Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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I’m not home. I never will be. I first encountered a Nam vet on Central Park West. He chased me despite being on crutches that were well past their sell-by date. I guess maybe it was because I had more legs than he did. I was waiting tables in a township on Long Island called Massapequa at a ghastly restaurant where a deranged and thankfully distant relative worked. Massapequa is the hometown of the Baldwin brothers and Ron Kovic, the subject of this impassioned film by Oliver Stone, a man whose own combat experiences had informed his previous film, Platoon, that astonishingly immersive journey of a naif to manhood in a horrifying exposition of American soldiers’ experiences. Ron Kovic’s book is the basis of another coming of age tale, this time of a Catholic boy whose parents’ devotion to JFK unwittingly unleashes their sports-mad son’s inner patriot.  I hadn’t seen this since its release and my fresh impression of its first sequences was of overwrought melodrama, underlined by John Williams’ overheated score. But this is all of a piece with the film’s intentions:  starting with a heightened picture of America’s hearth and home;  the futility and horror of war; the brutality of veterans’ experiences in epically gruesome, filthy underfunded hospitals (Kovic’s God-loving mother never even paid him a visit); the utter loneliness of being a castrated, paralysed man with a beating heart and functioning brain who is ridiculed by the anti-war protesters; the recognition that the only people with whom he now has anything in common are the other vets who are even more fucked up than he is. And so it moves into its more austere final sections. Politicisation. Separation from a family who refuse to accept he could have killed women and children and for whom he is a mere embarassment in a block where the other soldiers at least died. Is there a better correlative image in Stone’s entire oeuvre than the crane shot over the Wilson family home, where Ron has confessed to killing new recruit, their nineteen year old son William, in the dunes of Nam as the sun flared during an ambush, then he is wheeled away by a helper amid the scraps and detritus dumped in their yard and the leafy branches fade into a fluttering stars and stripes – and we are plunged into more police brutality at the 1972 Republican convention where he has joined the protest movement? This is elegant filmmaking. It is not without its humour or self-awareness. Ron has finally had his cherry broken by a Mexican whore in a sequence of T&A that reunites Stone with Willem Defoe who welcomes him to this sick paradise and he thinks it’s love – but hides his gift for her when he realises sex with a cripple is just a job for her. These vets’ wheelchair-off is a salve for those of us who might have liked to see one between Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, who beat him to an Academy Award that year (DDL gurned more). I’ve never been back to Massapequa or that cruddy restaurant but Stephen Baldwin has a small role as a schoolfriend, Tom Berenger gets him to join up, Frank Whaley is the other surviving vet who helps Ron out of his doomladen hole and Kyra Sedgwick is the gorgeous girl he loved so much he ran through the rain to dance with her at the Prom and she turns him on to the anti-war crusade. Cruise is simply great, giving a complete performance from boy to man in a narrative which exemplifies the art of juxtaposition and emotional arcs. This is cinema, utterly moving and indignant and humane. Watch it and weep.

The Beguiled (1971)

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What an extraordinary generic blend this is:  part Western, part Gothic or Grand Guignol, and an emblematic role for Clint Eastwood who would turn aspects  of its perverse sexuality into a motif in Play Misty for Me and Tightrope.  He’s a Union soldier badly wounded in the Civil War, found by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) a little girl who attends a seminary nearby in very Southern Louisiana. Deciding eventually not to report him to the Confederate soldiers, headmistress Geraldine Page sets her sights on him – but so does teacher Elizabeth Hartman. And student Jo Ann Harris … Adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, this plumbs areas of psyched out femininity that no other films truly reach.  It becomes clear that Page indulged in an incestuous relationship with her late brother;  Hartman is a virgin;  and Harris is a fox – whom Eastwood naturally beds, to the others’ uncontrollable fury. The Gothic trope of the staircase looms and Hartman pushes him to the bottom of it – giving Page an excuse to lop off one of his legs and trap him there forever. When he accidentally kills Amy’s turtle everything comes to a head and any plans he might have are as dust. There’s nothing like women scorned, is there? Bruce Surtees’ dreamlike cinematography lends this twisted narrative an art house feel that is entirely different to any of Eastwood’s output to that time – and the studio had no idea how to market it. Blacklisted writer Albert Maltz did the original adaptation but he gave it a happy ending – so another draft was done by Irene Kamp. Both of them were credited pseudonymously. And the real rewrite by associate producer Claude Traverse went uncredited. Director Don Siegel worked with Eastwood to create a different phase of his iconicity following the spaghetti westerns that brought the actor global fame  – and this was the real start of crafting something mysterious and ineffable and even masochistic in his screen persona, alongside the action roles that kept the studios happy. No wonder Sofia Coppola wanted to remake it. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. This is great anyhow you choose. (And an opportunity to see the tragic Hartman). When this came out my aunt’s mate at boarding school snuck out to see it and she was caught by the nuns climbing back in a window very late at night. When she explained her uncontrollable weakness for Mr Eastwood they said they understood completely and she wasn’t punished. Now that’s some cool nuns. And how very fitting!

