Jonathan Demme 02/22/44-04/26/17

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Multi-talented director Jonathan Demme has died. He got his start with Roger Corman and debuted with a biker flick and naturally graduated to women in prison flicks before entering mainstream Hollywood and making his name with some fine films starring terrific women like Goldie Hawn and Melanie Griffith.  His first critically acclaimed movie was however the wonderful Bo Goldman screenplay Melvin and Howard, one of the best of the Seventies with an unforgettable performance by Jason Robards as Howard Hughes and beautifully shot by longtime collaborator Tak Fujimoto. He made some fine documentaries particularly the landmark music film Stop Making Sense with Talking Heads:  who can forget David Byrne on stage in that enormously boxy suit? But his name will be forever associated with a shocking adaptation that is one of that tiny number of films to win the Big 5 at the Academy Awards – The Silence of the Lambs won for Actor, Actress, Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Director. He may have made some missteps and unnecessary remakes but humour, humanity and compassion shone from his work. Demme will be missed.

Stars in My Crown (1950)

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– Good story. – Don’t rush me. A prime example of Americana, based on Joe David Brown’s novel, Joel McCrea is the preacher determined to bring God to the settlement of Walesburg after the Civil War. He has to take the villagers seriously – at gunpoint, to bring them round. In this episodic narrative told by his adopted nephew Dean Stockwell as an adult (voiced by Marshall Thompson) there is a low key romance with church organist Ellen Drew; the arrival of typhoid fever which threatens not just lives but the respect between him and  young doctor James Mitchell;  McCrea’s struggle when he refuses to accept the school well is the cause of the outbreak; and the repeated threats to black farmer Famous (Juano Hernandez) prove this is far from twee.  Indeed when the KKK bring a burning cross to the patch that he has made home you realise this is a lot more than a story of tough love. McCrea is a solid leading man and he is excellent here as a man whose faith is truly tested.There’s really good work from Alan Hale as the Swedish father of five who never goes to church but is always ready to lend a helping hand and James Arness and Amanda Blake feature years before Gunsmoke. This is far from your average western, a keen mix of humour, commentary and drama. Brown adapted his novel but it was the work of the screenwriter Margaret Fitts that’s interesting. She did several screen adaptations and is one of those women who did such good writing for the western genre, including adapting her own novel, The King and Four Queens, which became the Clark Gable movie. This was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a man many consider in the realm of auteur.

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

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There’s no client as scary as an innocent man. Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is the lawyer specialising in defending lowlifes making his way around LA in a chauffeured Lincoln Continental because he’s lost his driving licence – well actually he’s got it back but he keeps the driver anyhow. He’s got a new client, a rich boy of 32 (Ryan Phillippe) on a rape charge against a prostitute. The boy’s mom (Frances Fisher) is one of the city’s richest realtors. Halfway through the story Mick realises there’s an uncomfortable parallel with another case he tried years earlier and one of his clients may be in jail doing time for something he did not do… This twisty adaptation of Michael Connelly’s courtroom thriller is vastly entertaining and truly inhabits its milieu like a fashionably turned glove, using tropes from film noir (a reverse Oedipal scenario) to carve a nice legal story out of a nasty crime. McConaughey really made his comeback here after years of romcoms and actioners and he turns in a real slick willy of a performance in a remarkably stylish outing directed by Brad Furman. There’s a great supporting cast including Marisa Tomei as Mick’s smart ex-wife, William H. Macy as his investigator, with Josh Lucas, Michael Pare, Katherine Moennig and Bryan Cranston lining up behind them. Like a warm genre bath, with LA looking kinda fabulous.

The Desert Fox (1951)

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Aka The Desert Fox:  The Story of Rommel. Too soon?! Rommel was admired and feared, a brilliant tactician (see: desert campaign 1941-43) whose reputation even Churchill embellished with his words (quoted at the conclusion) but he was a thorn in Hitler’s side. ‘Victory or death’ really didn’t seem reasonable to the Field Marshal and this version of events concerns the last few months of his life when his position was becoming untenable. When his friend Dr Stroelin persuades him to play a part in the plot to kill Hitler known as ‘Valkyrie’ he agrees but it fails and he is given only one option by the regime – suicide. Narrated by Michael Rennie, this elegant adaptation by Twentieth Century-Fox’s in house master builder Nunnally Johnson of Desmond Young’s biography is defiantly unsentimental, sympathetic and convincing. There is no attempt to do shonky Germanic accents and that somehow just enhances the impression of realism (or true crime, perhaps).  The studio’s use of stock footage to achieve their customary documentary effect is highly effective even if there isn’t remotely enough film from Africa. It might well be propaganda given the timing and the skewed content – it was time to pony up to the new Nazi-forgiving German regime and make trade deals, dontcha know and the military genius who wanted peace talks with the Allies was the perfect foil for this narrative. This is really about the military mindset rather than a political analysis of a landscape forever foreign and anti-semitic. However you view it, you don’t need me to tell you that this is James Mason at his greatest. WW2 – the gift that keeps on giving. Superb. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

