Ghost (1990)

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It’s amazing, the love inside. You take it with you. Potter Molly (Demi Moore) and banker Sam (Patrick Swayze) are young and in love and living together and planning on a long happy life together. When he’s murdered after uncovering a money laundering scheme run by his colleague Carl (Tony Goldwyn) at the bank where they work, Molly is distraught and attends a wacky fake medium Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) who pretends she communes with the dead. Then she’s shocked out of her own skin when Sam really speaks to her – only she can see him – and wants to let Molly know she’s in danger from Carl … Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay channels both religious belief (guardian angels in the form of ghosts) and the supernatural (vengeful spirits) in this odd mix of fantasy, ghost story and thriller. The weird thing is it actually works, and how. Why? Because the characters are totally believable and you want them to be happy. Plus it’s set in a very recognisable modern world of yuppies and charlatans. That’s a very canny approach to writing. People we really like, wonderfully played in a genre-bending comic-fantasy-drama. There are several standout scenes here but let’s face it, you’ll never look at a potter’s wheel the same way again. Wonderful! Directed by Jerry Zucker.

The Skull (1965)

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All I can say to you is keep away from the skull of the Marquis de Sade! This adaptation of Robert (Psycho) Bloch’s short story by producer Milton Subotsky whose Amicus Productioons made this is a credible chiller. Directed with his usual visual aplomb by the cinematographer Freddie Francis who made so many horrors and shockers as a director, it tells the story of esoterica specialist Dr Maitland (Peter Cushing) who acquires said skull from his usual source Marco (Patrick Wymark), paying no heed to the warnings about its peculiar effect on the owners including nineteenth century phrenologist (Maurice Good), the graverobber who boiled down the trophy and became the first in a series of men who turn into maniacal killers under its influence. Maitland wishes to return the skull when he learns it was stolen from fellow collector Sir Matthew (Christopher Lee), who doesn’t however want it back after the effect it had on him.  Maitland pays no heed … This boasts an array of cheaply achieved but remarkably atmospheric effects with the use of the point of view shot (from the skull!) a simple solution for both ramping up the tension and suggesting something diabolical at work. There’s a terrific kidnapping sequence which may or may not be a nightmare – including a red room! And a judge! Well played by a wonderful cast that includes Jill Bennett as Maitland’s wife, Nigel Green as the credulous Inspector and the leads are of course the stuff of legend. Beautiful to look at with an interesting score by avant garde composer Elizabeth Lutyens, who did several for Amicus.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

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It’s sort of weird being honored for the worst day of your life. A young Iraq war combat veteran (Joe Alwyn) and his Bravo Squad comrades are honoured at halftime during a football game home in Texas approaching Thanksgiving in 2004 . Parallel flashbacks (to the incident being honoured;  to a previous homecoming?!) are intercut with the game. The high point of the event is a song performed by Destiny’s Child (in reality some stand-ins shot over the shoulder) and this is intercut with the assault in Iraq in which Billy rescues his hurt commanding officer, the mystically minded Shroom (Vin Diesel). His dad’s in a wheelchair, Mom doesn’t want politics discussed at dinner, his sister (Kristen Stewart) is the reason he volunteered after he injured her boyfriend following a car crash that left her with a scarred face. She wants him to get an honorable discharge because she feels guilty. A film so lacking in dramatic impetus as to be almost entirely inert with a lousy structure that drains the very lifeblood from the narrative. There’s some old faff about the soldiers’ story being put onscreen and the deal is welshed on by team owner Steve Martin who is clearly having a laugh in a straight role. Garrett Hedlund, as the head of the squad, is the only actor to attempt anything resembling a performance. Adapted by Jean-Christophe Castelli from a book by Ben Fountain and shot at pointlessly high speeds by director Ang Lee who probably did it that way to stay awake. Mystifying to the point you’ll feel like you have PTSD afterwards.

Happy 70th Birthday Richard Dreyfuss 29th October 2017!

