Breaking Away (1979)

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– My dad told me Jesus never went more than fifty miles from home. – Look what happened to him! Dave (Dennis Christopher) and his high school friends are doing nothing for the summer other than getting fired from the A&P.  Mike (Dennis Quaid) is the former quarter back hero with no future, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is in love with his cashier girlfriend and waiting for the family home to sell so he can get out, and Cyril (Daniel Stern) hates his father. Nobody wants to go to college even though they’re living right on the edge of Bloomington campus. To the college kids they’re known as Cutters – working class kids destined for the quarries where they go swimming and laze around on summer days. Dave is obsessed with the Cinzano cycling team and his entire world revolves around cycle practice and Italy – he calls his father (Paul Dooley) Papa, christens his cat Fellini and his mother (Barbara Barrie) succumbs to his love of both opera and Italian food. Then he falls for college girl Catherine (Robyn Douglass) who’s dating hottie Hart Bochner and their rivalry ends up with an accident in the quarry and a fight in the cafeteria bringing Mike’s policeman brother into the fray. The Cinzano team arrives and Dave has to beg Papa for time off at his used car lot to participate in a race with them one weekend but the Italians cheat and Dave is shattered. Together with the Cutters he pulls himself together to enter an endurance race and he falls off the bike … Steve Tesich’s marvellous screenplay was based on a classmate at college so it’s a quasi-biographical piece as well as being a smart film about families, friendship and the issues boys face when they graduate high school and have no plans. It’s a beautiful, delicate, funny coming of age tale treated with the care that it requires by director Peter Yates and cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this and it gives me that warm fuzzy feeling that it did the first time round – a lot of the genius lies in pitch perfect performances with a cast that now rings of future stardom. Christopher (who is half-Italian) won a BAFTA for this and he would go on to star in cult entry Fade to Black but never attained the heights of Quaid in the Eighties and Nineties; Stern worked with Woody Allen and Haley made a comeback in the Noughties after becoming a director of commercials. Dooley and Barrie are fantastic as Dave’s bemused parents – his father’s working class aspirations are opposed by his mother’s fanciful thoughts and when Dave woos Catherine by singing an aria on campus it’s parallel cut with his mom doing exactly the same with a recording over a romantic dinner with Papa. Dooley’s realisation that his son is hurting when he finds out people cheat is brilliantly played:  they had already played father and son in Altman’s The Wedding. And the friends who have to face reality but give it their all when the chips are down – well, everyone wants friends like that. Gentle and tough, inspiring, funny and uplifting, with an ending to make the hardest heart happy, this is just cherishable. I thought we were going to waste the rest of our lives together.  I love love love it.

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Only You (1994)

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Faith (Marisa Tomei) believes from a childhood episode with a ouija board that it’s writ in her destiny to marry ‘Damon Bradley.’ So she calls off her wedding to a podiatrist and runs away to Venice with BFF and sister in law Kate (Bonnie Hunt) to locate an elusive man who is a colleague of her husband-to-be flying there that day. They have to go to Rome to track him down. When she meets cute a man who helps with her shoe (Robert Downey) he claims to be him. But after a romantic evening he says his name is actually Peter Wright and he really has fallen in love with her. Then he gives in and apparently assists in her quest to find this fabled individual who really is in Italy. Mild, not as good as you’d wish but never as bad as you’d dread, this modern spin on Cinderella from Diane Drake is a decent romcom with delightful leads, a fantastic supporting turn from Hunt, stunning scenery and a fetishist’s appreciation of fine footwear. You want more? Sheesh! Directed by Norman Jewison.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

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The blackest of comedies, this, a satire about looks and cosmetic surgery and Hollywood that 25 years later looks a lot like contemporary society’s obsession with plastic even if it doesn’t actually predict the rise of the D-listers famous for selling sex tapes to fund their face changing which everyone pretends not to notice (seriously:  when did plastic surgery get so bad? It used to work! Nobody noticed Gary Cooper’s facelift! Or Alain Delon’s!). Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are friends who have wildly different career trajectories (prescient…) when Meryl makes off with Bruce Willis, a talented plastic surgeon who keeps the actress wealthy while her roles diminish. Goldie meanwhile spends years sitting in front of the TV getting fat obsessing over what might have been. Seven years later … Goldie is shrunk and madeover and arrives to take what’s rightfully hers – Bruce, now an alcoholic mess – while Meryl is having it away with anyone twenty years younger. Meryl avails of a potion for eternal life sold from a Gothic castle in the Hollywood Hills by Isabella Rossellini, a sex goddess witch with a Louise Brooks ‘do who looks 25 but is actually 71. Thus Bruce and Goldie’s plot to kill her off fails and she then kills Goldie – who also gets to live forever while Bruce wonders what on earth he can do to escape them when they go to a party at Isabella’s which happens to be Night of the Living Hollywood Dead… Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script is pretty smart but goes for easy targets in horror instead of the social mores it’s ostensibly attacking.  There are nice bits – Goldie’s insight with her therapist;  Sydney Pollack as the doctor finding Meryl has no heartbeat after her head’s twisted back to front and she’s sitting up talking to him in his Beverly Hills surgery; the party at Isabella’s with an orchestra led by Ian Ogilvie and we recognise some very famous dead faces dancing – but in the main it’s a totally OTT effects fantasia, a singular failing of director Robert Zemeckis whose work I preferred in the days of Used Cars and Back to the Future.  One thing is sure in the 37-years-later last segment – these ladies don’t age quite the way they want to! For romance novel fans, yes, that’s Fabio playing Isabella’s bodyguard. Golly!

