About a Boy (2002)

About a Boy

I’ll tell you one thing. Men are bastards.  Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is a wealthy child-free and hedonistic thirtysomething London bachelor who, in search of available women, invents an imaginary son and starts attending single parent meetings claiming he’s been left with a two year-old son. As a result of his attraction to Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), he meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) a solemn twelve-year-old boy with problems at school and a suicidal hippie mother Fiona (Toni Collette). Gradually, Will and Marcus become friends and Marcus pretends to be his son so Will can pursue a relationship with single mother Rachel (Rachel Weisz).  As Will teaches Marcus how to fit in, Marcus helps Will to finally be a man ... Two people aren’t enough. You need backup. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel by Peter Hedges and co-directors Chris and Paul Weitz, this has all the elements of a mawkish soap but the performances and humour raise it to another level. Grant’s always been a great cad but here he also learns lessons – he already knows he doesn’t want to be a conventional husband or have responsibility but through friendship with this odd kid he learns how to be authentically emotional and to be a good guy. The fact that he’s hanging out with a twelve-year old boy leads Fiona to confront him in a restaurant where everyone immediately assumes he’s a pederast in one of the best scenes in the film. Hoult is properly strange looking (the wonder is that Will takes him shoe shopping rather than for a haircut) but the point is that both of them are outcasts in their own way and need to grow up by facing their fears – which brings the film to its penultimate scene at a school concert which presents the potential for lifelong humiliation. The songs are intrinsic to the storytelling as is customary with Hornby’s work and it’s a mosaic of cool and cringe, including the horrible Christmas song composed by Will’s father which afforded him his louche lifestyle in the first place. A film of exceptional charm. As I sat there I had a strange feeling. I was enjoying myself

The 39 Steps (1959)

The 39 Steps 1959

If you’re looking for Richard Hannay this is the man you want. Freshly returned to London, British diplomat Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) goes to the aid of a nanny ‘Nannie’ (Faith Brook) in a park only to discover there is no baby in the pram and follows her to a music hall where he watches Mr Memory (James Hayter). She goes back to his flat and reveals that she is a spy working for British intelligence looking for the organisation The Thirty-Nine Steps who are after information on the British ballistic missiles project. When she is murdered in his flat he goes on the run, encountering a bevy of schoolgirls on a train with their teacher Miss Fisher (Taina Elg) who reports him to the police but he jumps off the vehicle on the Forth Bridge and hitches a ride on a truck driven by ex-con Percy Baker (Sidney James) who advises him to stay at The Gallows Inn run by occultist Nellie Lumsden (Brenda De Banzie) and her husband who help him escape during a cycling race.  He approaches Professor Logan (Barry Jones) only to find the man is in fact the leader of the spy ring and he must keep running … I’m not having a Sagittarius in the house tonight! Hitchcock was responsible for the first adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy-chase thriller and this is a more or less straight remake, with the romance-chase narrative lines crisscrossing pleasingly as per the generic template established by The Master. More may be a slightly ridiculous hero but this is played for comic effect and its Hitchcockian homage continues in the casting of De Banzie who essays a knowing spiritualist in her crofting cottage. It has the advantage of location shooting, a winning plot, doubtful romantic interest, a deal of suspense and a collective tongue planted firmly in cheek. Directed by Ralph Thomas, written by Frank Harvey and produced by Betty Box. Keep out of the woods. Especially in August!

Tolkien (2019)

Tolkien

You’ll get your happy ending. Following the death of first his father then his mother, young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien finds love, friendship and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at boarding school who play sports and go to a tearoom each week and regale each other with their interests prior to going to University. Their brotherhood soon strengthens as Tolkien (Harry Gilby/Nicholas Hoult) weathers the storm of a tumultuous courtship with fellow orphan Edith Bratt (Mimi Keen/Lily Collins). From this impoverished childhood and a reliance on the kindness of strangers – Catholic Father Francis (Colm Meaney) who himself was a protegé of Cardinal Newman; and sponsor Mrs Faulkner (Pam Ferris) who takes him in; through the need for a scholarship to Oxford where after being sent down he meets a philologist Professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) who saves his linguistic bacon:  Languages never steal;  and the outbreak of World War I – he finds both his intellectual calling and his writing voice as he tries to find out what has happened to his closest friend, Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle) while the explosions and gunfire rage and play into his hallucinatory thoughts and childhood memories of the stories his mother told him. These early life experiences later inspire the budding author to write the classic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the RingsWe are your brothers through everything. We are an alliance – an invisible alliance.  The early life and influences of the legendary fantasy novelist are explored in this beautiful production which is engagingly staged and beguilingly played by a very sympathetic cast. The trench warfare scenes on the Somme in 1916 which frame the story are well done and transition extremely affectingly back and forth to Tolkien’s upbringing, the links with his novels well established without being laid on with a trowel (Ronald’s batman is called Sam). Rarer still is the fact that the younger incarnations of the protagonists are easily the match for their older namesakes in performing skill. If not now – when? Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford and directed by Dome Karukoski, this was made without the approval of Tolkien’s family yet it has a sensitivity to war and youth and writing that are heartfelt and extremely winning. Things aren’t beautiful because of how they sound. They’re beautiful because of what they mean

