Great Expectations (1998)

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Why had she told me?  She told me to wound me. Orphan Finn (Jeremy James Kissner) is being raised by his older sister Maggie (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend Joe (Chris Cooper) a fisherman on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Finn fatefully makes the acquaintance of an escaped con, mobster Arthur Lustig (Robert De Niro) whom he tries to help get away from the police but the man is caught. He helps crazy old Nora Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft) and her beautiful niece Estella (Raquel Beaudene) by doing the gardening around their old mansion. Finn shows the old woman his art and she has him do a portrait of Estella.  When they are teenagers Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) reveals in a passionate encounter that she knows Finn (Ethan Hawke) is in love with her, then disappears to study in Europe. In the ’80s a mysterious lawyer Jerry Ragno (Josh Mostel) turns up and offers to finance a show of Finn’s work in New York where he pursues his career in art, leaving the fishing business where he’s been working with Joe for years. He once again encounters his beloved Estella, now engaged to rich, snobby Walter (Hank Azaria)…  I’m not going to tell the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.  Director Alfonso Cuarón glories in the ironic world envisioned by Dickens now transposed to a very different, much lusher and contemporary locale by screenwriter Mitch Glazer. With the incredible production design and setting on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Paradiso Perduto the overgrown and crumbling tropical mansion decaying around Miss Havisham’s newest iteration, her every appearance serenaded by Bésame Mucho, the scene is set for a very modern retelling of a tragic romance. With Pip as Finn the lovelorn child and artist, surrounded by the wonders of Nature, the opportunity to relate the love story through pictures gives it a different level of expressionism.  Paltrow is the epitome of the cool Nineties blonde – think Carolyn Bessette, as she may have done, and her impossible persona of Estella and the snobby world of tastemakers she inhabits makes sense. Bancroft is perfectly lurid as the sad and wicked old dame to whose wise words Finn is deaf – his love for Estella is simply too overwhelming as her revenge plot against treacherous men unfolds. The contrast between the wonderfully blue seas and overgrowing gardens familiar to us from a few great private eye novels (and even Grey Gardens) with New York’s glittery art scene couldn’t be more pronounced and Uncle Joe’s arrival at Finn’s opening night is horribly embarrassing and sad. The shocking return of Magwitch/Lustig is perfectly achieved and we see Finn finally grow up in this tragically transforming tale from innocence to experience. A bewitching, stylish interpretation with stunning photography and lighting by Emanuel Lubezki and art by Francesco Clemente. The voiceover from Finn’s older and wiser perspective was written by David Mamet. What is it like not to feel anything?

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The Magus (1968)

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We have all been cast as the traitor for one simple reason:  we have all failed to love.  Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine) takes up a position as schoolteacher on the Greek island of Phraxos where his predecessor has committed suicide. He wants to write and to escape the pressures of his relationship with Anne (Anna Karina) an emotionally complex air hostess.  He becomes obsessed with a rich old man Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn) living in a big complex on the other side of the island who draws him into his odd domestic arrangements which include beautiful American actress Lily (Candice Bergen).  As Maurice starts to play mind games with Nicholas and tells him of his alleged involvement in the deaths of more than 80 villagers during the Nazi occupation, Nicholas loses his grip on reality – he doesn’t know if Maurice is a filmmaker, a psychiatrist, a Nazi collaborator or a demonic magician. They play a dice game which inevitably signals more than its elements. He is put on trial, with everyone from Maurice’s stories and films attending… The once fiendishly famous John Fowles adapted his own novel which no self-respecting student could be seen without.  He may have fallen out of fashion but his work is entrancing and important and if this doesn’t live up to its billing that can be laid at the door of Fowles himself and director Guy Green (Caine and Bergen certainly did). However, it’s a beguiling production, one of the best looking you will ever see courtesy of DoP Billy Williams (Green himself was of course an Academy Award-winning cinematographer) and in its narrative creases you might detect a kind of text much more acknowledged these days – psychogeography, the T.S. Eliot references hint at this of course although even entry level kids can rhyme off the line, No man is an island. Of course the Magus himself is a reference to the diabolical Aleister Crowley (whose home had been in Sicily) but Quinn’s character creates a backstory based in real-life horror and a mass execution, all the while taking on the physical qualities of a latterday Picasso. Fowles himself appears as a boat captain who speaks to Nicholas.  There’s a tremendous cast – including Julian Glover, Takis Emmanuel and Paul Stassino – telling a complex story of identity, responsibility, punishment and redemption that is streamlined to its essential parts and it adds up to something utterly beautiful.  We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time

Out of Africa (1985)

