London Road (2015)

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Perhaps it’s no surprise that the dominant colour in a movie musical about a community’s reaction to a British serial killer of prostitutes should be grey. Alecky Blythe’s revolutionary stage production (music by Adam Cork) gets a screen adaptation by director Rufus Norris.  We hear the real-life transcripts of interviews with local residents in Ipswich related in halting, lilting, compositional style with appropriate pauses and inflexions as truck driver Steven Wright is arrested in their midst. Ten weeks! they cry. He only lived here ten weeks! This small part of town has seen an upswing in sex workers and it’s lowered the tone somewhat. In a mostly anonymous cast who sing through and use Sprechgesang technique Olivia Colman has the biggest role as a woman trying to get things back on an even keel, encouraging people to create hanging baskets leading up to a garden competition that concludes the reparations. Tom Hardy is the serial killer expert driving a taxi.  One outstanding song is It Could Be Him performed by two teenage girls boarding a bus – and that’s the beauty of this, its capacity to express everyone’s everyday thoughts and fears at the realisation that such a beast is among them. The disquieting reaction of one couple (glad the hookers are gone from the neighbourhood) also reflects people’s desire to say the unthinkable, despite the horror and tabloid revelations. This unsettling social realist outing is one of a kind with an occasional visual flourish, daring to suggest that a strange looking neighbour might be the real culprit, offering a very unusual twist ending. Definitely not LA LA Land.

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All That Heaven Allows (1955)

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The films of director Douglas Sirk were regarded as ‘women’s pictures’ and weren’t properly re-evaluated as satires of class until the late Sixties:  never mind that, when I was 13 and saw this on TV all I knew was it was one of the most spectacular movies I’d ever seen and Rock Hudson was a hunk. All true. Staid widowed Jane Wyman is wooed by the younger man who cuts those gorgeous birches in the garden and she’s never given him a second thought – until they strike up a conversation one day and this mother of two obnoxious college students finds herself being romanced. The vicious country club set don’t like it but she finds a new way of being, amongst him and his offbeat friends, who have to explain to her how war has affected men like him and getting back to the land and being true to yourself and not your twinset is actually a good idea. It’s Walden versus Eisenhower. All hell breaks loose when the kids find out and Jane is given a TV set to distract herself during the lonely Christmas vacation … Stunning exploration of womanhood by a director at the height of his powers with images you will never forget (by Russell Metty) of the changing seasons in the life of a woman who has to find her own way, for herself. Screenplay by Peggy Fenwick from a story by Edna Lee and Harry Lee and produced by Ross Hunter, who had put Hudson and Wyman together in the previous year’s Universal smash, Magnificent Obsession, with the same director. For that desert island.

Dare to be Wild (2016)

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Wasn’t it Voltaire who advised people to tend their own (metaphorical) garden? Garden designer Mary Reynolds does it here, in spades. This story of a young country girl who believes in fairies and grows up to be a willful eccentric who wants to compete at the Chelsea Garden Show is a most unusual Irish film:  it looks great. DoP Cathal Watters and debutante director Vivienne DeCourcy obviously decided, Enough of the grey skies and the muddy vistas, and tore up the rulebook about how to present a country where it rains 10 months of the year. They might even have taken a leaf from the Irish National Gallery and noted the palette of William Leech’s garden paintings with their blistering sunlight, glistening whites and brilliant tones. This is a film of playful, rainbow colours, dominated by Consolata Boyle’s extraordinary costume design telling Mary’s story through her clothes – compensating perhaps for a rather wayward if charming performance at the story’s centre by Emma Greenwell as she makes her way gawkily through Dublin society. She has to fight for funding and gain the trust of fellow outsider Christy Collard (Tom Hughes), an eco-designer whose preoccupation with bringing water to Ethiopia sets them at odds when she appeals for his aid because his family’s business can help supply wildflowers and 200-year old whitethorn trees to build her Celtic dream garden. The tone of the film is somewhat damaged by the unnecessary caricatures of Mary’s bete noire, Shah, the socially mobile employer who steals her design book;  Madden, the Bono-like rock star; and Nigel Hogg, the head of Chelsea. These strike an odd note in a film of otherwise impeccably offbeat taste. The diversion to the desert of Ethiopia is a sensual breath of fresh air, the eventual romance hardly surprising given that Hughes is probably the most delectable flower on display, here or anywhere right now, a right royal heart throb as viewers of ITV’s Victoria will already know. In a fitting touch, Mary’s winning speech is the cosmic order tacked on her refrigerator door. Despite using the true story, the connection is disavowed at the conclusion, rather like Chelsea did to Reynolds when they wouldn’t allow her into the celebration at the Show’s finale. Quirky, lovely and just a little bit wild.

Bewitched (2005)

