Wonder (2017)

Wonder

There are no nice ones. After two dozen surgeries to get 10-year old August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) seeing and speaking he’s still terribly disfigured but mom Isabelle (Julia Roberts) has decided it’s time for him to go to regular school after years of educating him at home. It’s the first time he’s gone out without wearing his astronaut helmet. Dad Nate (Owen Wilson) and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) help out but it’s mainly been Isabelle who’s done the heavy lifting and Via has been left out and retreats to her estranged grandmother (Sonia Braga) in Coney Island when she needs attention. Auggie meets the wise and kind school principal Mr Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) who has him introduced around the school by some kids but Auggie still gets bullied terribly. He wins over some students through his smarts, especially at science where he’s top dog. However when he wears a different Halloween costume than the one his friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) expects, Auggie overhears him saying something terrible and it seems like everything is lost … Not everything in this world is about you. A film about facial disfigurement that manages to be truly humane without ever stooping to the mawkish or trite? Surely some mistake. And maybe it’s Mask. Well, that was then, this is now. This adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel is a kind of miracle of text and performance and not just by that fine young actor Tremblay. Everyone here gets their moment in a family that has other problems – sister Via is overlooked, Isabelle doesn’t speak to her mother, the marriage is strained because of the constant caring needed for Auggie. Isabelle had a promising career and was mid-thesis when Auggie came along and her life was put on hold. Roberts never looks for pity in the role and the plot keeps everyone afloat.  Even Daisy the dog needs more from the family members than they realise. That’s good writing. The screenplay is by Jack Thorne, Steven Conrad and director Steven Chbosky, who knows something about young people as we know from that other marvellous film about kids, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on his own book. Right here the issues of middle school, our responsibilities to others, competitive friendship and rivalries are nailed with precision. Auggie can’t change the way he looks so maybe we can change the way we see

Personal Affair (1953)

Personal Affair

You see sex in everything! 17-year old Barbara Vining (Glynis Johns) is infatuated with her Latin teacher Stephen Barlow (Leo Genn) who’s married to lonely and insecure American woman Kay (Gene Tierney). When Barbara disappears after a private tutoring session with Stephen and Kay notices the girl’s crush on her husband, rumours swirl and he has to defend himself from the suspicion that he may have  raped and murdered her … I don’t think we are really ourselves in school hours. Lesley Storm adapted her stage play A Day’s Mischief;  she had form in that regard, having written the original play The Great Day, also adapted for cinema. She was an established screenwriter, contributing additional scenes and dialogue for Graham Greene’s The Fallen Idol and Adam and Evelyne and writing several other screenplays, with another Greene adaptation, The Heart of the Matter, released the same year as this, 1953. This mines a rich seam of prurient gossip and innuendo in a small community and with a great supporting cast including Megs Jenkins and Walter Fitzgerald as Barbara’s parents, Pamela Brown as her aunt who had a permanent disappointment in love at a similar age that has poisoned her outlook on relationships, Thora Hird as the Barlows’ housekeeper and Michael Hordern as the headmaster, and a raft of young (if not yet familiar) faces like Shirley Eaton and Nanette Newman (in her first role) playing her school chums. William Alwyn’s exacting score underlines the melodramatic urgency of the story which paradoxically takes place mostly in conversation between the adults who admit their misunderstanding of human behaviour and the subtlety of instinct while three women at different stages of life enact their experience of love and potentially its loss.  Directed by Anthony Pelissier. I’m no good without you

 

Elephant (2003)

