It 2017 ****

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While the original tv miniseries of It has plenty of commend it, not least Tim Curry’s fabulous turn as Pennywise the clown, this 2017 remake manages to resolve lots of underlying issues, not least the dreadful special effects in the second part. A group of kids including a tormented by an evil spirit that is haunting and kidnapping the children of Derry, Maine, and Pennywise the dancing clown is the character who haunts their dreams. Andy Muschietti’s horror-thriller is a real Rolls –Royce production, with brilliantly cast kids, a superb script from True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga, and Stephen King’s original story given space to breathe; the past and present narratives are no longer juxtaposed, and with the adult story left to 2019’s sequel, this doubling-down on the quality of King’s work makes it one of the best adaptations of his work to date, and one of the most faithful to boot. Whether the magic will carry over to the sequel, without the kids, is a moot point, but this is a great horror film anyway.

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The Little Stranger 2018 ***

strangerAfter the low-budget, high profile success of Room, Lenny Abrahamson’s follow-up caused confusion and derision when released in 2018; it looks and sometimes feels like a horror film, but there’s no horror and the punch-line is subtle to the point of invisibility. Nevertheless, this adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel has much to commend it, even if it cleared halls in multiplexes. Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to visit Hundreds Hall, the falling-apart country pile of the once prosperous Ayers family. Faraday has had a fascination for the house, and the family, since he was a child, and he inveigles himself with the present family including Will Poulter as Roderick, badly burnt and traumatised, sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) with whom the doctor has some romantic feelings, and Charlotte Rampling as the Ayers family matriarch. Supernatural reasons for the house’s history are discussed, and may well be true, but The Little Stranger stops short of any kind of physical horror, and the dark reflections are as much about Faradary’s social climbing as anything. Well-acted by Wilson in particular, The Little Stranger is an intelligent, high-brow film that almost no-one saw.

 

A Sense of an Ending 2017 ***

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Julian Barnes’s slim novella was a Man Booker Prize winner, and has obvious cinematic potential; it’s a long slow burn as we delve into the past, with a pay-off that’s humbling and painful. Ritesh Batra’s film captures ably the mood of the book; Jim Broadbent is ideal as Tony Webster, a London camera shop owner. A letter brings back memories of his teenage relationship with Margaret (Charlotte Rampling), and a counter-narrative about how they met is unfolded as Tony seeks Margaret out. A sensitive and more literate movie than most, A Sense of an Ending is an ideal way to approach the book; it nails the story down in a cinematic way, and a few anachronisms are forgivable due to budget restraints. Not for sensation seekers, A Sense of an Ending is an effective adaptation that deserved better than the minimal release it got; the young cast, including Billy Howie, Jack Alwyn and Freya Mavor should help it reach the next generation of film-goers who demand a little intellectual meat in the fare.

Angels & Demons 2008 ***

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It might seem hard to imagine, but there was a brief window between the publication of The Da Vinci Code and the film version being released, and in that brief moment, Dan Brown was seen as an exciting new writer of modern day adventures. A shuffle through the film versions of Da Vinci, Angels and Demons and Inferno reveals something rather different, a ersatz Indiana Jones without the action, but with long stretches of cross-word puzzle wisdom and shonky history lessons. Angels & Demons has built up a cult reputation in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category, and there’s no doubt, it’s kind of fun. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is recruited by the Vatican to outsmart a potential terrorist who has kidnapped various cardinals in the run-up to the announcement of a new pope. Could it be significant that one of the candidates , Irish front-runner (Ewan McGregor) is an ex-helicopter pilot? Brown’s plotting isn’t much better than a National Treasure movie, but the production is lush, Rome is skilfully evoked, and Ron Howard brings his usual professional approach to the material. The final barrage of plot-twists is ludicrous to say the least, but that’s what makes Angels & Demons such a hoot; impacting layers of smug cleverness end up forming a crust of nonsense that makes Angels and Demons far more amusing than most comedies.


 

Ragtime 1981 ****

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Milos Foreman’s 1981 drama is best remembered as the final film of screen legend James Cagney; he’s only on screen for a couple of memorable scenes, but this adaptation of El Doctorow’s historical novel has plenty of other points to recommend it. It’s the story of a black man, Coalhouse Walker Jr (Howard E Rollins Jr) whose wife and baby are taken in by a well-off white family. Coalhouse gets into a beef with a Fire Chief (Kenneth McMillian) that leads to a siege, with Police Chief Waldo attempting to resolve the matter. There’s small roles for Jeff Daniels, Samuel L Jackson, Mary Steenburgen, Donald O’Connor and more, and the sense of the 1900’s is pervasively caught. Ragtime was garlanded with Oscar nominations, but didn’t win; it’s not exactly a crowd-pleaser at 155 mins, but as a consideration of the darker side of American history, specifically racism, it’s an absorbing and powerful watch for grown-up audiences.

The Natural 1984 ***

Alongside Out of Africa, The Natural represents the last significant entries in Robert Redford’s career as a top movie star. Later to reinvent himself as a guru of indie-film-making via Sundance, Redford was smart enough to forge a career when audiences were no longer blown away by his golden boy looks. But in his heyday, he was happy to trade on them, and this adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s novel is a serious-minded baseball story that elevates Roy Hobbs (Redford) to near Messianic-levels. Glenn Close plays his sweet girlfriend, Barbara Hershey is a predictably dark femme fatale, and Robert Duvall dispenses homilies. The problem with The Natural is that for all the sumptuous period detail evoked by Barry Levinson’s direction, the feel-good ending, straight out of a late Rocky movie, is completely at odd with the book’s conclusion, and takes the King Arthur theme far too literally. With a magic bat called Wonderboy instead of Excalibur, The Natural is a literate and intelligent film that sells-out at the crucial moment.

On Chesil Beach 2018 ****

Adapting Ian McEwan is a tricky business; for every Atonement, there’s a The Children’s Act; not everything that works on the page adapts well to the big-screen. McEwan himself adapts On Chesil Beach, and Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan stars alongside Billy Howie as Florence and Edward, two newly-weds whose wedding night is blighted by their own lack of understanding on sex. Dominic Cooke’s film is a two-hander in a theatrical way, but the 1962 setting is well-caught through a few persuasive details, and the lunar atmosphere on the beach itself adds a certain cinematic feel. Ronan in particular excels here, managing to create a complex picture of a woman who is bound by the conventions of her time, but understands that she could, and might still, rise above them. The codas, bleak as they are, are almost a relief after the intensity of the wedding-night and aftermath; On Chesil Beach is adult fare, and one of the best representations of McEwan’s work to date.