The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

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You can never tell who your enemies are, or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I love animals so much. You look in their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts. They’re not like people. The time is 1939 and the place is Poland, homeland of veterinarian Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh). The Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). The Zabinskis covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save the lives of hundreds from what has become the Warsaw Ghetto… Zoos and Jews. That’s what this should have been called. And unless you’re either sadistic or masochistic or a Nazi you won’t enjoy the spectacle of mass murder perpetrated on either party in the Warsaw Ghetto or at the Zoo. As usual Niki Caro’s film is a game of two halves with an ugly child. It’s hard to empathise because Chastain – not an actress who really cares if we like her – is the main protagonist and she has a squeaky high-pitched accent so ludicrous you laugh and it’s only in the second half that the action, narrative and emotions clarify and coalesce. You can probably guess the ending (the Nazis lost, the zoo survived, the Jews and animals, not so much.) Adapted by Angela Workman from Diane Ackerman’s book, based on a true story. Goy veh!

84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

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Elizabeth will have to ascend the throne without me. Teeth are all I’m going to see crowned for the next couple of years. In 1949 New York City script developer and bibliophile Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft) writes to the London bookshop Marks & Co at the titular address in search of some titles she has not been able to turn up locally. Nobody reads English literature in New York City?! Store manager Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins) responds politely to her chatty letter, and over the course of two decades, a deep, long-distance friendship evolves against the backdrop of post-WW2 society, food rationing in London, Frank’s family life with his second wife and two daughters, the day to day business of the book shop, Hanff’s solitary life (her fiance was killed in combat), her career as a TV writer (Ellery Queen!) and her ravenous appetite for great words in her little apartment and cheap overstuffed chair. Helene Hanff’s autobiographical book of letters exchanged with a bookseller at Marks and Co. was a bit of a hit back in the Eighties, along with the two-hander play adapted from it. Produced by Anne Bancroft’s hubby’s company (Mel Brooks’ Brooksfilms), this runs with the conceit, breaking the fourth wall, bringing post-war NYC and London to life through the gabby and acerbic Jewish Hanff and the more reserved yet quietly interesting Doel. It initially seems like a drab tapestry but it becomes enriched by both of these different protagonists’ passion for writing which they evoke in their very individual ways. This is a romance, of a kind. That the two never meet compounds the tragic aspect. Now that all my favourite bookshops on Charing X Road are closed due to spiralling rents I felt quite tearful throughout as I watched these two lives unwrap like those transatlantic parcels they regularly exchanged and opened  – Hanff sent care packages of food from Denmark for Doel and his co-workers, family and friends at regular intervals with the kinds of goodies (vegetables! eggs! ham! bananas!) they could only get otherwise on the black market with just 2 ounces of meat per person and one egg a month permitted per head at the time. As a booklover and someone who whiled away many hours in shops just like this (oh how I miss Zwemmers!)  I found this absurdly moving and could practically smell the must and feel the foxed pages coming off the screen. It really shouldn’t work. In many ways it doesn’t. So what? The performances are pitch-perfect in this most fascinating portrait of friendship. It’s a lovely way to celebrate both Hopkins’ 80th birthday and New Year’s Eve. Adapted from James Roose-Evans’ play by Hugh Whitemore  and directed by David Jones.

The Boss Baby (2017)

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He carries a briefcase! Does no one else think that’s, oh, I don’t know, a little freaky? A new baby’s arrival impacts a family, told from the point of view of a delightfully unreliable narrator the wildly imaginative 7-year-old Tim Templeton (Miles Bakshi). The unusually verbal Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin) arrives at Tim’s home in a taxi, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. The instant sibling rivalry must soon be put aside when Tim discovers that Boss Baby is actually a spy on a secret mission, and only he can help thwart a dastardly plot that involves an epic battle between puppies and babies… This is simultaneously inventive, overdone, funny and draining,with a serious dip in energy round about the hour mark but it picks up by the end. Is anyone else as tired of endlessly gee-whizz-flash computer-generated animation as I am? At least there’s a nice use of The Beatles’  Blackbird in the story. Adapted from Marla Frazee’s 2010 picture book by Michael McCullers and directed by Tom McGrath. And yes, Bakshi is the grandson of the incredible Ralph. Sigh.

