Stalag 17 (1953)

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How do you expect to win the war with an army of clowns? 1944.  It’s the longest night of the year in a German POW camp housing American airmen.  Two prisoners, Manfredi and Johnson, try to escape the compound using a tunnel but are quickly discovered and shot dead. Among the men remaining in Barracks 4, suspicion grows that one of their own is a spy for the Germans. All eyes fall on cynical Sgt. Sefton (William Holden) who everybody knows frequently makes black market exchanges with the German guards for small luxuries. To protect himself from a mob of his enraged fellow inmates, Sgt. Sefton resolves to find the true traitor within their midst… Director Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum adapted the autobiographical Broadway hit by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trczinski, a canny blend of comedy and drama which asks serious questions of its players yet taints the seriousness with jokes and the high jinks with irony. Holden is superb as the entrepreneur whose go-getting attitude would be admired back home but in a POW camp it’s a different story. The men are stratified by their ethnicity and class. Rob Strauss and Harvey Lembeck repeat their stage roles as Animal and Harry, and are highly entertaining comic relief, with Don Taylor, Neville Brand and Peter Graves making up the principal roles. The Nazis are led by Otto Preminger’s rather hammily amusing Colonel von Scherbach which casts the enemy as something of a Greek chorus to the loyalties being figured out by the Americans under deadly pressure. Sefton is a model for the Scrounger played by James Garner in The Great Escape while the whole provides a template not just for the legendary Sergeant Bilko but Hogan’s Heroes on TV. Holden got a deserved Academy Award:  he stands out, yes, but in the right way. He’s not exactly Bogie in Casablanca but it helps to think of him in that shadow even if he felt he didn’t deserve recognition and many thought he should have had it for his previous work with Wilder – Sunset Blvd. He’s just swell in a film that is shrewd, bittersweet, hilarious, human and true.


The Shape of Water (2017)

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I would say take care of your teeth and fuck a lot more. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, isolated woman who works as a cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security top secret government research laboratory in 1962 Baltimore. Her life changes when she discovers the lab’s classified asset – a mysterious, scaled amphibian creature (Doug Jones) from South America that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend, she soon learns that its fate and very survival lies in the hands of a hostile and violently sadistic government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) and a marine biologist Dimitri (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is actually a Russian spy. With the help of her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her next door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay out of work commercial illustrator, she finds a way to save him and alter her own reality … It all seems so very unlikely – plagiarism suits notwithstanding – Guillermo Del Toro’s homage to his 50s childhood fave, Creature from the Black Lagoon. However this moves like the clappers with just enough time for the very mannered Hawkins to find an appropriate character to suit her mobile features. Tonally it sits somewhere amid the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet with added masturbation and violence, and the creature – except for one appalling scene which as a cat-lover I can’t even bring myself to recall – is remarkably sympathetic. You might call it a politically correct fairytale about interracial sex (it’s a pretty crass allegory) for the snowflake generation – me, I liked it anywho because it portrays a yearning and an empathy that is very appealing and well played. Co-written with Vanessa Taylor.

Viceroy’s House (2017)

