The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

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This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime. When the daughter Carolyn (Annie Corley) and son Michael (Victor Slezak) of Italian war bride mother Francesca (Meryl Streep) return to Iowa for her funeral they discover among her belongings evidence of a four-day extra-marital affair she had in 1965 with Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) who was photographing covered bridges for National Geographic magazine. As they uncover the story and the secret she kept for decades, they recognise some truths about their own relationships … I don’t want to need you – because I can’t have you. Time was, author Robert James Waller was trawling the world’s talk shows, hawking his book and singing his songs and that was only in the Nineties. And it’s absurd to think of it now, but Clint Eastwood is still directing movies so this can be described as middle-period Clint. He and Streep (doing Anna Magnani in some scenes) are phenomenal together – have we ever seen them be so appealing, so vulnerable, as these middle aged lovers who’ve been around the block and been burned and bored and now find this wondrous once in a lifetime love?  Adapted by Richard LaGravenese from the slim bestseller, this is a long, slow, languorous look at a couple who know it’s now or never, flawed perhaps only by over length and the framing story doesn’t really add to the experience (this was the idea of Steven Spielberg, who originally planned on directing).  Nonetheless it’s totally satisfying, filled with nuance and passion and detail, and if you don’t shed a tear when those windscreen wipers are going from side to side, in that classic penultimate sequence, well, face it, you’re already dead. Wonderful. You never think love like this is ever going to happen

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Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister… and you murder your queen!  Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Catholic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne with the aim of also taking the English throne which is her birthright, guided by her adviser Bothwell (Martin Compston). However, Scotland and England fall under the rule of her cousin, the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Each young Queen beholds her ‘sister’ in fear and fascination. Mary has to deal with the ambitions of her bastard half-brother James Murray (James McArdle) and succumbs to the charms of the bisexual Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) in order to become a mother but his father (Brendan Coyle) has designs on power. Her reign attracts the hatred of Protestant reformer John Knox (David Tennant) who stirs up the natives against their tolerant Catholic ruler and calls her a whore. Elizabeth’s adviser Henry Cecil (Guy Pearce) carries out her bid to assist in driving a civil war designed to remove Mary from the throne… Do not play into their hands. Our hatred is precisely what they hope for. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you. Adapted from John Guy’s biography by Beau Willimon, it may seem hasty to declare that despite its raft of historical inaccuracies this still has a lot to recommend it, even if its PC multiverse of many races and choose-your-own-perversion plays into the right-on millennial world rather than the well documented dour backdrop of sixteenth-century Scotland (things are ever thus there…). Willimon is of course responsible for Netflix’s House of Cards and knows his way around politics and other games of thrones so the focus on the women struggling against the counsel of conniving men drives the drama forward while the plotting literally gallops apace. With Tennant doing Knox as the Comical Ali of fundamentalist Protestantism the odds of us supporting the bastard English Queen are low to zero, despite the crosscutting suggesting links both emotional and physical between these young rivals. The Virgin Queen is in fact more in touch with the reality of both of their situations, surrounded by controlling men, as the fabricated meeting between them (a liberty also taken in the 1971 version) clarifies: she recognises that Mary’s beauty, bravery and motherhood are both her greatest assets and her deepest flaws and have led to her downfall. She herself is more man than woman, she declares – her reign has made her thus. Ronan plays Mary as a variation on Joan of Arc – a sharp military mind with a conscience as transparent as her pallor and bright blue eyes (albeit Willimon writes her as a feckless Marie Antoinette a lot of the time), while Robbie’s Queen is the one beset with the miseries of the pox and a devious court craven by her power. They are both tremendous but this is really Ronan’s show, as the title suggests. Pearce, Lowden and Compston are particularly good in their treacherous sideshows. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see two of the best young actresses in the world leading a film of such affecting performances.  The final contrasting shots of Mary’s meeting with destiny and Elizabeth’s costumes and cosmetics literally solidifying into a stony inhuman edifice linger in the mind.  Directed by Josie Rourke. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

