Ronin (1998)

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Lady I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.  IRA woman Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) assembles a team of ex-special ops men turned mercenaries in Paris to carry out a heist on a briefcase carrying some mysterious material. They include ex-CIA agent Frank (Robert DeNiro), Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and French op Vincent (Jean Reno). They are joined by Englishman Spence (Sean Bean) and German Gregor (Stellan Skarsgaard). Each has a special gift to bring to this party. Spence immediately thinks he knows Frank from somewhere and the narrative die is cast:  as each member of the heist team begins to distrust the other, the body count mounts and this travelogue (through the south of France) speeds at an exhilarating pace with amazing car chases punctuating the stylish action around Arles and Nice. Deirdre meets secretly with fellow IRA op Seamus (Jonathan Pryce) and while she is double-crossing the team their numbers are dwindling at the hands of the Russian mob whose path they cross. Added to the mix is the ice skater Natacha Kirilova (Katharina Witt) whose showcase becomes the venue for the penultimate showdown. J. D. Zeik’s story and screenplay received a major rewrite from David Mamet under the name Richard Weisz and this super smart spy thriller benefits from shrewd juxtaposition of action with gleaming character detail. Add to that beautiful cinematography, some of the best car stunts outside of Bullitt (with Sudduth doing most of his own driving) and spot-on performances and you have a cracking genre entertainment which at the time marked a major comeback for the amazing John Frankenheimer.  The francophile was making a return to the south of France for the first time since French Connection II.  It’s great to see Michael Lonsdale as a fixer whose interest in samurai supplies the story behind the title. The final revelation is both surprising and satisfying. And the contents of that briefcase?  Well you’ve seen enough Hitchcock films to figure it out for yourself. Fantastic stuff, brilliantly directed.

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Effie Gray (2014)

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He must be mad.  Young virginal Effie (Dakota Fanning) marries art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) shortly after her family has endured financial hardship. When she enters his family home she finds that he has an unhealthy relationship with his mother (Julie Walters) and his father (David Suchet) is genially oppressive. On their wedding night her husband looks at her with … distaste. And never touches her. Her mother in law insists on dosing her with some strange herbal concoction that knocks her out. Mingling with the great and the good she finds a sympathetic friend in Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson) the wife of his patron at the Royal Academy and she suspects all is not right particularly on a visit to their stifling home during a spectacularly awkward dinner.  On a trip to Venice it is assumed that Ruskin is quite mad and Effie is pursued by Raffaele (Riccardo Scarmarcio) who almost rapes her. When Ruskin commissions a portrait of himself from his protege John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) the trio decamp to the countryside and an affection grows between the two young people:  it is clear Effie is starved of genuine human warmth. She summons her little sister Sophy (Polly Dartford) to visit her and makes a plan to escape… This project had a very troubled birth following two plagiarism suits against actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson. Notwithstanding the issues that caused the script to be redrafted this doesn’t come to life – something of an irony given that the living Effie was immortalised as the suicided Ophelia by Pre-Raphaelite Millais. Fanning isn’t the most energised or personable of performers at the best of times but she really is given little here and the interrelationships aren’t especially well exposed. Wise has likewise little to do except look pained and self-absorbed:  mission accomplished. It may well be true but it doesn’t mean it works on the screen. For a story with so much scandalous content this is a disappointment on a massive scale. Look at the paintings instead. That’s Tiger Lily Hutchence as the young Effie in the opening scene and how lovely it is to see Claudia Cardinale as the Venetian viscountess. Directed by Richard Laxton with some staggeringly beautiful landscape photography by Andrew Dunn.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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Even these days it isn’t as easy to go crazy as you might think. Divorced Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his smalltown practice in California after being away for a couple of weeks at a medical conference. Seems like half the population has been complaining of a mysterious feeling and then not returning, claiming to be better. And the other half says family members aren’t themselves – they’re impostors, lacking nothing except emotion. When his ex Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) returns from England after her own failed marriage they visit mystery writer Jack Bellicec (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) because his double is lying on the billiards table and frankly it freaks them out. Becky’s father is a little strange too and as for the local psychiatrist…. Soon it appears the whole town is being taken over by alien seed pods now being actively cultivated to make everyone the same. Whether you take this as ‘straight’ sci fi or horror (as if that were ever a thing), a political allegory (it works for  communism or fascism) or a warning about the homogeneity and groupthink of Fifties culture or even a comment on the brainwashing techniques used during the Korean War, this is brilliant cinema. From the sly innuendo of McCarthy getting back together with his ex, to the satirical thrusts at a humdrum life, this hasn’t aged a day. The scene when Teddy sees Jack’s double open his eyes while Jack is asleep is really thrilling. And as for the pods throbbing in the greenhouse! Adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from sci fi legend Jack Finney’s Colliers serial (later a novel) it was directed by Don Siegel. Whit Bisssell is the Dr in the concluding scenes and Sam Peckinpah plays Charlie the meter reader – he was director Siegel’s dialogue coach on this and four other of his Fifties films. The prologue and epilogue were added because the studio got cold feet over the pessimistic content –  but you will never forget the sight of McCarthy shouting at the trucks on the highway, and this was its original ending. Nevertheless, this is extraordinary, urgent and fiercely exciting, simply one of the best films ever made.

Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

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Every day when I get up and I see there’s a whole new other day I go absolutely ape! Richard Benson (William Holden) is holed up in a swish Paris apartment with a great view and he has two days left of his 20-week contract to fulfill a screenwriting assignment commissioned on the basis of the title by a monied producer.  He’s spent all that time travelling around Europe, having an affair with a Greek actress and drinking. Now he’s hired a typist called Gabrielle Simpson (Audrey Hepburn) who’s really a wannabe writer who spent the first six months of her two-year stint in the city living a very louche life. He dictates various opening scenes of The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower and eventually constructs a version which takes off with Gabrielle standing in for the lead actress in a story which mutates into a spy thriller. Her actor boyfriend in the story (Tony Curtis) dumps her (in reality she has a date to keep in two days – Bastille Day) and she gets embroiled with Benson himself as the presumed villain. When Gabrielle takes over the storytelling she turns him into a vampire because of a childhood obsession with Dracula. He rewrites it like the hack he really is and gives it a Hollywood ending – straight out of Casablanca. Real life meshes with reel life and Noel Coward – playing his producer Alexander Myerheim – materialises at a party in the film within a film. Marlene Dietrich has a cameo and Curtis has great fun in his supporting role as a narcissistic Method actor. This postmodern remake of the French film Holiday for Henrietta by Julien Duvivier and Henri Jeanson got a rewrite by George Axelrod and it’s brimming with Hollywood references and a surplus of nods to the films of both stars:  talk about meta! It was put into production by Paramount who exercised their contractual rights over Holden and Hepburn, reunited after Sabrina a decade earlier. They had had a much-fabled affair then and Hepburn allegedly turned down Holden’s offer of marriage due to his vasectomy as she was obsessed with having a child. She was by now married to actor and director Mel Ferrer and Holden turned up to the set in a very bad way, still not over her. His drinking was out of control and he had numerous accidents befall him which ended up scuppering the final scene. It was directed by Richard Quine, who had previously made The World of Suzie Wong with him and that gets a shout out too. Hepburn’s husband Ferrer has a cameo here as a partygoer and Sinatra does some singing duties when Benson announces the titles of the film within a film. There are far more laughs here than the contemporary reviews would give it credit, with some shrewd screenplay analysis and Benson even talks at regular intervals about his planned book The Art of Screenplay Writing which sounds like a useful handbook. Hepburn was outfitted as ever by Hubert de Givenchy who betrays her terrifyingly anorectic frame and he also gets a credit for her perfume despite this not being released in Smell-O-Rama. Hepburn had legendary Claude Renoir (the same) fired as director of photography because she felt he wasn’t flattering her and had him replaced with Charles Lang, who accompanied her to her next film, Charade, which shares a location with this – the Punch and Judy show at the front of the Theatre de Marigny. There’s a sinuous score by Nelson Riddle.

