The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.

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The Leisure Seeker (2017)

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It’s just something I really need to do with your father.  Retired English teacher John Spencer (Donald Sutherland) and wife Ella (Helen Mirren) take off in their RV without telling anyone in order to escape a probable nursing home (him, with Alzheimer’s) and a punishing chemo regime (her, for cancer). They abandon grown up son Will (Christian McKay) who cares for them each day, despite knowing it’s his sister Jane (Janel Moloney) who’s the favoured offspring and college professor a comfortable couple of hours away. The siblings are up the walls about the disappearance. Even neighbour Lillian (Dana Ivey) is out of the loop. The couple negotiate the Seventies vehicle down the east coast via camp sites, diners, the world’s slowest police chase, historical re-enactments, a stint in a home and occasional beaches, to their eventual destination, the home of John’s hero, Ernest Hemingway, in Key West.  En route their journey has revelations, massive doses of forgetfulness, a holdup, a posh hotel, a terrible (unconscious) admission, illness and phonecalls home… Michael Zadoorian’s novel is adapted by Italian director Paolo Virzi, making his English language feature debut, with Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi and Francesco Piccolo, and it bears up considerably better than you might think. This isn’t just down to the playing of the leads, who are brilliant, although Mirren’s Savannah accent slips a lot.  There are lovely moments particularly when Sutherland is regaling waitresses with lines from his favourite books and when one confesses she’s done her thesis on it he’s in hog heaven. Ella prefers the movie adaptations. They are a joy to watch, sparking off one another and falling into old habits and new ideas.  Their life together is recalled in tranquil bouts of watching slides on a sheet outside the RV at night when they’re camping. Their days are about coping and how exhausting it is to be a carer and to be ill but also how genuinely in love they have been and how that materialises in their concern for one another. Sutherland’s recurring obsession with Mirren’s first boyfriend from fifty years earlier has a funny payoff.  How she deals with his husbandly failing is hilarious.  His physical response to one medication is … unexpected! But its success is also to do with the deep understanding of Alzheimer’s which causes bouts of memory loss and bullying all too familiar to anyone with a relative suffering its predations – I laughed aloud with recognition far too many times.  While this is concerned with ageing in a semi-comic context it’s a very pointed narrative about the ways in which older people are made feel lousy about their right to exist, how they are treated when they are beginning to become infirm and the radical element here is how one couple choose how to live and exit gracefully when they take the opportunity (even if one of them doesn’t really know what in hell is going on). Immensely enjoyable.

 

Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

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Gentlemen you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!  U.S. Air Force General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) goes completely insane and sends his bomber wing to destroy the U.S.S.R. He thinks that the communists are conspiring to pollute the ‘precious bodily fluids’ of the American people and takes hostage RAF Commander Mandrake (Peter Sellers) before blowing his brains out when Mandrake wants the code to stop global catastrophe. Meanwhile in the War Room President Muffley (Sellers again) tries to reason with General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and has to make an embarrassed call to the Russian premier while the Russian ambassador tries to sneak photographs on the premises and the creator of the bomb (Sellers – again) reveals it simply cannot be stopped …  Peter George’s serious book about nuclear proliferation, Red Alert, got a blackly comic workout by Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern, producing one of the great films and one that seems to get better and more relevant as the years go by. Sellers’ triple-threat roles were a condition of the financing after his work on Lolita. The spectre of him as the wheelchair-bound Führer-loving kraut by any other name mad scientist failing to control his sieg-heiling arm and utilising an accent familiar to fans of The Goon Show is not quickly forgotten, nor the image of Slim Pickens astride the nuclear bomb, rodeo-style. It’s not just Sellers’ appearances that are brilliant – Hayden is weirdly convincing when talking about depriving women of his essence due to the fluoridation of water;  and Scott’s expressivity is stunning. Apparently it was Spike Milligan’s idea to use Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again over the apocalyptic closing montage in which the nuclear deterrent has deterred absolutely nothing and blown us all to Eternity. The end of the world as we know it. A staggering tour de force.

Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958)

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aka Sleep No More. Kimberley Prescott (Anne Baxter) is the heiress of a South African diamond company and grieving after her father’s recent suicide at the family’s villa outside Barcelona.  She is shocked by the arrival of a man (Richard Todd) claiming to be her brother Ward, believed to have died in a car accident in South Africa a year earlier. Kimberley had identified his body.  He insinuates his way into her home accompanied by a woman claiming to be a housekeeper, Elaine Whitman (Faith Brook) after giving the Spanish maid the weekend off.  Kimberley has trouble convincing her friends and family and the local police inspector Vargas (Herbert Lom) that a complete stranger has taken her deceased brother’s identity and appears to know events of their shared childhood and suspects he is after her father’s estate … Written by David D. Osborn and Charles Sinclair, this highly efficient B thriller is a convincing mix of the paranoid woman’s film and murder mystery, with an enormous stash of diamonds at the centre of the plot. Baxter offers a pleasingly vivid performance as the woman being driven to the edge of sanity with nice guy actor Todd playing it sinister and clearly enjoying himself.  The guitar score by Mátyás Seiber is performed by Julian Bream. Produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and directed by Michael Anderson with cinematography by his usual collaborator, Erwin Hillier.

The Apartment (1960)

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Normally, it takes years to work your way up to the twenty-seventh floor. But it only takes thirty seconds to be out on the street again. You dig?  Ambitious insurance clerk C. C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) permits his bosses to use his NYC apartment to conduct extramarital affairs in hope of gaining a promotion. He pursues a relationship with the office building’s elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) unaware that she is having an affair with one of the apartment’s users, the head of personnel, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) who lies to her that he’s leaving his wife. Bud comes home after the office Christmas party to find Fran has taken an overdose following a disappointing assignation with Sheldrake … Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were fresh off the success of Some Like It Hot when they came up with this gem:  a sympathetic romantic comedy-drama that plays like sly satire – and vice versa. Reuniting one of that film’s stars (and a nasty jab at Marilyn Monroe using lookalike Joyce Jameson) with his Double Indemnity star (MacMurray, cast as a heel, for once) and adding MacLaine to the mix, they created one of the great American classics with performances of a lifetime. Bud can keep on keeping on as a slavering nebbish destined to be the ultimate slimy organisation man or become a mensch but he can’t do it alone, not now he’s in love. This is a sharp, adult, stunningly assured portrait of the battle of the sexes, cruelty, compromise and deception intact. With the glistening monochrome cinematography of Joseph LaShelle memorializing that paean to midcentury modernism, the architecture of the late Fifties office (designed by Alexandre Trauner), and an all-time great closing line (how apposite for a Wilder film), this is prime cut movie.  The best Christmas movie of all time? Probably, if you can take that holiday celebration on a knife edge of suicidal sadness and bleakly realistic optimism. Rarely has a home’s shape taken on such meaning.

Monte Walsh (1970)

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I wish I knew something besides cowboyin’. It’s the end of the great wild west era and ageing cowboys Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) arrive in the town of Harmony, where they reconnect with their old friend Shorty Austin (Mitch Ryan). The former wanderers do their best to settle down: Chet gets married and finds work, while Monte pursues saloon girl Martine (Jeanne Moreau) to a nearby township. But when the doldrums of sedentary life set in, they begin falling apart and find themselves embroiled in robbery, murder and vandalism and Monte’s failure to tame a bronco triggers a crisis… A beautiful directing debut for renowned cinematographer William A. Fraker. Its elegiac quality is underlined by the wonderfully empathetic score by John Barry, probably one of his most haunting themes. The romance between Marvin and Moreau is delightful while the shift in tone at the conclusion in this story of transition to modernity is captured sorrowfully by the photography of David M. Walsh. Adapted by Lukas Heller and David Zelag Goodman from Jack (Shane) Schaefer’s novel, this is western as metaphor. Quite marvellous.

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

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I had the worst thought: I’ve got to spend the rest of my life with myself.  High school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is already at peak awkwardness when her all-star older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) starts dating her only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). All at once, Nadine feels more alone than ever, until an unexpected friendship with a thoughtful classmate  Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto) gives her a glimmer of hope that things just might not be so terrible after all but she gets herself into a seriously awkward situation with her heart throb Nick (Alexander Calvert) whom she has promised wild sex… This starts wonderfully with Nadine rushing to announce to her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) and telling him she’s going to kill herself. Then he counters that by telling her he’s also planning to kill himself because being a school teacher is sheer misery. Thus the tone is set for a smart and insightful comedy drama about a family suffering from grief – Dad dies in front of her and Mom (Kyra Sedgwick) and Number One Son gang up against her – at least that’s how it feels. How Nadine unravels, makes a dick of herself (“You don’t say those things to a man!” she has to be told after becoming a prick tease) and learns some very tough love, sounds horrible but it’s made more than bearable by dint of canny writing and sympathetic performances, with Steinfeld a customary standout as the solipsistic teen matched by Harrelson as the witty and wise teacher whose home life surprises her. If there are lapses it’s because it sounds like twentysomething conversations occasionally supplant the kind of dialogue you hear between teenagers but that’s okay because growing up is tough! Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig and produced by James L. Brooks.

