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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Denial (2016)

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I had quite forgotten the outcome of the 2000 libel suit taken by Holocaust denier/falsifier British Hitler historian David Irving against Penguin Books as a result of academic Deborah Lipstadt’s claims about him and his fellow travellers.  She is played by Rachel Weisz, he is played by Timothy Spall. She’s from Queens and sounds it:  she says what she thinks and has issues with the reluctance of elite British Jews to fund her case since people in the US like Steven Spielberg are backing her unquestioningly (that’s an awkward dinner party). She retains solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) which causes no little hilarity because of his association with the late Diana, Princess of Wales. She finds herself having to deal with a team of lawyers who seemingly speak a different language but are also capable of emotional distance:  she is conflicted particularly when contacted by survivors who want to be heard. Her team don’t even want her to testify, the idea being to box in Irving with his own perverted version of the truth. The real relationship here is the combustion between Lipstadt and her barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). When they travel to Auschwitz he appears to be late – but he’s been pacing the perimeter, a payoff that happens much later. Their argument 80 minutes into the running time is the heart of the narrative:  he explains to her that this isn’t just about Holocaust denial it’s about self-denial – hers. She finally understands the man who spent a year learning German and who can now quote Goethe to make his point. He rushes off in the evenings rather than indulge her pettiness to prepare – the case is his life.  Wilkinson is very effective and his own emotions are properly managed – reserved for his hard-hitting courtroom performance. This is a fascinating and ultimately rewarding story despite the apparent caricature played by Spall – Irving defended himself on the stand and Lipstadt can’t restrain herself from reacting to his pantomime in front of the judge (Alex Jennings) who during the  final summations appears to be falling for Irving’s shtick (as it were.) A well-integrated interview with BBC’s Jeremy Paxman (he’s meshed into the pictures with Spall) illustrates just how accurate Spall actually is. Weisz is playing a difficult character – wilfully ignorant of British law, spiky and confrontational and unable to understand subtle wordplay or good advice (those legal eagles are all the same) and she taps into all the right feelings – denial,  anger, bargaining, depression, and yes, acceptance.  Her uncontrolled emotionality is what drives the case but it could also derail it. It takes her a long time to get there. Adapted by David Hare from Lipstadt’s book History on Trial:  My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, this is an important work about something that even now appears to beggar belief. And if you haven’t been to a concentration camp and you haven’t experienced the reality of what happened in back gardens all over Germany and Poland and elsewhere on the mainland of Europe with all those infinitely mutable borders and beliefs then this would be a good place to educate yourself. Directed by Mick Jackson.

Pillow Talk (1959)

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Producer Ross Hunter thought Doris Day could be sexy and her husband Marty Melcher resurrected a script by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene that had been loitering unmade since 1942, and with a rewrite by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin and a co-star in Rock Hudson, a new movie partnership was born. From the titles sequence to the original ending (reshot, making things legal) this romcom about an interior decorator (her) and a composer (him) sharing a party line (ie telephone!) whose lives cross, this skirts all sorts of sex and censorship issues using split screens with hilarious results. It doesn’t hurt that Tony Randall is her besotted suitor and his disgruntled friend, or that Thelma Ritter is the dipso housekeeper with rare repartee. A new era of sex comedy was born, with awards and profits flying in every direction and both Day and Hudson re-inventing their careers in the first of their screen collabs. A great looking film in every respect. Directed by Michael Gordon, who advised Hudson, Comedy is the most serious tragedy in the world. Play it that way and you can’t go wrong. If you ever think of yourself as funny, you haven’t got a chance.

I Capture the Castle (2003)

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Dodie Smith’s classic 1930s coming of age story gets a beautiful treatment in this adaptation by Heidi Thomas, directed by Tim Fywell. Romola Garai is the seventeen-year old Cassandra Mortmain, daughter of the desiccated formerly successful novelist, a cadaverous James (Bill Nighy) who has been blocked for twelve years. He’s married to dedicated nudist and avant garde artist Topaz (Tara Fitzgerald), his second wife. He served time in prison for attacking Cassandra’s mother with a cake knife. They live in ungenteel poverty in a rented castle which is in a state of terrific decay with a beautiful sister Rose (Rose Byrne) and young brother Thomas. The gorgeous farmhand next door Stephen (Henry Cavill) loves Cassandra but she only has eyes for American Simon (Henry  Thomas) who inherits the whole property of which the castle serves a part; while Simon falls for Rose. Simon’s brother Neil (Marc Blucas) and Cassandra confide in each other … and while superficial romance proceeds and social niceties are observed, and a forthcoming marriage might save them all, the principal relationships fall apart and Cassandra tries to fix everything while losing the man she really loves. Fantastically observed and – it has to be said – captivating – adaptation, with spot-on performances all round. Look fast for Dolly Wells as a horrible saleswoman.

