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!

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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.

My Week With Marilyn (2011)

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Marilyn Monroe took acting very seriously and trained with several coaches throughout her career – she was nervous as a cat about performing and terrified about getting her lines right. She was dyslexic, had Meniere’s disease and and suffered stage fright to beat the band.Her capacity to remember lines was practically non-existent. It drove co-workers crazy – the more takes she did in her quest for perfection, the better she got. And they dropped from exhaustion. She fled Hollywood to take more control of her roles and set up a production company with Look photographer Milton Greene and their first film was Bus Stop – finally Marilyn can act, the critics said. She had wound up at the Actors’ Studio inadvertently following the death of Constance Collier whom she had been training with in NYC. The association caused untold complications in her life. Then a project arose with Laurence Olivier – an Edwardian comedy of manners by Terence Rattigan, The Sleeping Prince. Olivier and Vivien Leigh had played it onstage. Leigh was too old to play the chorus girl on film and Monroe wanted to be taken seriously so it became a joint production of both of their companies with Olivier starring and directing (that was inadvertent, the result of a misunderstanding that everyone was too polite to point out). Monroe rolled up for the English shoot with new husband playwright Arthur Miller, Greene, publicist Arthur Jacobs and acting coach/sycophant Paula Strasberg, Lee’s wife  …  Colin Clark was the son of Olivier’s friend Kenneth Clark and as a new unemployed graduate needed a job. He got taken on as Third Assistant Director on the film that became The Prince and the Showgirl and kept a diary which he finally published as The Prince, The Showgirl and Me in 1995. He later wrote a memoir, My Week With Marilyn, and these two volumes are combined here by Adrian Hodges with a touch of creative licence, coyness and diplomacy:  Clark’s (and Olivier’s) views of Miller (Dougray Scott here) in particular were scathing and Clark’s real-life sexual inclinations were more worldly than those exhibited in the personage of Eddie Redmayne. Michelle Williams gets the poisoned chalice role but manages at times to exquisitely portray the plight of the most famous woman in the world trying to get along in a new marriage with a man clearly using her and a cast and crew (led by Kenneth Branagh as Olivier) who appeared to despise her (they trashed her leaving gifts, not that we see that in this British production). Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) famously said that Monroe was the only one among them who knew how to act for the camera while Olivier ranted at Clark that ‘Trying to teach Marilyn how to act is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger.’ Seeing her luminous performance and his own overacting in rushes nearly finished him and stopped his desire for directing (he eventually made one just more feature and a TVM!). Clark stated that Olivier was a great actor who wanted to be a film star while Monroe was a film star who wanted to be a great actress. According to his memoir he told her this in order to allay her fears in the hostile environment in which she found herself adrift. Who knows how much of this is true? It’s all rather unlikely. It makes for a good story though. Director Simon Curtis manages to get the balance of despair, humour and pathos into this on-set romance and it’s a testament to all the talents involved that it’s more insightful and touching than exploitative.

Possession (2002)

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To get ahead in academia you have to be pretty tough. My own supervisor told me, I know you’re after my job. And didn’t read a page of my work for three and a half years. And stayed in his job. Quelle surprise. (45% of doctoral candidates drop out because of this kind of sanctioned behaviour.) Well, Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) has been passed over for an academic post that went to Fergus Wolfe (Toby Stephens) and has to keep labouring under eccentric Irish Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey) in search of anything relating to Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam),  the subject of an upcoming celebration and famous for a collection of poems dedicated to his wife (Holly Aird). Mostly Roland is cataloguing recipes. Ensconced in the London Library, however, he steals a couple of handwritten letters tucked in a book which he thinks are written to a lady poet, Christabel La Motte (Jennnifer Ehle). He follows his hunch to the acknowledged expert on her work, lecturer Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and despite her extreme misgivings, they visit her relatives, descendants of La Motte, and thence to France and Whitby, on the trail of what they find was a forbidden and adulterous romance. The stories are told in interweaving parallel, with a hint of French Lieutenant’s Woman about it all, but with added Lesbianism (La Motte has an inhouse painter, Lena Headey). Wolfe is assisting American literary bounty hunter Cropper (Trevor Eve) to get anything related to Ash and the mystery thickens and takes on a vicious patina with lives at risk. The story is wonderful even if Neil LaBute is probably the last director on earth you would expect to be handling it.  David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and LaBute himself each did a draft screenplay. The acting is the problem. Paltrow is horribly stiff, Eckhart cannot pronounce her name correctly (it sounds like Mad) and the stories that emanated from the set about their intolerance of each other and lack of chemistry certainly dooms any reality about their performance. LaBute made Roland brash and American so we get a culture clash that’s underlined a few times in the dialogue. Ehle is rather an insipid player but the romance with Northam is convincing and tragic and the impact on the women in their lives is horribly realistic. AS Byatt’s novel was a great literary bestseller and if it doesn’t work in its entirety (the Gothic potential was clearly not realised in lighting, cinematography or design) it’s a pleasing narrative, occasionally very touching and mostly well told with some nice performances by Tom Hollander and Anna Massey in the supporting cast. Red buses. Books. Libraries. I’m there!

Foul Play (1978)

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Beware the dwarf! I just love Goldie Hawn. And I love pretty much every single thing she’s ever done: now how many actors or actresses can you say that about? Seeing her puts a smile on my face. And this Hitchcockian farce from the pen of Colin Higgins is screamingly funny. She’s quiet divorced librarian Gloria Mundy who picks up Scotty, a hitchhiker with a roll of film concealed in his cigarette packet, and gets embroiled in a plot to assassinate the Pope in San Francisco. There’s an albino killer, a dangerous dwarf, a snake, a sexy cop (Chevy Chase) and a most unseemly setup at the Catholic bishopric. There’s a brilliant sidebar relationship with sex addict Dudley Moore, regular interludes with a fellow librarian who’s convinced every man is after her for sex and all the while Goldie is trying not to get killed for something she knows nothing about. It’s laugh-a-minute hilarity from the get-go with Barry Manilow’s songs to soothe the fevered brow as the antics proceed at breathtaking pace performed with gusto by a wonderful cast. A must-see.