Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) gets along far better with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than with his parents so when the old man dies, with his eyes missing and a strange creature hiding outside his apartment in the bushes, Jake recalls all the stories he told him about living in a magical place during WW2. After several sessions with therapist Dr Golan (Allison Janney) he convinces his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales where he is befriended by some Peculiars, enters a derelict mansion through a portal in a cave and encounters the very much alive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who lives in this weird time loop with all the weirdly gifted kids whom his grandfather told him about. They have to ward off a powerful enemy who feast on the children’s eyes, led by Samuel L. Jackson who delivers his now customary cod-threatening performance and after taking Miss Peregrine, the children must engage in a final face-off (or eye-off…) in a theatre in modern-day Blackpool. Jake himself has a special power which can save them all … There’s a level of ordinariness to this which is irritating. It’s well set up, with Tim Burton returning to contemporary Florida (remember the achingly wonderful Edward Scissorhands?) and the problematic father-son dynamic that fuels some of his better work. However there’s no real sense of mystery or fabulism that would bring this to a different realm. What is best about it? Probably the Ray Harryhausen-style doll animations. Emotions lie half-buried in the middle of this – about being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, hating your dumb parents and only finding your true family because you possess an understanding of life that other people don’t (seeing invisible monsters is inordinately helpful). Oh well – there’s a good joke about the evil motivations of psychiatrists, though. Adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Ransom Riggs, and apparently a lot of changes took place in the writing. Very, very uneven.

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Conflict of Wings (1954)

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Aka Fuss Over Feathers and The Norfolk Story.  That great expanse of sky and never a ripple to disturb that ancient garden. A Norfolk bird sanctuary that was the burial ground for children in Roman times is threatened by the Royal Air Force’s plan to use it as a target range for testing their new DeHavilland Vampires with a rocket system. Led by Muriel Pavlow, whose boyfriend John Gregson is an RAF corporal, the community discovers that the land was gifted to the Church by Henry VIII in thanks for assisting quell a rebellion and finds grounds for defending the sanctuary from the rocket tests. The local eel catcher starts squatting on the land, protesting his fishing rights, and everyone forms a human shield around the island to stop a test but they accidentally damage the RAF’s temporary telephone line and the base can’t be told in time to stop a launch just as clouds begin massing and impeding the pilots’ sightlines …  With its story of a community fighting to preserve their historical rights, this has echoes of Passport to Pimlico and can thus be viewed as part of a wider sense of post-war anti-establishment feeling. Nonetheless with the revelation that the squadron will be moving on to Malaya, there’s something of a triumphalist conclusion. Shot in a variety of Norfolk locations – Hickling Broad, Cley-next-the-Sea, Ludham, Wells and West Raynham, which used to have an airfield. Adapted from actor turned screenwriter and director Don Sharp’s debut novel by John Pudney and directed by John Eldridge, there are plenty of familiar faces from the era – Kieron Moore, Niall MacGinnis, Harry Fowler, Guy Middleton – in this small but satisfying drama with its wonderful setting. Planespotters will have a field day. And there’s a charming gull too! Lovely score by Philip Green who was longtime musical director at the Rank Organisation and whose stock music has been used in everything from Ren and Stimpy to Night of the Living Dead. Now that’s versatile. Made under the Group 3 scheme to encourage independent films under the umbrella of the National Film Finance Corporation.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

