The Sense of an Ending (2017)

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Literariness is embedded in the very loins of this, utilising as it does the title of theorist Frank Kermode’s famous 1967 volume. Julian Barnes is a determinedly literary writer but his 2011 novel isn’t just about verbal and written narrative, it’s also a story told in pictures, photographs which document the early life of retired camera shop proprietor Tony (Jim Broadbent), divorced from Margaret (Harriet Walter) and whose daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is about to give birth to a child she is having on her own. He receives notice that he has been left a small sum of money and an item (which turns out to be a diary) by Sarah Ford, the mother (Emily Mortimer) of his first lover, the mysterious Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), and whom he only met once at their home 50 years earlier when the older woman flirted with him and Veronica’s brother made clear his attraction to him too. The diary is not forthcoming and Tony pursues it relentlessly when he finds out it belonged not to Sarah but to Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn) his academically gifted classmate who cheated with Veronica. The unravelling of this mystery hinges on a horrible letter the young Tony (Billy Howle) wrote to Veronica (Freya Mavor) when they were all at Cambridge. What caused Adrian to commit suicide and what is the mature Veronica now withholding from him? He embarks on what his wife and daughter call the ‘stalking’ of his former girlfriend and the earlier story unspools in parallel. What this lacks in tension it makes up for in the carefully observed minutiae of performance and appearance, appropriately for a text that is all about the accumulation and capture of such information. It’s shot beautifully by Christopher Ross in an anti-nostalgic attempt to uncover a meaning to life in London’s leafy northern suburbs with tastefully restrained middle class homes:  a little ornamentation is always enough to hint at discernment if not understanding. When all the threads are gradually united there is a patina of sorrow, bringing together the book’s philosophical core interests in history and action. Adapted by Nick Payne and directed by Ritesh Batra.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

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This isn’t an experiment!  This is real! That’s what Prisoner 8612 (Ezra Miller) declares one hour into this dramatisation of psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s controversial 1971 study (or demonstration?) of perceived power and authority, paying self-selecting students to participate in a two-week faked prison on the grounds of the University. He leaves and is swiftly followed by Prisoner 819 (Tye Sheridan). They know their rights even if the guards, aping the mirror-shaded Southern-accented sadists from Cool Hand Luke,  led by Michael Angarano, are getting deeper into character and don’t care. The other fools stay to be preyed upon.  These are not prisoners. They are not subjects. They are not students. They are boys. Zimbardo’s girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby) arrives to participate on the parole board and watching the ‘prisoners’ make no attempt to just leave this horrifying situation she tells Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) what is going on is truly disturbing. But he is on a power trip himself and it isn’t until he finally observes the degree of abuse and destruction while left alone watching it unfold on the surveillance cameras that he finally calls a halt just 6 days in. This won’t tell you anything new about human behaviour. The faux interviews (based on the original recordings) at the end won’t clarify anything except that people seem to slide into preordained institutional roles and succumb to punishment which is dealt them entirely arbitarily by alleged superiors. And everyone’s kinda surprised that other people would treat them like dogs. But nobody got harmed during the making of this ego trip for a University professor. Go figure. Reality’s a bitch. Just! Say! No!  Or beat them up right back. Adapted by Tim Talbott from Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez.

Basic Instinct (1992)

 

