Life of the Party (2018)

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Once a dighead, always a dighead. When her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) suddenly dumps her, longtime and dedicated housewife Deanna Miles (Melissa McCarthy) turns regret into reset by going back to college. Unfortunately, Deanna winds up at the same college as her less-than-thrilled daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon). Plunging headlong into the campus experience, the outspoken new student soon begins a journey of self-discovery while fully embracing all of the fun, freedom and frat boys that she can handle. She shocks and delights best friend Christine (Maya Rudolph) with updates on her conquest of Jack (Luke Benward) who’s less than half her age but the chickens come home to roost when Dan announces he’s to marry his realtor Marcie (Julie Bowen) and Deanna and her strange ensemble of girls decide it’s time to make their presence felt … Melissa McCarthy is so nice. And this is nice. It’s not nasty and vengeful and gross which is what you might expect from a woman going through a midlife crisis when her husband cheats on her – I mean even she and her co-writer and director (and husband) Ben Falcone surely saw Back to School, never mind Animal House. It’s illogical and silly and for a comic performer of McCarthy’s ability that’s a staggering fail. She was in class with her archaeology professor and they don’t have a single conversation outside the lecture hall. She’s loud and proud yet can’t speak in public and falls over sweating in class. She embarrasses her daughter but it’s… fine? They simultaneously do the walk of shame and she doesn’t comment on her daughter’s sexual activity? Neither mother nor daughter’s reactions ring remotely true. (If this were a properly Freudian piss take they’d have slept with the same guy).  She was cool back in the day but now she wears hair clips and sparkly letter sweaters? Nonsense. And all those girls are so odd. As though every phobia and weirdly concocted affectation of millennials was assembled into some seriously strange students.  And of course Deanna seeks to reassure them. So far so snowflake.  And Christine and her husband have what is frankly an unbelievable marriage. The worst crime? It’s nice! McCarthy was brilliant in Spy – one of the best sendups I’ve ever seen which knew her value and her capacity for sharp delivery and hilarious slapstick and put it into a screamingly funny genre workout. Now? She’s just a Mom. I don’t get it.

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Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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The truth does not make it easier to understand, you know. I mean, you think that you find out the truth about me, and then you’ll understand me. And then you would forgive me for all those… for all my lies. Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young writer, moves to Brooklyn (or The Sodom of the North as his father calls it) in the hot summer of 1947 to begin work on his first novel. As he becomes friendly with his upstairs neighbour Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her biologist lover Nathan (Kevin Kline), a Jew, he learns that Sophie is a Holocaust survivor. Flashbacks reveal her harrowing story, from pre-war prosperity to Auschwitz. In the present, Sophie and Nathan’s relationship increasingly unravels as Stingo grows closer to Sophie and Nathan’s fragile mental state becomes ever more apparent just as Sophie’s past haunts her … Alan J. Pakula abandoned his customary 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller style to adapt William Styron’s novel – and yet one wonders if the Nazi takeover and atrocities aren’t the perfect subject for such an approach? As it is this too-faithful work exercises a Gothic hold despite the dayglo colours of Nestor Alemendros’ cinematography.  Death is in the narrative cracks. MacNicol is strange enough to withstand the attention as the rather naif narrator, Kline epitomises the term kinetic in a tremendously physical interpretation of the disturbed Nathan as he literally envelops Streep, whose luminous moony pallor dominates every scene. The structure – revealing the tragic titular decision – is painstaking but it somehow works against the dramatic tension in a film that is too long and paradoxically fears taking a risk. It’s Streep who makes this work in a jaw-dropping performance which created her legend.

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

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Who knows what men are really capable of?  We all wear pantomime masks.  It’s 1880 and Victorian London is gripped with fear as a serial killer is on the loose leaving cryptic messages written in the blood of his victims who appear to have no connection with each other. As the body count mounts the mystery becomes increasingly outlandish and blame falls on the mythical creature of Jewish lore – the golem. With few leads and increasing public pressure, Scotland Yard assigns the case to Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), a seasoned detective whose homosexual inclinations prevent his promotion and who suspects that he’s being set up to fail. Faced with a long list of suspects, Kildare must rely on help from a witness to stop the murders and bring the maniac to justice… Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful Victorian novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem gets a suitably OTT workout here but Jane Goldman’s adaptation misses a trick or three and doesn’t entirely sustain the plot (you’ll guess the killer very quickly). There’s a lot to like, particularly in the interplay between Nighy and Daniel Mays as Constable George Flood which is put to the forefront of this interpretation but the rivalry with Inspector Roberts (Peter Sullivan) is badly underwritten. A game cast including Douglas Booth as the legendary Leno, Eddie Marsan as Uncle, Sam Reid as failed playwright John Cree, Olivia Cooke as his wife and surprisingly literate former music hall performer Lizzie and even Paul Ritter bringing up the rear as a librarian, do a lot in a good-looking production. It’s not often Karl Marx and George Gissing are suspected of serial murders! And Nighy deepens his usual bonhomie with barely concealed emotion. However the misguided construction means that this never really comes over the way you’d expect given the powerful origins of the tale and ultimately it fails to reconcile the male and female stories in this multifaceted portrait of sex and violence.  Directed by Juan Carlos Medina.

