It (2017)

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Aka It:  Chapter One. Go blow your dad you mullet-wearing asshole. Stephen King’s 1986 novel gets the big screen treatment here after a 1990 TV two-parter that has a fond place in many people’s memories.  It sticks with the first part of the novel – the kids’ experiences, and moves them forward, to the late Eighties. In 1988 Derry, Maine, little Georgie sails his  paper boat and it floats down a drain in a rainstorm and he is pulled in by Pennywise the Clown, becoming one of the town’s many missing kids. When school’s out next summer his older brother Bill sets out to find him with a bunch of other kids who all have their issues:  big mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, germophobe Stan, overweight newbie Ben, pretty Bev (the subject of false sex rumours) and black home-schooled Mike.  They are the Losers Club and have various problems with the parental figures in their lives. Ben’s research in the library proves that Derry has a very high mortality rate particularly when it comes to kids and every 27 years this demonic shapeshifting character manifests through their fears when he reappears to feed. But in the midst of their search they have to avoid the Bowers Gang, horrible greasers who violently terrorise them as they search the area’s sewers to find the centre of Pennywise’s hellish underground activities … Part of why this works so well is that the kids are taken seriously and their problems in the world are immense:  we’re talking child abuse and Munchausen by proxy, to name but two. We feel for them because they are fully rounded characters who have legitimate reason to fear grown ups. A clown in the sewers is as nothing compared to Dad waiting in the hallway to feel you up. It’s a perfectly judged drama. Another reason this works is because it inhabits familiar territory for many of us who recall Spielberg films of the era – the sight of a squad of boys on bikes recalls ET – and the King drama Stand By Me which was so iconic and one that also treats its protagonists respectfully. We also think about The Goonies:  the spirit of adventure is overwhelmingly attractive despite the dangers to this bunch of nerds and scaredy cats.  The Netflix show Stranger Things is an overt homage to all of these, mixing up the paranormal, horror and nostalgia for thirty years ago and the presence of cool girl Winona Ryder is such a plus.  Adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman;  directed by Andy Muschietti who gives the scenes equal weight and doesn’t give into the massive temptation to exaggerate the horror element, allowing each character to fully blossom. This is a coming of age story with panache and clowns and a wonderful ensemble of wholly believable kids and Bill Skarsgard donning the whiteface. Personally I can’t wait for part two set 27 years from 1989 when It reappears: wouldn’t it be really meta to cast Molly Ringwald as the adult incarnation of the Molly Ringwald lookalike? Awesome idea!

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Wind River (2017)

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How do you gauge someone’s will to live? I once knew a film producer who said the two rules of moviemaking were, Never make a western and Never make a film in the snow. Well thank goodness nobody told screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who makes his directing debut here following the screenplays for the extraordinary Sicario and Hell or High Water, two of the best films in the past decade. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is an agent (read:  animal catcher) for the US Fish and Wildlife Service working in the vast titular Native American reservation in Wyoming when he happens upon the body of a young woman Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) who was his own late daughter’s best friend. He’s seconded by a neophyte FBI officer Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to help her as she has no expertise in tracking or this mountainous terrain the size of Rhode Island with just 6 police officers led by Graham Greene. While Cory is still dealing with the fallout of a divorce, having to forego caring for his young son when his ex is out of town for a couple of days in order to look for the killers, we unspool through family photos and start to understand some of his motivation for helping this officer who doesn’t even have the right clothing for minus 20: Cory’s mother in law loans her her late granddaughter’s clothing with the warning, These are not a gift.  His young son is startled at the sight of this white girl in his dead sister’s clothes. Together Cory and Jane embark on a hunt when the coroner finds the girl has been likely multiply raped but drowned in her own blood because the alveoli in her lungs filled with freezing air as she ran barefoot from her assailants. She ran six miles. So it can’t officially be listed as murder. Then Cory finds a second body …  With all Sheridan’s films now we see a certain pattern:  the idea of borders, which also extend to different races and traditions and values transmuted through marriage, and of course singular acts of transgression which here comprise murder but obviously incorporate other acts of violation arising from untrammelled self-justification. It culminates in a chase and a shootout but concludes in an act of individual revenge on Wyoming’s highest mountain peak which calls to mind the work of James Stewart and Anthony Mann in their western collaborations.  Most debut writer/directors make the mistake of filing every hole with overwritten dialogue:  Sheridan is too shrewd for that.  He allows the pictures to speak for themselves, human nature to assert itself as it usually does and the dead bodies are permitted testimony to their brutal demise. He chooses to end on a frame that expresses friendship and acceptance.  (Followed by a piece of text which states that the only portion of the demographic not featured in Missing Person figures is Native American women.) It’s a very satisfying film – tense, character-driven, fast-moving and deeply felt – and it’s adorned with excellent performances and some beautifully mournful songs composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

