The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.

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Hampstead (2017)

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What am I, your cause of the month now? Couldn’t get anywhere with global warming, no?An American widow Emily (Diane Keaton) living in the London suburb of Hampstead and an Irish man Donald (Brendan Gleeson) who lives on the Heath in an illegally erected shack form an unlikely alliance against unscrupulous property developers in the neighbourhood  as they both confront the fallout from their respective romantic entanglements … Diane Keaton has done rather well in work about ageing, particularly in the films of Nancy Meyers. Her ditzy carapace shields a core of steel and her charm is very winning, used correctly. Here she’s just doing it somewhere else – London – and she has a grown up son (James Norton) who’s relocating abroad and she’s got a mountain of debts left by her philandering husband.  Using a pair of binoculars she finds while trawling the attic to find anything she might sell to make ends meet, she spots a man being attacked on the heath. He’s the guy she spotted swimming in the pond. Their meet cute happens at Karl Marx’s grave which is a nice trope for the class and money basis of the unlikely narrative which is in all other matters pretty superficial. While her neighbour Fiona (Lesley Manville) tries to set her up with creepy ukulele-playing accountant James (Jason Watkins) who has designs on her, her campaign to save Donald from an eviction order pits her against Fiona’s property developer husband. The tone is mostly light but Donald’s character is given some heavy lines and the bear-like Gleeson does the drama here which lends this an unevenness that is inappropriate to something that otherwise might have played like a screwball comedy. Somehow he and Keaton cancel each other out instead of making a great couple. They each have great lines but the reactions are not right because they’re mostly in differing scenes. Keaton ‘becomes’ Keaton – she spots a beret in a window and eventually her drabness is transformed into a figure we know on- and offscreen as her character gains in confidence.  She now has a cause beyond her own immediate concerns about the taxman, but her occasional shrillness can’t compensate for what feels sometimes like an underwritten script by Robert Festinger:  she only gets angry at her husband’s grave and we learn at the film’s conclusion it appears Fiona likely knew about the mistress and didn’t tell Emily. Norton’s cursory appearances seem like a last minute addition and do nothing to characterise her predicament which was devised as a fictional device to complement the real story of Hampstead Heath squatter Harry Hallowes. Phil Davis and Simon Callow are terrific in the courtroom scene but this lacks the chemistry between the leads that might have pulled it up beyond its bogus plot contrivances:  even the ending has a very obvious metaphor about navigating your path in life! These fish out of water are destined to swim away from each other, methinks. Directed by Joel Hopkins.

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

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I had the worst thought: I’ve got to spend the rest of my life with myself.  High school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is already at peak awkwardness when her all-star older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) starts dating her only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). All at once, Nadine feels more alone than ever, until an unexpected friendship with a thoughtful classmate  Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto) gives her a glimmer of hope that things just might not be so terrible after all but she gets herself into a seriously awkward situation with her heart throb Nick (Alexander Calvert) whom she has promised wild sex… This starts wonderfully with Nadine rushing to announce to her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) and telling him she’s going to kill herself. Then he counters that by telling her he’s also planning to kill himself because being a school teacher is sheer misery. Thus the tone is set for a smart and insightful comedy drama about a family suffering from grief – Dad dies in front of her and Mom (Kyra Sedgwick) and Number One Son gang up against her – at least that’s how it feels. How Nadine unravels, makes a dick of herself (“You don’t say those things to a man!” she has to be told after becoming a prick tease) and learns some very tough love, sounds horrible but it’s made more than bearable by dint of canny writing and sympathetic performances, with Steinfeld a customary standout as the solipsistic teen matched by Harrelson as the witty and wise teacher whose home life surprises her. If there are lapses it’s because it sounds like twentysomething conversations occasionally supplant the kind of dialogue you hear between teenagers but that’s okay because growing up is tough! Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig and produced by James L. Brooks.

