Cafe Society (2016)

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Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood straight outta the Bronx  c.1935 to work with his movie agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and falls for his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Everything looks beautiful, bathed in magic moment sunshine and swoony evening light and people talk about Irene Dunne and Willie Wyler but it turns out Vonnie is Phil’s mistress and he leaves his wife to marry her leaving Bobby brokenhearted and back in his beloved Bronx working front of house for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in a glamorous nightclub. He marries divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively) whom he promptly rechristens Vonnie. She has a baby and her time is taken up caring for her. Then Phil and Vonnie visit while passing through NYC and a romance of sorts recommences but as Bobby realises, Vonnie (this Vonnie) is now his aunt … This is a film of two halves, which do not mesh.  The leads are in their third film together but Stewart is much too modern to play her role, Eisenberg is quite weird – that hunched-shouldered look doth not a schlub make – and the good performances are in supporting roles:  Jeannie Berlin and particularly Ken Stott as the Dorfman parents, Stoll, who is literally criminally underused and Stephen Kunken as the brother in law who inadvertently causes Bobby’s sister Evelyn to have Ben murder their neighbour. Despite the episodes of violence, the talk about what is reality and what is cinema, and the central idea about marriage and what people do to keep relationships going despite clear incompatibility – and there’s a strange (self-?) reference to a man with a teenaged mistress… – this just doesn’t work. The faraway looks in the leads’ eyes at the unsatisfying and inconclusive climax, a country apart, merely highlight the vacuum at the story’s centre. Minor Allen to be sure. It looks great though, so thank you Vittorio Storaro.

Tracks (2013)

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I just want to be by myself. If you read books like The Heroine’s Journey you’ll learn that what every girl really needs at some point is some time by herself – a separation of sorts, from the noise, from the world, from the patriarchal expectations …. all that jazz. And in 1977 Australian Robyn Davidson had just about enough of all the rubbish in life and decided to trek 1,700 miles from Alice Springs via Ayers Rock and the Western Desert to the Ocean – with Diggity the dog and Dookie, Bob, Sally and Baby Goliath, four camels that she trained and befriended. The problem of financing necessitated a sponsor and that came in the form of National Geographic magazine which sent freelance photographer Rick Smolan to shoot the story and he met up with her once a month, in various states of disrepair and anguish. Mia Wasikowska has the role of her life, encountering her real self, solitude, loneliness and loss. It’s a remarkable, demanding performance in this adaptation by Marion Nelson of Davidson’s memoir, which took 25 years to get to the big screen after many false starts. Adam Driver is the unfortunate guy whose expressions of concern for his occasional travelling companion are so regularly rebuffed while the inevitable publicity brings unwelcome meetings with an inquisitive public and there’s an especially amusing incident when Robyn’s mentor Mr Eddie (Rolley Mintuma) scares them off with a presumably typical Aboriginal attitude. This is a beautifully crafted film, memorably shot and simply bewitching, with layers of meaning about personhood, the environment and the ecology of animal and human friendship. One of my favourite films of 2013. Directed by John Curran.

The Land Before Time (1988)

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Littlefoot and his mom are caught up in the Big Earthshake and he is now orphaned, left to find The Great Valley on his own, but with her tree star (a leaf) and instructions on how to get there. He teams up with other little dinos and they endure obstacles and giant dinosaurs from other tribes as they attempt to survive. This thinly-rendered visual exploration of what could have happened is however charming, well voiced and established and comes courtesy of Don Bluth who established an animation outfit in Ireland for a spell. We don’t learn what species these kids are but we can relate to the difficulty of being in gangs, remaining friends with other kids you fear or dislike or don’t trust and how to cope when you’re all alone in the world. Dazzling score by James Horner. Sweet as anything but not for the gun-totin’ Creationist in the family.

Risky Business (1983)

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What was it about Chicago’s North Shore that inspired such good movies in the 80s? It’s hard to believe but it’s 34 years since Tom Cruise became a star – and this smart, tart satire about sex and money is the reason why. Joel Goodson (Cruise) is mostly a good boy but his grades are not top notch and his dad is trying to get him into Princeton. The folks are going out of town for the weekend so it’s time to bust out some bucks and deliver some guys of their innocence courtesy of some hookers after one attempt goes wrong. One of them is Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) who as well as spending the night, has an idea for some moneymaking activities to pay her bill – and the damage to the family Porsche – which coincide with the visit from the Princeton rep (Richard Masur): Joel has turned his folks’ house into a brothel. He makes a pile of money. Then Lana’s pimp (Joe Pantoliano) wants a piece and holds the furniture ransom.  Cruise is flawless in Paul Brickman’s directing debut (working from his original screenplay.) We all know the iconic moments – Cruise dancing in his pants, his winning smile, the sex act on the train (the last time Cruise knowingly participated in such a thing onscreen – and performed to Phil Collins of all people!) but it’s a sharp social commentary too, with a great soundtrack courtesy of Tangerine Dream (remember them?!) as well of course as Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll. This was really on the money and retains its impact. Classic.

