The Leopard (1963)

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We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us – leopards, lions, jackals and sheep – will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth. As Garibaldi’s troops begin the unification of Italy in the 1860s, an aristocratic Sicilian family grudgingly adapts to the sweeping social changes undermining their way of life. The proud but pragmatic (yet feline) Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) allows his fickle war hero (who changes sides) nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), to marry Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the beautiful daughter of gauche, bourgeois Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa) in order to maintain the family’s accustomed level of comfort and political clout when the fighting approaches their summer home in Sicily but the Prince is himself enchanted with her …  Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s masterful novel by director Luchino Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Enrico Mediloi, Pasquale Festa Campanile and Massimo Franciosa, rarely have the obsessions of a novelist coincided so fortuitously with those of a filmmaker. The Marxist aristocrat Visconti had an intimate acquaintance with the notion of a society in transition and the magnificent central performance by Lancaster anchors the affect in nuance and specificity as he questions his identity and relevance.  The battle scenes that open the film are sunny, stunning and violent, shot almost entirely wide which gives them an appropriately epic quality. The final forty-five minute ball sequence during which the Prince dances with Angelica and Tancredi and the Prince’s daughters look on in variously anguished forms is tantalising:  there are shot choices that make you squeal with delight, almost as gloriously as Cardinale’s devastating laughter at the dinner table. Was there ever a more beautiful or seductive couple than Delon and Cardinale, reunited after Rocco and His Brothers? Not a lot happens:  the Prince realises his way of life (‘leopards and lions’) is changing and he is experiencing history as it unfolds. He discusses his ridiculous marriage with his priest Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli);  he witnesses a rigged election;  goes on holiday and a picnic;  walks home from the ball in the early hours of the morning and recognises the shabbiness of the district over which he presides. The novel is wonderful and it is shocking to realise Di Lampedusa died before he could see it become a phenomenon in 1958. A magnificent, bewitching, bittersweet film adaptation made when cinema was great with an immersive score by Nino Rota that perfectly encapsulates a world in love with death. For the ages. We’re just human beings in a changing world.

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Girl Flu (2017)

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I’m never going to have kids. I already have my mom. Robin aka (Baby) Bird (Jade Pettyjohn) moves from the San Fernando Valley burbs to the hipster Echo Park neighbourhood to housesit her grandmother’s home with her selfish stoner waitress mom Jenny (Katee Sackhoff). She has to become a woman whether she wants to or not when she gets her first period in the middle of a sixth grade picnic and the meanest of the mean girls Rachel (Isabella Acres) bullies her. She finds herself abandoned in ignorance and finds out how to deal with the blood letting from Mom’s friend Lili (Heather Matarazzo).  Mom’s boyfriend Arlo (Jeremy Sisto) tries to help the flaky Jenny to grow up:  it’s not happening to you!  he tells her as she wallows in self-indulgence, fatally unsuited to being a mother.  Bird finds out that she’ll never be able to return to the Valley but she has new friends here, against the odds even as she goes through the worst week in living memory … Sharp and funny on a gross-out topic, the writing and directing debut of actress and story consultant Dorie Barton is a refreshing and very impressive blast boasting seriously charming performances in a new twist on mother-daughter dramedy. While Grandma is blithely Skyping from an ashram in India (ensuring we know why her daughter is useless at being a mother) Jenny leaves Arlo to pick up the family’s pieces and even pretend to be Bird’s boyfriend when the bullies threaten. My mother is a narcissist and my father is a workaholic, he tells Lilli. That figures, she retorts. Smart, well written and a really authentic comedy of embarrassment and growing up the hard way. I want a real mom.

Mermaids (1990)

