Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Nothing is what it seems. Grieving over the accidental death of their daughter, Christine (Sharon Williams), John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) leave their young son Johnny in an English boarding school and head to Venice where John’s been commissioned to restore a church. There Laura meets two ageing sisters (Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania) who claim to be in touch with Christine’s spirit. Laura takes them seriously, but John scoffs until he himself catches a glimpse of what looks like Christine running through the streets of Venice. Unbeknownst to himself, he has precognitive abilities (which might even be figured in the book he’s written, Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space) and the figure of local Bishop Barrigo (Massimo Serato) seems to be a harbinger of doom rather than a portent of hope.  Meanwhile, another body is fished out of the canal with a serial killer on the prowl …  Director Nicolas Roeg made one masterpiece after another in the early 1970s and this enjoyed a scandalous reputation because of the notorious sex scene between Christie and Sutherland which was edited along the lines of a film that Roeg had photographed for Richard Lester, Petulia, some years earlier. The clever cross-cutting with the post-coital scene of the couple dressing to go out for dinner persuaded people that they had watched something forbidden. That aside, the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant is a clever mix of horror, mystery, enigmatic serial killer thriller and a meditation on grief. All of that is meshed within a repetitive visual matrix of the colour red, broken glass and water. None of that would matter were it not for the intensely felt characterisation of a couple in mourning, with Christie’s satisfaction at her dead daughter’s supposed happiness opposed to Sutherland’s desire to shake off the image of the child’s shiny red mackintosh – the very thing that leads him to his terrible fate. Some of the editing is downright disturbing – particularly a cut to the old ladies busting a gut laughing whilst holding photographs, apparently of their own family members. John’s misunderstanding of his visions coupled with the literal crossed telephone line from England creates a cacophony of dread, with Pino Donaggio’s score and Anthony Richmond’s limpid shots of Venice in winter compounding the tender horror constructed as elegiac mosaic by editor Graeme Clifford. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius? Probably. I couldn’t possibly comment.  I never minded being lost in Venice.

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Legend of the Falls (1994)

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He is the rock they broke themselves against. Early 20th-century Montana, Colonel William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) lives in the wilderness with his sons, Tristan (Brad Pitt), Alfred (Aidan Quinn) and Samuel (Henry Thomas). Alfred’s the good rule-abiding one, Tristan is the wild man who hunts and shoots and whose best friend is One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), while Samuel returns from Harvard with a fiancee, Susannah (Julia Ormond), an Eastern woman who initially appears to be a replacement for Ludlow’s wife who never got the hang of western living and abandoned her husband and sons. Ludlow resigned from civilisation following the Civil War due to his distress at how Native Americans were being treated. Eventually, the unconventional but close-knit family encounters tragedy when Samuel is killed in World War I. Tristan and Alfred survive their tours of duty, but, soon after they return home, both men fall for Susannah (Julia Ormond), and their intense rivalry begins to destroy the family. Alfred becomes a Congressman and Tristan disappears for years, travelling the world. He returns to find his father has had a stroke and his former lover Susannah didn’t wait for him and married Alfred, unhappily.  He finds love with the Indian girl who grew up around the family, Isabel Two (Karina Lombard) but then his smalltime rum-running business gets in the way of the O’Bannion gang’s business at the height of Prohibition …   Here at Mondo Towers I have Aussie flu and it’s snowing and I’m miserable so it was time to wheel out the big guns – an unapologetically old-fashioned western romance with enough unrequited love and gunfire and hunting and bear fights and tragedy and murder to fill an entire shelf of stories. The novella by Jim Harrison was adapted by Susan Shilliday and William D. Wittliff and they’re unafraid of throwing big swoony feelings at the screen.  Never mind the snide reviews, this is a really satisfying emotional widescreen experience. Beautifully shot by John Toll with an extraordinarily touching score by James Horner. Directed by Edward Zwick. Exit, pursued by a bear! Gulp.

