A Monster Calls (2017)

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It begins like so many stories. With a boy, too old to be a kid. Too young to be a man. And a nightmare.  Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is dealing with far more than other boys his age. His beloved and devoted mother (Felicity Jones) is ill. He has little in common with his imperious grandmother Mrs Clayton (Sigourney Weaver). His father (Toby Kebbell) has resettled thousands of miles away with a new family where he is obviously not welcomed. But Conor finds a most unlikely ally when the Tree Monster (Liam Neeson) appears at his bedroom window one night. Ancient, wild, and relentless, the Monster guides Conor on a journey of courage, faith, and truth that powerfully fuses imagination and reality as he confronts his bullies and the imminent loss of his mother while his mentor tells him three stories that impact on his daily actions before the final story – his – can be told … Patrick Ness’ beautiful novel – itself recreated from an unfinished book by the late children’s author Siobhan Dowd – gets a very worthy adaptation from his own screenplay and director J.A. Bayona. It’s an unpromising even clichéd concept but is so wonderfully dramatised, visualised and delicately performed that you surrender to the tough core which offers a magical solution to a perverse reality –  death and bereavement and imminent orphandom for a boy in a problematic home situation. It shuns sentiment and even permits violence (Conor’s inner monster says No More Mister Nice Guy) to eventually become immensely moving as he gradually confronts the awful truth. A triumphant study of childhood.

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Sabrina (1954)

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Aka Sabrina Fair/La vie en rose – Oh Sabrina Sabrina Sabrina where have you been all my life?  – Right over the garage. Chauffeur’s daughter Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is an ugly duckling who tries to commit suicide in her employer’s limousine because of a bad case of unrequited love for boss’ son playboy David Larrabee (William Holden). He doesn’t even know she’s alive. So when she returns to Long Island from two years at cooking school in Paris a beautiful young woman she immediately catches three-times married David’s attention when he sees her waiting for her proper English father Thomas (John Williams) at the railway station. David woos and wins her but their romance is threatened by David’s serious older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), who runs the family business and is relying on David to marry an heiress Elizabeth (Martha Hyer) in order for a crucial corporate merger to take place. So when David’s back is out Linus tries to distract Sabrina and finds himself falling for her himself  but can’t admit it and plans to ship her back to Paris … This cynical romcom is extraordinary for a few things: its star wattage, its creepy Freudian setup (Bogart looks like Hepburn’s grandfather) and amazing dry wit. Samuel Taylor adapted his stageplay Sabrina Fair with contributions from Ernest Lehman and director Billy Wilder, who was making his last film at Paramount. Bogart behaved badly on set, believing he was miscast (Cary Grant was Wilder’s first choice) and wanting his wife Lauren Bacall in Hepburn’s role. He found Hepburn unprofessional because of her problems learning lines but just read some of the ones they delivered: Look at me, Joe College with a touch of arthritis. Or, Paris isn’t for changing planes it’s for changing your outlook. And, There’s a front seat and a back seat and a window in between. And perhaps its mission statement in a film about class and sex and money: Nobody poor was ever called democratic for marrying someone rich. This is a writer’s movie for sure! It’s really a movie about movies and how they pair off young girls with old men (how relevant is that nowadays with everything in the news?!) But it was the scene of a serious set romance for the blond-highlighted Holden and Hepburn and also the introduction of Hubert de Givenchy’s gowns to Hollywood, credited to Edith Head. When Hepburn walked into his Paris salon he thought he was going to meet Katharine Hepburn. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful screen association:  she is the very epitome of elfin beauty in this film, a duckling who grows into an astonishing swan. And she calls her French poodle David! The fact that she marries the much older, successful brother and heir to the family money isn’t remotely cynical, not at all! There are some very funny scenes, many taking place in the car and some at the boardroom where Bogart gets to fire guns at new plastic inventions. No wonder he apologised to everyone concerned at the conclusion of production. It gave him a role he hadn’t had before – an uptight stick in the mud who turns into a romantic lead – and at his age! 

Mrs Pollifax – Spy (1971)

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A widowed retiree volunteers her services to the CIA and finds herself drugged in Mexico City and handcuffed to Darren McGavin on a plane to Albania. A different kind of gap year, perhaps. Rosalind Russell herself adapted the promising book by Dorothy Gilman (one of a series) in a production by her husband, Frederick Brisson. Instead of the fun travelogue spoof you might expect of the era, it’s a mostly dull stint in an Albanian prison (an hour…) with just a few colour shots in Mexico and an awful lot of sparse mountains. Remind me never to go to the land of Enver Hoxha or even Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which looks like an utterly miserable substitute. Unremarkable, to say the very least. It was Russell’s last film. Directed by Leslie Martinson.

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

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Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel about a family of five sisters who kill themselves was original, nuanced and heartfelt. Sofia Coppola chose it for her writing and directing debut and on the face of it, and what she’s done since, she makes us know what it feels like for a girl. The portrait of the middle class neighbourhood is nicely satirical and hints at her interest in making the later milieu film, The Bling Ring;  the woozy Seventies summertime impressions are just right; that eye for detail (all the stuff on their dressing tables!) totally accurate. In retrospect, this is slighter than it appeared at the time, with a certain vacuum at the centre where emotional rationale might have been, a large question mark regarding the parenting skills of James Woods and Kathleen Turner, a chip missing where we try to gauge the sisters’ motivations. Perhaps that’s the point. The romance between the most beautiful and elusive of the sisters, Lux (Kirsten Dunst) and high school heart throb Trip (Josh Hartnett) is well done and it’s his narration in rehab 25 years later that anchors this in something resembling real life, even if it’s a tangle of memories seen through a narcotic haze. Meanwhile, a bunch of teenage boys gaze in awe at this beauteous timebomb about to implode across the street. There’s (obv) an amazing soundtrack, with a score by Air.

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

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The films of director Douglas Sirk were regarded as ‘women’s pictures’ and weren’t properly re-evaluated as satires of class until the late Sixties:  never mind that, when I was 13 and saw this on TV all I knew was it was one of the most spectacular movies I’d ever seen and Rock Hudson was a hunk. All true. Staid widowed Jane Wyman is wooed by the younger man who cuts those gorgeous birches in the garden and she’s never given him a second thought – until they strike up a conversation one day and this mother of two obnoxious college students finds herself being romanced. The vicious country club set don’t like it but she finds a new way of being, amongst him and his offbeat friends, who have to explain to her how war has affected men like him and getting back to the land and being true to yourself and not your twinset is actually a good idea. It’s Walden versus Eisenhower. All hell breaks loose when the kids find out and Jane is given a TV set to distract herself during the lonely Christmas vacation … Stunning exploration of womanhood by a director at the height of his powers with images you will never forget (by Russell Metty) of the changing seasons in the life of a woman who has to find her own way, for herself. Screenplay by Peggy Fenwick from a story by Edna Lee and Harry Lee and produced by Ross Hunter, who had put Hudson and Wyman together in the previous year’s Universal smash, Magnificent Obsession, with the same director. For that desert island.