Tag Archives: Vanessa Redgrave

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bio of Joe Orton.

This film, which is based on the biography of playwright Joe Orton that was written by John Lahr, has two diametrically different story lines going on at the same time. One part has John Lahr, played in the movie by Wallace Shawn, going around interviewing people that knew Orton when he was alive, which includes Orton’s theatrical agent Peggy Ramsey (Vanessa Redgrave). The other part delves into Orton’s (Gary Oldman) relationship with his Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) showing how it began and then eventually ending in tragedy.

The film, which was directed by the usually reliable Stephen Frears, starts out right away with the murder scene showing Halliwell covered with blood as he stands over Orton’s body that he has just killed, which to me was a mistake. Sometimes using flashbacks in films can help accentuate the story, but here it gives too much away way too soon. What’s the point of continuing to watch the movie if the viewer knows exactly how it will end? Even if one such as myself was aware of Orton’s demise, which occurred on August 9, 1967 in Islington, England, it still should’ve approached the material in a linear way having the murder occur at the very end after we had gotten to understand and feel for the characters and therefore making the act all that more impactful.

The story should’ve started with the scene, which doesn’t occur until 30 minutes in, where Halliwell and Orton are attending a acting improv class, which is where the two first meet and the funniest moment in the movie. In the scene the students are instructed to pass around a make-believe cat and when this invisible cat gets handed to Halliwell, and to the shock of the other students, but to the amusement of Orton, he kills it and then hands it back to the instructor.  This moment also perfectly reflects the black humor that became so apparent in Orton’s plays as well as conveying the weird dynamic that the two had.

When the film focuses solely on the two lead characters and their love-hate relationship it is quite interesting. Molina gives a powerhouse performance and dominates every scene that he is in. His mental deterioration is both vivid and horrorifying and  leaves a lasting impression. Yet there are also other moments where you feel sorry the guy and it helps to make sense of what lead to the tragedy as you see how Orton, who is much younger and better looking, openly have trysts with other men that he randomly meets while Halliwell, fully aware of what is going on, gets pushed into the background and unable to do anything about it.

The film is also filled with some memorable imagery. The scenes where Orton and sometimes Halliwell would pick up strangers for indiscriminate sex, like in dingy public restrooms with the lights turned off and even at times inside the bathroom stalls themselves while constantly in fear of getting caught and arrested, is well captured. The tiny room that the two lived in for years, with pictures that cover every inch of the walls, gets recreated to a perfect tee. Based on images of the actual room found on Google it looks exactly like the one in the movie and its claustrophobic dimensions hits home making it seem amazing that such significant long lasting stage plays, that were later made into movies, could’ve been written in such an insignificant space that seemed no bigger than someone’s walk-in closet.

The opening bit that focused on Orton’s agent and having her reminisce about her experiences dealing with him is boring and should’ve been taken out of the final cut. Viewers come into this wanting to learn more about Orton and his relationship with Halliwell and that’s where the film should’ve started and stayed. I admit Redgrave gives a very good performance as the agent, so having brief scenes with her in them that intercut between the ones dealing with the lovers might have been interesting, but too much time gets spent on the side characters that almost dismantles the entire rest of the film.

Spoiler Alert!

I didn’t like how loud crashing music gets abruptly played during the murder sequence either. The soundtrack had been quite subtle up until then, so having it suddenly get loud is jarring and goes against the tone of the rest of the film. It also puts too much of a theatrical quality to the murder that was not needed. The  visuals are all that is needed to show the shocking and gruesome nature of the act without music needing to be any part of it.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: April 17, 1987

Runtime: 1 Hour 45 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Stephen Frears

Studio: The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Available: DVD

The Little Drummer Girl (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Actress infiltrates terrorist organization.