Mommie Dearest (1981)

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Joan Crawford said in the early 1970s that the only young modern actress who had what it took to be a star was Faye Dunaway. Maybe she planted an idea …. This quasi-delirious festival of camp Hollywood eating itself boasts a stunning – and perhaps fatal – performance by Faye Dunaway. Her impersonation of Crawford as a bat shit crazy obsessive compulsive derives from ingrate adopted daughter Christina’s infamous memoir, which she waited to publish until after the star’s death although there were signs she had been writing it beforehand. Being the cuckoo in the nest (one of four, in fact) of a narcissistic exhibitionist and likely bipolar cannot be easy (it’s not!) but doing it in the public eye must have been a certain kind of hell.  For Christina as played by the bizarre little Mara Hobel (who won a Razzie!) there is a kind of fascination in watching the mad mother take revenge, over and over again against the child’s perceived slights. The big scenes are the ones everyone knows – the beating because of wire hangers in the kids’ closet;  the midnight rose-cutting after she’s fired by MGM; wanting the child to eat rare meat; the brutal attack on a teenage Christina which was witnessed by a trade journo (who confirmed it.) However the narrative is damaged by a performance that takes it a little de trop, as Celeste Holm might aver, and Dunaway merely said of it that a director other than Frank Perry might have reined her in at times (even if the likeness is uncanny).  Her boyfriend, then husband, photographer Terry O’Neill was one of the producers. There was no reining in those shoulderpads though and the adaptation by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry and producer Frank Yablans loses steam every so often, especially in the second half when mother and adopted daughter were more or less reconciled (Diana Scarwid plays the adolescent and adult Christina) and she just appears like a Mean Girl to alkie Mommie. It’s not quite mad enough to be trash nor lurid enough to be exploitation. But there is great chutzpah in the opening montage when we watch Crawford prepare herself without once seeing her face – right up until the point where she’s ready for her grand entrance. And it is literally unbelievable but true that this sixty year old drag queen replaced her twentysomething daughter on a daytime soap when the girl was hospitalised with an ovarian tumour. That’s showbiz! And boy would I love to have her closet and get her round to scrub my floors!

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

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Comedian turned screenwriter (I Love You Alice B. Toklas) Paul Mazursky spent a weekend at the Esalen Institute with his wife and wound up writing a five-page treatment with Larry Tucker (they wrote the pilot for The Monkees) about a filmmaker and his wife whose lives are changed by just such an experience and what happens between them and their friends when they put what they’ve learned there into practice. This elegant satire of New Age mores, the counterculture and late Sixties open-mindedness hasn’t lost its power, its humour or indeed its touching qualities. The casting is everything:  Natalie Wood and Robert Culp as the gullible couple; and Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon as their friends who suffer their own psychological crises as a result of too much information, are all fantastic;  it’s impossible to pick between them since each conveys the truth of the situation in compelling fashion.  Each performs a perfect mix of comedy and drama, specific, controlled and authentic. There are some truly stomach-churning scenes of oversharing. What a directing debut for Mazursky! And it all ends in highly ironic fashion to the sounds of Jackie DeShannon warbling What The World Needs Now is Love!

The Graduate (1967)

