The Fisher King (1991)

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Obnoxious NYC shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is doling out advice as per and looking forward to a part in a TV sitcom when the news mentions his name – a man was inspired by his rant against yuppies to go on a shooting spree in a restaurant and then killed himself. Jack spirals into a suicidal depression and we find him three years later working in the video store owned by his girlfriend (a fiery Mercedes Ruehl) and about to kill himself when some youthful vigilantes decide to do some street cleaning – he’s rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), a Grail obsessive and homeless loner whose wife was killed in the restaurant massacre. How their lives intertwine and they both chase the objects of their affection (and each other’s obsession) while battling mental illness is the backbone of this comedy-drama-fantasy that is told in the usual robust and arresting style of Terry Gilliam, who was directing a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese. There are iconic images here – the Red Knight appearing to Parry as his hallucinations kick in, and the chase through Central Park;  the extraordinary Grand Central Station waltzing scene in which Parry meets the weird Lydia (Amanda Plummer);  Jack and Parry watching the stars. Gilliam’s own obsessions are all over this despite his not writing it, with references to the Grail (obv) and Don Quixote.  It’s all wrapped into four distinctive performances which embody oddball characters in search of a role for life in a very conventional time, with emotions riding high while personal circumstances contrive to drag them to the very pit of their being. There are some outstanding performances in small roles by Tom Waits, Michael Jeter and Kathy Najimy in a film that proves that dreams do come true.

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Detroit (2017)

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I’m still so 1997 I thought Kathryn Bigelow was making a film about Kent State, which I at least knew about. Instead, it appears she and writer Mark Boal teamed up again to make another political film, this time about the race riots in Detroit in July 1967 and an incident of astonishing police brutality in the Algiers Motel during which three innocent black men were murdered and a handful more were beaten to a pulp. Adapted from witness testimony, this isn’t quite biographical but attempts to be factual and realistic. When the police break up a party for returning Nam vets in an illegal after-hours venue the black community responds by firing at them, looting stores and rioting leading to a city-wide curfew. You gotta agree with the councillor who asks an assembled crowd why they feel compelled to burn down their own property. And therein lieth the problem, at least at the beginning. This is a most unreasonable riot. Out of context. Then a bunch of cracker cops led by Krauss (Will Poulter) open fire on looters and he chases one, shooting him in the back. Back at the PD, they can’t decide to prefer murder charges against him so he and his compadres Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor, looking particularly gormless, like Dougal in Father Ted) are let back on the streets where the Army and the National Guard are swarming, taking potshots at perceived sniper fire. Dismukes (John Boyega) is security at a grocery store and when he saves a black kid from the Army he earns the title Uncle Tom.  A new band in town The Dramatics are about to go onstage when their showcase is shut down and one of them, Larry (Algee Smith) takes refuge at the Algiers with Fred (Jacob Latimore) where they befriend two white girls hanging out at the pool. One of the girls’ black friends Carl (Jason Mitchell) is also holed up at the motel’s annex and he fires a starter pistol.  It brings the cracker cops down on them with Dismukes attending the scene to try to prevent any violence but Krauss has already shot Carl in the back . Their interrogation technique involves pretending to shoot the men one by one as they separate them from the group in an attempt to get them to reveal the whereabouts of the non-existent rifle and a soldier Dismukes brought coffee joins in the party … This is more impressive the longer it goes on, but it does go on. And on.  It starts problematically and the characterisation is in many ways too on-the-nose if not stereotypical but the revelation of systemic corruption, the decision of the eventual trial jury (it all seems like a preview of coming OJ attractions in reverse) and the racism inherent in society so overwhelming that even without knowing the conclusion (included in a text over real-life photographs) we figure it out for ourselves,  is finally wearying. The persona of Dismukes seems deployed to present a good – if stupid – black man:  he’s predictably identified as a perpetrator for the police in a lineup despite having protected the white girl in question. Maybe it’s true but it doesn’t ring right for this dramatic purpose. The overlength (and underwritten) sequence of mind-numbing violence in the annex doesn’t help. It feels like it’s straight out of a seventies exploitationer, particularly in the shots of Flynn, sweating out his hatred before applying the butt of his gun to another black man’s head. Perhaps it’s a story that needed to be told but it’s unbalanced. There simply isn’t enough drama to portray a story of innocent people caught up in something that – as presented here – was woefully avoidable in a context that is under-explained. This is a failure of screenwriting, with the lingering suspicion that a true depiction of a police conspiracy, social destruction and legal corruption was literally beyond the pale. What a pity.

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.

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.

Big Business (1988)

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Is this how you dress for the office? You look like a blood clot! Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin in a reworking of The Comedy of Errors? (With maybe a touch of The Prince and the Pauper… and Aesop).  NYC 1988?  The Plaza? Hell yeah! They’re the two mismatched pairs of identical twin sisters separated at birth in a country hospital in the 1940s and now … the bumpkins are coming to the big city to deal with the proposed takeover of their family firm in Jupiter Hollow which is being handled by … their posh twins whose socialite folks were just passing through forty years earlier! And neither set knows the other set exists! And they have the same names – Rose and Sadie – because the poor farmer overheard the rich guy naming his daughters! Bette is the obnoxiously bitchy divorced CEO with a kid she pays to do better at school, Lily is the timid flibbertigibbet sister who can eat anything and is sympathetic to the factory at Jupiter Hollow because their father wanted it in the family to honour their birthplace; and Bette is also the louder bumpkin with the skinny sweet sister who runs their company. When they get the posh women’s suite at the Plaza all sorts of screwball mixups ensue which should be a little funnier – costume and accents are not as riotous as they might be but when push comes to shove country Sadie’s wannabe beau (Fred Ward) turns up and the company’s execs think he’s a conman – who doesn’t get it when they invite him to sleep on their couch (they’re a gay couple).  The finale – the meeting with the stockholders – is run like a scene from Dynasty because country Rose has studied Alexis Carrington like a book. The writing (by Dori Pierson and Marc Reid Rubel) lets this brilliant premise deflate – not to get too Aristotelian about it there are  no real scenes of ‘recognition’ other than the failsafe one in the Ladies’ bathroom and the original baby switch which leads to the concluding life swap is never dealt with satisfactorily in terms of even reference to it – this convoluted plot never really stands scrutiny. But it’s a breezy show even if these fabulous women never really get their considerable comic chops into it. Wonder what would have happened if Barbra Streisand and Goldie Hawn had starred, as was intended?! Heck, the clothes are just great. Directed by Jim Abrahams.