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I think she’s the fuck of the century.  Paul Verhoeven’s film was notorious even prior to release – 25 years ago! – when word of the highly sexualised story got out.  Then it caused an uproar with a shot of Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs:  she’s not wearing any underwear. And the gay community in San Francisco in particular (where it’s set) didn’t like the portrayal of a psychopathic bisexual writer Catherine Tramell (Stone) – albeit we don’t know if it’s her, or her former and slighted lover, police psychiatrist Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who’s the murderess in this tricky, explicit neo-noir. That sub-genre really had a moment in the 90s, with this and the films of John Dahl – remember Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction?! Wow. Stone goes all-out here as the millionaire authoress whose books have a basis in true crime. Michael Douglas is the controversial ‘shooter’ detective Nick Curran who’s assigned to investigate the violent death of an old rock star – a murder we see in the opening scenes, bloody, sexy and ending with an ice pick applied to his neck. It’s the plot of one of Catherine Tramell’s lurid thrillers – she writes them under the surname Woolf.  Everything points to her being the guilty party. Now she wants to study him too. He got his nickname after accidentally killing tourists while he was high on cocaine. Catherine hangs out with jealous girlfriend Roxy and an old woman called Hazel Dobkins. Both of them have an interesting past. After Nick avoids being killed by Roxy when she sees him and Catherine having sex, he finds out she killed a bunch of kids when she was 15. And Hazel?  She murdered her children and husband back in the 50s. The fact that she’s played by Dorothy Malone gives you the meta-picture here:  this is practically a dissertation on the Hollywood blonde, a Hitchcock film with extra sex. Nick’s also been involved with the police psychiatrist who it turns out knows Catherine too, from when they went to college together a decade earlier.  And they may have had a relationship. This knotty tale of seduction, deception, copycat killing and betrayal leads cleverly to two very clear – and alternate – conclusions. It’s wrapped in extraordinarily beautiful and brutal imagery and the narrative ambiguity merely compounds its legend. Written by Joe Eszterhas in 13 days it earned him a record-breaking $3 million.  Yet as he stated so lucidly in his memoir, he is a militant screenwriter-auteur and the most memorable bit of the film was shot without his knowledge – and apparently Stone’s. Interpret this how you will. Some people might say that the real crime here is one against fashion – Douglas’ v-neck at the club is really something. Stone is stunning: she’s something else!

Risky Business (1983)

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What was it about Chicago’s North Shore that inspired such good movies in the 80s? It’s hard to believe but it’s 34 years since Tom Cruise became a star – and this smart, tart satire about sex and money is the reason why. Joel Goodson (Cruise) is mostly a good boy but his grades are not top notch and his dad is trying to get him into Princeton. The folks are going out of town for the weekend so it’s time to bust out some bucks and deliver some guys of their innocence courtesy of some hookers after one attempt goes wrong. One of them is Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) who as well as spending the night, has an idea for some moneymaking activities to pay her bill – and the damage to the family Porsche – which coincide with the visit from the Princeton rep (Richard Masur): Joel has turned his folks’ house into a brothel. He makes a pile of money. Then Lana’s pimp (Joe Pantoliano) wants a piece and holds the furniture ransom.  Cruise is flawless in Paul Brickman’s directing debut (working from his original screenplay.) We all know the iconic moments – Cruise dancing in his pants, his winning smile, the sex act on the train (the last time Cruise knowingly participated in such a thing onscreen – and performed to Phil Collins of all people!) but it’s a sharp social commentary too, with a great soundtrack courtesy of Tangerine Dream (remember them?!) as well of course as Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll. This was really on the money and retains its impact. Classic.

Wonder Boys (2000)

