Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)

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I’ve never made any secret of the fact that basically I’m on my way to Australia. Calendar Colorado is lawless town rich on the proceeds of a gold find during a funeral and it needs someone to pull it into shape. A sharpshooting chancer Jason McCullough (James Garner) claiming to be on his way to Oz takes a well-paid job to clean up as sheriff, hired by mayor Olly Perkins (Harry Morgan). That involves putting the Danby family in line so he imprisons idiot son Joe (Bruce Dern) in a jail without bars by dint of a chalk line and some red paint … This sendup of western tropes gets by on its good nature and pure charm with Garner backed up by a hilarious Joan Hackett as the accident-prone Prudy Perkins whose attractions are still visible even when she sets her own bustle alight. Jack Elam parodies his earlier roles as the tough guy seconded as deputy while Walter Brennan leads the dastardly Danbys, hellbent on making money from the guys mining the gold before it can be shipped out. Written and produced by William Bowers and directed by Burt Kennedy, that expert at a comic take on the genre whose serious side he had exploited in collaboration with Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott the previous decade. Bright and funny entertainment.

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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.

Sausage Party (2016)

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I’ve never given those perishables on the supermarket shelves a lot of thought but after this I’m giving them a pretty wide berth. Designed as a satire of Pixar/Disney emotional journeys, this goes places that Francis Ford Coppola was threatening decades ago – big screen porn (thank goodness he didn’t do it). Lewd, foul-mouthed and anatomically correct, this louche fantasia imagines that processed goods realise that they are not going to the Great Beyond but that they are destined for a Holocaust in shoppers’ homes…  Talk about losing your religion. You see the poster, you get where this is going – for 89 minutes, with some of America’s top talent relishing the opportunity to say and do things that frankly nobody does in public unless they’re making sex tapes. Not exactly this generation’s Fritz the Cat. Overdone. Directed by Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan, written by Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg from a story by Rogen, Goldberg and Jonah Hill.

Manchester By The Sea (2016)

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I can’t beat it. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a janitor in Boston, permanently hunched and haunted and beset by half-dressed female tenants who want to have sex with him and complain to his boss when he evinces no interest whatsoever and just fixes their toilets. He barely speaks. When he gets a call that older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died suddenly he is forced back to his titular hometown where people refer to him as ‘the Lee Chandler’ and he finds out from his brother’s lawyer he’s been named guardian to his irritating, underage, sexually voracious nephew Patrick (goofy ginger Lucas Hedges). It takes us a long time and a lot of repetitive scenes to get to the reason for his devastation:  the death of his young family for which he feels incalculable guilt. Patrick has no reaction to his father’s demise and just gets on with getting it on with whatever nasty teenage girls have sex with him, plays hockey and generally acts like dumb teenagers do when confronted with intimations of mortality (I was recently at a funeral when the teenage son of the woman whose death was being commemorated left midway to smoke cigarettes with several girls. This shit happens.) So much  of this is low-key and true that when these guys eventually drop their protective masks it is both surprising and shocking and explosive in terms of the situations  in which they finally let loose as much as anything else. Michelle Williams has one wonderful scene as Lee’s ex-wife (pictured in the poster) and it is of such delicacy that it elicits pure emotions not just from Affleck but the audience, otherwise her role is mainly confined to flashbacks of their marriage and its unfortunate and tragicomic ending (that ambulance scene is literally killer). So paradoxically despite its overlength the unsentimental narrative focus is somewhat diverted to the wrong situations and some scenes are consigned to montage underscored by rather obvious and ill-chosen music when we would prefer to hear the dialogue.  The flashback structure works brilliantly however. The rarely seen Gretchen Mol (the Next Big Thing, according to Vanity Fair circa 1998  when she co-starred with this film’s producer and intended star Matt Damon in Rounders) shows up as Patrick’s alkie mom, long estranged from the family. Affleck is simply masterful as this man who desires punishment but nobody wants him to suffer any more, except for a few women who believe he killed his kids. However it’s a long time getting to the point about how people deal differently with bereavement and even if we agree, such is real life, a playwright, screenwriter (and director) as smart as Kenneth Lonergan should and could have got there quicker.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

