Wonder (2017)


There are no nice ones. After two dozen surgeries to get 10-year old August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) seeing and speaking he’s still terribly disfigured but mom Isabelle (Julia Roberts) has decided it’s time for him to go to regular school after years of educating him at home. It’s the first time he’s gone out without wearing his astronaut helmet. Dad Nate (Owen Wilson) and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) help out but it’s mainly been Isabelle who’s done the heavy lifting and Via has been left out and retreats to her estranged grandmother (Sonia Braga) in Coney Island when she needs attention. Auggie meets the wise and kind school principal Mr Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) who has him introduced around the school by some kids but Auggie still gets bullied terribly. He wins over some students through his smarts, especially at science where he’s top dog. However when he wears a different Halloween costume than the one his friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) expects, Auggie overhears him saying something terrible and it seems like everything is lost … Not everything in this world is about you. A film about facial disfigurement that manages to be truly humane without ever stooping to the mawkish or trite? Surely some mistake. And maybe it’s Mask. Well, that was then, this is now. This adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel is a kind of miracle of text and performance and not just by that fine young actor Tremblay. Everyone here gets their moment in a family that has other problems – sister Via is overlooked, Isabelle doesn’t speak to her mother, the marriage is strained because of the constant caring needed for Auggie. Isabelle had a promising career and was mid-thesis when Auggie came along and her life was put on hold. Roberts never looks for pity in the role and the plot keeps everyone afloat.  Even Daisy the dog needs more from the family members than they realise. That’s good writing. The screenplay is by Jack Thorne, Steven Conrad and director Steven Chbosky, who knows something about young people as we know from that other marvellous film about kids, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on his own book. Right here the issues of middle school, our responsibilities to others, competitive friendship and rivalries are nailed with precision. Auggie can’t change the way he looks so maybe we can change the way we see

Mystic Pizza (1988)


Why does it hurt so much? Kat (Annabeth Gish) and Daisy (Julia Roberts) are sisters working with Jojo (Lili Taylor) at the pizzeria in Mystic Connecticut. Kat is an egghead astronomer aiming to get into Yale who falls for the father (William R. Moses) of the child she’s babysitting while his wife’s away. Daisy is a good time gal with eyes for a WASPy law school grad Charlie (Adam Storke) who’s actually been sacked for cheating on his finals. Their mother favours Kat and worries perpetually about Daisy.  Jojo gets cold feet on the day of her wedding to fisherman Bill (Vincent D’Onofrio) and then goes to pieces when they eventually split. Meanwhile the pizza parlour’s proprietress Leona (Conchata Ferrell) is worried that her revenues are slipping and the girls think that a spot on The Fireside Gourmet‘s TV show would do the trick… There are terrific performances gracing this sleeper which illustrates all the strengths of the respective actresses:  it’s not hard in retrospect to see that Pretty Woman would be all Roberts’ when you see her shaking out her hair and raising her hemline to catch a lift on the roadside. Amy Holden Jones’ story and screenplay about this Portuguese Catholic community got a rewrite from Perry Howze & Randy Howze and Alfred Uhry and it’s decently handled by Donald Petrie but that soundtrack is seriously intrusive! For details obsessives it’s fascinating to hear the adenoidal tones of Robin Leach describing Mar-a-Lago on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and that’s Matt Damon playing the preppie’s little brother during an excruciating dinner party. A major cult at this point.

Happy 50th Birthday Julia Roberts 28th October 2017!

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America’s Sweetheart celebrates her 50th birthday today. Why is that so hard to believe? Julia Roberts has been in our consciousness since she was barely out of her teens and then became a global superstar as the happiest hooker in Hollywood with Pretty Woman. That core of steel came through in some of her Nineties roles, with her crowning moment in Erin Brockovich which got her the Academy Award for a stunning, complete performance in which she played a single mother who needed to wise up fast and use her smarts to help win a class action in an environmental lawsuit. The vintage Valentino dress she wore to the ceremony is still the highpoint of Oscars fashion in the past two decades. As well as working with auteurs like Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Steven Soderbergh, romcom maker Garry Marshall and actor-turned-director George Clooney, the world’s highest paid actress has been in metatextual and self-referential comedy dramas like Notting Hill, Runaway Bride and America’s Sweethearts. She has challenged herself (and us) with tough roles in Mary Reilly and The Normal Heart, been both touching and tough in Stepmom and Closer, wickedly funny in Mirror Mirror and Charlie Wilson’s War but my personal favourite performance is in My Best Friend’s Wedding, a deftly written, beautifully constructed and hilarious study of jealousy with great songs, a twisted heart and a fabulous resolution. With a new TV series (Homecoming) in the pipeline she is not going to exit the limelight any time soon. There will never be another, no matter how the pundits may tempt us every few years. Happy Birthday Screen Queen! Long may you reign.




Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

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She must be at least thirty! squeak the privileged brides-to-be in Wellesley, “that finishing school disguised as a college”, as subversive art lecturer Julia Roberts so eloquently expresses it. It’s 1953 and the old values prevail as much as the long shadow of WW2 lingers among the women and the elitist daughters of society who are more interested in being married than establishing their own careers. Roberts is a migrant from California and just doesn’t get it and her freewheeling teaching style lands her in the soup. Bitchy class bully Kirsten Dunst wants to teach her a lesson and her editorials on the campus newspaper land Juliet Stevenson out on her ear for handing out contraception to some students. Dominic West is the philandering Italian lecturer who sleeps with students and has a secret of his own, while Julia’s reunion with longtime love John Slattery goes hopelessly wrong and she turns to her colleague for respite. The fraudulent lives of people and what they do to cope and how they live with themselves is the real subject here, as liberalism brushes up against conservatism and you’re not quite sure who wins at the end. Beautifully shot, with some good performances wrapped up in those long skirts and saddle shoes. Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, directed by Mike Newell, this made a lot of headlines over Roberts’ salary – at 25 million, it made her the best paid actress of all time. It may be circumscribed in some ways but there are nice supporting performances by Donna Mitchell, Marian Seldes and Marcia Gay Harden, while Maggie Gyllenhaal gets a good showcase as the promiscuous girl who sees through the hypocrisy.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

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A true story about a hard-scrabble twice-divorced unemployed mother-of-three who became a legal assistant and wound up helping win a class action suit to the tune of a third of a billion dollars for the citizens of Hinkley CA who were being poisoned by the water in their area. This is anything but a Sickness of the Week movie. The sharp as a tack screenplay by Susannah Grant is beautifully structured, with snappy dialogue to die for – when biker Aaron Eckhart asks Erin what would he have to do to be different to her former husbands, she says, Stay – this is anchored by good aesthetic decisions and a great performance by Julia Roberts who gives it her all. Albert Finney is her long-suffering lawyer boss (she persuades him to hire her after he loses her traffic accident suit) and this is never less than totally believable in a marvellously judged production about going up against corrupt corporations, directed (and photographed) by Steven Soderbergh. That’s the real Erin B ten minutes in, taking Julia’s orders at a restaurant.

Notting Hill (1999)

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Julia Roberts hasn’t been the world’s biggest movie star for nothing. And in this Richard Curtis/Working Title romcom, she’s Anna Scott, coincidentally, the world’s biggest movie star who finds herself … in Notting Hill, taking a look at the wares in a travel bookstore owned by Will Thacker  (Hugh Grant). In a recent romcom doc it was astonishing to learn that Curtis didn’t want Grant to star in Four Weddings because he was too handsome and charming. He wanted someone who looked like him. Cooler heads prevailed. Well, he got his lookalike, in About Time (Domhnall Gleeson) and we know how that went, eh? Romantic comedy is perceived to be quite possibly the most popular of film genres and its characteristic narrative is based on the superficially mismatched heterosexual couple, finally reunited in their pursuit of love once a number of obstacles are surmounted.   Will has a ramshackle house in a mono-ethnic street (ie not Notting Hill, according to the social critics) with an allegedly hilarious lanky room-mate Spike (Rhys Ifans) and he socialises with fellow poshies Hugh Bonneville and his crippled wife who like to host suppers in their wheelchair-friendly home. Anna wants to live a quiet life away from the publicity attracted by her recent breakup and she and Will … well, you know. This is the pre-millennial culmination of a decade of politically correct posturing and transatlantic fumblings by Curtis which commenced with his apparently transgressive inclusion of both a deaf man and a gay couple in the screwball-lite Swiss-watch-like Four Weddings and a Funeral (Newell, 1994); and here we collapse those ABC categories into a paraplegic woman while the wondrous Charlotte Coleman (TV’s Marmalade Atkins) is replaced with the ‘kookie’ Emma Chambers. In both films the disabled (!) characters’ abilities to communicate in a kind of Scotch semaphore gifts them with the ability to discern the course of true love’s path and provide direction to the misguided. At the end what is entirely absent in the astonishingly lazy script – tangible sentiment  – is supplied by an utterly beguiling take on ‘She’ (‘Elle’) by Elvis Costello, for a film that simply does not deserve it. Thank goodness for Julia! She really is fabulous.

Sleeping With the Enemy (1991)

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Julia Roberts’ stardom really is the touchstone for the Nineties. Here she’s the abused young wife of violent OCD psycho Patrick Bergin, that dashing Irishman who wears a black coat and a great moustache and has his finest cinematic moment to date in Map of the Human Heart, Vincent Ward’s masterpiece. The unloved-up mismatched couple live on the beach in modernist fabulosity while he lines up all the cans so that they face the right way out (just like David Beckham). It really is a shock to see him administer a beating to America’s happiest hooker. A boating accident leads him to believe she’s dead – but she’s in the middle of Cedar Falls, Iowa, donning drag and a nifty moustache with her new and bearded neighbour’s assistance to visit her disabled mom in a nursing home having faked her funeral six months earlier. This is meat and drink to director Joseph Ruben who is working with the Ron Bass/Bruce Joel Rubin adaptation of Nancy Price’s novel. There are no real surprises here if you’ve ever wondered what it might be like if Fatal Attraction were to be reversed with added Berlioz. Just remember:  it’s all about the facial hair.