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Cinema’s Everyman is now 70 years old. He had a vast acting career in TV as a teenager and young man in everything from Peyton Place to The Big Valley, and even though you can see him in a small and uncredited role in The Graduate and meeting a typically bad end for a JD in The Young Runaways, it was George Lucas’ American Graffiti that brought him to prominence as a mature actor in cinema.  It was swiftly followed by an award-winning performance in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in which he thought he had been a disaster (he was wrong).  However when he teamed up with Steven Spielberg in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind he really announced himself and embedded himself in our collective consciousness. Seen latterly as an alter ego for the filmmaker, he had the capacity to embody ordinariness, discombobulation, dry humour and awe:  not a bad combination and one that made him the most appealing man on the planet. Then came The Goodbye Girl:  universal love and an Academy Award (which he keeps in his refrigerator). Nobody could take Richard III remotely seriously after that outing which was presumed to be a take on Dustin Hoffman’s insufferability when he became famous (Hoffman was turned down for the role!) One of his best parts was in Prisoner of Honor, a TV film about his namesake in the Dreyfus Affair for director Ken Russell. After a decade in which he did a variety of principally comedic roles (and a few years off after which he appeared for a variety of reasons to be mutating into a character actor) he reunited with Spielberg for the magical Always, a remake of A Guy Named Joe, one of those WW2 films the director cherished. With Mr Holland’s Opus he was in a film that seemed aimed at the cheap seats and it worked – he gave an enormously moving performance in a movie designed around the emotional power of music. Latterly he has moved between TV and the big screen and was enormously impressive in the better of the two recent TV movies about Bernie Madoff. Vocal about Jewish issues, civics and mental illness, Dreyfuss is also a writer, stage performer and all round good guy. You’re a mensch – many, many, many happy returns!

Spielberg (2017)

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His strength is really his ability to tell a story in pictures instinctively. What makes Steven Spielberg tick? Susan Lacy’s HBO documentary commences with on-set filming of Bridge of Spies and then materialises into a meticulously constructed mosaic of interviews, excerpts and archive footage beginning with footage shot by the film’s subject as a child when he used home movies to escape his loneliness and his parents’ disintegrating marriage. As Martin Scorsese states, Spielberg has always been a personal filmmaker, utilising movie themes to articulate his own experiences. And perhaps the one shocking revelation here is that Spielberg didn’t speak to his own father for 15 years, mistakenly believing that he had split the family. The truth was that his mother was having an affair with his father’s best friend, whom she eventually married. His father and his older sisters spared the boy the truth. He didn’t have the grades to get into film school so he conned his way into Universal Pictures by getting off the tour bus and putting his name on the door of an office (maybe…) and impressed Sid Sheinberg enough to get him to underwrite his TV work there for 7 years, making his debut directing  movie queen Joan Crawford in an episode of Rod Serling’s show Night Gallery. Getting involved with that group of fellow wannabe filmmakers who came to be christened The Movie Brats, he had a support system of guys (they were all guys!) who would eventually become the most successful directors in the business. They all talk here – Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma and it’s nice to hear them speaking directly rather than through the medium of the third party commentators in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls. The culture was converging, the older directors were on their way out, they were on their way in. Amongst that crowd Spielberg was a nerd who wasn’t into sports or drugs or rock ‘n’ roll, as De Palma observes. Reworking his family difficulties into his films Spielberg created a modern point of view and an immediacy that plugged into the zeitgeist like no other filmmaker:  he knew what we wanted before we did. His one big budget failure was 1941 and it was George Lucas who got him back on track making a film that he promised him would be better than James Bond after he spent a year in a hole ruminating his misstep. So it was that after Jaws and CE3K he then entered into the world of franchises with Lucas making Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lacy is careful to permit Spielberg to critique his own failures or damp squibs even while his contemporaries and stars and co-workers are heaping praise on his energy, his techniques and the panic he manages to hide when he doesn’t know what to do next:  his reaction to the set being placed in the wrong situation on the beach for Saving Private Ryan being a case in point. It’s as though his eye bypasses his brain and goes straight to the camera. He himself states that from his earliest days he felt he was writing with the camera (he probably wasn’t what the Cahiers critics had in mind). A happy second marriage to actress Kate Capshaw and the addition of children made him confront more difficult topics after getting critically burned with The Colour Purple, a film that exercised many when the popcorn king dared take on the black experience and from a matriarchal perspective at that. He wasn’t exactly drowning in awards with the fantastic WW2 epic Empire of the Sun either and screenwriter Tom Stoppard questions his resorting to sentiment. But it was another instance of his desire to empower a child and to take control of  the story of their life. Making Schindler’s List made him confront his Jewishness. He admits he dumped his bag of tricks and utilised a handheld camera bringing an immediacy to the terror in monochrome. At the same time that he was shooting the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto on location he was editing Jurassic Park in the evenings: when everyone in the edit suite saw the astonishing leap in computerised dinosaurs created by Dennis Muren they knew it was something special. As Lucas appositely states, it was the end of one era, the beginning of a new one. Saving Private Ryan was also a war film like no other and the shock of the shooting experience is vividly conveyed by Tom Hanks.  Lacy is canny in deploying some of the best US critics to venture their reading of the director, after setting up the Pauline Kael prediction about how Spielberg’s career would pan out – not as a screen artist –  while the UK’s Dilys Powell isn’t mentioned:  Janet Maslin, J. Hoberman and AO Scott all have their say and it makes for a very thoughtful chorus of opinions given their sometime antipathy to his work (and some of the more problematic films like The Terminal or Hook are basically ignored).  Latterly his films have taken a prescient turn, from the scenes in Minority Report and War of the Worlds that vividly reference the shock of 9/11 and the surveillance society, to the Middle East issues that are tackled in Munich: any equivocation in these stories can be calibrated with the explanation that the man himself is torn about how to deal with the perpetrators of terror. So, for Hoberman,  He’s the Hollywood equivalent of a public intellectual. The loosely connected Amistad, Bridge of Spies and Lincoln deal with democracy and the law and the origins and problems of America itself. Despite his success, Dustin Hoffman says Steven’s like a guy who works for Steven Spielberg. The director himself is quick to point out that he has worked with a large team of the same people for decades and calls editor Michael Kahn his blood brother; John Williams he says rewrites his films with music. In the end, all his films he says are father and son stories about separation and reunification – even Lincoln!  And there’s an unpredicted coda to his parents’ bitter divorce (what you might call a twist ending). This is very long at 147 minutes but there isn’t any gristle in an absorbing and fluid chronicle bringing together the many influences around the most important filmmaker of our time. It’s an authorised film but doesn’t suffer for that – he is very open about what drives him and how he works.  He declares happily that he has never had therapy:  Movies are my therapy. Hallelujah – for that we are all truly grateful.