A Few Good Men (1992)

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You can’t handle the truth! And there it is, the reason people watch this movie – a superannuated cameo by Jack Nicholson as the charismatic single minded blowhard Col. Nathan R. Jessep whose orders to kill an unsatisfactory young Marine lie behind this legal conspiracy  thriller. It’s a star vehicle for Cruise as the supposedly naive military lawyer investigating the case against two Marines at Gitmo with his superior Lt. Commander Demi Moore, but this is all anyone’s been waiting for – the courtroom climax, an unfortunately well-telegraphed star-off outcome to an efficiently low key fizz of a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin who adapted his play and robs us of any suspense. Oh well! Directed by Rob Reiner.

LIFE (2015)

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Luke Davies’ screenplay centring on the circumstances behind the unforgettable LIFE photo essay about James Dean in an issue from March 1955 is uncertain about who the story’s protagonist is:   the most exciting actor most of us have ever seen, as incarnated by Dane DeHaan, or photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson)? Peculiarly it is Stock who comes across as pathological, unhappy and desperate whereas Dean seems a decent sort being screwed around by Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley) who knows he’s on to something great but wants to control this rebel from bad PR. Stock supposedly met Dean at a party at Nick Ray’s when he was casting Rebel Without a Cause and the distractions are looking at an actress who looks nothing like Natalie Wood and an epicene man who only bares a slight resemblance to Ray, along with the overriding story arc of Stock’s failed teenage marriage and his unwillingness to spend time with a very young son. Dean’s relationship with Pier Angeli is artfully used to construct the parameters of his Hollywood life;  while the trip the two men make back to Indiana before the premiere of East of Eden which commences in NYC’s Times Square is of course the setting for one of most people’s favourite poster, latterly called The Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The real story here is about the relationship between a photographer and his subject, whom he virtually stalked for the story, perhaps sensing something in Dean that Dean did not yet suspect was within himself. It’s nicely put together and shot, as you would expect from Anton Corbijn, a man who knows something about the craft behind creating iconic images – his rock career is probably the most notable of any photographer/video director of the last thirty years. But somehow even De Haan’s uncanny interpretation is not the favoured performance here and the ghastly Pattinson gets equal screen time in some sort of deluded payoff to the director’s former job. I don’t get it. How’d that happen?! There seems to be some kind of queer subtext that isn’t quite brought to the surface – despite the rumours about Dean, it’s Stock who appears to be unhealthily obsessive and projecting something that isn’t really there.  It makes you wonder about all those people who made money off their Jimmy stories when he was no longer around. Oh well, better to be talked about … than not. An opportunity mostly missed, sadly.

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The Shining (1980)

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In the bigger scheme of things I have no idea what this film is about and I don’t know anyone who does. It started as an adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel but it evolved into something he disliked intensely.  It boasts a key performance in Jack Nicholson’s career – in which those eyebrows are utilised to express something truly demonic and he launched a million caricatures not least when he hymned Johnny Carson.  The bones of King’s novel are here – wannabe writer Jack Torrance decamps with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and little son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains to act as caretaker in the off season, hoping to overcome writer’s block. His son has psychic premonitions, possessed by the building itself, which however do not manage to overwhelm him and he shares their secrets with chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) with whom he communicates telepathically. Then Jack senses the hotel’s secrets – it’s built on a Native American burial ground – and he starts to lose his mind as we begin to connect the dots with a party that took place in 1921 and a photograph …  What happens here is not as important as how it looks.  Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson remove all the tropes that characterise the haunted house novel and we are left with overlit flatness and unsaturated colours that repeat and repeat and create their own rhythm. There are images that sear themselves on your brain:  the elevator pouring blood into those endless corridors that get longer and longer as Danny cycles up and down the hotel;  the twin Grady girls; the bar that suddenly opens up;  the nubile young woman who turns into an old crone; Wendy finding out what Jack’s been typing for months and months on those sheaves of paper;  Danny’s voice, growling red rum, red rum;  and Jack hacking through the bathroom door with an ax as Wendy cowers; Jack killing Dick, whose return to the hotel is because he senses that Danny needs him; the maze filling with snow as Danny tries to escape his lunatic father. Kubrick’s authorial vision produces something very odd and compelling and against the notion of the traditional horror film, perhaps minus all those strange theories promulgated by the documentary Room 237 which has a major preoccupation with presumed spatial discrepancies in the building’s layout. This is notable for Garret Brown’s use of the Steadicam, another instance of Kubrick’s obsession with using all the then-new technology to create powerful visuals. This production may have arisen from the master’s deep need to make a commercial hit after the failure of the beautiful Barry Lyndon, but one thing’s for sure about this ghost story like no other – once seen, never forgotten. Here’s Johnny!

