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.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) gets along far better with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than with his parents so when the old man dies, with his eyes missing and a strange creature hiding outside his apartment in the bushes, Jake recalls all the stories he told him about living in a magical place during WW2. After several sessions with therapist Dr Golan (Allison Janney) he convinces his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales where he is befriended by some Peculiars, enters a derelict mansion through a portal in a cave and encounters the very much alive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who lives in this weird time loop with all the weirdly gifted kids whom his grandfather told him about. They have to ward off a powerful enemy who feast on the children’s eyes, led by Samuel L. Jackson who delivers his now customary cod-threatening performance and after taking Miss Peregrine, the children must engage in a final face-off (or eye-off…) in a theatre in modern-day Blackpool. Jake himself has a special power which can save them all … There’s a level of ordinariness to this which is irritating. It’s well set up, with Tim Burton returning to contemporary Florida (remember the achingly wonderful Edward Scissorhands?) and the problematic father-son dynamic that fuels some of his better work. However there’s no real sense of mystery or fabulism that would bring this to a different realm. What is best about it? Probably the Ray Harryhausen-style doll animations. Emotions lie half-buried in the middle of this – about being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, hating your dumb parents and only finding your true family because you possess an understanding of life that other people don’t (seeing invisible monsters is inordinately helpful). Oh well – there’s a good joke about the evil motivations of psychiatrists, though. Adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Ransom Riggs, and apparently a lot of changes took place in the writing. Very, very uneven.

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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The Odessa File (1974)

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The faction novel by Frederick Forsyth has a special place in my heart because it was the first book I borrowed when I finally got a ticket to join the Adult section of my local public library after I turned 12. And it stunned me when I discovered that Forsyth was merely fictionalising in very approximate fashion the story of the Butcher of Riga, Eduard Roschman (Maximilian Schell) who is protected by the Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehoerigen (Former SS Members) in winter 1963. Journalist Peter Milller (Jon Voight) happens upon the story by simple expedient of pulling over in a Hamburg street to hear that President Kennedy has died and then literally chases an ambulance to an apartment building where an elderly Holocaust survivor has gassed himself. A policeman friend hands him the man’s diary and he uncovers the story behind the suicide of Salomon Tauber which contains one gleaming detail:  the murder by Roschmann at Riga port of a colleague who won a very rare German military medal. After meeting many unhelpful people in authority in a Germany still clearly run by the Nazis (there were 12 million of them after all, and they all just returned to civilian life and kept their pensions) he goes to Vienna where he visits Simon Wiesenthal who tells him about the ODESSA. He is beaten up, his dancer girlfriend (Mary Tamm) is threatened by some ex-Nazis and then ‘befriended’ by a policewoman when Miller goes off grid. He’s kidnapped by Mossad agents who want to know who he is and why he’s after Roschmann, supposedly dead almost two decades ago.  Then he dons a disguise … There are a few alterations to the source by Kenneth Ross and George (The Prisoner) Markstein and this is a fairly conventional procedural but still satisfying considering the strength of the subject matter (a topic plundered years later by novelist Sam Bourne aka Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland.) Voight is very good in what could be a difficult part and he gets a superb twist ending – when we learn the deeply personal reason for his search in addition to the quest for a great story. In a nice touch Maria Schell plays Voight’s mother, making this the only time she and Maximilian acted in the same film. The lovely Mary Tamm would later become a notable assistant to BBC’s Doctor Who and would have a good role as Blanche Ingram in TV’s Jane Eyre opposite Timothy Dalton. She died too soon.  There is an interesting score by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a special mention for Perry Como’s rendition of Christmas Dream and some superb cinematography by the great Oswald Morris and scene-setting by production designer Rolf Zehetbauer in this Anglo-German production – which might just account for the somewhat cleaned-up account of post-war Nazism. As it’s directed by multi-hyphenate Ronald Neame you wouldn’t expect anything less than a great-looking movie.  In another pleasing twist to the narrative, this prompted the tracking down of the real Roschmann to South America. But you’ll have to consult the history books to find out what happened next …