The Dark Crystal (1982)

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A long time ago, on a planet far, far away … I had to be persuaded to watch quest narratives after mistakenly wandering into the Ralph Bakshi animation of Lord of the Rings instead of Superman at a very young and impressionable age. No such worries here. It’s a straightforward fantasy in all but one respect – it’s performed by animatronic puppets, and very attractive and convincing they are too, created by Jim Henson at his creature workshop. Jen (Stephen Garlick) is the last surviving Gelfling who has been raised by The Mystics. They need to restore balance to the world by replacing a shard in the eponymous crystal which has long stopped shining, otherwise the evil Skeksis will retain control of the universe. A prophecy foretells their defeat … On his journey he encounters Kira (Lisa Maxwell) and a romance of sorts develops as they tackle various obstacles – particularly the very funny vultures they are trying to vanquish. There is a highly amusing Delphic Oracle, witchlike Aughra, a hilarious pet (Fizzgig), impressive Longstriders, frightening Garthim (crab monsters) and tremendous production design so inventive and multi-faceted you want to dive through the screen. Gorgeous, magical, somewhat sinister and pretty much perfect. And it’s only 94 minutes long! Written by David Odell and directed by Henson with Frank Oz.

Wonder Boys (2000)

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Michael Chabon’s droll campus novel of dejected one hit wonder creative writing professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) gets a funny and tender adaptation from the late Curtis Hanson and writer Steve Kloves. James Leer (Tobey Maguire) is the weird and ubertalented student whose work is stupendously impressive so when agent Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr) arrives at a college event for aspiring authors he immediately transfers his affection from his transvestitite companion to this new kid on the block and a raucous weekend on and off campus ensues. At a party given by the Chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) – who happens to be Grady’s mistress – and her husband Walter (Richard Thomas) a valuable piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia is stolen,  the family dog is shot and the body hidden in a trunk, and tension rattles when Sara reveals she’s pregnant by Grady, whose wife has taken off to her parents’. Grady thinks James is a suicide risk so keeps him with him – along with the dead dog. It eventually dawns on him that James is a compulsive liar and a total liability. His fellow student Hannah (Katie Holmes) has a thing for Grady but he’s not into her which makes life at his house tricky – she’s renting a room there. Walter sends the police for James when he figures where the MM goods have gone. What happens to Grady’s new book manuscript and the car is just cringeworthy … This is so great in every department – the very texture of the emotions is in every gesture and expression, something that occurs when writing, performance and staging are in perfect sync. Hilarious, compassionate and endlessly watchable. And for anyone looking to complete their picture collection of Michael Douglas’ abject masculinity on film, there’s the image of him standing on the porch in a woman’s dressing gown – something to knock that Basic Instinct v-neck into a cocked hat. Cherishable.

The Third Man (1949)

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Western pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in post-WW2 Vienna at the invitation of old schoolfriend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to find that he is just in time for his funeral. British military intelligence in the form of Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) makes his acquaintance while Holly believes there was a third man present at Harry’s mysterious death and he finds himself falling for Harry’s lover Anna (Alida Valli). There are some films whose imagery is practically enamelled in one’s brain and this is one of them, regularly voted the greatest British film ever (despite the crucial involvement of David O. Selznick) with its unforgettable score, the shimmering rain-slicked streets, the chase through the sewers, the treacherous manchild, the funeral, the theatre, the appalling talk at the British Council, the cuckoo clock speech, the Prater … A combination of spy thriller, spiv drama, film noir, character study, western, romance, this was an unusually brilliant collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, whose friend Kim Philby was a source of much of the story. And this is ultimately a film about stories and storytelling. But nothing can explain this film’s legend – not even Orson Welles’ tall tales – it must be seen to feel that tangible atmosphere, those shadows, the light at the end of the tunnel, those canted angles, that amazing sense of place. My book on its complex origins, production and afterlife in radio and TV is published today on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Trouble-Harry-Third-Man-ebook/dp/B072BTQN48/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1494840986&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon.

