The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Nobody fucks with the Jesus. The Dude abides. Where to start with one of the most cherished films there has ever been? Not in the beginning. I may have almost had a coronary from laughing the first time I saw this at a festival screening prior to its release, but a lot of critics just did not get it. It’s the Coen Brothers in excelsis, a broad Chandler adaptation and tribute to Los Angeles,  a hymn to male friendship and the Tao of easy living with some extraordinarily surreal fantasy and dream sequences – not to mention some deadly bowling. Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, a guy so laid back he’s horizontal but he gets a little antsy when some thieves mistake him for The Big Lebowski and piss on his rug (it really tied the room together). Best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is his bowling buddy, an uptight Nam vet with adoptive-Jewish issues in this hilarious offside take on director John Milius. Steve Buscemi is their sweet-natured friend Donny and John Turturro is the unforgettable sports foe, a hispanic gangsta paedo in a hairnet, Jesus Quintana. After the rug issue is handled, Dude is hired by his namesake (David Huddleston) a wheelchair-bound multimillionaire philanthropist, to exchange a ransom when his young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped. Naturally Dude screws it up. There’s a band of nihilists led by Peter Stormare, some porn producers (Bunny makes flesh flicks), Lebowski’s randy artist daughter (Julianne Moore) and a private eye following everyone. And there’s Sam Elliott, narrating this tale of tumbleweed and laziness.  Everyone has their signature song in one of the great movie soundtracks and Dude has not only Creedence but White Russians to really mellow his day. Just like The Big Sleep, the plot really doesn’t matter a fig. This is inspired lunacy and I love it SO much.

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The Odessa File (1974)

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The faction novel by Frederick Forsyth has a special place in my heart because it was the first book I borrowed when I finally got a ticket to join the Adult section of my local public library after I turned 12. And it stunned me when I discovered that Forsyth was merely fictionalising in very approximate fashion the story of the Butcher of Riga, Eduard Roschman (Maximilian Schell) who is protected by the Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehoerigen (Former SS Members) in winter 1963. Journalist Peter Milller (Jon Voight) happens upon the story by simple expedient of pulling over in a Hamburg street to hear that President Kennedy has died and then literally chases an ambulance to an apartment building where an elderly Holocaust survivor has gassed himself. A policeman friend hands him the man’s diary and he uncovers the story behind the suicide of Salomon Tauber which contains one gleaming detail:  the murder by Roschmann at Riga port of a colleague who won a very rare German military medal. After meeting many unhelpful people in authority in a Germany still clearly run by the Nazis (there were 12 million of them after all, and they all just returned to civilian life and kept their pensions) he goes to Vienna where he visits Simon Wiesenthal who tells him about the ODESSA. He is beaten up, his dancer girlfriend (Mary Tamm) is threatened by some ex-Nazis and then ‘befriended’ by a policewoman when Miller goes off grid. He’s kidnapped by Mossad agents who want to know who he is and why he’s after Roschmann, supposedly dead almost two decades ago.  Then he dons a disguise … There are a few alterations to the source by Kenneth Ross and George (The Prisoner) Markstein and this is a fairly conventional procedural but still satisfying considering the strength of the subject matter (a topic plundered years later by novelist Sam Bourne aka Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland.) Voight is very good in what could be a difficult part and he gets a superb twist ending – when we learn the deeply personal reason for his search in addition to the quest for a great story. In a nice touch Maria Schell plays Voight’s mother, making this the only time she and Maximilian acted in the same film. The lovely Mary Tamm would later become a notable assistant to BBC’s Doctor Who and would have a good role as Blanche Ingram in TV’s Jane Eyre opposite Timothy Dalton. She died too soon.  There is an interesting score by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a special mention for Perry Como’s rendition of Christmas Dream and some superb cinematography by the great Oswald Morris and scene-setting by production designer Rolf Zehetbauer in this Anglo-German production – which might just account for the somewhat cleaned-up account of post-war Nazism. As it’s directed by multi-hyphenate Ronald Neame you wouldn’t expect anything less than a great-looking movie.  In another pleasing twist to the narrative, this prompted the tracking down of the real Roschmann to South America. But you’ll have to consult the history books to find out what happened next …

