Awakenings (1990)

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I’m not very good with people.  It’s 1969.  Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) is a research neurologist who finds himself working with people for the first time at a public hospital in the Bronx, NYC. He is confronted with older catatonic patients who he discovers lost their capacity for communication following the encephalitis lethargica epidemic of 1917-1928. Once he realises there is more to them than just reflex actions he sets up righting decades of ignorance and experiments with doses of L-Dopa intended for Parkinsonian symptoms, starting with Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) whose immediate response is remarkable and triggers Sayer’s campaign to have it given to the others. He is supported by Nurse Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner) and he helps Leonard’s mother (Ruth Nelson) come to terms with her son’s maturity – she thinks he is still the little boy she once knew. Leonard wants to socialise and develops a relationship with Paula (Penelope Ann Miller) the daughter of another patient but when it comes time to argue for more personal freedom Leonard starts to manifest facial tics and the dosages have to be revised as the realisation that his patient’s awakening may be temporary dawns on Sayer …  The late Oliver Sacks’ books were a thing in the Eighties – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was a very cool set of case studies and the stories in Awakenings gave Harold Pinter the inspiration for A Kind of Alaska.  This raises issues about what being alive really means and who knows best and what’s in the patient’s interest. It however strays into Rain Man territory and one is given pause for thought by De Niro’s early (and later) gurning catatonic impersonation when Tropic Thunder‘s warnings about ‘going full retard’ come to mind. This falls into the slush trap one too many times yet paradoxically it’s meticulously constructed as the real awakening is that of Sayer – to pain, feeling, response, caring.  Written by Steven Zaillian and directed by Penny Marshall who has a way with the performers but the treacly score doesn’t help. It’s nice to see John Heard and the wonderful Julie Kavner in significant supporting roles. There is probably a big ironic meta-cinematic text here considering drug buddies Williams and De Niro were the last people to see John Belushi alive and they communicate with each other here via a Ouija Board but I’m sure I don’t know what that is. The drugs don’t work? Perhaps. Read Sacks’ books instead, they’re amazing.

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Maudie (2016)

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Show me how you see the world. The story of Maud Lewis née Dowley, a folk artist from Nova Scotia. She (Sally Hawkins) is an arthritic woman living with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) in the 1930s. Maud is shocked to learn that her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) has sold their family home, which their parents had left to him. In the meantime, she is berated by Ida about going out to a local dance. At a store, Maud sees the inarticulate and rough fish peddler Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) place an advertisement for a cleaning lady. Maud answers the call and takes the position for room and board. Everett’s house is very small, and the two share a bed, causing scandal in the town, with gossip that Maud is offering sexual services. While attempting to clean the shack, Maud paints a shelf. She then begins painting flowers and birds on the walls to make it look better. She meets one of Everett’s customers, Sandra (Kari Matchett) from New York City, who is intrigued by Maud’s paintings and buys cards Maud has decorated. She later commissions Maud to make a larger painting for five dollars. Maud persuades Everett to marry her, while her paintings receive more exposure in print coverage and sales begin at the house. US VP Richard Nixon contacts the Lewises to obtain one. After the couple appears on TV news, Everett becomes disturbed that local viewers see him as cold and cruel. Ida, increasingly ill, also saw the coverage, and Maud wishes to see her before Ida dies. Ida tells Maud that she is the only Dowley who ever found happiness, and confesses Maud’s baby girl did not die deformed. Charles had sold her to an old couple.  Everett becomes convinced the relationship has brought nothing but emotional anguish to both of them. The two separate… It starts rather unpromisingly, this story of a strange, somewhat retarded woman whose existence has proven difficult for her aunt – the reference to ‘what happened last time’ after Maudie sneaks out to a dance hall and drinks is an illegitimate baby a late revelation which triggers the emotive last third, in which her difficult and occasionally violent husband seems to finally reconcile himself with his lot and brings Maudie to see her adopted daughter, now married and living in a pretty whiteboard house. The final scene in the hospital is diffident, as is much of the film, which cries out for a more in-depth treatment of this problem life and naive art. Stick with it even if Hawkins drives you potty. Shot in Newfoundland, for some reason. Written by Sherry Wright and directed by Aisling Walsh.

