Federico Fellini's virtually unknown final film is neither the almost total disaster many people claim it to be nor the late masterpiece it could have been. It is, however, typical Fellini, certainly typical of his work from the mid-sixties on, full of whimsical middle-aged men and large-breasted women. We could be back in the Rimini of "Amarcord" but instead we are in a mythical town where nothing seems real and with everything unfolding as if in a dream. It's certainly hugely self-indulgent while lead Roberto Benigni has always been an acquired taste. In its favour you might say that two minutes in and you know you are watching a Fellini film even if it's a bad one; his signature is in every frame. If, like me, you regard him as one of cinema's great visionaries you will be massively disappointed and if you've always thought of him as overrated you can safely say 'I told you so'. I wish I could simply chalk it down as an interesting failure but it's less than that; a sad end to a greatly distinguished career.
Good if a little more impersonal than it needs to be.
The "Public Enemies" of the title are Baby Face Nelson and more specifically John Dillinger and Michael Mann's movie is about how Agent Melvin Purvis brought them down. Being a Michael Mann movie you know it's going to be stylish, action-packed and probably a cut above other real-life gangster films but it's not one of Mann's better pictures despite first-rate performances from Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as Purvis and some terrific set-pieces. The problem is Mann's always been a somewhat chilly director, a consummate professional more concerned with getting every detail right rather than fleshing out his films with empathetic characters, though perhaps the likes of John Dillinger, Hannibal Lecter and the gangsters of "Heat" could never be thought of as empathetic. Still, thanks to some extraordinary casting "Heat" wasn't just a great gangster/heist movie but a fill full of people you might actually relate to. "Public Enemies" doesn't offer us the same pleasures even if it does what it says on the tin and does it very well but then so many other films have done the same thing and done it better. Maybe what "Public Enemies" needed was to be about thirty minutes shorter, shot in black and white and with the likes of Mickey Rooney or Rod Steiger in the lead. Unfortunately those days are past. This certainly isn't a bad film, just a very impersonal one.
When the leads are Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren what's not to like...
Once upon a time it would have been unheard of for a movie to get off the ground on the strength of leads whose combined ages totalled one hundred and fifty nine. On the other hand, mention that those leads are Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren and you just might manage to sell it. In "The Good Liar" Sir Ian is an ageing con-man and Dame Helen potentially his next victim, whom he meets on an online dating site and one of the film's pleasures is watching these two great thespians act their little cotton socks off.
The target audience may indeed be readers of 'The Oldie' but if you dismiss this simply as one for the wrinklies you'd be missing a very enjoyable old-school thriller. Russell Tovey is here to cater for the younger market though you might feel his character is a bit superfluous while director Bill Condon makes great use of locations both in London and Berlin. Unfortunately the plot goes a little off the rails at the end so marks knocked off for that but still nice to see something as old-fashioned as this in 2019.
This movie about a piece of real-life investigative journalism was much lauded at the time of its release, mainly for being one of the first features to be filmed in the actual locations where the events took place. It's certainly a good-looking picture, well directed by Henry Hathaway in an unhurried, unsensational fashion and yet it's dull. This is the story of a man in prison for life for a murder he didn't commit and of one reporter's efforts to get him reprieved but there's no excitement, no sense of urgency; it's certainly not a whodunit.