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Weird things happen. It’s 1963. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte Flax (Winona Ryder) is tired of her wacky mom (Cher) moving their family any time she feels it is necessary. When they move to a small Massachusetts town Mrs. Flax begins dating kindly shopkeeper Lou (Bob Hoskins) whose wife has run away. Charlotte and her 9-year-old swimming enthusiast sister, Kate (Christina Ricci), hope that they can finally settle down. But when Charlotte’s attraction to an older man Joe (Michael Schoeffling) the convent’s caretaker gets in the way, the family must learn to accept each other for who they truly are just as the President is assassinated and the nation mourns…  June Roberts’ adaptation of Patty Dann’s book is adept and appropriate, giving Winona Ryder one of her best roles and she plays it beautifully. Funny, warm and engaging, this works on so many levels but it doesn’t dodge the effect of maternal neglect – which is also a case of overpowering personality:  Charlotte’s fantasy fugue to New Haven is a sharp reminder that mother-daughter relationships are a minefield and when the daughter starts imitating the mother’s promiscuous behaviour (in between attempts to live like a Catholic saint) Mom doesn’t like it and there’s collateral damage. The girls are not products of marriages – just a teen romance and a one-night stand with an Olympic athlete (maybe) and when things get tough, Mom always gets going.  It’s Charlotte who wants to settle down. There’s a wonderful running joke about Mom’s inability to prepare any food other than hors d’oeuvres or sandwiches served with star-shaped cookie cutters. With great dialogue, lovely scene-setting and on the button performances (Cher giving one of her best), there’s nothing in this well-judged comedy drama you can’t like even though it unexpectedly swerves directions, more than once.  The characters are still sympathetic despite being curiously narcissistic:  that’s good writing. Cher tops it off with The Shoop Shoop Song! Directed by Richard Benjamin.

Captain Fantastic (2016)

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I’m writing down everything you say – in my mind. Disillusioned anti-capitalist intellectual Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his absent wife Leslie (she’s in a psychiatric facility) and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society,  their kids are being educated them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie commits suicide, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time to attend her funeral in New Mexico where her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) fear for what is happening to their grandchildren and Ben is forced to confront the fact that the survivalist politics he has imbued in his offspring may not prepare them for real life… This starts with the killing of an animal in a ritual you might find in the less enlightened tribes. (Why did killing a deer become a thing a year ago?) Ben is teaching his eldest son Bodevan (George McKay) to be a man. But this is a twenty-first century tribe who are doing their own atavistic thing – just not in the name of Jesus (and there’s a funny scene in which they alienate a policeman by pretending to do just that) but that of Noam Chomsky. “I’ve never even heard of him!” protests their worried grandfather. Hearing the words “Stick it to the man!” coming out of a five year old is pretty funny in this alt-socialist community but the younger son in the family Rellian (Nicholas Rellian) believes Ben is crazy and has caused Leslie’s death and wants out.  Ironically and as Ben explains at an excruciating dinner with the brother in law (Steve Zahn) it was having children that caused her post-partum psychosis from which this brilliant lawyer never recovered. This stressor between father and younger son drives much of the conflict – that and Leslie’s Buddhist beliefs which are written in her Will and direct the family to have her cremated even though her parents inter her in a cemetery which the kids call a golf course. And Bodevan conceals the fact that he and Mom have been plotting his escape to one of the half dozen Ivy League colleges to which he’s been accepted. The irony that Ben is protecting his highly politicised kids from reality by having them celebrate Chomsky’s birthday when they don’t even know what a pair of Nikes are and have never heard of Star Trek is smart writing. Everything comes asunder when there are accidents as a result of the dangers to which he exposes them. This is a funny and moving portrait of life off the grid, with Mortensen giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as the man constantly at odds with the quotidian whilst simultaneously being a pretty great dad. McKay is terrific as the elder son who’s utterly unprepared for a romantic encounter in a trailer park. It really is tough to find your bliss. As delightful as it is unexpected, this is a lovely character study. Written and directed by Matt Ross.

Dave (1993)

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I’m the President, and as they say, the buck stops here. So I take full responsibility for each one of my illegal actions. But that’s not the whole story. I think the American people are entitled to the real truth. Shifty White House chief of staff Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) hatches a scheme to use a double for the president Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) at a public photo opportunity. Smalltown temp agency owner Dave Kovic (Kline) fits the bill, but after the president suffers a debilitating stroke having extra-marital sex, opportunist Alexander arranges for Dave to step in full time without even informing the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) when a scandal threatens to engulf the Presidency. It doesn’t take long before the press, the nation and the president’s wife realize something is wrong because this is a nice conscientious guy and not the lying distant philanderer they all know and dislike  … Practically a White House take on The Prisoner of Zenda, this is an opportunity for some very pleasant if hardly ground-shaking political satire with perfectly timed performances by an engaging cast.  Gary Ross’s screenplay gets nice mileage out of the identical-impersonator scenario but it feels a little dated in the wake of House of Cards not to mention reality. Ivan Reitman makes the most out of the visual jokes.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

