The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

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This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime. When the daughter Carolyn (Annie Corley) and son Michael (Victor Slezak) of Italian war bride mother Francesca (Meryl Streep) return to Iowa for her funeral they discover among her belongings evidence of a four-day extra-marital affair she had in 1965 with Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) who was photographing covered bridges for National Geographic magazine. As they uncover the story and the secret she kept for decades, they recognise some truths about their own relationships … I don’t want to need you – because I can’t have you. Time was, author Robert James Waller was trawling the world’s talk shows, hawking his book and singing his songs and that was only in the Nineties. And it’s absurd to think of it now, but Clint Eastwood is still directing movies so this can be described as middle-period Clint. He and Streep (doing Anna Magnani in some scenes) are phenomenal together – have we ever seen them be so appealing, so vulnerable, as these middle aged lovers who’ve been around the block and been burned and bored and now find this wondrous once in a lifetime love?  Adapted by Richard LaGravenese from the slim bestseller, this is a long, slow, languorous look at a couple who know it’s now or never, flawed perhaps only by over length and the framing story doesn’t really add to the experience (this was the idea of Steven Spielberg, who originally planned on directing).  Nonetheless it’s totally satisfying, filled with nuance and passion and detail, and if you don’t shed a tear when those windscreen wipers are going from side to side, in that classic penultimate sequence, well, face it, you’re already dead. Wonderful. You never think love like this is ever going to happen

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The Medusa Touch (1978)

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Talk about beating somebody’s brains out. French detective Brunel (Lino Ventura) working temporarily on assignment to Scotland Yard in London reconstructs the life of author John Morlar (Richard Burton) who is lying in hospital with severe head injuries following a brutal assault that has nearly killed him.  With the help of the man’s journals and psychiatrist Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick) he realises that Morlar had powerful telekinetic abilities. His books make the link between evil and power and a pattern starts to emerge:  Brunel starts making uncanny connections with a series of disasters occurring in the outside world triggered initially perhaps by Morlar’s childhood brush with a terrible fire-breathing nanny (Frances Tomelty) whom he believes he willed to death …  If he believed himself involved in disasters he may have convinced someone else too. And they may have sought revenge. This oddly satisfying genre-splicing of psychological thriller/supernatural horror/disaster film/policier is aided immensely by Burton’s brilliant performance and Ventura’s charismatic presence, a real fish out of water navigating both a bizarre case and the politics of London policing. There are a number of significant alterations from the novel but the texture is enhanced by plugging into contemporary fears and layering them with cod-Freudianism to effectively channel several horror tropes and a heady dose of misanthropy. John Briley adapted Peter Van Greenaway’s source book and it was produced by the brilliant editor Anne V. Coates and shot by reliable veteran Arthur Ibbetson. Directed by Jack Gold.  I am the man with the power to create catastrophe

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991)

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Hello, dreamed of you. Love woke me. Artist Michèle (Juliette Binoche) who is losing her sight, encounters fire-eater Alex (Denis Lavant), a homeless guy with addiction problems.  They embark on an unlikely relationship at the Pont-Neuf in Paris, closed over the summer for repairs. They have to deal with a landlord of sorts (Klaus-Michael Grüber).  Leos Carax’s enervating romantic drama is beautifully shot by Jean-Yves Escoffier with a soundtrack featuring David Bowie, among others. Set during France’s 1989 Bicentennial celebrations this is a weirdly brutal, bewildering, compelling, rather magnificent oddity. Quite thrilling, like a nutty modern-day silent movie. Spot Edith Scob in the last scene, an homage to L’Atalante. Do you like it?/Yes./Yes yes or yes no?/Yes yes!

First Reformed (2018)

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When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy. Forty-six year old Reverend Ernest Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of a small Dutch Reformed church in rural New York stage.  His faith is threatened by the death of his son and he turns to Catholic teachings as well as alcohol. One of his congregation Mary (Amanda Seyfried) appeals for help for her husband, a climate change activist who has become suicidal and who wants her to abort her pregnancy. The historical church struggles in competition with Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) at a nearby megachurch to whom Ernest appeals for help … Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world. Those of us familiar with the oeuvre of writer/director Paul Schrader will know that he had a career as a critic and academic and one of his tomes deals with transcendental style and French auteur Robert Bresson is one of his subjects. And anyone who’s ever seen Diary of a Country Priest (or not) will immediately recognise the thematic reference to a man questioning his capacity and relevance for the spiritual life as he experiences decline, his own physical deterioration a measure for what is occurring in his environment. The modern twist is the monetising of the religious experience (or maybe it’s not that new after all). Schrader’s own life speaks to the background in Dutch Reform Protestantism which is confronted here with modernity while the filmmaking style reflects the austerity of the religion as well as the Bressonian template (with Bergmanesque flourishes). Hawke is brilliant in this intense exploration of man’s purpose with Schrader confidently going for it in all his tormented late life vainglory. Travis Bickle goes mediaeval? Yes, that’s it. Quite splendid.  Even a pastor needs a pastor