Elephant

Get the fuck out of here, shit is going to happen. John (John McFarland) is being driven through the suburbs to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms). Alex (Alex Frost) is a talented pianist being bullied at Watt High School, Oregon. He and his best friend slacker Eric (Eric Deulen) play video games, watch a documentary about Nazis, have sex in the shower and load up on guns. On their way into the building wearing camo gear and carrying black bags, Alex warns John not to go in. Elias (Elias McConnell) goes round the hallways photographing other students before going to the school newspaper office to develop his pictures. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field with girlfriend Carrie. Bespectacled outcast Michelle (Kristen Hicks) runs through the corridors and escapes to the library to avoid sports. Three bulimic girls gossip and end up in the Ladies’ Room. When the boys fail to explode propane bombs and prowl the corridors and library shooting everyone on sight, Acadia (Alicia Miles) freezes and Benny (Bennie Dixon) helps her escape through a window … Damn, they shot him. Gus Van Sant’s meditative exploration of the moments leading up to a Columbine high school-like massacre looks and feels less assured than it did upon release. Perhaps because unlike its source material (Alan Clarke’s BBC film Elephant, which was about sectarian politics in Northern Ireland) it is politically rootless unless you regard teenage alienation as justification for genocide and the inclusion of a TV documentary about Nazism adequate as rationale for unleashing senseless violence upon your contemporaries. Perhaps that is the point – that children and guns are just not a good mix, teenagers are unknowable and basically ungovernable, allowing them too much time on their own is a really bad idea because literally anything could happen in those burgeoning adults. The over the shoulder tracking shots down the school corridors and their repetitive nature bring us back to the same moments again and again giving the narrative a poetic rhythm and spatial familiarity, as does the auditory track which occasionally lapses into silence and then white noise, particularly when Alex is sitting in the cafeteria and we get a hint of the killings to come. There is no doubt that the very boring nature of the scenario and the real-time pacing lends an incremental tension to the situation. The biggest problem here is that the affectlessness of the protagonists means a conventional drama cannot be constructed and a moral is hard to discern while the filmmaker is attempting to get into these boys’ brains. That is the core of the story: there are things that people simply cannot get to grips with. The moment when a teacher approaches a student who’s just been shot dead at a classroom door and treats it as if it’s normal is simply staggering. Screenplay by Van Sant with controversial ‘memoirist’ JT LeRoy and Diane Keaton credited as producers on a project that started life as a documentary. Most importantly, have fun

Out of Blue (2019)

Out of Blue

Can you explain your place in the universe? When well-connected black hole expert and astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) is found shot at a New Orleans Observatory, police detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) is put in charge of the investigation and questions her co-worker, observatory manager Professor Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) and her teaching colleague boyfriend Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors). When she encounters Jennifer’s father Colonel Tom Rockwell (James Caan) she finds an intimidating figure, a well-known local businessman, famous soldier and POW who walks on a cane. His wife Miriam (Jacki Weaver) is a fidgeting fusspot, the twin sons Walt and Bray (Brad and Todd Mann) argumentative and odd. Their office is dominated by a family portrait. Similarities are noted by her colleague Aaron Tevit (Tony Silvero) and reporter Stella Honey (Devyn A. Tyler) with the unsolved murders of other blonde thirtysomething women from decades earlier where items were exchanged with the victims. Mike pursues the idea that Tom might have been responsible but then it becomes clear that Jennifer killed herself. When Mike finds a familiar brooch among Jennifer’s collection of vintage clothes and costume jewellery questions of the cosmos start to inform the solution … The catastrophic death of a star brings new life to the universe. We are all stardust.  This adaptation of Martin Amis’ 1997 genre novel Night Train has some changes but mostly it bears the marks of writer/director Carol Morley, a singular talent who likes to compose a flat frame with just enough textural detail to suggest complexity, a taste that lends itself perfectly to this atmospheric thriller which shows a less travelled side of New Orleans. Mike is a troubled former alcoholic with a spare lifestyle; while Jennifer’s home is filled with nick nacks and her recorded talks anchor the narrative:  We spend our lives trying to get to the heart of this dark energy. It’s other people who point to the clues in the past – a TV journalist and another police officer. The similarities to the .38 caliber gun murders are inescapable – the victims are all blonde and of a certain age and the killings stopped when Jennifer was born. The intriguing use of imagery – not just fetish objects like blue marbles, a pot of handcream, but the confusion as to whether Mike is fantasising, dreaming or even remembering – is conjoined with the theme of the stars and their influence. And with a hint of Chinatown hanging over a story about family and power, there’s a cute reference when Miriam leaps into Mike’s police car and pulls her nose: You know what happens to very nosy people?  They lose their noses! We are reminded of Polanski. The narrative raises questions about how society deals with war – just what kind of man walks out of three years’ imprisonment a hero? Clarkson is great as this unconventional woman who lets loose in a strip club:  There’s many ways to be a woman. There are black holes in the story itself with a wry running joke about cats in boxes (and not just Schrödinger’s). In my experience usually what’s in a sealed box is dead. In the end, this is not just about the murder mystery, it’s about where we come from, who we are, what formed us and what happened to us. In that sense, the final sequence is truly a revelation of personal history in a unique procedural narrative which grapples with a bigger cosmic picture. Produced by Luc Roeg with a score by Clint Mansell. The past is messy