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

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It behoves us on Jack Nicholson’s 80th birthday to celebrate one of his most scorching performances in a totally filthy film. In this remake of the James M. Cain novel, he’s the drifter who fetches up at a diner in the middle of nowhere and becomes embroiled in a sordid romance with the proprietor’s wife (Jessica Lange) who wants him to kill her husband (John Colicos). Director Bob Rafelson was one of those people who played an enormous role in Nicholson’s career. Nicholson wrote the screenplay for Head, the movie about The Monkees, the band Rafelson created for a TV comedy show and then they became almost as big as The Beatles. He produced Easy Rider which gave Nicholson the keys to the kingdom, pretty much. Then he directed him in Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, where he gave two of his great performances. They would reunite a decade after this for Man Trouble but this adaptation by David Mamet (making his debut as screenwriter) really hit buttons on release – I didn’t see it because I was way too young but I remember the fuss – and the trailers – and the poster!. The kitchen sex scene is one of the most jaw dropping couplings you will ever see this side of a porno and both Nicholson and Lange are simply astonishing in this tale of utter amorality. Some people don’t like the ending, but hey, you can’t always get what you want. This is some birthday celebration, eh?! Golly!

The Love Lottery (1954)

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Long before George Clooney thought of it, matinee idol Rex Allerton (David Niven) decamps to Lake Como to escape the hordes of girlie fans who besiege him everywhere he goes, even in his dreams:  this commences with one such nightmare when he’s torn to pieces at a premiere by the adoring mob who all look like Peggy Cummins. He falls for mathematician Anne Vernon who’s doing the calculations for gangster Herbert Lom that blackmail him into being the prize in a worldwide raffle. This mild satire from Ealing has some ambition but the writing doesn’t really hold up – the story by Charles Neilson-Terry and Zelma Bramley Moore was written by Harry Kurnitz and producer Monja Danischewsky. There are some good scenes and Niven does a lot with thin material with Vernon making hay as the clever woman who eventually falls for his charms. The attempt to marry his lady love in church is good but the payoff gag with Cummins isn’t really done as well as it could have been. There are a lot of short dream sequences which detract from the narrative momentum but on the plus side it’s beautifully shot by Douglas Slocombe and edited by Seth Holt, directed by Charles Crichton. And Humphrey Bogart does everyone a favour by showing up in a cameo.

Arlington Road (1999)

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You know you’re watching a terrific thriller when Joan Cusack’s sudden appearance at a phone booth makes you jump out of your seat in fright. The screenplay by the gifted Ehren Kruger is concerned with homegrown terrorism, a notion that has never gone away but had particular currency in the era of Timothy McVeigh. Jeff Bridges is the recently widowed history lecturer who discovers that his new neighbours might be plotting something very nasty indeed and realises too late that his young son is spending way too much time in their company. This is a brilliantly sustained tense piece of work which never drops the ball and is tonally pretty perfect. An underrated achievement. Directed by Mark Pellington.

The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)

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Tamil Srinivasa Ramanujan is toiling away as a clerk in Madras, a maths prodigy who is entirely self-taught and with little future in his home country. His work leads Professor GH Hardy to bring him to Cambridge and a difficult career ensues throughout WW1. Adapted by writer/director Matthew Brown from the book by Robert Kanigel, this biographical drama is puzzling and touching in equal parts:  the beauty of mathematics is difficult to convey to a dimwit like myself but the relationships and overt racism on campus bring out the best in Dev Patel’s acting skills. The essence of his character is religious faith – he eventually confesses to the gruff and irascible atheist Hardy (Jeremy Irons) that he believes his God is speaking to him in his sleep. Hardy’s inspiration is less theological and his insistence on proofs leads Ramanujan to a period of self-doubt, depression and serious illness. Hardy becomes his friend very late in the day, following racist attacks, vicious rivalries within the University and a declining marriage: back home in India, Ramanujan’s mother has been hiding the letters his illiterate wife was writing to him and his wife doesn’t know and ultimately writes to inform him she is leaving him. This is a beautifully handled drama about a little known man whose work during the last year of his life has been used to understand black holes. What was that about infinity and beyond?! Ah, sweet mystery of life. Gimme dat ol time religion.