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Stars in My Crown (1950)

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– Good story. – Don’t rush me. A prime example of Americana, based on Joe David Brown’s novel, Joel McCrea is the preacher determined to bring God to the settlement of Walesburg after the Civil War. He has to take the villagers seriously – at gunpoint, to bring them round. In this episodic narrative told by his adopted nephew Dean Stockwell as an adult (voiced by Marshall Thompson) there is a low key romance with church organist Ellen Drew; the arrival of typhoid fever which threatens not just lives but the respect between him and  young doctor James Mitchell;  McCrea’s struggle when he refuses to accept the school well is the cause of the outbreak; and the repeated threats to black farmer Famous (Juano Hernandez) prove this is far from twee.  Indeed when the KKK bring a burning cross to the patch that he has made home you realise this is a lot more than a story of tough love. McCrea is a solid leading man and he is excellent here as a man whose faith is truly tested.There’s really good work from Alan Hale as the Swedish father of five who never goes to church but is always ready to lend a helping hand and James Arness and Amanda Blake feature years before Gunsmoke. This is far from your average western, a keen mix of humour, commentary and drama. Brown adapted his novel but it was the work of the screenwriter Margaret Fitts that’s interesting. She did several screen adaptations and is one of those women who did such good writing for the western genre, including adapting her own novel, The King and Four Queens, which became the Clark Gable movie. This was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a man many consider in the realm of auteur.

The Desert Fox (1951)

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Aka The Desert Fox:  The Story of Rommel. Too soon?! Rommel was admired and feared, a brilliant tactician (see: desert campaign 1941-43) whose reputation even Churchill embellished with his words (quoted at the conclusion) but he was a thorn in Hitler’s side. ‘Victory or death’ really didn’t seem reasonable to the Field Marshal and this version of events concerns the last few months of his life when his position was becoming untenable. When his friend Dr Stroelin persuades him to play a part in the plot to kill Hitler known as ‘Valkyrie’ he agrees but it fails and he is given only one option by the regime – suicide. Narrated by Michael Rennie, this elegant adaptation by Twentieth Century-Fox’s in house master builder Nunnally Johnson of Desmond Young’s biography is defiantly unsentimental, sympathetic and convincing. There is no attempt to do shonky Germanic accents and that somehow just enhances the impression of realism (or true crime, perhaps).  The studio’s use of stock footage to achieve their customary documentary effect is highly effective even if there isn’t remotely enough film from Africa. It might well be propaganda given the timing and the skewed content – it was time to pony up to the new Nazi-forgiving German regime and make trade deals, dontcha know and the military genius who wanted peace talks with the Allies was the perfect foil for this narrative. This is really about the military mindset rather than a political analysis of a landscape forever foreign and anti-semitic. However you view it, you don’t need me to tell you that this is James Mason at his greatest. WW2 – the gift that keeps on giving. Superb. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

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This was released as the voiceover tells us in Robert Stroud’s 53rd year of incarceration. Burt Lancaster plays the man who became a world-renowned ornithologist after being sentenced to death and then solitary confinement – terminally.  He killed a man over a girl when he was 19, protecting her from the bartender who was attacking her;  and then in Leavenworth killed a prison guard in a scuffle when the guard cancelled his mother’s visit.  His mother (Thelma Ritter) pleads for his death by hanging to be commuted but she becomes proprietorial over him and her true narcissistic exhibitionism (it’s all about her, see? Some of us know this syndrome way too well…) emerges when he becomes an expert in bird diseases after tending and raising sparrows and canaries from the yard. His book is smuggled out and becomes a best seller and he befriends and marries a fellow bird lover on the outside (Betty Field) with whom he starts a business in bird medicine.  His mother then relentlessly campaigns against his parole and he is denied every single year thereafter. The warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) hates him because of his individuality and refusal to show remorse.  He will never leave solitary confinement. His friendship with fellow inmate Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas) is sundered when Gomez is removed to Alcatraz where Shoemaker is then promoted. The new warden Albert Comstock (Hugh Marlowe) is literally insane about Stroud’s dedication to his studies behind bars. His parole hearing comes up again. And suddenly one morning he has to leave everything behind – the birds, his studies, his life in the unprecedented two-rooms he’s been allowed and he leaves for Alcatraz with only the clothes he stands up in. Malden goes bananas when Stroud’s history of the penal system doesn’t recognise his contribution to getting men to manufacture belt buckles.  When there’s a mutiny amongst the prisoners it’s Stroud who helps to quell it. And his reward?  A transfer to another prison. There are scenes with the birds and Lancaster’s care for them that will bring tears to your eyes. And Neville Brand’s playing of prison officer Bull Ransom particularly in their parting scene will unsettle you. The setting should render it claustrophobic instead it’s positively breathtaking in its sometimes deliberate focus on detail. This mostly true story of Stroud’s devastating experiences and the utter villainous vengeful viciousness of people is compelling and brilliantly told, with a voiceover by Edmond O’Brien who plays Thomas Gaddis, his biographer, who met him just once on the outside during Stroud’s final prison transfer. Written by Guy Trosper and produced by Lancaster, who delivers an incredibly restrained, unsentimental performance, this was directed by John Frankenheimer after Charles Crichton and Lancaster did not see eye to eye. Stroud died one year after this was released, the day before JFK was assassinated. He never saw life outside prison after the age of 19  in a system of relentless personalised vindictive and pointless punishment. This is what can happen when people decide they dislike you. If you doubt conspiracies exist then watch this. And weep.