Experiment Perilous (1944)

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If any man had one moment of sanity, in that one moment, he would take himself out of this world. When psychiatrist Hunt Bailey (George Brent) encounters elderly Clarissa ‘Cissie’ Bedereaux (Olive Blakeney) during a violent storm on a cross-country train trip in 1903, his unusual relationship with the strange Bedereaux family begins with an introduction by his friend on arrival in New York. Suspicious of Cissie’s sudden death by heart attack at her brother’s house just hours after they parted and entranced by a painting he sees of Allida (Hedy Lamarr), the gorgeous but troubled wife of Nick Bedereaux (Paul Lukas), Hunt sets out to discover if Allida is really insane, as her husband claims – or if Nick is the disturbed one. He finds a he said-she said scenario but starts to believe Nick is gaslighting Allida when he overhears a suspicious conversation between Nick and their young son whom the man appears to have imprisoned at the top of a spiral staircase.  He now believes Nick is mad and Allida is in danger … Life is short and the art long. Decision difficult, experiment perilous.  Warren B. Duff’s screenplay (adapting a novel by Margaret Carpenter) is an efficient entry in the Gothic genre that took off during WW2. Director Jacques Tourneur handles it well enough but it doesn’t have the kind of tension that marks out the classics. Lukas is never as threatening as you would hope and Brent is as usual the classy caring handsome gent we all know and love but the action has no compelling line. It’s worth seeing for Lamarr, that stunning and poorly deployed actress who takes on a type of role made famous by Ingrid Bergman and applies her own particularly distanced interpretation, with the maternal focus lending it a poignancy.  That Lukas is the older husband who groomed a much younger wife for society has its echoes in Lamarr’s own biography. The strangers on a train inciting incident is well constructed and the social scene nicely established but the cod-psychiatry might irritate.

This is Bob Hope (2017) (TVM)

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The PBS series American Masters tackles the most influential comic of them all, London-born Leslie Townes Hope, aka Bob. Narrated by Billy Crystal, reading from Hope’s diaries, this commences with difficult stuff:  Woody Allen addresses the star’s Republicanism and the film is bookended with another thorny issue – his hopeless philandering, which his adopted children admit their mother knew about and tolerated as long as nothing was brought home. The bulk of the film however is a compelling story of child poverty, reform school and clawing his way from Cleveland to Broadway, through vaudeville, singing and dancing, until he found his niche MC’ing shows and getting a break on radio until comedy shorts and Hollywood beckoned in 1934. He basically developed the first standup routine and specialised in topical jokes. He became in demand to the point that he needed writers to supply him with gags. They needed a character to build the shtick around so the ‘type’ was a cowardly, skirt-chasing braggart – not unlike Hope in real life. It’s a persona that’s much-imitated and Woody Allen’s work exemplifies this but he declares of his inspiration, ‘He’s just more gifted’. Hope’s writers? Guys like Mel Shavelson and Larry Gelbart.  Dick Cavett suggests that Hope’s vocal tone is responsible for his impact:  ‘the very sound of his voice made you laugh.’ Brooke Shields contributes, ‘He could do more with a look or a glance than most of us could do with a monologue.’ His signature song, ‘Thanks for the Memory’ was a rare moment of emotion;  while his one dramatic performance showed he had acting chops too. He had the number one radio show in 1941 and throughout the war years, when he brought an entourage to the fringes of the combat zones to entertain the troops, a lifelong avocation doing 57 tours in 50 years. On radio, on the screen with Bing Crosby in the Road movies or on TV specials, he conquered all the main entertainment media and made a fortune through canny investments – a fact he was advised to tackle head-on by joking about it. Filled with marvellous footage, newsreel, photographs, clips and interviews (including Kermit, Leonard Maltin, Conan O’Brien and Margaret Cho), this is an essential history of an innovator, written, produced and directed in a zippy style by John Scheinfeld.

Night of the Demon (1957)

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Aka Curse of the Demon. Where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight, this half world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?  American professor Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in London for a conference on parapsychology only to discover that the colleague he was supposed to meet, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) was killed in a freak accident the day before. It turns out that the deceased had been investigating a devil-worshipping cult lead by Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Though sceptical, Holden is suspicious of Karswell. Following a trail of mysterious manuscripts, Holden finds out that the sole link between Karswell and Harrington is a supposed murderer Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde) who is now catatonic. At Harrington’s funeral he meets the man’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) who gives him Harrington’s diary. He enters a world that makes him question his faith in science…  Adapted by producer Hal E. Chester, Charles Bennett (responsible for creating Hitchcock’s trademark tropes) and Cy Endfield, from the story Casting the Runes by the great M.R. James, this is one of the best horror films ever made. Notwithstanding the material’s power, the producer argued with director Jacques Tourneur (and Bennett) as to whether the demon should actually be shown – the producer won. Andrews (replacing Robert Taylor) is pretty good in a film that just drips with tension:  you wouldn’t want to attend a seance led by Athene Seyler in a hurry.  Locations include Brocket Hall, Herts., Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain, Bricket Wood Railway Station, Heathrow Airport, the Savoy and the British Museum Reading Room. It’s totally terrifying, incredibly atmospheric and an under-seen minor classic of the genre. I’ve heard it I’ve seen it I know it’s real