The Blue Parrot (1953)

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The screenplay by Allan MacKinnon (from a story by crime reporter Percy Hoskins) for this post-WW2 Britflick had a lot of promise as a kind of film noir/murder mystery knockoff in a murky world of black marketeers and spivs. When a murder is committed in a Soho nightclub Maureen Maguire (Jacqueline Hill) and her boyfriend are wrongly suspected. An American detective Bob Herrick (Dermot Walsh with a variable accent) is drafted in to help Supt. Chester (Ballard Berkeley) investigate and eventually the shady club owner (John Le Mesurier) falls under suspicion but not before Maureen is endangered … The low budget production means there is no opportunity to stage anything but the most basic shot setups and practically the only redeeming element other than an uncredited track ‘On a Cloud’ (by Trevor Duncan) is the establisher of the neon-lit streets of London at night – which is used twice, at the opening and towards the conclusion. A Stanley Haynes production for ACT, made at Nettlefold Studios by director John Harlow whose exhaustion is palpable. Sigh.

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

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Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way. Years after a disastrous cross-country car trip when they’re leaving college in Chicago, freshly divorced political consultant Harry (Billy Crystal) runs into journalist Sally (Meg Ryan) in NYC after she’s just broken up too. They console each other over their numerous dating fails and become each other’s late night phonecall while introducing their own best friends to each other and have to stand by while they watch the pair (Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher) fall in love and get married. He’s depressive but funny, she’s awkward and self-indulgent. Then when Sally finds out her ex is marrying the woman he dated after her she gets upset – she was supposed to be the transitional person! – and calls Harry and then she and Harry sleep together … Nora Ephron’s witty and insightful comedic tale of contemporary relationships is so true it’s not even funny. What happens when you date your best friend after a traumatic divorce and they know absolutely everything about you? What good can possibly come of it? That was the discussion between director Rob Reiner and smarter-than-thou writer Ephron that led to this. The scene in Katz’s Deli is crowned by Reiner’s mother’s line that is now part of the language – I’ll have what she’s having:  Crystal dreamed it up but only after Ryan suggested faking an orgasm. The aphoristic exchanges are broken up with interviews to camera featuring old married couples recalling how they met. Now when somebody tearfully declares I hate you you’ll have to think twice about what they’re really saying. A modern classic.

