Laws of Attraction (2004)

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Lawyers are scum.  Divorce lawyers are the fungus growing beneath scum.  So declaims Daniel Rafferty (Pierce Brosnan), the apparently hapless blow-in to the Manhattan Bar Association who has beaten fellow divorce pitbull Audrey Woods (Julianne Moore) in court. And he has never lost a case anywhere he’s ever worked. They appear to be at daggers drawn but really they like each other straight off. She’s a redheaded neurotic addicted to sugar and advice from her well-connected Mom (Frances Fisher) who can get anyone on Page Six. He seems to be shambolic until Audrey realises he’s written a book called For Better For Worse and it’s going down a storm.  When Audrey tries to soften him up in his grimy office above a Chinese supermarket and he’s not there she looks around it for information to use against him and he plays the surveillance footage in the courtroom. Then he gets her drunk on goat’s balls and she wakes up in his bed after their one-night stand … This really isn’t about opposites at all despite their living accommodation – they both play down and dirty when they can and it’s when they take opposing sides in the divorce of a wretched designer (Parker Posey) and her witless rocker hubby (Michael Sheen) and have to tackle their custody battle over a castle in rural Ireland that their own true feelings get expressed maritally. Moore and Brosnan are terrific in a comedy that is extremely well played but not as barbed as it ought to be. When he meets his mother in law for the first time he asks, Are you really 56? And she replies, Parts of me are. We needed more lines like that. The Irish scenes are typically an echo of John Ford (a donnybrook in the pub, almost) with a fake wedding at the village festival after Daniel drinks way too much poteen but the usual paddywackery is thankfully not as lethal as in Leap Year, that Amy Adams effort. In fact there’s depth to both principal characterisations, with the only weird note struck by Sheen – until you check yourself and remember this was the era of The Strokes and The Libertines and you realise his choices are probably spot on:  rock stars are really that awful. Meanwhile information lying about the marital home comes in useful in the mother of all celebrity divorces and Nora Dunn is fantastic as the judge adjudicating the legal duels. Almost a winner, with Brosnan exhibiting exactly why he should still be James Bond (in a film he executive produced). Am I wrong?! He and Moore could have been like Tracy and Hepburn  in this story of professional one-upmanship if it had been handled better but they really spark anyhow. Somewhat casually written by Aline Brosh McKenna, Robert Harling and Karey Kirkpatrick and directed by Peter Howitt.

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The Dark Crystal (1982)

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A long time ago, on a planet far, far away … I had to be persuaded to watch quest narratives after mistakenly wandering into the Ralph Bakshi animation of Lord of the Rings instead of Superman at a very young and impressionable age. No such worries here. It’s a straightforward fantasy in all but one respect – it’s performed by animatronic puppets, and very attractive and convincing they are too, created by Jim Henson at his creature workshop. Jen (Stephen Garlick) is the last surviving Gelfling who has been raised by The Mystics. They need to restore balance to the world by replacing a shard in the eponymous crystal which has long stopped shining, otherwise the evil Skeksis will retain control of the universe. A prophecy foretells their defeat … On his journey he encounters Kira (Lisa Maxwell) and a romance of sorts develops as they tackle various obstacles – particularly the very funny vultures they are trying to vanquish. There is a highly amusing Delphic Oracle, witchlike Aughra, a hilarious pet (Fizzgig), impressive Longstriders, frightening Garthim (crab monsters) and tremendous production design so inventive and multi-faceted you want to dive through the screen. Gorgeous, magical, somewhat sinister and pretty much perfect. And it’s only 94 minutes long! Written by David Odell and directed by Henson with Frank Oz.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

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You would never know that this was an Ealing comedy – it is totally unsentimental. Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) is in prison awaiting his execution when he puts pen to paper and recounts the reason for this turn of events. Born to a beautiful if rash aristocratic mother who ran off with an Italian opera singer, this orphaned young man is now working in a draper’s when his lady love Sibella (Joan Greenwood) marries a love rival. He sets out to dispatch the eight remaining members of the D’Ascoyne line to recuperate the title he feels is rightfully his. All of them – including the venerable Lady Agatha – are played by Alec Guinness. (He also played a ninth!). Louis marries the virtuous wife Edith (Valerie Hobson) of one of them. The range of their respective deaths is stunning. A sublime work of British cinema, adapted from Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank:  The Autobiography of a Criminal by John Dighton and the woefully underrated director Robert Hamer, whose masterpiece this is. Transgressive, ironic and subversive, and the ending is simply genius. Breathtaking black comedy for the ages. Perfection.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