Charlie (Diane Keaton) is a stage actress with pro-Palestinian leanings who’s living in Israel. After a Palestinian bomber kills a Israeli diplomat and his family she gets recruited by a pro-Israeli spy organization to pretend to be the bomber’s brother’s girlfriend. At first she resists, but eventually she puts her acting skills to work until she gets deeper and deeper into the quagmire and begins to question what she really stands for.

The story, which is based on the novel of the same name by John Le Carre, who appears briefly in the film as a police chief, has a lot of exciting moments and a few unexpected ones. For the most part I found the plot intriguing and the twists and turns to be interesting although if the viewer doesn’t pay close attention they could easily become lost.

Klaus Kinski’s performance makes it worth seeing. He suffered from mental illness in his personal life and due to that as well as his unique facial features usually stymied him in roles of madmen, or troubled individuals, but here he plays someone who is actually normal and does a convincing job of it. His presence definitely enlivens the proceedings to the point that he should’ve been the sole face of the Israeli organization and not crowded out by a throng of assistant players who are not interesting and become clutter to both the story and visuals.

Keaton is great here too and one of the main reasons that the film remains as interesting as it does. Her emotional confusion comes off as sincere and the fish-out-of-water concept where she gets thrown into a world that she is not used to and must use her wits and acting talent to get by is at first riveting.

Unfortunately the second half goes too far to the extreme where Charlie no longer resembles the same person that we met at the beginning. Some may argue that this is her character arch, but she still needs to have a consistent foundation and not morph into something completely different with no roots to what she was before. She starts out as someone only going along with the charade because she’s forced into it. She’s very clumsy at first, but then by the second half is able to put a gun together while blindfolded and seamlessly detonate a bomb without a sweat like a seasoned spy with years of experience.

She’s given an opportunity to get out and yet she decides to proceed even as things get more dangerous, which makes little sense since she didn’t conform at all with the political sentiments of the organization that recruited her. Any regular person would have a mental/emotional breakdown at seeing someone killed before they’re very eyes, or required to go to bed with a stranger that she barely knew and the fact that she doesn’t reveals how the filmmakers had a very poor grasp on the character.

All of this could’ve been avoided had they modeled her after the one in the book. For the film the producers decided to portray Charlie as being similar to Vanessa Redgrave, but in the book the character was inspired after Janet Lee Stevens who was an American journalist, human rights activist, and Arabic literature scholar who traveled to the Middle East as an interpreter and had no connection to acting. Having the film focus on a young activist whose extreme idealism ends up getting her in-over-her-head would’ve been more compelling and believable. Throwing in the acting angle just doesn’t work and ends up becoming its biggest liability.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 19, 1984

Runtime: 2 Hours 10 Minutes

Rated R

Director: George Roy Hill

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD (Warner Archive), Amazon Video, YouTube

Agatha (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Agatha Christie runs away.

Despondent over her husband’s affair famous British novelist Agatha Christie (Vanessa Redgrave) decides to go away for a while to collect her thoughts. She then gets into a car accident while on the road and having her car disabled she first takes a train and then a cab to the Old Swain Hotel where she registers there under an assumed name. The police find her disabled car and fear that Agatha may have drowned in a nearby lake, been kidnapped, murdered by her husband Archie (Timothy Dalton) or committed suicide. A nationwide search begins that encompasses thousands of volunteers that scour the nearby countryside for clues. Meanwhile American reporter Wally Stanton (Dustin Hoffman), working off of  a tip from Agatha’s secretary, decides to check into the same hotel and begins following Agatha around where he keeps notes on everything she does while also falling in love with her in the process.

The film is loosely based on Agatha Christie’s real-life 11-day disappearance that occurred in 1926. No explanation was ever given for the reason nor was it even mentioned in her autobiography. Had there been some actual research about what might’ve transpired during those 11-days then this would be worth a look, but, as the film plainly states at the beginning, it is simply an ‘imaginary solution to an authentic mystery’, so then what’s the point?