Anon (2018)

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I can’t believe my eyes. In the near future, private memories are recorded as ‘Mind’s Eye’ and crime has almost ceased to exist. But in trying to solve a series of murders, troubled detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) stumbles upon a young woman known only as ‘The Girl’ (Amanda Seyfried). She has no identity, no history and is invisible to the cops,  a digital ghost. Sal realizes this may not be the end of crime, and it could be the beginning of it…  A Sky Cinema Original, you’ve got to admire any channel run by a megalomaniac that decides to fund films and one about mining personal data in a heavily surveilled state to boot. And then shoots an NYC-set movie elsewhere and camouflages it by grading it to grayscale. Owen is a limited actor at the best of times but he’s really phoning it in here albeit the writing is so ironically expository it’s understandable. None of the performers acquits themselves admirably including Seyfried and Colm Feore as another detective. Going where those lesser-known filmmakers Hitchcock and Spielberg have already been by implicating the voyeur in factual crimes, writer/director Andrew Niccol ponders point-of-view hacking in the realm of science fiction and dreams up a dreary monochromatic dud with a presumed first (I wouldn’t know) in non-porn cinema – the point of view of a man having anal sex with a woman: the come shot as it were. Painful. OMG.

Saddle the Wind (1958)

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I know all about the brother and the sickness inside him. He didn’t get that from Steve, he was born with it.  Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor) is a former gunfighter and soldier who left his violent ways behind him after the Civil War. Since then, he has settled down as a rancher and lives peacefully in a small Western town where he collaborates with Dennis Deneen (Donald Crisp) to maintain order after the man gives him land. His easygoing life is turned upside down when his unstable younger brother Tony (John Cassavetes), shows up with his bride-to-be, Joan (Julie London) and a filed-down sixgun. While Steve has given up his gun-toting ways, Tony has not, and his violent tendencies lead to trouble for the entire town when Steve’s old rival Larry Venables (Charles McGraw) shows up to settle a grudge and a new landowner Clay (Royal Dano) plans to fence off some land … Directed by Robert Parrish from a Rod Serling screenplay (his first, from a story by Tommy Thompson), this was one of two westerns Taylor shot that year (the other is The Law and Jake Wade). This is an arresting picture of family values under threat with a sense of the mature western psychology playing out beneath an ostensibly typical plot. Cassavetes looks nuts as usual doing his no-good Fifties rebel thang and Taylor is a wonderful counterpart:  they are total acting opposites and Cassavetes caused major problems on set with his Acting and mumbling.  Ordinary people try to get on with living and conformism is rife – on and offscreen, apparently. Serling would later claim he gave better dialogue to the horses but there are some good scenes. London sings the title song (by Livingston and Evans), with a score by Elmer Bernstein.

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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The truth does not make it easier to understand, you know. I mean, you think that you find out the truth about me, and then you’ll understand me. And then you would forgive me for all those… for all my lies. Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young writer, moves to Brooklyn (or The Sodom of the North as his father calls it) in the hot summer of 1947 to begin work on his first novel. As he becomes friendly with his upstairs neighbour Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her biologist lover Nathan (Kevin Kline), a Jew, he learns that Sophie is a Holocaust survivor. Flashbacks reveal her harrowing story, from pre-war prosperity to Auschwitz. In the present, Sophie and Nathan’s relationship increasingly unravels as Stingo grows closer to Sophie and Nathan’s fragile mental state becomes ever more apparent just as Sophie’s past haunts her … Alan J. Pakula abandoned his customary 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller style to adapt William Styron’s novel – and yet one wonders if the Nazi takeover and atrocities aren’t the perfect subject for such an approach? As it is this too-faithful work exercises a Gothic hold despite the dayglo colours of Nestor Alemendros’ cinematography.  Death is in the narrative cracks. MacNicol is strange enough to withstand the attention as the rather naif narrator, Kline epitomises the term kinetic in a tremendously physical interpretation of the disturbed Nathan as he literally envelops Streep, whose luminous moony pallor dominates every scene. The structure – revealing the tragic titular decision – is painstaking but it somehow works against the dramatic tension in a film that is too long and paradoxically fears taking a risk. It’s Streep who makes this work in a jaw-dropping performance which created her legend.