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The blackest of comedies, this, a satire about looks and cosmetic surgery and Hollywood that 25 years later looks a lot like contemporary society’s obsession with plastic even if it doesn’t actually predict the rise of the D-listers famous for selling sex tapes to fund their face changing which everyone pretends not to notice (seriously:  when did plastic surgery get so bad? It used to work! Nobody noticed Gary Cooper’s facelift! Or Alain Delon’s!). Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are friends who have wildly different career trajectories (prescient…) when Meryl makes off with Bruce Willis, a talented plastic surgeon who keeps the actress wealthy while her roles diminish. Goldie meanwhile spends years sitting in front of the TV getting fat obsessing over what might have been. Seven years later … Goldie is shrunk and madeover and arrives to take what’s rightfully hers – Bruce, now an alcoholic mess – while Meryl is having it away with anyone twenty years younger. Meryl avails of a potion for eternal life sold from a Gothic castle in the Hollywood Hills by Isabella Rossellini, a sex goddess witch with a Louise Brooks ‘do who looks 25 but is actually 71. Thus Bruce and Goldie’s plot to kill her off fails and she then kills Goldie – who also gets to live forever while Bruce wonders what on earth he can do to escape them when they go to a party at Isabella’s which happens to be Night of the Living Hollywood Dead… Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script is pretty smart but goes for easy targets in horror instead of the social mores it’s ostensibly attacking.  There are nice bits – Goldie’s insight with her therapist;  Sydney Pollack as the doctor finding Meryl has no heartbeat after her head’s twisted back to front and she’s sitting up talking to him in his Beverly Hills surgery; the party at Isabella’s with an orchestra led by Ian Ogilvie and we recognise some very famous dead faces dancing – but in the main it’s a totally OTT effects fantasia, a singular failing of director Robert Zemeckis whose work I preferred in the days of Used Cars and Back to the Future.  One thing is sure in the 37-years-later last segment – these ladies don’t age quite the way they want to! For romance novel fans, yes, that’s Fabio playing Isabella’s bodyguard. Golly!

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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It seems a little odd to suggest the obvious – that this remake isn’t as good as the original – until you recall that the 1991 animation was the first one to be nominated for the Academy Award as Best Picture. While a little flawed, it didn’t outstay its welcome. The opening narration here seems to go on for about a half a day. As voiceovers go, it’s redundant if you stick to the Show Don’t Tell rule of cinematic story:  we can SEE what’s happening as Belle (Emma Watson) trots around the village waving her book-reading superiority at her fellow natives. Gaston (Luke Evans) is a bumptious character, hilariously played and sets the tone proper with his antics chasing ‘the most beautiful girl in the village’ (hmm….) His self-love is reflected in the slavering attentions of sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) and the opening sequence culminates in an outstandingly well done groupsing at the local inn.This is one of the film’s best scenes. Meanwhile, Belle’s papa Maurice (Kevin Kline) needs to travel for his work and promises to bring her back a rose – like he does every year. And when he finds the enchanted castle where Beast (Dan Stevens, who makes a very wan prince indeed) resides reclusively since having a spell cast upon him years earlier … Belle arrives to save him and swaps places and the rest you know. The animated houseware is now characterised through CGI and voiced among others by Ian McKellen (Cogsworth – he previously worked with director Bill Condon in the wonderful Gods and Monsters), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Stanley Tucci (Cadenza) and most disappointingly, Emma Thompson (Mrs Potts) whose harsh faux Cockney cannot approximate to the warmth and sheer incomparable charisma of Angela Lansbury. The whole film is shot in an incredibly dark palette which renders the experience quite difficult – made worse in 3D – and the staging is very awkward in places: the first ballroom scene, featuring the famous dance between Belle and Beast is really underwhelming (remember the brilliance of the original?) suggesting a lack of attention not just to famous musicals of the past but basic dance steps, decent choreography and a sense of magic which is nonexistent at what should have been the story’s high point. The shots are completely wrong for such a sequence. There are great life lessons in the story – misunderstanding people on the basis of their appearances, the swift way in which groups become mobs and the way that Belle is told of her mother’s death is very well done but the narrative momentum is lost to bad handling. The outstanding performance is by Luke Evans, literally pitch perfect in an overly long underimpressive production. Maybe if they hadn’t been so hellbent on making something so politically correct/gay/racially diverse they’d have had a monster film.There’s always La Belle et la Bete.

