Jaws (1975)

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Ibsen by way of a Peter Benchley bestseller and an adventurous and gifted director called Steven Spielberg. I got caught up in this again late last night and was gripped, as ever, by this visceral tale of beachside terror which hasn’t aged a day and in many respects remains my favourite Spielberg movie. There is so much to relish. The atmosphere, aided immeasurably by John Williams’ stunningly suggestive score – which was the soundtrack in the bathroom of the late lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London – utterly terrifying!. The performances:  who doesn’t love Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist? Roy Scheider as the seaside town police chief who’s scarified of water? Robert Shaw as the drunken shark hunting Captain Quint? And those hellishly cute kids. And what about the titles sequence? There’s the politics of the summer season and the mayor who doesn’t want word to get out. The anger of the bereaved mother. The bloodied water and beach toys. The track-zoom of realisation. The clear storytelling. White sharks got a bad press out of this epic battle but there has rarely been a better exploration of the ecology of man and beast. Quite literally sensational. Classic, brilliant, the original of the species. Written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with a little assist from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, and John Milius.

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Happy 70th Birthday Steven Spielberg!

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We sometimes forget the people who are always there and Steven Spielberg has always been in my life, like a comfort blanket. His command of the visual language complements an extraordinary understanding of the centre of things, the emotionality, the source of humour and compassion, thrills and action. His films have made me swoon and gasp in awe, laugh hysterically, gaze in wonder and shiver in fear. He uses new technology and collaborates with great practitioners in filmmaking crafts. He creates worlds and leads us there, by the hand, and sometimes educates us. He produces films and inspires and mentors other writers and directors and has given the world the great John Williams scores and the summer blockbuster. He is at the heart of pop culture and for Generation X he is simply our guy:  Jaws, CE3K, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET:  The Extra-Terrestrial. His sensibility may have altered somewhat as he has aged, but the audience is always crucial to his thinking:  good stories, well told and beautifully made. He is a master of all genres, pretty much and those he hasn’t directed he’s produced. Spielberg was born 18 December 1946 and we are fortunate to have him. Long may he reign.

Arrival (2016)

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At the beginning of this film I wished I had paid more attention to my linguistics lecturers at college but that still wouldn’t have made me fluent in Farsi and Mandarin like Amy Adams nor even given me a passing ‘vocabulary word’ (a la Forest Whitaker, Army Colonel) in Sanskrit. Then I wished I’d had decent science teachers in high school who didn’t just chalk questions on the board and spend double periods drinking coffee in the staff room, so that I could be a brilliant theoretical physicist, like Jeremy Renner. Science and language are the source, dude. These unhappy unmarried geniuses are drafted in by the military to translate the aliens whose craft is one of 12 that have landed on Earth. So it’s off to Montana, just like in CE3K, that masterpiece of communication, where my desire for intergalactic travel was sparked. After all, how could aliens possibly be any worse than other humans? And since I saw another UFO over a hillside near my home on Saturday, I’m kinda in the mood, you know?! Halfway through this film it dawned on me that it had nothing to do with communicating with aliens and everything to do with the abject maternal. Because Amy is in mourning for her dead daughter. Just like Sandra was in Gravity. Cos women are incomplete without children (or with them, it seems. In space no-one can hear you scream giving birth). And Jeremy is … really her husband. And this is all to do with marriage breakdown. And for some reason, time is folding in upon itself and what matters not a jot is what the aliens are doing here because it’s all, you know, personal, so their Rorschach test blots on the invisible barrier have to do with a book Amy has yet to write about Heptapod language …and the child that hasn’t died yet because she hasn’t been born because Amy and Jeremy have just met! I thought this was going to be pretty great. But it’s not about world war or invasion. The aliens have visited Earth in an extreme case of marriage counselling. Did I completely misunderstand this film? Is it me?! I give up. Un film de Denis Villeneuve.

The Ghost Writer (2010)

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Aka The Ghost. Robert Harris’ wickedly sly satire on the Blair Prime Ministership gets the full Polanski treatment here – replete with a changed and very shocking ending (he does this – just ask Robert Towne!). Ewan McGregor is the unvarnished wideboy London sleb journo preyed upon to become the second ghost writer of Adam Lang (a brilliantly cast Pierce Brosnan) the former PM’s memoirs after the previous one allegedly committed suicide. He arrives to his isolated  Elba-like Massachusetts retreat to find Lang is under investigation by the International Criminal Court over suspected rendition and torture for the benefit of the CIA. He begins to realise that under Lang’s suavely non-committal charm there may lie a secret that his predecessor uncovered and that he may in fact have been murdered … Harris’ own adaptation (with Polanski) is faithful to a blackly comic work with many witty characters and roleplays in particular that of Olivia Williams playing Lady Macbeth behind the throne. Brosnan is terrific as the famous charisma machine, Kim Cattrall is the cat’s pyjamas as Lang’s right hand woman (and we presume his mistress) while McGregor is perfect as the guy on the make who is pulled into something he doesn’t understand. Taut, oppressive, brilliant filmmaking with an exquisite, inventive score (his best?) by Alexandre Desplat and as for the ending … I was totally shaken by it. Stunning.