Queen of the Desert (2015)

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Who knows best about tribes? In 1902 Gertrude Bell Nicole Kidman the daughter of wealthy British parents and a recent Oxford graduate. has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions, and a life of privilege bring her only boredom. At one dance a potential suitor actually suggests fornication and alludes to her similarity to his prize herd. Aspiring to some usefulness in her life, Gertrude decides to join her uncle who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. There the young lady not only encounters the Near East but also falls in love with an embassy employee, Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who adores her for her perspicacity and teaches her Farsi. However, their romance does not last long as her parents consider the young man a poor matrimonial choice for their daughter and forbid the marriage. Desperate, Henry commits suicide, failing to reconcile himself to the enforced separation. Gertrude finds out in a letter home following her mother’s death. For the remainder of her long life Gertrude Bell completely devotes herself to exploring and writing about the Near East in the wake of his death. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) on an archaeological expedition and turns down a request to become a spy for the British Government. She visits her beloved Bedouin tribes over the Arab lands and earns their trust. Upon going to Damascus she encounters Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and he confesses his passion for her but he’s married. She is kidnapped by an emir who wants to marry her – she could be his mother.  And when she returns to Syria, she finds World War One has spread … I would give my life for a woman like you.  This extraordinary story, of a pioneering woman traveller, writer, archaeologist and (eventually) a politician whose views shaped the delineation of the borders in the Middle East, following the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, gets a romantic biographical treatment. Kidman brings tremendous feeling to a woman of singular self-possession whose life nonetheless is shaped by the contours of love and death. It’s a rather conventional form for Werner Herzog who wrote and directed it, but there are scenes which communicate seemingly directly with nature, music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yeager which feeds from desert song.  It’s not the mad epic you think you might get – it’s from Bell’s own writings and from history and it’s a swooning and beautiful interpretation of a woman alone among military men who seem to suffer intolerable repression. For the first time in my life I know who I am.  My heart belongs to the desert

Cries and Whispers (1972)

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It is early Monday morning and I am in pain.  At the turn of the twentieth century, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) slowly and painfully dies of cancer in the family’s country home. Her sisters are so immersed in their own problems that they can’t offer her the support she needs as she goes through a nightmare of torture. Shallow Maria (Liv Ullmann) is wracked with guilt at her husband’s suicide following his discovery of her  affair. Self-loathing, suicidal Karin (Ingrid Thulin) seems to regard her sister with revulsion. Only Anna (Kari Sylwan), the deeply religious maid who lost her young child, seems able to offer the solitary dying Agnes solace and empathy as her condition deteriorates and her sisters are helpless in their eternal feuding … Ingmar Bergman went as far as he could in Persona to explore identity:  here he holds up a mirror to the pain we cause each other even as death stares us in the face. It is so stark a confrontation and so formal a construct that it shocks. He described it simply as a chamber play in red about a dying woman and her sisters. The colour scheme devised with cinematographer Sven Nykvist seems to ooze life and threaten death and the filtered photography has a quality that niggles the brain. This is pessimistic and filled with dread, certainly, but it is also haunting and unforgettable, a master at work in a film that excited global audiences and earned multiple Academy Award nominations.

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Girl Flu (2017)

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I’m never going to have kids. I already have my mom. Robin aka (Baby) Bird (Jade Pettyjohn) moves from the San Fernando Valley burbs to the hipster Echo Park neighbourhood to housesit her grandmother’s home with her selfish stoner waitress mom Jenny (Katee Sackhoff). She has to become a woman whether she wants to or not when she gets her first period in the middle of a sixth grade picnic and the meanest of the mean girls Rachel (Isabella Acres) bullies her. She finds herself abandoned in ignorance and finds out how to deal with the blood letting from Mom’s friend Lili (Heather Matarazzo).  Mom’s boyfriend Arlo (Jeremy Sisto) tries to help the flaky Jenny to grow up:  it’s not happening to you!  he tells her as she wallows in self-indulgence, fatally unsuited to being a mother.  Bird finds out that she’ll never be able to return to the Valley but she has new friends here, against the odds even as she goes through the worst week in living memory … Sharp and funny on a gross-out topic, the writing and directing debut of actress and story consultant Dorie Barton is a refreshing and very impressive blast boasting seriously charming performances in a new twist on mother-daughter dramedy. While Grandma is blithely Skyping from an ashram in India (ensuring we know why her daughter is useless at being a mother) Jenny leaves Arlo to pick up the family’s pieces and even pretend to be Bird’s boyfriend when the bullies threaten. My mother is a narcissist and my father is a workaholic, he tells Lilli. That figures, she retorts. Smart, well written and a really authentic comedy of embarrassment and growing up the hard way. I want a real mom.