Cafe Society (2016)

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Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood straight outta the Bronx  c.1935 to work with his movie agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and falls for his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Everything looks beautiful, bathed in magic moment sunshine and swoony evening light and people talk about Irene Dunne and Willie Wyler but it turns out Vonnie is Phil’s mistress and he leaves his wife to marry her leaving Bobby brokenhearted and back in his beloved Bronx working front of house for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in a glamorous nightclub. He marries divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively) whom he promptly rechristens Vonnie. She has a baby and her time is taken up caring for her. Then Phil and Vonnie visit while passing through NYC and a romance of sorts recommences but as Bobby realises, Vonnie (this Vonnie) is now his aunt … This is a film of two halves, which do not mesh.  The leads are in their third film together but Stewart is much too modern to play her role, Eisenberg is quite weird – that hunched-shouldered look doth not a schlub make – and the good performances are in supporting roles:  Jeannie Berlin and particularly Ken Stott as the Dorfman parents, Stoll, who is literally criminally underused and Stephen Kunken as the brother in law who inadvertently causes Bobby’s sister Evelyn to have Ben murder their neighbour. Despite the episodes of violence, the talk about what is reality and what is cinema, and the central idea about marriage and what people do to keep relationships going despite clear incompatibility – and there’s a strange (self-?) reference to a man with a teenaged mistress… – this just doesn’t work. The faraway looks in the leads’ eyes at the unsatisfying and inconclusive climax, a country apart, merely highlight the vacuum at the story’s centre. Minor Allen to be sure. It looks great though, so thank you Vittorio Storaro.

Ivanhoe (1952)

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Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) is determined to right the wrong of kidnapped Richard the Lionheart’s predicament, confronting his evil brother Prince John (Guy Rolfe) and Norman knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders). His own estranged father Cedric (Finlay Currie) doesn’t know he’s loyal to the king but feisty Rowena (Joan Fontaine) is still his lady love although his affections are now swung by the beautiful Jewess Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), daughter to Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer), who is almost robbed by the knights and whose fortune can aid the King. Robin Hood appears and Ivanhoe joins forces with him and his men, there’s jousting at the tournament and love lost and won, and a trial for witchcraft ….  Adapted by AEneas MacKenzie from the Walter Scott novel, this was written by Noel Langley and Marguerite Roberts, whose name was removed subsequent to her being blacklisted. It’s glorious picture-book pageantry in Technicolor, such a wonderful change from those grim grey superhero and historical excursions to which we are being currently subjected in the multiplex. Everyone performs with great gusto, there’s chivalry and action aplenty, a great baddie, a kangaroo court, a ransom to be paid, a love triangle, a king to rescue, costumes to die for and properly beautiful movie stars performing under the super sharp lens of Freddie Young to a robust score by Miklos Rozsa. It was the first in an unofficial mediaeval MGM trilogy shot in the UK, followed by Knights of the Round Table and The Adventures of Quentin Durward, all starring Taylor (Robert, that is) and shot by Richard Thorpe. Prepare to have your swash buckled. Fabulous.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

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Judge not, that ye be not judged. Spencer Tracy arrives in the rubble of the great city of Nuremberg after the bombs have fallen:  this is what remains of a once-proud metropolis in the wake of Hitlerism. He’s the chief military judge in one of the trials taking place there in Abby Mann’s adaptation of his TV play and Maximillian Schell replays his role as the German defence counsel. The case involves four judges in the Nazi courts who had people executed and sterilised and otherwise punished for not being Party members: it’s a representative slice of what actually occurred aided in no small part by what we might call stunt casting.  Burt Lancaster is the one judge who acknowledges what he’s done is wrong. Marlene Dietrich is the widow of the man already executed whose home Tracy occupies and after whom he hankers a little. Judy Garland and the incredible Montgomery Clift testify in court. Clift is a former Communist whom one of the judges had sterilised. His scene in the stand is unforgettable. Schell does a great job as the frustrated counsel, eager to prove the overwhelming logic of the judges’ work;  Richard Widmark has his day in court showing the films shot by Allied troops liberating the camps. Naturally the Germans think this is a cheap shot. This film shocked me as a child and it shocks me no less today, particularly when Tracy, having sentenced the men, is asked to visit Lancaster and has to explain to him why he came to his decision. He is our conscience, arguing for the value of a single human life in the face of ruthless German logic. The end credits include the reminder that by the time this film was made not a single Nazi convicted at Nuremberg remained in prison despite life sentences handed down. That’s right, they’re all running the Fourth Reich in a Germany that’s been on the rise ever since. Be afraid. Directed by Stanley Kramer.

