Oscars 2017

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Given that neither Cary Grant nor Alfred Hitchcock won an Academy Award (supply your own copyright symbol) the Oscars are basically a knees-up for well-paid advertising campaigns and schmoozefests that often finish up in a very long snoozefest round this time of year with all our Best Films overlooked. However … Oscar 2017 was a different animal. The opening number by Justin Timberlake (his song from Trolls) leading a team of dancers down the steps of the auditorium and winding up onstage was great fun; Jimmy Kimmel’s script and timing were immaculate, making great points without wearing everyone out (remember Chris Rock who just went on … and on … and on … throughout the three and a half hours last year? Because a snappy one-liner just wouldn’t do.) The awards were surprisingly well spread – the first eleven went to different films – and the LA LA Land juggernaut wound up with six awards for thirteen noms including Director with the sound and film editing going elsewhere making a Best Picture win less likely. It looked like seven for fourteen … and briefly was … but this year something odd happened. For the first time in living memory, Best Actor was called before Best Actress, which went to Emma Stone (Natalie Portman didn’t even show up.) And then Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (allegedly – one couldn’t be entirely sure) came onstage to celebrate 50 years of Bonnie and Clyde and hand out the award for Best Picture. But the accountants (the only two people on the planet who knew the result) had unwittingly given them a duplicate of the Best Actress envelope. After the usual spiel, Beatty opened it and looked at it curiously. Then he made a show of checking for something else in the red envelope, looked at the card again, played for time, handed the card to Dunaway as if for confirmation, and she called out LA LA Land. The entire production team or so it seemed was in the midst of their speeches, when all of a sudden there were some people with headsets running around behind them, Beatty was handed another envelope, and when a bearded man, LA LA Land producer Jordan Horowitz said that the real winner was Moonlight, Kimmel looked chastened, Beatty puzzled. Horowitz pulled the card rather roughly from the new envelope the legendary Beatty was holding and showed it to camera where it clearly made the announcement, Best Picture: Moonlight. Horowitz called up the team from that film. The cameras showed the shocked and confused reactions around the auditorium. Beatty calmly explained he’d been given the wrong card and it had not been a joke. Horowitz repeated none of it was a joke, Moonlight was the real winner for Best Picture. Kimmel manfully took the blame, and in truth, he was probably regretting live-Tweeting/trolling the POTUS earlier because, after all, if this isn’t the biggest Fake News in history, what is?! You couldn’t make it up. Was it the Russians? No, it was PricewaterhouseCoopers. An accounting firm. That’s showbiz! Moonlight director Barry Jenkins was very gracious and referenced that the teams behind both films had done a lot of this awards show schlep together for the past few months and if this was a dream, that was okay. The little picture ($1.5m budget) that could went and did. Talk about a twist ending!  It was a great show. And, as ever, a very, very long one. And the best one in oh so many years. Kimmel was terrific, even if the tour bus from Star Line was a little OTT – but boy did those tourists handle their sudden stardom effectively. Overall, Oscar 2017 was a display of (mostly) impeccable behaviour, some fun running jokes and rising to the occasion when everything went hopelessly wrong even if Emma Stone bizarrely decided to throw some shade at hapless Beatty by waving her envelope around in the Press room before clarifying anything with the floor managers. (Maybe she really did watch Rebel Without a Cause:  she was like James Dean screaming “But I got the bullets!”). Beatty at least showed some class in comparison with both her and Horowitz. And I’m definitely getting new accountants:  to quote a former Celebrity Apprentice judge, You’re fired!

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Mildred Pierce (1945)

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The film that marked Joan Crawford’s comeback after she was unceremoniously dumped by Metro, this is a reworked and condensed adaptation of James M. Cain’s Depression-era novel by Ranald McDougall, with uncredited rewrites by melodrama specialist Catherine Turney. And:  William Faulkner, Albert Maltz, Margaret Gruen, Margaret Buell Wilder, Thames Williamson and Louise Randall Pierson. Director Michael Curtiz didn’t want Crawford – she was the last of a long list that was topped by Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck – and they fought tooth and nail throughout production with producer Jerry Wald acting as go-between. She’s the woman with the straying husband who starts baking cakes and waiting tables to support her daughters – the younger one, Kay, is a smart and funny tomboy, the elder, Veda (Ann Blyth) is a spoiled puss of a musician with a taste for the high life. The action takes place over four years in the Forties as Mildred starts up her own restaurant and builds a chain with the help of her husband’s realtor partner Wally (Jack Carson) but when playboy investor Monte (Zachary Scott) enters the fray, a tangled web of business and adultery leads to murder. Crawford gets to show off her full emotional range in this superb maternal melo mix of independent woman, weepie and film noir, distinguished by Ernest Haller’s deep shadowy photography and Max Steiner’s score. And what about Anton Grot’s sets! Crawford took home the Academy Award for Warner Bros. What a show!

