The Swimmer (1968)

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God what a beautiful feeling. We could have swum around the world in those days. Well-off middle-aged ad man Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) has been away for most of the summer and is visiting a friend when he notices the abundance of backyard pools that populate their upscale suburb. Ned suddenly decides that he’d like to travel the eight miles back to his own home by simply swimming across every pool in town. Soon, Ned’s journey on this hot summer day becomes harrowing; at each house in the tony neighbourhood, he is somehow confronted with a reminder of his romantic, domestic and economic failures.  He meets up with the family babysitter, Julie (Janet Landgard), then party girl Joan (Joan Rivers in her debut), until he finally meets an old flame, actress Shirley (Janice Rule) and it is this encounter that leaves him devastated… Ned Merrill, still bragging! The John Cheever short story first published in The New Yorker in 1964 is clearly an allegory and the titular trope serves us well in a literary form;  in cinema it works differently – literally immersing us in the experience of a middle-class man confronting his demons with every stroke, melodrama contained in his every movement in this day-long odyssey through his life during which he loses everything he holds dear. Directed by Frank Perry in his home town of Westport, Connecticut, and adapted by his wife Eleanor, there were some unspecified scenes shot by Sydney Pollack (uncredited). It’s daring and ambitious and possibly not for all tastes even as we become aware of Lancaster interrogating his own masculine affect:  it starts out with a taint of realism which becomes more and more stylised from pool to pool so that we eventually understand the symbolism. Finally we see Ned as others see him. Producer Sam Spiegel had his name removed from the credits. The score is by debutant composer Marvin Hamlisch. As a man sizes up his life and his place in the ultra-competitive world, and is faced with his failures, he is finally left alone in a pair of swimming trunks, past his prime with nothing to his name. It’s brilliant. I’m a very special human being

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Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

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The key is playing to win instead of trying not to lose. NYC:  Chinese-American economics lecturer Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is happy to accompany her longtime boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to his best friend Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding in Singapore. She’s surprised to learn that Nick’s family is extremely wealthy and that he’s considered one of the country’s most eligible bachelors. She meets up with college friend Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) who lets her in on the open secret. Thrust into the spotlight, she has to deal with jealous socialites, including his ex Amanda (Jing Lusi); quirky relatives (the aunties); and something far, far worse – Nick’s disapproving mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh)… It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. So wrote Jane Austen a couple of hundred years ago and the plot of Pride and Prejudice is writ large here in an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim. It’s a rock solid romantic comedy which morphs into a maternal melodrama before allowing the com to rear its head again in a pleasing conclusion in which the young economics lecturer uses game theory to best her dragon lady (potential) future mother-in-law in a face-off involving mahjong. (She might be clever and an economist but she doesn’t know she’s dating one of the wealthiest men in Asia. Hmmm…) Also in common with the works of Austen, the fathers are mainly absent – dead (maybe) or in Shanghai on business unless you count Peik Lin’s dad, played by Ken Jeong in the one really funny family here:  this is a matriarchy and what a vicious society it makes. At Minty’s (Sonoya Mizuno) bachelorette celebration Rachel has a bloody gutted fish left on her bed with nasty serial killer graffiti painted above because she’s not exactly a hit with the superficial Mean Girls;  Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) has married someone without money and he’s cheating on her – and it’s her friendship with Rachel that clarifies this family’s values and mirrors the ups and downs of her own bruising encounters. Rachel’s foreignness as a naturalised American is a problem, her perceived erceived quest for happiness an issue, her ambition unacceptable. But it’s whatever Grandma (Lisa Lu) says that goes in a world of ritual, legacy and habit. The shape of your nose is auspicious Eleanor tells Rachel of her origins which are not as obscure as her single mother led her to believe. Her outsider status is confirmed and then some. The Asian lifestyle is fetishised through food and flowers and shopping and overpowering and gaudy production design – the fetid chaos of the region is well captured, the fabulous wealth jaw-dropping, the Chinese covers of Western pop songs jar at first and then please:  though it’s anyone’s guess as to why Coldplay’s Yellow features. The performances are spot-on but it’s Awkwafina who proves her comedy chops. It’s all a bit much until Yeoh’s story of jealousy and viciousness is integrated into an overstuffed menu, creating a sorbet effect:  otherwise it’s sickly sweet and a bit sticky, a fluffy fairytale with sparkles and gloss and jewels galore, a millennial soap opera with massive dollops of money. The final party scene is simply spectacular. Directed by Jon M. Chu. JFK just smells of salmonella and despair