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We are living in an era marked by the spread of integration and miscegenation. In the early 1970 Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself and serve in the tradition of his ex-military father, Stallworth wants to progress from the Records Room where he is daily dealt racist remarks by a colleague.  He sets out on a dangerous mission: an undercover sting operation to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. Together with a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organisation aims to sanitise its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream and they befriend the head of the local chapter, the charismatic Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) with Jewish Flip posing as Stallworth who has befriended David Duke (Topher Grace) on the telephone. Then Stallworth is assigned to Duke’s protection detail when he comes to town to officiate at the initiation of new recruits to The Organisation …  If I would have known this was a Klan meeting, I wouldn’t have taken this motherfucking gig. Goddamn. That stylish loudmouth Spike Lee has never been backward about coming forward so this confrontational true story about the KKK and more widespread issues of racism in America is as broad as it’s long, making links from the opening Gone With the Wind excerpt to the ghastly leg-spreading exams carried out by the Colorado cops on black college students who’ve been to a Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) event. The 1950s public service announcement in the prologue featuring Dr Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) lamenting the spread of integration and miscegenation is about as subtle as this comedy-drama gets with a Scooby Doo plot that is so silly you couldn’t make it up if it hadn’t actually happened – you cannot remotely sympathise with the KKK, especially as they are planning violence against the students whose union is led by the lovely Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) – and it concludes with footage of the 2017 Charlottesville race riots including footage of the real David Duke, inherently negating all that has passed before it dramatically. Washington has an amazing hairdo and Driver is fine but this is a sledgehammer polemic intended for an already ‘woke’ audience. Written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Lee.  That detective is Ron Stallworth, you racist, peckerwood, redneck, inch worm, needle-dick motherfucker!

Raw Deal (1948)

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Aka Corkscrew Alley. Waiting. Waiting. All my life I’d been waiting. For Joe. Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) has taken the rap for criminal Rick (Raymond Burr) who owes him $50,000 and now double-crosses him into a flawed escape plan from prison.  Joe’s helped by his streetwise girlfriend Pat (Claire Trevor) and his lovelorn legal caseworker Ann (Marsha Hunt) and their competing love for him complicates things as he goes on the lam and the police are on his tail while he plans to board a ship bound for Panama … Close in on him from every side. Don’t give him a chance. Anthony Mann’s post-war noir is of a different variety from most, with a striking tone. The cinematography by John Alton is delicious, capturing the early morning sea fog as it licks the shore rolling in on tides of impending doom, perfectly complementing Claire Trevor’s mournful voiceover. A tragic noir, wonderfully executed with a complex protagonist whose motivations aren’t entirely clear. The love triangle is unexpectedly moving with the differences between the women well delineated although Trevor’s is the stronger part:  Suddenly I saw that every time he kissed me he would be kissing Ann. The story is by Arnold B. Armstrong and Audrey Ashley, and the screenplay is credited to John C. Higgins and Leopold Atlas.  I never asked for anything safe. All I want is just some decency, that’s all

The Halfway House (1944)

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Death is only a door opening.  During the Second World War, people converge on the Halfway House, an inn in the Welsh countryside run by Rhys (Mervyn Johns) and his daughter Gwyneth (Glynis Johns). In Cardiff, famous orchestra conductor David Davies (Esmond Knight) is advised by his doctor to cancel a tour and rest, or he will live for only about three months. In London, Lt. Richard (Richard Bird)  and Jill French (Valerie White) argue about the education of their young daughter Joanna (Sally Ann Howes) who overhears them agree to divorce. Then Mr. French and Joanna go on holiday. Captain Fortescue (Guy Middleton) is released from Parkmoor Prison where he did time after being court-martialled for stealing the regimental funds. In a Welsh port, merchant captain Harry Meadows (Tom Walls) and his French wife Alice (Françoise Rosay) quarrel about their deceased son, a victim of the U-boats. Black marketeer Oakley (Alfred Drayton)departs from London for some fishing, while Margaret (Phillippa Hiatt) and her Irish diplomat fiancé Terence (Pat McGrath) take a train from Bristol…… Boyish girls and girlish boys. The fashion for the supernatural in wartime continues apace in this adaptation of Dennis Ogden’s play The Peaceful Inn by Angus Macphail, Diana Morgan, Roland Pertwee and T.E.B. Clarke.  Arguments about what constitutes grief (should a mother feel more than a father), should a family stay together for the daughter’s sake and political righteousness (Ireland’s neutrality – a wish for an impossible peace or an excuse not to takes side) are all on the table. The final images suggest that the external landscape following the inn’s bombing is something that can be made and remade within the mind itself. Strange and fascinating Ealing production with all those familiar faces.  Directed by Basil Dearden. That’s last year’s calendar!