Denial (2016)

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I had quite forgotten the outcome of the 2000 libel suit taken by Holocaust denier/falsifier British Hitler historian David Irving against Penguin Books as a result of academic Deborah Lipstadt’s claims about him and his fellow travellers.  She is played by Rachel Weisz, he is played by Timothy Spall. She’s from Queens and sounds it:  she says what she thinks and has issues with the reluctance of elite British Jews to fund her case since people in the US like Steven Spielberg are backing her unquestioningly (that’s an awkward dinner party). She retains solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) which causes no little hilarity because of his association with the late Diana, Princess of Wales. She finds herself having to deal with a team of lawyers who seemingly speak a different language but are also capable of emotional distance:  she is conflicted particularly when contacted by survivors who want to be heard. Her team don’t even want her to testify, the idea being to box in Irving with his own perverted version of the truth. The real relationship here is the combustion between Lipstadt and her barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). When they travel to Auschwitz he appears to be late – but he’s been pacing the perimeter, a payoff that happens much later. Their argument 80 minutes into the running time is the heart of the narrative:  he explains to her that this isn’t just about Holocaust denial it’s about self-denial – hers. She finally understands the man who spent a year learning German and who can now quote Goethe to make his point. He rushes off in the evenings rather than indulge her pettiness to prepare – the case is his life.  Wilkinson is very effective and his own emotions are properly managed – reserved for his hard-hitting courtroom performance. This is a fascinating and ultimately rewarding story despite the apparent caricature played by Spall – Irving defended himself on the stand and Lipstadt can’t restrain herself from reacting to his pantomime in front of the judge (Alex Jennings) who during the  final summations appears to be falling for Irving’s shtick (as it were.) A well-integrated interview with BBC’s Jeremy Paxman (he’s meshed into the pictures with Spall) illustrates just how accurate Spall actually is. Weisz is playing a difficult character – wilfully ignorant of British law, spiky and confrontational and unable to understand subtle wordplay or good advice (those legal eagles are all the same) and she taps into all the right feelings – denial,  anger, bargaining, depression, and yes, acceptance.  Her uncontrolled emotionality is what drives the case but it could also derail it. It takes her a long time to get there. Adapted by David Hare from Lipstadt’s book History on Trial:  My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, this is an important work about something that even now appears to beggar belief. And if you haven’t been to a concentration camp and you haven’t experienced the reality of what happened in back gardens all over Germany and Poland and elsewhere on the mainland of Europe with all those infinitely mutable borders and beliefs then this would be a good place to educate yourself. Directed by Mick Jackson.

A Kid for Two Farthings (1955)

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A warm, atmospheric portrait of the Jewish community in Petticoat Lane, Wolf Mankowitz adapted his own novel to be directed by that supremely empathetic man, Carol Reed, whose own pictures of childhood would reach a kind of apogee with Oliver! Jonathan Ashmore is little Joe, whose mother Celia Johnson is left alone while her husband works in South Africa and their tailor landlord David Kossoff’s stories entertain but also soothe Joe when one after another his pets die. Joe believes in unicorns so when he finds a one-horned kid goat he thinks fairytales come true and his story is intertwined with that of the startlingly sweet Diana Dors, in love with her boxer boyfriend Joe Robinson, who like most of his ilk, is mixed up with lowlifes who want him involved in match-fixing. Joe now thinks if things happen there’s a 50/50 chance it’s because he’s wished for them on his unicorn:  he’s got a point …This piquant comedy drama has excited some critics about its portrait of Anglo-Jewry but let’s face it nowadays that goat would be a kebab. A wonderful, vibrant film with a great cast including Sydney Tafler, Sid James, Brenda de Banzie, Lou Jacobi, Joseph Tomelty and Irene Handl, this makes you feel like you’re right in the middle of everything. It features young Ashmore’s only film performance – he grew up to be Bernard Katz Professor of Biophysics at University College London:  what a shlemiel!!