A Cry in the Dark (1988)

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Aka Evil Angels. You could crack walnuts on her face. Fred Schepisi’s docudrama-style retelling of John Bryson’s book is real watercooler stuff:  the appalling tale of a 9-week old baby, Azaria Chamberlain, taken from her family’s tent at a campsite beneath Ayers Rock and presumably murdered, and the prosecution and wrongful conviction of her mother Lindy (Meryl Streep). A dingo’s got my baby! was the war cry attributed to the unsympathetic woman whose every character flaw was exposed by a prurient Australian press who condemned her because of her appearance (that terrible haircut!), speaking voice and curt mannerisms. As played by Streep, she is obviously a more complex, interesting and compassionate woman in private.  Her inner strength is immensely bothersome to a public who are shown reacting variously to news reportage on TV – in their own homes, in bars, on the streets – which serves to demonstrate the horrendous arena that is the court of public opinion as well as distancing us somewhat perhaps from a more penetrating account of the couple at the centre of the tragedy. Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is the pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa, Queensland and it is the minority nature of their Christian sect that also works against them when the name Azaria is wrongly reported to mean ‘sacrifice in the wilderness’. His unconvincing and wavering witness testimony does for his wife, as does the sheer incompetence of the expert witnesses, many of whose claims were later discounted. The impact of her interviews and the way in which they are misreported by a baying press is very well handled and her eventual imprisonment on circumstantial as opposed to forensic evidence is still strikingly mediaeval in its stupidity (preserve us all from juries). Streep is terribly good and the portrayal of a loving marriage in all its fraying details is nicely observed:  posited against the procedural detail and the slipshod collection of evidence we are conscious of something akin to a conspiracy. This was released just about the time that the Chamberlains were finally exonerated (but it took until 2012 for the charges to be finally dropped). This isn’t creative so much as it is journalistic and in that spirit it makes up for the actions of some of those sewer rats who waited thirty years to apologise to Lindy Chamberlain for their vile lies. Her ex-husband (they divorced in 1991) died earlier this year. Adapted by Robert Caswell and director Schepisi from John Bryson’s Evil Angels.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) gets along far better with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than with his parents so when the old man dies, with his eyes missing and a strange creature hiding outside his apartment in the bushes, Jake recalls all the stories he told him about living in a magical place during WW2. After several sessions with therapist Dr Golan (Allison Janney) he convinces his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales where he is befriended by some Peculiars, enters a derelict mansion through a portal in a cave and encounters the very much alive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who lives in this weird time loop with all the weirdly gifted kids whom his grandfather told him about. They have to ward off a powerful enemy who feast on the children’s eyes, led by Samuel L. Jackson who delivers his now customary cod-threatening performance and after taking Miss Peregrine, the children must engage in a final face-off (or eye-off…) in a theatre in modern-day Blackpool. Jake himself has a special power which can save them all … There’s a level of ordinariness to this which is irritating. It’s well set up, with Tim Burton returning to contemporary Florida (remember the achingly wonderful Edward Scissorhands?) and the problematic father-son dynamic that fuels some of his better work. However there’s no real sense of mystery or fabulism that would bring this to a different realm. What is best about it? Probably the Ray Harryhausen-style doll animations. Emotions lie half-buried in the middle of this – about being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, hating your dumb parents and only finding your true family because you possess an understanding of life that other people don’t (seeing invisible monsters is inordinately helpful). Oh well – there’s a good joke about the evil motivations of psychiatrists, though. Adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Ransom Riggs, and apparently a lot of changes took place in the writing. Very, very uneven.

