Psycho (1998)

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The Hitchcock film is so ingrained in the collective psyche it was some kind of madness to remake it shot for shot (almost – there are some surreal inserts.) When Gus Van Sant’s name was attached it didn’t even make lunatic sense. Nor the fact that some cast members (I mean you, Anne Heche) didn’t even seem to know the original. The cinematographer (Chris Doyle) didn’t even understand the point of some shots, it appears. If you can get past the fact that this is sacrilege; that paradoxically Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, the keeper of her father’s flame, approved it; and that huge dead-eyed Vince Vaughn was selected to play the delicate bird-like Norman Bates (okay, Vaughn is truer to Bloch’s image, but who but the indelible Anthony Perkins is Norman?!), this can be viewed as an interesting homage to the most important film in (some people’s) living memory. It is about identity and its negation;  the camera articulates vision and perception (just look! A crane shot introduces Marion Crane! And the final shot of her eye is the single most important image in cinema); and Anne Heche’s underwear is kinda wonderful – the whole first section of the film is all about the colour orange. It’s about a man in a dress pretending to be his dead mother, whose rotting corpse is in the fruit cellar. The original film was censor-bait – when Janet Leigh flushed her calculations down the toilet censorship was literally flushed away in American cinema: that doesn’t even register nowadays. It is a reverie about a kingdom of death, as Donald Spoto has it. Joseph Stefano’s screenplay (he had a lot of help from Mrs Hitchcock) is shot word for word;  and Bernard Herrmann’s score is reworked by Danny Elfman. So this is an empty act of nostalgia and avant-gardism inasmuch as it is doing a Warhol to something that effectively belongs to everyone. But it is Hitchcock. Not to be reproduced. Like I said, sacrilege.

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Erin Brockovich (2000)

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A true story about a hard-scrabble twice-divorced unemployed mother-of-three who became a legal assistant and wound up helping win a class action suit to the tune of a third of a billion dollars for the citizens of Hinkley CA who were being poisoned by the water in their area. This is anything but a Sickness of the Week movie. The sharp as a tack screenplay by Susannah Grant is beautifully structured, with snappy dialogue to die for – when biker Aaron Eckhart asks Erin what would he have to do to be different to her former husbands, she says, Stay – this is anchored by good aesthetic decisions and a great performance by Julia Roberts who gives it her all. Albert Finney is her long-suffering lawyer boss (she persuades him to hire her after he loses her traffic accident suit) and this is never less than totally believable in a marvellously judged production about going up against corrupt corporations, directed (and photographed) by Steven Soderbergh. That’s the real Erin B ten minutes in, taking Julia’s orders at a restaurant.

Psycho (1960)

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Sometimes we are in danger of overlooking the greatest filmmakers – and Alfred Hitchcock never won an Academy Award, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about recognition. As we know from Sacha Gervasi’s supremely funny and informative Hitchcock (adapted from Stephen Rebello’s The Making of Psycho) the great man needed a new project that would excite him. Yet he had been coining it from his TV show and was the most famous filmmaker on the planet. He should have been resting on his laurels on the eve of his sixtieth birthday – instead he took a radical new direction, had a true crime shocker by Robert Bloch adapted (by Joseph Stefano and his own wife, Alma Reville, who was uncredited) and filmed it in monochrome on his TV sets on a low budget. He created film history. No matter how you feel about the auteur theory (and I’m agnostic depending on the day/the director) he was responsible for pursuing the notion of the split protagonist to ever more devastating effect from Shadow of a Doubt (1943) through  Strangers on a Train (1951) and Vertigo (1958) which were adapted from neo-Gothic novels.  And here, in perhaps the ultimate noir tale, troubled mama’s boy Norman Bates internalises a perplexing matriarch and compulsively stuffs birds in an attempt at a kind of female individuation. It is of course the blackest of comedies. It boasts two astonishing performances – Janet Leigh in the first forty-five minutes, whose desires as Marion Crane drive that narrative, until she crosses paths with a confused motel proprietor, Anthony Perkins as that charmingly twitchy mother-loving madman. This is a tour de force in presentation:  these drab worlds are the external realities of the protagonists and the flatness of the style is then rendered bent in two by juxtaposition with the extraordinarily inventive murder sequences –  the shower scene cannot be adequately described, only experienced (preferably only cinematically) and definitely with those screaming violins. It was released 57 years ago and was the start of something entirely new that goes beyond its being merely the parent of the slasher flick:  a cinema of unease, a cinema of anxiety, something totally modern that severed the connection with the democratic and the unified. Cinema was never the same afterwards. And look at all those references to birds! A preview of coming attractions, as Grace Kelly once told us. Totally terrifying.

