Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

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Don’t anyone suppose that because I’m a woman, I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you’re awake, I shall be afield before you’re up, and I shall have breakfasted before you’re afield. In short, I shall astonish you all. In the late nineteenth century in England’s West Country beautiful young Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) inherits a picturesque farm from her uncle and decides to run it herself. Three very different suitors – Francis Troy (Terence Stamp), an intense soldier who has impregnated a maid; William Boldwood (Peter Finch), a prosperous middle-aged farmer; and Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), a neighbouring sheep farmer of modest means – all contend for her hand in marriage and her different attitudes to each of them cause conflict and tragedy … At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be. And whenever you look up, there I shall be. Adapted by Frederic Raphael from Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, this is one of the most gloriously beautiful films of its era, starring some of the most attractive British performers, all shot in almost decadently luminous imagery by the great Nicolas Roeg, a few years from making his directing debut. However none of that would matter if it weren’t for the management of the material which clarifies the novel’s question – how is it possible for a woman to maintain her independence and property while claiming a romantic relationship for herself? The painful issues of patriarchy and community combine when Bathsheba turns down Gabriel’s offer of marriage and she inadvertently triggers a chain of horribly dramatic events in this bucolic setting. It’s director John Schlesinger’s third film with Christie and she’s at the peak of her beauty and charisma playing this passionate girl. You can understand why everybody loves her. A woman like you does more damage than she can conceivably imagine

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The Looking Glass War (1970)

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I’ve never been a spy before. It will be a new experience for me.  Polish defector Leiser (Christopher Jones) is lured into the world of espionage by a shadowy adjunct to MI6 run by Leclerc (Ralph Richardson) and Haldane (Paul Rogers) with the promise of British residency so that he can see his pregnant girlfriend (Susan George). Trouble is she’s aborted the baby and he drowns his sorrows with his training operative John Avery (Anthony Hopkins) before entering East Germany to clarify if blurred photographs from Hamburg are proof of a missile site. He pairs up with Anna (Pia Degermark) who wants out from the Iron Curtain and together they embark on a treacherous undertaking with high risks and mixed results … Never lean on your opponent.  Never lose your temper.  And why fight over a knife when there’s a gun under your arm? This adaptation of John le Carré’s novel by writer/director Frank Pierson starts with an intriguing encounter at an airport which winds up with a roadside death. Accident? This downbeat deconstruction of the spy’s life continues in the vein of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and its satirical intent is conveyed in that first sequence – the spy can’t get taxi expenses and loses the film he’s paid a pilot to smuggle, killed by a camper van sliding along the snowy road. The author claimed it’s the most accurate depiction of his own experiences in espionage – including a misplaced longing for the glory days of WW2, utter incompetence and the futility of much intelligence activity. However the tone of anti-nostalgia in this story of The Department’s ineptitude is sacrificed for a more straightforward (and duller) exposition. The classic character of George Smiley is dropped from the source novel. There are plenty of incidental pleasures however, not least the cinematography by Austin Dempster; Jones’ gear (like a forerunner of Robert Redford’s getup in Three Days of the Condor), all peacoat and steel-rimmed mirror shades; a rare performance by Elvira Madigan herself, Degermark; and a score that is both modish and interesting from Wally Stott (responsible for arranging Scott Walker’s first three solo albums) who changed sex two years later and became Angela Morley. Morals are a bitch on heat

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

Life Itself (2018)

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Life itself being the ultimate unreliable narrator.  College sweethearts Will (Oscar) and Abby (Olivia Wilde)f all in love, get married and prepare to bring their first child into the world. As their story unfolds in New York, fate links their daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke), Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and his girlfriend Isabel (Laia Costa) who marry and have Rodrigo (Alex Monner), wealthy Spanish landowner Vincent (Antonio Banderas) when all these lives criss-cross ... I may not be equipped to be loved this much. Basically most people in the story get hit by a bus in a narrative that writer/director Dan Fogelman attempts to link through sugar-spun uncleverness into a statement about random acts and gee shucks unwisdom together with Bob Dylan songs and a Pulp Fiction homage.  In the end what can be said about this contribution to the cinematic art? It’s made in colour? It has sound? Everybody dies? Yes, eventually. Life being a series of unfortunate events, a tale full of misery told by idiots. But this sanctimonious saccharine is quite ghastly. This is not the right story

A League of Their Own (1992)