Dave (1993)

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I’m the President, and as they say, the buck stops here. So I take full responsibility for each one of my illegal actions. But that’s not the whole story. I think the American people are entitled to the real truth. Shifty White House chief of staff Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) hatches a scheme to use a double for the president Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) at a public photo opportunity. Smalltown temp agency owner Dave Kovic (Kline) fits the bill, but after the president suffers a debilitating stroke having extra-marital sex, opportunist Alexander arranges for Dave to step in full time without even informing the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) when a scandal threatens to engulf the Presidency. It doesn’t take long before the press, the nation and the president’s wife realize something is wrong because this is a nice conscientious guy and not the lying distant philanderer they all know and dislike  … Practically a White House take on The Prisoner of Zenda, this is an opportunity for some very pleasant if hardly ground-shaking political satire with perfectly timed performances by an engaging cast.  Gary Ross’s screenplay gets nice mileage out of the identical-impersonator scenario but it feels a little dated in the wake of House of Cards not to mention reality. Ivan Reitman makes the most out of the visual jokes.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015)

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She would rather live with a producer than her children. The great Swedish actress is recalled through her diaries and letters (voiced by Alicia Vikander), photographs and any amount of home movies which she shot compulsively.  She believed she was only truly alive when she was being photographed and described her home life away from the studio in Hollywood as ‘being locked in a suitcase suffocating.’ Following the early death of her mother this was a little girl cosseted by her father who documented her on camera and even Alfred Hitchcock (‘he brought out the best in me’) declared she took film more seriously than real life. Her father died young too and this leaves something of a Freudian association trailing throughout the film with her evident need to be constantly photographed and speaking other people’s lines.  Following drama school and early success in Swedish cinema she was discovered by Hollywood and arrived there to work with David O. Selznick whose colleague Kay Brown became her agent and lifelong friend. She abandoned her little girl and doctor husband for various lovers including Robert Capa (who wouldn’t sacrifice his short-lived career for her) and then Roberto Rossellini whom she pursued until he hired her for a film and she had his illegitimate child. She couldn’t adjust to his filmmaking style – she was no improviser and writing dialogue was contrary to her training. Her husband divorced her and got custody of Pia, while, after having more children by Rossellini,  the director abandoned Bergman for another woman (in India) who had yet another of his illegitimate children and Bergman then took off for Paris with a lover of her own. She saw her children in Italy once a month, more often when daughter Isabella (who became an actress) developed scoliosis. Daughter Pia discusses her mother’s obsession with Joan of Arc from an early age as being evidence that she wanted to make her name. There are many newsreel excerpts and interviews about her chaotic intercontinental life, pursued by paparazzi and condemned by various authorities until director Anatole Litvak declared in the mid-50s that she was the only actress he could consider for the role of Anastasia and an Academy Award for her performance smoothed her way back into the Hollywood fold. Despite her shortcomings and basically abandoning her young, her adult children (presumably with the benefit of relatively old age) describe her in contemporary interviews  as being totally charming with eldest daughter Pia even declaring, I craved having more of her. Stig Björkman’s film is a stunning evocation of a unique, peripatetic life which despite the rather unsettling morality of its fame-seeking subject simply exudes joy and contains many insights into the acting mind. Written by the director with Stina Gardell and Dominika Daubenbuchel with a great score by Michael Nyman, topped with a song by Eva Dahlgren in the closing credits.

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.

Philomena (2013)

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It’s  funny isn’t it? All the pieces of paper designed to help you find him have been destroyed, but guess what, the one piece of paper designed to stop you finding him has been lovingly preserved. God and his infinite wisdom decided to spare that from the flames. In 1952 Irish teenager Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) became pregnant out of wedlock and was sent to a convent. When her baby, Anthony, was a toddler, the nuns took Philomena’s child away from her and put him up for adoption in the US. For the next 50 years, she searched tirelessly for her son. When former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) – who’s been fired from the Labour Party in disgrace – learns of her story, he becomes her ally after initial reluctance to take on a human interest story. They travel together to America to find Anthony and become unexpectedly close in the process… Actor and writer Coogan who (with Jeff Pope) adapted Sixsmith’s book about the real life Philomena finds a real niche for emotive comedy in this tragic story of a mother’s search for the son she was forced to give up after an illicit episode of underage sex leading to years spent in the service of the Irish Catholic nuns who took her in.  Dench and Coogan prove a formidable double act, he the reasoned, caring journo, she the guilt-ridden sharp-tongued mother whose legitimate daughter coaxes her to look for her other offspring many years later, when they are put off by the obdurate misinformation emanating from the Christian sisterhood who blithely conceal a terrible secret. Moving, well played and deftly handled. Directed by Stephen Frears.

