Captain Fantastic (2016)

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I’m writing down everything you say – in my mind. Disillusioned anti-capitalist intellectual Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his absent wife Leslie (she’s in a psychiatric facility) and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society,  their kids are being educated them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie commits suicide, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time to attend her funeral in New Mexico where her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) fear for what is happening to their grandchildren and Ben is forced to confront the fact that the survivalist politics he has imbued in his offspring may not prepare them for real life… This starts with the killing of an animal in a ritual you might find in the less enlightened tribes. (Why did killing a deer become a thing a year ago?) Ben is teaching his eldest son Bodevan (George McKay) to be a man. But this is a twenty-first century tribe who are doing their own atavistic thing – just not in the name of Jesus (and there’s a funny scene in which they alienate a policeman by pretending to do just that) but that of Noam Chomsky. “I’ve never even heard of him!” protests their worried grandfather. Hearing the words “Stick it to the man!” coming out of a five year old is pretty funny in this alt-socialist community but the younger son in the family Rellian (Nicholas Rellian) believes Ben is crazy and has caused Leslie’s death and wants out.  Ironically and as Ben explains at an excruciating dinner with the brother in law (Steve Zahn) it was having children that caused her post-partum psychosis from which this brilliant lawyer never recovered. This stressor between father and younger son drives much of the conflict – that and Leslie’s Buddhist beliefs which are written in her Will and direct the family to have her cremated even though her parents inter her in a cemetery which the kids call a golf course. And Bodevan conceals the fact that he and Mom have been plotting his escape to one of the half dozen Ivy League colleges to which he’s been accepted. The irony that Ben is protecting his highly politicised kids from reality by having them celebrate Chomsky’s birthday when they don’t even know what a pair of Nikes are and have never heard of Star Trek is smart writing. Everything comes asunder when there are accidents as a result of the dangers to which he exposes them. This is a funny and moving portrait of life off the grid, with Mortensen giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as the man constantly at odds with the quotidian whilst simultaneously being a pretty great dad. McKay is terrific as the elder son who’s utterly unprepared for a romantic encounter in a trailer park. It really is tough to find your bliss. As delightful as it is unexpected, this is a lovely character study. Written and directed by Matt Ross.

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The Robe (1953)

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You crucified him. You, my master. Yet you freed me. I’ll never serve you again, you Roman pig. Masters of the world, you call yourselves. Thieves! Murderers! Jungle animals! A curse on you! A curse on your empire!  Drunk and disillusioned Roman centurion Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), wins Jesus’ robe in a dice game after the crucifixion. Marcellus has never been a man of faith like his slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), but when Demetrius escapes with the robe, Marcellus experiences disturbing visions and feels guilty for his actions. Convinced that destroying the robe will cure him, Marcellus sets out to find Demetrius and discovers his Christian faith along the way… This widescreen epic was adapted from Lloyd C. Douglas’ 1942 novel by Gina Kaus, Albert Maltz and Philip Dunne and it has a sense of enormity and place as it is set over 6 years in Rome, Judea – inaccurately called Palestine here – Capri and Galilee, with the might of the Empire amplified by Alfred Newman’s classical score. At its best this is a film of conscience and faith and the origins of Christianity;  at its most entertaining it’s a marvellous sword and sandals outing, among the very best of its era. Directed by Henry Koster, this was the first film made in CinemaScope.

A Monster Calls (2017)

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It begins like so many stories. With a boy, too old to be a kid. Too young to be a man. And a nightmare.  Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is dealing with far more than other boys his age. His beloved and devoted mother (Felicity Jones) is ill. He has little in common with his imperious grandmother Mrs Clayton (Sigourney Weaver). His father (Toby Kebbell) has resettled thousands of miles away with a new family where he is obviously not welcomed. But Conor finds a most unlikely ally when the Tree Monster (Liam Neeson) appears at his bedroom window one night. Ancient, wild, and relentless, the Monster guides Conor on a journey of courage, faith, and truth that powerfully fuses imagination and reality as he confronts his bullies and the imminent loss of his mother while his mentor tells him three stories that impact on his daily actions before the final story – his – can be told … Patrick Ness’ beautiful novel – itself recreated from an unfinished book by the late children’s author Siobhan Dowd – gets a very worthy adaptation from his own screenplay and director J.A. Bayona. It’s an unpromising even clichéd concept but is so wonderfully dramatised, visualised and delicately performed that you surrender to the tough core which offers a magical solution to a perverse reality –  death and bereavement and imminent orphandom for a boy in a problematic home situation. It shuns sentiment and even permits violence (Conor’s inner monster says No More Mister Nice Guy) to eventually become immensely moving as he gradually confronts the awful truth. A triumphant study of childhood.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