Once a Jolly Swagman (1949)

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Aka Maniacs on WheelsNow listen, you little flash boy, I’m getting tired of you and your attitude. In late 30s Britain Bill Fox (Dirk Bogarde) is a bored factory worker who loses his job and starts winning speedway competitions. He meets glamorous society woman Dorothy (Moira Lister) who introduces him to a new and exciting social circle and Bill quickly forgets his working class roots, changing his image and his loyalties. But when his brother is off fighting in Spain, distressing his mother (Thora Hird), he finally comes to his senses and eventually becomes disillusioned with the Mayfair scene.  He marries Pat (Renee Asherson) the sister of his Aussie team mate, Lag Gibbon (Bill Owen). He tries to form a riders union to ensure families are financially secure should an accident occur on the track, which angers his sponsor Rowton (Sid James). Pat tries to get Bill to pack up racing and open a garage, but Bill refuses and she leaves him. WW2 arrives and Bill enlists as a motorcycle despatch rider but after the years of conflict, Bill is left with a dilemma, should he make a racing comeback or go straight and get back together with his one true love? When they meet at a solicitor’s office it’s to discuss a divorce  …. They want to see you swept up into little piceces. Bogarde was in just his second film and was already creating a unique screen persona in the realm of British cinema if he doesn’t have quite the technique yet to make this work.  This unusual melodrama has a gritty feel in the motorcycle sequences (director Jack Lee was a documentary maker) but it doesn’t hold up as a class analysis, which is the other side of the narrative.  Adapted by William Rose (with contributions from Lee and additional dialogue by Jack Clifford) from the novel by Montagu Slater, it becomes a kind of study of masculinity, before, during and after World War 2 and Bogarde’s Bill Fox evolves, becoming a vector for a kind of political consciousness. The sight of Bogarde with a dodgy spiv-like moustache when he’s mingling with the upper classes and decked out in a trenchcoat is something to behold, but so too is his wedding breakfast later, when he makes a pro-union speech, ensuring alienation from Rowton. His physicality is probably the most fascinating aspect of this early star performance although his well-educated accent doesn’t add up. The business side of this sport does not come off well in the story nor does it flinch from the dangers of track racing, with a nasty accident filmed with as much detail was was possible (or permissible) and the effects on Lag’s mental health held to account when he winds up brain-damaged and ‘nervous’ at a psychiatric hospital. Fox’s attempts to find gainful employment after the war must have struck a chord with many men returning from combat. There are interesting performances here with Hird doing a great job as Ma Fox, even if she’s decades too young, Cyril Cusack playing fellow soldier Duggie Lewis and Bonar Colleano as the decent American on the scene (that accent!). An intriguing entry in British cinema and a must for Bogarde completionists.  The title of course comes from Waltzing Matilda, which is used as a cue in Bernard Stevens’ score. Produced by Ian Dalrymple. How do you like it out there in the rain?