Mrs Pollifax – Spy (1971)

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A widowed retiree volunteers her services to the CIA and finds herself drugged in Mexico City and handcuffed to Darren McGavin on a plane to Albania. A different kind of gap year, perhaps. Rosalind Russell herself adapted the promising book by Dorothy Gilman (one of a series) in a production by her husband, Frederick Brisson. Instead of the fun travelogue spoof you might expect of the era, it’s a mostly dull stint in an Albanian prison (an hour…) with just a few colour shots in Mexico and an awful lot of sparse mountains. Remind me never to go to the land of Enver Hoxha or even Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which looks like an utterly miserable substitute. Unremarkable, to say the very least. It was Russell’s last film. Directed by Leslie Martinson.

I Capture the Castle (2003)

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Dodie Smith’s classic 1930s coming of age story gets a beautiful treatment in this adaptation by Heidi Thomas, directed by Tim Fywell. Romola Garai is the seventeen-year old Cassandra Mortmain, daughter of the desiccated formerly successful novelist, a cadaverous James (Bill Nighy) who has been blocked for twelve years. He’s married to dedicated nudist and avant garde artist Topaz (Tara Fitzgerald), his second wife. He served time in prison for attacking Cassandra’s mother with a cake knife. They live in ungenteel poverty in a rented castle which is in a state of terrific decay with a beautiful sister Rose (Rose Byrne) and young brother Thomas. The gorgeous farmhand next door Stephen (Henry Cavill) loves Cassandra but she only has eyes for American Simon (Henry  Thomas) who inherits the whole property of which the castle serves a part; while Simon falls for Rose. Simon’s brother Neil (Marc Blucas) and Cassandra confide in each other … and while superficial romance proceeds and social niceties are observed, and a forthcoming marriage might save them all, the principal relationships fall apart and Cassandra tries to fix everything while losing the man she really loves. Fantastically observed and – it has to be said – captivating – adaptation, with spot-on performances all round. Look fast for Dolly Wells as a horrible saleswoman.

Vampyr (1932)

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Aka The Strange Adventure of David Gray, Not Against the Flesh, The Castle of Doom. One of those unique films that a film snob such as myself extols above all others. After the extraordinary Passion of Joan of Arc, Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer worked with Christen Jul on a more-or-less adaptation of Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly (mainly Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant) to come up with the story of Allan Gray, a dreamer (that old German trope) and student of the occult investigating phenomena in the village of Courtempierre, a place haunted by a vampire’s curse. For financial reasons, the film had to be shot in French, German and Italian, and this presented problems with dialogue so that was cut to the bone, with one of the financiers, Nicholas de Gunzburg, starring under the pseudonym Julian West. Sound was a new technology and French cinema was having trouble adapting so title cards were used where possible, contributing to the effect of the silents. The unique atmosphere is partly conjured by primitive effects, partly by the soft focus shooting style deployed by Rudolph Mate (returning from Joan of Arc) and the production design by Hermann Warm (ditto) and in part again by the ensemble of freaked-out weirdos populating the cast. If you ever wondered where that grain silo scene in Witness was lifted from, you have to watch the last reel …  Dreyer had directed his locations assistant to scout for “a factory in ruins, a chopped up phantom, worthy of the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe. Somewhere in Paris. We can’t travel far.” Except in the mind. To die for.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

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The Great Escape. The Guns of Navarone. Where Eagles Dare. And this. This is what Friday night was for when I was a kid. And boy does it still work. Major Lee Marvin gathers a bunch of psychopaths headed for the gallows or life imprisonment to do One Last Job in preparation for D-Day, a raid on a French chateau where members of Nazi command are hanging out. A kind of OSS for nut jobs is produced. Adapted from EM Nathanson’s novel by Nunnally Johnson, this was rewritten by Lukas Heller for director Robert Aldrich, with some major alterations which might or might not have been a good idea. Nonetheless, this crowdpleaser is violent, fiercely funny, nasty, brutish and nihilistic in equal measure and never less than vastly entertaining. There is something to offend everyone as they are recruited, trained and then unleashed. Thank goodness for that!

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

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If you don’t like this, there’s a high probability that you’re either dead or German (preferably both) and you definitely hate Top Gear. So stop reading now. This, like The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone, is the only litmus test for a common humanity amongst right-thinking viewers. The story of Allied agents trying to break into a castle (Schloss Adler) held by the Nazis to break out a British colonel, it has Eastwood and Burton and Mary Ure working their way into the fortress to stop losing headway on the planned D-Day landings.  Or … something else???? Twisty Twister McTwisted! Fabulous stunts, great scenery, terrifying cable-car scenes, amazing tension, wonderful action. Just what you want, really, from a film. Another reminder that the prolific Alistair MacLean wrote brilliant books. Happy New Year.