course knows more than anyone realises, although for myself I’ll go a long way to see Peter Jones lurking in the undergrowth. This is a neatly constructed and well-performed programmer destined for the lower half of a double bill. The drug-oriented content is a surprise but this was becoming a social problem and is clearly demarcated in a city milieu. It features the final performance by Francis Lister who plays a murderous children’s home proprietor. Written by Ian Stuart Black  from an original screen story by Francis Edge and John Temple-Smith. Produced by Lance Comfort at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith with a score by Malcolm Arnold and it’s shot by Reginald Wyer. Directed by Terence Fisher. You never know where you are with a dope

The Beach Bum (2019)

The Beach Bum

He may be a jerk, but he’s a great man. Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) is a fun-loving, pot-smoking, beer-drinking writer who lives life on his own terms in Key West, Florida. Luckily, his wealthy wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) loves him for exactly those qualities. She lives further up the coast in Miami and cavorts about with Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) courtesy of their open marriage. Following his daughter Heather’s (Stefania LaVie Owen) wedding, a tragic accident brings unexpected changes to Moondog’s relaxed lifestyle. Suddenly, putting his literary talent to good use and finishing his next great book is a more pressing matter than he would have liked it to be and he embarks upon a life-changing quest, encountering all kinds of freaks en route including a dolphin tour guide Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence), a sociopathic roomie Flicker (Zac Efron) in rehab and Southern friend and good ol’ boy Lewis (Jonah Hill) I gotta go low to get high. An extraordinary looking piece of auteur work from Harmony Korine, courtesy of the inventive and beautiful shooting of cinematographer Benoît Debie, this is a nod to McConaughey’s arch stoner credentials and the persona he established back in Dazed and Confused. And what about this for an example of his poetry:  Look down at my penis./ Knowing it was inside you twice today/Makes me feel beautiful.  He is convinced the world is conspiring to make him happy no matter what happens. There’s little plot to speak of once the main action is established in the first thirty minutes but what unspools is so genial and unforced and funny that you can’t help but wish you were part of the woozy hedonistic bonhomie. Jimmy Buffett appears as … Jimmy Buffett in a film that’s so Zen it’s horizontal. Bliss. We can do anything we want or nothing at all

Please Turn Over (1959)

Please Turn Over

I do wish Julia would go out more. In a small English town a scandal ensues after bored teenage hairdresser Jo Halliday (Julia Lockwood) secretly writes a novel called Naked Revolt, turning versions of her family, friends and neighbours into sex-mad boozers.  Her father Edward (Ted Ray) is an inoffensive accountant now believed to be an embezzler, her mother Janet (Jean Kent) is thought to be carrying on with a retired soldier turned driving instructor Willoughby (Lionel Jeffries) whom people now assume is Jo’s father.  Her fitness-obsessed aunt Gladys (June Jago) is treated as an alcoholic having an affair with the local philandering doctor Henry Manners (Leslie Phillips). Although initially surprised to see themselves written into the book, everyone begins to learn more about themselves and each other through the novel, meanwhile Angry Young Playwright Robert Hughes (Tim Seely) is interested in adapting the novel to the stage and begins a relationship with Jo …. My goodness! That’s a highly sagacious aphorism, what’s its current application? Adapted from Basil Thomas’ play Book of the Month by Norman Hudis this is the British version of Peyton Place and it’s a much more anodyne portrait of small town secrets. Directed by Gerald Thomas and produced by Peter Rogers, this is a Carry On production but more subtle than its origins would suggest with a superb British cast of familiar faces like Joan Sims, Joan Hickson and Victor Maddern. Lockwood is the daughter of star Margaret Lockwood and acquits herself very well as the knowing ingenue. It looks good thanks to the cinematography of Ted Scaife. Good fun but unfortunately the author Basil Thomas didn’t live to see this on the screen – he died in 1957 aged just 44. Those that are the most affected are always the last to know

Angel Face (1952)

Angel Face

I only ask questions and I love to dance. When wealthy Beverly Hills denizen Mrs. Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neill) is mysteriously poisoned with gas, ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) meets her refined but sensuous stepdaughter Diane (Jean Simmons), who quickly pursues and infatuates him, taking him away from his hospital receptionist girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman) who expects to marry him. Diane’s father Charles Tremayne (Herbert Marshall) is a formerly successful novelist who hasn’t written a word in a year and indulges his daughter. Diane persuades Frank to work as her family’s chauffeur and asks her stepmother to give him money to fund the former racing driver’s plan for a garage of his own. Despite fearing that Diane’s hatred of her mother could lead her to kill her, Frank goes along with her plan to run away but then both her stepmother and father have an accident and he finds himself embroiled in a court case … One acquires bad habits so early. Producer/director Otto Preminger spins a deeply subversive noir melodrama out of Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard’s screenplay (from a story by Chester Erskine) with uncredited contributions from Ben Hecht, almost removing the drama so that when the violence occurs – twice – it comes as more of a surprise than it would in a conventionally mounted suspenser. Mitchum is great as the sap who says he won’t be caught as the innocent bystander, while Simmons unleashes her inner demon to great effect. In their smaller roles, Marshall plays a typical Englishman albeit one whose charm has run out for his wealthy wife due to his spendthrift ways; while Mona Freeman is fine as the girlfriend who knows only too well she can’t outcompete Simmons. Leon Ames and Jim Backus have fun in the courtroom face-off. There’s a a lyrically misleading score from Dimitri Tiomkin and it’s beautifully shot by Harry Stradling. Quietly brilliant. All I want is you. I can’t let you go – I won’t