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Michael Chabon’s droll campus novel of dejected one hit wonder creative writing professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) gets a funny and tender adaptation from the late Curtis Hanson and writer Steve Kloves. James Leer (Tobey Maguire) is the weird and ubertalented student whose work is stupendously impressive so when agent Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr) arrives at a college event for aspiring authors he immediately transfers his affection from his transvestitite companion to this new kid on the block and a raucous weekend on and off campus ensues. At a party given by the Chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) – who happens to be Grady’s mistress – and her husband Walter (Richard Thomas) a valuable piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia is stolen,  the family dog is shot and the body hidden in a trunk, and tension rattles when Sara reveals she’s pregnant by Grady, whose wife has taken off to her parents’. Grady thinks James is a suicide risk so keeps him with him – along with the dead dog. It eventually dawns on him that James is a compulsive liar and a total liability. His fellow student Hannah (Katie Holmes) has a thing for Grady but he’s not into her which makes life at his house tricky – she’s renting a room there. Walter sends the police for James when he figures where the MM goods have gone. What happens to Grady’s new book manuscript and the car is just cringeworthy … This is so great in every department – the very texture of the emotions is in every gesture and expression, something that occurs when writing, performance and staging are in perfect sync. Hilarious, compassionate and endlessly watchable. And for anyone looking to complete their picture collection of Michael Douglas’ abject masculinity on film, there’s the image of him standing on the porch in a woman’s dressing gown – something to knock that Basic Instinct v-neck into a cocked hat. Cherishable.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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And that’s how you play Get the Guest. Edward Albee’s shocking 1962 play was bought by Jack Warner and the intention was to hire Bette Davis and James Mason – and how fun would that have been, having Davis quote herself with that unforgettable first line, What a dump!? But it’s Elizabeth Taylor who gets to declare the immortal line, squinting, bug-eyed with drink, into the harsh light after a night out on campus with unambitious lecturer hubby historian Richard Burton. When young marrieds George Segal and Sandy Dennis enter their den of iniquitous untruths and illusion their own marriage is laid bare as well in a devastating series of tragicomic slurs and fantasies, a miasma of lies, put downs and storytelling. Albee’s play was of course a profane satire about the sham foundations of marriage and social mores of the time;  this film helped dismantle the Production Code and was the first film Jack Valenti really had to look at in terms of what constituted entertainment for consenting adults. Albee said of the leads that Taylor was quite good while Burton was incredible. That’s in the eye of the beholder – in fact Taylor is extraordinary and it is remarkable that she gave her greatest exhibition of not merely star quality but intensely affecting emotional performances in works written by homosexual playwrights – one thinks of her in Suddenly Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, complex works that, like this, have a strain of flagrant misogyny running through them. Ernest Lehman did the adaptation which mostly cleaves to the play with just a couple of exceptions and it’s ‘opened out’ with the dance scene in the diner – and what a humdinger that is! What is perhaps most astonishing is that this was Mike Nichols’ directing debut, supposedly at Taylor’s insistence. Just look at the way he frames shots with Haskell Wexler as his DoP: he said he learned everything he knew about directing from watching A Place in the Sun. Taylor and Burton are at the apex of their careers here, particularly with regard to their joint projects. But despite the plethora of nominations it was she and Dennis who walked away with the Academy Awards – A Man For All Seasons took all the other big plaudits that year. There is a reason that Taylor is known for being the last great Hollywood star – and it’s right here. Phenomenal.

The Evening Star (1996)

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Aka Three Funerals and a Wedding. Just kidding. Well, not exactly. I didn’t love Terms of Endearment and have read neither of these novels about willful selfish Houston widow Aurora Greenway but this messy ragtag followup directed by Robert Harling is not without its charms. Shirley MacLaine is back, aged grandmother and parent to her late daughter’s tearaway grownup children, irritated by longtime housekeeper gimlet-eyed Rose (Marion Ross) and pined after by General Hector (Donald Moffat). Melanie (Juliette Lewis) is living at home but itching to get out and she shacks up with bozo Bruce (Scott Wolf) which of course ends badly – but in LA, which is not so bad, as it turns out. Tommy (George Newbern) is in prison and Teddy (Mackenzie Astin) is married to a tramp and they have a bad-mannered toddler son. Rose plots to get Aurora to therapist Jerry (the late, great Bill Paxton) who has a thing for her – mostly because as she eventually finds out she’s a dead ringer for his Vegas showgirl mom, which doesn’t stop him from sleeping with Aurora’s rival Patsy (Miranda Richardson) which has a great conclusion in an inflight catfight.  The relationship with Paxton is funny and lifts the whole show with MacLaine getting some choice lines especially when she finally meets his mother! There’s a lot of life, love and thwarted passion as Aurora seeks out the great love of her life – and eventually finds it in the arms of her disastrously unaccomplished family while some of those closest to her die. There is a distinct shift of tone when Garret Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) pays a visit in the last quarter hour but the big performances make this, with MacLaine really making it work. You might be surprised to learn that it’s Cary Grant’s daughter Jennifer who is wooed by Newbern. This was Ben Johnson’s last film and it’s dedicated to him – he was of course in McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show where he delivered a performance of incredible subtlety and affect:  not bad for a stuntman. There’s more than a hint of Cloris Leachman in Marion Ross’s performance here. Not a bad recommendation in a film which looks at some of life’s different stages and comes out in favour of them all, by and large. Written by McMurtry and Harling.