Andrzej Wajda 03/06/26-10/09/16

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The death has taken place of the great and prolific Polish director Andrzej Wajda, whose films formed a constant stream of correspondence between those living behind the Iron Curtain and those of us fortunate enough not to be downtrodden (at least not by the Communists.) From Ashes and Diamonds through Man of Iron and beyond, we learned how vibrant and innovative and subversive those brave men and women from the film school at Lodz were under the cosh of the Soviet regime. Thanks for all the films. RIP.

My Week With Marilyn (2011)

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Marilyn Monroe took acting very seriously and trained with several coaches throughout her career – she was nervous as a cat about performing and terrified about getting her lines right. She was dyslexic, had Meniere’s disease and and suffered stage fright to beat the band.Her capacity to remember lines was practically non-existent. It drove co-workers crazy – the more takes she did in her quest for perfection, the better she got. And they dropped from exhaustion. She fled Hollywood to take more control of her roles and set up a production company with Look photographer Milton Greene and their first film was Bus Stop – finally Marilyn can act, the critics said. She had wound up at the Actors’ Studio inadvertently following the death of Constance Collier whom she had been training with in NYC. The association caused untold complications in her life. Then a project arose with Laurence Olivier – an Edwardian comedy of manners by Terence Rattigan, The Sleeping Prince. Olivier and Vivien Leigh had played it onstage. Leigh was too old to play the chorus girl on film and Monroe wanted to be taken seriously so it became a joint production of both of their companies with Olivier starring and directing (that was inadvertent, the result of a misunderstanding that everyone was too polite to point out). Monroe rolled up for the English shoot with new husband playwright Arthur Miller, Greene, publicist Arthur Jacobs and acting coach/sycophant Paula Strasberg, Lee’s wife  …  Colin Clark was the son of Olivier’s friend Kenneth Clark and as a new unemployed graduate needed a job. He got taken on as Third Assistant Director on the film that became The Prince and the Showgirl and kept a diary which he finally published as The Prince, The Showgirl and Me in 1995. He later wrote a memoir, My Week With Marilyn, and these two volumes are combined here by Adrian Hodges with a touch of creative licence, coyness and diplomacy:  Clark’s (and Olivier’s) views of Miller (Dougray Scott here) in particular were scathing and Clark’s real-life sexual inclinations were more worldly than those exhibited in the personage of Eddie Redmayne. Michelle Williams gets the poisoned chalice role but manages at times to exquisitely portray the plight of the most famous woman in the world trying to get along in a new marriage with a man clearly using her and a cast and crew (led by Kenneth Branagh as Olivier) who appeared to despise her (they trashed her leaving gifts, not that we see that in this British production). Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) famously said that Monroe was the only one among them who knew how to act for the camera while Olivier ranted at Clark that ‘Trying to teach Marilyn how to act is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger.’ Seeing her luminous performance and his own overacting in rushes nearly finished him and stopped his desire for directing (he eventually made one just more feature and a TVM!). Clark stated that Olivier was a great actor who wanted to be a film star while Monroe was a film star who wanted to be a great actress. According to his memoir he told her this in order to allay her fears in the hostile environment in which she found herself adrift. Who knows how much of this is true? It’s all rather unlikely. It makes for a good story though. Director Simon Curtis manages to get the balance of despair, humour and pathos into this on-set romance and it’s a testament to all the talents involved that it’s more insightful and touching than exploitative.

The Intern (2015)