Shadows and Fog (1991)

Shadows and Fog

I was just pointing out to these lovely ladies the metaphors of perversion. Europe, between the wars. Kleinman (Woody Allen), a cowardly bookkeeper, is woken in the night by a mob of vigilantes and assigned the task of finding a strangler on the loose in the fog-shrouded town where the circus is visiting. Meanwhile, after a lover’s quarrel with her clown boyfriend (John Malkovich) after seeing him flirt with trapeze artist Marie (Madonna), sword-swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) escapes into the city, eventually joining up with Kleinman for support as they make their way through the ominous streets and foggy back alleys. Kleinman meets up with a mortician (Donald Pleasance) who’s dissecting the murderer’s victims; while Irmy encounters a prostitute (Lily Tomlin) who offers her a place to stay at the brothel where she works and wealthy student Jack (John Cusack) chooses to sleep with her rather than the professionals present.  She enjoys it and wants to donate the money to charity. When certain circumstantial evidence points towards Kleinman, he must prove his innocence as the police take interest and vigilantes assemble … There isn’t a whore in the world that’s worth $700. The first screening may have had the studio suits immobilised and looking like they’d been paralysed with curare, as Woody Allen recalls in his memoir, and this adaptation of his play Death is an admittedly uneasy mix. It’s part German Expressionist serial killer flick, circus picture, sex comedy, cowardly nebbish tale and social melodrama – but it’s still funny as hell when it hits the right notes, even though some of the cast (David Ogden Stiers, Kurtwood Smith) apparently think they’re in a different film altogether. But who doesn’t love Donald Pleasence as the mortician about to get his? And what about Kathy Baker, Lily Tomlin (especially Lily Tomlin) and Jodie Foster as chilled-out smart alecky prostitutes (even if they aren’t given proper names)? There’s a myriad of funny moments and lines with Allen giving most of them to himself but Farrow gets some of them, including, I always think you can tell a lot about an audience by how they respond to a good sword swallower. And howzabaout the great Kenneth Mars as a drunken magician? I once plucked a rabbit from between the bosoms of the Queen of Denmark. Small rabbit. Small bosoms. A hoot, in fits and starts, and so much more fun than its reputation suggests. Miraculous production design by Santo Loquasto, building an entire set at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, NYC and shot by Carlo Di Palma. It’s drenched in an atmosphere equally mysterious and amusing with a sort of sinister undertaste, alluding to Lang, Pabst, Murnau but also Hitchcock because we don’t really care about the strangler McGuffin a whit. He’s played by Michael Kirby. See? Told you. Soundtrack by Kurt Weill – well who else could it possibly have been? Written, directed by and starring Woody Allen as the Kafkaesque Little Man. I can’t make a leap of faith necessary to believe in my OWN existence

The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966)