Mansfield Park (1999)

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It could have all turned out differently I suppose. But it didn’t. Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) is born into a poor family with far too many children so she is sent away to live with wealthy uncle Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter), his wife Aunt Norris (Lindsay Duncan) and their four children, where she’ll be brought up for a proper introduction to society. She is treated unfavorably by her relatives, except for her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), whom she grows fond of. However her life is thrown into disarray with the arrival of worldly Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz) and her brother Henry (Alessandro Nivola). The path of true love never runs smoothly and then there are matters of money. Matches are made and Fanny rejects Henry which sends everyone into a spin and certain romantic fancies turn to actual sex … Well what a palaver – a Jane Austen adaptation that puts sex and politics and money front and centre in the most obvious way. Patricia (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing) Rozema’s adaptation plays with the form and breaks the fourth wall and even introduces some very out-there drawings which take Uncle Harold Pinter down a moral peg or three:  he’s made his money in slavery and his son Tom’s return from the West Indies with a terrible illness makes him produce some very realistic impressions of his father’s predilections and the depredations of the slave trade. Austen was the hottest screenwriter in the world in the 1990s (not that she knew a thing about it) and survives even this quite postmodern dip into adaptation by the Canadian filmmaker with some delightful performances, particularly by O’Connor who is given lines from Austen’s own private correspondence in her addresses to camera. But sex? In Austen? Tut tut! Charming, in its own perversely witty fashion.

Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn (2016)

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He was so important for somebody who never made himself noticed. The mystery behind actor/director Leslie Howard’s death on Flight 777 out of Lisbon in 1943 is the framing story for this highly personal documentary. Far from being an English gentleman, he was the son of Anglicised Jew Lilian Blumenberg and her Hungarian Jewish husband Ferdinand Steiner. Her family so disapproved of the match that he was reared in Vienna speaking German before they were accepted and returned to London. Early success on the London stage made him turn to cinema, which he preferred, setting up his own production company which lost money on four comedies, leading him to Broadway where he became an instant success and the matinee idol du jour. He took roles in Hollywood including in Clarence Brown’s A Free Soul opposite a young Clark Gable whom he didn’t think much of – and nine years later, during which he became a superstar back in British films, they were reunited on the set of Gone With the Wind when Gable was the King of Hollywood and Howard felt he was miscast as Ashley Wilkes, the English gentleman as the Southern gentleman. His backing of Humphrey Bogart in the role of Duke Mantee which he played on Broadway for the adaptation of The Petrified Forest led to a long friendship and Bogart named his daughter in Howard’s honour. The start of WW2 exercised his conscience greatly and he not only made films dedicated to the war effort (because Britain was in it alone for the first couple of years by and large) he spoke out on radio and started directing himself. This is an enormously intimate piece of work – it features several excerpts from interviews with his daughter Leslie Ruth whom he adored and gave up his proposed marriage to Merle Oberon when the actress disliked the little girl. He had a string of affairs but a steady homelife with his wife and children kept him stable. This is simply overflowing with amazing archive footage including home movies and there are telling interviews with colleagues such as Michael Powell and Norman Spencer, his assistant director.  It is narrated by an extraordinary individual, Derek Partridge, the little boy (and son of a Government agent), now a presenter, who gave up his seat for Howard on that fateful flight when at least four other passengers were valuable targets for the Germans. This is a compelling film, written and directed by Thomas Hamilton with a beautiful score by Maria Antal.

Table 19 (2017)

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I can smell the toilets from here, that’s how well we know the bride and groom. Ex-maid of honor Eloise (Anna Kendrick) has been relieved of her duties at her best friend and prospective sister-in-law’s wedding after being unceremoniously dumped by the best man Teddy (Wyatt Russsell) via text. She decides to hold her head up high and attend her friend’s wedding anyway. She finds herself seated at the ‘random’ table in the back of the ballroom with a disparate group of strangers, most of whom should have known to just send regrets (but not before sending something nice off the registry). Jerry and Bina Kepp (Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow) are Facebook friends with the groom’s father and own a chain of diners; high-schooler Renzo Eckberg (Tony Revolori) whose parents are acquaintances of the groom and who came to the wedding in the hopes of meeting a girl; Jo Flanagan (June Squibb) Francie’s childhood nanny; and Walter Thimble (Stephen Merchant) the bride’s cousin who is currently on parole after serving time for (being tricked into) stealing $125,000 from his uncle’s company – by his uncle. The table debates whether table 19 is a “good table” to which Eloise responds that before getting dumped she planned half the wedding and knows for a fact that table 19 is for “guests that should have known not to show up.” She kisses a gorgeous guy called Huck (not his real name, obvs) (Thomas Cocquerel – maybe not his real name either?!) who turns out to be a wedding crasher – from another wedding. And the groom! As everyone’s secrets are revealed, Eloise learns a thing or two from the denizens of Table 19. Friendships – and even a little romance – can happen under the most unlikely circumstances… This started life as a Duplass Brothers film but the studio hired Jeffrey Blitz to rewrite and direct it and it doesn’t bode well and it doesn’t start well. But somehow  – and despite some of the cast who shall remain nameless – it gets a little better as it goes along. Maybe it’s because we’ve all regretted the inconvenience and outrageous expense of attending Other People’s Terrible Weddings and even fantasised about creating the kind of chaos that happens here – or maybe it’s just the writing which deepens the superficial schadenfreude of the protagonists as they figure they really weren’t supposed to be there. And it’s set on an island so everyone has to wait for the ferry to leave – maybe a little ‘reality’ TV reference, eh? Not entirely terrible after all.

