Barefoot in the Park (1967)

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Make him feel important. If you do that, you’ll have a happy and wonderful marriage – like two out of every ten couples.  Newlyweds Corie (Jane Fonda), a free spirit, and Paul Bratter (Robert Redford), an uptight lawyer, move into a sixth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village. She’s up for anything, he’s a stuffed shirt. The stairs are hell to climb and the apartment is tiny, with barely a utility or a functioning appliance. Corie tries to find a companion for mother, Ethel (Mildred Natwick), who is now alone, and sets up Ethel with Greek neighbor Victor (Charles Boyer). Inappropriate behavior on a double date at a restaurant across the river causes conflict as well as a major hangover, and the young couple considers divorce as Corie realises they are utterly mismatched and then she finds out her mother is missing … I feel like we’ve died and gone to heaven – only we had to climb up.  Neil Simon adapted his own play and Redford returned to the role he had made his own on Broadway. Natwick also reprises her role as his mother-in-law and she has some rare lines about marriage. Re-teamed with his co-star Fonda, from The Chase, Redford makes light of the banter that is the staple of this marital romcom, which is mostly confined to the disastrously small apartment in which the relationship seems to unravel as the heating fails, the phone dies, and the philandering Victor uses the bedroom as a shortcut to his upstairs apartment. The biggest part of the plot is the running joke about the stairs but this is bright, breezy if slight entertainment, sustained by wit and charm, with fantastic star performances fuelling the whole show. Directed by Gene Saks.

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Death Wish (1974)

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I mean, if we’re not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when they’re faced with a condition or fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide? Once a mild-mannered liberal, New York City architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) snaps when intruders break into his home, murdering his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and violently raping his daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan). On a business trip to Tucson, Arizona he is given a gift from a client Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a revolver he uses to patrol the streets when he returns home when he realises his ideals have been completely compromised in the worst possible way. Frustrated that the police led by Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) cannot find the intruders, he becomes a vigilante, gunning down any criminal that crosses his path. Then the public finds his vigilanteism heroic… Wendell Mayes adapted Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel which arose from his own spontaneous reaction to being a crime victim. Under the direction of Michael Winner this exploitation fare becomes a muscular revenge thriller, brilliantly honing Bronson’s persona to effectively express what any normal individual might feel like doing – but would restrain themselves from actually pulling the trigger. His transformation is key to establishing the audience’s empathy. You’ll have fun identifying the thugs – watch for Jeff Goldblum. Also in the cast:  Stephen Elliott, Paul Dooley, Christopher Guest and that’s Olympia Dukakis in the precinct. The cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz is realistic and the score by Herbie Hancock immersive, making for a powerfully atmospheric narrative. Probably Winner’s best film. Fantastically judged and controversial, this is for anyone who’s ever felt f****d over.

An Education (2009)

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If people die the moment that they graduate, then surely it’s the things we do beforehand that count.  In early Sixties London, Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) is a teen with a bright future; she’s smart and pretty and her parents (Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina) want a good life for her so encourage her aspirations of attending Oxford University.  But when David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming but much older suitor, motors into her life in a shiny maroon Bristol, Jenny gets a taste of adult life that she won’t soon forget and it puts everything she’s been working for in jeopardy… Nick Hornby adapted the memoir of Lynn Barber, that acerbic Times columnist, who revealed the shocker of her youth:  her underage romance with a colleague of Peter Rachman, the slum landlord.  David tells Jenny the ‘stats’ he and his mate Danny (Dominic Cooper) haunt are the little old ladies who move out of their flats and sell them for half nothing once the guys move coloureds in next door. She’s just wise enough not to be wholly shocked. She loves everything French and sings Juliet Greco songs and colludes with David in deceiving her parents so that she can lose her virginity to him in Paris.  The beauty of the screenplay is its deadpan humour: she marvels after that episode that all those love songs and poems are written about something that doesn’t last that long. It’s this oblique commentary that saves it from becoming sordid. Her friendship with Helen (Rosamund Pike), Danny’s  gloriously dim but kind and beautiful girlfriend, provides some of the wonderfully observed high points but Jenny conveniently ignores all the signs that something is wrong with this perfect picture. The concerned English teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) who acts as the conscience of the piece turns out to be a mentor of sorts in a stirring coming of age story that is a far from sentimental education. Emma Thompson as the anti-semitic headmistress is a piece of work – she expels Jenny when she learns she’s engaged to a Jew. It’s beautifully handled and performed and London looks just as it should, courtesy of John de Borman’s cinematography. Directed by Lone Scherfig.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