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Every girl in this league is going to be a lady. In 1988 Dottie Hinson (Lynn Cartwright) is persuaded by her daughter to attend an event at the Baseball Hall of Fame commemorating the women’s league established during World War 2, when her husband had gone to fight and she was left looking after the farm with her younger sister. This prompts a flashback to the day a scout (Jon Lovitz)came calling and lured them into professional sport after candy bar mogul and Cubs owner Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall) decides to set up a new event with women athletes when the Major League games might be shut down for years. Dottie (Geena Davis) isn’t too keen despite being a great catcher.  But her younger sister and pitcher Kitty (Lori Petty) wants to make something of her life and they go together to try out at Harvey Field in Chicago and join a crew of other women doing something new:   a pair of New Yorkers, taxi dancer  ‘All the Way’ Mae Mordabito (Madonna) and her best friend, bouncer Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell);  soft-spoken right fielder Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram); illiterate, shy left fielder Shirley Baker (Ann Cusack); pitcher/shortstop and former Miss Georgia beauty queen Ellen Sue Gotlander (Freddie Simpson); gentle left field/relief pitcher Betty “Spaghetti” Horn (Tracy Reiner); homely second baseman Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh), first baseman Helen Haley (Anne Ramsay); and Saskatchewan native Alice ‘Skeeter’ Gaspers (Renee Colman). They and eight others are selected to form the Rockford Peaches, coached by Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) a former player and a drunk who wasted the last five years in a bottle and is only doing this for the money. But some of the women actually want to win even as their internal team rivalries threaten their potential … I have seen enough to know I have seen too much. What a great line! That’s one of the commentators on a high point of a game late in this marvellous film, which in its pitch (yes!) perfectly catches (yes, again!) the hopes, fears and achievements of the All- American Girls Professional Baseball League, a sporting institution established when the men went off to fight. From a story by Kelly Candaele and Kim Wilson, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel craft a screenplay that is characterful, witty, broad and specific, with each player given an arc to play beyond what’s on the field.  Davis is superb as the charismatic woman whose younger sister only sees a rival who has blocked her throughout her life and Hanks gives a perfect comic performance as the guy who finally touches base once again with his inner competitor when he needs to persuade others of their worth.  Moving and funny in turn, and a brilliant tribute to a little-known period in sport, this is a superb entertainment, proving director Penny Marshall’s hit with Big was no fluke. She was inspired to make this after seeing a 1987 documentary and she set the project in motion. What a gal. The credits sequence rounds it out with one of Madonna’s best songs (This Used to be My Playground) over a game with the older women and some inspiring photographs. Ladies, it’s been a thin slice of heaven

 

 

Frieda (1947)

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You can’t treat a human being as less then human without becoming less than human yourself. RAF pilot Robert Dawson (David Farrar) returns home to Middle England from World War II with his new bride, Frieda Mansfeld (Mai Zetterling), the German nurse who helped him escape from a prisoner-of-war camp and whom he has married in Germany during an air raid. Because she is Catholic and they married in a Protestant church they are to marry in his village. In the meantime, Frieda has to deal with the  bigotry of people, including Robert’s family, and his aunt Nell (Flora Robson) whose political career is threatened and who is forced to denounce her future sister-in-law on the hustings. His late brother Alan’s wife Judy (Glynis Johns) is conflicted over her feelings for Robert.  Robert gives up his teaching job when boys drop out of school because of their families’ objections to his associating with the enemy. Six months later and just when the small town’s prejudice against her begins to subside and she agrees to marry Robert in a local Catholic church, Frieda’s brother Richard (Albert Lieven), a closet Nazi sympathiser, arrives for a visit, causing even Robert’s faith in his wife to be tested and leading to a standoff in a local pub when a victim from the camps recognises his tormentor and declares he wouldn’t forget the man who scarred his face in a thousand years.  Robert takes Richard’s word over Frieda’s …  The Germans look so ordinary we forget they’re not like the rest of us. Vividly written, performed and directed (by Basil Dearden), this is an enervating treatise from the house of Ealing on post-war Britain and attitudes to Germans, Germany and Nazism. With the piquant presence of Farrar, whose hyper-masculinity is well used (as it was by Powell and Pressburger) even if the film doesn’t fulfill the role’s promise, this is balanced by the sorrowful acting of a luminous Zetterling and the pivotal role played by Robson, who is not delighted to be proven correct in her suspicions, just gravely pleased that the British are so accepting of foreigners but aware of the price they must pay as a result. She is the force field about whom this revolves. The eloquent screenplay is written by Angus MacPhail and Ronald Millar. Scored by John Greenwood.  Then it does not matter what I am myself. I am German. That is all that counts 

