The Champ (1979)

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A man who can’t do up his own pants ain’t a man. Washed-up prizefighter Billy Flynn (Jon Voight) hangs up his gloves to try and make it as a horse trainer and be a good father to his eight-year old son TJ or Timmy (Ricky Schroder) who spends his time taking care of his dad who’s prone to drinking and gambling. Billy buys the kid a horse called She’s A Lady but the filly collapses in a race leading to a meeting with Billy’s ex-wife fashionista Annie (Faye Dunaway) but the child think his mom died years ago in a car wreck. Billy reluctantly agrees to allow her to spend a little time with the boy but after Billy gets into trouble at the track and faces a prison term she reveals to TJ that she’s his mother and it upsets him greatly. Despite a recurring headache Billy wants to win his son back and plans a comeback in the boxing ring with reluctant trainer Jackie (Jack Warden) and it seems like the father and son might be reunited … You’re dead! He’s got no mother! This remake of the earlier 1931 Wallace Beery/Jackie Coogan two-hander is a great tragic melodrama. Director Franco Zeffirelli wrings the very heartstrings and you’d have to be a brute not to respond in kind. Walter Newman updated the original screenplay by Frances Marion, one of the great screenwriters of early cinema and it sticks to the essentials with Voight and Dunaway superb in what could be very clichéd roles. However it’s the extraordinary Schroder you remember – his debut performance as the little boy exploding with love for his pop is one of the most startlingly emotive in cinema. Mary Jo Catlett, Joan Blondell and Strother Martin score in supporting roles. Voight lost out on the Golden Globe to Dustin Hoffman, his Midnight Cowboy co-star, who took it for the year’s other big male weepie, Kramer Versus Kramer. It looks as gorgeous as Zeffirelli’s productions always do, courtesy of cinematographer Fred J. Kroenekamp while Dave Grusin’s score was nominated for the Academy Award. Totally manipulative, utterly irresistible and completely heartbreaking! What about my heart? What about my mind? What about me? What about me?

Shazam! (2019)

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Gentlemen, why use guns when we can handle this like real men? All 14-year-old Billy Batson’s (Asher Angel)has to do is shout out one word to transform into the adult superhero Shazam (Zachary Levi). Still a kid at heart, Shazam revels in the new version of himself by doing what any other teen would do – have fun while testing out his newfound powers even as he searches for his birth mother while living in a new foster home where he is befriended by Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). But he’ll need to master those powers quickly before the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) can get his hands on Shazam’s magical abilities because Sivana was rejected by Wizar Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) long before Billy entered superhero terrain... Heroes fly. And who doesn’t want people to think they’re a hero, right? But invisibility, no way. That’s pervy. Spying around on people who don’t even know you’re there. Sneaking around everywhere. It’s a total villain power, right? Signs that all is not altogether lost in the DC Universe following some Batman-related disappointment, with a family-oriented fantasy outing that has to wait until the conclusion to give our hero a name because in the klutzy nomenclature of caped crusaders he was originally called Captain Marvel. Oh yes. And yet that’s okay because this is all about finding your identity and this rites of passage origins tale is finally all about a superhero’s journey – to his mother and to himself. Relatively lo-fi it might be in comparison with some of the heavy hitters of its type but it has a kind of Saturday morning TV quality to it – likeable, easy on the eye, relatable (!) fun even if it seems in some scenes that Strong is in a different film. There’s a nice Rocky homage in a story basically straight from the Big playbook whose message is that your true family is not necessarily the one you’re born into. Written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke based on characters created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck. Directed by David F. Sandberg.  You have been transformed to your full potential, Billy Batson. With your heart, unlock your greatest power MM#2550

Greta (2018)