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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Just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.  In the summer of 1983 precocious piano prodigy, American-Jewish-Italian 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending the days with his archaeologist father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and translator mother (Amira Casar) at their 17th-century villa in Lombardy, Italy.  Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a handsome American doctoral student who’s working as a research assistant for Elio’s father and living with them for the holiday to help him with his academic papers. Amid the sun-drenched splendour, while Elio pursues relationships with local girls, he and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire that will alter their lives…  Adapted by the venerable filmmaker James Ivory from André Aciman’s 2007 debut novel, this is a uniquely atmospheric work by director Luca Guadagnino which attempts successfully to convey how people really think and feel about each other while consumed with desire. Most of the acting nominations were for Chalamet but Hammer is stunning in a role he was born to play. There are moments that take the breath away – shot choices that focus on his face, shifting lens length and emphasis and particularity to indicate his conflicted thoughts about instigating a relationship with a mere boy.  We understand how his mind works. When the older gay couple visiting the Perlman home stand listening to Elio play an affecting piano piece, Hammer hovers very briefly in the background in the doorway and his effect on people is such that the younger of the men looks over his shoulder, as though the very plates had shifted beneath him, even with a passing glimpse of this astonishingly attractive guy. Such is Oliver’s power. His beauty is tactile. He eats up life with the same enthusiasm he gobbles food. He folds in his imposing height to avoid intimidating people. But his touching of Elio’s shoulder during a volleyball game signals his intentions. It’s such a physically demanding characterisation. He is wooing us all. The puppyish Elio has no hope. Hammer projects his position as lust object with immense sympathy. His introduction to the family involves Perlman’s customary intellectual test which he passes with flying colours in an audition that might telegraph social embarrassment but lends the drama its comic and humane undertow. It also skewers the viewer’s fear that this is a film about pretentious people:  we soon realise these are instead people of passions. There is a coyness of course to the exposition of the sex – we see Elio having intercourse with his young girlfriend but we never witness the act between him and Oliver. Instead, when they finally achieve total freedom and intimacy away from the family home, in the mountains outside Bergamo, the correlative for this is a waterfall:  it’s somehow overstated yet understated at the same time, perfect for young men going wild in the country, figuratively sharing an orgasm in public. The brief flashback sequence is done in tinted negative, another decent aesthetic choice. Mirrors are used sparingly to convey psychological turmoil and brief parental distance. And if T.S. Eliot encouraged you to dare eat a peach you might think twice before doing it after watching this:  masturbation played ultimately for endearingly awkward laughs, more Philip Roth than American Pie. What a marvellously thoughtful and beautifully judged piece of cinema, one that lingers in the mind long after viewing for its grace and beauty and generosity and its remarkable sensuality. Richard Butler must be thrilled.

 

One Day (2011)

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Either you are on coke or you got dysentery, either way ITS BORING! On St Swithin’s Day, 15th July, 1988 which is the day of their college graduation two people from opposite sides of the tracks begin a lifelong friendship after spending a day and night together. Emma (Anne Hathaway), an idealist from a working-class family, wants to make the world a better place. Dexter (Jim Sturgess), a playboy, thinks the world is his oyster. While he makes his way through TV as a presenter she waits tables and hopes to become a writer. He marries Sylvie (Romola Garai) the daughter of a wealthy London family while she settles down with nice ordinary Ian (Rafe Spall.) Neither of their relationships lasts. For the next 20 years, the two friends reunite on the 15th of each July, sharing dreams, tears and laughter – until they finally realise what they’ve been searching for, each other… David Nicholls’ bestseller is a superficial delight – a Gen X summation of rites of passage on the road to maturity and opportunities taken and lost and the value of having a best friend. Like a lot of screenwriters he’s got ideas but he’s not a great novelist which is why there are so many holes in this film.  Don’t blame Hathaway, she’s actually good in the role of Emma.  I point the performing fingers at Sturgess, a nothing kind of actor who brings precisely that to the role. Director Lone Scherfig commits to the kind of emotionality that is in between the cracks of the book’s tricksy structure, going backwards and fowards in time (but she ain’t no Resnais folks) and there are some good moments which have the unfortunate ring of truth for those of us who remember this time in our lives. A chance wasted perhaps but only if you haven’t read any good novels in the last twenty-five years. Don’t give up on this baby.