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This was released as the voiceover tells us in Robert Stroud’s 53rd year of incarceration. Burt Lancaster plays the man who became a world-renowned ornithologist after being sentenced to death and then solitary confinement – terminally.  He killed a man over a girl when he was 19, protecting her from the bartender who was attacking her;  and then in Leavenworth killed a prison guard in a scuffle when the guard cancelled his mother’s visit.  His mother (Thelma Ritter) pleads for his death by hanging to be commuted but she becomes proprietorial over him and her true narcissistic exhibitionism (it’s all about her, see? Some of us know this syndrome way too well…) emerges when he becomes an expert in bird diseases after tending and raising sparrows and canaries from the yard. His book is smuggled out and becomes a best seller and he befriends and marries a fellow bird lover on the outside (Betty Field) with whom he starts a business in bird medicine.  His mother then relentlessly campaigns against his parole and he is denied every single year thereafter. The warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) hates him because of his individuality and refusal to show remorse.  He will never leave solitary confinement. His friendship with fellow inmate Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas) is sundered when Gomez is removed to Alcatraz where Shoemaker is then promoted. The new warden Albert Comstock (Hugh Marlowe) is literally insane about Stroud’s dedication to his studies behind bars. His parole hearing comes up again. And suddenly one morning he has to leave everything behind – the birds, his studies, his life in the unprecedented two-rooms he’s been allowed and he leaves for Alcatraz with only the clothes he stands up in. Malden goes bananas when Stroud’s history of the penal system doesn’t recognise his contribution to getting men to manufacture belt buckles.  When there’s a mutiny amongst the prisoners it’s Stroud who helps to quell it. And his reward?  A transfer to another prison. There are scenes with the birds and Lancaster’s care for them that will bring tears to your eyes. And Neville Brand’s playing of prison officer Bull Ransom particularly in their parting scene will unsettle you. The setting should render it claustrophobic instead it’s positively breathtaking in its sometimes deliberate focus on detail. This mostly true story of Stroud’s devastating experiences and the utter villainous vengeful viciousness of people is compelling and brilliantly told, with a voiceover by Edmond O’Brien who plays Thomas Gaddis, his biographer, who met him just once on the outside during Stroud’s final prison transfer. Written by Guy Trosper and produced by Lancaster, who delivers an incredibly restrained, unsentimental performance, this was directed by John Frankenheimer after Charles Crichton and Lancaster did not see eye to eye. Stroud died one year after this was released, the day before JFK was assassinated. He never saw life outside prison after the age of 19  in a system of relentless personalised vindictive and pointless punishment. This is what can happen when people decide they dislike you. If you doubt conspiracies exist then watch this. And weep.

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016)

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Brace for impact. Lean and trim, that’s not just a descriptor for director Clint Eastwood, it also works for Todd Komarnicki’s adaptation of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeffrey Zaslow’s book, Highest Duty, detailing what happened January 15, 2009, when they famously landed US Airways Flight 1549 on NYC’s Hudson River, without a single casualty. The film is structured around the National Transportation Safety Board investigation which started immediately, stranding Sully (Tom Hanks) and Jeff (Aaron Eckhart) at a Marriott without their own clothes and left to ponder if they could indeed have landed the Airbus at alternate airports. We start with a nightmare – Sully’s – one of many all too realistic visions of crashing in uptown Manhattan. For the elephant in the room that this constantly addresses is 9/11 and how clever to do this in the first scene:  it’s what we were all thinking during those first pictures. It’s uppermost in his mind as he is taken to task and tested as a virtual criminal by the NTSB while being hailed as hero on all the talk shows – but he knows Jeff is a funnier interview and compliments him on his jokes to David Letterman. The story is extremely well modulated, waiting quite a long time to show us precisely what happened:  we see bits and pieces, are introduced (slightly) to some passengers and the unfortunate young air traffic controller who thinks he’s been part of an aircraft being downed and are finally prepared for something that we at least have the benefit of knowing ended well, even if in cold choppy waters at the worst time of year. When asked at the public hearing if he could have changed anything, Jeff declares, “it would have happened in July.” One great message here is about trusting human instinct over virtual reality and computer simulations. More humanity is supplied by Sully’s wife Laura Linney, not quite but almost literally phoning in her performance, bringing him back down to earth about their ongoing financial problems, fretting about what could happen if he loses his wings as he might do if found negligent – the airline has a lot riding on the insurance claims being voided. They cave as soon as they hear the inflight recording. But the question remains – how can a flock of geese down a passenger jet? An intrinsic design flaw? I know that I don’t take Airbus flights. There’s a very good joke when Sully goes into an Irish pub and the bartender gives him a Sully – “Grey Goose with a splash of water.” You’ve got to laugh. Kind of! Coming in at a tight 96 minutes, this near-disaster anti-thriller movie is a remarkably calm, paradoxically uplifting story of true heroism and Hanks is typically excellent. Perhaps it would have been too counterintuitive to have cast real-life disaster-prone pilot Harrison Ford?!

The Meddler (2015)