Jasper Jones (2017)

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It’s not my brand. It’s the late 1960s in the small town of Corrigan in Western Australia.  14 year old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is the son of writer Wes (Dan Wyllie) whose frustrated wife (Toni Colette) is a restless soul. Wannabe writer Charlie spends his days with his best friend Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Lu), a Vietnamese boy daily confronted with race hate in a place where young men are being sent to Vietnam. Eliza Wishart (Angouire Rice) daughter of the President of the town hall becomes more and more endeared towards Charlie and they bond over their mutual love of books. On Christmas Eve Charlie is unexpectedly visited by Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath) an outcast due to his mixed White-Aboriginal heritage and rebellious lifestyle. Jasper begs for Charlie’s help, and leads him to his private glade where Charlies is horrified to see Jasper’s girlfriend Laura Wishart, battered and hanging from a tree. Jasper, aware that he is likely to be blamed for Laura’s murder, convinces Charlie that they should hide the body, so they throw it into a nearby pond, weighted by a large rock. Jeffrey is passionate about cricket, but his attempts to join the Corrigan team are thwarted by the racism of the coach and other players. Eventually he finds himself batting in a game against a rival town, watched by Charlie, who has befriended Eliza, Laura’s younger sister. As Jeffrey wins the game on the last ball, Charlie and Eliza hold hands and embrace. A search for the missing girl is soon organised, focused on the idea that she may have run away. Jasper is interrogated roughly by the local police, but he soon escapes. Meanwhile tension builds in the town, as parents fear more disappearances, and townspeople search for someone to blame. The tension is funneled into strict curfews for the children as well as racial attacks on Jeffrey’s family. It is revealed that Charlie’s mother, increasingly disillusioned with life in Corrigan and her marriage, is having an affair with the Sarge involved with the investigation into Laura’s disappearance. Jasper believes that Laura’s murderer is Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving) an old recluse rumored to have done terrible things in the past. Jasper determines to confront Lionel on New Year’s Eve, and together with Charlie, goes to his house. Lionel manages to defuse Jasper’s aggression, and the truth comes out: Lionel is actually Jasper’s grandfather who had ostracised his son’s family knowing that he had married with an Aboriginal woman when Jasper was a baby. His daughter-in-law then took care of him, spurring a change of heart towards her. One night, she needed medical attention, and Lionel had attempted to race her to hospital. In his haste, however, he accidentally crashed his car, causing her death. The incident has left him guilty, broken, and ostracized by the townspeople. Ever since, Lionel has been trying to reach out to Jasper and apologise for his actions. On the same night, Charlie comes to Eliza’s window. They go to Jasper’s glade. Here Eliza tells Charlie that she knows everything about Laura’s death and hands him Laura’s suicide note which explains the incestuous rapes to which their father had subjected her and left her pregnant. Eliza witnessed her sister’s suicide by hanging and then Charlie admits to her that he and Jasper got rid of her body. After exacting a revenge on her father the secret remains with Charlie and Eliza and her mother, who destroys the note but Charlie’s own family is broken up when his mother leaves the small town which cannot contain her … Craig Silvey adapted his own novel with Shaun Grant.  Director Rachel Perkins sustains an admirable atmosphere and sympathy in what is essentially a family drama enlivened by what Freud ironically termed ‘romance’ with a supposed murder mystery at its centre. The playing is excellent by actors both young and old with a canny sense of what it is to be young and trying to figure out how adults inflict damage on everyone around them – this is practically a thesis on different models of fatherhood, but it’s so well constructed you don’t understand until the final shot. The mystery isn’t really the point either although there is a deal of suspense. It’s a film that perfectly captures what it is to be young, to love books and to be loyal to your friends and the myriad ways that kids find to survive their parents.  There are echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird and Stand By Me in the themes rendered here but it exists on its own merits as a complex coming of age drama with its distinctive setting and concerns.