The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947)

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I’d like to meet the men who won’t take orders from me.  In Edwardian Britain, a young woman has three suitors who seek her hand in marriage.  When Joanna Godden’s (Googie Withers) father dies, he bequeathed her a farm on the Romney Marsh in Kent. Joanna is determined to run the place herself. Her neighbour Arthur Alce (John McCallum) laughs at her ambitions, but loves her. Choosing a new shepherd, Collard (Chips Rafferty), she allows physical attraction to a man to overcome her judgment as a farmer and her scheme for cross-breeding sheep is unsuccessful after it’s met with mirth. Her wealth gone, she turns to Arthur Alce for help – but not love. That she accepts from Martin Trevor (Derek Bond), a visitor from the world beyond the Marsh. But on the eve of their marriage Martin dies in a drowning accident. When her sister Ellen (Jean Kent) returns from boarding school they clash about everything – and then Arthur asks for Ellen’s hand in marriage …  Things look very different when you’ve someone to share them with.  Isn’t Googie Withers just fabulous? That name. That face! So open and yet complex, a mask veiled with hidden depths, filled with pleasing astringency. She can say absolutely anything and you believe her – absolutely. Here she’s the feminist farmer, a character somewhat out of Thomas Hardy but actually from Sheila Kaye-Smith’s novel Joanna Godden adapted by H.E. Bates and Angus MacPhail, a woman whose story is told through her inheritance of a farm in Romney Marsh and via the rather nasty sisterly rivalry enjoyed opposite the brilliant Kent. The swirling, sonorous score conjuring up the location’s mysteries is by Ralph Vaughan-Williams and the slinky cinematography is by Ealing’s house expert, Douglas Slocombe. Perhaps what’s best about this after the atmospheric landscape which is so vividly enlivened is that Withers and McCallum married. This also features the marvellous Chips Rafferty a year after The Overlanders as – what else – a sheep farmer!  Directed by Charles Frend who had an uncredited assist by Robert Hamer when he fell ill. We hear a lot but we aren’t told much

Gone With the Wind (1939)

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What a woman.  The life of petulant southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), from her idyllic youth on a sprawling plantation, through her survival through the tragic history of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and her tangled love affairs with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who marries his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland); and roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who wants her for himself and makes money as a blockade runner while Ashley goes to warLand’s the only thing that matters, the only thing that lasts. The drama of David O.Selznick’s search for Scarlett is well known, so too the issues with the directors (George Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming, who was replaced for a spell by Sam Wood) but it’s the antebellum grandeur and the personalities of this epic historical romance set against the Civil War that continue to enthrall.  The beauty of plantation life is contrasted with the vivid scenes of Atlanta in flames;  the picture perfect homes and life embroidering and dancing and romancing are juxtaposed with the screams of the dying soldiers. Scarlett’s deceitful delusions about Ashley are dissipated by the reality of his cowardice. And there are the unexpected mini-dramas too:  that Scarlett becomes a can-do woman and saves Tara as her family cry bullying; when Rhett drunkenly asserts his droit de seigneur over Scarlett, she wakes up the next day as pleased with herself as the cat that got the cream. This image still has the capacity to shock (if not entirely surprise). That the screenplay and the performances effortlessly manage the extremes of humanity is a tribute to the talent behind the scenes and in front of camera. Gable is magnificent, but so too is de Havilland as Melanie, the kindest woman ever, who has the breadth of compassion to handle everything put her way and unexpectedly expresses delight when Scarlett kills a Yankee soldier. However it is Leigh’s film:  she is simply perfect as the selfish coquette who becomes brave when everyone around her is falling to pieces and she lives a wholly ironic life as a result. They say great characters make great books and I read it when I was fourteen, a great age to appreciate the feeling that Margaret Mitchell gives to these fully developed people living through the worst of times and trying in their own particular way to survive it. Expertly adapted by Sidney Howard. Wonderful. Tomorrow is another day

