The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

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While I’m away put him straight again. I want him the way he used to be. Gifted actor Brady (Mysterious Skin) Corbet makes his directing debut with this gripping mystery, a tale in three tantrums of a fascist-in-waiting between the two Great Wars. Prescott (Tom Sweet) is the long-haired son of Father (Liam Cunningham) and Mother (Berenice Bejo) who are residing in France in 1919 during the Versailles Treaty negotiations. Father’s an American career diplomat and a harsh authoritarian figure who appears to be having it off with the boy’s tutor Ada (Stacy Martin);  Mother is a disturbed German religious devotee who fires Ada and Mona the housekeeper because they try to humanise her son.  The episodes are based on control and power:  personal, religious, political. They all take place against the dysfunctional family backdrop and the mystery is set up at the beginning when Father is meeting with his colleague Charles Marker (Robert Pattinson) who is widowed.  Marker turns up at another crucial instance of personal transition for Prescott whose bad behaviour culminates in a shocking exchange with Mother at Versailles. There is a haunting inexorable draw to the narrative, adapted by Corbet with his wife and fellow filmmaker Mona Fastvold, from Jean-Paul Sartre’s story, with some debt to John Fowles’ The Magus. The leader is never named and the film retains a sense of the cryptic and it avoids making direct statements. There is a sleight of hand to the conclusion and an artful confidence to this episodic debut, aided immeasurably by the morbid score created by Peter Walsh and Scott Walker. A remarkable piece of political aesthetics produced in an age when nobody wants to put their cards on the table and say what’s gone wrong with the world.

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Wonder Woman (2017)

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Diana (Gal Gadot) is the stroppy kid brought up in an Amazonian matriarchy by mom Connie Nielsen and tough as hell trainer aunt Robin Wright. She cannot be told of her godlike origins in this society of strong women. Then WW1 crashes into their ancient Greek Island world in the form of airman Chris Pine, a double agent for the allies, kitted out in German uniform with their army hot on his tail as Diana drags him out of his plane. There’s fighting on the beach of a kind you don’t often see – bows and arrows against German gunfire. And when her aunt dies saving her, it’s up to Wonder Woman to take serious action against the god Aries whom she deems responsible for the global conflict. She heads to London with her newfound companion, there’s some very amusing and sexy byplay, a departure to the Front with an unpromising crew, some displays of camaraderie and great costume changes, excellent combat and truly evil Germans. And Aries is not who you think he is after all…. After years of snarky annoying movies about silly superheroes all shot in greyscale this is actually a colourful and proper good-versus-evil plot about gods and monsters that threatens but never actually tips into full camp (those first scenes gave me the wobbles but right prevailed), the humour is spot-on, the performances tonally perfect and I am pleased to agree with many others that this is really terrific. Well done director Patty (Monster) Jenkins and the screenwriter Allan Heinberg, working from a story by himself, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs. Miraculously it all seems to make sense. Based  – of course – on the comic book by William Moulton Marston. The soundtrack by Rupert Gregson-Williams is fabulous – but what I really wanted to hear was …. you know!!

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

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This gloriously romantic if somewhat synoptic adaptation of Hemingway’s partly autobiographical classic is let down only by the occasionally ill-chosen shot of lollipop lady Helen Hayes, whose disproportionately short stature and large head look hugely comical beside the elegant Cooper, the forever Hemingway avatar. He’s the WW1 ambulance driver who falls in love with an English nurse over the objections of jealous CO Adolphe Menjou. When they are reunited and have a proper relationship Menjou deploys her to another hospital and the lovers’ letters are intercepted by him to try and split them up. Cooper eventually deserts his post to find her, now dying after delivering their stillborn son. Filled with brilliant setpieces and moments of true romance by screenwriters Benjamin Glazer and Oliver H.P. Garrett and the master director, Frank Borzage whose compositions (shot by the amazingly talented DoP Charles Lang) are quite breathtaking. A Pre-Code masterpiece with some astonishing intimations of sex. Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)

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Tamil Srinivasa Ramanujan is toiling away as a clerk in Madras, a maths prodigy who is entirely self-taught and with little future in his home country. His work leads Professor GH Hardy to bring him to Cambridge and a difficult career ensues throughout WW1. Adapted by writer/director Matthew Brown from the book by Robert Kanigel, this biographical drama is puzzling and touching in equal parts:  the beauty of mathematics is difficult to convey to a dimwit like myself but the relationships and overt racism on campus bring out the best in Dev Patel’s acting skills. The essence of his character is religious faith – he eventually confesses to the gruff and irascible atheist Hardy (Jeremy Irons) that he believes his God is speaking to him in his sleep. Hardy’s inspiration is less theological and his insistence on proofs leads Ramanujan to a period of self-doubt, depression and serious illness. Hardy becomes his friend very late in the day, following racist attacks, vicious rivalries within the University and a declining marriage: back home in India, Ramanujan’s mother has been hiding the letters his illiterate wife was writing to him and his wife doesn’t know and ultimately writes to inform him she is leaving him. This is a beautifully handled drama about a little known man whose work during the last year of his life has been used to understand black holes. What was that about infinity and beyond?! Ah, sweet mystery of life. Gimme dat ol time religion.

On Moonlight Bay (1951)

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Sheerly delightful musical comedy starring Doris Day. She’s tomboy Marjorie Winfield who moves house with her family and starts dating the boy next door, college boy William Sherman (Gordon MacRae), meanwhile bank VP pop Leon Ames (reprising his role from Meet Me in St Louis) disagrees with William’s notions about money and marriage. He declares of Marjorie, All she knows about men are their batting averages! Precocious son Wesley (the brilliant Billy Gray) spends his time devising schemes that wind up in disaster, housekeeper Mary Wickes keeps everyone going and Mom Rosemary DeCamp is the still centre of an ever-brewing storm. When William goes off to WW1, stuffed shirt Hubert (Jack Smith) tries to woo the more feminine Doris who tries to lose her mechanic’s gear. Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson conjured the wonderful screenplay from the Penrod stories by Booth Tarkington (whose work also inspired Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons).  There are some wonderful individual scenes, including a silent movie insert, there are great songs and the atmosphere is tangible. Did I mention that there’s snow? And a snowball fight and a sleigh ride? Oh joy! It was devised as standard studio fare by Warners but had Ernest Haller doing the incredible cinematography and Max Steiner on scoring duties. It was such a huge success it was followed with a sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, another fabulously charming outing. This period romcom is on constant rotation at mine. Lovely lovely lovely!