Chariots of Fire (1981)

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Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder.  In the early 1920s, two determined young English runners train for the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Christian born to Scottish missionaries in China, sees running as part of his worship of God’s glory and refuses to train or compete on the Sabbath. Cambridge student Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) overcomes anti-Semitism and class bias, but neglects his beloved sweetheart Sybil (Alice Krige) in his single-minded quest and then there is the opportunity to prove themselves at Olympics where they will encounter the world’s fastest runners, a pair of Americans … Lauded at the time of release, and prompting screenwriter Colin Welland’s famous but empty threat, The British are coming! this now plays like a very staid exercise frozen in aspic despite the lively intellectual drive – reconciling notions of religion, duty, patriotism, obsession, love – and the wonderful cast. This mostly true story has its moments but they are heavily signposted. The title sequence on the beach of the athletes training in slow motion to Vangelis’ outstanding electronic score is justly famous and it’s repeated at the conclusion. In between are conflicts played out both on the track and off it and there’s a Greek chorus of sorts by John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson (of all people!) whereby a streak of prejudice and elitism in the echelons of academia is revealed. The issue of race – both kinds – is repeated in Abrahams’ choice of coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) who is half Arab and brings the taint of professionalism into play. Produced by David Puttnam, executive produced by Dodi Fayed and directed (in his feature debut) by adman Hugh Hudson who does his best to dress up a low budget epic. The tragic coda to the film if not the story is that two of its stars, Charleson, and Brad Davis (who plays Jackson Scholz), died of AIDS within 18 months of each other a decade later.

Lady Bird (2017)

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Just because something looks ugly doesn’t mean that it’s morally wrong. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. She longs to go to an eastern college in “a city with culture”. Her family is struggling financially, and her mother, a psychiatric nurse working double shifts (Laurie Metcalf) tells her she’s  ungrateful for what she has. She and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) join their school theatre programme for a production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, where Lady Bird meets a boy called Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges). They develop a romantic relationship, and, to her mother’s disappointment, Lady Bird joins Danny’s family for Thanksgiving. Their relationship ends when Lady Bird discovers Danny kissing a boy in a bathroom stall. At the behest of her mother, Lady Bird takes a job at a coffee shop, where she meets a young musician, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). He and Lady Bird begin a romantic relationship, and she and Julie drift apart. After the beautiful Jenna (Odeya Rush), one of the popular girls at the school, is reprimanded by Sister Sarah (Lois Smith) for wearing a short skirt, Lady Bird suggests the two bond by vandalizing the Sister’s car. Lady Bird gives Danny’s grandmother’s home as her address to appear wealthy. She drops out of the theatre programme. At the coffee shop, she consoles Danny after he expresses his struggle to come out. After Kyle tells her he is a virgin, she loses her virginity to him, but he later denies saying this. Jenna discovers that Lady Bird lied about her address. Lady Bird discovers that her father (Tracy Letts) has lost his job and has been battling depression for most of his life. Lady Bird begins applying to east-coast colleges with her father’s support despite her mother’s insistence that the family cannot afford it. She is elated to discover that she has been placed on the wait list for a New York college. She sets out for her high school prom with Kyle, Jenna, and Jenna’s boyfriend, but the four decide to go to a party instead. Lady Bird asks them to drop her off at Julie’s apartment, where the two tearfully rekindle their friendship and go to the prom together. After graduation, Mom finds Lady Bird applied to an out of state school and they stop talking. Lady Bird celebrates her coming of age by buying cigarettes and a lottery ticket and a copy of Playgirl, passes her driver’s test first time and redecorates. She gets into college in NYC and Mom refuses to see her off at the airport, has a change of heart and drives back, but Lady Bird has already left.  In New York, Lady Bird finds thoughtful letters written by her mother and salvaged by her father, and begins using her birth name again. She is hospitalized after drinking heavily at a party. After leaving the hospital, she observes a Sunday church service, then calls home and leaves an apologetic message for her mother… Very novelistic and composed of many vignettes, this leaves a rather odd feeling in its wake: a sense of dissociation, perhaps. It’s a more modest success than its critical reception would suggest with the exceptional characterisation of Metcalf and Letts emphasising the continuities in relationships that are at the screenplay’s heart. It’s about a self-centred teenager (is there any other kind) finding herself in a nexus of people who are themselves struggling and lying and just making it through the day. Ronan is playing an avatar for debutant writer-director Greta Gerwig and it’s a Valentine to her hometown but it also functions as a tribute to misguided, confused, artistically oriented kids who want something else other than their uncultured boring origins but they don’t know quite what. Ronan’s performance doesn’t feel quite as centred as it needs to be. It has its moments but they’re mostly quiet ones with the mother-daughter frenemy status the quivering fulcrum around which everything orbits. Somehow this is less than the sum of its parts and it had a curiously deflating effect on the audience with whom I watched it. Hmmm…