The Evening Star (1996)

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Aka Three Funerals and a Wedding. Just kidding. Well, not exactly. I didn’t love Terms of Endearment and have read neither of these novels about willful selfish Houston widow Aurora Greenway but this messy ragtag followup directed by Robert Harling is not without its charms. Shirley MacLaine is back, aged grandmother and parent to her late daughter’s tearaway grownup children, irritated by longtime housekeeper gimlet-eyed Rose (Marion Ross) and pined after by General Hector (Donald Moffat). Melanie (Juliette Lewis) is living at home but itching to get out and she shacks up with bozo Bruce (Scott Wolf) which of course ends badly – but in LA, which is not so bad, as it turns out. Tommy (George Newbern) is in prison and Teddy (Mackenzie Astin) is married to a tramp and they have a bad-mannered toddler son. Rose plots to get Aurora to therapist Jerry (the late, great Bill Paxton) who has a thing for her – mostly because as she eventually finds out she’s a dead ringer for his Vegas showgirl mom, which doesn’t stop him from sleeping with Aurora’s rival Patsy (Miranda Richardson) which has a great conclusion in an inflight catfight.  The relationship with Paxton is funny and lifts the whole show with MacLaine getting some choice lines especially when she finally meets his mother! There’s a lot of life, love and thwarted passion as Aurora seeks out the great love of her life – and eventually finds it in the arms of her disastrously unaccomplished family while some of those closest to her die. There is a distinct shift of tone when Garret Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) pays a visit in the last quarter hour but the big performances make this, with MacLaine really making it work. You might be surprised to learn that it’s Cary Grant’s daughter Jennifer who is wooed by Newbern. This was Ben Johnson’s last film and it’s dedicated to him – he was of course in McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show where he delivered a performance of incredible subtlety and affect:  not bad for a stuntman. There’s more than a hint of Cloris Leachman in Marion Ross’s performance here. Not a bad recommendation in a film which looks at some of life’s different stages and comes out in favour of them all, by and large. Written by McMurtry and Harling.

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

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When I saw this last it was at its film festival premiere and my companion said he’d never sat beside someone who squirmed so much in discomfort at a movie. I was horrified by it. It starts with Julia Louis-Dreyfus going down on Richard Benjamin and then being entered by him from behind in front of her blind grandmother. Funny? Not so much. Turns out it’s a dramatisation of a scene from the latest novel by Harry Block (Woody Allen) and Benjamin is him, Dreyfus is his ex Lucy( Judy Davis) who promptly arrives at his apartment with a pistol prepared to shoot him because now everyone knows about them and their adultery – and she’s his sister in law.  There are other mini-movies drawing on Block’s work and there are both flashbacks and interactions between Block and his fictional characters. The film turns on issues primarily of Jewishness and its evocation both cinematic and writerly, hence the significance of Benjamin’s casting:  he is Philip Roth’s most famous on-screen avatar (Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint) and there are many, myself included, who would see this as a foul-mouthed excoriation of one of America’s greatest writers, and not merely a revisiting of Stardust Memories. And why, you might ask? I’m not a psychologist but Allen’s former paramour Mia Farrow was rumoured to have been involved with Roth for a spell and it has often been speculated that Allen himself was envious of his achievements. Roth has never really made me laugh, he has made me think, while Allen at his best makes me laugh like a drain. The reference to Block’s having an affair with his sister in law would appear to be material he had already plundered in Hannah and Her Sisters – an affair Allen allegedly had with one of Farrow’s sisters (and, some claim, more than one sister.) Then there’s the casting of his underage object of desire from Manhattan Mariel Hemingway and his behaviour regarding their son,whom he kidnaps, another dig into his own grubby public past, whether true or not. His muse Elisabeth Shue (sporting a Farrow-like mop of hair) splits for his best friend. And he hires a black prostitute to accompany them on their trip to a university where he’s being honoured and he slides out of focus just like one of his characters played by Robin Williams earlier in the story. (Face and fiction have blurred to the point that even he cannot tell them apart.)  Even after all these years I just can’t enjoy this tacky, tasteless outing, an admission on Allen’s part (perhaps) that psychoanalysis is a greenlight for perverted recidivism and that he had lost his greatest muse to strange desires. A very uncomfortable watch.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016)