The Wolf Hour (2019)

The Wolf Hour

I don’t like to leave here. In 1977’s summer heatwave, New York City descends into violence with looting and rioting. Once-celebrated feminist author June Leigh (Naomi Watts) is afraid to leave her grandmother’s South Bronx walkup while the city burns. But it’s nothing new – she hasn’t left in years. Her groceries are delivered by Freddie (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from the store; she’s afraid to touch the garbage piling up on the floor with the noise of insects inside; the only contact she has with people is over the telephone. She can’t write the novel she’s been threatening for a long time. She is tormented by someone ringing her doorbell several times a night. She leaves a message for her sister Margot (Jennifer Ehle) to ask for money. When Margot shows up and evinces despair at June’s living conditions we recognise something traumatic has happened and a TV recording reveals an interview she did about her novel The Patriarch that created a devastating chasm in her family. Then the lights go out … The world gives back what you give to it. A weirdly timely look at the paranoia of someone who’s afraid to leave their own home – Watts even dons a facemask when her sister does the cleanup, afraid there’s a dead body on the premises. June looks out at the world in a state of some distress. It’s initially a portrait of a paranoid individual, then it’s a glimpse at the observational lifestyle of a particularly nervy and reclusive writer, then it’s a portrait of a someone suffering trauma. The arrival of three people trigger the action and story development – Freddie from the store who wants to wash himself in her bathroom; Officer Blake (Jeremy Bobb), a creepy policeman answering her call for help a week late with designs on her; Billy (Emory Cohen) the rent boy who gratifies her need for sex and finally checks out what’s happening downstairs – are classic dramatic characters. It’s the call from her agent that makes June wake up however with a month to produce her work. The tension as we wait to see if Freddie makes that drop is stomach churning. When Watts lets go and dances to music (in a score composed by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans) we empathise with her brief liberation from a hibernation that is clearly outside her control. Written and directed by Alistair Banks Griffin, this is strangely comforting lockdown viewing when everything is back to basic survival mode. Is that you?

Mr Jones (2019)

Mr Jones

The Soviets have built more in five years than our Government has in ten. In 1933, Gareth Jones (James Norton) is an ambitious young Welsh journalist who has gained renown for his interview with Adolf Hitler. Thanks to his connections to Britain’s former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), he is able to get official permission to travel to the Soviet Union. Jones intends to try and interview Stalin and find out more about the Soviet Union’s economic expansion and its apparently successful five-year development plan. Jones is restricted to Moscow where he encounters Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) a libertine who sticks to the Communist Party line.  He befriends and romances German journalist Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) who reluctantly sees him follow the path of murdered journalist Kleb in pursuit of a story. He jumps his train and travels unofficially to Ukraine to discover evidence of the Holodomor (famine) including empty villages, starving people, cannibalism, and the enforced collection of grain exported out of the region while millions die. He escapes with his life because Duranty bargains for it on condition he report nothing but lies. On his return to the UK he struggles to get the true story taken seriously and is forced to return home to Wales in ignominy … They are killing us. Millions.  Framed by the writing of Animal Farm after a credulous commie-admiring Eric Blair aka George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) expresses disbelief that Stalin is anything but a good guy, this is an oddly diffident telling of a shocking true story that’s art-directed within an inch of its life. Introducing Orwell feels like a disservice to Jones. Norton has a difficult job because the screenplay by Andrea Chalupa is too mannerly and the film’s aesthetic betrays his intent. Director Agnieszka Holland is a fine filmmaker but the colour grading, the great lighting (there’s even a red night sky shot from below as Jones and Brooks walk through Moscow) and the excessive use of handheld shooting to express Jones’ inner turmoil somehow detracts from the original fake news story. It happens three times during food scenes including when he realises he’s eating some kids’ older brother. Shocking but somehow not surprising and amazingly relevant given the present state of totalitarian things, everywhere, in a world where Presidents express the wish to have journalists executed and some of them succeed. Some things never change. Chilling. I have no expectations. I just have questions

Wings of Desire (1987)

