Candyman (1992)

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Your friends will abandon you. So true. Clive Barker’s stories terrify me and The Forbidden in The Books of Blood series is a brilliant conflation of fairytale and horror, laced with social commentary about contemporary urban life in the parts of town you drive by pretty damn quick. Transferred by writer/director Bernard Rose to the Chicago Projects, this takes on a terrifyingly current resonance. Rose said when he recce’d Cabrini Green he sensed ‘palpable fear.’ The wonderful Virginia Madsen is researching urban legends with her postgrad colleague Kasi Lemmons while her sceptical lecturer hubby Xander Berkeley is carrying on with another student. The legend of Candyman exerts a hold over a ghetto building whose architecture mimics her own apartment block so she can forensically experience the way the idea literally infiltrated a drug-infested black community where vicious murders are taking place. She befriends a young mother and the graffiti pointing her to the origins of the story lures her back and she encounters the man whose name you do not want to say five times …. Bloody, sensual, exciting and a trip for the brain, this story of a tragic monster born of slavery is incarnated in the elegant, noble charismatic form of Tony Todd, blessed with a deep voice, a fur-trimmed greatcoat and a hook for a hand and boy does he use it to win the woman of his life, hypnotising her into his romantic history. Incredible from start to bloody  finish, this is a brilliant exercise in genre, tapping into primal fears and political tensions and putting the sex into bee stings. Thrilling, with great cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond – get that titles sequence! – and an urban legend of a score by Philip Glass. Poetic and fabulous. Sweets to the sweet!

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The Nutty Professor (1963)

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This Jerry Lewis masterpiece is a cult favourite and not just at my house. Or France. Lewis had the genius idea to reinterpret Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a supposed exploration of his own dualistic personality – or maybe he’s just having a dig at his real-life (former) other half, the cooler-than-thou Dean Martin. Julius Kelp (a character that had earlier appeared in Rock-A-Bye-Baby) is the muddle-headed buck-toothed chemistry lecturer who wants to beat the bullies and develops a serum that transforms him into obnoxious hipster Buddy Love, a hit with the glorious student Stella By Starlight, Stella Stevens, who digs him but really prefers the real guy underneath. Great nightclub scenes when Julius’ unfortunate croak breaks through at the most inopportune of moments and there’s that legendary Alaskan Polar Bear Heater routine for the real fans. Wonderful looking, with Lewis really in command of the frame and costumes by the legendary Edith Head, an apt choice for this Paramount tale of transformation. Classic stuff.

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.

Arlington Road (1999)

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You know you’re watching a terrific thriller when Joan Cusack’s sudden appearance at a phone booth makes you jump out of your seat in fright. The screenplay by the gifted Ehren Kruger is concerned with homegrown terrorism, a notion that has never gone away but had particular currency in the era of Timothy McVeigh. Jeff Bridges is the recently widowed history lecturer who discovers that his new neighbours might be plotting something very nasty indeed and realises too late that his young son is spending way too much time in their company. This is a brilliantly sustained tense piece of work which never drops the ball and is tonally pretty perfect. An underrated achievement. Directed by Mark Pellington.

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

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I was mystified by the title sequence to this film – slomo images of ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. Then a Russian family get murdered in the snowy forests. It wrong-footed me as I suspect it was meant to do. Because this is really a very long howl of protest by the great John Le Carre about the horrendous nature of corruption at the heart of the British establishment and the City of London, that sacred cow of Labourite and Tory alike, whose exponential development has led to the nicest residential areas turned into bulletproofed enclaves for Russian mobsters. Perry (Ewan McGregor) is a lecturer in poetics, in Morocco with his lawyer wife Gail (Naomie Harris) on a holiday we realise is intended to repair their marriage following his relationship with a student. He meets loud and noisy Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) at a party, becomes embroiled with his family and secretly agrees to bring a memory stick to London for the attention of MI6 who send Hector (Damian Lewis) to examine its contents. Dima launders money for the  Russian Mafia. Hector’s aim to get Dima and his family away from the Mafia’s clutches in exchange for information  is quickly disavowed when it becomes apparent he doesn’t yet have enough to get ‘the Prince’, head of the Russians, who wants to go legit with the help of a politician (Jeremy Northam) by laundering money properly through setting up a bank in the City. So Perry and his wife are asked to help a rogue mission for MI6. Danger, Will Robinson … This is a very specific kind of spy thriller and one that quietly sneaks into your brain, rather like a political worm unsettling your conscience, as Dima contaminates Perry’s. Hossein Amini’s adaptation does a fair job structuring what is hardly a classic spy tale but its morality lingers, as does the  realisation that Dima’s ultimate situation has been triggered by the classic act of familial  entrapment, witnessed, funnily enough, by Gail. Susanna White had the pleasure of directing Le Carre as a doorman to the Einstein Museum in a production of which he had an Executive role: those famous images of the scientist sticking his tongue out replay when it hits you what a confidence trick this film has pulled off. It makes you THINK.

Arabesque (1966)

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A professor who is expert in hieroglypics is hired to go undercover to assist an Arab prime minister whose life is in danger from a mysterious organisation led by Alan Badel. David Pollock was a role conceived for Cary Grant after Charade, but he was retiring and it went to Gregory Peck instead and a huge amount was spent on rewrites – utilising the talents of Pierre Marton aka Peter Stone (and Julian Mitchell and Stanley Price) once again but even he can’t make Peck deliver humour like Grant. The beautiful woman this time is the awesome Sophia Loren who is the mistress of Badel. Since it’s Peter Stone there is cross and double cross and code and it’s espionage therefore there’s tension to burn … if you can figure out the plot. It really is quite a lot of hieroglyphics but it’s also one of the most incredible films ever shot, with the glory going to cinematographer Christopher Challis who gives great colour and there are lots of wacky angles a la mod style of the era, supposedly to camouflage the production issues. If you hate going to the optician best avoid the first ten minutes. It’s the last film of John Merivale, Vivien Leigh’s last companion, and the debut of legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong. There’s another fabulous titles sequence by Maurice Binder and it’s scored by Henry Mancini with some interesting sax and trombone work. Gorgeous entertainment.

Lessons in Love (2014)

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A Cambridge professor of literature has a habit of sleeping with his most beautiful students. When one of them gets pregnant he marries her and moves to her hometown of Los Angeles despite being taken with her wild sister who makes a living as a romance novel editor. Then … the young wife strays, the sister’s marriage breaks down and a whole swaperoo happens while a deportation order is issued against the lecturer. It sounds banal and unkind but it’s beautifully shot and thoughtful about what makes modern family work, sort of. Probably more attached to reality than Woody Allen’s thoughts on the subject. Brosnan is terrific as the attractively louche alcoholic whose teachings on the Romantics infect his own efforts to make life better. Unlike Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man it is actually possible that this pretty person could have two beauties fall for his questionable charms. A thoughtful entertainment.

Irrational Man (2015)

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Woody Allen’s latest is dead on arrival. From the clunky repetitive playing of The In Crowd to the ludicrous idea that anyone, let alone the beauteous Emma Stone AND Parker Posey might find Joaquin Phoenix attractive, it is a wisp of a short film that seems like it will never end. Planting a gun in the first act a la Chekhov merely amplifies the predictability of this cod-philosophical morality play.