"Call Northside 777" falls into that category of films you admire for the skill with which they're made but which don't engage you on an emotional level and given the subject, this one should. James Stewart is the reporter and he goes about his duties earnestly but without conviction, (it's one of his least interesting performances), and it's left to Richard Conte, the prisoner, to give the film whatever feeling it has. He's very good but it's a small role. The rest of a good cast are largely wasted and the real star of the picture is Joe MacDonald who did the superb location photography. It's not seen much these days and is hardly likely to hold an audience raised on the likes of "All the President's Men"
If movies were the sum of their credits, both in front of and behind the camera, then "This Property is Condemned" might have been a masterpiece. It isn't but it's a damn fine, if underrated and largely forgotten, film nevertheless. Based very loosely on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams and with a screenplay in part written by Francis Coppola, (without the Ford), it's a sweetly tough romantic drama about the relationship between a small-town dreamer of a girl, (a superb Natalie Wood), and the railroad 'fixer', (an excellent Robert Redford), who comes to stay in her mother's boarding house during the Great Depression. It's fairly conventional, predictable even, but it oozes charm, is beautifully cast, (as well as the leads there's good work from Kate Reid as Wood's less-than-wholesome mother and Mary Badham as her kid sister), superbly photographed by James Wong Howe and has a fine Kenyon Hopkins score. Of course, by 1966 movies like this were no longer in fashion. Essentially it's a throwback to the kind of films Elia Kazan was making in the previous ten years and it would sit very nicely on a double-bill with "Splendour in the Grass". So, no masterpiece then or anything close to one but a very solid, grown-up entertainment of the kind we don't see too often these days.
British director David Mackenzie has been making films for around twenty years now and with his varied output I suppose he could be called one of 'the new auteurs'. The fact that he isn't necessarily that prolific only piques our interest. He made "Hell or High Water" in the US in 2016 and it was nominated for Best Picture which proves that really good independent cinema can find favour and a market. Superbly written by Taylor Sheridan, it's the story of two brothers who become somewhat less than competent bank-robbers in an effort to raise enough money to save their late mother's ranch. The brothers are Chris Pine and a brilliant Ben Foster, (surely one of the best actors working anywhere today), and an even better Jeff Bridges is the grizzled old sheriff on their trail. It's the kind of movie the Coen Brothers might have made but not improved on and it has a real feeling for the New Mexico landscapes where it was filmed, (it's beautifully shot by Giles Nuttgens), and you would never guess watching it that Mackenzie himself wasn't American. There's also a terrific Nick Cave/Warren Ellis score; the perfect package, in fact.
"Om Bar-D-Bar" is a free-wheeling piece of what might best be described as 'experimental' cinema. It has a narrative but that narrative, along with the film's 'style', is all over the place. In America, of course, such films are fairly common in avant-garde cinema but this one hails from India and came out at a time when Indian feature films were meant to be nothing more exciting than the usual Bollywood production. This one may have Bollywood elements but, like everything else in the picture, they are subverted.
It was directed by Kamal Swaroop and it was clearly not aimed at a mass audience. if technically it's on the ropey side, (some of the nighttime shooting is poor), it does show imagination and is often shot like a documentary. Of course, the big question is, is it any good or just self-indulgent? Swaroop clearly has skill, (though this is the only one of his films I've seen), but despite the skill and the imagination I found it very hard-going.
Much more than just another 'inspirational true story'.
"Just Mercy" might have been just another inspirational true story of the kind the American cinema seems very fond of and which they usually treat with much larger dollops of sentimentality than necessary but thanks to director Destin Daniel Cretton's expert handling of the material, a fine script and first-rate performances from Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx this is much more gripping, moving and intelligent than it could have been. It's the story of young African-American lawyer Bryan Stevenson and his fight to free wrongly convicted death-row prisoner Walter McMillan; Jordan is Stevenson and Foxx is McMillan. Of course, that's just the up close and personal element; what it's really about is America's Systemic Racism and although it's set thirty odd years ago the tragedy is it could have been made yesterday.
It's also a thriller, a kind of companion piece to "In the Heat of the Night" but without the grandstanding, Oscar-bait, crowd-pleasing elements and instead of a scenery-chewing Rod Stieger we have a much more nuanced Ralf Spall as a small town Southern lawyer. In fact, all the performances are first-rate with everyone underplaying superbly, (there's an Oscar-worthy turn from Tim Blake Nelson as a key witness), but the casting is just one of the film's many strengths. Cretton and Andrew Lanham's screenplay is humorous as well as honest while Cretton directs in that straightforward, classical style that Clint Eastwood has honed to perfection. Indeed Eastwood could easily have made this and if he had we would be hailing it as one of his finest films. Cretton has every reason to be proud.