On the Buses (1971)

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Me steering’s gone a bit stiff! The antics of the drivers and clippies who work for Town & Country bus company at London’s Wood Green depot. Stan Butler (Reg Varney) needs overtime pay because of the number of hire purchase items at his home where he lives with his mother Mabel (Doris Hare), his sister Olive (Anna Karen) and her husband Arthur (Michael Robbins) whose newborn baby wakes everyone up each night.  He tries with the help of Jack (Bob Grant) the bus conductor to oust the new women bus drivers who have been brought in by Inspector Blake (Stephen Oulton) because of staffing problems. The men resort to using such fiendish devices as spiders in the drivers cab, home made traffic diversion signs and some pills that make the women want to spend a penny at the rate of about £1.00 per day. Meanwhile Stan and Jack allow no let up in their pursuit of the dollybirds with distinctly little success. The manager (Brian Oulton) decides it’s time not only to make the employees wear the proper uniform but to organise a service to the nearest wildlife park which results in close encounters with a far more dangerous kind of passenger… The biggest British film in 1971, even topping Diamonds are Forever (marking Connery’s return to Bond), this bawdy TV spin-off (it ran from 1969-1973) feels oddly quaint with its impoverished interiors, old Hillman cars and deserted suburbs (presumably they were shooting at dawn).  Written by Ronald Wolf and Ronald Chesney, who wrote the series, this apparently is the only Hammer film to make a profit within a week of release.  It boasts an authenticity that feels almost foreign today:  think Ken Loach with a sense of fun and you’re halfway there. Directed by Harry Booth, this was the first of three films developed from the show.

The Hireling (1973)

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Was it very bad? In the years after WW1, Steven Ledbetter (Robert Shaw) is the chauffeur of widowed British socialite Lady Helen Franklin (Sarah Miles) at Bath in Somerset. As Ledbetter helps Lady Franklin to overcome her fragile state when she is released from a psychiatric facility, he falls in love with her, but their differences in social standing seem to prevent any chance of a romance. He is involved with Doreen (Christine Hargreaves), a waitress although he tells Lady Franklin he is married, believing it will stir her interest. Meanwhile, a war veteran and rising Liberal politician who knew her late husband,  Captain Hugh Cantrip (Peter Egan) becomes involved with Lady Franklin, while maintaining a relationship with Connie (Caroline Mortimer), a presumed war widow.  It leads to tension in her household:  this cad and user was Ledbetter’s commanding officer in the Great War … You need people now. A normal life. L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between had received a lauded screen adaptation a couple of years earlier so the author’s work seemed ripe for cinema and this repeated that film’s success at Cannes, winning the Grand Prix (now the Palme d’Or). Wolf Mankowitz’s interpretation of this take on class difference, post-war trauma and deception doesn’t have the other film’s power – but that work had an extraordinary pull from a child’s point of view of tragedy (plus it was adapted by Harold Pinter). However, as a primarily psychological exploration of romance, this film’s prime attraction is the scale of performance.  Miles and Shaw are superb:  he has no idea that his class can prevent her marrying him.  He has helped her recovery but she simply has no further use for him and it’s his devastation that propels the drama toward a suicidal conclusion. The critics didn’t like Miles but she’s fascinating in the role as she goes through bereavement caused by depression and then a kind of dissemblance, disdain and dismissal.  The showdown in the car is shocking – they are almost exchanging psyches. This is a work which is far less sentimental than the reviewers would have you believe, moving slowly and oddly, filled with beautiful landscapes dappled with low light and autumnal shades. It’s very well directed by Alan Bridges who seems to be rather forgotten now. Hartley lived long enough to enjoy the success of The Go-Between but he died in 1972, before this was released. It’s an intriguing film, worth repeat viewings. It almost seems … un-English. I don’t have anything to go back to now because everything is here with you

In Which We Serve (1942)

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This is the story of a ship. After the dive-bomb sinking of the destroyer HMS Torrin during the Battle of Crete in 1941, the ship’s survivors including Captain Kinross (Noël Coward), Chief Petty Officer Hardy (Bernard Miles) and Seaman Blake (John Mills) of the Royal Navy recall their tour of duty in flashback – including Dunkirk and their life under the Blitz – while awaiting rescue in lifeboats.  They are still being strafed by German aeroplanes as they cling onto a Carley float in the open waters of the Mediterranean … Inspired by the experiences of Lord Louis Mountbatten, his friend actor and playwright Noël Coward made his directing debut, co-directing with editor David Lean. It’s an outstanding piece of propaganda, delineating the class differences between the different levels of serviceman with Coward a model of condescension, carefully creating scenes designed to unify people. Brilliantly stirring piece of nation-building with a marvellous score and Mills beginning a long career as the embodiment of British Everyman. Shot by Ronald Neame, edited by Lean with Thelma Connell and narrated by Leslie Howard. Shoot when you see the whites of their eyes!