Maggie’s Plan (2015)

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Admittedly I am no fan of Greta Gerwig whose kooky shtick has been replayed ad nauseam since she graduated from nudie mumblecore. She’s a college administrator who wants a child without marriage and goes after Guy (Travis Fimmel) a mathematically inclined pickle man (Joan Micklin Silver territory …) for a donation.  At the crucial moment of sperm insertion she is interrupted by the ‘bad boy of ficto-critical anthropology’ and wannabe novelist John (no Wesley) Harding (Ethan Hawke) who professes his love for her and leaves his speech-impeded Danish lecturer wife (Julianne Moore) and their children. A couple of years later in the chaotic tedium of their marriage, plus one (toddler Lily) Maggie tries to reunite the narcissistic pair so she can bring up her daughter in peace. Then John finds out what the women are planning. This is supposedly a subversive screwball comedy replete with the Nora Ephron-type friends who serve as confessors (Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph). Because the ‘meet cute’ happens over missed paycheques?!  Rebecca Miller’s film looks terrible and if you need to know how awful family planning and marriage can be …  but a lot of critics liked it. It’s badly staged, awkwardly written and adorned with performances that belong in a better production.What gives?! This epitomises the term ‘meh.’ From a story by Karen Rinaldi.

Candyman (1992)

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Your friends will abandon you. So true. Clive Barker’s stories terrify me and The Forbidden in The Books of Blood series is a brilliant conflation of fairytale and horror, laced with social commentary about contemporary urban life in the parts of town you drive by pretty damn quick. Transferred by writer/director Bernard Rose to the Chicago Projects, this takes on a terrifyingly current resonance. Rose said when he recce’d Cabrini Green he sensed ‘palpable fear.’ The wonderful Virginia Madsen is researching urban legends with her postgrad colleague Kasi Lemmons while her sceptical lecturer hubby Xander Berkeley is carrying on with another student. The legend of Candyman exerts a hold over a ghetto building whose architecture mimics her own apartment block so she can forensically experience the way the idea literally infiltrated a drug-infested black community where vicious murders are taking place. She befriends a young mother and the graffiti pointing her to the origins of the story lures her back and she encounters the man whose name you do not want to say five times …. Bloody, sensual, exciting and a trip for the brain, this story of a tragic monster born of slavery is incarnated in the elegant, noble charismatic form of Tony Todd, blessed with a deep voice, a fur-trimmed greatcoat and a hook for a hand and boy does he use it to win the woman of his life, hypnotising her into his romantic history. Incredible from start to bloody  finish, this is a brilliant exercise in genre, tapping into primal fears and political tensions and putting the sex into bee stings. Thrilling, with great cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond – get that titles sequence! – and an urban legend of a score by Philip Glass. Poetic and fabulous. Sweets to the sweet!

Bad Neighbours 2 (2016)

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Aka Neighbours 2:  Sorority Rising.  They’re back! Well, everyone’s gone and grown up. Sort of. Opening on a horribly vomitous sex scene, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne realise they’re having another baby. They’re trying to sell their house and it’s in escrow now which they do not understand even when the realtor tries to explain. All they know is their toddler daughter keeps playing with a pink dildo in front of people. Meanwhile, Zac Efron’s bestie Dave Franco is getting married. To a guy. So he has to move out of their place and has nowhere to go – except back to the old frat house, where some bolshie girls led by Chloe Grace Moretz want to set up an alt-sorority so they can party righteously. He mentors them until they dump him while he’s lecturing them (they do it on their phones). So he teams up with Seth and Rose to get rid of the girls in order that their house sale goes through. There ensues … total mayhem! Screamingly funny, flat out gross out, hilarious, physical, bad taste comedy. Five buckets of money, that’s all you need. For anything! Party on, rad dudettes! Written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O’Brien and director Nicholas Stoller.