Most likely it was nothing more than a woman looking to escape to some quiet location for a short respite that unfortunately due to the press getting wind of it, spiraled quickly out-of-control. The film’s low point comes in the side-story dealing with Agatha’s attempts to kill herself through a jolt of electricity from sitting in a Bergonic chair, but is saved at the last second by Wally who grabs her from the chair just as she’s shocked. Yet as he lays her limp body on the floor he doesn’t perform CPR, but instead shouts at her to ‘breath’ several times and despite no scientific study proving that this ‘technique’ can actually work she still miraculously begins breathing again anyways.

I have never read a biography on Christie, so I have no idea what her real personality was like, but the film portrays her as being a complete wallflower lacking any type of confidence and so painfully shy it’s pathetic. The character is so transparent it’s almost like she’s not even there. Hoffman’s character was completely made-up and the way he chain smokes reminded me too much of the character that he had played in Midnight Cowboy. His growing ‘love’ for her and the way he later expresses it is extremely forced and corny. Also, why is Hoffman given top billing when the main subject is Agatha?

Johnny Mandel’s soothing score is the best thing. I also liked the shot of the thousands of volunteers searching for her along the vast countryside, but everything else about the movie gets either under cooked or overbaked. The scene where Agatha tries to do a triple bank shot while playing pool gets badly botched. We initially see it captured from above where the entire pool table is in view. The pool ball banks off the side and rolls towards the corner pocket, but then it slows up and it becomes clear that it won’t make it to the pocket, so director Michael Apted cheats by cutting to a close-up of the ball and having it magically regain speed, which easily makes it into the corner pocket. The attempt was to ‘trick’ the viewer into believing that this was a continuation of the same shot but any halfway savvy person will realize this close-up was shot later and edited in.

The film’s poster tells us that ‘What may have happened during the next 11 days is far more suspenseful than anything she ever wrote’, but it really isn’t and in fact it’s not even close. The original intent by screenwriter Kathleen Tynan was to make this into a documentary after researching the true facts of the case, which would’ve been far better than the flimsy fanciful thing we get here.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Apted

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), Amazon Video, YouTube

Steaming (1985)

steaming

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Saving a steam room.

Three women (Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, Patti Love) congregate at a London steam room designed like a Turkish bathhouse. Despite their lifestyle differences they become good friends as they divulge their problems to one another and learn to lean on each other to help them cope with life’s difficulties. Then one day Violet (Diana Dors), who is the bath house owner, informs them that the place is set for demolition, which causes everyone to go on a mission to try and save it.

The film is based on the Nell Dunn play, which was highly regarded at the time, but makes for a very poor transfer to film. It starts out flat and never recovers. The dialogue has too much of a conversational quality that is not interesting and the problems that they discuss are not compelling, or original. The humor from the play is missing and the dry, somber tone only makes things even more boring. The only time it gains any traction is when it’s announced that the place is closing, but everything gets resolved in such a sitcom-styled way that it hardly seems worth the effort to watch.

The entire cast is made up of women and there is an abundance of nudity particularly from Miles, which doesn’t seem like a big deal these days. The biggest issue though is the fact that everything takes place from inside the bath house, which is gray, grimy, and rundown. The film should’ve had some segments shot from different locales if to only allow for some visual variety and to help the viewer understand the characters better by seeing how they react in different social settings.

Miles and Redgrave are wasted in drab roles and this goes likewise for Dors whose last film role this was. Love is the only one that shows any liveliness and although her character is a bit annoying she at least has an emotional breakdown near the middle, which adds some mild dramatic tension.

Joseph Losey was a competent director who made many interesting films, so it’s a shame that his career had to end with such a dud. He was already sick with cancer while he filmed this and like with Dors died a year before it was released. The disease may have sapped his creative energy and explain why this production is so ponderously sterile. It’s certainly a far cry from his other works as well as the Bruce Jay Friedman play Steambath, which had a similar setting, but a much more imaginative plotline.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: September 28, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated R

Director: Joseph Losey

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD (Region 2)