Georgy Girl (1966)

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You know, the trouble with you is you could say that you’re a good girl. Awkward 22-year old Georgy (Lynn Redgrave) is the musically talented daughter of parents who live in at the home of their employer James Leamington (James Mason) whose wife Ellen (Rachel Kempson) is dying. He has always taken a paternal interest in Georgy but finds his feelings are evolving and asks her to be his mistress. Georgy’s flatmate musician Meredith (Charlotte Rampling) leads a hedonistic lifestyle and finds herself pregnant by boyfriend Jos (Alan Bates) who marries her despite feeling attracted to Georgy when he moves into their flat and the pair commence a surreptitious affair… She was a beautiful woman – beautiful! Tolerant. Civilised – and about as exciting as a half brick. Even if you’ve never read Margaret Forster’s wonderful novel you probably know the title song performed by The Seekers but really this is all about Lynn Redgrave, who gives a great performance as the far from glamorous woman who is catnip not just to Mason but to Bates but wants nothing more than to be a good mother. She’s totally delightful in a film that swings, with Mason marvellous in a role that practically demands some moustache-twirling, such is his lasciviousness in his native Yorkshire tongue. The scene where Bates strips off unaware that a care worker is visiting the flat and Redgrave is pretending to be a nanny is just priceless. Rampling shines as the feckless Meredith who doesn’t have a maternal bone in her beautiful body and the portrayal of disenchanted motherhood is groundbreaking in its lack of sentimentality. Even so, this is relentlessly upbeat and contrives a fantastically apposite happy ending to a brilliantly offbeat set of relationships. How much more fondly can a film look upon its characters? Adapted by Forster and Peter Nichols and directed by Silvio Narizzano. God’s always got a custard pie up his sleeve

Little Women (2019)

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If the main character’s a girl she has to be married at the end. Or dead. In 1860s New England after the Civil War, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) lives in New York and makes her living as a writer and teacher, sending money home, while her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris under the aegis of her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Amy has a chance encounter with Theodore Laurence aka Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a childhood crush from the upper class family next door who proposed to Jo but was ultimately rejected. Their oldest sibling, Meg (Emma Watson) is married to impoverished tutor John Brooke (James Norton) ,while shy sister Beth (Emma Scanlen) develops a devastating illness that brings the family back together under the leadership of their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) who is sad about her husband (Bob Odenkirk) being away in the War as a volunteer for the Union Army. As Jo recalls their experiences coming of age, she has to learn the hard way from a newspaper editor Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) and a fellow schoolteacher Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) that her writing needs a lot of work if it’s to authentically represent her talentI will always be disappointed at being a girl. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved American classic jumps around pivotal episodes and reorders them from present to past and back again, back and forth, to create a coherent, rising and falling set of emotions. Each sister has a distinct personality and aspirations;  each is valid, according to their wants and needs and desires; and each is bestowed a dignity. Ronan shines as Jo but all four are carefully delineated and Pugh as selfish Amy has the greatest emotional arc but she should sue the costumier for failing to tailor her clothes to her stocky figure. Watson isn’t quite right for Meg and her lack of technique is plain. Somehow though it’s always poor Beth who doesn’t get what she deserves:  charity does not begin at home in her case. Some things never change. Despite the liberties taken structurally the story feels rather padded and at 135 minutes it could do with at least 20 minutes being cut because the screenplay keeps retreading the same territory and spoonfeeds the audience in issues of equality and womanhood with whole dialogue exchanges that sound as though they’ve come from a contemporary novel. Even Marmee confesses to being angry all the time. The issue of copyright introduces an aspect of authorship in the last section which has a few different endings. Being a creative writer is one thing;  being an editor is quite different. Each serves a purpose and that is to serve the story well. A film that ultimately has as little faith in its audience as publisher Mr Dashwood has in his readership, this is undoubtedly of its time and it can stand the tinkering that has introduced Alcott’s own story into the mix with the ultimate fairytale ending for any writer – holding her first book in her hands.  Produced by Amy Pascal, who also worked on the 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong. Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for

 

 

September (1987)