London Town (2016)

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This is a strange one – a coming of age story set against a few songs and performances by The Clash and a couple of run-ins with the iconic singer/guitarist Joe Strummer, a man who inhabited several different musical incarnations but whose major persona was forged in the late Seventies against a maelstrom of sociocultural chaos. Shay (Daniel Huttlestone) is from a broken family with dad Dougray Scott running a music shop and driving a taxi by night to support him and his little sister. Mum Natascha McElhone has run off to live in a squat with Tom Hughes and some other handsome alternatives to find herself on the punk scene. Shay meets Vivienne (Nell Williams) a cool punkette scenester who introduces him to The Clash but when his dad has an accident moving a piano which hospitalises him, Shay has to man up, run the house and the gauntlet of debt collectors. With Vivienne’s help he drags up to take over his dad’s taxi runs and takes Joe Strummer (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) home one night.  Strummer serves as a kind of Jiminy Cricket or even Humphrey Bogart a la Play it Again, Sam but there is no real reason for him to be in this story and the conclusion is unbelievably low-key considering the potential in a narrative which sees real-life footage of an Anti-Nazi concert, with Rhys Meyers doing his trademark immersive performance (he’s already portrayed Bowie and Elvis with some success). Directed by Derrick Borte from a screenplay by Matt Brown. London was definitely not calling this one with neither story strand properly developed. The only real attraction is to hear The Clash originals and some of their songs reworked (even anachronistically). How odd.

Splendor (1935)

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The third of five times Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea were paired opposite each other, Rachel Crothers’ adaptation of her play is a sparky melodrama. She’s the poor girl he marries and his family isn’t pleased – they’re on the verge of destitution and needed a wealthy in-law. She charms another man of their acquaintance who starts paying the bills for them and McCrea’s brother David Niven crawls to her for money …Sheer star power fuels this drama, a rise and fall story in which the leads learn their lesson and try to find their real selves in the middle of Manhattan social pressures and slut-shaming. Hopkins practically bristles onscreen! Directed by Elliott Nugent.

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.

Stakeout (1987)

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On a day on which the death of another Eighties icon has been announced, this time the gifted George Michael, it seemed appropriate to roll out a movie rather typical of the era. It starts with a violent prison incident when crazed murderer Richard ‘Stick’ Montgomery (Aidan Quinn) makes good his escape. Meanwhile, horndog cop buddies Chris (Richard Dreyfuss) and Bill (Emilio Estevez) get put on a stakeout of his ex Maria’s house for bad behaviour. Jim Kouf’s screenplay identifies the men pretty well as a bereft lovelorn middle ager and a besotted younger man, a relationship that offsets the violence that opens the story.and – inevitably – closes it. In between are office politics, slapstick, and a growing romance between Chris and the object of Stick’s affections, the beyond-beautiful Madeleine Stowe. A good mix of comedy, suspense, action and romance, well managed by director John Badham.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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How can an exercise in realism conceivably work as a magical heartwarming Christmas movie? And yet this does. George Seaton, an admirable writer/director/producer, took a story by Valentine Davies, went on the streets of New York City and into the halls of its most famous department store,Macys, and unravelled the likelihood of there being a Santa Claus. Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) is the busy working divorced mom who needs to find a convincing replacement for the toy department Santa because the latest one showed up drunk at the Thanksgiving Day parade. She hires as his replacement Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) an elderly gentleman she’s met on the streets because he looks right but when she realises he thinks he’s the real thing she regrets her decision. She can’t get him fired because he has created so much goodwill in the shoppers.  Her small daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) is an outright sceptic and neighbour attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne) is romancing her and trying to persuade the little girl to believe in the magic of Christmas. When Susan sees Kris speak Dutch to a war orphan she begins to change her opinion. An argument with a co-worker sees Kris committed to Bellevue mental hospital and Fred defends him in court where his competence is questioned.  The existence  of Santa Claus is debated and thousands of letters addressed to him are presented as evidence in the court room … Susan’s dream of a proper family home is granted on Christmas morning when Kris recommends an alternative way home with less traffic and a For Sale sign invites them inside, where a red cane indicates Kris has brought them the gift they always wanted. It’s the home she has dreamed of having. Natalie Wood is mesmerising as the little girl who comes to believe in Santa, Edmund Gwenn is the perfect Kris Kringle and Maureen O’Hara, who had returned to live in Ireland, was persuaded back to the US by the quality of the script. Seaton was a significant multi-hyphenate who had early success first as radio’s Lone Ranger, then as a writer for the Marx Brothers. He worked as a director then parlayed his way to auteur status with this (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay) and The Big Lift. Both can be considered significant examples of post-WW2 filmmaking. He also received the Oscar for The Country Girl and he directed Grace Kelly and several others to Oscar success – including this film’s performance by Edmund Gwenn for Supporting Actor as Santa Claus.  He’d get my vote every year. An evergreen.