Elephant Walk (1954)

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She is not one of us and her ways are cold and strange. When John Wiley (Peter Finch), an affluent plantation owner, brings his new wife, Ruth (Elizabeth Taylor), to his estate in the jungles of British Ceylon,  she finds she is the only white woman.  She’s overjoyed by the exotic location and luxurious accommodations until it becomes clear her new husband is more interested in palling around with his friends than spending time with her. She is intimidated by houseman Apphuamy (Abraham Sofaer) who is still being bossed by the late Old Man Wiley a rotten individual who has deliberately blocked the elephants from their ancient water source (hence the name). Left alone on the plantation, Ruth strikes up a friendship with American overseer Dick Carver (Dana Andrews), and it isn’t long before a love triangle develops… An old-school colonial romance, the novel by Robert Standish (aka Digby George Gerahty) was adapted by Hollywood vet John Lee Mahin who knew this kind of material from Red Dust two decades earlier. While revelling in the lush jungle landscape and the forbidden desires of Taylor the real story is the haunting of Wiley by his late father whose ghost dominates his life and the plantation. Taylor of course replaced Vivien Leigh who had a nervous breakdown yet whose figure remains in long shots that weren’t repeated and her lover Finch remained in the picture in a role originally intended for Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier. Andrews might not be our idea of a hot extra-marital affair but in a situation like that … It looks rather beautiful courtesy of the marvellous work by cinematographer Loyal Griggs but you might find yourself wanting to see more of the elephants than Taylor such is their pulchritudinous affect. You choose. Directed by William Dieterle.

Last Holiday (2006)

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I’m just gonna blow it. Diagnosis of a terminal brain condition prompts introverted saleswoman Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) to reflect on what she realizes has been an overly cautious life where the biggest thrill is singing in a choir. Her health plan won’t cover treatment. She withdraws her life savings and jets off to Europe – first class, to a top hotel outside Prague – where she lives like a millionaire for the last three weeks of her life during the Christmas holiday. Upbeat and passionate, she charms everybody she meets, including renowned Chef Didier (Gérard Depardieu). The only one missing from her new life in which her luck suddenly seems to be changing and her fortunes paradoxically altering for the better is her longtime crush Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) and then her medical report is reassessed … This is a remake of the J.B Priestley screenplay which was made in 1950 – starring Alec Guinness! That darkly ironic and witty piece of work is turned into something softer here with a sweetly endearing if occasionally sceptical turn by Latifah as Georgia. (It was originally meant for the late, great John Candy). The twist ending remains but in altogether more positive mode than the original. There’s a lot of fun living out Georgia’s last days doing death-defying winter sports and getting to know a pompous self-help writer. Certainly different from a trip to Dignitas…  Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman and directed by Wayne Wang, who has a way with women.

Island of Terror (1966)