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Dramedy is a thing. Comedy + drama. And it sounds like it should be a messy genre splice but in reality it’s probably the principal form of filmed entertainment. This is a superb example – a theme you dread, a widowed mom who moves cross-country to live off her daughter’s coat-tails, but it works, and how. Susan Sarandon is the displaced Brooklynite Marnie unwilling to put a headstone on her late hubby’s ashes anywhere and she’s bought an apartment that used to be in The Hills. Her go-to soundtrack is Beyonce, she adores action movies (Jason Statham anyone?) and she loves nothing more than phoning her daughter day and night on her iPhone (major product placement here) and shopping at LA’s Grove (I hear ya.) Rose Byrne is Lori the TV scriptwriter who’s the recipient of her home-invader Mom’s 24/7 calls and she’s heartbroken after breaking up with movie star Jacob and the truth is both women are heartbroken after Dad’s death. Which is more than a year ago, as it turns out. Marnie’s in a state of some denial. She gets involved with Lori’s friends and pays for a Lesbian wedding, volunteers at a hospital and dogsits when Lori goes east to shoot a pilot (a phrase that sees Marnie arrested at an airport). She visits Lori’s therapist. To discuss Lori. She likes the Apple salesman so much she takes him to nightschool cos he’s got no wheels. She walks onto a Hollywood set and winds up being background in a film which leads her to meet a retired cop and biker, Randy Zipper (JK Simmons) who likes her almost as much as his chickens. In one of the film’s many amusing apercus, we learn, For the optimal combination of happiness and productivity, all roads lead to Dolly Parton. Boy are those hens happy layers! This is warm, funny, affecting but not sickening, and really terrific about mom-daughter relationships. Sarandon is superb and Byrne is always good value. Nifty supporting performances from Michael McKean, Lucy Punch, Harry Hamlin and Jerrod Carmichael really light up a totally surprising, entertaining and tonally true story about relationships, bereavement, sex … and chickens. And remember, ladies:  eyes, throat, crotch! Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria.

Bambi (1942)

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A recent documentary about Walt Disney barely revealed anything about the man. For that, you watch the films. This is the high point of his achievements:  an adaptation of a book by Austrian writer Felix Salten, it is the story of a young fawn (a white tail) whose life in the meadow and the forest is mirrored by the changing seasons, his friendships with woodland creatures, death, dealings with hunters, all animated impressionistically and vividly. I can barely watch this because tears prick my eyes from the moment it starts and those memories of my first childhood viewing never leave me. It is simply stunning, moving, funny, brilliant and devastating, underscored by classical music tropes and songs. Directed by David Hand, leading a team of exquisitely gifted sequence directors, writers and artists, produced by Walt Disney. A film for the ages.

The Jungle Book (2016)

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I was indisposed to the idea that the classic Disney cartoon would get a revamp. Part of my problem with photo-real animation is that when things get dark they get very lifelike and sinister indeed, as we found with the beyond-creepy Spielberg takes on Tintin and The BFG (where the villainous giant seemed like a big ole murderous paedophile). So when man-cub Mowgli gets separated from his wolf family and taken away to his own people by black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) the shifts in tone from good nature (Baloo the bear, Bill Murray) to bad (Shere Khan the tiger, an almost incomprehensible Idris Elba) are very jarring. The musical interludes while entertaining seem like they’re dropped in from another movie. Overall however, it has to be admitted that it all works out in the end. Good stories are sometimes immune to strange interpretations. And how nice is it to hear Garry Shandling voicing the porcupine?  Written by Justin Marks, directed by Jon Favreau.

The Spiritualist (1948)

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Aka The Amazing Mr X. The wonderful Carole Landis committed suicide in the most horrendous way a couple of days before shooting began on this;  she was replaced by the estimable Lynn Bari, no mean actress in her own right. She’s widowed Christine Faber, haunted by the ghost of her late husband (Donald Curtis) rising from the surf, but a tall dark stranger (Turhan Bey) materialises who knows more about her than he ought, faking his way as a medium, and luring her into a dangerous game … With Cathy O’Donnell as her sister Janet and my sci fi heart-throb Richard Carlson as a lawyer, Harry Mendoza and Virginia Gregg rounding out the ensemble, we are taken into truly villainous territory with Bey making for an alluring bad guy who gets in way too deep.  In his eyes, the threat of terror! In his hands, the power to destroy! Crane Wilbur’s story was written for the screen by Muriel Roy Bolton and Ian McLellan Hunter and directed by Bernard Vorhaus. This film noir is gilt-edged thanks to the luminous cinematography by John Alton and good use is made of Chopin’s Prelude for Piano, opus 28 no. 4 in E minor. A special experience.

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016)