The British Cinema has a long literary tradition. Yes, we've had the Kitchen Sink Movement and Hammer and a whole lot of 'stiff upper lip' war movies but perhaps what the British Cinema does best is tell good stories, unadorned, often taken from good novels or, if written directly for the screen, following the format of a good novel and Richard Eyre's "The Children Act" is no exception, so it comes as no surprise that it was written by Ian McEwan and is based on his own novel and that the director has a very solid reputation directing for the theatre.
This is a 'problem picture' but since, Ken Loach apart, the British don't really do problem pictures there's also a strong back story about a marriage that's in trouble. The marriage in question is that of Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci, a very well heeled middle-aged couple. The central story, and the one that makes this a problem picture, deals with Thompson's role in a court case involving the son of Jehovah Witnesses who requires a life-saving blood transfusion contrary to his and his parents' faith. Thompson is the judge presiding in the case and it's her judgement that will decide the outcome.
The film of "The Children Act" is, indeed, the kind of literary cinema the British do brilliantly but it's more than that and not just because it deals with a serious and contentious issue but because of the immense skill of all involved. McEwan has adapted his novel superbly and Eyre directs it beautifully and at its heart lies a truly terrific performance from Thompson, too often cast these days in eccentric supporting roles but here given the opportunity to finally carry a picture again. Tucci, too, is excellent as the errant husband and in a first-rate supporting cast Jason Watkins and Fionn Whitehead, (the boy in question), are stand-outs. This is highly intelligent cinema, as gripping in its own way as any thriller and is a very pleasant and welcome change from so much of the highfalutin art-house stuff we've been getting recently. Very highly recommended.
A miscast Alan Bates is "The Fixer" of the title in John Frankenheimer's film version of Bernard Malamud's novel. Set in Czarist Russia, Bates is the Jewish handyman accused and imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit and Dirk Bogarde is the lawyer who does what he can to help him and there's a large, starry cast of mostly British thespians playing various Russians and Jews to the best of their ability or not as the case may be.
It was a prestige production in the MGM tradition of grandiose literary works and you half expect to see Richard Brooks' name on the credits but from Frankenheimer you expect more. In the early sixties he was the wunderkind of the American cinema, turning out exciting and edgy pictures like "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "The Manchurian Candidate" but this is stodgy and old-fashioned and it hammers its arguments home with very little subtlety, (it was written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo). Bogarde goes some way to redeeming it but not far enough.
Perhaps not the masterpiece some claim of it but essential nevertheless.
The family in Marco Bellocchio's startling debut "Fists in the Pocket" make the Femms of "The Old Dark House" seem normal. These indolent Italians laze around all day taunting each other at every opportunity while son Allessandro, (a truly terrific Lou Castel), contemplates the best ways to rid himself of the others, including his blind mother, for the sake of the one brother he cares about. This darkly funny satire wasn't like other Italian films of the time, taking an almost putrid look at the family values Italians hold most dear; a comedy about matricide, fratricide and possible incest that actually manages to be quite touching at times. It's also a movie that takes its time. For a director making only his first feature, Bellocchio bravely put narraitve on the back-burner opting instead for an atmosphere as lazy as his characters and killing off a number of sacred cows in the process. The Establishment hated it while young critics loved it though not enough to make it anything other than a cult movie and it's seldom revived. Perhaps its reputation outweighs its numerous qualities but however you look at it, it's a one-off and well worth seeing.
Sweet, funny and sad...and destined to put a smile on your face.
This Swedish comedy about a cantankerous man, old before his time and suicidal after losing his job but realising slowly that perhaps life, and people in general, aren't so bad after all, is a gem. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and deservedly so and it's certainly much better than the overrated and not dissimilar "Toni Erdmann" and as the older Ove, Rolf Lassgard is miraculously good, (we also get to meet him as a child and a much younger man). Of course, an American version would be hugely sentimental but the Swedes don't really do sentimentality and this is sweet, funny and sad. Any tears it draws, it draws honestly. It's also beautifully directed by Hannes Holm in a series of short scenes designed to show Ove's character and that of his neighbours and it's sure to put a very large smile on your face.
