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.

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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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Winter Sleepers (1997)

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Was hast du wahrend der Weihnachtsferien getan? Gegessen. Gelesen. Geschlafen. A cinema projectionist with memory issues unwittingly causes a catastrophic accident when he ‘borrows’ a sports car that is left unlocked outside a house. The father of the injured child swears revenge;  meanwhile the projectionist starts sleeping with a nurse who lives at the house, where her translator roommate is dating the car’s owner, a ski instructor. A deadly chain of events is set in motion. This adaptation of Anne-Francoise Pyszora’s novel Expense of Spirit by writer/director Tom Tykwer, making his debut, is one of the best films of the Nineties and remains his best work. Simply brilliant, layered storytelling in a great snowbound milieu with screwed up twentysomethings trying to live like adults in the post-Christmas gloom. Terrific.

In the Line of Fire (1993)

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Frank Horrigan is the ageing Secret Service man being taunted by phonecalls from someone who knows way too much about him – including that he was on the detail for JFK in Dallas. Turns out the guy is a former CIA assassin who couldn’t get acclimatised to life after Nam. (I know!) The threat to the current incumbent who’s on the campaign trail is overwhelming and Frank wants to get with the present detail despite being on bad terms with the whole team. He’s accompanied by newbie Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) but gets to know a woman secret agent, Lilly Raines, (‘window dressing’ as he puts it), the fabulous Rene Russo who’s probably been cast for her striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. The brilliance of this cat-and-mouse thriller is that it’s constructed between the poles of guilt and nostalgia – Frank’s guilt at not being able to save JFK, plus what might have been – and the desire not to let history get repeated. There’s also the joy of Clint playing versions of his previous law enforcing self with Dirty Harry references in abundance, verbal and visual. The byplay with Russo is extremely witty and their first (foiled) attempt to go to bed is great slapstick – look at all the weapons come off!  John Malkovich as the disguise-happy Mitch Leary is a great choice for the loopy assassin whose hero is Sirhan Sirhan and we know that this must end in a murder attempt replaying of RFK’s death at a venue similar to the Ambassador Hotel, this time in the midwest. This is a witty, fast-moving, clever, inventive, knowing, brutal and brilliantly written entertainment by Jeff Maguire (working from a story by producer Jeff Apple), superbly directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  The score by Ennio Morricone really works with the other jazz  soundtrack licks including Clint himself tinkling the ivories in all those hotel bars. With John Heard in a supporting role, Fred Dalton Thompson as White House Chief of Staff and Buddy Van Horn looking after the stunts, we are in great hands here as all those ideas about the Warren Commission, lone assassins and your ordinary everyday conspiracy theories are unpicked while an unstoppable romance between Clint and John unfolds in deadly fashion. Fantastic.

Rebecca (1940)

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Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again … One of the most famous opening lines in a novel. Daphne du Maurier got the A-treatment by new arrival to Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock, working closely with producer David O.Selznick to bring a hugely popular bestseller to the screen. It’s the story of ‘I’ (we never do learn her name) companion to obnoxious American woman Mrs Van Hopper, who escapes her bullying to marry Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the widower of the eponymous Rebecca, a glamorous socialite who supposedly drowned. When she arrives at their country house Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) jealously guards her late mistress’ domain and tries to drive this innocent girl mad … Joan Fontaine made a spectacular impact as the ingenuous Second Mrs de Winter in a production dogged by censorship problems – look at what they had to do the ending! But the recovery from those issues (adapted by Joan Harrison and Robert E Sherwood) works beautifully and is adorned by superb performances elsewhere –  George Sanders as Jack Favell, for instance, can’t you practically smell the sweat on his adulterer’s shirt collar?! There are so many great scenes – the hotel bedroom when Mrs Van Hopper stabs out her cigarette, when Fontaine arrives at the costume ball in the dress Rebecca had worn, when Danvers encourages her to commit suicide, the boathouse …    And the overwhelming monogrammed R  … It’s a textual dream. The final images are unforgettable. Rumours abounded that Selznick took over the film and overruled Hitchcock one too many times leading him to edit in camera in future, but du Maurier’s work had a strong influence not just on the great director but on Forties cinema in general. I trace the powerful connections between this haunting drama and Hitchcock’s later Shadow of a Doubt, here:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Girl-Who-Knew-Too-Much-ebook/dp/B01KTWF08U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480331252&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Vampyr (1932)

