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!

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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 theme 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.

Venus in Fur (2013)

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A writer-director in a Paris theatre is despairing of finding a lead for an adaptation of von Sacher-Masoch’s dominatrix fantasy when into the building sweeps a foul-mouthed ball of fire who happens to be late for her audition and is line-perfect. Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner are reunited after The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and the adaptation of David Ives’ play by Roman Polanski (M. Seigner!) is a delectable, clever, compelling and triumphant two-hander. The leads are absolutely stunning in this study of power playing as she persuades him she is just the right actress for this particular role. Amalric is more than a little reminiscent of Polanski and fans will be recalling The Tenant with charged delight.  Baise mon pied!

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

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Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel about a family of five sisters who kill themselves was original, nuanced and heartfelt. Sofia Coppola chose it for her writing and directing debut and on the face of it, and what she’s done since, she makes us know what it feels like for a girl. The portrait of the middle class neighbourhood is nicely satirical and hints at her interest in making the later milieu film, The Bling Ring;  the woozy Seventies summertime impressions are just right; that eye for detail (all the stuff on their dressing tables!) totally accurate. In retrospect, this is slighter than it appeared at the time, with a certain vacuum at the centre where emotional rationale might have been, a large question mark regarding the parenting skills of James Woods and Kathleen Turner, a chip missing where we try to gauge the sisters’ motivations. Perhaps that’s the point. The romance between the most beautiful and elusive of the sisters, Lux (Kirsten Dunst) and high school heart throb Trip (Josh Hartnett) is well done and it’s his narration in rehab 25 years later that anchors this in something resembling real life, even if it’s a tangle of memories seen through a narcotic haze. Meanwhile, a bunch of teenage boys gaze in awe at this beauteous timebomb about to implode across the street. There’s (obv) an amazing soundtrack, with a score by Air.

Chinatown (1974)

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How do you describe a movie you’ve seen? How do you write a movie you’ve seen in your head so many times it’s like you lived it? The stars aligned when this one was made. Robert Towne turned down a lot of money to adapt The Great Gatsby for producer Robert Evans to decamp to Catalina Island with his great friends – the scholar Edward Taylor and his dog Hira. There, in the winter of 1971, he wrote one of the great Hollywood films, a fictionalised telling of the diversion of water from the Owens River Valley, set a few decades later than it occurred.  Private eye Jake/JJ Gittes was based on his friend Jack Nicholson, who played the role as born to it. Los Angeles, 1937. Jake is hired by a woman to investigate her cheating husband and gets mired in a mystery he could never hope to solve:  the corruption infesting the State of California and the distribution of Water (and Power), unwittingly finding himself falling in love with an heiress who’s given birth to her sister/daughter, the progeny of the man responsible for raping the land. Towne wrote a second draft which reads like Hammett, a beautiful exercise in pulp noir: I love it so much I dream about that biplane ride out to Catalina. But director Roman Polanski forced Towne into a third draft with an altered ending which is what was shot. Even with plot holes it’s extraordinary, shocking, funny, terrifying and blindingly brilliant, a sublime cinematic experience. It’s a modern classic, for which Towne won the Academy Award. The guide at Paramount may be too young to know about it when you do the studio tour but if you want to know more you can read my book about Towne and this film and all the other screenplays he’s written and films he’s made: https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481117503&sr=1-3&keywords=elaine+lennon.

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