The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

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You can never tell who your enemies are, or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I love animals so much. You look in their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts. They’re not like people. The time is 1939 and the place is Poland, homeland of veterinarian Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh). The Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). The Zabinskis covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save the lives of hundreds from what has become the Warsaw Ghetto… Zoos and Jews. That’s what this should have been called. And unless you’re either sadistic or masochistic or a Nazi you won’t enjoy the spectacle of mass murder perpetrated on either party in the Warsaw Ghetto or at the Zoo. As usual Niki Caro’s film is a game of two halves with an ugly child. It’s hard to empathise because Chastain – not an actress who really cares if we like her – is the main protagonist and she has a squeaky high-pitched accent so ludicrous you laugh and it’s only in the second half that the action, narrative and emotions clarify and coalesce. You can probably guess the ending (the Nazis lost, the zoo survived, the Jews and animals, not so much.) Adapted by Angela Workman from Diane Ackerman’s book, based on a true story. Goy veh!

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Fletch (1985)

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Are you putting a whole fist up there Doc? Irwin Fletcher (Chevy Chase) is an undercover reporter doing a drugs story while disguised as a homeless junkie on the beach when he’s approached by businessman Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson) to kill him for $50,000 because he’s got bone cancer. Fletch identifies himself as Ted Nugent. He then investigates this fascinating proposition, donning a myriad of disguises and identities (we particularly like the 49c teeth), getting mired in Stanwyk’s marital disarray, property deals, police corruption involving Chief of Police Karlin (Joe Don Baker) – and murder. And he gets to know Alan’s LA wife Gail (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) in a mutually satisfying fashion. Win! Gregory Mcdonald’s novel gets a fast-moving adaptation from Andrew Bergman, a director in his own right (there was some additional uncredited work by fellow writer-director Phil Alden Robinson.)  Chase gives the performance (or performances) that you’d expect – droll and deadpan, always amiable (yet plucky!) and the running joke about his bizarre expense claims is well done. Fine, funny lighthearted fare handled with his customary aplomb by director Michael Ritchie, energised by a typically zippy plinkety-plonk score from Harold Faltermeyer, the go-to composer for zeitgeisty mid-Eighties entertainment. Chase even dons an Afro to play basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There’s a wonderful supporting cast including Geena Davis in the newsroom, David Harper (of The Waltons!) as ‘teenager’ and Kenneth Mars:  we are thrice blessed!

How to Steal a Million (1966)

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You should be in jail and I should be in bed. Super stylish Sixties Art Nouveau heist comedy about a painting forger Bonnet (Hugh Griffiths) whose daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) needs to steal back a famous but fake statue (by her grandfather) that he’s loaned to an art museum and does it with the aid of a thief Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole) –  who’s actually a private detective investigating this sort of thing.   Harry Kurnitz adapted the 1962  story Venus Rising from a collection about art forgeries by George Bradshaw and despite its overlength it coasts on the sheerly delightful charm of the leads and some very sparky dialogue. Charles Boyer has a blast as O’Toole’s boss and you’ll recognise the chief security guard at the museum Jacques Marin because he played the chief of police in Hepburn’s earlier Parisian comedy thriller, Charade. Eli Wallach is an industrialist who feigns romantic interest in Hepburn to get at her grandfather’s work and there’s an outstanding score by John Williams as well as to-die-for production design. Givenchy dressed Hepburn – mais quoi d’neuf? Directed by William Wyler reunited with Hepburn 13 years after Roman Holiday. Bliss.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