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It’s not harassment if it’s in a public place. Young waitress Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) finds a handbag on the New York subway and promptly returns it to its Brooklyn owner Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert) an eccentric French piano teacher and former nurse who loves tea and classical music. Having recently lost her mother and with her Boston-based father (Colm Feore) consumed by his work, Frances strikes up a seemingly harmless friendship with the lonely and kind widow who enjoys her company, her own daughter seemingly away studying in Paris. But when Greta’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and obsessive, Frances does whatever it takes to end the toxic relationship before things spirals out of control and attempts to get the police involved. She reckons without Greta’s persistence… The crazier they are the harder they cling! Ray Wright and director Neil Jordan wrote the screenplay from Wright’s original story and it’s a pulpy thriller whose plot twists are signalled from the get-go.  Pure stalker territory it might be but by simple expedient of voicemail messages the sinister nature of Greta’s pursuit of Frances is soundtracked as surely as a spider spins a web around its prey. Nonetheless Huppert and Moretz give highly committed performances with Greta’s room mate Erica (Maika Monroe) offering wonderfully comic sidelong observations all the while, and Stephen Rea playing a private eye on nutty Greta’s trail. What Huppert does when she loses a finger has to be seen. Although set in a scary NYC a lot of shooting took place in Toronto and Dublin, Ireland and the fakery adds to the camp fun. Everything has its end even company

Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing

The Witches (1990)

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You can never be sure if it’s a witch you’re looking at or a kind lady. Little American boy Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is holidaying with his Norwegian grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) who regales him with stories of witches, female demons masquerading as normal women but possessing undending hatred of children.  Helga’s best friend in childhood was entrapped by one of them in a painting and eventually faded from view. When Luke’s parents die his grandmother becomes his guardian and sends him to boarding school where he evades the attention of one such witch (Anne Lambton) and during the holidays at a seaside resort Luke become aware that witches are holding their annual British convention as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston).  When he and another boy Bruno (Charlie Potter) are in their midst they encounter a life-changing transformation into mice and have to avoid all sorts of predators as they try to escape to safety experiencing an actual cat and mouse chase … Real witches hate children! Adapted by Allan Scott from Roald Dahl’s darkly comic book, the biggest surprise to fans of Nicolas Roeg is that he directed it (perhaps not when you consider he had young sons at the time) but it has some of his recognisable tropes as well as a crew of his regular collaborators, including Scott, costumier Marit Allen and editor Tony Lawson in a production from Henson Studios with all that firm’s puppeteering and effects skills to the fore. The trick of balancing realism with fantasy, humour with horror, and scares for children (Roeg edited out more morbid material after seeing one of his children’s reactions) with jokes for adults, is perfectly achieved in this ambitious comic drama with Huston camping it up appositely to Zetterling’s caring grandmother. How is the room service here?/Diabolical./ Good! A third of the film is the adventure the boys have as mice, attempting to avoid becoming part of the hotel’s dinner menu, and there’s a marvellous payoff with formerly fat Bruno achieving his mother’s (Brenda Blethyn) ambition that he lose weight. The (happy) ending is different from that in the book and Dahl hated it and threatened to publicly campaign against it (Jim Henson dissuaded him) but overall it retains his casual cruelty and wit. Stanley Myers’ score is amped up with excerpts from Dies irae here and there to sound like Berlioz’ The Witches’ Sabbath. Shot in Bergen, Newquay and at Bray Studios, this was the last feature to involve the great Henson and the final one of Dahl’s books to be adapted prior to his own demise. A foolish witch without a brain, must sizzle into fire and flame! A witch who dares to say I’m wrong, will not be with us… VERY LONG!

 

 

Welcome to Marwen (2018)

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Sorry, I don’t speak Nazi. No one expects Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) to recover from a devastating assault by Neo-Nazis that has wiped away all of his memories. In his free time from the diner where he works he creates art installations using photographs of dolls enacting a story. Putting together pieces from the past and present, Mark meticulously creates a Belgian town called Marwen and becomes Captain Hogie, a heroic World War II fighter pilot. His installation soon comes to life with breathtakingly realistic dolls – a testament to the most powerful women he knows including Nicol (Leslie Mann) the woman who moved in across the street to get away from abusive ex Kurt (Neil Jackson) who becomes his fantasy nemesis, Major Meyer. Through this fantasy world, which becomes a kind of therapy, Hogancamp finds the strength to face his attackers who are due to be sentenced …   Like the wise man said, “Our pain is our rocket fuel.” It reminds us of our strength. Written by Caroline Thompson and director Robert Zemeckis, this man-child fantasy drama treads schmaltzy territory to rather indifferent effect despite its roots in the attack perpetrated on the real-life subject and Catskills resident in 2000 who admitted to his penchant for wearing women’s shoes and was almost killed by his assailants. The strength he obtains here derives not just from the fantasy but from his real-world friendships with the women who surround him (played by Janelle Monae, Merritt Weaver, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Stefanie von Pfetten, Leslie Zemeckis and Diane Kruger). Part of its lax storytelling arises from the lack of engagement with the five violent hoodlums who brutally assaulted Mark in the first place and how he has displaced his fears onto this animated iteration making his Neo-Nazis into the ‘real’ thing seventy years earlier enacting retribution in his own back garden. Perhaps less fantasy and more reality could have balanced this difficult narrative ploy. A flawed but interesting work about healing from devastation, high heels intact. I was beaten up because I was different, so I’ve built a place where I can heal