This may well turn out to be Kaurismaki's masterpiece.
One-time minimalist, now breaking out into something more substantial, Aki Kaurismaki here tackles the refugee crisis, explicity and beautifully, proving there's always been more to him than sometimes met the eye. "The Other Side of Hope" is set in Helsinki where Syrian refugee Khaled ends up after stowing away on a coal ship and it's here he meets former salesman, gambler and restauranteur Wilkstrom who is also embarking on a new life, albeit a less drastic one. In typical Kaurismaki style, he establishes what is happening to these two men in the first several minutes without a word being spoken.
Like "Le Havre" before it, this is Kaurismaki at his most humane; you get the impression De Sica or perhaps Ken Loach might have made this and while the acting throughout is typically deadpan both Sherwan Haji, (Khaled), and Sakari Kuesmanen, (Wilkstrom), fully inhabit their characters. In Kaurismaki's films the actors never quite feel like actors and there are moments here of documentary-like realism. Of course, we wouldn't be watching a Kaurismaki film if it wasn't fanciful on occasion and this is where Kaurismaki scores over his contemporaries; he embraces magical-realsim better than anybody. This funny, sad and deeply moving film might just turn out to be his masterpiece.
Hal Hartley isn't for everyone. He's certainly not going to appeal to the kind of audiences hooked on what Marvel are turning out and even the art-house crowd haven't always related to his brand of very dry, off-the-wall humour and the kind of one-note performances he draws from his casts and yet his reputation has remained rock solid for over thirty years. He made "Amateur" in 1994 with regular co-star Martin Donovan together with Elina Lowensohn and French legend Isabelle Huppert. The plot hardly matters; it's like a riff on the gangster movie but so daft you can discount it as any kind of thriller and too lacking in what we might call 'gags' to be classed as a comedy.
Donovan is the amnesiac who wakes up, injured in an alley, before wandering into a cafe where he meets ex-nun, now porn writer Isabelle Huppert who then brings him home. So far, so regular but from here on it kicks off every which way; they could be making it up as it goes along and maybe they were though Hartley is credited with the screenplay. Of course, there are people who find all of this hilarious and perhaps even intellectually stimulating but it only took about twenty minutes for me to realise that Hartley has never been my kind of poison. For fans only.
This tale of how the French novelist Colette overturned the social norms of the day by getting herself recognized as the author of her own work, which had previously been claimed by her husband, is an extremely handsome looking and entertaining picture with a fine screenplay by director Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz and excellent performances from Keira Knightley in the title role, Dominic West as her untrustworthy spouse and Denise Gough as the woman she loved.
It's an unusual story that many people may not have known and, of course, it makes a strong feminisit statement without feeling in any way didactic, (Colette didn't just challenge literary and social norms but sexual ones as well). It's also that rare thing, a film about writing that's also very cinematic and it plays out like a literary thriller, a will-she-or-won't-she when we already know the outcome). No classic, perhaps, but still a couple of hours in good company.
One of the best horror films of the last 20 years.
This Japanese serial-killer chiller is just grisly enough to satisfy the fan-boys and smart enough to please those who like to take their brains with them when they go to the cinema. People are being murdered in Tokyo and their killers are found close to the bodies but claiming either no memory or understanding of their crimes and it's left to laid-back detective Koji Yaskusho to figure out what's going on.
The film is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Cure" and since it first appeared in 1997 has built up something of a cult following. It's like a Japanese version of "Seven" and Kurosawa builds up the suspense beautifully, using tiny shock tactics rather than big jump-out-at-you scares and elicting a genuinely eerie performance from Masato Hagiwara as the man who's probably behind the killings. A superb use of sound effects also adds to the general feeling of unease making this one of the most unsettling horror films of the last 25 years.