The Great St Trinians Train Robbery

They’re only schoolgirls. “Alphonse of Monte Carolo” aka Alfred Askett (Frankie Howerd) is a hairdresser running ops for a gang of crooks led behind the scenes by an invisible mastermind (voiced by Stratford Johns). He gives instructions to Askett about a new train robbery, Operation Windfall, using a variety of gadgets. The crooks hide the money in Hamingwell Grange, a deserted country mansion, and after waiting for the fuss to die down they return to collect the mailbags which contain £2.5 million (the same amount as in the real Great Train Robbery). However, after the Labour Party win the election, the house has been converted into a new home for St Trinian’s School for Girls because the new Minister for Schools, Sir Horace (Raymond Huntley) is having an affair with the headmistress, Amber Spottiswood (Dora Bryan). The crooks decide to infiltrate the school by enrolling Askett’s delinquent daughters, Lavinia (Susan Jones) and Marcia Mary (Maureen Crombie) as pupils, in order to case the joint and retrieve the loot from its hiding place. The crooks’ attempt to recover the mailbags on Parents’ Day, disguised as caterers, results in a climactic train chase back and forth between the robbers and the girls… If a Labour Government gets in it means the end of all public schools – and that appalling school, St Trinian’s! The fourth and final installment about Ronald Searle’s anarchic schoolgirls under the original authors, Launder and Gilliat, this is a little more episodic than usual, using the recent real-life Great Train Robbery as the starting point, making satirical jibes about the current political situation, spoofing James Bond’s gadgets and that series’ criminal mastermind (the iteration here is voiced by Stratford Johns) and replacing Alastair Sim with Dora Bryan, who performs with gusto in this colour production. Richard Wattis, Terry Scott and George Cole return, and there are new faces familiar to TV comedy fans, like Eric Barker and Arthur Mullard. James Mason’s daughter Portland plays Georgina, one of the kids. Droll fun, with a terrific montage introducing not only the gang members (including Reg Varney as Gilbert the Wheel) but the teachers, including art teacher Susie Naphill played by Margaret Nolan (who was Bond’s masseuse Dink in Goldfinger), doing the real-life striptease she usually did in a Soho club, to music performed by the John Barry Seven! Directed by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder from a screenplay by Gilliat and Ivo Herbert, based on the directors’ story co-written with producer Leslie Gilliat. The final extended chase sequence is a doozy straight out of silent movies. A photograph of these sordid excesses could well unmask this whole imposture

Threesome (1994)

Threesome

No matter what happens somebody’s gonna get screwed. Shy Eddy (Josh Charles) finds he’s rooming with brash Stuart (Stephen Baldwin) when he arrives on a new campus. They learn to tolerate and even like each other despite being diametric opposites. When Alex (Lara Flynn Boyle) is accidentally billeted to the single room in their dorm suite she has to stay put because she can’t prove she’s female. She wants to have sex with Eddy but he’s inexperienced, while Stuart comes on to her too strong. The guys gang up on her when she brings home another guy. Then Eddy confesses he’s not exactly heterosexual but has never slept with either a guy or a girl and things get complicated when he realises he likes Stuart. A car trip and a naked swim bring out feelings between the three that they finally act upon  … You were just about ready to tap into something savage and emotional and you ruined it by trying to be something you’re not. Filmmaker Andrew Fleming occupies a peculiar space in cinema – an auteur in mid-range movies, mostly writing sympathetically from the point of view of young people finding their way in the world. This 90s production has a personal dimension, as it’s apparently based partly on his own college experiences. It’s beautifully shot (by Alexander Gruszynski) and filled with contemporary songs that land thematically. Alex’s attempts to seduce Eddy are initially played for comedy, as are Stuart’s attempts to sleep with Alex. They then agree to disagree and form a mysterious triangle that elicits comment on campus including from the Lobby Lizards (Martha Gehman and Alexis Arquette) but are still trying to figure out how they can sustain a friendship while dealing with the lustful feelings they are failing to manage. I love Freud, unfashionable though he may be. It’s shrewd and funny, with some great character detail and never swerves the issues even if they’re delivered in comic bits rather than serious exchanges – they’re soulful and heartfelt. I understood the moral of the story. Two’s company. Three’s pathetic

Parasite (2019)

Parasite

Aka Gisaengchung. They are nice because they are rich. Student Min (Seo-joon Park) is going abroad and while he is away, he asks his impoverished friend Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) to tutor Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), the young girl whom he loves by take over the private tuition in English he has been doing at the Parks’ family home. Ki-woo has done the university entrance exam four times but for whatever reason – likely poverty – he has not started a course of studies.  Some bluffing is required, with documents forged by his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park) who is also something of a talented actress. Both skills will prove useful in what becomes an ambitious Kim family project in deception and subterfuge to get out of their sewage-flooded semi-basement hovel: sister Ki-jung takes over as the troubled younger son’s art teacher and his father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) replace the family chauffeur and the housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), a woman inherited from the original owner, but they cannot reveal their family connection. What nobody but Moon-gwang knows is that the architect designed a secret bunker beneath the basement. When the Parks go on a camping holiday Ki-woo and his family take up temporary residence … We don’t need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next. Even if the country gets destroyed or sold out, nobody cares. Got it? South Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho hit the awards season jackpot with this black tragicomedy about class war and resentment. It’s set up as a kind of home invasion comedy but curdles into a dramatic commentary about class difference and the gulf of understanding between the haves and have-nots, culminating in mindless murder. It’s overlong and overdone and the dénouement is clearly planted in the seething danger underscoring  Ki-taek’s face, cheeks pinpricked with anger at the boss’ comments about his subway odour, but it’s redeemed by some unexpected moments, biting lines and something of a twisted ending. Not then the work of art much-touted by many critics, rather a triumph of marketing, a social farce bearing a touch of the Downton Abbeys coupled with an overriding problem – it is simply not possible to empathise with a single character. Don’t believe the hype. Co-written with Han Jin-won.  Rich people are naive. No resentments. No creases on them