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Nancy Meyers is a spectacular filmmaker:  she makes deftly witty social satires starring female protagonists and she’s been at it since 1980 when she co-wrote Private Benjamin for the heroic Goldie Hawn. There was a long gap between It’s Complicated (2009) and this – so long I wrote a book about her work, fearing the worst. Then she came back with another zeitgeisty comedy, starring Robert De Niro as the titular character, an active widower seeking more to do with his time and seeing an opportunity with a politically correct seniors internship programme at an e-commerce firm in his Brooklyn neighbourhood.  His boss is the driven company founder, millennial Anne Hathaway who runs this fashion seller with a sharp focus that somehow blinds her to the people around her – the wussy stay at home husband and cute daughter, the chauffeur who drinks (despite her espousing of bicycle riding in the warehouse suite), and the capacity of former businessman De Niro to assist her in the running of her firm because her financier wants to replace her as CEO. This jabs at a lot of contemporary targets – women and work, work-life balance, the generation gap, seniors in relationships (the brilliant Rene Russo is CRIMINALLY under-used as De Niro’s romantic interest) and corporate life. Even if Hathaway wasn’t originally intended to co-star (it was supposed to be Tina Fey opposite Michael Caine, then Reese Witherspoon), it has the unexpected slippage effect from her role in The Devil Wears Prada and we might see her as Andie all grown up in a dream(-ier) job where she’s the boss. De Niro is a flinty protagonist (she’s really the antagonist here) and this perhaps is where the film-story balance comes a little undone:  there are snotty, spiteful moms in the playground, her own awful mother hounding her on the phone, a dull spouse (couldn’t she do any better?! And pay a babysitter?!)  and a decided lack of interests outside of work – compare the narrative solution in Baby Boom in which Diane Keaton hit on a highly domestic answer to a business problem. This targets so many bases and is a lot of fun at times – even De Niro’s break-in caper with his dude co-workers – yet it doesn’t really say a lot about the specifics of this fashion website idea or why it’s so important to Hathaway, has remarkably conservative ideas about men and women and never feels like it truly exploits its characters:  Anne Hathaway needed to go really crazy at some point! She’s … aggressive passive. In the meantime, you can get my book about Nancy Meyers here: https://www.amazon.com/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1474702335&sr=1-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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Bryce Dallas Howard ran around Jurassic World in high heels so donning the garb of forest ranger Grace should come pretty easy, dontcha think? Her stepdaughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) finds little Pete (Oakes Fegley) deep in the woods her uncle Gavin (Karl Urban) is busy upending. Pete’s folks died in a car crash 6 years earlier and he’s been living there with his best friend Elliott. Who happens to be a dragon, the kind that Grace’s dad (Robert Redford) has been telling her about for years, since her mother died when she was five. Grace’s boyfriend (Wes Bentley, welcome back) reads Pete the storybook that is his only remaining possession and Natalie has a copy – his own is the giveaway to Elliott’s cave, which Gavin quickly exploits … I don’t know about you but the last time I cried at a movie was … The Passion of Joan of Arc. And  Running On Empty. And ET, of course. (More than once but decades apart.) Amazingly, this out-Spielbergs Spielberg in Disney’s own remake of its 1977 musical which I have never been able to get through, despite – or maybe because of – Helen Reddy. This is straight drama and the casting is spot-on, the tone is perfectly managed and the overall effect is funny, smart, touching, witty, scary and magical. Absolutely wonderful. Now how often can you say that? And during the worst summer in living movie memory. There is a message of course – about conservation, family, decency, hunting … You can figure that out yourself. Get your tissues ready. Written and directed by David Lowery, with Tony Halbrooks also credited for writing, based on the original screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

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The Great Escape. The Guns of Navarone. Where Eagles Dare. And this. This is what Friday night was for when I was a kid. And boy does it still work. Major Lee Marvin gathers a bunch of psychopaths headed for the gallows or life imprisonment to do One Last Job in preparation for D-Day, a raid on a French chateau where members of Nazi command are hanging out. A kind of OSS for nut jobs is produced. Adapted from EM Nathanson’s novel by Nunnally Johnson, this was rewritten by Lukas Heller for director Robert Aldrich, with some major alterations which might or might not have been a good idea. Nonetheless, this crowdpleaser is violent, fiercely funny, nasty, brutish and nihilistic in equal measure and never less than vastly entertaining. There is something to offend everyone as they are recruited, trained and then unleashed. Thank goodness for that!

The Godfather (1971)

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Make him an offer he can’t refuse. Go to the mattresses. Leave the gun, take the cannolis. The Godfather is truly the I Ching, non vero? Mario Puzo’s novel is gripping but kinda schlocky, Francis Ford Coppola saw a way to imbue it with a kind of classicism at a time when the few Mafia movies that had been made were really just cheap-ish thrillers. The story is that of family, brothers, inheritance, murder and mayhem. If you do the Paramount Studios tour (and I thoroughly recommend it) you can see the NYC set where Michael takes out the crooked cop and the rival who’s tried to assassinate his father Don Vito – a friend obsessed with production design asked me if the floor (tiled) was still there and I had to disappoint them. But it was a thrill. Because no matter how many times you see this film it lures you in, just like they do Sonny to the tollbooth on the Causeway (jeez, the first time I saw this I didn’t go to bed till 2 in the morning. The image of James Caan being rattled like a ragdoll under machine gunfire is unforgettable and horrible. Never mind the horse’s head…)  Watching Pacino transform from the good youngest son to the efficiently vengeful killing machine is really something – his movement under the greatcoat and bowler at the movie’s end makes you weep, and that closing shot, when his wife is literally shut out in that long shot … Oh, I feel like I’m turning into Edward G. Robinson:  Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?!  Coppola did a fine job in making over the material so that you feel like you’re watching a parable about America rather than a tale of scuzzy mobsters. But he knew mid-production there was a scene missing and so he asked screenwriter and script doctor Robert Towne to help him out: the result being the garden scene when the Don is handing over the family business to the war hero son he thought would become a Senator. You can read about that in my book about Towne: https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472425177&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon. What a fabulous film.