Little Children (2006)

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It’s the hunger. The hunger for an alternative, and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness. Sarah (Kate Winslet) is in a stultifying situation – stay at home mom to a very robust little girl, she’s obliged to endure the Mean Girl quips of competitive moms at the playground, all of whom appear obsessed with house husband Brad (Patrick Wilson) who keeps failing his bar exams and is kept by his beautiful documentary filmmaker wife (Jennifer Connelly). On a dare, Sarah gets to know him – and they fall into a deeply sexual relationship while their children are on playdates. He conceals their meetings from his wife and they occur in between his trips to hang out with the local teenaged skateboarding gang and playing touch football with off-duty police officers. He reacquaints himself with Larry (Noah Emmerich) a retired officer who’s on a mission to go after a supposedly reformed returned paedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) in the neighbourhood:  Brad accompanies him to the house where they find the man is living with his elderly mother (Phyllis Somerville) who is trying to get her son to find a nice girl (which results in an utterly horrifying scene). Sarah finds her husband masturbating to online porn and she starts to think of escape… Adapted by Tom Perrotta from his own novel, this exerts a literary pull in a good way with a voiceover orienting us to people’s workaday notions and sordid lives in much the manner of Updike or Cheever or indeed Madame Bovary which features as the local book club’s choice. Shocking, adult entertainment about people as they probably really are, shallow, nasty and pretty terrible when they trap each other into relationships, this is outstandingly performed and made. Directed by Todd Field.

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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!

A Study in Terror (1965)

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The poster says it all:  the great literary detective versus the notorious serial killer of women in this Sixties fantasy chiller set in Victorian London. Adapted by Derek Ford and Donald Ford from their story which takes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters played here by John Neville and Donald Houston, with John Fraser as the aristocratic lunatic terrorising the East End. Produced by those exploitation experts Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger, this could easily have slid into the realms of the lurid but thanks to the great handling by director James Hill, costumes by Motley, delicate cinematography by Desmond Dickinson and an elegant score by John Scott it skirts the edges of taste to produce a gripping, entertaining thriller. The theory presented here is perfectly viable but one that might be scotched by more recent findings (even director Bruce Robinson has spent a decade on this trail). Still, it’s always been fun to speculate about this most horrifying of murderers. The cast is fantastic and just look down the ensemble:  Barbara Windsor, Anthony Quayle, Robert Morley, Adrienne Corri, Judi Dench, Cecil Parker, Kay Walsh, and my beloved Frank Finlay! You had me at hello!

By the Sea (2015)

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I have major typewriter envy. Why do I say this? A few weeks ago I missed out on a vintage red Italian one in an online auction, much  to my dismay. It’s very like one that Brad Pitt has in this film, a work of fetish objects, looking, voyeurism, sex and surfaces. We could be crass and strike through the star texts and just say, Brangelina made a Seventies French art house porno:  go figure.  But no matter how meta you want to make it, as a confrontational post-honeymoon disaster flick, it’s not Boom! A more elegant discussion hinges on the individual sequences: the first seventy minutes when their marriage is dissected in fragments:  the arrival at the seaside hotel of this couple married for 14 years;  Roland’s a writer,  Vanessa used to be a dancer; her reliance on pills and the hole in the wall through which she observes a newly married couple having sex in the room next door;  his daily trips to the bar and his conversations with widowed proprietor Nils Arestrup (in French), looking for a subject, drowning his sorrows while he remains blocked – in all senses. It’s opaque and inexact and a gloss on a marriage gone stale enduring its own particular troubles which are only suggested by Vanessa’s refusal to have sex with him. Then she appears to be pushing him to have sex with the newlywed woman next door. Then the twenty-minute sequence when he joins in with her voyeurism and they get the young couple, Melvil Poupaud and Melanie Laurent, liquored up and he concludes they’re miserable too as they observe them together again, through that hole in the wall. Now it’s more than sexual stimulation: Roland is trying to control the images too, in an effort to redirect his marital narrative. It’s very well directed and much better written than anything else Jolie has made so far:   every shot is framed with great care and her own skeletal shape frequently dictates how we look at the story, ironically it’s her own performance that’s perhaps not as impressive as you might expect. Then, the last twenty minutes. What happens when Vanessa enters the drama being staged next door and Roland finds himself looking at her, being disrobed, is what triggers revelations and a change in storytelling. Roland was looking for a subject, Vanessa couldn’t endure seeing a successful young marriage. We learn what happened three years ago. Roland writes again. The cinematography by Christian Berger is beautiful, bathing each image in gorgeous natural light. The soundtrack is to die for, with Jane Birkin crooning Jane B in a broad song selection dominated by her own other half, Serge Gainsbourg, that agent provocateur par excellence, with other choice Seventies chansons dimpling the pictures at opportune moments. What am I going to do now? Watch it all over again. It’s that fascinating. Then I’ve got to find my Lina Wertmuller collection. And a new-old typewriter.

 

Le Divorce (2003)

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The house of Merchant Ivory had a huge impact on me as a kid – I was desperately impressed with Shakespeare Wallah, Bombay Talkie and Heat and Dust. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplays and the settings were elemental. Here she and James Ivory adapt a novel by Diane Johnson, not a woman entirely unfamiliar with the monde du film herself – she did a little screenplay for a certain Monsieur Kubrick called The Shining. So far so unbelievably fabuleux. But her novels about transAtlantic manners Le Divorce and Le Mariage are modern Jamesian comedies which teach us a lot about what goes in France. It’s beautifully handled with a colour palette and a throughline of etiquette that sustains a millefeuille-light story. Unemployed Californian graduate Isabel (Kate Hudson) visits pregnant half-sister Roxanne (Naomi Watts) in Paris just as the latter’s husband walks out on her – literally. Isabel starts working for a writer, apparently a Johnson avatar (Glenn Close) and having an affair with her ex, who also happens to be Roxanne’s uncle by marriage, and a famous politico to boot, played by Thierry l’Hermitte, a one-time heart throb in France. We have digressions on handbags, scarves, sugar, cheese, hunting, greetings, mistresses … and all the time Isabel is making herself over from femme fatale to upholder of women so that she finally resembles the old painting hanging on the apartment wall and which is the subject of a legal and artistic wrangle. When Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston turn up as the girls’ parents, you know you’re in excellent company. There is a brilliantly chosen, unobtrusive score with a variety of artists whom you may or may not know (Jane Birkin, Carla Bruni et al).  This is stylish, subtle and sophisticated. Bon appetit!

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.