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Filigree, apogee, pedigree, perigee! During the Battle of Britain, Miss Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury), a cunning apprentice witch, decides to use her supernatural powers to defeat the Nazi menace. She sets out to accomplish this task with the aid of three  children who have been evacuated from the London Blitz and they go along to get along after a difficult introduction – they’re city kids stuck in the wilds of rural England and she’s forced to take them into her very big house where she serves healthy food which is utterly alien to them. Joined by the hapless Emelius Brown (David Tomlinson), the head of Miss Price’s witchcraft training correspondence school in London, the crew uses an enchanted bed to travel into a fantasy land and foil encroaching German troops as well as dealing with an unscrupulous conman … Well it’s a very snowy day here at Mondo Towers so there was nothing left but haul out Uncle Walt to toast up my chattering tootsies. This is a childhood favourite, a long and entertaining part-animated fantasy comic WW2 drama with not a little music thrown in to complete the Poppins-a-like formula perfected by the studio during the previous decade. Lansbury has the role purportedly rejected by Julie Andrews and David Tomlinson returns as the slightly bewildered adult male – albeit Mary Norton’s wartime books which provide the source material have no relation to the earlier film. The Magic Bedknob, Or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons and Bonfires and Broomsticks provide the arc of the narrative which is enlivened by integrated cartoon and musical sequences. Let’s face it, it takes the House of Mouse to turn WW2 into a delightful musical fairytale with songs by the Sherman brothers, a fantasy football match on a desert island, a resourceful Territorial Army and a very cool cat making for totally bewitching family fun. Hurray! Screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, directed by Robert Stevenson.

Pursued (1947)

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Came straight to this place just like I’d known the way. There was something in my life that ruined that house. That house was myself. It’s the 1880s. Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) is an orphan raised by a foster family in New Mexico who remains tormented by dreams of  the traumatic murder of his parents when he was a child. He is treated well by his foster mother, Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), and her daughter, Thor (Teresa Wright), but he and foster brother Adam (John Rodney) have a tense relationship. When Jeb is shot at while riding his horse, he blames Adam  but Mrs. Callum knows that in fact it’s another member of the Callum clan who is out to get him, her brother-in-law, Grant (Dean Jagger) out to avenge events of the past of which Jeb has only the most tenuous knowledge … This psychological revenge western is a film noir with Freudian aspects – obliterating the notion of family in a glassily emotional construction which has lots of weird nightmarish aftereffects to haunt the viewer making us feel like Mitchum’s sleepwalking protagonist. There is plenty to enjoy here beyond the immediacy of the character tensions – the stunning nocturnal landscapes (shot by James Wong Howe, edited by Christian Nyby), the oppressive interiors, the suspense of the revelations withheld until a crucial moment in the drama and Mitchum singing The Streets of Laredo in a score composed by Max Steiner Adapted by Niven Busch (Wright’s husband) from a story by Horace McCoy, this is one of the strangest and least logical films in that narrow sub-genre which lasted a few years after WW2.  It’s worth it for the contrasting performing styles of its fantastic stars engaged in this baroque clashing of generic components and the return of the repressed. Directed by Raoul Walsh. If that house was me what part of me was buried in those graves?

The Night My Number Came Up (1955)