Juggernaut (1974)

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In 1972 the QE2 was subjected to a bomb hoax and Royal Marines were deployed to deal with the situation:  this is an adaptation of that incident, with writer/producer Richard Alan Simmons (writing under the nom de plume Richard De Koker) moving events to the North Atlantic and a cruise liner tellingly christened Britannic. An Irish-accented man telephones the owner of the line Ian Holm with the information that seven drums of amatol (an explosive) are rigged in the hold. He wants a half million ransom.The seas are too stormy to save the 1200 passengers and while the police led by Anthony Hopkins (whose wife and son are on board) race against time to track the phonecalls, Navy bomb disposal expert Richard Harris and his team including David Hemmings are winched to the ship to try and defuse everything. This came out at the height of the Arab oil crisis and the IRA’s mainland Britain bombing campaign – and – crucially – the disaster movie genre. Yet it has a rare degree of realism and character definition, probably because after the original directors Bryan Forbes and then Don Medford abandoned ship (!) Richard Lester took over and rewrote it with Alan Plater, demonstrating that he is as adept at action/adventure as slapstick comedy, with regular Roy Kinnear along for the ride, supplying some morbidly funny lines as the entertainer while the clock ticks. While Captain Omar Sharif sweats and looks a little red around the eyes, even with Shirley Knight providing his kicks, Harris smokes his pipe and gets on with the job.  He does some really great character work given that most of his acting takes place in quite literally a tiny frame – head and shoulders. The revelation of the bomber’s identity – he’s not foreign – provides some thought-provoking context. Free of contemporary technology and with some telling lines about refugees, this is an unusually watchable genre exercise, driven by something deeper than just explosions and with a really great ending.

The Beguiled (1971)

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What an extraordinary generic blend this is:  part Western, part Gothic or Grand Guignol, and an emblematic role for Clint Eastwood who would turn aspects  of its perverse sexuality into a motif in Play Misty for Me and Tightrope.  He’s a Union soldier badly wounded in the Civil War, found by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) a little girl who attends a seminary nearby in very Southern Louisiana. Deciding eventually not to report him to the Confederate soldiers, headmistress Geraldine Page sets her sights on him – but so does teacher Elizabeth Hartman. And student Jo Ann Harris … Adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, this plumbs areas of psyched out femininity that no other films truly reach.  It becomes clear that Page indulged in an incestuous relationship with her late brother;  Hartman is a virgin;  and Harris is a fox – whom Eastwood naturally beds, to the others’ uncontrollable fury. The Gothic trope of the staircase looms and Hartman pushes him to the bottom of it – giving Page an excuse to lop off one of his legs and trap him there forever. When he accidentally kills Amy’s turtle everything comes to a head and any plans he might have are as dust. There’s nothing like women scorned, is there? Bruce Surtees’ dreamlike cinematography lends this twisted narrative an art house feel that is entirely different to any of Eastwood’s output to that time – and the studio had no idea how to market it. Blacklisted writer Albert Maltz did the original adaptation but he gave it a happy ending – so another draft was done by Irene Kamp. Both of them were credited pseudonymously. And the real rewrite by associate producer Claude Traverse went uncredited. Director Don Siegel worked with Eastwood to create a different phase of his iconicity following the spaghetti westerns that brought the actor global fame  – and this was the real start of crafting something mysterious and ineffable and even masochistic in his screen persona, alongside the action roles that kept the studios happy. No wonder Sofia Coppola wanted to remake it. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. This is great anyhow you choose. (And an opportunity to see the tragic Hartman). When this came out my aunt’s mate at boarding school snuck out to see it and she was caught by the nuns climbing back in a window very late at night. When she explained her uncontrollable weakness for Mr Eastwood they said they understood completely and she wasn’t punished. Now that’s some cool nuns. And how very fitting!