Mary Poppins (1964)

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You will know from Saving Mr Banks that author PL Travers had major problems with letting go of this, the first of her Poppins series. And she made life hell for Walt Disney and his super-talented team of songwriters, cartoonists, choreographers and writers. And out of that years-long war came a film fashioned from such magical properties as to defy description. It has killer dialogue (“Never mistake efficiency for a liver complaint”), wonderful performances from children and adults alike (it was Andrews’ debut), a terrific blend of pathos and wonderment courtesy of the combination of live action with animation…  And then there are the songs, which I knew long before I ever saw the film. Every home had a copy of this album at one time. They are all brilliantly crafted affairs by Disney’s in-house writers the Sherman brothers. But if you don’t have a lump in your throat for Let’s Go Fly a Kite you might well be a robot. Practically perfect in every way.

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Eddie the Eagle (2016)

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This is the story of the worst ski jumper in British Olympic history. And that should warn off all but the most indulgent ski bunnies. But aside from the fact that I am OBSESSED with winter sports (did you see what happened in the slalom at Innsbruck last week?!) this is a winning, funny, deeply sympathetic and hellishly exciting film about  the need to compete above all. Simon Kelton adapted the story from Edwards’ life and wrote the screenplay with Sean Macaulay (Hitchcock) who some people will know for his film criticism. Famed Finn Matti Nykaner gets to expound on his philosophy which has an amazing effect on our hero, Hugh Jackman wears the same bleached denims and cowboy boots throughout as the reluctant and permanently drunken coach, and Taron Egerton screws up his gorgeous face to become the man who haunted the British winter Olympics team in Calgary in 1988 – and boy did he make idiots out of them. He is a winner through and through and so is this. Christopher Walken shows up and so does Keith Allen. It really is a bit of a lark and an uplifting one at that. The soundtrack is to die for – any film that puts Thin Lizzy’s The Cowboy to good use gets a thumbs up from Mondo Movies. What great things Dexter Fletcher has done since his childhood! Next thing you know they’ll go and make a movie about that year’s Jamaican bob sleigh team. Doh!

The Black Book (1949)

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Also known as Reign of Terror, this is an incredibly exciting tale of the French Revolution. For those more familiar with his 50s Westerns and 60s epics, it may come as a surprise that this noir film, which is widely seen as an allegory for the HUAC blacklisting, is from director Anthony Mann. Not so much when you learn one of the writers is Philip Yordan, beefing up the original script by Aeneas Mackenzie and you realise this is no ordinary action flick. (Yordan spent the blacklist era outside the USA, churning out his own work and fronting for others for whom his home served as a refuge.) Stunningly shot by John Alton, Robert Cummings is a serviceable hero opposite villainous Robespierre (Richard Basehart) and Arlene Dahl was never lovelier as the seemingly duplicitous Madelon. Arnold Moss is terrifying as Fouche, the police enforcer. William Cameron Menzies constructed the sets from the leftovers of Joan of Arc (1948) and the tension in the hunt for the eponymous list of Robespierre’s enemies is palpable. Masterful filmmaking.

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

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This is the one where the hitman developing a conscience goes home to give romance a second shot. In fact, it’s one of the best films of the 90s. It’s a very black comedy about high school, life, killing, babies, music and all that kinda good stuff. John Cusack is Martin Blank, the troubled contract killer who’s persuaded by his assistant (played by sister Joan Cusack) to attend his 10-year high school reunion in Grosse Pointe. She says of her own, “it was as if everyone had swelled.” When he discusses it with his traumatised psychiatrist (Alan Arkin), he asks what he’s supposed to say to people there: “I killed the President of Paraguay with a fork, how have you been?” He has a job in Detroit so he can kill two birds with one stone as it were –  so decides to go home for the first time in a decade. Mom is on lithium in a home for the bewildered. His house has been taken over by a supermarket and a killer on his tail blows it up. The girl he stood up at prom (Minnie Driver) is now the local DJ and has a killer soundtrack (courtesy of Joe Strummer) but insists on bitch slapping him live on air before they can get together. And there’s another hitman, Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) who has a bone to pick with him over crossing his path and wants him to join a union. Tom Jankiewicz wrote the story and did the screenplay with additions by Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis (currently on producing duty on the compelling TV drama The People Vs. OJ Simpson) and Steve Pink. There is fun to be had with the supporting cast, including Jeremy Piven, Hank Azaria and in a tiny role, Jenna Elfman (where is she now?) This is one great curveball of a movie and it’s directed by George Armitage who you might recall did the terrific Miami Blues. And if there’s a message, it’s probably a bit Thomas Wolfe: yes, you can go home again, but you probably shouldn’t.

Hatari! (1962)

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Sheerly enjoyable entertainment, as though it were the most relaxed movie ever made and feels like it all just happened by accident. And yet Harry Kurnitz wrote the story, Leigh (The Big Sleep) Brackett wrote the screenplay and Howard Hawks did one of his most famous ‘professional men working in a group’ efforts as the auteurists would have it. As a young child when I first saw it, I just wanted to be in the middle of this mess of beautiful people with the best job in the world (catching, not killing, beautiful animals) in the best place in the world – Africa. Henry Mancini wrote ‘Baby Elephant Walk‘ for the film. And who on earth wouldn’t want to be Elsa Martinelli? The ultimate desert island movie. Gosh this is just wonderful.