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The film that marked Joan Crawford’s comeback after she was unceremoniously dumped by Metro, this is a reworked and condensed adaptation of James M. Cain’s Depression-era novel by Ranald McDougall, with uncredited rewrites by melodrama specialist Catherine Turney. And:  William Faulkner, Albert Maltz, Margaret Gruen, Margaret Buell Wilder, Thames Williamson and Louise Randall Pierson. Director Michael Curtiz didn’t want Crawford – she was the last of a long list that was topped by Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck – and they fought tooth and nail throughout production with producer Jerry Wald acting as go-between. She’s the woman with the straying husband who starts baking cakes and waiting tables to support her daughters – the younger one, Kay, is a smart and funny tomboy, the elder, Veda (Ann Blyth) is a spoiled puss of a musician with a taste for the high life. The action takes place over four years in the Forties as Mildred starts up her own restaurant and builds a chain with the help of her husband’s realtor partner Wally (Jack Carson) but when playboy investor Monte (Zachary Scott) enters the fray, a tangled web of business and adultery leads to murder. Crawford gets to show off her full emotional range in this superb maternal melo mix of independent woman, weepie and film noir, distinguished by Ernest Haller’s deep shadowy photography and Max Steiner’s score. And what about Anton Grot’s sets! Crawford took home the Academy Award for Warner Bros. What a show!

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.

Baxter ! (1973)

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Scott Jacoby plays the titular kid who cannot pronounce his own name – Roger – because of his speech impediment. His argumentative Hollywood parents have divorced and his emotional problems overwhelm him when he moves with his narcissistic mother to London, where he attends the American School. A jerk of a teacher Paul Eddington, irritated by the boy’s  inability to pronounce R,  sends him to a therapist, Patricia Neal. Despite his ability to make good friends including neighbour Britt Ekland and her fiance Jean-Pierre Cassel (also named Roger, but, you know, in French) Neal observes him sliding into total anxiety and he is ultimately taken into psychiatric care. This sounds like a chore but the screenplay adapted by Reginald Rose from a novel by Kin Platt is very balanced by its sensitive and unsentimental treatment of the situation and Jacoby’s performance as the charming, humorous kid is astonishing. Really well handled by director Lionel Jeffries, whose Railway Children star Sally Thomsett makes a funny appearance as a voyeuristic teenage neighbour, this is a pleasure from start to moving finish.

A Tale of Love and Darkness (2016)

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Natalie Portman returns to her homeland of Israel for this touching adaptation of the Amos Oz memoir of their country’s  violent post-WW2 transition to statehood after the ending of the British Mandate. She plays his mother, a Polish woman whose relationship with her own vicious mother is more than a little tricky and finds her suffused with survivor’s guilt;  her husband is an academic writer, a weak-minded man envious of a novelist friend’s success and tempted to play an active part in the forthcoming actions to create Israel;  young Amos observes and listens; being told stories; and creating his own impressions of adults, their relationships and rivalries, and what they do to survive; and how marriage works. There’s even a budding romance with an Arabic girl who talks to him of poetry. The performances are uniformly good but remarkably, given her busy behind the scenes role (adapting and directing) it’s Portman who surprises in her interpretation of a woman who finally goes off the rails in the most understandable way possible.  Strangely, it is her voice that alerts you:  she speaks Hebrew in an entirely different and lower register than in her English-language performances and her persona achieves a different kind of depth as a result. Who knew? A beautifully made and fascinating piece of work.

