A Street Cat Named Bob (2016)

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A homeless man getting himself off drugs is befriended by a ginger cat. Great premise for a movie?! But it’s all true, as we know from newspaper stories a few years back, and the eponymous memoir by James Bowen (and his charming friend Bob) in this London-set tale starring Luke Treadaway as the street busker and Bob … as himself! Believe it or not, the cat is just amazing. And I say that as one who spends her life herding them, pointlessly. Mine refuse to wear Christmas scarves or leads and they certainly don’t earn me any money or agree to travel. Treadaway keeps his hair nice and stringy to remind us of his backstory as an emotionally fragile young man (how old is LT?!) whose family breakup when he was 11 has caused his current situation. Bob literally saves his life. There’s a nice romance with kooky Ruta Gedmintas, Anthony Head finally resurfaces from Buffy as his errant and remarried dad and Joanne Froggatt is wearing contemporary clothes as a drugs therapist which takes a bit of getting used to. Treadaway convinces as a musician on a methadone programme but then we know from Brothers of the Head (with his twin Harry) that it’s in his manor. Given the subject matter, and the real-life turnaround by Bowen – his story was turned into a ghostwritten book, this engaging comedy drama thankfully has a happy ending, all dramatised here. (Bowen makes a cameo appearance at the bookstore signing.) Whew. But what about Bob?!!!!! An award-winning feline performance! Between this and Nine Lives I cannot recall a better cinematic year for cats. Adapted by Tim John and Maria Nation (watch out for her name on a building….) and directed by Roger Spottiswoode.

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The Great Gilly Hopkins (2016)

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This adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s popular Seventies novel for tweens gets a decent treatment. It’s about a chippy foster kid (Sophie Nelisse) who makes life difficult for everyone charged with taking care of her, the latest being eccentric Trotter (Kathy Bates) whose next door neighbour is an elderly black man Mr Randolph (Bill Cobbs) who dines with her each evening. They make a different kind of family, reading at meals and being each other’s best support. Little WE (Zachary Hernandez) is also being fostered by Trotter and Gilly – real name Galadriel – impresses him the way she carries on her mean girl bullying at school, until she sees he’s being bullied by horrible boys and she teaches him how to handle himself. She creates friction with her teacher Miss Harris (Octavia Spencer) and although she’s very bright she pretends she’s dumb as a post. The teacher sees right through her act. She wants desperately to be with the birth mother Courtney (Julia Stiles) who’s dumped her and who has finally sent a postcard from San Francisco, a long way from Maryland. This prompts Gilly to write her a letter lying about the terrible circumstances in which she’s found herself. Since her mother has finally made contact with her grandmother, Glenn Close, she turns up on Gilly’s doorstep to meet the grandchild she never knew existed until that correspondence which also brings social workers to Trotter’s door. The letter means she’s going to be removed from the only happy home she’s ever known and she regrets it but can do nothing about it…. This could have been a deliberate, messagey work but it’s tough love tenderised by humour and really smart performances. That it’s directed by Stephen Herek is the big surprise – the man who brought us Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Dude!

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.

The Baby (1973)

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Sick and twisted! That’s how I like my exploitation horror and that’s what this is, a film that goes full retard long before Lars Von Trier decided to cross the crass line. Baby (David Manzy) is the grown man in a playpen cared for by his indolent mom (Ruth Roman) and scary big-haired sisters (Marianna Hill and Susanne Zenor) and their idyll is interrupted by a nosy social worker (Anjanette Comer) with ideas of her own about what she might do to him… A surprisingly taut comment about society, family and perversion, written by Abe Polsky and directed by Ted Post with a great score composed by Gerald Fried. I’ve written about it at Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/whole-lotta-motherlove. Great fun!

White Oleander (2002)

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Janet Fitch’s novel is one of my favourites of the last 20 years:  a marvellous portrait of a self-centred driven artist and her destructive relationship with her teenaged daughter, who spends the latter part of her adolescence in foster care around Los Angeles when her mother murders her cheating boyfriend and gets 35 years in prison. Adapted by the gifted Mary Agnes Donoghue and directed by British documentarian Peter Kosminsky it comes to the screen also bearing the talents of an impressive cast, led by the stunning Michelle Pfeiffer and Alison Lohman, playing Ingrid the artist and Astrid the daughter, respectively. Lohman’s narration anchors the story from the setup in her natural dysfunctional home to a spell with a born again trailer trash tramp (Robin Wright Penn) who shoots her out of jealousy, to a failed movie actress (Renee Zellwegger) who falls under Ingrid’s manipulative malevolent spell and kills herself. She gravitates towards these apparently normal women who make her over and dress her the way they want and begins to find herself even as her mother tries to control her from behind prison walls. She forms an equal relationship with fellow foster child Patrick Fugit when she has to go to an institution but has enough of normal when the time comes for another home and opts for a Russian hustler (Svetlana Eframova) who teaches her street smarts and trades her silky blonde locks for gutter Goth. Lohman is a fine actress who subtly inhabits the more obvious external changes and Pfeiffer is extraordinary as the dragon mom. Kosminsky directs this potentially sentimental material assuredly. There are several changes to the novel but the important tonal and relational shifts are maintained in the spirit of the writer. It really makes you wish you could see more of everyone concerned. A very fine piece of work about art, survival and the truly imprisoning nature of mother-daughter relationships. A real treat.