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Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder.  In the early 1920s, two determined young English runners train for the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Christian born to Scottish missionaries in China, sees running as part of his worship of God’s glory and refuses to train or compete on the Sabbath. Cambridge student Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) overcomes anti-Semitism and class bias, but neglects his beloved sweetheart Sybil (Alice Krige) in his single-minded quest and then there is the opportunity to prove themselves at Olympics where they will encounter the world’s fastest runners, a pair of Americans … Lauded at the time of release, and prompting screenwriter Colin Welland’s famous but empty threat, The British are coming! this now plays like a very staid exercise frozen in aspic despite the lively intellectual drive – reconciling notions of religion, duty, patriotism, obsession, love – and the wonderful cast. This mostly true story has its moments but they are heavily signposted. The title sequence on the beach of the athletes training in slow motion to Vangelis’ outstanding electronic score is justly famous and it’s repeated at the conclusion. In between are conflicts played out both on the track and off it and there’s a Greek chorus of sorts by John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson (of all people!) whereby a streak of prejudice and elitism in the echelons of academia is revealed. The issue of race – both kinds – is repeated in Abrahams’ choice of coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) who is half Arab and brings the taint of professionalism into play. Produced by David Puttnam, executive produced by Dodi Fayed and directed (in his feature debut) by adman Hugh Hudson who does his best to dress up a low budget epic. The tragic coda to the film if not the story is that two of its stars, Charleson, and Brad Davis (who plays Jackson Scholz), died of AIDS within 18 months of each other a decade later.

I, Tonya (2017)

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There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants! In 1991, talented figure skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) becomes the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. We first see her as a three year old in 1970s Portland Oregon where her monstrous multiply-married mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) insists that she be mentored by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) at the local rink.  In 1994, her world comes crashing down when her violent ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) conspires with her moronic and delusional bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to injure Harding’s friend  and fellow Olympic hopeful and biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in a poorly conceived attack that forces the young woman to withdraw from the national championship. Harding’s life and legacy instantly become tarnished as she’s forever associated with one of the most infamous scandals in sports history…  When producer and star Robbie read Steven Rogers’s pitch black comedy she didn’t realise it was based on a true story (sort of). Her determination to bring this radical post-modern interpretation of one of the most notorious sporting crimes in the last quarter of a century to the big screen is testament to both her good taste and her chutzpah – this after all is her first starring role and she produced the film. She gives a powerhouse performance in a difficult role, delineating Harding’s evolution from white trash teen to triple axel-crushing rink monster routinely routed by snobby judges who want someone more ‘family’-friendly as their poster child and create the conditions for unconscious revenge against the powers that be. You were as graceless as a bull dyke. It was embarrassing! Janney’s performance has won all the awards (never forget she was everyone’s fave woman in the world in The West Wing) however she plays this crushing creature for a couple too many laughs.  It’s Robbie who has the tough job here – convincing us in this self-reflexive narrative that she really did deserve plaudits and not the horrifying level of domestic abuse which she came to expect after being reared by a veritable dragon in human form. Having each of the characters variously interviewed and breaking the fourth wall occasionally to ask why their contribution isn’t being featured at different points in the story reminds you that there are competing testimonies here.  The end credits, complete with real-life cringe-inducing footage of the ghastly individuals (this is really a documentary!) interspersed with Harding’s uplifting, magical performances makes you wonder how the poor girl ever survived the rank and file awfulness of her dreary Pacific north-west background. The interview with Hard Copy journalist Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) and the juxtaposition with the breaking news of OJ Simpson as the drama concludes in 1994 reinforces the underlying story of newsmaking in the 90s and how these two stories changed TV journalism forever. Brilliantly constructed and performed and well executed by Craig Gillespie. 6.0! Go Tonya!