The Love Letter (1999)

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Sometimes you need a pleasant diversion from well, everything, and then you remember a little movie shepherded into production by Kate Capshaw (who has never worked enough in my humble opinion) and all is well with the world. She’s a bookstore owner and single mom on her own for the summer in this wonderful New England seaside hamlet and comes across said letter and it drives her crazy – and everyone else who reads it – because they all think it’s about them. With a terrific supporting cast of Ellen DeGeneres (in a rare break from TV), Tom Selleck, Blythe Danner and Geraldine McEwan, this is a beautifully made, gorgeously set, well modulated comic drama of romance and manners. Tom Everett Scott isn’t my idea of Romeo, but that’s the worst that can be said. I have serious shop envy over this (and You’ve Got Mail, naturally). It was adapted by Maria Maggenti from the novel by Catherine Schine. The point of this work is that it’s the thought that counts! For all of us who want epistolary romance, as it were. Look out for Capshaw’s daughters Jessica Capshaw and Sasha Spielberg in walk on roles. As refreshing as a sea breeze.

The Miracle Worker (1962)

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This is like a film from another planet, such is its staggering impact. William Gibson’s play was brought to the screen with the same team that had made it such a powerful Broadway hit: director Arthur Penn, whose second feature this was, Gibson himself did the adaptation, Anne Bancroft played Annie Sullivan (those shades are seriously spooky); and the great actress Patty Duke who has died today was Helen Keller, the blind, deaf and mute child. Duke was of German and Irish ancestry, with her paternal family hailingThe Miracle Worker photos.jpg

from County Longford. She was christened Anna Marie but her unscrupulous managers renamed her Patty after the child actress Patty (Bad Seed) McCormack whom they hoped she would emulate. She went one better:  she got an Academy Award for her performance here (the youngest recipient at the time, she was just 16) and then had a TV show developed around her distinct personalities by writer/producer (and novelist) Sidney Sheldon – it was much later in life that bipolar disorder was diagnosed. She became a household name and even had hits as a pop singer. Her success was almost torpedoed by her participation in the turkey Valley of the Dolls (1967) but she recovered sufficiently to win awards for Me, Natalie (1969). She had a complex private life and much of her later career was in television. This however is how she should be remembered:  it is simply a masterpiece.

The Deep End (2001)

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The queer re-imagining of The Reckless Moment, based on the novel The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, is not as radical as one might have anticipated. Scott Mcgehee and David Siegel had made waves (at festivals at least) with Suture so this incursion into middle class critique represented a new turn. The teenaged daughter from the original film is now a gay son (Jonathan Tucker), whose mother (Tilda Swinton) is presented with a complex dilemma. She finds her son’s lover’s body at the family lakeside dock following the couple’s fight and disposes of the corpse. Then she is blackmailed with a vhs of her underaged child being sodomised by the man. She has to find the money while running a three-child household without a husband – he is at sea – and a father in law who has a heart attack; she can’t find anything like the sums being demanded in exchange for the tape;  finally she is confronted by the real blackmailer behind the gay hustling ring which targeted her son. All the while she finds herself falling for the blackmailer’s sympathetic partner (Goran Visnjic) who has been tasked with extorting the impossible funds. The new setting (Lake Tahoe, not Balboa California), the updating to make it about sex not class, the shooting style (perfect, clipped by Brit DP Giles Nuttgens), all work perfectly to support a fine performance from Swinton. There is a reference to the earlier film (Mason’s character’s name) but otherwise this is a standalone and rather resonant success, the natural outgrowth of New Queer Cinema.

The House in Nightmare Park (1973)

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As a child I was besotted with Frankie Howerd, that outre comedian who decorated Saturday nights at the BBC (when things weren’t made rotten by Tory/Mail incursions) as Lurcio the double entendre conduit to Up Pompei!! so I’ll go a long way to see him these days. This was conceived as a spoof of Hammer’s output and was written by Clive Exton and Terry (Daleks!) Nation. Those of you paying attention to your TV sets over the years will know that Exton wrote for Poirot, Jeeves and Wooster and Rosemary and Thyme so he’s an efficient genre meister. And by the time this rolled around he’d done the features Isadora, 10 Rillington Place and Entertaining Mr Sloane. No slouch he. And Nation as previously noted is a sci fi legend. It’s 1907 and Our Frankie is a hammy actor called upon to entertain a strange household where it appears he is in fact the rightful heir to a lorra lorra money. People die like flies as the mystery thickens and our host Milland realises Frankie is thick too. This is, you will realise, a version of The Cat and the Canary and holds up for about half of the film and then comes into its own in the finale where Howerd and Milland really earn their money. This was made an even more perplexing watch by being screened on a strange channel, FoTV, in 5-minute spurts interrupted by commercials which included one with access all areas porn star Sasha Grey. Bet Frankie wouldn’t have minded! If you want a truly great Hammer piss take, then watch Carry On Screaming.

Indiscreet (1958)

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Delightfully spry adult comedy about a famous actress having an affair with an apparently married economist. This adaptation of Norman Krasna’s play (by the man himself, a prolific screenwriter) is an elegant and sexy drawing room comedy reuniting the stars

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from Hitchcock’s great S&M outing, Notorious, after 12 years. Everything about Stanley Donen’s direction is well judged – including the use of split screen for the couple’s late night phonecalls: watch their hands!!! Wonderfully atmospheric location shooting in foggy London is matched by the lush interiors of Bergman’s flat – this is what made me want to live exactly like her!