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!

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Breaking Away (1979)

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– My dad told me Jesus never went more than fifty miles from home. – Look what happened to him! Dave (Dennis Christopher) and his high school friends are doing nothing for the summer other than getting fired from the A&P.  Mike (Dennis Quaid) is the former quarter back hero with no future, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is in love with his cashier girlfriend and waiting for the family home to sell so he can get out, and Cyril (Daniel Stern) hates his father. Nobody wants to go to college even though they’re living right on the edge of Bloomington campus. To the college kids they’re known as Cutters – working class kids destined for the quarries where they go swimming and laze around on summer days. Dave is obsessed with the Cinzano cycling team and his entire world revolves around cycle practice and Italy – he calls his father (Paul Dooley) Papa, christens his cat Fellini and his mother (Barbara Barrie) succumbs to his love of both opera and Italian food. Then he falls for college girl Catherine (Robyn Douglass) who’s dating hottie Hart Bochner and their rivalry ends up with an accident in the quarry and a fight in the cafeteria bringing Mike’s policeman brother into the fray. The Cinzano team arrives and Dave has to beg Papa for time off at his used car lot to participate in a race with them one weekend but the Italians cheat and Dave is shattered. Together with the Cutters he pulls himself together to enter an endurance race and he falls off the bike … Steve Tesich’s marvellous screenplay was based on a classmate at college so it’s a quasi-biographical piece as well as being a smart film about families, friendship and the issues boys face when they graduate high school and have no plans. It’s a beautiful, delicate, funny coming of age tale treated with the care that it requires by director Peter Yates and cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this and it gives me that warm fuzzy feeling that it did the first time round – a lot of the genius lies in pitch perfect performances with a cast that now rings of future stardom. Christopher (who is half-Italian) won a BAFTA for this and he would go on to star in cult entry Fade to Black but never attained the heights of Quaid in the Eighties and Nineties; Stern worked with Woody Allen and Haley made a comeback in the Noughties after becoming a director of commercials. Dooley and Barrie are fantastic as Dave’s bemused parents – his father’s working class aspirations are opposed by his mother’s fanciful thoughts and when Dave woos Catherine by singing an aria on campus it’s parallel cut with his mom doing exactly the same with a recording over a romantic dinner with Papa. Dooley’s realisation that his son is hurting when he finds out people cheat is brilliantly played:  they had already played father and son in Altman’s The Wedding. And the friends who have to face reality but give it their all when the chips are down – well, everyone wants friends like that. Gentle and tough, inspiring, funny and uplifting, with an ending to make the hardest heart happy, this is just cherishable. I thought we were going to waste the rest of our lives together.  I love love love it.

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

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Ryan O’Neal is the absent-minded musicologist whose rocks are upset by scatty accident-prone college dropout Barbra Streisand in this Peter Bogdanovich homage to and adaptation of the great screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby. A San Francisco hotel is the location where a kiss-chase on a mammoth scale proceeds, with thieves and assorted academics and hotel staff running in circles, all because of a very popular type of plaid suitcase. With Streisand crooning as Ryan tickles the keys and a to-die-for supporting cast – Madeline Kahn! Kenneth Mars! Austin Pendleton! – this is a sheerly hilarious, swoony delight from start to delectable finish. Amongst the many movie references is an homage to the car chase in Bullitt! Written by Buck Henry, Robert Benton and David Newman, and Bogdanovich himself. One of the funniest films ever made.

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

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Or, Disney’s version of a horror movie. This adaptation of the novel by noted Gothic/YA author Florence Engel Randall was quite the thing when I was knee-high to a grasshopper and Bette Davis was there for the connoisseur. My Disney idol was Kim Richards but it’s her little sister Kyle who features here as Ellie the younger of two girls (the elder being Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan) whose family has relocated to England.  They lease an old country house and the girls are haunted by the spirit of old crone Davis’ daughter who disappeared thirty years before, in what appears to have been some sort of teenagers’ initiation ceremony in a derelict church during a solar eclipse. Jan bears a startling resemblance to the missing girl, Karen, and sees flashes of blue light in the woods while Ellie appears to be hearing voices coming from the new family dog whom she has christened Nerak – which spells Karen backwards. The messages come frequently and they have to try to rescue Karen from another dimension during the next eclipse … Children’s author Mom (Carroll Baker) has to deal with the problem while composer Dad (David McCallum) heads to London to produce a musical. Director John Hough had some form with this blend of supernature and sci fi – being a veteran of the Witch Mountain movies starring Kim Richards and featuring one Bette Davis in the second entry, Return From Witch Mountain. There was some issue with the concluding scenes and in the second version the effects happened too quickly to make sense of the story while Vincent McEveety was then drafted in to do a version that was released in 1981. Personally I was thrilled to see my old heart throb Benedict Taylor turn up in the cast – remember him in Beau Geste on Sunday evenings? And The Far Pavilions! And My Brother Jonathan. And A Perfect Spy…  Dominic Guard appears (uncredited) in Ian Bannen’s role in the flashbacks. Guard is now a children’s author himself, amongst other things. I’m almost as thrilled to see Kyle Richards on a Raleigh Chopper. (And Georgina Hale as Karen, of course!)  Adapted by Brian Clemens, Harry Spalding and Rosemary Anne Sisson, soundtracked by Stanley Meyers and nicely shot by Alan Hume. This is quite fascinating.