Platoon (1986)

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I wasn’t in Nam. Hardly. The closest I ever got was playing Quasar and once being chased near Central Park West by an old one-legged vet on cheap wooden crutches. Maybe I reminded him of someone. But a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, this won a slew of Academy Awards. This being the season for it, time to pull it out again. And like the other big Nam movies – Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket – it’s pretty schematised in its design. But the letters that Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) writes home make it more personal and immersive because he’s so very young and idealistic (and ridiculously handsome) and in his first experience of ambush he’s pretty much responsible for his new friend’s death. It’s unbearably tense. The guys are stuck between the noble warrior Willem Dafoe and the deranged psycho Tom Berenger – characterised as the good and bad fathers, thus giving us Chris’ Freudian perspective on the drama. The final assault, a raid on the Cambodian border, is bloody and unbound. It’s gripping, gritty and tense, the juxtaposition between the scenes of combat and those of male bonding is masterful and the emotion not supplied by the action is there in the incredible score by Georges Delerue, with Barber’s Adagio for Strings touching the parts even he can’t reach: you won’t forget this quickly, its imagery sears the brain. Simply great filmmaking by that old tyro Oliver Stone, based on his own Nam and the first of his trilogy. Now, on the same subject entirely, where’s my copy of Hamburger Hill?

Bond of Fear (1956)

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Smart little British B movie starring Irish-born stalwart Dermot Walsh as the man taking Land Rover and caravan on holiday from Birmingham to the South of France but he never gets there because he and his wife and kids are hijacked by Dewar (Canadian John Colicos) who’s just murdered a policeman. The unlikely scenario of this middle class family hitting the road for Dover port and a crazed killer in the caravan holding them hostage is well measured with police checkpoints proving a test for Walsh as he has to lie while his son has a gun held to his head in the caravan. An indignant hitch hiker provides a particularly good scene and there’s plenty of tension when the little boy Michael (Anthony Pavey) tries to defend his dad. It all comes to a head at Dover – so they never make it to France after all. Shot mostly at Nettlefold Studios at Walton-on-Thames (another to add to my list of British outfits) and around the burbs of Southern England, this looks pretty smart (courtesy of Monty Berman and operator Desmond Davis, a future director) and has an interesting soundtrack (an uncredited Stanley Black.)  Walsh had made his mark on the Dublin stage following a few years studying law at University College Dublin. He was discovered by Rank and had good roles in films like Hungry Hill. After a brief return to the stage he spent most of the 50s doing movies like this and is best remembered for TV’s Richard the Lionheart. He wrote a play and produced several works in the theatre. He is the father of the actress Elisabeth Dermot Walsh. He died in 2002. Digby Wolfe’s story was adapted by horror director and writer John Gilling with additional scenes provided by Norman Hudis; and directed by Henry Cass, who made one of my favourite British movies, The Glass Mountain. Not chopped liver.

The Goob (2014)

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Guy Myhill’s Fenland drama is brutal stuff. It’s a long hot summer for Goob (Liam Walpole) who arrives home to find Mum (Sienna Guillory) shacked up at a transport cafe with ugly violent stock racing bully Gene (Sean Harris) and he has to grow up bloody fast. A gay cousin who likes to dance and cross-dress and a lovely foreign fruit picker create diversions and ultimately obstructions and Goob has to choose sides in a dangerous household that has already seen off his brother following a prank gone wrong. This is an intelligent story of violent sordid lowlifes with limited ambitions and worldviews and while convincingly and even poetically evoked at times it’s a tough watch. Guillory’s willing subjugation is hard to take while son Goob is the collateral damage. Harris, one of the least attractive individuals ever to grace a screen, is all too realistic; and the masturbation and sex scenes are somewhat de trop, as Celeste Holm might have said. Sometimes some things are best left … imagined. Spare and affecting with some really good faces inhabiting a fascinating landscape, beautifully captured in shimmering golden hour light, a new approach to British social realism.