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I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a failed love affair in Denmark the aristocrat Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) sets out for the white highlands of Kenya where she marries her lover’s brother Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer).  She is intent on dairy farming, Bror instead spends their money on a coffee plantation. After discovering Bror is unfaithful when she contracts syphilis, Karen develops feelings for British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) but he prefers a simple lifestyle compared to her upper class affectations. She separates from Bror and sets about remaking her home to his taste. The two continue their relationship until a series of events force Karen to choose between her love life and her personal growth as an individual … Like a lot of people, I imagine, I first heard of Isak Dinesen (or Karen Blixen) courtesy of The Catcher in the Rye. If it was good enough for Holden Caulfield, I figured, I’ve got to check it out. And that was my introduction to a great writer whose life is immortalised here in the form of La Streep while the less than glamorous Finch Hatton is personified by Redford. History is rewritten right there! But their chemistry is so right. Streep is wonderful as the woman who finally finds herself, Redford is great as a hunter who simultaneously deplores environmental destruction – these are fantastic star performances.  So the school, the farm, that’s what I am now Director Sydney Pollack later regretted that he didn’t shoot this in widescreen and you can see why. This is a film of big emotions in a breathtaking landscape that dwarfs the concerns of the little people, aristos or not. There are fabulous, memorable scenes:  when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair; when they play Mozart on the gramophone to monkeys and Denys remarks that it’s their first exposure to humans; when he takes her flying; when she begs for land for the Kikuyu. And when she leaves.  If you like me at all, don’t ask me to do this Altering the focus of Dinesen’s writing somewhat to the personalities rather than the issues that actually drove Dinesen and the contradictions within Finch Hatton, it’s a glorious, epic and tragic romance sensitively performed, with a meticulous score by John Barry. Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay was adapted from three sources:  Dinesen’s Out of Africa;  Judith Thurman’s biography Isak Dinesen:  The Life of a Story Teller;  and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski. He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast

 

Cries and Whispers (1972)

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It is early Monday morning and I am in pain.  At the turn of the twentieth century, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) slowly and painfully dies of cancer in the family’s country home. Her sisters are so immersed in their own problems that they can’t offer her the support she needs as she goes through a nightmare of torture. Shallow Maria (Liv Ullmann) is wracked with guilt at her husband’s suicide following his discovery of her  affair. Self-loathing, suicidal Karin (Ingrid Thulin) seems to regard her sister with revulsion. Only Anna (Kari Sylwan), the deeply religious maid who lost her young child, seems able to offer the solitary dying Agnes solace and empathy as her condition deteriorates and her sisters are helpless in their eternal feuding … Ingmar Bergman went as far as he could in Persona to explore identity:  here he holds up a mirror to the pain we cause each other even as death stares us in the face. It is so stark a confrontation and so formal a construct that it shocks. He described it simply as a chamber play in red about a dying woman and her sisters. The colour scheme devised with cinematographer Sven Nykvist seems to ooze life and threaten death and the filtered photography has a quality that niggles the brain. This is pessimistic and filled with dread, certainly, but it is also haunting and unforgettable, a master at work in a film that excited global audiences and earned multiple Academy Award nominations.

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Raffles (1939)

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This isn’t the first time I’ve set a thief to catch a thief.  Famous cricketer A.J. Raffles (David Niven) is a man about town welcomed in high society which he uses to his advantage in his secret career as ‘The Amateur Cracksman’, a master burglar and safecracker who is always one step ahead of Scotland Yard teasing homeowners and returning their possessions intact. His old school friend Bunny Manders (Douglas Walton) reintroduces Raffles to his sister Gwen (Olivia de Havilland) with whom Raffles had been infatuated a decade ago. Raffles falls in love with her. When Bunny confides a crushing gambling debt of £1,000 over which he is considering suicide, Raffles assures him the money can be obtained. He accepts a weekend invitation to the country house of Lord and Lady Melrose (Lionel Pape and Dame May Whitty) – Lady Melrose’s famous jewellery can solve Bunny’s problem. But another guest is Inspector MacKenzie of the Yard (Douglas Digges) passing incognito, who clearly suspects Raffles of being the Cracksman. Raffles plots to frame a petty criminal with the jewel theft and keep the jewellery until the policeman seems to get one up on him and Gwen begins to suspect his motivations … E.W. Hornung’s short story collection about the gentleman cat burglar had already been adapted, including nine years earlier by Sidney Howard who gets a posthumous credit here, along with John van Druten (with suspected uncredited work by F. Scott Fitzgerald). It’s a typical classical Hollywood view of upper class Britishness with beautiful production design, pacy direction by Sam Wood (with uncredited work by William Wyler) and lovely characterisation by the leads.  Crisp entertainment from Sam Goldwyn’s company.