Stand By Me (1986)

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Did your mother have any kids that lived?! The Writer (Richard Dreyfuss) is returning to Castle Rock, the small town in Oregon where he grew up. He’s got a newspaper in his hand announcing the death of one of his childhood friends and recalls the summer that everything changed when they and two other twelve year old boys went on an odyssey to view the body of a kid hit by a train passing through several miles away. It’s 1959.  Gordie (Wil Wheaton) is the neglected younger son in a family after his older brother (John Cusack) was killed on the way to basic training. His best friend is Chris (River Phoenix) who’s got a bad name because he comes from a criminal family. Teddy (Corey Feldman) is the abused child of a mentally ill man who claimed to be a WW2 hero. And Vern (Jerry O’Connell) is the chubby kid who overhears about the whereabouts of a missing boy when his older brother talks about it on the porch. They pretend they’re going on a camping trip and learn more about each other than they ever knew as they dodge death on a railway bridge, deal with leeches and a mythical killer dog and Gordie entertains his chums with the Barforama story to beat them all.  Then the older boys come a calling to retrieve the dead body … Wise, witty, sad, moving and hilarious, this is such a true story of friendship and family and is told in a brief 83 minutes, not a moment of which is wasted. The adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body (in Different Seasons) by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans is canny and kind, balanced between comedy and drama and utilising the flashback structure (there are flashbacks within the overall flashback narrative) to illustrate the experience and the effects of the incident very well (it’s quite complex within the novella). Beautifully played sense of time and place, with the interactions between those talented boys utterly believable, this is a modern classic. I never had any friends later in life like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone? Absolutely wonderful. Directed by Rob Reiner.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

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Those were the days when people knew how to be in love. Jeff Arch’s story was a meta discourse about people’s views of love and relationships being mediated by the movies. Nora Ephron turned it into a valentine to An Affair to Remember, a 1957 movie starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Together with her sister Delia it became as much com as rom, but it still has a baseline of melancholy and that killer feeling, bittersweet. Sam (Tom Hanks) is the widowed architect whose son Jonah (Ross Malinger) wants him to find The One so he can have a mother again. They live in Seattle. Annie (Meg Ryan) is the very proper journalist in Baltimore who gets engaged to the allergy-afflicted Walter (Bill Pullman).  She hears Jonah on a late night radio phone-in and stops at a diner where the waitresses talk of nothing else but this sweet  guy whose son wants him to remarry. She thinks there’s a story there but there’s more, as her friend Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) figures when her newly affianced friend is so distracted.  While she vaguely plans to hunt down Sam and carry out some friendly stalking, he starts to date again and his son is disgusted by his choice, one of his co-workers. Sam and Annie see each other across a crowded road when she nearly gets hit by a couple of trucks. Her letter to him asks him to meet at the top of the Empire State building on Valentine’s Day a la Cary and Deborah and it’s sent by Becky without her knowledge.  Things pick up when Jonah flies to NYC to keep the date and she’s there having dinner with Walter during a romantic weekend at The Plaza … The tropes from When Harry Met Sally are here – the mirroring conversations, the advice from friends, the movie references, and even that film’s director Rob Reiner plays Sam’s friend and even though she’ d already made a movie this was what really made Nora Ephron as an auteur. It’s a clever premise, discursive as well as fairytale, positing the idea that even though they’re a country apart a pair of compatible people are destined to meet. Eventually. Isn’t that wild? Separating a romantic couple until the very last five minutes of a film?! What a risk! With a helping hand from fate, a kid and a dream of finding love on Valentine’s Day, it helps that this hits three holiday celebrations including Christmas and New Year’s.  It shouldn’t work but it does, helped with some tart lines about men and women and what people settle for as opposed to what everyone really wants. What a dream team, boosted by some wonderful songs. Irresistible.