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.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

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You would never know that this was an Ealing comedy – it is totally unsentimental. Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) is in prison awaiting his execution when he puts pen to paper and recounts the reason for this turn of events. Born to a beautiful if rash aristocratic mother who ran off with an Italian opera singer, this orphaned young man is now working in a draper’s when his lady love Sibella (Joan Greenwood) marries a love rival. He sets out to dispatch the eight remaining members of the D’Ascoyne line to recuperate the title he feels is rightfully his. All of them – including the venerable Lady Agatha – are played by Alec Guinness. (He also played a ninth!). Louis marries the virtuous wife Edith (Valerie Hobson) of one of them. The range of their respective deaths is stunning. A sublime work of British cinema, adapted from Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank:  The Autobiography of a Criminal by John Dighton and the woefully underrated director Robert Hamer, whose masterpiece this is. Transgressive, ironic and subversive, and the ending is simply genius. Breathtaking black comedy for the ages. Perfection.

Rear Window (1954)

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Grace Kelly had one hour to choose between returning to work with Alfred Hitchcock or taking the part of the girl in On the Waterfront. She chose this. And a good thing too, because it was written with her in mind. At the director’s suggestion, radio writer John Michael Hayes had got to know her on and off the set of Dial M for Murder and designed the role adapted from a story by Cornell Woolrich around Kelly’s authentic persona and that of his wife, a former model. It was by working with Hitchcock that Kelly learned to work with her whole body. He listened to her and she loved his jokes – they shared a filthy sense of humour. She plays Lisa Carol Fremont, a high society NYC mover and shaker who’s in love with photojournalist James Stewart, stuck looking out his window at his neighbours’ apartments while laid up with a broken leg. She’s desperately in love with him but he wants to get rid of her – then she becomes a gorgeous Nancy Drew when he suspects one of his neighbours has murdered his wife. Only then does he realise what he’s got. She’s the action girl of his dreams. When you go to Paramount Studios you can see the four-wall facility that Hitchcock used to create the biggest set built there but sadly nothing remains of this paean to onanism, voyeurism, narcissism and whatever other perversion you’re having yourself. Oh, and scopophilia. In theory, this is all about Stewart but really it’s all about Kelly – and the biggest joke here of course is that the most beautiful woman in the world wants him and he doesn’t get it. Not really. Not until she becomes a part of the unfolding events he watches through his viewfinder. Kelly’s entrance is probably the greatest afforded any movie star. Her costumes alone tell a great story. MGM never knew what to do with her so loaning her out wasn’t a problem.  The theatre owners knew who the real star was – and put her name up on their marquees above anyone else’s. Audiences adored her. She was the biggest thing in 1954. And this witty, clever study of a man afraid of marriage is for most people Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. For more on Kelly’s collaborations with Hitchcock, which are the peak of both their careers, and the high point of midcentury cinema, you can see my essay Hitchcock/Kelly at Canadian journal Offscreen:  https://www.offscreen.com/hitchcock-kelly.

LIFE (2015)