How To Be Single (2016)

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What is marriage? No more spontaneous sex, no more travelling alone, no more being able to buy stuff without asking permission. That’s not my opinion (well….) that’s the bartender Tom (Anders Hom) with the hard-on who has no-strings sex with Alice (Dakota Johnson) when she takes a break from her long-term boyfriend – and then discovers he’s got a new girlfriend and she’s really single. (Tom probably knows because he cheated when he was married to Anne Hathaway in The Intern.)  This comedy about bedhopping in NYC is adapted by Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein and Dana Fox,  from Liz Tuccillo’s novel of the same name. And if you recognise her moniker then you’ve obviously seen it on the writing credits of Sex and the City and you might even have read He’s Just Not That Into You, which she c0-wrote. This isn’t so much Alice Through the Looking Glass as Alice Through the Bottom of a Glass After One Way Too Many because she parties like it’s 1999 with the hardest partyer in town, fellow paralegal Robin (Rebel Wilson), a crazy ass wild girl who sleeps around, drugs, dances and has the best hangover cure I’ve ever seen. Johnson is effectively straight man to comic tornado Wilson and her strangeness is squared against the likeable Aussie who (obv) has all the best lines, delivered in her familiar deadpan style. I can’t work out if Johnson is very authentic with great technique or a non-actress with no technique whatsoever. She bears no discernible resemblance to either of her superfamous parents, or her grandmother, for that matter. Alice is rooming with her older sister Meg (Leslie Mann) a lonely OB/GYN who’s delivered 3,000 babies plus their mothers’ waste products and doesn’t EVER want to be pregnant or have a baby – until she does, and opts for a sperm donor and IVF. She starts to date Ken (Jake Lacy) the new receptionist at Alice’s office because now she’s pregnant she’s horny but he might be okay because he was the good guy in Christmas With the Coopers. She just doesn’t want him to know she’s with child. Back at the bar, Tom is happy to help out Lucy (Alison Brie) who meets a series of useless men online and he pretends to be her boyfriend when a hen party of women she knows arrives and he saves her from yet another embarrassing encounter. Hey, he’s here to help. And have no-strings sex. This apparently feminist take on romcom wanders mildly around the usual tropes with somewhat atypical outcomes and its worth really resides in that female buddy pairing at its heart – with Brie and Mann (sounds like a cheese company) bringing up the rear. Much of it is about those age-old issues of compatibility, f**k buddies, friendship and sheer convenience over romance. There are some good seemingly throwaway truisms about your drink number (it’s a thing) and which holiday is the best to split up on. After an abortive relationship with property developer Damon Wayans who doesn’t want his kid to know her actual mother has died (tricky), Alison thinks her ex wants to get back with her, but Robin acccuses her of drowning in dicksand and sleeping with, you know, whoever happens along and says Alice doesn’t know who she really is. Their bust-up and the terms on which they get back together are the centre of the story which cuts through the sentiment with a narration telling us what being single is really being about – knowing how to like being alone. Aw, heck it’s Christmas. See it. With about 8 of your favourite bottles of beer. And without the local bartender. Let’s party! Directed by Christian Ditter.

North by Northwest (1959)