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I may well be dead – just not typed.  IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a pernickety type who lives by the time on his wristwatch. When he hears the voice of author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) in his head  he thinks he’s going crazy but then discovers that he is the ill-fated protagonist of her latest novel.  While Eiffel’s assistant Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) tries to cure the author’s case of writer’s block, Harold and a professor of literary theory Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) set out to find the woman and make her change her story from tragedy to comedy.  Meanwhile, Harold falls for one of his delinquent auditees, baker and Harvard Law dropout Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and wants to do something meaningful with his life. It’s essential to ensure that Eiffel doesn’t let him die but when Hilbert reads the book he declares it’s her masterpiece and Harold simply must succumb to her ending … Quirky, funny rumination on protagonists, motivation, narration, literary theory and (accidents of) fate – with Ferrell playing low-key to the point of diffidence and Thompson practically persecuted when she realises she is writing about a real living person and has the power to control him – the problem is, all her subjects die.  Great jokes about academia and storytelling (‘little did he know’ is the omniscient phrase that gives away to Hilbert that Harold is sane!). This may come off as a lesser iteration of Charlie Kaufman or even Woody Allen but it’s charming and funny – and cleverer than thou.  Written by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster.

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

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I could throw a stick across the river and hit fifty grieving fathers.  Following an Isis suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) as Mexican drug cartels are starting to smuggle terrorists across the U.S. border. The war escalates when Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug kingpin’s thirteen-year old daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to deliberately increase the tensions. When the young girl is seen as collateral damage, the two men will determine her fate as they question everything that they are fighting for, with Alejandro and the girl left on the wrong side of the border when the corrupt Mexican police upset the staged return of Isabel.  At the same time a teenaged Mexican in Texas Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is recruited to move people illegally and the Government drop Alejandro in it  … Sicario was my top film of 2015 and I was pretty surprised that it would become a victim of sequelitis. This is  a far more conventional action outing but steadily winds itself around you with a vise-like grip even if it entirely lacks the deep pulsating strangeness of the original and its fabulously formal widescreen compositions by director Denis Villeneuve and DoP Roger Deakins and the amazing, visceral score of the late great Jóhann Jóhansson, to whom this is dedicated. Crucially it also lacks Emily Blunt’s character, something of a passive protagonist who also functioned as moral compass. What an unusual setup that was! It punched you in the solar plexus, kicked you in the abdomen and grabbed you by the throat. And all the time you wondered who everyone really was. The formerly silent and mysterious Alejandro has achieved his revenge so why does this even exist? Better ask Taylor Sheridan, who is revisiting the border territory he seems to have made his own, writing some of the best screenplays of recent years. There has been a lot of guff about the timing of this and the fact that there’s a girl ‘separated’ from her (lovely!) family here but this is a film that shows us exactly why the US or the POTUS at least wants a wall:  it’s a portrait of ruthless people trafficking poor people with the resultant evolution of drug lords, gangs and murderers. You can leave the pity party at the door especially when you look at the murder rates in Mexico last year alone. Chaos streams from that part of the world, lest we forget. And the answer is a slew of dirty tricks and disavowed ops.  Alejandro is almost forced to question his actions, with Isabel figuring out his relationship with her father:  he’s the attorney whose wife and kids Daddy had murdered. Moner is fantastic, a real find. She is extraordinarily self-possessed as the narco whore! administering beatings in the school yard where the principal is shit-scared of expelling her for fear of reprisals. Brolin returns to the fray dealing out fear in Somalia trying to trace the Isis loonies but back on US soil he’s dealing with the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) and his immediate superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) who wants everything off the books when two dozen Mexican cops are killed (they unleash the firepower first) and the Oval Office can no longer be officially seen to sanction any cross-border activities. The clever aspect is parallel teenage stories – the Tex-Mex boy killer and the kingpin’s girl even if they are rather replete with clichés, no matter the shock value. The conclusion has been set up to deliver another movie with del Toro – a long way from the money laundering (literally) in Licence to Kill – still in the druggie violent territory to which he so frequently returns. Directed by Stefano Sollima. 