להסתגלות נגיעה זו של הזיכרונות העמוסים העוז של המעבר שלאחר WW2 האלים של נטלי פורטמן חוזרת למולדתה ישראל  ארצם למדינה לאחר סיום המנדט הבריטי. היא משחקת אמו, פולני שיחסיה עם אמה הקסמים שלה הוא קצת יותר מסובך ומוצא אותה רווי האשמה של הניצול; בעלה הוא סופר אקדמי, יתפתה לשחק חלק פעיל בפעולות הקרובות ליצור בישראל; צעיר עמוס מעירה ומקשיב, להיות סיפורים ויצירת יתרשם בעצמו של מבוגרים, יחסים ויריבויות שלהם, ומה הם עושים כדי לשרוד. ואיך נישואים עובדים. יש אפילו רומן ניצנים עם נערת ערבית מי שמדבר אליו שירה. ההופעות הן אחיד טובות אבל להפליא, בהתחשב עסק אותה מאחורי קלעי התפקיד (התאמה ובימוי) זה פורטמן מי שמפתיע בפרשנות שלה של אישה סוף הסוף הולכת מהפסים באופן המובן ביותר האפשרי. באופן מוזר, זה קולה שמתריעה: היא מדברת עברית ב מרשם שונה לחלוטין ונמוך בהופעות שלה בשפה האנגלית והאישיות שלה משיגה סוג אחר של עומק כתוצאה מכך. מי ידע? חתיכה יפה עשתה ומרתקת של עבודה.

Julie and Julia (2009)

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What an intriguing idea New Yorker Julie Powell had:  to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year. And what an intriguing idea Nora Ephron had:  to combine Powell’s account of her food blog with Child’s own account of how she came to learn to cook in France immediately after World War 2 . This isn’t just about two cooks and a lot of food memories. It’s also about two very interesting marriages of equals – a trope that carries through the twin strands of this cooking story as the transatlantic tale smoothly whisks us through these women’s lives as they cope with their own private traumas (which have their larger correlative in 9/11 and WW2/Cold War paranoia). Of course Meryl gets the lion’s share of our interest – apart from anything else, how short did everyone else in the cast have to be to persuade us that she could be six-two?! Her joy is infectious. And the story problem:  is a blog writer really as fascinating as Child whose TV appearances are legendary? And does a call centre operator (albeit for 9/11 victims’ families) moving from Brooklyn to Queens really equate to moving to France not speaking a word of the language and giving up your career (Child was in the OSS)?  The narrative imbalance is efficiently handled with other elements – performance not being the least but Adams’s drabness is an occasional irritant when compared with Streep’s effervescence and Stanley Tucci’s suave turn as her husband. Child’s experiences with French ladies who lunch is paralleled with Powell’s, who makes the cover of a magazine labelled a thirtysomething failure by a journalist among her circle of careerist friends. The women’s lives did cross directly, but with mixed results. With the right combination of ingredients,  Ephron shows how to sift through all of the similarities and differences to concoct quite a mouthwatering feast albeit a souffle rather than a boeuf bourgignon. And boy am I hungry right now: do not watch without ready access to sustenance. Bon appetit!

You Again (2010)

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High school is never over. And as we learned so eloquently from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it’s Hell. Successful LA PR Marni (Kristen Bell,Veronica Mars take a bow!) is flying back up to Northern California for her brother’s wedding. En route she learns he’s getting hitched to the monstrous Joanna (fka cheerleader JJ) (Odette  Yustman) who bullied her for four years at Ridgefield High. Nobody can connect this latterday Meals on Wheels Mother Teresa act with the picture Marni paints of the years of bullying … until Marni’s mom Gail (Jamie Lee Curtis) meets Joanna’s aunt Mona (fka Ramona), her own high school nemesis and now a Forbes 100 hotel mogul. A series of pratfalls and slapstick sequences unfold including dance training with a go-to wedding planner (a very peppy Kristin Chenoweth) that lead to Marni looking exactly like she did at high school – a four-eyed acne-ridden geek who has to sleep on the couch of her childhood bedroom while Joanna takes over her family even wooing grandma Betty White. An extremely funny comedy of manners and you don’t have to have a sibling married to Satan’s spawn to enjoy it – but it helps. Stick around for the surprises in the final reel and the guest musical spot in the credits.Great fun. Written by Moe Jelline and directed by Andy Fickman.