While I Live (1947)

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The full-on Gothic/noir fusion that was Rebecca birthed a cycle of imitators throughout and after WW2 and this British MGM production belongs to that list. Sonia Dresdel is the nasty but guilt-ridden older sister who can’t overcome her obsession with her composer sister Olwen’s early death leaving her greatest work, a tone poem, unfinished. A wild girl (Carol Raye) enters her home on the 25th anniversary of Olwen’s death, just after her cousin and ward (Clifford Evans) is home from WW2 to be reunited with his wife, a Land Girl (Patricia Burke), whom Dresdel despises. She tries to break up their marriage and persuade everyone that the girl is her sister, Olwen and outfits her in her image. With the full panoply of Gothic tropes – a vaguely Lesbian villainess, a portrait, a staircase, a cliff, a seaside mansion, obsession and a haunting piece of music, this is a welcome and mysterious visit to the genre, with Dresdel recreating her stage role from Robert Bell’s play This Same Garden.  Adapted by director John Harlow and Doreen Montgomery, photographed by Freddie Young,  The Dream of Olwen composed by Charles Williams was a big hit.

The Mirror Crack’d (1980)

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Oh joy! An Agatha Christie murder mystery set in the 1950s on location in England with … four of the era’s real-life stars in the leading roles! What a brilliant idea, at least. Elizabeth Taylor re-enacts a story Christie knew about Gene Tierney who was embraced by a fan at the Hollywood Canteen while Tierney was pregnant with her first child by husband Oleg Cassini. The fan had left quarantine where she was languishing with German measles. Tragically, Tierney’s daughter was born blind and deaf and severely retarded as a result of the woman’s selfishness. Christie took the idea and ran with it, bringing movie star Marina Rudd on location to film the story of the sisters Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots with old rival Lola Brewster (Kim Novak) a production being directed by her husband Jason (Rock Hudson) and produced by Lola’s husband Marty (Tony Curtis). This was Taylor and Hudson’s second film together twenty-five years after the epoch-defining Giant. A chance meeting at the launch party brings Marina into contact with the woman who she now realises had infected her at a theatre during WW2 and the woman is murdered then anonymous letters start arriving … Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler adapted the novel, John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin produced and Guy Hamilton directed, with Angela Lansbury playing Miss Marple in what proved to be an audition for Murder, She Wrote. She is accompanied by her nephew at Scotland Yard Dermot Craddock (Edward Fox):  there’s a top-notch cast list with Pierce Brosnan to be spotted in a small role. And when was the last time you saw Anthony Steel?!  This isn’t the tense mystery that it should be, but it provides vast pleasures for those of us consumed with Hollywood in all its iterations. The cinematography by the great Christopher Challis doesn’t hurt but the final shot of the fabulous Ms Taylor is deeply unflattering and should have been rethought (Natalie Wood had been the first choice for the role).  On the other hand, there are close shots of her eyes that are not in any of her other films – and they are legendary!

La La Land (2016)

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I left this singing the songs and wiping tears from my eyes. Hardly a typical exit from a movie on a viciously cold winter’s day but confirmation that everything you’ve heard about this is true:  it’s absolutely, unexpectedly wonderful. The opening is casually breathtaking, a pass-it-along song among disenchanted motorists stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway in LA, singing and dancing as far as the eye can see in an utterly joyous spectacle. Ryan Gosling is playing and re-playing a piano sequence on the tape deck of his vintage car while Emma Stone is in the car in front, talking on the phone and looking at a scene for an audition. She doesn’t see the traffic move along, he overtakes, glares at her and she gives him the finger. This meet cute is in three parts and the second is at a club where he gets fired for playing his preferred jazz tunes;  then a pool party where he’s playing in an 80s covers band and she requests I Ran. He invites her to see Rebel Without a Cause (my favourite movie!) at The Rialto and then the romance begins in earnest, under the stars at the Griffith Observatory, over the course of the seasons, with everything colour coded, in tribute perhaps to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but with liberal references to a slew of other musicals that have soundtracked our lives. Everything is perfectly judged as they move in together, she attends hilariously awful auditions, he has to slowly forego his dream of a jazz club and must earn his crust playing with John Legend (I know), just as he’s persuaded her to love the musical form she associates with Kenny G (exactly). He explains to her what jazz is:  Conflict and Compromise. And that’s how the story works. There is wit and smarts to spare, not just movie references, since the score by Justin Hurwitz is its own animal and the free jazz improv daubs this Damien Chazelle work with its own singular mojo. The narrative combines the integrated musical, the backstage musical and straightforward musical drama in a discursive work which posits settling against success, love against loss, against a bedrock of millennial failures and wannabes – baristas, waiters and jobless performers, living in an LA rarely seen on screen with its rackety streets, vintage accoutrements, nouveau restaurants and old style clubs, not to mention the Warners’ lot. This is just brilliant filmmaking, with an audacious ending and fantastically good performances by the leads who are terrific given their deliberately limited dancing and singing abilities. Gosling has improved so much (wasn’t The Nice Guys the making of him?); and Stone gives a gracious, complex, fully rounded empathy to a role that beautifully complements his sardonic but passionate dude. A widescreen valentine to Hollywood, music, movies, and La-La-Land, that destination for dreamers everywhere. Stunning.