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

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It behoves us on Jack Nicholson’s 80th birthday to celebrate one of his most scorching performances in a totally filthy film. In this remake of the James M. Cain novel, he’s the drifter who fetches up at a diner in the middle of nowhere and becomes embroiled in a sordid romance with the proprietor’s wife (Jessica Lange) who wants him to kill her husband (John Colicos). Director Bob Rafelson was one of those people who played an enormous role in Nicholson’s career. Nicholson wrote the screenplay for Head, the movie about The Monkees, the band Rafelson created for a TV comedy show and then they became almost as big as The Beatles. He produced Easy Rider which gave Nicholson the keys to the kingdom, pretty much. Then he directed him in Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, where he gave two of his great performances. They would reunite a decade after this for Man Trouble but this adaptation by David Mamet (making his debut as screenwriter) really hit buttons on release – I didn’t see it because I was way too young but I remember the fuss – and the trailers – and the poster!. The kitchen sex scene is one of the most jaw dropping couplings you will ever see this side of a porno and both Nicholson and Lange are simply astonishing in this tale of utter amorality. Some people don’t like the ending, but hey, you can’t always get what you want. This is some birthday celebration, eh?! Golly!

Marie Antoinette (2006)

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Sofia Coppola knows what it feels like for a girl. When the officials at Versailles gave her the very big keys to open up the palace and reimagine a little Austrian girl lost in the vicious and foreign French royal court working from Antonia Fraser’s biography, they probably didn’t picture this — a portrait of teenage decadence in the pastel palette of macaroons (magenta, citron, mint) scored to a New Romantic soundtrack as if she were making an Adam and the Ants video.  Kirsten Dunst is the kid sold to the gormless dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) in a strategic alliance organised by her mother the Empress (Marianne Faithfull). Her father in law the King Louis XV (Rip Torn) is like a Texan cowboy carrying on with Madame du Barry (Asia Argento). Her husband has no idea what to do in bed and she’s a giggly kid who spends her nights drinking and gambling with her girly friends and it takes a visit from her brother Emperor Josef (Danny Huston) to explain to the mechanically-minded prospective king about locks and holes, and a year later, finally, the marriage is consummated and a baby girl is born.  Seven years of foreplay!  The life of conspicuous consumption of colourful costumes and cookies and candy is swopped for something almost rural and natural at Le Petit Trianon where the young mother holds a different kind of court and succumbs to an affair with the Swedish Count Fersel (Jamie Dornan) and frolics with her little girl in the meadows. The mood alters and the cinematography (by Lance Acord) attains the backlit flared quality of a nature documentary:  this is impressionistic and expressionistic all at once, reliant on Dunst’s face and the overall vision of a writer/director in sympathetic tune with her tragic protagonist whose perception of the vicious society over which she holds sway dominates the narrative. The final quarter hour is the nightmare:  people are starving because the peasants are bearing the cost of the war in America, and propaganda and lies, dead children and the baying mob are at the door. This is a fabulist film about fashion and feeling and food and it gets into your head and your heart. If you don’t like it, you know what you can go eat.

Cruel Intentions (1999)

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Back in the day this contemporary uptown teen reworking of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (of course made into the great Dangerous Liaisons after Christopher Hampton’s acclaimed English-language stage adaptation) seemed pretty rad. Turning Sarah Michelle Gellar into a high school version of Madame Merteuil in a quasi-incestuous relationship with stepbrother Ryan Phillippe as Sebastian Valmont was, uh, even creepy. What happened to us? bleats the coke-addled one when she sees he’s fallen for the virtuous Annette (Reese Witherspoon) and their bet has gone hopelessly wrong. A Lesbo kiss between Gellar and the horny Cecile (Selma Blair), interracial sex they both have with Sean Patrick Thomas, and a great backup adult cast of Swoosie Kurtz, Christine Baranski and Louise Fletcher, with some more gay antics between Joshua Jackson and Eric Mabius, make this a viciously corrupt and sexy walk on the wild side of Central Park West, paving the way for the much-missed Gossip Girl. XOXO! Written and directed by Roger Kumble.

The Goob (2014)

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Guy Myhill’s Fenland drama is brutal stuff. It’s a long hot summer for Goob (Liam Walpole) who arrives home to find Mum (Sienna Guillory) shacked up at a transport cafe with ugly violent stock racing bully Gene (Sean Harris) and he has to grow up bloody fast. A gay cousin who likes to dance and cross-dress and a lovely foreign fruit picker create diversions and ultimately obstructions and Goob has to choose sides in a dangerous household that has already seen off his brother following a prank gone wrong. This is an intelligent story of violent sordid lowlifes with limited ambitions and worldviews and while convincingly and even poetically evoked at times it’s a tough watch. Guillory’s willing subjugation is hard to take while son Goob is the collateral damage. Harris, one of the least attractive individuals ever to grace a screen, is all too realistic; and the masturbation and sex scenes are somewhat de trop, as Celeste Holm might have said. Sometimes some things are best left … imagined. Spare and affecting with some really good faces inhabiting a fascinating landscape, beautifully captured in shimmering golden hour light, a new approach to British social realism.