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They kept talking about the mainland.  They were in very heavy cloud.  It kept getting darker and darker … British Air Marshal Hardie (Michael Redgrave) is attending a party in Hong Kong when he hears of a dream, told by a pilot Commander Lindsay (Michael Hordern), in which Hardie’s flight to Tokyo on a small Dakota propeller plane crashes on a Japanese beach. Hardie dismisses the dream as pure fantasy, but while he is flying to Tokyo the next day, circumstances start changing to line up with the pilot’s vivid vision, including the plane they have to take and it looks like the dream disaster may become a reality… R. C. Sheriff’s screenplay is a game of two halves:  what happens in the first leg of the flight, when it doesn’t have quite the quota of components outlined by Lindsay;  but then the second leg has the flashy loudmouth businessman Bennett (George Rose) and all the fears of the passengers in the know about Lindsay’s prophetic dream start to manifest in their behaviour. Then they hit a storm, the wings ice up and they lose radio contact – and are to all intents and purposes lost. There are nice behavioural touches here, as people come to terms with their own beliefs in the supernatural or otherwise. There’s a nice ensemble including Ursula Jeans, Sheila Sim, Victor Maddern and Alfie Bass as a bolshie soldier. Director Leslie Norman found the original story, from the real-life journal of British Air Marshal Sir Victor Goddard in a 1951 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Ealing’s Michael Balcon wouldn’t let him write the script and turned it over to Sheriff whose efforts in the director’s opinion added nothing to the story. However the final twist is quite pleasing. Handled well. Almost as well as the flight itself!

Wakefield (2016)

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What is so sacrosanct about a marriage and a family that you have to live in it day after day after day? New York City lawyer Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) has a nervous breakdown and hides out in the garage attic of his home for weeks, watching his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and young daughters from the vantage point of the first floor window, coming out in the daytime when his family is gone in order to shower and eat. His withdrawal leads him to examine his life, and he rationalizes that he has not abandoned his family because he is still in the house. When a former boyfriend Wall Street trader Dirk Morrison (Jason O’Mara) re-enters his wife’s life, he realizes that he may not be able to return to the life that he has abandoned… E. L. Doctorow’s short story (by way of Hawthorne) gets a strange workout from writer/director Robin Swicord who previously adapted Little Women and The Jane Austen Book Club.  It seems like a cross between Rear Window, The Seven Year Itch and (maybe) Mad Men. In literary terms we might then say Cornell Woolrich meets John Cheever. But that is part of the problem since it requires a (intermittently unreliable) narration to make sense. Cranston is given something of an odd showcase for his particular brand of addled masculinity but this is really the portrait of a marriage gone wrong. And perhaps the lesson is that a relationship born out of dishonourable behaviour will never last (he stole his wife from his friend). One of the lessons of cinema is show, don’t tell. Or at least don’t do both simultaneously. One hour in, Howard tells us, I left myself. Seventy minutes in he declares, My family is better off without me. Ya think?! There are some amusing moments and scenes – when his Early Man Neanderthal look earns him pity and coins in a public park while reading about his former friend’s success on the front of a business magazine. When he’s chased through the neighbourhood gardens and discovered by the disabled kids next door. When he observes a memorial service to himself – complete with PowerPoint photograph. But it’s not enough. And you know what? You really do need someone to state the absolutely bleeding obvious, like they did at the worst ever stage production of The Diary of Anne FrankHe’s in the attic! And cut the legs from under this narcissistic drag of a man. A disappointment.

 

 

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

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 I think the world may be going through a phase, the way I was with mother. It’ll pass. Maybe not hundreds of years, but someday. – I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart. In 1945 Otto Frank (Joseph Schildkraut) revisits the Amsterdam building where he and his wife and young daughters were hidden from the Nazis during the Occupation and recalls their life in the cramped space with other families … In Nazi-occupied Holland in 1942, shopkeeper Kraler (Douglas Spencer) hides two Jewish families in the attic above his office. Young Anne Frank (Millie Perkins) keeps a diary of everyday life for the Franks and the Van Daans (Lou Jacobi and Shelley Winters) chronicling the Nazi threat as well as family dynamics. They have to maintain total silence during office hours. Miep (Dody Heath) frequently visits with food and other items to keep them going. A romance with Peter Van Daan (Richard Beymer) causes jealousy between Anne and her sister, Margot (Diane Baker). Only Kraler’s radio can provide any relief, especially when troops land at Normandy. But then the office telephone rings repeatedly and the strain tells … As it is Holocaust Memorial Day it is apt to recall a film which was based on a diary (probably co-authored post hoc by her father) kept by an ordinary teenage girl recording her impressions of her daily experiences, her first love, her day-to-day activities and fantasies amid extraordinary circumstances – the utterly desperate covert existence led by a disparate and uncomfortably ill-matched group of people forced to live out in cramped conditions under threat of discovery by Nazis and their collaborators and informers in wartime Holland. It was essential reading when I was growing up and it can hardly have lost its lustre or significance. The building where the family hid was the first destination for me on my trip to Amsterdam and it was unbearably moving to see the newspaper cuttings of movie stars (a lot of Garbo) pasted to the wall in the room where Anne had slept. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett adapted their own stage play (based on Diary of a Young Girl) and it perfectly captures the initial civility that gives way to the normal reactions to which people under pressure might succumb when food goes missing (stolen by selfish Van Daan), a fake cat allergy (Ed Wynn as dentist Albert Dussell), and a thief who makes regular night-time visits to the safe downstairs, with everyone simply dreading a knock on the door. When Anne has a nightmare about the schoolfriend taken to a concentration camp it is a jolt. While former model Perkins doesn’t have quite sufficient emotional range to convey the complexity of the role (which, to be fair, may have been mostly fictional in the first place) the stresses and irritations of people stuck with each other provide a narrative arc with certain inevitable outcomes that are extremely well played out. The story is persuasively told – suspenseful, tense, sentimental, and, worst of all, horribly true. Directed by George Stevens, a man forever changed by what he saw in the camps. פן ישכחו.