Even the most avid cineastes are unlikely to be familiar with this very late Joseph Losey opus. It was his penultimate film, made in France in 1982, and starring a young Isabelle Huppert and Jeanne Moreau and frankly, it's pretty terrible. Huppert is the small-town girl with a gay husband, (Jacques Spiesser), and ideas above her station who, after hustling a rich, middle-aged couple, (Moreau and Jean-Pierre Cassel), at, of all things, bowls ends up going to Japan with Cassel's business partner.
The kindest thing I can say about it is that it's a strange movie that is also strangely dated, (there's lots of bad disco music), and it features some of the worst acting that either Huppert or Moreau ever did. There's the flimsiest of plots involving high finance but this, like much else in the picture, is hard to fathom. The best performance comes from the Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski as that business partner of Cassel's who has the hots for Huppert but even he can't redeem this hollow, empty affair that, together with "Streaming", brought Losey's illustrious career to a sorry end.
"Departure" is another of those precious coming-of-age films that the British or the French, in particular, tend to do rather well, this one being British but set in France where Juliet Stevenson and her teenage son Alex Lawther have come to sell the family's holiday home. Young Lawther, (twenty when the film was made but looking much younger), is also discovering his sexuality and it isn't girls he appears to be interested in, so when he spies a slightly older French boy on a bridge, his hormones start working overtime. Rather awkwardly, when Juliet meets him she, too, is drawn to him.
Beautifully photographed, intelligently written and directed by Andrew Steggall, whose first feature this is, and very nicely acted, "Departure" is one of those films you feel churlish criticizing, rather like throwing stones at a nun and I suppose you could say that in its own way it is absolutely perfect, perfect and lifeless and more than a little contrived. Since young Alex wants to be a writer you wonder how much of it may be autobiographical but if it is, what a dull coming-of-age Steggall must have had; you keep waiting and waiting for something to happen and when it does, it's a case of so-what. This is the kind of art-house film Joanna Hogg makes, which may be a recommendation to some and an anathema to others. As I said, it's 'precious'.
A heist movie but not a good one. Phil Karlson was the director so you had the right to expect more but saddled with a dreadful script and poor performances all round he couldn't do anything to save "5 Against the House". For starters, the title is misleading as there's really only one against the huose, psychotic Korean veteran Brian Keith. The other four are Guy Madison, (looking more like William Holden than ever), Kerwin Mathews, Alvy Moore and Kim Novak, (looking gorgeous but not doing much in the way of acting; even her singing is dubbed), and although it was Mathews who came up with the daft plan to rob a Reno casino they didn't really mean to keep the money. In fact, Madison and Novak were in the dark about the whole thing until the very last minute, (yes, it's as silly as it sounds). There is a trickle of excitement at the end but not enough to keep you awake. By the time the robbery comes around you will probably have drifted into a deep sleep and if you're lucky you might even be dreaming you're watching "Rififi" or "The Killing" instead.
Whatever you do, don't approach Ben Wheatley's new film "Rebecca" as a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's much beloved classic, not that it ever would have been; Wheatley is his own man and we always knew he would do things differently, in this case sticking more closely to the book and casting it in such a way as to banish all memories of Fontaine, Olivier and Dame Judith and in this he has been largely successful. Armie Hammer is a lot less melancholy, if a tad modern, than Lord Larry ever was. Lily James is much more down-to-earth and obviously a good deal more sensual than Joan while Kristin Scott Thomas gives Mrs. Danvers a human side that was totally lacking in Judith Anderson's performance. Indeed, regardless of what else you think of the film I doubt if anyone could find fault with Scott Thomas who effortlessly walks away with the picture.
It also benefits from a Manderley that really looks like it might be one of the finest houses in all of England and the whole thing is beautifully shot by Laurie Rose in widescreen and colour. Fans of Mr. Hitchcock's version are unlikely to be won over; however, newcomers and fans of Du Maurier's novel should find plenty here to please them though the device of not giving the new Mrs. De Winter a Christian name seems even more contrived this time round.
A magnificent performance by Arkin saves the movie.
