84 Charring Cross Road 1987 Based on the play by James Roose-Evans which, in turn, was an adaptation of the memoir by Helen Hanff. Directed by David Jones. Unable to find second hand copies of mostly out-of-print books, writer Helen Hanff (Anne Bancroft) sends a letter of inquiry to the London Bookshop, 84 Charring Cross Road. It’s received and answered by Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins) who has much of what she’s looking for. The books are surprisingly inexpensive, even with postage and arrive pristine. Helen is delighted. It seems she needs a great many hard to find volumes.
When Helen writes, it’s as if to a friend. “Where are my books?! You leave me sitting here writing long margin notes in books that don’t belong to me. Someday they’ll take my library card away.” At Christmas, she sends a box of jarred and tinned specialty foods difficult to get in rationed England. Everyone is grateful. When Frank’s secretary secretly replies, Helen writes back. “Poor Frank. I keep trying to puncture that British reserve. If he gets ulcers, I did it.” Frank looks forward to Helen’s requests. Hopkins’ face is an understated marvel. Helen loves that he feels about literature as she does.
Between 1949 and 1968, missives, books, and boxes fly back and forth across the sea. Eventually Frank’s wife (Judi Dench with long hair) writes, sending family photos. Against all odds, the film brilliantly opens what was originally just correspondence. We meet bookstore personnel, Helen’s friends, and get a look at their very different lives as well as hearing letters. When she finally has enough money to visit, Helen is forced to use it elsewhere. By the time she gets there… Watching this is like a hot bath with candles. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Best Seller 1987 Directed by John Flynn. A crime thriller with a twist. Los Angeles, 1972. Veteran, straight-arrow cop Dennis Meechum (Brian Dennehy) has also written several popular crime novels. When his wife gets ill, he empties the bank account. She dies leaving him with daughter Holly (Allison Balson) and serious writer’s block. One night, chasing a criminal at the waterfront, Dennis’ life is saved by an unknown man in a suit and dark shades who dispatches the crook with a perfect shot. Returning to his car, Dennis finds a note on his windshield: “You might say thank you.”
The stranger, Cleve (James Woods – seriously creepy), offers Dennis evidence to create a slam-dunk bestseller which will expose business tycoon/robber baron David Madlock (Paul Shenar) and spotlight his own “career” as the corporation’s assassin. His boss didn’t show sufficient respect. Cleve is looking for both revenge and self-aggrandizement common to serial killers. He leaves Dennis a scrapbook of articles about the murders, but the cop is skeptical. It takes several trips during which they’re followed and just escape death to convince him. Despite himself, Dennis likes him.
Cleve is a vicious and efficient killer. His threats to those around Dennis in order to read the manuscript beforehand (to see how he’s portrayed) are shudder-inducing, yet he saves Holly’s life. The assassin has planned a perfect ending. Filming of the ending, however, has a fatal flaw. I don’t usually like cop flicks but this was, if unbelievable, psychologically compelling. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Shadows in the Sun 2005 Directed by Brad Mirman. Young book editor/ incipient author Jeremy Taylor (Joshua Jackson) is sent to Tuscany to convince famously retired writer Weldon Parish (Harvey Keitel) to sign a contract with his firm. Everyone denies knowing Weldon then secretly contacts him. When they meet, the famous man dismisses Jeremy out of hand. Like a bunch of frat boys, Weldon and his friends Gustavo (Armando Pucci) and Father Moretti (Giancarlo Giannini – wonderful!) then get Jeremy drunk, tie him up and ceremoniously drop him in a pond.
Softening though not on the subject at hand, Weldon begins to include Jeremy in family gatherings and illicit adventures. He begins to agree with the writer’s daughter Isabella (Claire Forlani) that her father is afraid to try to write again. (And falls for her, of course.) Her mother’s death sent Weldon spiraling and destroyed momentum/confidence. Jeremy keeps trying. At the same time, Weldon helps the naïve young man with his own writing. Predictable, but pleasant. Free with Amazon Prime.
Stranger Than Fiction 2006 Directed by Marc Forster. Dismiss the fact that Will Ferrell makes stupid films. THIS is the exception. It’s smart, witty, well cast and a wonderful premise. All of a sudden, IRS agent Harold Crick (Ferrell) hears the disembodied voice of a British female narrating his life as he lives it. To say this is disconcerting minimizes its effect on the quiet, solitary man. One day, resetting his watch, he hears “little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.” If he’s the protagonist in some fantastical novel, he could die!
Visiting a psychiatrist turns out fruitless, so Harold tries Columbia literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who poses a series of imaginative, practical questions trying to identify the genre, then the author. Meanwhile, Harold is sent to audit bakery owner Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who refuses to pay for political reasons. He starts to dream about her. They tenuously connect when he brings her an extraordinarily creative present. Up and across town, successful, neurotic novelist Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is stuck for an ending to her latest blockbuster.
Harold accidentally hears part of an interview with Eiffel, identifies her voice and tracks her down. The problem is that all her books end in the death of the hero and this is her best one yet. Screenwriter Zach Helm suggested the plot: “There’s something very poetic about the understanding of one’s place in the universe, but it’s far more dramatic when such understanding occurs only days before that life ends.” Rent on Amazon Prime.
The Jane Austen Book Club 2007 Adapted from the novel by Karen Joy Fowler. Directed by Robin Swicord. Yes, it’s a chick flick, but low key and diverting. Six-time divorcée Bernadette (Kathy Baker) creates a book club to explore Austen novels. Members are: Prudie (Emily Blunt), a high school French teacher; Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), just separated from her unfaithful husband (Jimmy Smitts); Sylvia’s lesbian daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace); the staunchly single Jocelyn (Maria Bello); and Grigg (Hugh Dancy), with whom Jocelyn hopes to match Sylvia.
We learn something about each participant’s life and observe how parallels in Austen books provoke thinking differently. Lives change. Familiarity with the author’s work enhances, but it’s not essential. Screenwriter/director Robin Swicord based each of the six book club members on a character in one of Austen’s novels. Rent on Amazon Prime.
The City of Your Final Destination 2009 Based on the novel by Peter Cameron. Directed by James Ivory. The family of deceased author Jules Gund has refused authorization for graduate student Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally) to write his biography. As the book would secure a fellowship and employment, his pushy, academic girlfriend Deidre (Alexandra Maria Lara) insists Omar travel to the author’s family compound in Uruguay to convince them. The young man shows up unannounced and is taken in by Gund’s sympathetic young mistress, Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Years ago, when Jules returned home with Arden carrying his child, wife Caroline (Laura Linney) decided to stay on. Each for her own reasons, the women voted no to the book. The author’s older brother, Adam (Anthony Hopkins), lives nearby with his young lover, Pete (Hiruyoki Sanada). Adam voted yes. He has a “favor” to ask of Omar in exchange. Omar’s attempt to change minds is secondary to his captivation with place and people. He and Arden connect. An accident brings the abrasive Deidre. Her approach is very different.
As always Ruth Prawer Jhabvala writes a splendid script. Though not lively, relationships are intriguingly complex, acting solid. Free with Amazon Prime.
Top illustration: Bigstock