Eureka (1983)

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Aka River of Darkness. Once I had it all. Now I have everything. After 15 years of searching on his own, Arctic prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men when he literally falls into a mountain of gold in 1925. Twenty years later in 1945, he lives in luxury on Luna Bay, a Caribbean island that he owns. His riches bring no peace of mind as he feels utterly besieged:  he must deal with Helen (Jane Lapotaire), his bored, alcoholic wife; Tracy (Theresa Russell), his headstrong daughter who has married Claude Van Horn (Rutger Hauer) a dissolute, philandering, narcissistic social-climber; and Miami mobsters Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci), who want the island to build a casino off the Florida coast but Jack is resistant to gambling and their frontman Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) cannot persuade him to do a deal with them. I never made a nickel off another man’s sweat. When Jack is brutally murdered, his son-in-law, Claude, is arrested for the crime and put on trial … One of Nicolas Roeg’s most underrated achievements, this pseudo-biography is a fascinating portrayal of perversion and power, obsession and dread. The texture of the film, contained in lush colour coding, symbols of the occult and the ever-present stench of sex, oozes corruption and greed, decay and desire. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Marshall Houts’ book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? an account of that real-life murder in the 1940s, in which the author suggests that Meyer Lansky had Oakes killed [Pesci’s role is based on the gangster albeit this carries the conventional disclaimer], this exhibits all the familiar Roegian tropes. It also has echoes of Orson Welles as character, a director who hit the cinematic motherlode first time off the blocks and spent the remainder of his life in a kind of desperation (or so people would like to think). Hence McCann feels larger than life and is dramatised as such with Wagner soundtracking his great – almost psychedelic – discovery and Yukon poet Robert Service’s words Spell of the Yukon amplifying its myth. It isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold The allusions to Citizen Kane are clear and the portentous character of prostitute/fortune teller Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes) would appear to have at least superficial similarities with Oja Kodar, Welles’ last companion. One moment of rapture followed by decades of despair. The first line of dialogue we hear is Murder! and there is a structure which suggests destiny is being fulfilled. This is a story about disparate characters connected by blood and a morbid wish for ecstasy which suggests life but actually propels towards death. Russell’s testimony in court is gripping and Hauer as the playboy driven by the Kabbalah and other elements of the supernatural is just as good. Hackman is Hackman – he totally inhabits Jack, this man whose greatness is envied by all but whose happiest time was in the wastes of Alaska so long ago, basking in heat and light now but longing for snow.  It is this man’s ability to function as a totally singular individual that creates the chasm between himself and others, gangsters or not.  Internally he knows it is Frieda who led him to the gold that made him the richest man in the world but he decries notions of luck or superstition. His murder is an accurate depiction of what happened to Oakes and it’s terribly gruesome – sadistic and heartless. The first part of the film could be from silent movies – and the bizarre aphoristic dialogue is laughable except that it sets up the sense of supernature which dominates the narrative. Shot by Alex Thomson, edited by that magician of jagged mosaic Tony Lawson, and scored by Stanley Myers (including wonderful double bass solos composed and performed by Francois Rabbath), if this sometimes feels that it has not fully committed to the melodramatic mode (there are a lot of genres at work), the threads of gold and blood make it a satisfying and disturbing watch, with some extraordinary performances bolstering the overall effect. This is all about signs and meaning.  A mystery. The end of the beginning

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?

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