 

 

Happy 50th Birthday Julia Roberts 28th October 2017!

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America’s Sweetheart celebrates her 50th birthday today. Why is that so hard to believe? Julia Roberts has been in our consciousness since she was barely out of her teens and then became a global superstar as the happiest hooker in Hollywood with Pretty Woman. That core of steel came through in some of her Nineties roles, with her crowning moment in Erin Brockovich which got her the Academy Award for a stunning, complete performance in which she played a single mother who needed to wise up fast and use her smarts to help win a class action in an environmental lawsuit. The vintage Valentino dress she wore to the ceremony is still the highpoint of Oscars fashion in the past two decades. As well as working with auteurs like Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Steven Soderbergh, romcom maker Garry Marshall and actor-turned-director George Clooney, the world’s highest paid actress has been in metatextual and self-referential comedy dramas like Notting Hill, Runaway Bride and America’s Sweethearts. She has challenged herself (and us) with tough roles in Mary Reilly and The Normal Heart, been both touching and tough in Stepmom and Closer, wickedly funny in Mirror Mirror and Charlie Wilson’s War but my personal favourite performance is in My Best Friend’s Wedding, a deftly written, beautifully constructed and hilarious study of jealousy with great songs, a twisted heart and a fabulous resolution. With a new TV series (Homecoming) in the pipeline she is not going to exit the limelight any time soon. There will never be another, no matter how the pundits may tempt us every few years. Happy Birthday Screen Queen! Long may you reign.

 

 

 

Lethal Weapon (1987)

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Where did you get him – Psychos R Us? Its Christmas in LA. A beautiful young blonde takes some pills and swan dives from a high rise apartment onto the roof of a parked car. Ageing police officer and family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is newly paired with psychotically reckless widowed undercover cop and former Green Beret Marty Riggs (Mel Gibson) who has been suicidal and virtually homicidal since the death of his wife in a car crash. The dead girl is Amanda Hunsaker the daughter of an acquaintance of Murtaugh’s from Nam. Her pills were drugged with drain cleaner so she would have been dead within 15 minutes one way or another. After a shootout with Amanda’s pimp, Murtaugh figures the reason his friend was trying to contact him in the days before Amanda’s death was because he wanted to rat out his colleagues in a heroin smuggling ring dating back to their days in Air America, the CIA front for smuggling in Laos and they likely killed the girl as a warning. The group is led by General McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) whose enforcer Jack Joshua (Gary Busey) is a violent psychotic who meets his match in Marty Riggs and when he captures him it’s torture  … Shane Black’s screenplay caused a sensation when it sold for megabucks back in the day.  It has some uncredited work done by Jeffrey Boam because the original was much darker than what we see here. Sure it’s a trashy loud violent action buddy movie but its real strength is the bed of emotions played by Glover and Gibson, two well-matched actors who have charisma to burn and were ingeniously cast by the legendary Marion Dougherty. Murtaugh’s quandary as the father of a teenage daughter is amplified by his Nam buddy’s heartache over his daughter’s plight and motivates him to pursue the conspirators (and is also a significant plot point); while Riggs’s deranged grief is understandable to anyone who’s bereaved:  his rooftop rescue of a jumper is breathtaking.  The deadpan style is emphasised when Murtaugh is warned by a police psychiatrist after the fact about what could happen when Riggs blows. The treatment of the suicide storyline is extremely well written. It’s all about how these guys choose to express their feelings and confront their fears while carrying out their duties in this smart and funny slambang sensation which is so sharply directed by Richard Donner. It has visual and narrative energy in abundance: Donner makes his usual visual jokes about where he places his credit and puts The Lost Boys on a cinema marquee and the film is dedicated to stuntman Dar Robinson who died after production. This was the first in a long-running franchise and three years later Gibson starred in Air America a film about those very merry pranksters who are the villains here Produced by Joel Silver.