Second Chorus (1940)

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I said ‘music,’ and Father said ‘bottlecaps.’ Father won. Two New England college music students Danny O’Neill (Fred Astaire) and Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith) repeatedly fail their exams so that they can stay in college and play in their band, O’Neill’s Perennials. They change their attitude, however, when they meet Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard) who agrees to be their manager and both attempt to woo her as a way of eventually getting a job in Artie Shaw’s band but Shaw woos Ellen to be his secretary and the guys fail their auditions. Ellen tries to persuade millionaire J. Lester Chisholm (Charles Butterworth) a wannabe mandolin player to fund a concert which will debut Danny’s song but the guys get in the way and muck it up by pretending to be married to her.  To get things back on track they have to keep this eccentric backer Chisholm from forcing Shaw to have him play at their gig … Astaire and Meredith are the oldest students in movies and if that’s a silly premise in itself (albeit I knew someone who failed for twenty years to avail of a family bequest which lasted as long as he stayed in college) and this occasionally veers on the puerile (even for B-movie standards) it’s still hard to dislike.  Astaire’s masquerade as a Russian refugee performing his nation’s songs is funny and at some point the film has to incorporate his dancing expertise – which it does as he conducts his own composition in the concluding concert number with aplomb and a little tap. Butterworth is drolly amusing. Goddard is luminously beautiful, as you’d expect and acquits herself well in a murderous dance sequence (I Ain’t Hep to that Step But I’ll Dig It) with Astaire but clarinet supremo and band leader Shaw is no thesp. Dig that swing, though! Billy Butterfield dubbed Meredith’s trumpet solo while Bobby Hackett played for Astaire. Musos will recognise several numbers. Frank Cavett wrote the story while the screenplay is by Elaine Ryan and Ian McLellan Hunter with uncredited contributions by songwriter Johnnny Mercer and Ben Hecht. That’s quite the band. Directed by H.C. Potter.

 

The First Wives Club (1996)