Scared Stiff (1953)

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– This thing’s dead. – It’s in the right place. Vaudevillian Larry Todd (Dean Martin) thinks he’s killed a mobster in NYC and wants his sidekick Myron Mertz (Jerry Lewis) to get him out of the country on board a ship. Mary Carroll (Lizabeth Scott) inherits her family’s ancestral home on a small island off Cuba and despite warnings and death threats, decides to sail there and take possession of the supposedly haunted castle. Larry sees in a newspaper that he isn’t the killer after all but it’s too late – the ship has sailed. Once on the island the three enter the eerie castle and after seeing the ghost of one of Mary’s ancestors and fighting off a menacing zombie, find the key to the castle’s treasure… The Lewis-Martin shtick may not be to everyone’s taste and in fact they didn’t even want to remake George Marshall’s 1940 Bob Hope hit comedy The Ghost Breakers – because it was just about perfect. But Paramount had their way and it was turned into this (unfortunately monochrome) musical version of the 1909 play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard and adapted by Herbert Baker and Walter DeLeon. Norman Lear got his first screenwriting credit here for some rewriting work and Marshall was on directing duties again. Martin and Lewis purvey their spry act and the scene when Myron has to lip sync to Carmen Miranda’s song Mamae Eu Quero as the record sticks on the turntable is a highlight – her own performances aren’t too bad here either! But things really get going in the haunted house. Silly fun with an unexpected cameo (or pair of them.)

Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)

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These girls in love never realise they should be dishonestly honest instead of honestly dishonest. American secretary Maria (Maggie McNamara) is a newcomer to Rome, seeking romance. I’m going to like Rome at any rate of exchange, she declares. She moves into a spacious apartment with a spectacular view of the city, with agency colleague Anita (Jean Peters) and the more mature Frances (Dorothy McGuire) who’s working for the reclusive novelist (Clifton Webb). They fling their coins into Rome’s Trevi Fountain, each making a wish. Maria is pursued by dashing Prince Dino di Cessi (Louis Jourdan) whom she steadfastly deceives about her origins and interests which she regrets upon meeting his mother; Anita finds herself involved with a forbidden coworker, translator and wannabe lawyer Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi) on an eventful trip to a family celebration at their mountain farm; and Frances receives a surprising proposal from her boss John Frederick Shadwell (Clifton Webb) for whom she has nursed a well-known crush since she came to Rome 15 years earlier. They move through the worlds of society, art and music. But there are complications – not to mention strings attached, which prove surprisingly moving. All three women return to the Trevi where the water is switched on again, as though just for them … Adapted by John Patrick from John H. Secondari’s novel, this is the glossy, beautiful movie that brought tourists in their millions to Rome, its Technicolor process luxuriantly wallowing in the staggering architecture and location scenery heightened by CinemaScope. From the title tune by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn (delivered by Sinatra), to the pure romance (with some surprisingly tart insights about feminine deception and compromise) and gorgeous scene-setting, this is just dreamy. Directed by Jean Negulesco.

Belle de Jour (1967)

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A quoi penses-tu? Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve), belle ménagère parisienne ennuyée et frigide, ne parvient pas à réconcilier ses fantasmes masochistes avec sa vie de tous les jours aux côtés de son mari Pierre (Jean Sorel), chirurgien couronné de succès. Lorsque son copain Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) mentionne un bordel secret de haut niveau dirigé par Madame Anais (Geneviève Page), Séverine commence à travailler dans la journée sous le nom de Belle de Jour: elle ne travaille qu’entre 1400 et 1700 heures. Elle perd son instinct frigide avec son mari et commence à avoir des relations sexuelles avec lui. Mais quand un de ses clients, un gangster nommé Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), devient possessif et tire sur son mari dans un accès de pique, elle doit essayer de retrouver sa vie normale mais Henri est déterminé à lui faire part de ses soupçons … La satire magistrale de Luis Bunuel est une adaptation du roman de Joseph Kessel de 1928 et l’interprétation de Jean-Claude Carrière et Bunuel n’est rien moins qu’ingénieux – à parts égales la comédie noire et la fantaisie surréaliste. La performance de Deneuve est tendue et évasive, terne et autosatisfaite, la bourgeoise ultime – juste regarder sa réaction à l’assistante du tenanciere de la maison close qui compatit à devoir satisfaire le grand Chinois avec une boîte mystérieuse: Deneuve savoure le sexe avec lui et le sourire de son chat tout. Il y a tant de choses à recommander sur ce travail audacieux d’un auteur dans son apogée: la cinématographie de Sacha Vierny vient d’être créée; les costumes d’Yves Saint-Laurent en font l’ultime film de mode; le terme «belle de jour» est maintenant un jargon commun de son incarnation précédente comme un jeu de mots sur le terme français «belle de nuit» ou prostituée. C’est tout simplement magnifique. Voyez-le avant de mourir.