Robert Ellis Miller is hardly a name to inspire enthusiasm so his 1968 version of Carson McCuller's novel "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" might come as something of a surprise. Yes, it's maudlin more often than not but it does feature a magnificent performance by Alan Arkin as Singer, the deaf mute who forms a friendship with his landlady's young daughter, (a superb Sondra Locke in her first film). Of course, the territory is typical McCullers with all the characters carrying baggage of one kind or another and with Arkin coming across as a kind of Earth Angel rather than an ordinary human being and in typical McCullers' fashion he ends up helping everyone but himself. The ending's a downer, (what's the life lesson McCullers is teaching us here, you wonder), but it's still better than it could have been and it's probably Miller's best film.
Something a little different; a dry-eyed Woman's Picture...
Joan Crawford doesn't appear until thirty minutes into "Humoresque"; it's called making an entrance. This time round she's the rich society dame with a drink problem who falls for struggling violinist John Garfield. The thing is she's married but then, that's never stopped her before though John has scruples, (not too many), so you know it's all going to end in tears. Crawford's wonderful playing Crawford and Garfield in remarkably good as the musician with a very large chip on his shoulder and there's very good work from J. Carrol Naish and Rurh Nelson as Garfield's parents and Paul Cavanagh as Joan's weak husband. Clifford Odets was one of the two scriptwriters, (the pseudo-poetic one-liners are clearly his)), Jean Negulesco directed, really rather well, and there's an awful lot of good classical violin playing courtesy of Issac Stern. Unfortunately the deeply annoying Oscar Levant's in it, too, typecast as a wise-cracking pianist but then you can't have everything.
Edward Anderson's novel "Thieves Like Us" was originally filmed in 1948 by Nicholas Ray as 'They Live By Night', a 'Bonnie & Clyde' style gangster picture, falling somewhere between a film-noir and the kind of film Warner Brothers might have turned out in the thirties and it generated its own excitement. This version, by Robert Altman and made in 1974, kept the original title but Altman drew all the excitement out of it. This is a strangely bloodless affair. As you might expect, however, it's very 'cinematic', stunningly shot by Jean Boffety and very well acted by members of Altman's stock company but it lacks the buzz a good Depression-era gangster film should have. It's fatalistic and yet you never feel involved with any of the characters. It's one of those films you admire but don't actually like even if it never puts a foot wrong. Still, leads Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall are superb and that's enough to be getting on with.
There's evil afoot in one of those boy's schools were the boys are all played by actors in their early twenties. It makes you wonder at what age pupils graduated from American high-schools. "Child's Play" was adpated from a successful Tony-award winning Broadway play and was directed by Sidney Lumet. It's certainly not one of his better films but it's a nice grisly entertainment nevertheless about the feud between two senior masters, (James Mason and Robert Preston, both terrific), and a seemingly inexplicable eruption of violence amongst the boys.
Basically, it's a high-class horror film with possible demonology lurking in the chapel and would be more effective if the 'boys' weren't so clearly young men. Beau Bridges is the new young gym teacher and former pupil torn between loyalty to Preston and sympathy for Mason and David Rounds is good as a fairly liberal young priest. It's nonsense, of course, but the cast give it a real kick and Mason, in particular, might convince you that you're watching something serious. Understandly it isn't much revived.
Overlong and maybe over-familiar but it holds our attention nevertheless.
Religion figures prominently in this slice of American Gothic from Antonio Campos but it's the old time religion of the Old Testament rather than the New and it's the Devil who's in the driving seat in "The Devil All the Time". Covering a period of about twenty years and with a multitude of characters, most of whom come to a sticky end, it's a darkly funny piece of Americana set in the backwoods of West Virginia where murder is more common than a prayer before bedtime.
We've been down these backroads before, of course, all the way back to the seventies. Scorsese cut his teeth on material like this as did Malick and Campos shows us you certainly can't keep a good genre down. It meanders a little and jumps back and forth in time maybe more than it should and it's certainly overlong but it's well-acted, (particularly by Robert Pattinson and Tom Holland), and very nicely narrated by Donald Ray Pollock, author of the original novel.