Bowfinger (1999)

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Find me a script with a retarded slave – then I’ll get an Oscar! Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin) is a producer-director on the outs and an Indian accountant has written a script about aliens he wants to bring to action superstar Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). It could be Bobby’s big break! Unfortunately Ramsey is a narcissist who’s deeply paranoid about the industry’s problem with black actors – and what about those aliens! He’s being mentored at the Mindhead cult by Terry Stricter (Terence Stamp) whose religious dicta are not much use. Bobby’s solution? Shoot the movie around Kit – without him knowing! They do it guerilla-style using a crew of illegal Mexican border-hoppers – with an ageing actress Carol (Christine Baranski) and Daisy (Heather Graham) the newcomer hot off the Ohio bus to Hollywood, doorstepping Ramsey at his usual Beverly Hills haunts. Even they don’t know he’s not really in it. Then Kit really goes crazy with all the aliens confronting him on the street and is sequestered at Mindhead’s ‘Special Celebrity Quarters’ – so Bowfinger recruits his idiot lookalike, Jiff – who happens to be Kit’s brother … Written by Martin who is re-teamed (for the fourth time) with director Frank Oz, this is good fun with some killer lines but never really hits the cynical heights you might expect. There are the lousy potshots about the trampy actress who’ll sleep with literally anyone to get more scenes;  the very obvious digs at Scientology’s hold on Hollywood’s top actors; and the general jokes about dumb action films. Held together by an energetic sense of its own ridiculousness and everything (and everyone…) it’s sending up.  Robert Downey Jr appears in a small part as a movie executive.

Moneyball (2011)

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Nobody reinvents this game. Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about the Oakland A’s during their 2002 season was initially adapted by Stan Chervin for Sony who dropped the project after going through a couple of directors. It was brought to the screen with Bennett Miller helming, and draft screenplays by Steven Zaillian then Aaron Sorkin. Brad Pitt is Billy Beane, the team’s general manager who decides to adopt a radical approach:  sabermetrics, as promulgated by super-smart Ivy League grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a composite character based on the real-life assistants. Billy trades and sacks players with impunity, ending and starting careers, buying in flawed sportsmen at low prices, confounding conventional wisdom. Against all the usual odds, the team is winning but Billy is literally Billy No Mates with his policy, killing off the scouting process as he pursues victory. He tries to maintain a good relationship with his daughter, who spends most of the time with his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn), and finds comfort in listening to the pre-teen who composes songs on the guitar he buys her. What a clever, well written drama this is:  the idea is, play the same game but with a different strategy; make a winning team out of a losing team;  make statistics real by visualising them. It uses Billy’s own backstory – with visual, narrative and musical cues – to illustrate his rationale and keep the narrative moving forward. The ongoing narration by TV baseball commentators serves both to distance us from Billy (Pitt plays an essentially unknowable, unpredictable character); and as Greek chorus, to pace the story, justify Billy’s choices (or not) and to let us know how he is succeeding with this innovative player approach. It’s a very shrewd narrative choice. And in the midst of it are Billy and Pete, a rhyming couple, teaching each other lessons. Pitt and Hill are absolutely superb in an absorbing, brilliantly constructed drama.

Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) gets along far better with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than with his parents so when the old man dies, with his eyes missing and a strange creature hiding outside his apartment in the bushes, Jake recalls all the stories he told him about living in a magical place during WW2. After several sessions with therapist Dr Golan (Allison Janney) he convinces his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales where he is befriended by some Peculiars, enters a derelict mansion through a portal in a cave and encounters the very much alive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who lives in this weird time loop with all the weirdly gifted kids whom his grandfather told him about. They have to ward off a powerful enemy who feast on the children’s eyes, led by Samuel L. Jackson who delivers his now customary cod-threatening performance and after taking Miss Peregrine, the children must engage in a final face-off (or eye-off…) in a theatre in modern-day Blackpool. Jake himself has a special power which can save them all … There’s a level of ordinariness to this which is irritating. It’s well set up, with Tim Burton returning to contemporary Florida (remember the achingly wonderful Edward Scissorhands?) and the problematic father-son dynamic that fuels some of his better work. However there’s no real sense of mystery or fabulism that would bring this to a different realm. What is best about it? Probably the Ray Harryhausen-style doll animations. Emotions lie half-buried in the middle of this – about being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, hating your dumb parents and only finding your true family because you possess an understanding of life that other people don’t (seeing invisible monsters is inordinately helpful). Oh well – there’s a good joke about the evil motivations of psychiatrists, though. Adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Ransom Riggs, and apparently a lot of changes took place in the writing. Very, very uneven.