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It was Mike Nichols’ second film and his second adaptation, this time with Calder Willingham and Buck Henry translating Charles Webb’s brilliant satirical short novel. Willingham did the first draft, which Nichols discarded in favour of a rewrite by Henry. The Writers Guild determined the shared credit. And yet if you read the novel you can see that it’s a pretty straight lift and most of the film’s acclaimed dialogue is right there! Nichols had learned all he knew about making movies from watching A Place in the Sun one hundred and fifty times or more plus three days of tuition in lenses from Haskell Wexler on the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Billy Wilder gifted him with his supervising editor to put this together but he quit in high dudgeon because Nichols didn’t follow his theoretical scheme – he couldn’t because he simply didn’t understand it. He needed to edit according to where he felt the camera should be. His brother had sent him a copy of an LP by a duo called Simon and Garfunkel and he played it each day in his apartment before he went to the shoot then he had a lightbulb moment and Sounds of Silence became the movie’s soundtrack after he used it to pace the editing, but it needed a new song about Mrs Robinson. The performers huddled in back of the studio for a few minutes and came back and performed their famous paean – it transpired that Simon had been working on something called ‘Mrs Roosevelt’ and they just changed the words. Dustin Hoffman is panic incarnate, Anne Bancroft’s role was offered to Doris Day but she turned it down and Katharine Ross is the lovely Elaine (sigh!). Everything Nichols had learned from George Stevens is on the screen:  the framing, the size of the shots, timing, placement, staging, the immaculately sustained tone, the perfectly judged performances that seem to radiate ordinariness and yet are precisely its opposite, these are all here in just the right measure in the story of returning college grad Benjamin Braddock and his affair with the mother of the girl he thinks he loves. This is so brilliant it simply has to be seen, again and again.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

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This is the film that turned Jane Austen into a mega-industry. Producer Lindsay Doran asked Emma Thompson to adapt her favourite Austen novel (two female protagonists, lots of action) after they worked together on Dead Again. Five years later, after several handwritten drafts,  input from other actors, and almost losing it all on a laptop, Thompson had forged an ingenious (and Oscar-winning) interpretation making it comprehensible to a modern audience including subtle and necessary changes to push along the narrative. It’s a brilliant disquisition on money, family (first and second), class, courtship rituals and etiquette. With Ang Lee directing in a language and a culture of which he had scant knowledge, the overacting from the ensemble was toned down and a stylish, witty, moving, suspenseful, elegant film was made. It’s a long time since I watched it and it proves just the tonic on a summer’s day when it’s bucketing down.

The Razor’s Edge (1946)

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Somerset Maugham’s magnificent novel of the Lost Generation gets the A treatment from Darryl F. Zanuck’s Twentieth-Century Fox. It was a vehicle for the ludicrously beautiful Tyrone Power, newly returned from the War, just like the hero, socialite Larry Darrell, on a quest to find himself after WW1. The obscenely brilliant Lamar Trotti (who died far too young) crafted a faithful screenplay and Maugham himself, who drifts in and out of the story (“as if he leads our lives for us”) is played by Herbert Marshall.  Only Gene Tierney was gorgeous enough to cast opposite Power and she is the woman who can’t let go of him – even after she has. He turns up years later in Paris after his Indian odyssey and she is still in love with him despite husband (John Payne) and children and gets in the way of his self-sacrificing marriage to their childhood friend, the tragic alcoholic Sophie, played in an extraordinarily vivid performance by Anne Baxter (despite the boxy costumes which accentuate her disproportionate frame). Uncle Elliott, the social climber, is played by the wonderfully epicene Clifton Webb (he’ll always be Waldo Lydecker to me). It is meticulously directed by the overwhelmingly gifted British actor/writer/director Edmund Goulding who would be reunited with Power the following year for the simply astonishing Nightmare Alley. Those were the days. The material was so potent that writer/director John Byrum did a version in 1984 starring Bill Murray and Theresa Russell, but that’s another story.

The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)

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Karen Joy Fowler’s novel was an unexpected delight and tapped into two crucial growth industries – the mania for both Jane Austen and book clubs amongst middle class women about 10 years ago. It might have been created by a focus group, such was its precision. However it is in fact a seamlessly constructed novel, a perfect interrogation of how Austen works and how people see in her stories and characters real parallels with the messy incivility of their contemporary lives.  Six Californians (including a man…)  assemble and each finds their avatar within one of the texts to which the club is dedicated. Writer/director Robin Swicord, who did the adaptation, rather cleverly re-assigns a couple of the books to more appropriately express certain of the characters’ dilemmas. This is a hugely likable, if low-key, piece of work, impressively directed (this was Swicord’s feature debut) and with one standout performance by Emily Blunt who gets to play Prudie, the repressed Chanel-obsessed French teacher pursued by the hot student (Kevin Zegers). We also get to see one of the late Lynn Redgrave’s last feature appearances.This is an exquisitely balanced comic drama and who can argue with Kathy Baker’s mantra, ‘All Jane Austen, all the time!’? Lovely.