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!

Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

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She must be at least thirty! squeak the privileged brides-to-be in Wellesley, “that finishing school disguised as a college”, as subversive art lecturer Julia Roberts so eloquently expresses it. It’s 1953 and the old values prevail as much as the long shadow of WW2 lingers among the women and the elitist daughters of society who are more interested in being married than establishing their own careers. Roberts is a migrant from California and just doesn’t get it and her freewheeling teaching style lands her in the soup. Bitchy class bully Kirsten Dunst wants to teach her a lesson and her editorials on the campus newspaper land Juliet Stevenson out on her ear for handing out contraception to some students. Dominic West is the philandering Italian lecturer who sleeps with students and has a secret of his own, while Julia’s reunion with longtime love John Slattery goes hopelessly wrong and she turns to her colleague for respite. The fraudulent lives of people and what they do to cope and how they live with themselves is the real subject here, as liberalism brushes up against conservatism and you’re not quite sure who wins at the end. Beautifully shot, with some good performances wrapped up in those long skirts and saddle shoes. Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, directed by Mike Newell, this made a lot of headlines over Roberts’ salary – at 25 million, it made her the best paid actress of all time. It may be circumscribed in some ways but there are nice supporting performances by Donna Mitchell, Marian Seldes and Marcia Gay Harden, while Maggie Gyllenhaal gets a good showcase as the promiscuous girl who sees through the hypocrisy.

La La Land (2016)

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I left this singing the songs and wiping tears from my eyes. Hardly a typical exit from a movie on a viciously cold winter’s day but confirmation that everything you’ve heard about this is true:  it’s absolutely, unexpectedly wonderful. The opening is casually breathtaking, a pass-it-along song among disenchanted motorists stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway in LA, singing and dancing as far as the eye can see in an utterly joyous spectacle. Ryan Gosling is playing and re-playing a piano sequence on the tape deck of his vintage car while Emma Stone is in the car in front, talking on the phone and looking at a scene for an audition. She doesn’t see the traffic move along, he overtakes, glares at her and she gives him the finger. This meet cute is in three parts and the second is at a club where he gets fired for playing his preferred jazz tunes;  then a pool party where he’s playing in an 80s covers band and she requests I Ran. He invites her to see Rebel Without a Cause (my favourite movie!) at The Rialto and then the romance begins in earnest, under the stars at the Griffith Observatory, over the course of the seasons, with everything colour coded, in tribute perhaps to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but with liberal references to a slew of other musicals that have soundtracked our lives. Everything is perfectly judged as they move in together, she attends hilariously awful auditions, he has to slowly forego his dream of a jazz club and must earn his crust playing with John Legend (I know), just as he’s persuaded her to love the musical form she associates with Kenny G (exactly). He explains to her what jazz is:  Conflict and Compromise. And that’s how the story works. There is wit and smarts to spare, not just movie references, since the score by Justin Hurwitz is its own animal and the free jazz improv daubs this Damien Chazelle work with its own singular mojo. The narrative combines the integrated musical, the backstage musical and straightforward musical drama in a discursive work which posits settling against success, love against loss, against a bedrock of millennial failures and wannabes – baristas, waiters and jobless performers, living in an LA rarely seen on screen with its rackety streets, vintage accoutrements, nouveau restaurants and old style clubs, not to mention the Warners’ lot. This is just brilliant filmmaking, with an audacious ending and fantastically good performances by the leads who are terrific given their deliberately limited dancing and singing abilities. Gosling has improved so much (wasn’t The Nice Guys the making of him?); and Stone gives a gracious, complex, fully rounded empathy to a role that beautifully complements his sardonic but passionate dude. A widescreen valentine to Hollywood, music, movies, and La-La-Land, that destination for dreamers everywhere. Stunning.

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

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Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel about a family of five sisters who kill themselves was original, nuanced and heartfelt. Sofia Coppola chose it for her writing and directing debut and on the face of it, and what she’s done since, she makes us know what it feels like for a girl. The portrait of the middle class neighbourhood is nicely satirical and hints at her interest in making the later milieu film, The Bling Ring;  the woozy Seventies summertime impressions are just right; that eye for detail (all the stuff on their dressing tables!) totally accurate. In retrospect, this is slighter than it appeared at the time, with a certain vacuum at the centre where emotional rationale might have been, a large question mark regarding the parenting skills of James Woods and Kathleen Turner, a chip missing where we try to gauge the sisters’ motivations. Perhaps that’s the point. The romance between the most beautiful and elusive of the sisters, Lux (Kirsten Dunst) and high school heart throb Trip (Josh Hartnett) is well done and it’s his narration in rehab 25 years later that anchors this in something resembling real life, even if it’s a tangle of memories seen through a narcotic haze. Meanwhile, a bunch of teenage boys gaze in awe at this beauteous timebomb about to implode across the street. There’s (obv) an amazing soundtrack, with a score by Air.