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

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British cinema is always in crisis yet has boasted its share of indisputably great filmmakers and Robert Hamer was one of them, even if nobody particularly noticed at the time. He had contributed The Haunted Mirror sequence to portmanteau horror Dead of Night a couple of years earlier and was adept at any number of genres. This Ealing production was not in the comedy idiom so beloved of moviegoers but rather belongs in the realm of poetic realism that started in France in the Thirties; we might instead call it film noir. Adapted from the novel by Arthur La Bern, by Angus MacPhail, Henry Cornelius and the director, the mainly Yiddish world of Bethnal Green carries on as  one of its inhabitants, married Rosie Sandigate  (Googie Withers), hides her ex-lover Tommy Swann (John McCallum) who’s escaped from Dartmoor and taken refuge in the familiy’s air raid shelter. She then conceals him in the bedroom she shares with her staid older husband (Edward Chapman). It’s Sunday morning and Tommy wants to have it away with her while she tries to carry on the masquerade of housework, laundry, preparing lunch and getting her feckless adult stepdaughters out of the way. Meanwhile the police (Jack Warner, who else?) and a newspaper reporter are on Tommy’s trail and it concludes in achingly existential fashion … Enormously evocative portrayal of a certain era adorned with an intensely felt performance of stridency and eroticism by the fabulous Withers (dontcha LOVE that name) who had met and married McCallum after they appeared in The Loves of Joanna Godden. It’s shot with gleaming precision by Douglas Slocombe while Georges Auric contributes an endearingly melodramatic incidental score for an atmospheric outing in which the radio plays such an elemental role in punctuating the drama. The ensemble has such familiar faces as Alfie Bass, Sydney Tafler, Hermione Baddeley, Jimmy Hanley and Sid James (as the leader of a dance band). Hamer would go on to make one of my favourite British films, Kind Hearts and Coronets but this is a marvellous reminder of the post-war era, the meaning of ‘a couple of anvils’ and how to feel when that dangerous wideboy resurfaces in your humdrum life.

The Ghost Writer (2010)

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Aka The Ghost. Robert Harris’ wickedly sly satire on the Blair Prime Ministership gets the full Polanski treatment here – replete with a changed and very shocking ending (he does this – just ask Robert Towne!). Ewan McGregor is the unvarnished wideboy London sleb journo preyed upon to become the second ghost writer of Adam Lang (a brilliantly cast Pierce Brosnan) the former PM’s memoirs after the previous one allegedly committed suicide. He arrives to his isolated  Elba-like Massachusetts retreat to find Lang is under investigation by the International Criminal Court over suspected rendition and torture for the benefit of the CIA. He begins to realise that under Lang’s suavely non-committal charm there may lie a secret that his predecessor uncovered and that he may in fact have been murdered … Harris’ own adaptation (with Polanski) is faithful to a blackly comic work with many witty characters and roleplays in particular that of Olivia Williams playing Lady Macbeth behind the throne. Brosnan is terrific as the famous charisma machine, Kim Cattrall is the cat’s pyjamas as Lang’s right hand woman (and we presume his mistress) while McGregor is perfect as the guy on the make who is pulled into something he doesn’t understand. Taut, oppressive, brilliant filmmaking with an exquisite, inventive score (his best?) by Alexandre Desplat and as for the ending … I was totally shaken by it. Stunning.

Eat Pray Love (2010)

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The zeitgeist sometimes throws up books that speak to a lot of people. This volume by Elizabeth Gilbert was one of them. It’s a given that 50% of the population (that is, the male half) will not get this. And a fair proportion of women who do not walk out on their toxic relationships will not get it either. (A friend in a dreadful marriage told me to ‘F… off and mind your own business’ when I gave her a copy of the book. Nice!) On a TV arts show I watched the women eviscerate this film:  it wasn’t ‘feminist’ or ’empowering’ and why would a good looking successful career woman with an idiot husband living off her need to leave him – like what’s she so UNHAPPY about?! … Etc.  And of those who do get this, some will remain sceptical about the benefits of handing over everything you own to a man just to be shot of him (he’s Billy Crudup but he’s a directionless tosser here, so that’s alright.) But when the next guy is James Franco, it’s slightly more understandable. But he’s not right either! Because life’s not all about sex with handsome empathetic actors into meditation! So Liz Gilbert got herself a book contract and took off with the proceeds of her travel journalism (and presumably some frequent flier miles) and decided to get back to basics – to permit herself to eat real food and not just lettuce leaves, to learn Italian and get some balance in her life. Julia Roberts is a skinny creature who will never gain the kind of weight we hear about here, Italy looks great and the men are delectable. Richard Jenkins is a kind of guru while Javier Bardem offers Liz the prospect of a marriage of equals in Bali. Okay – I understand that waiting for the right guy isn’t all of the answer but for some people … it’s some of it. Ryan Murphy is working from a screenplay he adapted with Jennifer Salt and you know, it’s pretty terrific.It was shot in sequence so that Roberts’ performance really achieves the gravity and grace she feels she needs to acquire to get through life easier. Sometimes you need to look at what a film is actually doing and saying as opposed to what it’s not attempting in the first place. Or something. What’s not to love? Eat? Pray?! Whatever! PS Speaking of the zeitgeist there’s a new book on the history of Chinese philosophy that totally discredits the mindless idea of mindfulness that seemingly intelligent people indulge right now – so get with the programme, eat pasta, learn Italian, dance! Cos the answer to life is not all inside – it’s outside! Enjoy yourself! Yeah!