Green for Danger (1946)

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‘In view of my failure—correction, comparative failure—I feel that I have no alternative but to offer you, sir, my resignation, in the sincere hope that you will not accept it.’  Full stop. During a German bombing raid on rural southeast England during World War II, a hospital undergoes heavy shelling. Postman Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott) dies on the operating table when a bomb explodes in the operating room. But when Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) dies after revealing that this is not the first patient of anaesthetist Barney Barnes (Trevor Howard) to die under suspicious circumstances, Scotland Yard’s  Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) is brought in to investigate… Knotty, fast-moving, hilarious and satirical, this is one of the very best British films, a murder mystery (a variant on the country house genre) that thrives on dismantling the very conventions of cinema at that time – if you can tell one of the female characters from the other (Sally Gray, Rosamund John, Campbell… ) you’re a better man than I, which is kinda the point of this! From the team of Launder and Gilliat, with Claude Gurney and Gilliat adapting Christianna Brand’s wartime novel this moves like the clappers and you won’t realise whodunnit until it’s too late – just like the droll Cockrill!  It was the first film to be shot at Pinewood in the aftermath of WW2 and the production design and sense of fear and enclosure works perfectly. The plot is ingenious and even while everyone’s being offed in highly unsentimental fashion you’ll struggle to figure it out despite the structure. Sim is wonderful but he’s matched all the way by Leo Genn as the Harley Street surgeon. And all the while the German doodlebugs (V1 bombs) keep everyone in a state of terror.  Brilliant.

Elephant Walk (1954)

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She is not one of us and her ways are cold and strange. When John Wiley (Peter Finch), an affluent plantation owner, brings his new wife, Ruth (Elizabeth Taylor), to his estate in the jungles of British Ceylon,  she finds she is the only white woman.  She’s overjoyed by the exotic location and luxurious accommodations until it becomes clear her new husband is more interested in palling around with his friends than spending time with her. She is intimidated by houseman Apphuamy (Abraham Sofaer) who is still being bossed by the late Old Man Wiley a rotten individual who has deliberately blocked the elephants from their ancient water source (hence the name). Left alone on the plantation, Ruth strikes up a friendship with American overseer Dick Carver (Dana Andrews), and it isn’t long before a love triangle develops… An old-school colonial romance, the novel by Robert Standish (aka Digby George Gerahty) was adapted by Hollywood vet John Lee Mahin who knew this kind of material from Red Dust two decades earlier. While revelling in the lush jungle landscape and the forbidden desires of Taylor the real story is the haunting of Wiley by his late father whose ghost dominates his life and the plantation. Taylor of course replaced Vivien Leigh who had a nervous breakdown yet whose figure remains in long shots that weren’t repeated and her lover Finch remained in the picture in a role originally intended for Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier. Andrews might not be our idea of a hot extra-marital affair but in a situation like that … It looks rather beautiful courtesy of the marvellous work by cinematographer Loyal Griggs but you might find yourself wanting to see more of the elephants than Taylor such is their pulchritudinous affect. You choose. Directed by William Dieterle.

Jumanji (1995)

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You’re playing the game I started in 1969.  In 1869 in New Hampshire two men bury a board game. 100 years later young Alan Harris (Adam Hann-Byrd) can do nothing right for his exacting father (Jonathan Hyde) who owns a shoe factory and intends that Alan go to the same prep school he attended. Alan invites schoolfriend Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy) over and when they play the board game he found after being chased by bullies he gets sucked into it and she runs from the house. 26 years later orphaned siblings Peter (Bradley Pierce) and Judy Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst) move to the town with their aunt (Bebe Neuwirth). While exploring the old mansion she got at rock bottom price, the youngsters find a curious, jungle-themed game called Jumanji in the attic. When they start playing, they free the adult Alan Parrish (Robin Williams), who’s been stuck in the game’s inner jungle world for decades.  They go in search of the adult Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) who’s now a psychic with an extreme need for therapy. They join forces and if they win Jumanji, the kids can free Alan for good – but that means braving giant bugs, ill-mannered monkeys and even stampeding rhinos as well as a killer big-game hunter who bears a distinct resemblance to Alan’s father … Adapted from Chris Van Allsburg’s eponymous novel by Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh and Jim Strain, this is a superb, action-packed family adventure that never loses sight of the father-son story at its heart principally because the characters are highly relatable. Dunst plays a compulsive liar while her brother is more sensitive but they’re not obnoxious and their aunt’s impoverished attempts at parenting are entirely understandable. Particularly when a monkey takes over her car. When Robin Williams is unleashed from the game in full survival mode from the hellish jungle he’s absolutely on it with a few nice put-downs that aren’t too cruel for a school age kid. It’s great fun to see Pierce transform into a monkey – complete with tail. This is resolved wonderfully and directed at a terrific pace with superb design at every level. Cracking! Directed by Joe Johnston.