All the President’s Men (1976)

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Where’s the goddamn story? There’s a break in at the Watergate building and a laidback and very green Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is suspicious when the Cuban-American burglars appear in court with high-level representation. Boss Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) teams him up with chippy Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to help out  – Bernstein writes better copy. Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) is not convinced that there’s much there but reluctantly gives the go-ahead.  With the help of a mysterious source, code-named Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), the two reporters make a connection between the burglars and a White House staffer. They encounter dirty tricks, ‘rat-fucking’ and an organisation known as CREEP. Follow the money Despite dire warnings about their safety, the duo follows the money all the way to the top… Part conspiracy thriller, part detective story, part newspaper flick, this only errs on the forgivably smug side that you’d expect if you’d been one of the hacks who’d (mistakenly) stumbled on an Oval Office-level conspiracy in the early 1970s. Part of director Alan J. Pakula’s unofficial paranoid trilogy (along with Klute and The Parallax View) this was adapted from Woodward and Bernstein’s book by William Goldman in the first instance – or actually four – before it was rewritten by Bernstein and Nora Ephron and then by Pakula and Redford, albeit those claims have been debunked. It’s a film that shows you the process of how to get and write the story – the sheer drudgery of sitting at desks, making phonecalls, being fobbed off, meeting strange men in car parks, going to libraries to borrow books, boredom, fear, anticipation, surveillance, and typing, typing, typing, the whole kit and caboodle. But when it’s played by two of the world’s biggest film stars at the time and they make calling someone on the phone so unbearably tense, you know you’re in good hands. As Redford’s biographer Michael Feeney Callan clarifies, Redford’s mind was already elsewhere during production despite the project being his and he was permanently distracted, yet we are carried on this tidal wave of information that started as a local story and became a national scandal – despite knowing the rather fabled outcome. What a way to make your name. Katharine Graham’s role was excised entirely from the action, to be resurrected in the preceding scandal of the Pentagon Papers dramatised in the recent The Post. Remarkable on every level, with the characters becoming at times functionaries of a cannily authentic production design by George Jenkins and a shooting style by Gordon Willis that emphasises light – its presence and absence, its curtailment and its blazing power – amid an ensemble of brilliant players in roles large and small, thrillingly brought to life. Classic.

 

 

It (2017)

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Aka It:  Chapter One. Go blow your dad you mullet-wearing asshole. Stephen King’s 1986 novel gets the big screen treatment here after a 1990 TV two-parter that has a fond place in many people’s memories.  It sticks with the first part of the novel – the kids’ experiences, and moves them forward, to the late Eighties. In 1988 Derry, Maine, little Georgie sails his  paper boat and it floats down a drain in a rainstorm and he is pulled in by Pennywise the Clown, becoming one of the town’s many missing kids. When school’s out next summer his older brother Bill sets out to find him with a bunch of other kids who all have their issues:  big mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, germophobe Stan, overweight newbie Ben, pretty Bev (the subject of false sex rumours) and black home-schooled Mike.  They are the Losers Club and have various problems with the parental figures in their lives. Ben’s research in the library proves that Derry has a very high mortality rate particularly when it comes to kids and every 27 years this demonic shapeshifting character manifests through their fears when he reappears to feed. But in the midst of their search they have to avoid the Bowers Gang, horrible greasers who violently terrorise them as they search the area’s sewers to find the centre of Pennywise’s hellish underground activities … Part of why this works so well is that the kids are taken seriously and their problems in the world are immense:  we’re talking child abuse and Munchausen by proxy, to name but two. We feel for them because they are fully rounded characters who have legitimate reason to fear grown ups. A clown in the sewers is as nothing compared to Dad waiting in the hallway to feel you up. It’s a perfectly judged drama. Another reason this works is because it inhabits familiar territory for many of us who recall Spielberg films of the era – the sight of a squad of boys on bikes recalls ET – and the King drama Stand By Me which was so iconic and one that also treats its protagonists respectfully. We also think about The Goonies:  the spirit of adventure is overwhelmingly attractive despite the dangers to this bunch of nerds and scaredy cats.  The Netflix show Stranger Things is an overt homage to all of these, mixing up the paranormal, horror and nostalgia for thirty years ago and the presence of cool girl Winona Ryder is such a plus.  Adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman;  directed by Andy Muschietti who gives the scenes equal weight and doesn’t give into the massive temptation to exaggerate the horror element, allowing each character to fully blossom. This is a coming of age story with panache and clowns and a wonderful ensemble of wholly believable kids and Bill Skarsgard donning the whiteface. Personally I can’t wait for part two set 27 years from 1989 when It reappears: wouldn’t it be really meta to cast Molly Ringwald as the adult incarnation of the Molly Ringwald lookalike? Awesome idea!