Candyman (1992)

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Your friends will abandon you. So true. Clive Barker’s stories terrify me and The Forbidden in The Books of Blood series is a brilliant conflation of fairytale and horror, laced with social commentary about contemporary urban life in the parts of town you drive by pretty damn quick. Transferred by writer/director Bernard Rose to the Chicago Projects, this takes on a terrifyingly current resonance. Rose said when he recce’d Cabrini Green he sensed ‘palpable fear.’ The wonderful Virginia Madsen is researching urban legends with her postgrad colleague Kasi Lemmons while her sceptical lecturer hubby Xander Berkeley is carrying on with another student. The legend of Candyman exerts a hold over a ghetto building whose architecture mimics her own apartment block so she can forensically experience the way the idea literally infiltrated a drug-infested black community where vicious murders are taking place. She befriends a young mother and the graffiti pointing her to the origins of the story lures her back and she encounters the man whose name you do not want to say five times …. Bloody, sensual, exciting and a trip for the brain, this story of a tragic monster born of slavery is incarnated in the elegant, noble charismatic form of Tony Todd, blessed with a deep voice, a fur-trimmed greatcoat and a hook for a hand and boy does he use it to win the woman of his life, hypnotising her into his romantic history. Incredible from start to bloody  finish, this is a brilliant exercise in genre, tapping into primal fears and political tensions and putting the sex into bee stings. Thrilling, with great cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond – get that titles sequence! – and an urban legend of a score by Philip Glass. Poetic and fabulous. Sweets to the sweet!

Wives and Lovers (1963)

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Are you working these days or are you writing?! Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Van Johnson has. He’s the unsuccessful author in a NYC coldwater flat happily married to dental assistant Janet Leigh with a 7 year old kid. Then agent Martha Hyer (‘the hottest agent in town’ – ‘in and out of the office!’) suddenly sells his novel to Broadway, a literary publisher and Hollywood and they move to the posh burbs where neighbours Shelley Winters (formerly married to a movie star) and her house guest Ray Walston rock the marital boat. When actor Jeremy Slate takes the lead in the play, he finds in Leigh a neglected stage wife, ripe for plucking … A super-slick 60s drama with sharp performances by a great cast (particularly Leigh and Walston) who have some rare, acid dialogue and enjoy casting caustic social comment. The only disappointments lie in the monochrome filming and the fact that the Bacharach and David song performed by my beloved Jack Jones (and inspired by the film) never made it to the soundtrack, which is pretty good stuff by Lyn Murray. Adapted by Edward Anhalt from Jay Presson Allen’s play, directed by John Rich with cinematography by Lucien Ballard. Biker movie fans will recognise Slate from his roles in The Born Losers (he takes on Billy Jack!), The Mini-Skirt Mob, Hell’s Belles and Hell’s Angels ’69.

Happy Birthday Len Deighton!

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Len Deighton is one of the best writers in the English language. If you don’t believe me, read The IPCRESS File, a book so smart, so fresh, clipped, stylish and expressive you’ll think it was published yesterday – and not 1962. His unnamed hero (Harry Palmer in the films) became immortalised in Michael Caine’s brilliant performances in the series of adaptations.  Deighton is acclaimed as a spy novelist and his work also came to the screen with the little-seen Spy Story (1976). The Bernard Samson series (Game, Set and Match) appeared on TV in 1988  – I never saw it because I lived in mainland Europe at the time and a dispute between Deighton and the producers means it has never seen the light of day since its original broadcast. Deighton also produced cookery books which are legendary to people of a certain vintage; and he is the military historian many World War 2 buffs seek out particularly in reference to the Battle of Britain. Lemmy and Motorhead named and dedicated Bomber to him after his titular novel. But how appropriate that a day after his 88th birthday (which was last Saturday) the BBC adaptation (by James Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) of counterfactual/alternative history SS-GB (which commences 18th February 1941, when the author celebrated his 12th birthday!) should start its five-week run. So far, and aside from any quibble I might have with the casting of Sam Riley as Archer, it’s practically word for word, scene for scene pure. Which is just as well because for this fan Deighton can do no wrong. Fingers crossed that this fidelity remains throughout the series. Happy Birthday to one of the greats! What an extraordinary man.