A Cure for Wellness (2016)

 

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Do you know what the cure for the human condition is? Disease. Because only then is there hope for a cure. An ambitious young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to retrieve his company’s CEO Pembroke (Harry Groener) from an idyllic but mysterious “wellness center” at a remote location in the Swiss Alps. He soon suspects that the spa’s miraculous treatments are not what they seem and the head doctor Volmer (Jason Isaacs) is possessed of a curiously persuasive zeal and, rather like Hotel California, nobody seems able to leave.  Lockhart’s sighting of young Hannah (Mia Goth) drives him to return. When he begins to unravel the location’s terrifying secrets, his sanity is tested, as he finds himself diagnosed with the same curious illness that keeps all the guests here longing for the cure and his company no longer wants anything to do with him because the SEC is investigating him – and is that Pembroke’s body floating in a tank? … Part bloody horror, part satire, indebted equally to Stanley Kubrick, mad scientist B movies and Vincent Price, this has cult written all over it. Co-written by director Gore Verbinski with Justin Haythe, with his proverbial visual flourishes, this is one 141-minute long movie that despite its outward contempt for any sense of likeability, actually draws you in – if you’re not too scared of water, institutions, eels or demonic dentists. Isaacs has a whale of a time as the equivalent of a maestro conducting an orchestra who dispatches irritants with a flick of a switch or insertion of an eel. DeHaan gets paler by the scene. Wouldn’t you? The one thing you do not want to do is drink the water! A man cannot unsee the truth!

It (2017)

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Aka It:  Chapter One. Go blow your dad you mullet-wearing asshole. Stephen King’s 1986 novel gets the big screen treatment here after a 1990 TV two-parter that has a fond place in many people’s memories.  It sticks with the first part of the novel – the kids’ experiences, and moves them forward, to the late Eighties. In 1988 Derry, Maine, little Georgie sails his  paper boat and it floats down a drain in a rainstorm and he is pulled in by Pennywise the Clown, becoming one of the town’s many missing kids. When school’s out next summer his older brother Bill sets out to find him with a bunch of other kids who all have their issues:  big mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, germophobe Stan, overweight newbie Ben, pretty Bev (the subject of false sex rumours) and black home-schooled Mike.  They are the Losers Club and have various problems with the parental figures in their lives. Ben’s research in the library proves that Derry has a very high mortality rate particularly when it comes to kids and every 27 years this demonic shapeshifting character manifests through their fears when he reappears to feed. But in the midst of their search they have to avoid the Bowers Gang, horrible greasers who violently terrorise them as they search the area’s sewers to find the centre of Pennywise’s hellish underground activities … Part of why this works so well is that the kids are taken seriously and their problems in the world are immense:  we’re talking child abuse and Munchausen by proxy, to name but two. We feel for them because they are fully rounded characters who have legitimate reason to fear grown ups. A clown in the sewers is as nothing compared to Dad waiting in the hallway to feel you up. It’s a perfectly judged drama. Another reason this works is because it inhabits familiar territory for many of us who recall Spielberg films of the era – the sight of a squad of boys on bikes recalls ET – and the King drama Stand By Me which was so iconic and one that also treats its protagonists respectfully. We also think about The Goonies:  the spirit of adventure is overwhelmingly attractive despite the dangers to this bunch of nerds and scaredy cats.  The Netflix show Stranger Things is an overt homage to all of these, mixing up the paranormal, horror and nostalgia for thirty years ago and the presence of cool girl Winona Ryder is such a plus.  Adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman;  directed by Andy Muschietti who gives the scenes equal weight and doesn’t give into the massive temptation to exaggerate the horror element, allowing each character to fully blossom. This is a coming of age story with panache and clowns and a wonderful ensemble of wholly believable kids and Bill Skarsgard donning the whiteface. Personally I can’t wait for part two set 27 years from 1989 when It reappears: wouldn’t it be really meta to cast Molly Ringwald as the adult incarnation of the Molly Ringwald lookalike? Awesome idea!