What a Carve Up! (1961)

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Aka No Place Like Homicide. One thing is certain – this is only the start. When wealthy recluse Gabriel Broughton dies of fright his heirs are summoned to his isolated country mansion Blackshaw Towers for a reading of the will. Then they are killed off, one by one and the nearest telephone is in the village … If he thinks I’m going to wait here and wind up in a deckchair on the lawn he’s got another thing coming. Adapted from Frank King’s novel The Ghoul by eminent British farceur Ray Cooney and Tony Hilton (they had co-written The Hand the previous year), this is an opportunity for Carry On regulars Kenneth Connor and Sid James to essay a pleasing Laurel and Hardy act (including a shared bed) as proofreader Ernest (nephew of the deceased) and his bookmaker roommate Syd, attending as his legal advisor. They are accompanied by pretty Linda (Shirley Eaton) a nurse, whom Ernest fancies; Ernest’s cousin Guy Broughton (Dennis Price) an ex-Army officer with an alcohol problem; Guy’s grasping sister Janet (Valerie Taylor); their father Doctor Edward (Michael Gwynn); their batty aunt Emily (Esma Cannon); solicitor Everett Sloane (!!) (Donald Pleasence); and the butler, Fisk (Michael Gough). It plays with all the notions of the haunted house and might remind some of Clue but is mainly a showcase for some good slapstick and mild innuendo which might still raise eyebrows. Genial fun performed by a very game ensemble with pop star Adam Faith turning up in the final sequence, which is explicitly used by author Jonathan Coe in his titular satirical homage to the film. Produced by Robert S. Baker and Monty Baker and directed by the brilliant documentary maker Pat Jackson. Syd, look! French Impressionists – Rembrandt!

Peter Rabbit (2018)

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You mustn’t be afraid to toss and fluff, toss and fluff! Peter Rabbit (James Corden), his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail and cousin Benjamin Bunny are finally freed of their dastardly rabbit-catching nemesis Mr McGregor (Sam Neill) . But when his prissy nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) is fired from Harrods and inherits the house, they are in for a tough time of it  – until he catches the eye of wannabe artist Bea (Rose Byrne) the rabbit-loving neighbour … I’ve got nothing against the countryside, I just find it disgusting. In which Beatrix Potter’s magical stories are transformed into a contemporary exercise in slapstick  and frat parties with a simpering Gleeson and a grinning Byrne. Corden (the man voted Most Hated by the crew of Into the Woods) leads them all a merry chase but the physical comedy is cut badly and Gleeson’s feet and face are disembodied from what could have been a more Keatonesque performance as the security ratchets up a notch and the rabbits have to become more ingenious in their quest for lettuce. The action becomes inventive then gets merely repetitive and eventually exhausting, the occasional visual treats superseded by an insensitivity that isn’t remotely Potteresque. There are some good recurring jokes – like the cockerel who’s astonished that the sun comes up – every day! Written by director Will Gluck and Rob Lieber. At least Rachel Ward gets to voice Josephine Rabbit and her hubby Bryan Brown is Peter’s dad, parenting from beyond the grave. Small mercies.

The Exception (2016)

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I may not rule in Germany but by Christ I rule in my own house! It’s 1940.  German soldier Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) goes on a mission to investigate exiled German Monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer). The Kaiser lives in a secluded mansion (Huis Doorn) with his wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) in the Netherlands, and as Germany is taking over the country, the authorities are concerned that Dutch spies may be watching the Kaiser. As Brandt begins to infiltrate the Kaiser’s life in search of clues, he finds himself drawn into an unexpected and passionate romance with Mieke (Lily James), one of the Kaiser’s maids who is concealing the real reason for her own presence in the household… Remember, at the age of four he bit the Duke of Edinburgh on the leg. The soldier is earnest, the Kaiser is sly and the maid is sultry – and each of them has a conflict of interest:  plum roles nicely played by a game cast with Ben Daniels lending good support as the Kaiser’s assistant.  Each of the leads has a big scene in which they reveal what they’re really about and Plummer is particularly impressive as the wily old king who seems to be losing his marbles but as he points out at a crucial moment, he is not a hypocrite.  Courtney is haunted by images from his nightmarish experiences in Poland where he saw what the SS was really about.  James has lost her husband and family to the Nazis. This is a bizarrely appealing, sexy film (James immediately strips for Courtney when they first encounter each other – and why not?) that answers the question nobody ever asks:  where on earth did the Kaiser go when the Nazis jackbooted Germany into submission? If it weren’t for the full frontal nudity this might almost fit into the genre of films made during WW2 itself while reminding us that the German army was not necessarily united in support of the SS or any other wing of the Fuhrer’s movement. The facial reactions to Himmler (Eddie Marsan!) and his shocking storytelling over dinner are priceless.  And who can argue with a secret message from Churchill? You’ll find yourself thinking vaguely of The Remains of the Day but this is a tasteful entertainment of a different variety with the rather odd effect of having you sympathise somewhat with a known anti-semitic emperor. Adapted by Simon Burke from The Kaiser’s Last Kiss by Alan Judd, this is the debut of David Leveaux and very picturesque it is too. They are the rule – you are the exception