Rules Don’t Apply (2017)

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A girl can get in trouble for having a case of the smarts. 1964 Acapulco:  a decrepit and isolated Howard Hughes is on the verge of making a televised phonecall from his hotel hideout to prove he doesn’t have dementia to dispute a claim by the writer of a book who may never actually have met him. Flashback to 1958, Hollywood:  Small-town Virginia beauty queen and devout Baptist Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), under contract to the infamous Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) arrives in Los Angeles with her mother (Annette Bening) to do a screen test for a film called Stella Starlight. She is picked up at the airport by her driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) only two weeks on the job and also from a religiously conservative background. He’s engaged to his seventh grade girlfriend. He drives them to their new home above the Hollywood Bowl where the sound of evening concerts wafts their way. She’s earning more than her college professor father ever did. The instant attraction between Marla and Frank not only puts their religious convictions to the test but also defies Hughes’ number one rule: no employee is allowed to have an intimate relationship with a contract actress and there are 26 of them installed all over Hollywood. Hughes is battling TWA shareholders over his proposals for the fleet as well as having to appear before a Senate sub-committee;  Marla bemoans the fact that she is a songwriter who doesn’t sing – so what kind of an actress can she be? And Frank wants to become a property developer and tries to persuade his employer to invest in him but Hughes is talking about a new birth control pill to him and when he meets Marla he talks to her about this thing called DNA that some English people discovered a few years back … It’s quite impossible to watch this without thinking of all the references, forwards and backwards, that it conjures:  that Beatty was tipped to play Hughes by Time after the mogul’s death, a decade after he had already espoused an interest in the mysterious billionaire who also lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a spell;  that he himself arrived in Hollywood at the end of the Fifties (via theatre) from Virginia and liked to play piano and got by with help from the homosexuals he impressed and the actresses like Joan Collins he squired about town;  Ehrenreich might be another aspect of Beatty as a youngster on the make, keen to impress mentors like Jean Renoir and George Stevens;  the motif of father and son takes a whole meta leap in his casting Ashley Hamilton, a Beatty lookalike who might well be his son (I think this is an inside joke, as it were), as a Hughes stand-in;  the dig at Beatty’s own rep for having a satyr-like lifestyle with the quickie Hughes has with Marla which deflowers her after she’s had her first taste of alcohol. It’s just inescapable. And if that seems distasteful, Beatty is 80 playing 50, and it has a ring of farce about it, as does much of the film which telescopes things like Hughes’ crash in LA for dramatic effect and plays scenes like they’re in a screwball comedy. There’s a lovely visual joke when he orders Frank to drive him somewhere at 3AM and they sit and eat fast food (after Frank says a prayer) and eventually we see where they’re seated – in front of Hughes’ enormous aeroplane (and Frank has never flown). This is too funny to merit the lousy reviews and too invested in its own nostalgia to be a serious take on either Hollywood or Hughes but it has its points of interest as another variation on the myth of both subjects. In real life it was long rumoured that Hughes had a son by Katharine Hepburn who allegedly had him adopted at the end of the Thirties. Timewise it picks up somewhere after The Aviator ends, but not strictly so. All it shares with that film is the banana leaf wallpaper. Tonally, it’s shifting from one generic mode to another (all that Mahler from Death in Venice is pointing to tragedy and age and decay, not youth and beauty and promise) but it’s difficult to dislike. It’s extremely well cast: Collins is terrific as the gauche naive young woman in the big city who’s given up her music scholarship and Ehrenreich is very good as the ambitious and conflicted guy who wants a mentor; Matthew Broderick does well as Levar, the senior driver jaded by long years of service to this eccentric and Oliver Platt (who did the great Bulworth with Beatty twenty years ago) has fun in a small role but Candice Bergen is wasted in the role of Nadine, the office manager. Bening is really great as Mrs Mabrey but she just … disappears. Beatty plays Hughes sympathetically, even unflatteringly (he knew him, albeit very slightly) and these young people’s relationship is ultimately played for its future potential despite its signposting as evidence of the hypocrisy lying directly beneath a church-led society. Written by Beatty with a story credit to him and Bo Goldman, and directed by Beatty, his first film in two decades.

Logan (2017)

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You know, Logan… this is what life looks like. A home, people who love each other. Safe place. You should take a moment and feel it. It’s 2029 and a badly aged, heavy drinking and very weary Logan (Hugh Jackman) cares for an ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart) at a remote outpost on the Mexican border. His plan to hide from the outside world gets upended when he meets Laura a young mutant (Dafne Keen) who is very much like him and was created in a lab by Alkali-Transigen who now want her back: their IVF-bred young mutants are not responding as expected and some of them have free will – and feelings. Logan must now protect the girl and battle the dark forces that want to capture her as they are hunted down by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) on behalf of mad scientist Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) who fools Caliban (Stephen Merchant) into giving his friends away. What Logan hasn’t reckoned on is his seed having been used to make a copy – of him …  Adapted by Scott Frank and Michael Green and director James Mangold from the Wolverine comic books by Roy Thomas, Len Wein and John Romita Sr. This is elegant filmmaking – a strange claim perhaps to make about one of the most brutal and violent films you’ll ever see (heads actually roll) but it’s truer in spirit to adult-oriented comic books as per Frank Miller than anything else you’ve seen in this vein. It’s performed brilliantly by an almost perfect cast and the clips from Shane which X watches with Laura in their hotel room are a very fine metaphor for what happens, a kind of honourable suicide, for the future and the greater good. It really is the only decent superhero movie I’ve seen in years.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