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

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Look at me – a fat silly lame impotent old woman.  Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is a prison clerk in 1887 India, sent by some accident of position to bring a valuable coin to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) in her jubilee year. She is sick and tired of her situation and fawning household courtiers and takes a fancy to Abdul, elevating him to be her Munshi, a sort of spiritual guide and teacher of all things Indian. His travelling companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) is kept on as his servant. She thinks Abdul is Hindu but he’s actually a Moslem. When the Queen realises Abdul has a wife she sends for her and she arrives with her mother, both clad in veils. Everyone in the house resents his increasing influence and when Prince Bertie (Eddie Izzard) arrives home from his feckless life in Monte Carlo expecting his mother’s death any day soon, he sets the staff on a course of revenge … Dench is in fine fettle as a naughty old woman just dying to let rip rather than having to endure endless official engagements and report on her bowel movements to doctors concerned with her poor diet. Lee Hall adapted the book by Shrabani Basu and Stephen Frears lends the material his customary sceptic’s eye particularly in the early stages where the comedy is high and the culture clash constant. The relationship at the story’s core is wonderfully played. Very entertaining return to the role for Dench, with apt mention of John Brown (Mrs Brown was released 19 years ago!) in another tale of Victoria’s unusual friendships and curses aplenty hurled at awful Scotland.  Funny, humane and good-natured with the inevitable bad ending wrought by the dastardly Bertie, the man who should never have been King.

The Square (2017)

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The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.  Christian (Claes Bang) the curator of a Swedish museum hires a PR team to create hype for a challenging new exhibition with explosive results after he responds with a poorly thought-out social media post when his smartphone is stolen … Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, this part-satire, part-horror utilises its international cast well in what is an overlong and episodic narrative:  Elisabeth Moss plays Anne, the journalist who winds up having a complicated one-night stand with Christian; while Dominic West essays a PJ-clad parody of Julian Schnabel; and Terry Notary is Oleg, after Oleg Kulik, a performance artist who reputedly acted like a dog and attacked people at an exhibition in Stockholm (Notary does an ape impression here). Bang is terrific in quite a complex and contradictory role in which all his pretensions are challenged. There is a dinner party from hell which is a film in and of itself.  This is a largely successful tract using issues of class, race, sex and society in a witty treatise on what could be summed up in two words:  culture shock. Like most modern art, better seen and experienced than read about. Winner of the 2017 Palme d’Or at Cannes.

A Kind of Loving (1962)

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It’s a funny thing. Some days I really fancy her. And the next day I can’t stand the sight of her.  Manchester Draughtsman Vic Brown (Alan Bates) starts going out with secretary Ingrid Rothwell (June Ritchie), who works at his firm. They enjoy regular dates but he likes to keep up his life with the lads, drinking and going to football matches. After he has sex with Ingrid, she gets pregnant. Vic feels a sense of responsibility – although he’s not in love with her – and proposes marriage. The couple is forced to live with Ingrid’s bullying mother (Thora Hird), who treats Vic with contempt because of his working-class background. When Ingrid falls down the stairs and loses the baby (accidentally or not?!) Vic must decide what his new wife means to him … Stan Barstow’s novel gets an adaptation by Willis Hall & Keith Waterhouse, who specialise in this Northern kitchen sink realism, where this truly belongs. It’s a cautionary tale about the utter tedium of marriage and the perils of small mindedness.  A warning to all prospective relationships, it lacks the dazzling style of some of the films of this era but has terrific performances with Ritchie’s brain dead drudge making a convincing case for divorce. There’s a good score by Ron Grainer and nice support from James Bolam who celebrated his 83rd birthday yesterday! Directed by John Schlesinger and produced by Joseph Janni.

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.

Caddyshack (1980)

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It’s in the hole!  Teenager Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) works as a caddy at the snob-infested Bushwood Country Club to raise money for his college education. In an attempt to gain votes for a college scholarship reserved for caddies, Noonan volunteers to caddy for a prominent and influential club member (Ted Knight). He struggles to prepare for the high pressure Caddy Day golf tournament while absorbing New Age advice from wealthy golf guru Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) and greenkeeper Carl (Bill Murray) deals with a pesky gopher who insists on popping up at the most inopportune moments … From one-liners, crude triadic exchanges, skits, long payoffs and slapstick sequences of inspired genius, this is practically the Sophocles of Eighties comedy. In a weekend of sport – Wentworth! The Monaco Grand Prix! The Indy 500! Champions League Final! The Paris Open’s first day! – take a break from all the high-falutin’ gentlemanly point-scoring and watch one of the funniest low brow films ever made! Written by Douglas Kenney, Brian Doyle-Murray and director Harold Ramis. These performers were all at the height of their considerable comic powers and it’s a scream. OMG I love it!

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