Toni Erdmann (2016)

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You have to do this or that, but meanwhile life is just passing by.  Corporate strategist Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) is busy at her job in Bucharest and reluctantly has to spend time with her estranged father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher divorced from her mother, who apparently returns to Germany but instead adopts an outrageous disguise and poses as her CEO’s life coach, Toni Erdmann …  How are you supposed to hang on to moments? A rip-roaring German comedy? Surely you jest! In a way. This comedy drama slayed all comers a couple of years back and despite overlength (you wonder at times what Billy Wilder would have done with his rapier wit, wisdom and speed with such material) this hits so many truths with such mortifying behaviour and courage that you forgive writer/director Maren Ade’s liberties and go with the mad dad – as, eventually, Ines decides to do. This after all is a guy who didn’t even tell her his beloved dog died – and we find out about it when he lies on the dog’s bed in the garden. He gatecrashes her business functions and regales assorted bigwigs with tall and taller tales in a toupee and false teeth. When she lets go of her own inhibitions (not too many of them, to be fair, as the sex and drugs scenes prove) and goes with her father’s adopted persona, unleashing the beast within, you’d cheer if it wasn’t all done in such a low key, realistic fashion. Truly the difference between business and personal in this mansplaining environment is don’t show, don’t tell the truth. The naked team building scene is jaw dropping. And the performance of a Whitney Schnuck (sorry, Houston) favourite is a high point. For some. Intriguing stuff, with an undertow of loneliness rarely explored in cinema and so relatable to anyone who’s ever been embarrassed by their parents.   I don’t want to lose my bite

White Christmas (1954)

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When what’s left of you gets around to what’s left to be gotten, what’s left to be gotten won’t be worth getting, whatever it is you’ve got left.  Years after being demobbed following wartime service in Europe, song-and-dance act Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) join sister act Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) to perform a Christmas show in rural Vermont where, they run into Gen. Waverly (Dean Jagger), the boys’ commander in World War II.  He is having a hard time adjusting to civilian life and is beset by financial difficulties; his quaint country inn is failing. So what’s the foursome to do but plan a yuletide miracle: a fun-filled musical extravaganza that’s sure to put Waverly and his business in the black by turning it into an entertainment venue! But when Phil and Judy pair off, that leaves Bob and Betty out in the cold … You don’t expect me to get serious with the kind of characters you and Rita have been throwing at me, do you? It’s getting so the PC thought police are making even this jolly time of year a pain in the ass what with songs and carols and anything mentioning the words ‘white’ and ‘Christmas’ causing conniptions. Here at Mondo Towers we are committed to having fun and that includes revisiting this sheerly delightful Technicolor VistaVision explosion of seasonal happiness which is a great taster for the big day. A sort of loose remake of Holiday Inn from a decade earlier, Kaye is teamed with Crosby and they make a great double act, even if this ain’t a Road movie and it was originally intended as the third vehicle for Crosby and Fred Astaire. Clooney and Vera-Ellen make perfect sparring partners for the guys, vivacious and sparky and smart, all at once.  Look fast for George Chakiris dancing behind Clooney and you don’t need me to tell you that all the songs are by Irving Berlin (and Clooney sings both parts on Sisters). The photograph of Freckle-Faced (Dog-Faced Boy) Haynes is that of Carl Switzer, who played Alfalfa in The Little Rascals. The screenplay is by Norman Panama, Norman Krasna and Melvin Frank. Directed by Michael Curtiz, who elicits joyful performances from all concerned in what is for the most part an excellently staged production – and Bob Fosse did the choreography, although he’s uncredited.  Altogether wonderful entertainment, this was the biggest box office hit of its year. The countdown starts here … The crooner is now becoming the comic