Bad Neighbours 2 (2016)

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Aka Neighbours 2:  Sorority Rising.  They’re back! Well, everyone’s gone and grown up. Sort of. Opening on a horribly vomitous sex scene, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne realise they’re having another baby. They’re trying to sell their house and it’s in escrow now which they do not understand even when the realtor tries to explain. All they know is their toddler daughter keeps playing with a pink dildo in front of people. Meanwhile, Zac Efron’s bestie Dave Franco is getting married. To a guy. So he has to move out of their place and has nowhere to go – except back to the old frat house, where some bolshie girls led by Chloe Grace Moretz want to set up an alt-sorority so they can party righteously. He mentors them until they dump him while he’s lecturing them (they do it on their phones). So he teams up with Seth and Rose to get rid of the girls in order that their house sale goes through. There ensues … total mayhem! Screamingly funny, flat out gross out, hilarious, physical, bad taste comedy. Five buckets of money, that’s all you need. For anything! Party on, rad dudettes! Written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O’Brien and director Nicholas Stoller.

The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

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Writer/producer/director George Seaton’s penchant for realism and drama-documentary style gets a full airing here in an adaptation of Alexander Klein’s titular nonfiction book. The great (and prematurely aged – he was 44 and looks 64 at least) William Holden plays the American born oil man Eric Erickson, resident in Sweden and doing his usual cross-border deals – including with Germany – who is blackmailed into espionage for the Allies in the form of the smirking Hugh Griffith. In Germany he becomes involved with a religiously inclined agent Marianne Moellendorf (Lilli Palmer) who ends up being found out in a confessional, and Erickson then struggles to escape Berlin after betrayal by his friend’s son, a member of the Hitler Youth. This morality tale is long and engrossing and Holden gets the opportunity to play a whole range of emotions under Seaton’s careful direction. The camerawork (by Jean Bourgoin) is mostly static in keeping with this realistic mode but there are some great shots of the rubble of Berlin and the encounter in the church confession box is particularly well staged. It’s great to see these post-war cities in colour, another boon to an involving story. And the startling Klaus Kinski is key to the conclusion. If you ever want the dogs that torment you to take a walk on the wild side well away from you, try a combo of blood and cocaine. It’s amazing what tips you pick up in movies. Co-written by Charles Grenzbach.

GoodFellas (1990)

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As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. Martin Scorsese’s astonishing portrait of Sicilian-Irish Henry Hill’s 25 year rise through the ranks of Italian-American hoodlums – and his eventual fall – is re-released this month and it still exerts a visceral thrill. Between Coppola and Scorsese we have a reference book on this topic and so many of the tropes and lingo of this subculture are common parlance thanks to them. Nicholas  Pileggi adapted his book Wiseguy (with Scorsese) and with an exegesis on true crime and punishment, violence,  family, honour and dishonour, cooking, drugs and horrible taste,  it has a panoramic sweep we pretty much take for granted. Not for nothing did some of the cast become mainstays of The Sopranos, which wouldn’t exist without this. However it is not the sociological examination we think it was:  it’s a film of no particular depth or self-knowledge, not if we’re depending on Henry’s voiceover. Instead it’s a stylish compendium of cinematic vocabulary, with flourishes influenced by everyone from Anger to Visconti, boasting a particularly nice tribute to The Great Train Robbery in the closing moments. And there are a lot of great, queasy moments here, with gore to spare:  Joe Pesci has the lion’s share as the psychopath Tommy DeVito; Paul Sorvino as the main guy, Paulie Cicero;  and Catherine Scorsese has some nice bits as Tommy’s mom, a keen amateur painter; De Niro is good as Jimmy Conway, the other Sicilian-Irish guy who can never be truly Mafia; Lorraine Bracco is superb as the whining Jewish wife who develops a taste for cocaine; and Ray Liotta could never be better than here, even if he’ll never be a made man. A funny and scarifying tour de force of surfaces, textures and moviemaking.