The Sense of an Ending (2017)

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Literariness is embedded in the very loins of this, utilising as it does the title of theorist Frank Kermode’s famous 1967 volume. Julian Barnes is a determinedly literary writer but his 2011 novel isn’t just about verbal and written narrative, it’s also a story told in pictures, photographs which document the early life of retired camera shop proprietor Tony (Jim Broadbent), divorced from Margaret (Harriet Walter) and whose daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is about to give birth to a child she is having on her own. He receives notice that he has been left a small sum of money and an item (which turns out to be a diary) by Sarah Ford, the mother (Emily Mortimer) of his first lover, the mysterious Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), and whom he only met once at their home 50 years earlier when the older woman flirted with him and Veronica’s brother made clear his attraction to him too. The diary is not forthcoming and Tony pursues it relentlessly when he finds out it belonged not to Sarah but to Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn) his academically gifted classmate who cheated with Veronica. The unravelling of this mystery hinges on a horrible letter the young Tony (Billy Howle) wrote to Veronica (Freya Mavor) when they were all at Cambridge. What caused Adrian to commit suicide and what is the mature Veronica now withholding from him? He embarks on what his wife and daughter call the ‘stalking’ of his former girlfriend and the earlier story unspools in parallel. What this lacks in tension it makes up for in the carefully observed minutiae of performance and appearance, appropriately for a text that is all about the accumulation and capture of such information. It’s shot beautifully by Christopher Ross in an anti-nostalgic attempt to uncover a meaning to life in London’s leafy northern suburbs with tastefully restrained middle class homes:  a little ornamentation is always enough to hint at discernment if not understanding. When all the threads are gradually united there is a patina of sorrow, bringing together the book’s philosophical core interests in history and action. Adapted by Nick Payne and directed by Ritesh Batra.

Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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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.

Love Happens (2009)

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Aaron Eckhart is the self-help guru specialising in bereavement who needs more help than any of his acolytes since he’s never been entirely truthful about who was really behind the wheel the night of his wife’s death in a car crash.  Jennifer Aniston is the commitment-phobe florist who helps him get to the reality of his situation and set free his inner parrot, or something. (There really is a parrot). This is a romantic drama which focuses on Eckhart’s dilemma to the exclusion of any screwball comedy, to which it clearly aspires:  there are tonally wrong dramatic scenes and comic scenes which should have been swopped,  and not enough time is spent on Aniston’s potentially interesting character.  She serves as some sort of satellite to shed light (or enlightenment) on Eckhart (not the most sympathetic of fellows). She is a friend first and foremost – that poster is highly misleading. There is some banter with his manager and some insight into gurus’ mirthless cynicism but it’s not remotely as interesting as Tom Cruise’s performance in Magnolia.  Martin Sheen shows up as his forgiving father in law but the shifts from pathos to comedy don’t work. Confusing. From the pen of Mike Thompson and Brandon Camp, directed by Camp.

Drive, He Said (1971)

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Jack Nicholson had been busy in one of the leading roles for Bob Rafaelson in Five Easy Pieces so it was 1970 before he could begin shooting on his directing debut. He had already written a number of screenplays but he was over-committed at the time he wanted to make this. He was starring in Carnal Knowledge for director Mike Nichols so he began Drive… without a complete script.  Jeremy Larner adapted his own book but Nicholson wasn’t happy with it and had begun writing a second draft himself.  He brought in Robert Towne to complete his vision on set, with the added bonus of an acting role for his screenwriter friend – that of a cuckolded, broad-minded professor. Reclusive screenwriter and director Terrence Malick also did a rewrite – prior to making Badlands (1973). The film was completed on time for Nicholson to report to the East Coast for Mike Nichols.  He edited Drive… on weekends and downtime from shooting Carnal KnowledgeDrive… is an exposé of Sixties left-liberal attitudes, set on a campus infected with radicals  and replete with ready-made mythological references which must have appealed to Robert Towne:  a leading character called Hector  (who of course  as the eldest son of the king, led the Trojans in their war against the Greeks,  fought in single combat with Achilles and stormed the wall of the camp and set it alight). And, as if we don’t ‘get it,’ Hector’s major is Greek. The radical elements were complete with the casting in the lead role of William Tepper – a dead ringer for producer Bert Schneider, whose famously radical approach to production would lead Hollywood out of the old-style studio system but would embalm him in the mid-Seventies forever. There is a romantic element that interferes with male friendship: Gabriel is the guerrilla, played by Michael Margotta. Hector is besotted with Karen Black, married to Towne’s professor in the film. Her name, Olive, signifies her role as peace-maker in the narrative.  Gabriel runs away to escape the draft.  Hector is the warrior in love – he is in touch with nature (his surname, is, after all, Bloom.) He communes with the trees in the forest, stays in a log cabin and is generally at one with everything that is not ‘the Man.’ The film was entered in Cannes and Nicholson’s efforts were the subject of scorn.  It opened in New York on 13 June 1971 where it got mixed reviews.  BBS apparently offered more money to promote it but were deflected by Nicholson himself, who was depressed at the critical reception. But its lyricism, message and sub-Godardian construction have held up considerably better than Nicholson himself believed and its countercultural theme still produces a striking effect.The film is structured around Hector’s basketball games – the opening titles are underlined in a stunning sequence by the use of cult musician Moondog’s music – later paid homage by the Coen Brothers in The Big Leboswki (1998). The filming style in slow motion corresponds with much of Visions of Eight (1973), which would itself be an influence on Towne’s own film style in his directing debut, Personal Best. For more on Nicholson’s work with Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490221804&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon

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All That Heaven Allows (1955)