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There are only three ages for women in Hollywood – babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. In 1969 at college class valedictorian Cynthia Swann (Stockard Channing) presents her best friends with pearl necklaces.  A quarter of a century later she throws herself off a building after being betrayed by her adulterous billionaire husband. Her friends reunite at her funeral: Annie (Diane Keaton) is depressed and in therapy after separating from her husband Aaron (Stephen Collins) who’s screwing Annie’s therapist Leslie (Marcia Gay Harden);  Brenda (Bette Midler) is divorced from the cheapo millionaire husband Morty (Dan Hedaya) she made rich and now he’s shacked up with bulimic Shelly the Barracuda (Sarah Jessica Parker);  Elise (Goldie Hawn) is a big acting star with no work, addictions to cosmetic procedures and alcohol and a soon-to-be-ex-husband producer Bill (Victor Garber) sleeping with a young actress Phoebe (Elizabeth Berkley) who’s getting the lead role in a movie – and Elise is only going to play her mother! And Bill’s looking for half of everything – plus alimony. The women pretend to each other everything is fine but the truth is told over a drink or ten following the church service. When they each receive letters that Cynthia got her maid to mail them before her suicide they realise that they have been taken for granted by their husbands and decide to create the First Wives Club, aiming to get revenge on their exes. Annie’s lesbian daughter Chris (Jennifer Dundas)  gets in on the plan by asking for a job at her father’s advertising agency so she can supply her mother with inside information.  Brenda enlists the support of society hostess Gunilla Garson Goldberg (Maggie Smith) – another trophy wife victim – to persuade Shelly to hire unattainable decorator Duarto Felice (Bronson Pinchot) to do over her and Morty’s fabulous penthouse with outrageously expensive tat. Brenda then discovers from her uncle Carmine (Philip Bosco) who has Mafia connections that Morty is guilty of income tax fraud, while Annie makes a plan to revive her advertising career and buy out Aaron’s partners. However, as their plan moves ahead things start to fall apart when they find out that Bill appears to have no checkered past and nothing for them to use against him. Or does he? Elise gets drunk which results in her and Brenda hurling appalling insults at each other and the women then drift apart. When Annie starts thinking about closing down the First Wives Club, her friends come back, saying that they want to see this to the end and Bill hasn’t done anything blatantly wrong – at least as far as he knows. Figuring that revenge would make them no better than their husbands, they instead use these situations to push their men into funding the establishment of a non-profit organisation for abused women, in memory of Cynthia. But not before Elise finds out Phoebe is underage, Brenda kidnaps Morty in a Mafia meat van and Annie takes over …  I do have feelings! I’m an actress! I have all of them! There are digs at everyone in this movie – not just the moronic men who dump their wives in the prime of their lives but vain actors, plastic surgery victims, chumps in therapy – it’s an equal opportunities offender.  This is a real NYC movie with walk on cameos from Ed Koch, Gloria Steinem and Ivana Trump who utters the immortal line, Don’t get mad – get everything! Adapted from Olivia Goldsmith’s novel by Robert Harling and directed by Hugh Wilson. Great fun and far sharper than Marc Shaiman’s soft score would suggest.

Mystic Pizza (1988)

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Why does it hurt so much? Kat (Annabeth Gish) and Daisy (Julia Roberts) are sisters working with Jojo (Lili Taylor) at the pizzeria in Mystic Connecticut. Kat is an egghead astronomer aiming to get into Yale who falls for the father (William R. Moses) of the child she’s babysitting while his wife’s away. Daisy is a good time gal with eyes for a WASPy law school grad Charlie (Adam Storke) who’s actually been sacked for cheating on his finals. Their mother favours Kat and worries perpetually about Daisy.  Jojo gets cold feet on the day of her wedding to fisherman Bill (Vincent D’Onofrio) and then goes to pieces when they eventually split. Meanwhile the pizza parlour’s proprietress Leona (Conchata Ferrell) is worried that her revenues are slipping and the girls think that a spot on The Fireside Gourmet‘s TV show would do the trick… There are terrific performances gracing this sleeper which illustrates all the strengths of the respective actresses:  it’s not hard in retrospect to see that Pretty Woman would be all Roberts’ when you see her shaking out her hair and raising her hemline to catch a lift on the roadside. Amy Holden Jones’ story and screenplay about this Portuguese Catholic community got a rewrite from Perry Howze & Randy Howze and Alfred Uhry and it’s decently handled by Donald Petrie but that soundtrack is seriously intrusive! For details obsessives it’s fascinating to hear the adenoidal tones of Robin Leach describing Mar-a-Lago on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and that’s Matt Damon playing the preppie’s little brother during an excruciating dinner party. A major cult at this point.