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

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This animation brought Disney back to its classic roots with Linda Woolverton’s screenplay (working from a painstaking adaptation by eleven scribes!) of the French fairytale hitting all the right story points at a rattling pace (84 minutes). It was the first animation to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are pretty great and use a variety of forms including waltz and they are exceptionally well positioned in the narrative:  it helps that they are performed by experienced stage vets, including Paige O’Hara as bookworm Belle, who falls for Beast (Robby Benson) after he’s exchanged her father for her in his enchanted castle. If it falls down anywhere in it’s in the sequences outside – interestingly this is the flaw shared with its progenitor, Jean Cocteau’s magical La Belle et la bete (1946), a live action version whose animated statuary proved a spellbinding lure into the rest of the tale. On a technical level, Disney had abandoned their original hand inking technique in the late 1950s and the new CAPS system developed by Pixar enabled them to utilise a wider and more subtle colour palette in conjunction with digitalisation – just wait for your jaw to drop during the ballroom scene. Angela Lansbury and Bradley Pierce as Mrs Potts and her son Chip (of the teapot Potts) are particularly good, and Lumiere, the candlestick maitre d’hotel (Jerry Orbach) is pretty wild, with a great sidekick in Cogsworth the clock (David Ogden Stiers). All girls should have a library like the one gifted Belle and have the Academy Award-winning title song sung to them. Be Our Guest! Compelling. Produced by Don Hahn, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.

Doctor Strange (2016)

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At last. A superhero film I can get behind even if Robert Downey Jr isn’t in it. There is actual dialogue – as opposed to a (c)rap soundtrack substitute for the Asian market. There is humour, much of it deriving from the ubiquitous character’s name. There is – shock – even a vaguely comprehensible story and a sense of its own ridiculousness. And also – and this is crucial – it’s under two hours.(Knowing when to leave is a biggie in my book.) This episode from the Marvel multiverse is about gifted arrogant neurosurgeon  Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who loses the use of his hands in a car crash. His career is over. When conventional medical procedures don’t help he resorts to a spiritual odyssey in Nepal (Tibet won’t work for the sensitive Chinese, sadly) where he encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton in kung fu monk mode) and learns to subsume his ego to permit him access to mystic powers. Right there you have ingredients mashed up from James Bond, The Lost Horizon and Doctor Kildare. Cumberbatch is fantastic even when his own clothes are hitting him. (And you’ve got to admit that a man with that watch collection has oodles of style – particularly when he chooses to wear Jaeger-LeCoultre! Even the product placement is stylish.) Except you also have the crazed Master Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, still seeking a sibilant replacement app) who wants to use dark powers to end the world and engage on some seriously impressive building-bending and folding in Greenwich Village and Hong Kong, the likes of which we haven’t seen since architectural origami exercise Inception. The effects are so good you’re left wondering why they couldn’t do something about that unsightly mole on Dr Christine Palmer’s face – Rachel McAdams is otherwise funny in a role that requires some very good real world reactions. Strange’s mission becomes that of intermediary between the world as we know it and the forces beyond. His self-discovery has global implications and reconciling what the Ancient One is really made of is central to what he becomes. It’s not just time that’s relative here – mor(t)ality too. Sidekick librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) enjoys a very humorous relationship with the new mandala master in his cloak of levitation. Steve Ditko’s comic book hero gets a fast and furious makeover from writer/director Scott Derrickson with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill. Physician heal thyself ! And then some. Pretty great. With a neat cameo from Stan Lee himself reading The Doors of Perception to drop an implicit joke about hippies and drugs… Ho ho ho! Make sure you sit out half the credits for a preview of coming attractions …

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.

Angels & Demons (2009)

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The Pope has died. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church is in conclave in Vatican City and while tension mounts among the cardinals, the anxious waiting crowds anticipate the familiar puff of smoke alerting them to the decision about their new religious leader … Enough about the plot of Robert Harris’ latest. This is Dan Brown’s prequel to the Da Vinci Code which sees Tom Hanks (p)reappearing for director Ron Howard as Robert Langdon, hired by the Vatican to assist in solving the mystery of a kidnapping – four of the preferiti have been taken, apparently by a representative of the Illuminati. Over in Switzerland there’s a problem at the Large Hadron Collider where they’re messing with the God Particle and a vial of antimatter disappears. Irish priest Ewan McGregor is in temporary charge in Rome, with Stellan Skarsgard supplying a dose of Scandi noir scepticism as head of the Swiss Guard (sadly in civvies…) so the scene is set for the collision of religion with science, ancient sects with modern technology and a tour around Bernini’s sculptures at high speed in the company of clever lady Ayelet Zurer … Oh my gosh they’ve gone and done it again, managing to turn a better book than DVC (everything’s relative, even relativity) into another sow’s ear. Gory, but you know, imagine if Mel Gibson had done it … And if you’ve just watched DVC and you think you’re hearing things, yes that’s Alfred Molina doing the narration. Rome looks stunning, as ever, even the bits made in Hollywood, because the bods in the Vatican thought it was sacrilege.