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You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. Six-year old Scout Finch (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in sleepy smalltown Maycomb, Alabama during the Depression, spending their time with their friend Dill (John Megna) who visits every summer, spying on their reclusive and mysterious neighbour the mentally defective Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). When Atticus (Gregory Peck) their widowed father and a respected lawyer, defends a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) against fabricated rape charges by a redneck white girl Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox) whose own father Bob (James Anderson) has attacked her, the trial and surrounding issues expose the children to evils of racism and stereotyping and the accuser’s father has a bone to pick with Finch and his children … This feels like it has always been here:  the gracious Peck in the role with which he would come to be identified and young Scout’s view of unfolding events, the most violent of which are all offscreen. Horton Foote’s careful adaptation of Harper Lee’s instant classic and Pulitzer Prize-winner (with Dill a stand-in for her own childhood friend, Truman Capote) both heightens and elevates the issue of white supremacy in some of the shot set-ups by director Robert Mulligan, never mind the text in which the innocent victim of white justice is mysteriously shot by the police while allegedly escaping. Perhaps that’s the quibble of someone viewing it in retrospect twice over – the 1960s take on a 30s point of view. The sense of place and period ambiance is impeccable and the playing of the motherless girl by Badham (sister of director John) is hugely influential in its insistence on how we see things are – or were, perhaps, with no distractions or subplots to take from this essential drama of the rights of the vulnerable with the odd scene properly essaying the effect of horror films, just as a child experiences life. Each of the children makes a lasting impression. The courtroom scene is classic and the quiet dignity of the black community rising to their feet as Atticus leaves the legendary trial sequence is very moving. Quite monumental.

Cleopatra (1963)

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Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus. The Seventh Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) manipulates and falls in love with both Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) in her ill-fated attempt to save the Egyptian empire from a takeover by the Roman Empire. This love triangle is one of the most famous ever to be captured on film, with betrayal by trusted Octavian (Roddy McDowall), the murder of Caesar, the escape of Cleopatra who has borne Caesar’s son and the final, terrible defeat at Actium in Greece … What gets lost in the palaver about this truly epic historical saga which ruined Twentieth Century Fox for a while is just how good it is:  how it measures the scale of the action to the depth of performance. Elizabeth Taylor is imperious, vulnerable, scathing, dictatorial, brilliant and moving: What can I do? Where can I go in a world suddenly without you? You believe her. And she is matched by the acerbic Harrison, the slyly snide McDowall (we’re a long way from Lassie!), loyal Rufio (Martin Landau) and what about the very sad end of Burton whose line to Octavian makes you gulp with emotion:  Is there nobody who would grant Antony an honourable way to die? Oh! Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by C.M. Franzero and the histories by Plutarch, Appian and Suetonius the much-laboured upon screenplay is by Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, and director Joseph Mankiewicz who certainly suffered for everybody’s art as the man to take over the botched first attempt aborted in London and relaunched at Cinecitta in Rome. As legendary as this is for its effect on Hollywood, what shouldn’t be forgotten is what a brilliant spectacle it is. It’s quite breathtaking.

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

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You can never tell who your enemies are, or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I love animals so much. You look in their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts. They’re not like people. The time is 1939 and the place is Poland, homeland of veterinarian Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh). The Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). The Zabinskis covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save the lives of hundreds from what has become the Warsaw Ghetto… Zoos and Jews. That’s what this should have been called. And unless you’re either sadistic or masochistic or a Nazi you won’t enjoy the spectacle of mass murder perpetrated on either party in the Warsaw Ghetto or at the Zoo. As usual Niki Caro’s film is a game of two halves with an ugly child. It’s hard to empathise because Chastain – not an actress who really cares if we like her – is the main protagonist and she has a squeaky high-pitched accent so ludicrous you laugh and it’s only in the second half that the action, narrative and emotions clarify and coalesce. You can probably guess the ending (the Nazis lost, the zoo survived, the Jews and animals, not so much.) Adapted by Angela Workman from Diane Ackerman’s book, based on a true story. Goy veh!