Runaway Bride (1999)

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Julia Roberts famously did a runner from her fiance Kiefer Sutherland on the eve of their wedding a quarter of a century ago; it became part of what theorists call her star text and was wrapped into this delightful romcom, reuniting her with her Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall and co-star Richard Gere. He’s jaded NYC journo Ike who always files at the last minute and his attention has been drawn to a smalltown woman Maggie Carpenter working as a lighting designer who jilts men at the altar:  when he runs the convenient unresearched story he exaggerates the facts so she complains, his ex-wife editor Rita Wilson fires him and the photographer Hector Elizondo (a Marshall staple) encourages him to dig up the real dirt. Upon his arrival in smalltown Maryland her friends are protective and the hairdresser Peggy Fleming (‘not the ice skater!’) (Joan Cusack) together with Julia gives him a pastiche of the Pretty Woman makeover – only with red dye in his hair not his apparel. Her dad Paul Dooley (how nice is it to see him?) unwittingly aids his research by giving him the VHSs of the three weddings she ran out on but slowly Ike falls for her as he prepares to write the truth and she prepares for her wedding to mountaineering enthusiast Bob (Christopher Meloni). She runs out on Bob and Ike proposes and then she runs out on HIM …  She turns up at his apartment in NYC and explains … This seems like it was made for the cast but in fact is a screenplay by Josann (Three Men and a Little Lady) McGibbon and Sara Parriott that had been in development for more than ten years with so many different actors attached it would make your eyes water:  Anjelica Huston, Mary Steenburgen, Lorraine Bracco, Geena Davis, Sandra Bullock, Ellen DeGeneres, Tea Leoni … Christopher Walken, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Michael Douglas … And yet Roberts and Gere with Marshall in the hot seat is a combo just seems so obvious and right. McGibbon and Parriott would go on to adapt Gigi Levangie’s brilliant Hollywood satire The Starter Wife for TV (with Debra Messing in the lead) but for now this is light as a summer breeze and quite as refreshing.

Steel Magnolias (1989)

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Robert Harling wrote a one-set play about the death of his sister but when he adapted it for the screen under the direction of Herbert Ross it was opened out, as they say, and from the beauty parlour to the hearth and the hospital we get involved in the lives of a cross-generational community of women. Shelby (Julia Roberts) is the diabetic daughter of M’Lynn (Sally Field) who’s been warned not to have children. Her collapse at the beauty shop run by Truvy (Dolly Parton) and assisted by new addition Annelle (Daryl Hannah) triggers the revelation to family frenemies Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine) and Clairee (Olympia Dukakis) and we catch up a couple of years after Shelby’s marriage when M’Lynn is donating her kidney to Shelby to avert kidney failure following childbirth … This sounds mawkish but it’s fast, sharp-witted and filled with so many funny lines it’s breathtaking. Parton, MacLaine and Dukakis get the lion’s share with the latter pair serving as (wicked) fairy godmothers but it turns on Sally Field’s fabulous performance as a mother going from despair to grief and back again in the most life-affirming way possible. Roberts is very good in what could be a thankless and difficult role, Field is paired here opposite Tom Skerrit and they would be reunited years later for the wonderful TV show Brothers and Sisters (please bring it back) and MacLaine was working once again with Ross  (The Turning Point – now that’s something I really want to see again too!) but really Field is the whole show. Dialogue to die for (and they do…)

Closer (2004)

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Patrick Marber is a hell of a writer. I loved his play Dealer’s Choice so when I heard his next play Closer was opening in London I grabbed a flight:  I just couldn’t wait. And it was – is – superb. Evidently I wasn’t the only fan because Mike Nichols directed this adaptation a half dozen or so years later. This is a modern and classic story of the roundelay of relationships:  NYC stripper Alice (Natalie Portman) is literally knocked sideways when she meets obituarist Dan (Jude Law) on a London street. A year later he’s written a book about her and flirts with the American photographer Anna (Julia Roberts)hired to do the jacket. It’s another coup de foudre. He messes in an online chatroom and unwittingly introduces Anna to dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen, who played Dan on the stage) whom she marries. A year after her exhibition (titled Strangers) opens, all their tangled relationships fall asunder as infidelity after infidelity is revealed… A play on Cosi fan tutte (with a cunningly integrated score by Suzana Peric), this is a stunningly intelligent treatment about love and sex:  and it messes with your head because it treats of the subject as it really is. Identity. Roleplay. Images. Pretending to be the person the other person thinks they want. (Unutterably exhausting, as Gone Girl informed us).  The closing reveal is a right shocker to people not paying attention. Alice is at the centre of everything:  that is clear when you rewind it mentally. The soundtrack is distinguished by Damien Rice’s extraordinary song The Blower’s Daughter. London looks great thanks to Stephen Goldblatt, it’s edited superbly and all the performances are excellent. I wish Marber would write more.