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History is written by the victors. The final Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) arrives with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela (Lily Travers) in 1947 British India where he is tasked with overseeing the transition to independence, but meets with conflict as different sides clash in the face of monumental change. In this vast house, new valet Jeet (Manish Dayal) a former prison officer who left due to his political leanings meets beautiful Alia (Human Qureshi) whom he knew beforehand. She tries to ignore him because he is Hindu and she is Muslim and doesn’t wish to disappoint her invalided father Ali (Om Puri). While Mountbatten tries to balance the arguments about what to do regarding the various parties’ demands – hearing out Jinnah (Denzil Smith), Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) – and Edwina causes consternation among the staff by insisting on diverse meal preparation, Mountbatten realises that Lord Ismay (Michael Gambon) has been carrying out covert work to use partition to create a buffer state between India and the Soviet Union … This was gutted by some commentators and you can see why:  a project that was years in development, culled from several books of differing provenance with a foot in both camps as it were – a heritage romance that deals sharp lessons in politicking culminating in the greatest human migration in history with a million casualties. There are two books credited as the basis for the screenplay and a few writers: the principal source was Narendra Singh Saril’s The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition which was based on secret documents discovered in the British Library;  Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and director Gurinder Chadha are credited as screenwriters. History does not look kindly on Louis Mountbatten, who was, as this film clarifies, something of a stooge for a plan that had been in the London Government’s works for some time. (Maybe). His intentions were good, his overlords’ were anything but, is the arc here. You divided India for oil. Nonetheless the (heavily beautified) portrait of the Mountbatten marriage (no hint of Edwina’s affair with Nehru) with all the attractions of soft power being exercised within and without the household plus the subplot of the below stairs romance which is the only kind of happy ending possible here, is meticulously made. It’s nicely performed, beautifully photographed by Ben Smithard, integrating some great newsreels (real and faux) and sympathetically scored by A.R. Rahman.  Chadha’s personal relationship with the material is clarified in the end credits. As you can see, there are no straight lines in India. MM #1600.

Why Him? (2016)


Her spine meets the arch of her tailbone and I want to pitch a tent and live in there. Tech millionaire Laird Mayhew (James Franco) introduces himself to the print-business owner father Ned (Bryan Cranston) of his Stanford student girlfriend Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) by flashing him over Skype on the older man’s 55th birthday. Invited to celebrate Christmas in California Stephanie takes her family to her boyfriend’s modernist mansion where the tattooed ignoramous bro hugs everyone, says everything that is inappropriate (likes Mom Megan Mullally rather overtly, charms little brother Griffin Gluck) and introduces Ned to a newly constructed bowling alley decorated with his image. He is just too much. And as for his assistant Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) who does a Cato/Clouseau act with Laird which neither recognises when Ned understands the obvious reference… But when Laird asks Ned for his blessing in marriage to Stephanie he oversteps horrifically and it doesn’t end there … From a story by Jonah Hill, this was co-written by Ian Helfer and director John Hamburg and works both as (actual) lavatory humour (a huge plot point) and Silicon Valley satire (listen to what the poor intern says) while overtly reworking the story of Father of the Bride as it negotiates the problems a dad might have with a boor screwing his daughter on a table while he’s hiding underneath Get past the foul-mouthed quasi-autistic socially awkward techno savant fatherless antagonist and enjoy Cranston’s facial expressions which were made for just such a hellish but amusing meeting of bizarrely attuned minds in this generational bromance clash where it would appear both men are hiding problems with the state of their very different businesses. Mullally gets a chance to do what she does best too while you might recognise Zack Pearlman, Adam Devine and Andrew Rannells from The Intern which makes this rather meta. Definitely for fans of the band Kiss! (And Elon Musk…) A Christmas movie with a difference.

Ball of Fire (1941)

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Superb screwball comedy, based on a Billy Wilder story he co-wrote with Thomas Monroe subverting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Adapted by Wilder and collaborator Charles Brackett it becomes the tale of innocent grammarian Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) holed up in a NYC brownstone for four years with six other experts compiling an encyclopaedia who finds himself stumped when it comes to contemporary slang. A conversation with a delivery man leaves him at a nightclub where burlesque dancer and singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) performs with the Gene Krupa Orchestra and he enters a world of boogie woogie and moolah. Her gangster boyfriend Dana Andrews is on the lam and she needs to hide out to stop being forced to testify against him so feigning a cold takes up residence with the experts whereupon her illness is proclaimed “a slight rosiness in the laryngeal area” to which she retorts “It’s as red as The Daily Worker and just as sore!” Dialogue to die for, fabulous dresses (by Edith Head), a winning and unlikely romance (all the ‘dwarfs’ love her – the housekeeper, not so much), all are sublimated in a very odd shootout with Dan Duryea proving a patsy. Extremely funny indeed. Directed by Howard Hawks, this would eventually be remade by him as the musical A Song is Born.