The Boss Baby (2017)

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He carries a briefcase! Does no one else think that’s, oh, I don’t know, a little freaky? A new baby’s arrival impacts a family, told from the point of view of a delightfully unreliable narrator the wildly imaginative 7-year-old Tim Templeton (Miles Bakshi). The unusually verbal Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin) arrives at Tim’s home in a taxi, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. The instant sibling rivalry must soon be put aside when Tim discovers that Boss Baby is actually a spy on a secret mission, and only he can help thwart a dastardly plot that involves an epic battle between puppies and babies… This is simultaneously inventive, overdone, funny and draining,with a serious dip in energy round about the hour mark but it picks up by the end. Is anyone else as tired of endlessly gee-whizz-flash computer-generated animation as I am? At least there’s a nice use of The Beatles’  Blackbird in the story. Adapted from Marla Frazee’s 2010 picture book by Michael McCullers and directed by Tom McGrath. And yes, Bakshi is the grandson of the incredible Ralph. Sigh.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

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Have you ever noticed how everything seems better at Christmas? It’s Christmas Eve. Kermit the Frog is Bob Cratchit the put-upon overworked office clerk of stingy boss Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine). Miss Piggy is his wife (their family are quite the example of inter-species marriage with Robin playing Tiny Tim) and other Muppets –  Gonzo, Fozzie Bear and Rizzo (who are Dickens and his friend) and Sam the Eagle – weave in and out of the story, as Scrooge reluctantly agrees to give his book keepers a day off. Scrooge falls asleep and receives a visit from his late business partners the Marley Brothers (Statler and Waldor) who warn him to repent or he will live to regret his ways. Then he is visited by the Ghosts of three Christmases – past, present and future. They show him the error of his selfishness but he seems past any hope of redemption and happiness until a vision illustrates that not everything valuable is a financial transaction … Dickens’ melodramatic classic gets a sharp treatment that oozes wit, wisdom and charm in an adaptation by Jerry Juhl that avoids the most sentimental and condescending aspects of this morality tale. Stunningly made and told, with Caine’s underplaying of the old miser merely heightening the immense charm of the enterprise, brilliantly offset by the songs of Paul Williams and music by Miles Goodman. Funny, inventive, smart and humane. Probably the best Christmas film ever. Directed by Brian Henson. 

The Ten Commandments (1956)

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It is not by a sword that He will deliver His people but by the staff of a shepherd! When Rameses I of Egypt orders the killing of all firstborn Hebrew babies the baby Moses (Fraser Heston) is put in a basket on the Nile and is found in the bulrushes and taken in by the pharaoh’s daughter. Moses (Charlton Heston) grows up to lead armies, drive slaves and live a life of luxury, falling for the princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter). But when he discovers his Hebrew heritage and God’s expectations of him it brings him into conflict with his ‘brother’ Rameses II (Yul Brynner). He dedicates himself to liberating his people from captivity and – with the aid of plagues and divine intervention – leads them out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. A greater challenge comes in the form of the golden calf idol which drives believers to sin.  It takes a visitation by God on Mount Sinai for Moses’ mission to prevail. Cecil B. DeMille liked this story so much he made it twice, once in the silent era and then again with even more spectacular visual effects three decades later. And what a vision this is: the building of the pyramids,  the burning bush, the Voice of God, the parting of the Red Sea…  Heston is in his element (and some very flattering short skirts) as the man whose amazing physical and spiritual transformation from slave owner to man of God leads the Israelites to their destiny.  Adapted from a number of sources by the rather intimidated scribes Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss and Frederic M. Frank:  Dorothy Clarke Wilson’s Prince of Egypt; Pillar of Fire by J. H. Ingraham; On Eagle’s Wings by A. E. Southon;  and the Book of Exodus. There were many other historical documents sourced for narrative clarity (to fill in those pesky gaps).  With a soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein and cinematography by Loyal Griggs this still holds the attention with its cunning juxtaposition of sex and death, crime and punishment, cruelty and retribution, mothers and sons. Truly a Biblical experience, filmed on location in Egypt and Sinai. DeMille’s final film, this is magnificently hokey and splendidly spectacular. Where the holiday season begins. One of the longest films ever made for the shortest day of the year. Let my people go!