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I have no reason to get up tomorrow. Following a suicide attempt, Lane (Mia Farrow) retreats to her summerhouse in Vermont to rest but it’s not the peaceful haven it should be when her visitors disrupt the healing process and everyone present seems to be in love with the wrong person. Lane has difficulty dealing with her obnoxious tactless former actress mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), who is visiting with her stepfather Lloyd (Jack Warden). Lane lusts after struggling writer Peter (Sam Waterston) who is actually interested in her best friend Stephanie (Dianne Wiest) and a friendly neighbour, French teacher Howard (Denholm Elliott) carries a torch for Lane… It’s hell gettin’ older. Especially when you feel 21 inside. One of my fondest moviegoing memories is of watching this in a cinema on W. 57th Street NYC filled with the kind of people I was seeing onscreen – how better to view a Woody Allen film than surrounded by an audience that resembled the actors. I was among his people! It was irresistible and I spent most of my time people-watching, more engaged with the Allen-types, not the drama unspooling in front of me. Allen’s films at this point were apparently split between those aiming for a Fellini-esque feeling (Radio Days) or Bergman-esque interiority, like here, and Autumn Sonata is directly referenced in its plot, its central relationship and even costuming. Owing a lot to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, it’s a theatrical piece and Stritch makes a meal of her part as the attention-seeking star who wants someone to write a book about her against Lane’s wishes – because Lane supposedly shot her mother’s lover when she was a kid (just like Lana Turner’s daughter …).This was famously shot twice (kinda like the lover!) with Farrow’s own mother Maureen O’Sullivan in the role taken by Stritch, with Charles Durning in the great Jack Warden’s role and Christopher Walken AND Sam Shepard replaced by Waterston. Truly a film that is the sum of its parts, it somehow contrives to look better than it feels. Is there anything more terrifying than the destruction of the world?

Radio Days (1987)

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Who is Pearl Harbour? Narrator Joe (Woody Allen) tells the story of two burglars in his childhood neighbourhood of Rockaway Beach, NY, who get caught when they answer the phone to participate in a live radio competition back in the medium’s golden age. The songs trigger childhood memories and we are taken back to his life as a child as Young Joe (Seth Green) immediately prior to and during World War 2 where his mother (Julie Kavner) served breakfast listening to Breakfast With Irene and Roger and his father Martin (Michael Tucker) keeps his occupation a secret from the family until Joe finds out he’s a taxi driver when he hails a cab.  Joe’s favourite show is The Masked Avenger so he has a healthy fantasy life but when he spots a Nazi submarine on the shoreline he fails to alert anyone because he thinks they won’t believe him. Unmarried Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) lives with them and is constantly going out with losers. Joe has heard stories about radio stars and we learn about Sally White (Mia Farrow) a hatcheck girl with acting dreams and a bad accent who sleeps with big names including Roger to get ahead but always gets left behind until she gets her big break when she witnesses a murder … He’s a ventriloquist on the radio! How can you tell he’s not moving his lips? As any fule kno, Rockaway Beach is one of the most inspiring spots in New York. Winning, winsome and witty, this series of vignettes is stitched together with what can only be described as love with nods to famous radio stories including Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, here interrupting a fogbound assignation. One of the funniest tales involves a sportscaster prone to melodrama regaling his audience with the story of a blind one-legged baseball star. Farrow and Wiest get two of the best character arcs, the former’s Singin’ in the Rain-ish storyline turning her from squeaky-voiced trampy wannabe actress to Louella Parsons-type gossip columnist via a run-in with a sympathetic mob hitman Rocco (Danny Aiello) from the old ‘hood; while the latter is terminally disappointed in love including a necessarily brief romance with a white-suited Tom Wolfe lookalike bemoaning the loss of his fiancée who turns out to have been a man called Leonard. Music and songs churn and curdle the endless embarrassment and kind hearted acts as friends, family and neighbours get on with their daily lives when war breaks out. Memories of Annie Hall abound in the voyeuristic kids whose new teacher Miss Gordon (Sydney Blake) turns out to be the exhibitionist they’ve been watching surreptitiously when they were out spotting German aircraft. Brimful of nostalgia and told with fond humour, this concludes on a bittersweet note as these little lives filled with crazy incidents and relatable attitudes acknowledge that they exist vicariously through what is the soundtrack of their lives, driven by the music of all the era’s greats with everyone from Artie Shaw to Duke Ellington and Xavier Cugat featured in the world of this kaleidoscopic narrative, like a lovingly reproduced living postcard. A beautiful, intensely funny and deeply affectionate work of art. I wonder if future generations will ever even hear about us