Toy Story 4 (2019)

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It’s time for the next kid. Nine years after Andy has left for college and he’s been separated from Bo Peep (Annie Potts), cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) helps his new kid Bonnie (Madeline McGraw) when she gets upset at her first day of kindergarten where she makes her new toy Forky (Tony Hale) from a spork.  Forky believes he’s trash but Woody teaches him he’s Bonnie’s friend. When the family goes on an RV road trip and Forky jumps ship, Woody sets out to get him back and they fetch up in a secondhand shop where they get trapped by a doll called Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who desperately wants a voicebox to nab a human friend and Woody has what she needs.  Her henchmen ventriloquist dolls The Dummies (Steve Purcell) help her. In their quest to reunite Bonnie with Forky, the gang assemble with Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) pressing his own buttons to access his inner voice and Woody is reunited with Bo who’s found a new existence living in the middle of a travelling carnival.  There’s a race against time to make sure Bonnie doesn’t take off before finding her new friend… I am not a toy, I was made for soups, salads, maybe chili, and then the trash. Freedom! We know over a quarter century pretty much everything that toys are thinking about and here the thread of the lost toy narrative continues with Bo having a life as an independent girl, Forky experiencing an existential crisis and Woody seeing that there can be a life beyond the needs of his human child owner. Perhaps the store where most of the action occurs is a limited palette in terms of narrative possibility but there are good in-jokes, real jeopardy, sorrow and lessons. The toys can be scared of other toys too – my goodness those dummies! Bolstered by another set of songs from Randy Newman, this is a bittersweet conclusion to one of cinema’s classic series, but here we have a child who has a stronger emotional bond with a utensil than with the toys purposed for human relationships and two and a half decades of our own responses. Maybe it’s Pixar’s way of saying to us all, Grow Up, as the gang is surplus to most requirements here and the narrative is not unified in the way one has come to expect. Ironically then, beware of leaving early – the credits are worth waiting for as we are deftly pushed away to lead our own off-screen lives. Directed by Josh Cooley from a screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Bolsom, based on a story by them and Rashida Jones, John Lasseter, Will MacCormack, Valerie LaPointe and Martin Hynes. He’s not lost. Not anymore. To infinity…

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

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Aka Phantom Ladies Over Paris. Usually, it started like this. When stage magician Céline (Juliet Berto) goes traipsing across a Parisian park, she unwittingly drops first a scarf, then other objects which librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) cannot help but pick up. So begins a fanciful and obsessive relationship between the two, which soon sees Céline sharing Julie’s apartment and each of them playfully switching identities in their daily lives. As they increasingly indulge their fantasies, they find themselves trying to rescue a young girl Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar) from a supposedly haunted house that Julie worked in and Céline lived next to as a child.  Now it appears to be filled with ghosts (Barbet Schroeder, Marie-France Pisier, Bulle Ogier) …So, my future is in the present.  One of the greatest films ever made, Jacques Rivette’s fragmented narrative of two feisty young women started with two stories by Henry James (The Other House;  The Romance of Certain Old Clothes), giving him a bit of a head start, then he liberally sprinkled some Alice in Wonderland into the mix, created a drama of identity, a rescue fantasy, a story about storytelling, a movie about the cinema, sometimes speeding up and sometimes slowing down, a fiction about fictional creation (because ‘to go boating’ means to take a trip), and came up with a fantasy that adult life could always be as good as your childhood dreams. This is a woman’s film in the very best sense that we can imagine and is of course the source of Desperately Seeking Susan. Devised by Rivette and the stars with input from Ogier and Pisier,and Eduardo de Gregorio, this is a remarkable film of disarming charm, once seen never forgotten, especially with its 194 minute running time. A female buddy film like no other. It doesn’t hurt to fall off the moon!

Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963)

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Aka Sparrers Can’t Sing. Don’t argue. If I hadn’t have liked you, I wouldn’t have bashed your head in, would I? Cockney merchant sailor Charlie (James Booth) comes home after two years at sea to find his house in London’s Bethnal Green razed and his wife Maggie (Barbara Windsor) missing. She’s now living with bus driver Bert (George Sewell) who has his own wife and Maggie has a new baby – but who’s the daddy?!  Charlie’s friends won’t tell him where Maggie is because he’s famed for his terrible temper. But he finally finds her and, after a fierce row with Bert, they are reconciled… Hey, bus driver! I can go away for *ten* years and get my own wife back! Interesting on so many levels, this, even if its experimental styling doesn’t wear so well with elements of raucous pantomime occasionally diverting the narrative thread. Developed from Stephen (On The Buses) Lewis’s play at director Joan Littlewood’s famed Theatre Workshop at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1960, with improvised contributions from the performers, many of whom are featured here, this has sentimental value as a vehicle for Barbara Windsor (who was discovered by Littlewood), better known from the Carry On series and TV’s Eastenders. She earns her stripes in a heartwarming even startling performance.  It’s notable also as a southern variation on the British New Wave or kitchen sink realist style and for its use of language in conveying a sense of community in that part of London, with plenty of Yiddish and Cockney slang. The city gleams courtesy of Desmond Dickinson’s cinematography and the original score by Stanley Black coupled with original songs (including the title by Lionel Bart, sung by Windsor) marks it out from the pack. It also has a cracking cast of familiar faces including Roy Kinnear, Yootha Joyce, Brian Murphy, Harry H. Corbett, Murray Melvin, Victor Spinetti  and Arthur Mullard to name a few. Although the Krays were rumoured to appear in it, and they seem to make a cameo appearance, allegedly they don’t, but the parties celebrating the premiere were held at two of their clubs. Adapted by Littlewood and Lewis, this was Littlewood’s only feature aside from an earlier TVM based on a play by Aristophanes so this is really the only filmed record of her groundbreaking achievements. Shot around Limehouse, Stepney, Shadwell, Millwall, the Isle of Dogs, West Ham, Greenwich, Whitechapel and Blackheath, this gives an authentic picture of the city as the slums were being cleared and its face was quite literally changing. Some interiors were shot at Merton Park Studios. It wasn’t always your fault

Sudden Fear (1952)

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I’m so crazy about you I could break your bones. Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) is a successful and wealthy Broadway playwright who rejects actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) for her new production because he doesn’t look like a romantic leading man. When she meets him on a train bound for home back in San Francisco he insinuates himself into her life and she is swept off her feet, and marries him. He learns that she’s writing her will and intends leaving most of her money to a heart foundation and plots her murder with his girlfriend Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame). However Myra has accidentally left her tape recorder running and finds out their plan. She decides upon one of her own and plots it as she would one of her plays – to kill Lester and frame Irene for it. But while hiding in Irene’s apartment she sees her reflection with gun poised and alters her plan, terrified at what she’s become. Then Lester lets himself into the apartment … I like to look at you. Adapted by Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith from Edna Sherry’s 1948 novel, this is a superior noir melodrama, with Crawford at her sensational best in one of her key roles.  Everything about the production is top notch with wonderful design (Boris Leven and Edward G. Boyle) and shooting by Charles Lang, enhanced by the location and night-time street scenes. Palance matches Crawford – talk about a face off! – with some truly creepy affectations; while Grahame is entrancing as ever. But it’s Crawford’s show and the happiness slipping from that classic mask is something to see.  She was directed to an Academy Award nomination by David Miller (he was a very fine woman’s director.) The final sequence – the first half of which has Crawford hiding in a closet; the second with her being chased up and down the streets of San Francisco by Palance – is unbearably, brilliantly tense. Sizzling stuff. Executive produced by an uncredited Miss Joan Crawford.  Remember what Nietzsche says “Live dangerously!”