UFO (2019)

UFO

The guy on TV was lying.  College student Derek (Alex Sharp) tries to use his exceptional mathematical skills to interpret messages that appear to have been sent around a UFO sighting at a local airport, suggesting extra-terrestrial attempts at contact. Accompanied by his room mate Lee (Benjamin Beatty) and girlfriend Natalie (Ella Purnell) he is rebuffed by the airport staff and Government officials including FBI Agent Franklin Ahls (David Strathairn) and suspects a cover up. He requests the assistance of his professor Dr. Hendricks (Gillian Anderson) who thinks he is brilliant along the lines of a Thomas Edison but doesn’t really want anything to do with a gifted guy prepared to risk his scholarship by flunking her class. But he is haunted by memories of a childhood sighting which his mother refused to acknowledge … Do you know how many threats the airport gets every day? It’s not quite correct to describe this as suspenseful because it doesn’t conform to the usual tenets of dramatic pitch:  rather it settles for a flat realist line mirroring the landscape, leaving the maths to do the talking.  What’s marvellous is the lo-fi approach of paper, pencils and calculators to try and decrypt the probability and navigate the universe. Anderson is cannily cast, linking her meta-fashion to The X-Files, a shortcut to the idea dominating the story: We Are Not Alone. An intriguing exercise of singular focus utilising real-life information and TV newscasts about a 2006 incident at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Written and directed by Ryan Eslinger with a smart score by West Dylan Thordson. They put the Fine Structure Constant in their message. The mathematical equations and graphs are a thing of beauty, no matter how impenetrable. Practically a Hipster PDA exercise in astrophysics. That’s Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s son as Lee. The wavelength is the unit of the measurement – it IS co-ordinates

American Woman (2018)

American Woman

We’re supposed to just sit here and wait. In a small blue-collar town in Rust Belt Pennsylvania, a 32-year-old single woman Debra Callahan’s (Sienna Miller) teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes missing. Left to raise her infant grandson Jesse (Aidan McGraw/Aidan Fiske) alone, she desperately seeks the answers behind her daughter’s disappearance while her sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) and mother Peggy (Amy Madigan) lend their support but Police Detective Sergeant Morris (E. Roger Mitchell) has no leads. After years of re-training at college and abandoning her habit of sleeping with married men, indulging a horrific coercive relationship and living from hand to mouth waiting tables, she has a job in administration and a prospective younger husband Chris (Aaron Paul) whom she marries after a couple of months but eventually life comes crashing down again …You think you’re special. More than anything else, this tale of working class people concerns the pain and difficulty of single motherhood (like mother, like daughter, both teen moms) which creates a cycle of poverty, low paid work and promiscuity. The story of generational mistakes is a somewhat run of the mill and depressing exercise, not caring to particularise the different phases of femininity save in its biological underpinnings which is after all a zero-sum game:  no matter what you do, you’re wrong and you’re trapped. Melodrama is substituted for mystery and Bridget’s disappearance is all but forgotten while life is dramatised as a series of betrayals. It finally obtains a power and focus in the closing sequences when Debra achieves a meeting with her daughter’s (inevitable) killer in prison: we just see the reflection of his face on hers, before they have an unheard conversation that leads Debra to Bridget’s final resting place, buried with his other victims. She is just a number in the earth now. Ironically, Debra now looks younger than she did eleven years earlier because is no longer the trashy tramp she essayed to survive:  with an answer to what happened she has a kind of equilibrium, at last. Very well performed by a great cast – how good is it see Amy Madigan even in a small role. Miller is superb, encompassing her character’s stop-start odyssey of rage in the smallest of gestures. Written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Jake Scott. This is it Mom. The moment you’ve been waiting for for forty years