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Luke Davies’ screenplay centring on the circumstances behind the unforgettable LIFE photo essay about James Dean in an issue from March 1955 is uncertain about who the story’s protagonist is:   the most exciting actor most of us have ever seen, as incarnated by Dane DeHaan, or photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson)? Peculiarly it is Stock who comes across as pathological, unhappy and desperate whereas Dean seems a decent sort being screwed around by Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley) who knows he’s on to something great but wants to control this rebel from bad PR. Stock supposedly met Dean at a party at Nick Ray’s when he was casting Rebel Without a Cause and the distractions are looking at an actress who looks nothing like Natalie Wood and an epicene man who only bares a slight resemblance to Ray, along with the overriding story arc of Stock’s failed teenage marriage and his unwillingness to spend time with a very young son. Dean’s relationship with Pier Angeli is artfully used to construct the parameters of his Hollywood life;  while the trip the two men make back to Indiana before the premiere of East of Eden which commences in NYC’s Times Square is of course the setting for one of most people’s favourite poster, latterly called The Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The real story here is about the relationship between a photographer and his subject, whom he virtually stalked for the story, perhaps sensing something in Dean that Dean did not yet suspect was within himself. It’s nicely put together and shot, as you would expect from Anton Corbijn, a man who knows something about the craft behind creating iconic images – his rock career is probably the most notable of any photographer/video director of the last thirty years. But somehow even De Haan’s uncanny interpretation is not the favoured performance here and the ghastly Pattinson gets equal screen time in some sort of deluded payoff to the director’s former job. I don’t get it. How’d that happen?! There seems to be some kind of queer subtext that isn’t quite brought to the surface – despite the rumours about Dean, it’s Stock who appears to be unhealthily obsessive and projecting something that isn’t really there.  It makes you wonder about all those people who made money off their Jimmy stories when he was no longer around. Oh well, better to be talked about … than not. An opportunity mostly missed, sadly.

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The Country Girl (1954)

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This is the film that earned Grace Kelly her Best Actress Academy Award and nowadays her performance looks better than ever:  look at what she has to do. She plays the dowdy, dependable but once glamorous wife of faded alcoholic Broadway star Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) whose chance at a comeback is created by temperamental director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) against his backers’ better judgement. Dodd believes Kelly’s a suicidal drinker but she’s actually fronting for the massive insecurity of her husband, an habitual and chronic liar who’s using their son’s death in his care as an excuse for his cowardliness and retreat to the bottle. Kelly has to keep him going while the out of town previews go badly and go along with his stories to Dodd, who thinks she’s destroying him until he finally sees Frank on a bender and Frank confesses. Then Dodd realises his antipathy is based on his pure misogyny – he’s down on marriage since he cheated on his ex-wife obviously – and thinks he’s in love with her. Kelly thinks she is sympathetic to him too but she wants her husband’s comeback to work too. This Clifford Odets story is adapted very well by producer/director/writer George Seaton with key observational touches – there’s a lovely bit where Kelly overhears the audience’s opinions in the interval and smiles to herself – in between the big scenes, which are adorned with some crackling expository and personal dialogue. One of Crosby’s final lines is to die for. However he overplays his moroseness and Holden is occasionally too strident although that’s probably the Odets character – making Kelly’s job of pivoting between the pair that much harder. Some of her best moments are beautifully adorned by Victor Young’s supremely subtle score. A cracking backstage drama that deals with addiction, bereavement, guilt, grief and a dying marriage:  you know, the little things. Now, let’s put on a show!

King Kong (1976)

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Off to the ocean wave are we! Setting sail to exploit the untapped oil reserves on an undiscovered island – but lo! What have we here?! A beautiful scantily clad blonde (Jessica Lange) washed up in a dinghy, her life saved by walking out of a bad movie screening and managing to make good her escape from an exploding ship … Anthropologist Jack (Jeff Bridges) is mighty taken with her but when they meet the locals on said Indian Ocean island, a large wall indicates that all is not well. That’s when they meet Kong, the island god. And he’s a rather strapping fellow. But there’s a lovely white woman to offer in ritual sacrifice … Lorenzo Semple Jr (what a fantastic writer he was) adapted the screenplay from the Thirties classic (appropriately, one of my desert island faves, written by James Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace) but manages to make this its own beast, clarifying the tangled updated web of oil interests, (female) exploitation and animal welfare:  there’s no doubt whose side he’s on. The New York scenes are very well executed and the creature work by Carlo Rambaldi and Rick Baker is quite remarkable, a far cry from the CGI-fest of 2005. I’m with Pauline Kael on this one – it’s a comic strip romance that can make you cry. Take that, Tom Hiddleston, who recently stated (unironically uninformed perhaps) that his new remake is “uniquely set in the 1970s.” Bah, humbug, etc. No wonder Kong went on fire. Directed by John Guillermin.