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Some peculiar goings on going on on this island!  On the remote Petrie’s Island off the east Irish coast a farmer goes missing and his wife contacts the police. Constable John Harris (Sam Kydd) goes looking for him and finds him dead in a cave without a single bone in his body. Horrified, Harris swiftly fetches the town physician Dr. Reginald Landers (Eddie Byrne) but Dr. Landers is unable to determine what happened to the dead man’s skeleton. Landers journeys to the mainland to seek the help of noted London pathologist Dr. Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing). Like Landers, Stanley is unable to even hypothesize what could have happened to Ian Bellows, so both men seek out Dr. David West (Edward Judd) an expert on bones and bone diseases. Although Stanley and Landers interrupt West’s dinner date with the wealthy jetsetter Toni Merrill, West is intrigued by the problem and so agrees to accompany the two doctors back to Petrie’s Island to examine the corpse. In order for them to reach the island that much faster, Merrill offers the use of her father’s private helicopter in exchange for the three men allowing her to come along on the adventure. Once back at Petrie’s Island, Merrill’s father’s helicopter is forced to return to the mainland so he can use it, leaving the foursome effectively stranded on Petrie until the helicopter can return. West and Stanley learn that a group of cancer researchers led by Dr. Lawrence Phillips (Peter Forbes-Robertson( seeking a cure for cancer, have a secluded castle laboratory on the island. Paying a visit to Phillips’ lab reveals that he and his colleagues are just as dead (and boneless) as Ian Bellows. Reasoning that whatever it is must have begun in that lab, West, Stanley and Landers gather up Phillips’ notes and take them to study them. From them they learn that in his quest to cure cancer, Phillips may have accidentally created a new lifeform from the siliconatom. Thinking the doctors are at the castle, Constable Harris bikes up there looking for them to tell them about the discovery of a dead, boneless horse, only to wander into the laboratory’s “test animals” room and be attacked and killed by an offscreen tentacled creature, the result of Dr. Phillips’ experiments. The creatures are eventually dubbed “silicates” by West and Stanley, and kill their victims by injecting a bone-dissolving  enzyme into their bodies. The silicates are also incredibly difficult to kill, as Landers learns when he tries and fails to kill one at the castle with an axe when they first encounter them. After learning all they can from the late Dr. Phillips’ notes, West and Stanley recruit the islanders, led by “boss” Roger Campbell (Niall McGinnis) and store owner Peter Argyle (James Caffrey, who seems to serve as Campbell’s second-in-command in an unofficial capacity), to attack the silicates with anything they’ve got. Bullets, petrol bombs, and dynamite all fail to even harm the silicates. But when one is found dead, apparently having ingested a rare isotope called Strontium-90 from Phillips’ lab (via Phillips’ accidentally irradiated Great Dane), West and Stanley realise they must find more of the isotope at the castle and figure out how to contaminate the remaining silicates with it before it is too late. They obtain enough isotope to contaminate a herd of cattle – at the cost of Stanley’s left hand, when he’s grabbed by a silicate – and the silicates feed on these and begin to die. The story ends with evacuation and … a twist. Rather unsatisfying outing from Hammer, despite the icky slimy tentacled monster and the expansive cast which also includes several Irish actors – making up for the lack of a location shoot (it was made at Pinewood). The most interesting part of this action-adventure-disaster is the electronic soundtrack by Malcolm Lockyer and the cool helicopters which photograph rather marvellously.

The Invasion (2007)

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Civilisation crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation, we are all capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this was not so, where every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence. Well, this is to imagine a world where human beings cease to be human.  In Washington, D.C. psychologist Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her colleague Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) are the only two people who are aware of an epidemic running rampant through the city. They discover an alien virus aboard a space shuttle that crashed during an unscheduled landing attempt that transforms anyone who comes into contact with it into unfeeling drones while they sleep. The government is calling it a flu virus. Carol realises her son Oliver’s (Jackson Bond) immune system holds the key to stopping the spread of the plague and she races to find him before it is too late but his father, politician ex-husband Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) has taken him out of state … The late great Jack Finney wrote some indelible sci fi that could be used to anatomise and exemplify social forces – so The Body Snatchers has had meaning for generation after generation, commencing with its first (quite brilliant) movie adaptation Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is the fourth effort and its muddled birth in some ways tarnished its critical reputation.  Written variously by David Kajganich and the uncredited Wachowski brothers/sisters and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel with uncredited reshoots by James McTeigue, the original story’s clarity is both lost and highlighted in its city setting:  the quick slide into conformity is more obvious than in the 1956 classic simply because there are so many more people whose transformation is visible on the streets.  The central irony – that a woman controlling her patients’ minds and feelings with pharmaceuticals is now objecting to a world in which by the icky expedient of vomiting on someone’s face or into their coffee (nice) everyone can live in peace minus their individuality or expressivity – is straightforwardly verbalised by Carol’s ex. But the quick running time and the conclusion – collective amnesia, luckily administered Governmentally with yet another vaccine – means the bigger picture of mind control by Big Pharma and Bigger Government (a nasty coinciding of socio-financial interests since, oh, the 1990s?) is sort of lost in a mish-mash of action with awkward acting compounding the stiff plotting. There is one really silly flash forward. Metaphor? Metonymy? How would I know? I am on Day 30 of Aussie flu and can’t get a shot to save my sniffles. But if I said I was depressed they’d be racing to inoculate, n’est-ce pas???…!!! Uneven, but relevant.