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What’s good about this? It’s not actually Potterworld. So, no ugly children (well… maybe a few, but briefly) and no long-drawn out battle between Good and Evil. Maybe…. Because this moneymaker is now the first of goodness knows how many sequels due to the gazillions it’s already earned within a week of release. And it’s good. It’s not really what you’d expect. It’s got a muted palette with occasional jolts of monochrome to indicate who might be bad (that’s you, Colin Farrell) amongst the hoi polloi thronging the machine age streets  which are being subjected to some serious beast-action chopping through the bricks and cement. Meanwhile Eddie Redmayne is Edwardian magizoologist Newt Scamander, arriving at Ellis Island with some cute platypus-like creature called a niffler who has a magpie-like yen for silver and disappears in a bank looking for coins where a wannabe baker Jacob (Dan Fogler) takes his case by mistake after being turned down for a loan. Scamander is the future author of the eponymous book, which is found by Harry Potter, in other words he’s a former student at Hogwarts. He didn’t fight in WW1 – too busy fighting dragons, as it happens. NYC is on lockdown against magic and in denial about it so it’s not really a good time to arrive. Witches are on the menu and wicked foster mother Samantha Morton has her charges out campaigning against the subculture of which her eldest Credence (Ezra Miller doing Buster Keaton) is a part, which is very  unfortunate for her. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) wants to haul Newt in to the Magical Congress for importing his funny little creatures to the country but he needs to return one of them to the desert –  which he magicks with a Mary Poppins-like flourish out of the suitcase which has been retrieved: problem is now there’s a Muggler baker in on the secret only here he’s called a No-Maj.  There’s a race against time, as we are warned by the clock at the Congress which tells us of an impending doom-like scenario. There’s an extremely funny sequence at Central Park Zoo which you have to see to  believe but it involves a mating situation. And there’s a sidebar romance between Jacob and Tina’s mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) who likes this chubster.  And a scummy nightclub scene rather like one we know from Star Wars. And there’s the big issue: a certain angry teenager who might just … explode, as PO’d adolescents are wont. A politician suffers the consequences of his rage. And Graves (Farrell) wants to find him….  and Newt. This is an enjoyable wallow in nostalgia but instead of seeing those huge offices worked by people in Vidor’s pre-Depression classic The Crowd we have darkened rooms filled with typewriters which are … typing automatically! It’s a vision for those of us amused by gadgets and tricky machines, a steampunked 1926 filled with huge department stores and smog where women wear trousers and men are either brave eccentrics or weapons of the state. More than that, beneath the vision is a message about persecuted minorities and cults and the measures they take – not very nice betimes – to secure their own existence. Including white-out chambers where people are being lobotomised, or its nearest equivalent (‘obliviated’ as they call it here). So much for human rights under self-appointed dictators, eh? And this underground lot are led by a black woman, Carmen Ejogo. Will she turn out to be Fidelia Castro?! If I have any problems here it might be to do with casting – there’s enough money floating around this world so can someone please give Eddie Redmayne (wearing Benedict’s Sherlock coat or something very like it) assistance with his diction?  He could at least enunciate correctly now that he’s not confined to a wheelchair or concealing his male parts. I can’t decide whether he’s adequate to the task, really good in an underwritten part or just plain wrong. The relationship with beady-eyed Waterston is barely worked out:  in a way you don’t care because she’s not right either. But you should . This efficiently-tooled behemoth of parallel realities comes from the mythical Potter universe ie producer David Heyman and director David Yates. It’s oddly like Ghostbusters, but … different. And there are enough plot threads to function as a preview of several coming attractions.  The screenplay was conjured by the godhead herself, JK Rowling:  is there nothing she can’t do?

Romancing the Stone (1984)

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“Wilder? Joan Wilder?!” What must it be like to meet your Number One fan and they don’t want to hobble you like in Misery but to help you out in the middle of the jungle in South America?! Ah, just perfect this, a romantic action adventure that brought Kathleen Turner to megastardom for a short spell, playing the unmarried romantic novelist who’s allergic to everything. After completing her latest magnum opus she rushes to Colombia when her sister Elaine (!) (Mary Ellen Trainor) calls for help. She brings with her a treasure map sent by her late brother in law who’s been hacked to death:  the map is the ransom for her sister’s freedom. Antiquities hunters Ira (Zack Norman) and Ralph (Danny De Vito) are holding her but Joan gets the wrong bus at the airport on the helpful advice of Zolo (her brother in law’s killer) and when she realises, causes it to crash.and is rescued by exotic bird smuggler Jack Colton (Michael Douglas) promising to repay him for his wrecked Jeep with travellers’ cheques. A love-hate relationship ensues as they spend the night in a crashed aeroplane, dance the hell out of each other, get help from a drug lord who’s her biggest fan (I love that scene!), and find the enormous emerald that’s the cause of all the trouble in the first place. “Aw man, the Doobie Brothers broke up!” moans Jack on finding an old issue of Rolling Stone. Witty, fast-moving, scintillating actioner (written in 1978) with great performances from all concerned. Turner is just great in one of the best movies of the Eighties. The horrible coda to all this is that the brilliant first-time writer, Diane Thomas, was killed in the Porsche Carrera gifted her by Michael Douglas when her boyfriend was driving her home after she’d had a few. The novelisation of this and its sequel, which she was unable to write because of being contracted to doing a draft of Always for Spielberg, is credited to one Joan Wilder. Tremendous, timeless entertainment. Directed by Robert Zemeckis