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Alfred Hitchcock wanted to acquire the rights to Graham Greene’s scintillating Cold War (predictive) satire, Our Man in Havana. But Greene was disgusted by what Joe Mankiewicz had recently done with his Vietnam novel, The Quiet American, utterly reversing its political critique, and demurred. Hitchcock was in a rut and his only go project was an adaptation of The Wreck of the Mary Deare but got nowhere in his meetings with screenwriter Ernest Lehman. He really wanted to make a movie with all his usual tropes, starting with an innocent man caught in a case of mistaken identity, culminating in a cliffhanger at Lincoln’s nose on Mount Rushmore. Lehman took his work seriously and travelled across the United States, starting at the United Nations in NYC and finishing at the Presidential monument. And what a ride this is, the first ever movie to mention the CIA, then enjoying a decade of interventionist invasions, coups and takeovers with nary a word in the collaborationist media. Thus we have heavy drinking Mad Man Cary Grant mistaken for a (decoy) spy as he has a drink with colleagues (A Most Unusual Day is the muzak playing in the hotel lobby) and chased all over the place, from suave James Mason’s Long Island mansion in Glen Cove (homaged in Eyes Wide Shut), fingered for murder in the Delegates’ Lounge at the UN, meeting cute with Eva Marie Saint on a train ride, chased by a crop-dusting plane in cornfields, to (literally) hanging out of Mount Rushmore. It’s all about a piece of microfilm  and fake spies, but nobody cares. This is extraordinary, audacious filmmaking, with everyone concerned at the top of their game, from the cinematographer Robert Burks, to editor George Tomasini, composer Bernard Herrmann who gifts it with a marvellous score and the classic title sequence designed by Saul Bass, to Cary Grant, who couldn’t have been more sophisticated if he tried. Did anyone ever look better in a grey suit? Hitchcock made a series of serious spy films in the 1960s, attempting to deflate the ironic effect of this film – it bred James Bond (Hitchcock was the first choice to direct Dr No) and a host of camp imitators. The audience didn’t like the realism that was John le Carre’s signature being hoicked onto Hitchcock’s style and despite the success of the star-led Torn Curtain, the director’s influence began to diminish. Yet we are in constant danger of underestimating his importance. With this, the action film was born:  an attractive hero, an innuendo-laden romance with a dubious woman, staggering standalone setpieces, and all the while tongue firmly in cheek while satirising contemporary politics at large in a film with a crazy plot that nobody cares about but which physically acknowledges the audience, De Mille-style. The only letdown nowadays is the impossibility of seeing it in VistaVision – what an amazing experience that must have been in 1959. Dazzling.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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How innocent do JR’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door fantasies appear in the welter of sexual spectacle on display here. Stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s memoir of his outrageous drug and sex-fuelled exploits on Wall Street at his firm Stratton Oakmont are pure outrage:  nothing succeeds like excess. It’s in your face from the first moment in Terence Winter’s adaptation for director Martin Scorsese, his last film to date. Leonardo DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with the NYC filmmaker is nothing if not exact:  he shepherded the project into production over a prolonged period and his performance is extraordinary – and he’s matched by Jonah Hill as Donnie the totally crazed acolyte who has married his own cousin and publicly masturbates upon first sight of Jordan’s new crush, Margot Robbie, whom he marries after cheating with her on his wife. The scene when Jordan and Donnie ingest out of date super ludes has to be seen to be believed:  DiCaprio’s voiceover explaining his trip straight to cerebral palsy is just … beyond description. Trouble is, FBI agent Kyle Chandler and the Securities Commission are onto Jordan and people start getting careless in their sales methods and there’s so much money they’re running out of hiding places. The viewer is effectively subjected to an onslaught of nudity, sex, drug-addled mania and hilarity in this horrific inversion of Horatio Alger. If your eyes don’t explode your brain will. (Remember all the little people whose money they took…) Nothing less than brilliant.

Life Partners (2014)

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Someone introduces you to their ‘partner’ and you ask them if it’s business or tennis and … it’s sex. Modern life, eh? Uncomfortable. Nomenclature ain’t what it used to be. Here we have two co-dependent thirty-ish women who will never find anyone to replace each other as best friends until A-type personality Paige (Gillian Jacobs) finds a man and Lesbian layabout Sasha (Leighton Meester) has to make do with making out with … whomsoever comes along. This starts off gently and gradually peels away the layers of difficulty when people move into different places in their lives. Nothing ever works out quite as anticipated. The directing debut of Susanna Fogel who wrote it with Joni Lefkowitz, this has jibes about parenting, office politics, being set up by nitwits who want you out of their hair, and how hard it is to watch TV with people who keep telling you you’re the funniest person they ever met even though it’s understood. Anyone who ‘gets’ The Big Lebowski … I get it.

Unfinished Business (2014)

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The decline of the American comedy continues apace and it seems there is nobody to call a halt. Vince Vaughn is the put-upon family man, Tom Wilkinson the retiring salesman in search of sex and Dave Franco is retarded. Really. There are – however – some good jokes about travelling in Europe and it is actually visually inventive with Vaughn’s in-hotel art installation residency worth waiting for. Just.