Wings of Desire UK

Aka  Der Himmel Über Berlin / The Heaven Over Berlin / The Sky Over Berlin. Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun just a dream? Isn’t what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world? Two angels, kindred spirits Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), glide through the streets of Berlin, observing the bustling population, providing invisible rays of hope to the distressed but never interacting with them. They are only visible to children and other people who like them. When Damiel falls in love with wistful lonely trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin) whose circus has closed due to financial problems, he tires of his surveillance job and longs to experience life in the physical world. With words of wisdom from actor Peter Falk (playing himself) performing in a WW2 thriller whose cast and crew the angels are observing – he believes it might be possible for him to take human form and enter history ... We are now the times. Not only the whole town – the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are now more than us two. We incarnate something. We’re representing the people now. And the whole place is full of those who are dreaming the same dream. We are deciding everyone’s game. I am ready. Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your handThis beautiful benign allegory of the divided city of Berlin is of course clear to anyone familiar with the practices of the Stasi, who deployed one half of the East German population to spy on the other half:  when the Wall came down and the files were opened families and friendships were torn asunder. However a few years before that occurred, director Wim Wenders plugs into the nightmare of watching and being watched and makes it into a surreal dream in this romantic fantasy. I can’t see you but I know you’re here. It’s verging on noir with its portrait of a place riven by war and totalitarian rule, its acknowledging of the Holocaust and the overview of the Wall snaking through a post-war world. You can’t get lost. You always end up at the Wall.  A poetic film that’s so much of its time yet its yearning humanity is palpable, its message one of eternal hope. Shot in stunning monochrome by Henri Alekan, brought out of retirement and for whom the circus is named. I’m taking the plunge. Written by Peter Handke, for all the fallen angels on the outside looking in. Co-written by Wenders with additions by Richard Reitinger, loosely inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems. An exquisite city symphony that insists on the disrupting of image making, bearing witness, choosing life. With Curt Bois as Homer and Crime and the City Solution and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform.  Must I give up now? If I do give up, then mankind will lose its storyteller. And if mankind once loses its storyteller, then it will lose its childhood

The Romantic Englishwoman (1975)

The Romantic Englishwoman

Women are an occupied country. Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson) is the bored wife of a successful English pulp writer Lewis Fielding (Michael Caine) who is currently suffering from writer’s block. She leaves him and their son David (Marcus Richardson) and runs away to the German spa town of Baden-Baden. There she meets Thomas (Helmut Berger), who claims to be a poet but who is actually a petty thief, conman, drug courier and gigolo. Though the two are briefly attracted to each other, she returns home. He, hunted by gangsters headed by Swan (Mich[a]el Lonsdale) for a drug consignment he has lost, follows her to England. Lewis, highly suspicious of his wife, invites the young man to stay with them and act as his secretary. Lewis embarks on writing a screenplay for German film producer Herman (Rene Kolldehoff) – a penetrating psychological story about The New Woman. Initially resenting the presence of the handsome stranger now installed in their home as her husband’s amanuensis and carrying on with the nanny Isabel (Béatrice Romand), Elizabeth starts an affair with him and the two run away with no money to Monaco and the South of France. Lewis follows them, while he in turn is followed by the gangsters looking for Thomas… It’s about this ungrateful woman who is married to this man of great charm, brilliance, and integrity. She thinks he won’t let her be herself, and she feels stuck in a straitjacket when she ought to be out and about and taking the waters and finding herself. With a cast like that, this had me at Hello. Director Joseph Losey’s customarily cool eye is lent a glint in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Thomas Wiseman’s novel (with the screenplay co-written by the author) in a work that teeters on the edges of satire. A house bristling with tension is meat and drink to both Stoppard and Losey, whose best films concern the malign effects of an interloper introducing instability into a home.  It’s engineered to produce some uncanny results – as it appears that Lewis the novelist is capable of real-life plotting and we are left wondering if Elizabeth’s affair has occurred at all or whether it might be him working out a story. Perhaps it’s his jealous fantasy or it might be his elaborate fictionalising of reality. Invariably there are resonances of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad but it’s far funnier. Like that film, it’s something of an intellectual game with a mystery at its centre. Aren’t you sick of these foreign films? Viewed as a pure exploration of writerly paranoia as well as the marital comedy intended by the novel, it’s a hall of mirrors exercise also reminiscent of another instance of the era’s art house modernism, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  The flashback/fantasy elevator sequence that is Lewis’ might also belong to Elizabeth. You might enjoy the moment when Thomas mistakes Lewis for the other Fielding (Henry) but he still hangs in there without embarrassment and seduces all around him. Or when Lewis suggests to his producer that he make a thriller rather than the more subtle study he’s suggesting – and then you realise that’s what this British-French co-production becomes. It’s richly ironic – Lewis and Elizabeth have such a vigorously happy marriage a neighbour (Tom Chatto) interrupts a bout of al fresco lovemaking but none of them seems remotely surprised, as if this is a regular occurrence. And any film that has Lonsdale introduce himself as the Irish Minister for Sport has a sense of humour. If it seems inconsistent there is compensation in the beauty of the performances (particularly Jackson’s, which is charming, warm and funny – All she wanted was everything!) and the gorgeous settings, with a very fine score by Richard Hartley. The elegance, precision and self-referentiality make this a must for Losey fans. It was probably a tricky shoot – Jackson and Berger couldn’t stand each other, allegedly. And Caine placed a bet that he could make the director smile by the end of the shoot. He lost. Wiseman commemorated his experience with Losey in his novel Genius Jack. It’s not kind. This, however, is a sly treat you don’t want to miss. You are a novelist, an imaginer of fiction.