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Way back when, a friend saw a movie before me and her review was succinct:  “The fireplaces were marvellous.” And, aside from a wonderful cat called Lucinda who greatly resembles my own lovely Frodo, for a while that’s pretty much how I felt about this Nora Ephron outing – exacerbated in no small way by the fact that at the screening I attended there was a soundtrack of contemporary music for the first 10 minutes – the projectionist’s personal choice. So much for postmodernism – for that’s exactly what this is, an interweaving of the old TV show with a modern interpretation of how a reboot is put together by egomaniac freshly divorced and failing film star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) who bumps into the best nose-twitcher in LA, Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman). She’s a newbie to the Valley in an effort to enter the mortal realm and be normal – so she becomes an actress. Only in LA. She falls hard for Jack but his weaselly agent Ritchie (Jason Schwartzmann) rubbishes the idea in her hearing. She wants to put a spell on him and it works, for a while. The scriptwriter (Heather Burns, who also acted for Ephron in You’ve Got Mail) gives her great lines and shows up Jack/Darrin. “Nobody likes Darrin!” he whines when the preview numbers are in and she’s a hit and he’s not. Nora and Delia Ephron wrote this with Adam McKay who’s long been house writer/director of that bromance crew led by Ferrell. Here, warlock dad (Michael Caine) isn’t too impressed with the real world translation of immortal shenanigans but co-star Iris playing Endora (Shirley Maclaine) literally puts a spell on him because she’s got a witchy secret of her own. Halfway through Isabel rewinds her spell on Jack and their story re-starts – right in the middle of his guest interview with James Lipton, which is absolutely appropriate. Steve Carell and Carole Shelley have nice bits as Uncle Arthur and Clara, Ferrell gets to go naked in front of Conan and Nicole has a ball in a light as air souffle, just as Ephron would have served up for one of her carefully constructed meals, with an I Love You scene that perfectly fuses the structural ambitions of this postmodern romcom. Are Isabel and Jack in love with each other? Their characters? The idea? Themselves? That is the question … “I’m about to be killed by a fictional character!” squeaks Jack at one point. Well, duh. And the kitchen is marvellous!

Westworld (1973)

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Boy, have we got a vacation for you! Michael Crichton hadn’t wanted to make a science fiction film as his feature directing debut. The successful doctor and writer (now that’s a real multi-hyphenate) had however visited Disneyland and been fascinated by the robotised Pirates of the Caribbean ride and saw the potential for a story.  (Not the one that made Johnny Depp rich as Croesus. Ira Levin similarly had a  lightbulb moment following a visit to the Hall of Presidents and the result was The Stepford Wives.) This corresponded with Crichton’s interest in machine and human interaction, technology, systems failure, and things going awry, so he came up with the concept of a theme park for adults where they could safely live out their fantasies for a few days and a thousand bucks. There are three worlds at Delos:  Roman, Mediaeval and Westworld, which is where Richard Benjamin and James Brolin hole up to de-stress – it’s Benjamin’s first time, Brolin’s second. The plan is to shoot some harmless rounds,enjoy a drink at the saloon and the attentions of some robotised whores. They don’t figure on a a robot rebellion or getting involved in the revenge fantasy of The Gunslinger, an android programmed to instigate gunfights. He’s played by Yul Brynner, equipped with pixellated point of view which was a first for cinema and necessitated an expensive animation process. The rebellion appears to be infectious and spreads through the three worlds and those guns that are supposed to recognise body heat start killing humans as the technicians start to die, locked into the control lab … A lot of the fun is seeing Brynner reprising his garb from The Magnificent Seven and imbuing his droid with that inimitable charisma, this time in villain mode. Not so much fun in real life, by some accounts. When he was playing in The King and I at London’s Palladium, one of his fans waited for him by the stage door at the conclusion of every evening’s performance in the hopes of getting his autograph.  He refused. Finally, she bought a bunch of flowers which he brushed off. So she hit him over the head with them. The Palladium’s manager, John Avery, who died recently, famously said, “It was the only time I saw the fan hit the shit.” A TV series Beyond Westworld was made in 1980 and lasted just five episodes;  we are however about to see a new TV interpretation, co-created by Jonathan Nolan (yes, that one), exec’d by JJ Abrams and starting in October. Can’t wait!

The Kids Are Alright (2010)

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It’s not an especially new dilemma not to know your real father – a friend of mine did a genealogical survey in Ireland c18 years ago and discovered that more than 20% of legitimate children in the Republic were not born to the head of household (and obviously didn’t know … national incest alert!) And in these days of alternative families and soaring rates of illegitimacy, who knows who anyone is without a DNA test?!  When restless teen son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) of Lesbian moms – control freak doc Nic (Annette Bening) and flaky gardener Jules (Julianne Moore) – goes looking for the sperm donor who gave them their family, he’s under 18 so has to get older sister Joni (Mia Wasikowska) to do the deed. They find Paul (Mark Ruffalo) a genial, bohemian restaurateur who wants more involvement with them.  The underlying tensions in the domestic unit are raised. Issues of parenthood, family life, the role of the unknown father, marital compromise, mismatched unequal spouses, sex with the (non-)ex, teenage experience and growing pains are dealt with expertly and humorously by admirable writer/director Lisa Cholodenko (co-written with Stuart Blumberg). She has made some very smart contemporary comic dramas: High Art and particularly Laurel Canyon. Part of this narrative was based on her own story:  she shares her life with Wendy Melvoin, of the duo Wendy & Lisa who were Prince’s collaborators at the height of his 80s superstardom with the Revolution (they co-wrote Sometimes It Snows in April. Sob). This is spectacularly well cast and performed with not a duff or inauthentic moment. And amongst other things, we find out why Lesbians enjoy watching gay (male) porn … TMI?  A very modern story.

A Little Chaos (2015)

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This might have started as the equivalent of a vanity project – for actor/writer/director Alan Rickman. However the subject matter of the creating of a garden for Louis XIV offers more than that. Kate Winslet as the woman designer is as refreshing as one might expect (albeit her ludicrous hair colour is something she might address even as it singles her out …) and the story of her travails is well-paced, gradually introducing the issue of her personal tragedy. She is surrounded by the kind of British cast you might expect plus Stanley Tucci in an unusual supporting role. Sabine’s situation is highly odd in society of the time and the way in which she is brought into a women’s salon is well achieved, illustrating that she is in fact not that different from other women at that time. Not exactly action-packed but not utterly unsatisfying either. And, as everyone concerned says, there is a lot of muck here. That’s gardens for you.