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.

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A Tale of Love and Darkness (2016)

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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)

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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.

Arrival (2016)

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At the beginning of this film I wished I had paid more attention to my linguistics lecturers at college but that still wouldn’t have made me fluent in Farsi and Mandarin like Amy Adams nor even given me a passing ‘vocabulary word’ (a la Forest Whitaker, Army Colonel) in Sanskrit. Then I wished I’d had decent science teachers in high school who didn’t just chalk questions on the board and spend double periods drinking coffee in the staff room, so that I could be a brilliant theoretical physicist, like Jeremy Renner. Science and language are the source, dude. These unhappy unmarried geniuses are drafted in by the military to translate the aliens whose craft is one of 12 that have landed on Earth. So it’s off to Montana, just like in CE3K, that masterpiece of communication, where my desire for intergalactic travel was sparked. After all, how could aliens possibly be any worse than other humans? And since I saw another UFO over a hillside near my home on Saturday, I’m kinda in the mood, you know?! Halfway through this film it dawned on me that it had nothing to do with communicating with aliens and everything to do with the abject maternal. Because Amy is in mourning for her dead daughter. Just like Sandra was in Gravity. Cos women are incomplete without children (or with them, it seems. In space no-one can hear you scream giving birth). And Jeremy is … really her husband. And this is all to do with marriage breakdown. And for some reason, time is folding in upon itself and what matters not a jot is what the aliens are doing here because it’s all, you know, personal, so their Rorschach test blots on the invisible barrier have to do with a book Amy has yet to write about Heptapod language …and the child that hasn’t died yet because she hasn’t been born because Amy and Jeremy have just met! I thought this was going to be pretty great. But it’s not about world war or invasion. The aliens have visited Earth in an extreme case of marriage counselling. Did I completely misunderstand this film? Is it me?! I give up. Un film de Denis Villeneuve.

The Miracle Worker (1962)

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This is like a film from another planet, such is its staggering impact. William Gibson’s play was brought to the screen with the same team that had made it such a powerful Broadway hit: director Arthur Penn, whose second feature this was, Gibson himself did the adaptation, Anne Bancroft played Annie Sullivan (those shades are seriously spooky); and the great actress Patty Duke who has died today was Helen Keller, the blind, deaf and mute child. Duke was of German and Irish ancestry, with her paternal family hailingThe Miracle Worker photos.jpg

from County Longford. She was christened Anna Marie but her unscrupulous managers renamed her Patty after the child actress Patty (Bad Seed) McCormack whom they hoped she would emulate. She went one better:  she got an Academy Award for her performance here (the youngest recipient at the time, she was just 16) and then had a TV show developed around her distinct personalities by writer/producer (and novelist) Sidney Sheldon – it was much later in life that bipolar disorder was diagnosed. She became a household name and even had hits as a pop singer. Her success was almost torpedoed by her participation in the turkey Valley of the Dolls (1967) but she recovered sufficiently to win awards for Me, Natalie (1969). She had a complex private life and much of her later career was in television. This however is how she should be remembered:  it is simply a masterpiece.

The Captive Heart (1946)

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Basil Dearden’s contribution to British cinema was immense. In a very real sense he was its conscience – one thinks of his later films with producer Michael Relph, like Sapphire and Victim for their treatment of race relations and homosexuality. This earnest attempt was the first to try to explain POW camps to a British audience. It falls prey to the stereotyping that is across most British films of the time in terms of class and caricature. However Michael Redgrave does his best as a Czech-born inmate who speaks perfect English and escapes from a concentration camp to find himself detained as a POW with British officers, one of whose identities he adopts and then has to write letters home to the man’s wife to keep up the pretence. Then he goes to England … a worthy film that is very much of its time, with the limitations that that implies. The original story by Patrick Kirwan was adapted by Angus Macphail and Guy Morgan. Part of the ongoing fascination is to see Redgrave opposite his wife Rachel Kempson, the mother of their three extraordinary children. And the subject of post-war life was further explored by Dearden in Frieda. Dearden died 45 years ago this week following a car crash near Heathrow Airport. The news that he expired in Hillingdon Hospital will come as no surprise to anyone who ever had the misfortune to enter that hellhole of a premises.