Good Posture (2019)

Good Posture

I’m not much of a reader. Lilian (Grace Van Patten) is a budding filmmaker living in New York City after her father Neil (Norbert Leo Butz) abruptly moved to Paris with his girlfriend. When her boyfriend Nate (Gary Richardson) dumps her for being immature, she moves in with family friends who she last saw when she was a baby. While musician Don (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is welcoming and friendly his wife Julia (Emily Mortimer), a famous and reclusive British novelist, immediately clashes with lazy Lilian and it appears she bullies her husband. Lilian smokes marijuana with Don which leads to his having a fight with Julia and he promptly leaves the house. Julia sequesters herself in her room and begins communicating with Lilian through messages in Lilian’s private journal.  After running into Nate and his co-worker, filmmaker Laura (Condola Rashad), whom Lilian works out he is seeing, Lilian pretends she is working on a documentary about Julia to make herself look good. Rather than ask Julia for permission, Lilian begins scouting for cameramen and settles on Simon aka ‘Sol’ (John Early) and uses her father’s connections to contact famous writers and interview them about Julia.She finds out from Jonathan Ames that her father is back in New York and his girlfriend is pregnant. She also realises that Julia is using her as possible writing inspiration and has used her as inspiration before, when she was a child. Then Julia finds out about Lilian’s documentary when Lilian is late to meet Sol, and he enthusiastically tells Julia everything. Julia cuts off all communication with Lilian. Depressed, Lilian makes a move on Julia’s reclusive dog walker George (Timm Sharp) who rebuffs her. Then she reconciles with her father and meets his girlfriend Celeste (Emmanuelle Martin, the film’s costume designer) and they don’t even tell her what she already knows about their future plans … Tell Miss Havisham I’m on it. It’s difficult to tell what age our heroine Lillian might be even though when we meet her she is clearly (formerly) involved with an adult male but she wears pigtails, is parented by phone from Paris and also does drugs. She’s tricksy, unlikable and a bit ungrateful. Likewise her authoress host is prickly as a porcupine, sour and not exactly pleased to see her. A bit like real life then. A writer who doesn’t write, a musician husband who hasn’t made a record lately, a house guest of indeterminate duration who doesn’t read yet wants to make documentaries but admits that she has ‘never sat through one’ and fixes on making one about the woman she refers to as Miss Havisham whose books she doesn’t know. Yet we find out Lilian’s mother abandoned her (she died) and Julia lost a baby. It’s a film about people in the mass media who don’t know how to communicate with each other. Information is passed like contraband behind people’s backs. Julia writes in Lilian’s diary and uses it for a new novel. We find out about the story from the songs composed for the soundtrack by Heather Christian. It’s also about how the children of well known people coast through life using their parents’ contacts and money. It’s about how bereavement plays out for years and years.  It’s about how people can’t see what’s staring them in the face. It’s about the millennial generation’s sense of entitlement.  It’s replete with contradictions and human comedy and the film within a film boasts cameos from novelists Zadie Smith and Jonathan Ames who play along gamely with the witty script but leave it to Martin Amis (who is gleefully credited as ‘Self’) to deliver the zinger that is both dramatic and comically relevant: It’s not an intellectual stimulus, being happy. On the contrary. The performances are perfect. Mortimer is an underrated actress. She looks so harmless but one remark can hit right below the belt and power several scenes ahead when she’s nowhere to be seen. She has one employee solely to care for her dog whom he walks and cooks for yet she bullies her own husband out of the family home. Van Patten has a tough role and plays it excellently – spiky, spiteful, irritating and manipulative, eventually developing a degree of self-awareness. The epistolary nature of her relationship with Mortimer reminds us of nineteenth century literature. Low-key, writerly, amusing and ironic with an unpredictably clever romcom happy ending plot-engineered by master puppeteer Mortimer: I would expect no less from writer/director Dolly Wells, Mortimer’s co-star in the cherishable TV series Doll & Em, similarly set in Brooklyn.  Let’s keep it happy