Daddy Long Legs (1955)

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When an irresistible force such as me meets an immovable object like you something’s got to give. American playboy millionaire Jervis Pendleton (Fred Astaire) finds himself on state business in France in a broken down car and happens upon an orphanage where eighteen-year old waif Julie (Leslie Caron) is instructing the younger children. She never meets him but he pays for her tuition at a ladies’ college in Massachusetts on condition that she writes him a letter once a month – which he then doesn’t read for two years until his secretary (Thelma Ritter) insists. Then they meet up because she’s rooming (by his arrangement) with his niece. And, she falls for him without realising that he is ‘John Smith’… Gene Kelly’s influence is all over Fifties musicals – the French connection and the Broadway Melody sequence from Singin’ in the Rain play large parts in this story adapted from Jean Webster’s classic young adult novel of 1912 which already got a handful of previous adaptations, including one for Mary Pickford and another for Shirley Temple (Curly Top). Henry and Phoebe Ephron (Nora’s folks) create a long-ish but diverting vehicle for Astaire and Caron who are both entirely delightful in a situation that could be kind of creepy were it not for the fact that the unseemliness of a relationship is something addressed early on. In fact, the unsuitability of such an old man romancing a young woman is part of the drama. There are some wonderful dance sequences as you’d expect and Jervis’ obsession with music is one of the most attractive things about the story – the early scene where he bounces drum sticks off the walls is really something. This outstays its welcome by at least one fantasy sequence (with Caron aping Cyd Charisse) but overall it’s a beautiful production as you’d expect from that underrated director Jean Negulesco and it totally oozes charm.

Breaking Away (1979)

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– My dad told me Jesus never went more than fifty miles from home. – Look what happened to him! Dave (Dennis Christopher) and his high school friends are doing nothing for the summer other than getting fired from the A&P.  Mike (Dennis Quaid) is the former quarter back hero with no future, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is in love with his cashier girlfriend and waiting for the family home to sell so he can get out, and Cyril (Daniel Stern) hates his father. Nobody wants to go to college even though they’re living right on the edge of Bloomington campus. To the college kids they’re known as Cutters – working class kids destined for the quarries where they go swimming and laze around on summer days. Dave is obsessed with the Cinzano cycling team and his entire world revolves around cycle practice and Italy – he calls his father (Paul Dooley) Papa, christens his cat Fellini and his mother (Barbara Barrie) succumbs to his love of both opera and Italian food. Then he falls for college girl Catherine (Robyn Douglass) who’s dating hottie Hart Bochner and their rivalry ends up with an accident in the quarry and a fight in the cafeteria bringing Mike’s policeman brother into the fray. The Cinzano team arrives and Dave has to beg Papa for time off at his used car lot to participate in a race with them one weekend but the Italians cheat and Dave is shattered. Together with the Cutters he pulls himself together to enter an endurance race and he falls off the bike … Steve Tesich’s marvellous screenplay was based on a classmate at college so it’s a quasi-biographical piece as well as being a smart film about families, friendship and the issues boys face when they graduate high school and have no plans. It’s a beautiful, delicate, funny coming of age tale treated with the care that it requires by director Peter Yates and cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this and it gives me that warm fuzzy feeling that it did the first time round – a lot of the genius lies in pitch perfect performances with a cast that now rings of future stardom. Christopher (who is half-Italian) won a BAFTA for this and he would go on to star in cult entry Fade to Black but never attained the heights of Quaid in the Eighties and Nineties; Stern worked with Woody Allen and Haley made a comeback in the Noughties after becoming a director of commercials. Dooley and Barrie are fantastic as Dave’s bemused parents – his father’s working class aspirations are opposed by his mother’s fanciful thoughts and when Dave woos Catherine by singing an aria on campus it’s parallel cut with his mom doing exactly the same with a recording over a romantic dinner with Papa. Dooley’s realisation that his son is hurting when he finds out people cheat is brilliantly played:  they had already played father and son in Altman’s The Wedding. And the friends who have to face reality but give it their all when the chips are down – well, everyone wants friends like that. Gentle and tough, inspiring, funny and uplifting, with an ending to make the hardest heart happy, this is just cherishable. I thought we were going to waste the rest of our lives together.  I love love love it.

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.

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!