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Has there been a more ravishing film in the last twenty years? Hardly. And that’s just the start of it. Patricia Highsmith was an exquisitely stealthy writer, composing short, even, straightforward sentences that revealed ever so slowly the beating heart of psychotic Tom Ripley (and others) in relatively neat novels and stories that crept up on you before unsettling you permanently. The world never seemed quite as balanced thereafter. Ripley is barely making a living playing keyboards at chi-chi events in 1950s NYC when the wealthy father of someone he pretends to know makes him an offer he can’t refuse:  travel to Italy, bring home the reprobate Dickie Greenleaf and all for a handsome reward. When Ripley goes there and finds the beauteous Dickie shacking up with girlfriend Marge he craves their lifestyle, apes their liking for jazz and begins to send some misleading telegrams Stateside to keep Pop on a leash and lure Dickie into a gay relationship (some hope). Then he goes to any lengths necessary to take over Dickie’s life. Including murder …  As a Highsmith fan I had many problems with this in the first instance:  I attended an early screening, attended by writer/director Anthony Minghella and I had a burning question to ask but felt constrained by the company:  why cast pug-ugly Matt Damon as Ripley?  Did Harvey Weinstein force it? Particularly because the moment you see Jude Law as Dickie you are simply breathtaken:  he just stuns. His performance telegraphs contempt, superiority, ease, all at once, he doesn’t have to speak, he just IS. (He was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination).  And the beautiful Alain Delon was the most brilliant, audacious Ripley in Purple Noon/Plein Soleil. When Philip Seymour Hoffman appears as Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles he wipes Damon off the screen – and sees through his act. Perhaps that’s the whole point! In a study of class envy, Ripley is simply outclassed, on every level. Then there are the additions:  did Highsmith not write enough? Minghella created a whole new subplot with a woman called Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) whom Ripley encounters on the sea journey to Europe. She’s another discomfiting blonde goddess, balancing Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge but with a different kind of corny effect. So there are a lot of things wrong here if one thinks purely in terms of fidelity. But there are some right things too. There are extraordinary moments at times and isn’t that what Polanski says cinema is, moments? The entire effect can be wondrous, if you can get past the casting.

The Great Escape (1963)

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The famous (blacklisted) screenwriter Walter Bernstein once said that the success or failure of a film could be determined by its premise. Paul Brickhill’s true account of hundreds of Commonwealth POWs doing their darnedest to escape from Stalag Luft III by a tunnel made for a sentimental classic that still thrills and excites no matter how many times you watch it. Almost twenty years after hostilities had ceased there was no let-up in war films and everyone knew what side they were on. James Clavell and WR Burnett adapted the book. Burnett had adapted Gunga Din which was shot as Sergeants 3 by director John Sturges a couple of years earlier.  He was good at handling action and The Magnificent Seven also demonstrated his capacity to bring an ensemble together in a balanced way albeit in a fashion that flattered the egos of the stars. A surprising cast was assembled and boy did they deliver the goods – even James Coburn, utterly miscast as an Aussie, entertains. Amongst their number James Garner does a William Holden as the Scrounger, whose friendship with the Forger (Donald Pleasance) gives them both a taste of freedom, Richard Attenborough is terrific as steadfast Roger Bushell (a variant on Alec Guinness’ turn in Bridge on the River Kwai),  Gordon Jackson has the unfortunate task of replying to the Nazis at the station, and David McCallum is Ashley-Pitt or Dispersal, the man with the blond pageboy cut who falls at the last hurdle.  It falls to James Donald to pass on the bad news.  It is however Steve McQueen as Virgil Hilts, the Cooler King, who cemented his place in film history bouncing off the barbed wire fence on that motorbike. Cool is the word. To quote Susie Hinton, The Motorcycle Boy Reigns! Simply a classic.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

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Everything about this is smooth, from the opening graphic, creating the autumnal palette that drives the film’s design, to the reinterpretation by writers Leslie Dixon & Kurt Wimmer of Alan R. Trustman’s story, through the pacing, score (one of Bill Conti’s best), production design, direction (John McTiernan) and the wonderful, sassy performances by Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, who has one of the best women’s roles in the past 40 years. There’s nothing about this I don’t like – and I prefer it to the original, sacrilege though that may be in some quarters. Gorgeous, sophisticated and delicious, in every way.