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Aka The Strange Adventure of David Gray, Not Against the Flesh, The Castle of Doom. One of those unique films that a film snob such as myself extols above all others. After the extraordinary Passion of Joan of Arc, Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer worked with Christen Jul on a more-or-less adaptation of Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly (mainly Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant) to come up with the story of Allan Gray, a dreamer (that old German trope) and student of the occult investigating phenomena in the village of Courtempierre, a place haunted by a vampire’s curse. For financial reasons, the film had to be shot in French, German and Italian, and this presented problems with dialogue so that was cut to the bone, with one of the financiers, Nicholas de Gunzburg, starring under the pseudonym Julian West. Sound was a new technology and French cinema was having trouble adapting so title cards were used where possible, contributing to the effect of the silents. The unique atmosphere is partly conjured by primitive effects, partly by the soft focus shooting style deployed by Rudolph Mate (returning from Joan of Arc) and the production design by Hermann Warm (ditto) and in part again by the ensemble of freaked-out weirdos populating the cast. If you ever wondered where that grain silo scene in Witness was lifted from, you have to watch the last reel …  Dreyer had directed his locations assistant to scout for “a factory in ruins, a chopped up phantom, worthy of the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe. Somewhere in Paris. We can’t travel far.” Except in the mind. To die for.

Sleeping With the Enemy (1991)

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Julia Roberts’ stardom really is the touchstone for the Nineties. Here she’s the abused young wife of violent OCD psycho Patrick Bergin, that dashing Irishman who wears a black coat and a great moustache and has his finest cinematic moment to date in Map of the Human Heart, Vincent Ward’s masterpiece. The unloved-up mismatched couple live on the beach in modernist fabulosity while he lines up all the cans so that they face the right way out (just like David Beckham). It really is a shock to see him administer a beating to America’s happiest hooker. A boating accident leads him to believe she’s dead – but she’s in the middle of Cedar Falls, Iowa, donning drag and a nifty moustache with her new and bearded neighbour’s assistance to visit her disabled mom in a nursing home having faked her funeral six months earlier. This is meat and drink to director Joseph Ruben who is working with the Ron Bass/Bruce Joel Rubin adaptation of Nancy Price’s novel. There are no real surprises here if you’ve ever wondered what it might be like if Fatal Attraction were to be reversed with added Berlioz. Just remember:  it’s all about the facial hair.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

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Has there been a more ravishing film in the last twenty years? Hardly. And that’s just the start of it. Patricia Highsmith was an exquisitely stealthy writer, composing short, even, straightforward sentences that revealed ever so slowly the beating heart of psychotic Tom Ripley (and others) in relatively neat novels and stories that crept up on you before unsettling you permanently. The world never seemed quite as balanced thereafter. Ripley is barely making a living playing keyboards at chi-chi events in 1950s NYC when the wealthy father of someone he pretends to know makes him an offer he can’t refuse:  travel to Italy, bring home the reprobate Dickie Greenleaf and all for a handsome reward. When Ripley goes there and finds the beauteous Dickie shacking up with girlfriend Marge he craves their lifestyle, apes their liking for jazz and begins to send some misleading telegrams Stateside to keep Pop on a leash and lure Dickie into a gay relationship (some hope). Then he goes to any lengths necessary to take over Dickie’s life. Including murder …  As a Highsmith fan I had many problems with this in the first instance:  I attended an early screening, attended by writer/director Anthony Minghella and I had a burning question to ask but felt constrained by the company:  why cast pug-ugly Matt Damon as Ripley?  Did Harvey Weinstein force it? Particularly because the moment you see Jude Law as Dickie you are simply breathtaken:  he just stuns. His performance telegraphs contempt, superiority, ease, all at once, he doesn’t have to speak, he just IS. (He was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination).  And the beautiful Alain Delon was the most brilliant, audacious Ripley in Purple Noon/Plein Soleil. When Philip Seymour Hoffman appears as Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles he wipes Damon off the screen – and sees through his act. Perhaps that’s the whole point! In a study of class envy, Ripley is simply outclassed, on every level. Then there are the additions:  did Highsmith not write enough? Minghella created a whole new subplot with a woman called Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) whom Ripley encounters on the sea journey to Europe. She’s another discomfiting blonde goddess, balancing Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge but with a different kind of corny effect. So there are a lot of things wrong here if one thinks purely in terms of fidelity. But there are some right things too. There are extraordinary moments at times and isn’t that what Polanski says cinema is, moments? The entire effect can be wondrous, if you can get past the casting.