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

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I’ve seen things I never thought could happen happen. In 1946 London-based writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James) begins exchanging letters with residents on the island of Guernsey, which was German-occupied during WWII after one of them, pig farmer Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) comes into possession of her copy of Essays of Elia. Her new book of humour enables her to buy a decent home but it doesn’t fit her down to earth style and she stays in a bedsit in a boarding house.  Her publisher Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode) is urging her to go on a proper publicity tour but she is restless. Romanced by US Army officer Markham Reynolds (Glen Powell) who fills her home with daily bouquets and dances her around the finest venues in London, the letters from the quaintly named book club pique her curiosity. Feeling compelled to visit the island, she starts to get a picture of what it was like during the occupation but her desire to write an article for The Times elicits opposition, particularly from Amelia (Penelope Wilton) who regarded the mysteriously absent club member Elizabeth (Jessica Browne Findlay) as her daughter yet whose little child is being reared by Dawsey. When things get difficult at the guest house run by Charlotte Stimple (Bronagh Gallagher) Juliet takes refuge with gin-maker Isola (Katharine Parkinson) and Eben the postmaster (Tom Courtenay) is always at hand with support and a telephone line …. The little-acknowledged German occupation of the Channel Islands and its very complex legacy is often the forgotten part of what went on during World War 2 in the British Isles. Mary Ann Shaffer’s novel, inspired by a visit there, was completed posthumously by her niece, Annie Barrows, and the screenplay by Kevin Hood, Don Roos and Tom Bezucha (the latter two substantial directors in their own right) transcends the material, bringing to life an extraordinary episode in fictional form. The story of Elizabeth and her transgression is wrought exponentially not necessarily because anyone wants Juliet to know the story but precisely because their own prejudices and beliefs are called into question, as well as a sense of guilt over the outcome, which is of course the big reveal. Perhaps James and Huisman are not ideally meant in movie star heaven – Powell is a much more obvious fit, a good guy, a sparky romantic lead and a well-meaning operator who helps solve the puzzle of Elizabeth, but in matters of the heart, we never know how other people work and the obvious is not always right.  More than that, this explores the real dilemma that a writer has:  confronting her failure as a serious biographer (The Life of Ann Brontë sold 28 copies – “worldwide,” as her publisher helpfully contributes to a roomful of rapt readers of her Izzy Bickerstaff book). So the frothy crowd-pleasing delights on English foibles she is now expected to produce frustrate her when she is confronted by real emotion after wartime’s effects are truly felt by British victims of the Nazi regime who don’t want fairy stories told about them.  It is the resolution of both story problems that produces the conclusion and that is the real achievement of this melding of fact and the manufacture of fiction. Above all, this is a film about the joy of reading. Beautifully shot on location with great production design and attention to historical detail, this is quite spellbinding. Directed by Mike Newell.

Justice League (2017)

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I guess this means the band’s not getting back together. Fuelled by his restored faith in humanity, and inspired by Superman’s (Henry Cavill) selfless act, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck and his new face) enlists newfound ally Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to face an even greater threat from Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) who’s wielding his terror on the island of Amazons led by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly-awakened enemy. Superman’s mom Martha (Diane Lane) confides in Lois Lane (Amy Adams) that the bank has foreclosed on the family farm. Despite the formation of an unprecedented league of gifted heroes including Aquaman aka Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), Cyborg aka Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) and the Flash aka Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), it may be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions… You don’t want me to live. You don’t want me to die.  If I cared about this, I’d care about this, if you know what I mean. At the heart of it is Superman’s crisis – instead we are diverted full tilt boogie by a truly gobsmackingly dumb story about Steppenwolf and his three Mother Boxes (I ask you) screwing up those ladies who mothered Wonder Woman. The effects are horrible:  this is one visually awful film. The mentoring relationship between Batman and nerdy/autistic Barry/Flash has some moments of humour (especially with Affleck’s cosmetics denying his facial mobility, complementing his line delivery) and echoes the story’s underlying mentoring/parenting theme.  Lacking faith in the original story’s thrust we have to endure some foreign family’s suffering to, you know, pack in the contemporary emotion because the West and North of the planet are full of non-English speakers flooding onto our shores from the South and East, as if we all didn’t know.  Newsflash straight from Gotham! Crime is bad! People are awful! Vengeful gods are killer! A leaner, meaner narrative could have done wonders because – how ironic – it’s the action that lets this down. Oh! The metahumanity! The screenplay is credited to Chris Terrio & Joss Whedon from a story by Terrio & director Zack Snyder.