Solaris 1972 *****

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Andrei Tarkovsky is a fairly unique proposition as a director in that his films are so consistent; the Russian director only made masterpieces, and Solaris is probably his best known. Adapted from the 1962 book by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris is a sci-fi epic, although for Tarkovsky that doesn’t mean cute robots and fireballs, but at least ninety minutes of people standing in fields reciting poetry to each other before the action leaves earth. Patience is rewarded, and once psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) gets into space, the reflection gives way to a confrontation with ghostly figures from the pasta and the future. These are generated by Solaris, a sentient planet below the space station Kelvin inhabits, and the alien contact he experiences is closely related to his own personal experience. As philosophical as sci-fi gets, Solaris is a meditation, difficult but rewarding; it’s notable that Steven Soderberg’s remake with George Clooney, well-intentioned as it is, don’t have the same narrative pull; somehow it’s the lengthy gaps between the words that make Tarkovsky’s vision so enduring.

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Little Children 2006 ****

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Writer/director Todd Field followed up In The Bedroom with an equally dark but just as compelling drama, featuring Kate Winslet as Massachusetts mother Sarah who embarks on clandestine afternoon meetings with Brad (Patrick Wilson). Their initially chaste meetings, while their children play at a local park, gives way to a torrid romance, despite their family ties, and engenders a secret that affects the way they see the community around them. That disaffection becomes important as Brad’s friend Larry is suspicious of local outcast Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), who lives with his mother and has a complex set of mental health issues relation to women and young girls in particular. How the community treat Ronnie becomes mixed up with Sarah and Brad’s covert affair, and final few scenes of Little Children are intense and powerful as deception leads to consequences. Little Children is melodramatic at times, but the 134 minute length is justified by the eloquent way that Field draws out the mores of the suburban community, and engenders sympathy for Sarah and Brad and their fight against the common denominator of loveless marriages. A woman’s picture in the old style, Little Children is an accomplished adult drama.

http://www.amazon.com/Little-Children-Kate-Winslet/dp/B003OPYOR8/ref=sr_1_1_ha?s=instant-video&ie=UTF8&qid=1399799087&sr=1-1&keywords=little+children

The Life Aquatic 2004 ****

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Wes Anderson’s films have often been divisive; his studied quirkiness can come off as annoying or smug, and the potential for visual tweeness is sometimes at odd with his willingness to confront the darker side of life. Starting out as a cheerful homage to the underwater adventure of Jacques Cousteau, The Life Aquatic ducks and dodges down a number of surprising side-lines, and mixes bright character comedy with dark shafts of poetic realism. Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a bobble-hat sporting oceanographer who is searching for the shark that killed his friend. His crew, including Ned (Owen Wilson) and Klaus (Willem Dafoe) have anxieties about Steve’s mission, and when the adventure leads to mutiny and an encounter with pirates, Steve’s ability to hold his crew together proves crucial. The colourful depiction of on-board life allows Anderson to showcase his gift for comedy, while a selection of David Bowie songs performed by Seu Jorge add to the whimsical charm. But The Life Aquatic builds to stark tragedy; the bitter-sweet comedy of Steve Zissou’s life is perfectly encapsulated in an early scene in which he carries a fish in a glass through the streets. Caught in a bubble of visibility, he wrestles with his own inner demons in a public way, and earns the respect of his brothers for the way he internalised the cruelty of nature and learns to find his own personal accommodation with death. A little knowledge of Cousteau’s own life is the key to Anderson’s darkly comic masterpiece.

The Dreamlife of Angels 1998 ***

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Writer and director Erick Zonca’s French film is a frank and finally shocking drama about two girls in the town of Lille and their relationships with men. Élodie Bouchez plays Isa, a girl disappointed in love and life, who strikes up an alliance with Marie (Natacha Régnier), who lives in an apartment where all the inhabitants have died in a car accident. The two girls struggle to reconcile their desire for love with the differing attitudes of local men, and Isa’s discovery of a diary belonging to the accident’s sole survivor Sandrine opens up an inner world that leads to a casually depicted but truly tragic event. The Dreamlife of Angels is naturalistically acted and performed, but the low-key presentation only disguises Zonca’s determination to turn clichés inside out; there’s no miracles here, just bravery in the face of a world without pity or remorse.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oh827AIMCVQ

The Uncanny 1977 ***

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The name of director Dennis Heroux may not be well-known in horror circles; the presence of producer Milton Subotsky (Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror) indicates the real driving force behind this off-beat portmanteau thriller. Peter Cushing is writer Wilbur Gray, who dons his spectacles and carries his manuscript round to publisher (Ray Milland). Gray unfolds three tales involving feline horror to prove this thesis that household moggies are the devil in disguise. Another entry in the rare cat-spolitation genre (Eye of the Cat, Persecution), The Uncanny has some neat work from Donald Pleasance as moustachioed Hollywood actor Valentine De’ath, and genre favourites such as Susan Penhaligon as a maid who battles cats to get at her employer’s will. Best of all is the wrap-around, with Cushing amusingly pussy-whipped as the mild-mannered exposer of the cat conspiracy. Surprisingly graphic in places, The Uncanny is an enjoyably silly entry in the horror canon.

Death Rage 1976 ***

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Yul Brynner was something of an unlikely star, but his performances in The King and I, The Magnificent Seven and Westworld made him a house-hold name. By 1976, he was dying of cancer, but still puts in a serviceable performance in Antonio Margheriti’s murky but effective thriller. Brynner is Peter Marcinia, a NYC hit man who re-enters the killing game to revenge the death of his brother. He travels to Naples where he tangles with both the local cops and the mafia, while finding time for romance with exotic dancer Barbara Bouchet, whose night-club routine gets quite a bit of screen-time. While nothing new in the genre of poliziotteschi, Death Rage has plenty of punch-ups and car chases, well-filmed and anchored by an unexpectedly touching performance from Brynner. There’s a weariness about his portrayal of Peter that makes Death Rage worth catching for genre fans; struggling to get himself into gear for one last job, there’s echoes of another 1976 elegy for a Hollywood star, Don Siegel’s The Shootist and John Wayne.

https://www.amazon.com/Death-Rage-Yul-Brunner/dp/B002WY984G/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=death+rage&qid=1563469496&s=gateway&sr=8-2

Lars and The Real Girl 2007 ***

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Ryan Gosling’s body of work is a remarkably consistent one; his choices have been varied and, with Craig Gillespie’s 2007 drama, often inspired in the way they play off his good looks to reach for something darker. Gosling plays Lars Lindstrom, a taciturn young man who shocks his family and local community with his choice for a new girlfriend; an inflatable doll. Emily Mortimer plays Karin, Lars’s sister-in-law, who is disturbed by his behaviour, but decides that the best way to snap him out of his delusion is to go along with it, in the style of Pirandello’s Enrico V. Films that deal with mental illness can often go overboard with sentimentality, but Gosling and Mortimer both give sharp accounts of their characters, and Gillespie’s film plays nicely with questions about how best to deal with delusion. Looking away from medicine, Lars and The Real Girl looks to experience as a way of correcting mental problems, and offers a healthy , wholesome alternative to chemical cures.