					

How To Murder Your Wife (1965)

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Follow the adventures of America’s favorite hen-pecked boob! Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) is a successful cartoonist with his syndicated Bash Brannigan strip and happily single, cosseted by his disdainful valet Charles (Terry-Thomas) who maintains the status quo which includes his weight. That’s until Stanley gets drunk at a friend’s bachelor party and impulsively proposes to the beautiful woman who pops out of the cake (Virna Lisi). Once sober and back home the next morning with a total stranger, he regrets the decision, but she won’t agree to a divorce – she’s Italian! And doesn’t speak a word of English until she stays up all night watching TV. During the day she cooks him delicious fattening meals and he can barely jog around the gym any longer. Stanley jokingly vents his frustrations in his comic strip by having the main character kill his wife with Charles  returning to the fold in his usual role of photographer in chief. But when his actual wife goes missing and Stanley is arrested for her murder, he has a change of heart – then there’s a trial and he has to find a way to demonstrate that he doesn’t always draw cartoons from pre-photographed scenarios … Written and produced by George Axelrod and directed by Lemmon’s regular collaborator, Richard Quine, this is as good-looking as we’ve come to expect of the team and is a lot of fun. Part of the charm is in the casting which has some fantastic supporting characters, especially Eddie Mayehoff as Harold Lampson, Stanley’s lawyer, who himself harbours fantasies about murdering his own wife, Edna (Claire Trevor) an Italophile who suspects Stanley of foul deeds. Lisi is a delight as Mrs Ford (we never learn her real name) and this was the first of her Hollywood films in which she was clearly being groomed to emulate Marilyn Monroe, whose death pose (itself widely acknowledged to have been carefully staged) she unfortunately emulates in one of Stanley’s fantasies while she is asleep. And what about that white gown! Fabulous. Nonetheless, despite the misogynistic aspects, this is great fun and … the women have the last (gap-toothed!) word. As it should be.

Cleopatra (1963)

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Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus. The Seventh Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) manipulates and falls in love with both Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) in her ill-fated attempt to save the Egyptian empire from a takeover by the Roman Empire. This love triangle is one of the most famous ever to be captured on film, with betrayal by trusted Octavian (Roddy McDowall), the murder of Caesar, the escape of Cleopatra who has borne Caesar’s son and the final, terrible defeat at Actium in Greece … What gets lost in the palaver about this truly epic historical saga which ruined Twentieth Century Fox for a while is just how good it is:  how it measures the scale of the action to the depth of performance. Elizabeth Taylor is imperious, vulnerable, scathing, dictatorial, brilliant and moving: What can I do? Where can I go in a world suddenly without you? You believe her. And she is matched by the acerbic Harrison, the slyly snide McDowall (we’re a long way from Lassie!), loyal Rufio (Martin Landau) and what about the very sad end of Burton whose line to Octavian makes you gulp with emotion:  Is there nobody who would grant Antony an honourable way to die? Oh! Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by C.M. Franzero and the histories by Plutarch, Appian and Suetonius the much-laboured upon screenplay is by Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, and director Joseph Mankiewicz who certainly suffered for everybody’s art as the man to take over the botched first attempt aborted in London and relaunched at Cinecitta in Rome. As legendary as this is for its effect on Hollywood, what shouldn’t be forgotten is what a brilliant spectacle it is. It’s quite breathtaking.