The Lobster (2015)

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Lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.  In a dystopian society,  single people, according to the laws of The City, are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into an animal of their choice. David (Colin Farrell) is escorted there after his wife has left him for another man. The dog accompanying David is his brother. David chooses to become a lobster, due to their life cycle and his love of the sea. David makes acquaintances with a lisping man Robert (John C. Reilly) and a limping man John (Ben Whishaw) who become his quasi-friends. John explains that he was injured in an attempt to reconnect with his mother, who had been transformed into a wolf. The hotel’s rules and rituals include mandatory sexual stimulation by the maid and viewing propaganda films. David commences a forbidden romance with a Shortsighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) and they try to escape … Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos’ work is an acquired taste – and on Valentine’s Day this satire about our obsession with coupledom is timely but also challenging. Shot in Dublin and County Kerry which provide suitable backdrops for an absurdist and blackly comic exercise, this doesn’t completely fulfill the promise of its premise and works well for probably the first hour after which the plot about the Loners in the woods (led by Léa Seydoux) starts to feel tired. Farrell and the lead cast play very gamely indeed and there are some very amusing moments which are practically out of the midcentury absurdist rulebook – Ionesco, Beckett et al. Written by Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou. You’ll recognise the song in the end credits from Boy on a Dolphin.

CHiPS (2017)

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Aka CHiPS:  Law and Disorder. If you haven’t been fucking your wife in over a year then somebody else has! Jon Baker (writer/director Dax Shepard) and Frank ‘Ponch’ Poncherello (Michael Peña) have just joined the California Highway Patrol in Los Angeles, but for very different reasons. Baker is a former pro-motorbike rider who’s trying to put his life and marriage to Karen (Kristen Bell aka Mrs Shepard) back together. He’s utterly hopeless at everything else and has to score in the top 10% in citations amongst other criteria just to keep his head above water.  Poncherello is a cocky undercover FBI agent who’s investigating a multimillion dollar armoured car heist that may be an inside job. Forced to work together, the inexperienced rookie and hardened veteran begin clashing instead of clicking while trying to nab the bad guys. Baker is phobic and allergic with a history of extraordinary injuries and whose motorsickle skills are literally lifesaving. Ponch is a sex maniac who has a history of shooting at his partners to save thugs. They literally complete each other  … In contrast with a lot of quasi-parodic TV show sendups this adaptation of the beloved show actually has a life of its own – deftly utilising the contrasting buddy structure to tackle racism, homophobia, marriage, locker room behaviour and sex in the most outrageously downbeat and self-deprecating way possible which can only be a good thing and it’s relentlessly good-natured even when the junkie son of villainous corrupt cop Ray Kurtz  (Vincent D’Onofrio) is being decapitated. Even so, it still revels in sexism but it’s hard to dislike.  Peña and Shepard play extremely well off each other and with Mrs S in the cast alongside another Veronica Mars alum (Ryan Hansen) in the large ensemble plus Jane Kaczmarek as a randy Captain and Maya Rudolph (uncredited) as a recruiter there’s a lot of fun to be had.  There’s fantastic use of Los Angeles as location and overall it’s an enjoyable if lowbrow entertainment. Shepard can act and write and direct. Triple threat! Good to see Erik Estrada in the concluding scene. Memories are made of this… 

Ice Bound (2003) (TVM)

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In twelve months there is just one sunrise and one sunset. It’s the end of 1999 and Dr Jerri Nielsen (Susan Sarandon) moves to a new job – working at the Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole: she makes a poor impression on new colleagues when she expresses her shock at the number of people there – far more than she’d been warned. Then there’s the business of their nicknames. And being pushed to sort her recycling trash.  Winter is coming and all flights are cancelled – for eight months. Conditions can reach as low as 100 below zero.  Nielsen is herself responsible for the well-being of all the staff there and slowly comes to a kind of collegial relationship with others despite being pranked. She carries out a biopsy on herself and finds out via satellite link to doctors back home that she has an aggressive form of cancer and requires chemotherapy.   Risking death, rescuers heroically air-drop the necessary supplies to the station and, along with the help of fellow Polies, including close friends Big John Penny (Aidan Devine) and Claire ‘Fingers’ Furinski (Cynthia Mace), Nielsen begins her debilitating chemotherapy treatments… This true story is a resonant piece of work with a standout performance in the lead by Sarandon who narrates. As her condition develops, her uptight character thaws out, helped by her growing appreciation of the landscape – she never knew that there were three kinds of twilight.  Of course what she is really discovering is herself. Adapted by Peter Pruce and Maria Nation from Nielsen’s autobiography co-written with Maryanne Vollers, Ice Bound:  A Woman’s Survival at the South Pole. Distinguished by the use of Sarah McLachlan’s Angel on the soundtrack. Efficiently handled by Roger Spottiswoode even if the location shoot on Lake Ontario might betray a low-ish budget.