Little Monsters (2019)

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We’re all gonna die! Dave Anderson (Alexander England) is a foul-mouthed, washed-up musician who breaks up with his girlfriend and is forced to stay with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) a single mother and her five-year old son, Felix (Diesel La Torraca) whom he introduces to violent video games and inadvertently has him see his ex and her new boyfriend have sex. While dropping Felix off at school, Dave meets Miss Caroline (Lupita NYong’o), Felix’s kindergarten teacher, and is attracted to her. After a parent drops out from an upcoming field trip to a farm, Dave volunteers to chaperone, mostly to be near Miss Caroline. Dave is upset to learn that children’s television personality, Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad) is filming his show at the farm and that Miss Caroline is engaged to someone else. However zombies break out of a U.S. testing facility nearby and head straight for the farm. During a tractor ride, the class is attacked by zombies and tries to escape only to find the place is overrun with zombies… You realise that you’re only doing it because you’re dead inside. And it’s the only thing that keeps you from killing yourself. A zippy soundtrack, nudity, sex and a bunch of small children playing a game devised by designated adults to keep them from being eaten by zombies – textbook zomromcom! – but not for the kids. Hardly. The men are vile with Gad a sociopath in Pee Wee Herman’s clothing (one gets a shot at redemption, the other gets eaten – you choose), there are references both to Star Wars and Children of the Corn while Nyong’o gets to be the happy clappy teach trying to avoid predatory dads. There’s a funny bus chase – slow, obviously – and a siege situation in the farm shop and all the while the kiddywinks are kept safe by virtue of those silly songs and mantras the do-gooding teacher trained them to learn, proving very helpful in a zombie attack as it turns out. Ingenious, in its own way. Written and directed by Abe Forsythe. I can’t kill kids – again

Old Boys (2018)

Old Boys

Model yourself on me and you won’t go wrong. Awkward but imaginative scholarship boy (Alex Lawther) helps the handsome but spectacularly dim school head boy and hero of their boarding school Henry Winchester aka The Mighty Winch (Jonah Hauer-King) pursue the fiery French Agnès (Pauline Étienne), daughter of a visiting teacher Babinot (Denis Ménochet) who is struggling for the past 18 years to produce his second novel … I’ll blast her with my charm bazooka! This Eighties-set comic drama starts with a very witty titles sequence, the typically upper class British schoolboys on a supposedly unique sports tradition which is really an outward bound torture session tramping through the mud, an experience likened to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in a low angle shot of the institution (resembling my own frightening alma mater), a piece of stripey uniform caught on the barbed wire demarcating it from the rest of civilisation (which appears to be Norfolk). I’m just not good at all this word shit, declares The Mighty Winch, a nice but thick joker who can do no wrong in the eyes of the school or indeed himself, so the truly smitten Amberson gets him to pose as a romantic à la Cyrano de Bergerac in a film which wears its French influences very happily with several songs dispersed on the soundtrack. This is about proving you are more than a labrador in trousers. That’s a line that could come from the mouth of comedian/actor Jack Whitehall which is interesting given that this is co-written by Freddy Syborn, his co-writer on TV show Bounty Hunters following their collaboration on Bad Education:  this guy has a recognisable writing voice combining tender observation with sleight of hand comments on the class system as well as a fondness for slapstick. The story gets emotional heft not just from Amberson’s helpless infatuation and his desire to make Agnès happy; but also from the to-and-fro of the French father-daughter as the novelist manqué depends on her to approve of his narrative choices (something that culminates in a bad romantic scene with Papa’s non-French speaking romantic interest). Let me show you what Planet Earth looks like. As for Agnès, she’s not just a romantic but a pragmatic wannabe set designer and knows that Berlin is where it’s happening (another amusing European narrative strand nodding to WW2, juxtaposed with a school screening of The Dambusters) which gives rise to a series of beautiful mini-theatres and greeting cards being unfolded to push the story further as the romantic correspondence and deception is pursued. So if this is as lightweight as those delicate messages’ construction it gains trenchancy from the ideas of multi-lingual co-operation. Someone, somewhere, behind these theatrical scenes is trying to tell us something. The screenplay is by Syborn and Luke Ponte; while it’s well directed by Toby MacDonald. They teach you all the ways you can die but only you can learn how to live