A Tale of Love and Darkness (2016)


Natalie Portman returns to her homeland of Israel for this touching adaptation of the Amos Oz memoir of their country’s  violent post-WW2 transition to statehood after the ending of the British Mandate. She plays his mother, a Polish woman whose relationship with her own vicious mother is more than a little tricky and finds her suffused with survivor’s guilt;  her husband is an academic writer, a weak-minded man envious of a novelist friend’s success and tempted to play an active part in the forthcoming actions to create Israel;  young Amos observes and listens; being told stories; and creating his own impressions of adults, their relationships and rivalries, and what they do to survive; and how marriage works. There’s even a budding romance with an Arabic girl who talks to him of poetry. The performances are uniformly good but remarkably, given her busy behind the scenes role (adapting and directing) it’s Portman who surprises in her interpretation of a woman who finally goes off the rails in the most understandable way possible.  Strangely, it is her voice that alerts you:  she speaks Hebrew in an entirely different and lower register than in her English-language performances and her persona achieves a different kind of depth as a result. Who knew? A beautifully made and fascinating piece of work.

להסתגלות נגיעה זו של הזיכרונות העמוסים העוז של המעבר שלאחר WW2 האלים של נטלי פורטמן חוזרת למולדתה ישראל  ארצם למדינה לאחר סיום המנדט הבריטי. היא משחקת אמו, פולני שיחסיה עם אמה הקסמים שלה הוא קצת יותר מסובך ומוצא אותה רווי האשמה של הניצול; בעלה הוא סופר אקדמי, יתפתה לשחק חלק פעיל בפעולות הקרובות ליצור בישראל; צעיר עמוס מעירה ומקשיב, להיות סיפורים ויצירת יתרשם בעצמו של מבוגרים, יחסים ויריבויות שלהם, ומה הם עושים כדי לשרוד. ואיך נישואים עובדים. יש אפילו רומן ניצנים עם נערת ערבית מי שמדבר אליו שירה. ההופעות הן אחיד טובות אבל להפליא, בהתחשב עסק אותה מאחורי קלעי התפקיד (התאמה ובימוי) זה פורטמן מי שמפתיע בפרשנות שלה של אישה סוף הסוף הולכת מהפסים באופן המובן ביותר האפשרי. באופן מוזר, זה קולה שמתריעה: היא מדברת עברית ב מרשם שונה לחלוטין ונמוך בהופעות שלה בשפה האנגלית והאישיות שלה משיגה סוג אחר של עומק כתוצאה מכך. מי ידע? חתיכה יפה עשתה ומרתקת של עבודה.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

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Most remakes are redundant. Philip Dunne did a cracking adaptation (1936)  of this captivity tale, the second of the Leatherstocking series by Fenimore Cooper that has occupied the minds of so many children. Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe took this classical Hollywood adventure and brought it up to date for the Nineties without losing any of its great elements – and adding an eroticism that is modern and eternal plus a portrayal of violence that is truly gruesome in its realism. It’s the middle of the eighteenth century and the Anglo-French wars are underway in the Colonies. Colonel Munro’s daughters Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) are being escorted to safety by Cora’s wannabe beau Major Heyward (Steven Waddington) through the Adirondacks when they are set upon by a Huron war party led by French scout Magua (Wes Studi). They are rescued by Nathaniel ‘Hawkeye’ Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis), adoptive son of the last of the Mohicans, Chingachgook (Russell Means) and brother to his son Uncas (Eric Schweig). They return them to Munro at Fort William Henry, under siege from the French and Cora and Hawkeye consummate their overwhelming attraction to one another. Munro wants Hawkeye hanged for sedition after Heyward lies about what they’ve seen done to a settler family whom Hawkeye knew well. Hawkeye is imprisoned. The French offer a peaceful and honourable surrender, having intercepted a message from Fort Webb stating that no English troops are coming to the aid of the garrison. But Magua has sworn revenge against Munro and raids the departing troops, carrying out his threat to take out Munro’s heart – while it’s still beating. He also wants to kill his seed because of what Munro did to his tribe, his wife and his family.  Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas rescue the women and take off in a canoe, catching up with Heyward, who has taken off without them. Their escape to a cave and waterfall leads to an inevitable outcome, Heyward continuing to wish Hawkeye hanged, jealous of what he deems to be Cora’s infatuation, with Magua and his men fast upon them … This is simply stunning. The cinematography (Dante Spinotti)  brings together a palette of scarlet uniforms in bright, musket-fired daylight with autumnal daubs appropriate to a landscape of the period; there’s a pulsating, throbbing score (by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman) that tightens the vise-like effect of the narrative; and there is a devastating eroticism between Day-Lewis and Stowe the likes of which hasn’t been seen this side of Garbo and Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil. Have there ever been more romantic lines than those of Hawkeye to Cora, No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you?! Beautifully made and performed, this is brutal, brilliant filmmaking from a master director at the height of his considerable powers. See it on the biggest screen you can. Breathtaking.