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The films of director Douglas Sirk were regarded as ‘women’s pictures’ and weren’t properly re-evaluated as satires of class until the late Sixties:  never mind that, when I was 13 and saw this on TV all I knew was it was one of the most spectacular movies I’d ever seen and Rock Hudson was a hunk. All true. Staid widowed Jane Wyman is wooed by the younger man who cuts those gorgeous birches in the garden and she’s never given him a second thought – until they strike up a conversation one day and this mother of two obnoxious college students finds herself being romanced. The vicious country club set don’t like it but she finds a new way of being, amongst him and his offbeat friends, who have to explain to her how war has affected men like him and getting back to the land and being true to yourself and not your twinset is actually a good idea. It’s Walden versus Eisenhower. All hell breaks loose when the kids find out and Jane is given a TV set to distract herself during the lonely Christmas vacation … Stunning exploration of womanhood by a director at the height of his powers with images you will never forget (by Russell Metty) of the changing seasons in the life of a woman who has to find her own way, for herself. Screenplay by Peggy Fenwick from a story by Edna Lee and Harry Lee and produced by Ross Hunter, who had put Hudson and Wyman together in the previous year’s Universal smash, Magnificent Obsession, with the same director. For that desert island.

Groundhog Day (1993)

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It’s no accident that weatherman Phil Connors shares his name with the beaver that surfaces (or not) every February 2nd to forecast the end of winter:  Punxsutawney Phil is a metaphor for the crisis besetting a man whose cynicism needs a serious reboot. He relives the same day. Over and over again. The irony for the viewer is that the more often you see this film, the repetition becomes more meaningful, the karma more poetic, the lessons more refined. A work of utterly incomparable comic genius approaching philosophical brilliance, written and directed by the late, great Harold Ramis from a story by Danny Rubin. Simply classic.

Doctor Strange (2016)

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At last. A superhero film I can get behind even if Robert Downey Jr isn’t in it. There is actual dialogue – as opposed to a (c)rap soundtrack substitute for the Asian market. There is humour, much of it deriving from the ubiquitous character’s name. There is – shock – even a vaguely comprehensible story and a sense of its own ridiculousness. And also – and this is crucial – it’s under two hours.(Knowing when to leave is a biggie in my book.) This episode from the Marvel multiverse is about gifted arrogant neurosurgeon  Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who loses the use of his hands in a car crash. His career is over. When conventional medical procedures don’t help he resorts to a spiritual odyssey in Nepal (Tibet won’t work for the sensitive Chinese, sadly) where he encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton in kung fu monk mode) and learns to subsume his ego to permit him access to mystic powers. Right there you have ingredients mashed up from James Bond, The Lost Horizon and Doctor Kildare. Cumberbatch is fantastic even when his own clothes are hitting him. (And you’ve got to admit that a man with that watch collection has oodles of style – particularly when he chooses to wear Jaeger-LeCoultre! Even the product placement is stylish.) Except you also have the crazed Master Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, still seeking a sibilant replacement app) who wants to use dark powers to end the world and engage on some seriously impressive building-bending and folding in Greenwich Village and Hong Kong, the likes of which we haven’t seen since architectural origami exercise Inception. The effects are so good you’re left wondering why they couldn’t do something about that unsightly mole on Dr Christine Palmer’s face – Rachel McAdams is otherwise funny in a role that requires some very good real world reactions. Strange’s mission becomes that of intermediary between the world as we know it and the forces beyond. His self-discovery has global implications and reconciling what the Ancient One is really made of is central to what he becomes. It’s not just time that’s relative here – mor(t)ality too. Sidekick librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) enjoys a very humorous relationship with the new mandala master in his cloak of levitation. Steve Ditko’s comic book hero gets a fast and furious makeover from writer/director Scott Derrickson with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill. Physician heal thyself ! And then some. Pretty great. With a neat cameo from Stan Lee himself reading The Doors of Perception to drop an implicit joke about hippies and drugs… Ho ho ho! Make sure you sit out half the credits for a preview of coming attractions …

The Girl on the Train (2016)

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Spoiler alert:  don’t read this if you haven’t seen it! Paula Hawkins’ thriller novel was the watercooler special last year – the tale of Rachel (Emily Blunt), a sorry alcoholic divorcee who pretends to her roommate that she goes to work every day on the train but in truth is rambling around London unemployed. Her train route passes her old house where her husband is still ensconced but with the woman he married and their baby and down the street the young woman who appears to be having an affair disappears and our protagonist believes she’s been murdered. But she’s had a blackout and she finds herself at home covered in blood and thinks that she must have done it and works to clear her name. A good premise – but in truth the book shuffled back and forth from different characters and time frames and you had to leaf back through it to remember who was who and what was what … and you know what? It was a structure that made it seem better than it was. And so we have a change of location – to Westchester, NY, despite two English principals, Emily Blunt and Luke Evans, with no evident rationale. There is no attempt to establish a sense of place. The shooting style, editing, C-list casting choices and screenplay adaptation (altered very little, bad, bad idea…) means that there is effectively very little mystery, and it’s all handled so ineptly by director Tate Taylor that at the screening I attended, when Justin Theroux has the screwdriver plunged and turned harder into his neck (kinda like what Emily has been doing all along, just to bottles) people laughed out loud. You might make a claim for abject maternity (can’t have/won’t have/has baby and lords it over everyone) but that would be to give it credence. Worse than Thursday nights on Lifetime channel, this is dire beyond belief. It’s extraordinary that this trash was released by a major studio in this kinda shape and I’ll wager only Emily Blunt’s presence precluded it being quietly dumped. This was evidently fixed after a cut was delivered:  can you actually conceive of a film being any worse than this?! Money back? I wish! I need a drink …