Odd Man Out (1947)

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If you get back to your friends, you’ll tell ’em I helped you. Me, Gin Jimmy. But if the police get you, you won’t mention my name, huh?  Johnny McQueen (James Mason) has been in hiding in Kathleen Sullivan’s (Kathleen Ryan) home for the past six months since his escape from prison. He’s the leader of a political group (the Organisation, code for the IRA) that needs funds although his compatriots think he’s not up to the task:  he believes negotiating with the other side might get them further than attacking them.  Nonetheless he takes part in a raid on a bank but it goes wrong and he’s shot as he kills a cashier. Pat (Cyril Cusack) drives off before Johnny can get into the getaway car and the gang are the subject of a manhunt while Johnny is left to struggle on his own relying on help from passing strangers …  R.C. Sheriff adapted F.L. Green’s novel and while it’s not named, this is clearly set in Belfast. Mason is rivetting as the terrorist who’s experiencing his delirious last long night of the soul in a film that is equal parts documentary and pretentious psychological thriller, with wonderfully atmospheric canted angles and shadows from Robert Krasker’s cinematography. The supporting players are largely drawn from the ranks of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre – including Robert Beatty, W.G. Fay, Joseph Tomelty, Noel Purcell, Eddie Byrne and Dan O’Herlihy. Albert Sharpe (presumably fresh off Finian’s Rainbow on Broadway, where he made his fortune) plays a bus conductor. Robert Newton impresses as the wild philosophising artist painting Johnny. While some exteriors were shot in Belfast it would appear a great many scenes were done in London including a reproduction of the famous Crown Bar, which was actually a set at D&P Studios. A powerful and gripping drama, this remains one of the great British films, an unconventional, potent and poetic treatise on compromise, brutality, daring and death centering on a passive protagonist around whom much of the plot revolves. Out of the ordinary. Directed by Carol Reed. MM #1800.

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.

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.

 

St Elmo’s Fire (1985)

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How can I be so tired at twenty-two? I just don’t know who to be any more.  Seven recent Georgetown graduates hang out at St Elmo’s Bar.  Alec (Judd Nelson) is a political wannabe dating architect Leslie (Ally Sheedy); along with Washington Post writer Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), banker and party girl Jules (Demi Moore) and law student/waiter Kirby (Emilio Estevez) they’re waiting to find out how their friends welfare clerk Wendy (Mare Winningham) and former frat boy and reluctant new dad, sax player Billy (Rob Lowe) are following a car accident.  Kirby takes a fancy to ER doctor Dale (Andie McDowell) whom he’s liked since college… The quarter-life crisis wasn’t even a thing when this was made and the critics slaughtered it but for me I guess it pretty much looked like what would happen to me eventually! Half of The Breakfast Club love, live, have sex, split up and get high and come down again to a horrifying David Foster soundtrack that just screams mid-Eighties. I love it. So sue me. Written by Carl Kurlander and director Joel Schumacher.

Captain Fantastic (2016)

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I’m writing down everything you say – in my mind. Disillusioned anti-capitalist intellectual Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his absent wife Leslie (she’s in a psychiatric facility) and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society,  their kids are being educated them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie commits suicide, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time to attend her funeral in New Mexico where her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) fear for what is happening to their grandchildren and Ben is forced to confront the fact that the survivalist politics he has imbued in his offspring may not prepare them for real life… This starts with the killing of an animal in a ritual you might find in the less enlightened tribes. (Why did killing a deer become a thing a year ago?) Ben is teaching his eldest son Bodevan (George McKay) to be a man. But this is a twenty-first century tribe who are doing their own atavistic thing – just not in the name of Jesus (and there’s a funny scene in which they alienate a policeman by pretending to do just that) but that of Noam Chomsky. “I’ve never even heard of him!” protests their worried grandfather. Hearing the words “Stick it to the man!” coming out of a five year old is pretty funny in this alt-socialist community but the younger son in the family Rellian (Nicholas Rellian) believes Ben is crazy and has caused Leslie’s death and wants out.  Ironically and as Ben explains at an excruciating dinner with the brother in law (Steve Zahn) it was having children that caused her post-partum psychosis from which this brilliant lawyer never recovered. This stressor between father and younger son drives much of the conflict – that and Leslie’s Buddhist beliefs which are written in her Will and direct the family to have her cremated even though her parents inter her in a cemetery which the kids call a golf course. And Bodevan conceals the fact that he and Mom have been plotting his escape to one of the half dozen Ivy League colleges to which he’s been accepted. The irony that Ben is protecting his highly politicised kids from reality by having them celebrate Chomsky’s birthday when they don’t even know what a pair of Nikes are and have never heard of Star Trek is smart writing. Everything comes asunder when there are accidents as a result of the dangers to which he exposes them. This is a funny and moving portrait of life off the grid, with Mortensen giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as the man constantly at odds with the quotidian whilst simultaneously being a pretty great dad. McKay is terrific as the elder son who’s utterly unprepared for a romantic encounter in a trailer park. It really is tough to find your bliss. As delightful as it is unexpected, this is a lovely character study. Written and directed by Matt Ross.