Julie and Julia (2009)


What an intriguing idea New Yorker Julie Powell had:  to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year. And what an intriguing idea Nora Ephron had:  to combine Powell’s account of her food blog with Child’s own account of how she came to learn to cook in France immediately after World War 2 . This isn’t just about two cooks and a lot of food memories. It’s also about two very interesting marriages of equals – a trope that carries through the twin strands of this cooking story as the transatlantic tale smoothly whisks us through these women’s lives as they cope with their own private traumas (which have their larger correlative in 9/11 and WW2/Cold War paranoia). Of course Meryl gets the lion’s share of our interest – apart from anything else, how short did everyone else in the cast have to be to persuade us that she could be six-two?! Her joy is infectious. And the story problem:  is a blog writer really as fascinating as Child whose TV appearances are legendary? And does a call centre operator (albeit for 9/11 victims’ families) moving from Brooklyn to Queens really equate to moving to France not speaking a word of the language and giving up your career (Child was in the OSS)?  The narrative imbalance is efficiently handled with other elements – performance not being the least but Adams’s drabness is an occasional irritant when compared with Streep’s effervescence and Stanley Tucci’s suave turn as her husband. Child’s experiences with French ladies who lunch is paralleled with Powell’s, who makes the cover of a magazine labelled a thirtysomething failure by a journalist among her circle of careerist friends. The women’s lives did cross directly, but with mixed results. With the right combination of ingredients,  Ephron shows how to sift through all of the similarities and differences to concoct quite a mouthwatering feast albeit a souffle rather than a boeuf bourgignon. And boy am I hungry right now: do not watch without ready access to sustenance. Bon appetit!

Winter Sleepers (1997)

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Was hast du wahrend der Weihnachtsferien getan? Gegessen. Gelesen. Geschlafen. A cinema projectionist with memory issues unwittingly causes a catastrophic accident when he ‘borrows’ a sports car that is left unlocked outside a house. The father of the injured child swears revenge;  meanwhile the projectionist starts sleeping with a nurse who lives at the house, where her translator roommate is dating the car’s owner, a ski instructor. A deadly chain of events is set in motion. This adaptation of Anne-Francoise Pyszora’s novel Expense of Spirit by writer/director Tom Tykwer, making his debut, is one of the best films of the Nineties and remains his best work. Simply brilliant, layered storytelling in a great snowbound milieu with screwed up twentysomethings trying to live like adults in the post-Christmas gloom. Terrific.

Groundhog Day (1993)

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It’s no accident that weatherman Phil Connors shares his name with the beaver that surfaces (or not) every February 2nd to forecast the end of winter:  Punxsutawney Phil is a metaphor for the crisis besetting a man whose cynicism needs a serious reboot. He relives the same day. Over and over again. The irony for the viewer is that the more often you see this film, the repetition becomes more meaningful, the karma more poetic, the lessons more refined. A work of utterly incomparable comic genius approaching philosophical brilliance, written and directed by the late, great Harold Ramis from a story by Danny Rubin. Simply classic.