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The Chicago Greeks are back in a gentle tale of a family that’s way too close and not even in an interesting Godfather-type fashion. They just work in the same family restaurant and live next door to each other along one street and now Oma (Lainie Kazan) and Opa (Michael Constantine) find out they never got legally married and their daughter Toula (Nia Vardalos) realises her own marriage to high school principal Chris-In-The-Morning (John Corbett) is under strain as she attempts to be everything to everyone. And their daughter Paris (Elena Kampouris) wants to go to college far away and there’s her parents’ wedding to arrange and …. zzz  …. Sorry I nodded off there. Very mild, inoffensive stuff, well performed by an entertaining cast, written once again by star Vardalos and directed by Kirk Jones. There are so many family members I lost track of who was who but I think they even dropped in a gay brother? cousin? somewhere towards the end. Covering all the diversity bases I guess in case the Greeks make a protest at the Academy Awards. Fine for a post-prandial snooze at this undemanding point of the holidays.

The Great Gilly Hopkins (2016)

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This adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s popular Seventies novel for tweens gets a decent treatment. It’s about a chippy foster kid (Sophie Nelisse) who makes life difficult for everyone charged with taking care of her, the latest being eccentric Trotter (Kathy Bates) whose next door neighbour is an elderly black man Mr Randolph (Bill Cobbs) who dines with her each evening. They make a different kind of family, reading at meals and being each other’s best support. Little WE (Zachary Hernandez) is also being fostered by Trotter and Gilly – real name Galadriel – impresses him the way she carries on her mean girl bullying at school, until she sees he’s being bullied by horrible boys and she teaches him how to handle himself. She creates friction with her teacher Miss Harris (Octavia Spencer) and although she’s very bright she pretends she’s dumb as a post. The teacher sees right through her act. She wants desperately to be with the birth mother Courtney (Julia Stiles) who’s dumped her and who has finally sent a postcard from San Francisco, a long way from Maryland. This prompts Gilly to write her a letter lying about the terrible circumstances in which she’s found herself. Since her mother has finally made contact with her grandmother, Glenn Close, she turns up on Gilly’s doorstep to meet the grandchild she never knew existed until that correspondence which also brings social workers to Trotter’s door. The letter means she’s going to be removed from the only happy home she’s ever known and she regrets it but can do nothing about it…. This could have been a deliberate, messagey work but it’s tough love tenderised by humour and really smart performances. That it’s directed by Stephen Herek is the big surprise – the man who brought us Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Dude!

8 Femmes (2002)

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Enferme dans une maison assez rurale pendant une tempete de neige  il y a huit femmes lie par une famile en bas;  en haut il y a un homme poignarde dans le dos – vraiment, avec un couteau! Ardant, Beart, Darrieux, Deneuve, Huppert, Ledoyen, Richard, Sagnier:  un veritable alphabet des actrices les plus grandes du cinema francais dans cet adaptation d’une piece de theatre des annees cinquantes. L’auteur, Francois Ozon, un homme qui realise soit les satires, soit les psychodrames, ici essai une melange des deux types dans un film mystere, meurtrier, melodramatique – et musicale, parce que chaque femme chante une chanson qui exprime ses affaires particulieres.   Comique, drole de drame avec une distribution de grands noms qui passe du bon temps et il plait aux foules aussi. Trop rigolo et divertissement ideal apres une grande fete de Noel!

Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

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Christmas is coming so it’s time to take this out. But it works at Halloween, Easter and ice cream season too – which is all year round, isn’t it?! This classic Hollywood musical comedy drama is simply perfection. Adapted from Sally Benson’s New Yorker stories of a midwestern family at the start of the twentieth century, it tells the story of the Smiths through the seasons.  Made at the height of WW2, this fantasy about a pretty family shimmers with the lustrous care of director Vincente Minnelli, whose background in theatre design comes to the fore in terms of staging, decor, colour, choreography and performance. Judy Garland has some great moments in a film stuffed with them – The Trolley Song, the romance with The Boy Next Door, the amusing scenes with her sister Lucille Bremer; but the standout moments are mostly those with little Margaret O’Brien as Tootie, on her Halloween outing, her destruction of the snowmen and her distress at their father’s proposed move to NYC.  Judy soothes her with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Funny, sad, touching and joyous, this is a forever film.