Happiest Season (2020)

Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version and my version, and everything in between.  Abby (Kristen Stewart) plans to propose to her live-in girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) while at Harper’s family home for the holiday. On the way to their annual Christmas party she discovers Harper hasn’t yet come out to her conservative parents Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) and Ted (Victor Garber). Underachiever but dutiful sister Jane (Mary Holland) is Ted’s tech dogsbody while he’s running for mayor and every move the family makes has to be Instagrammed to make them look normal. Overachiever basic bitch Sloane (Alison Brie) turns up with her husband Eric (Burl Moseley) and two nauseating children who get Abby arrested for shoplifting at the mall. Abby meets Riley (Aubrey Plaza) who is Harper’s high school girlfriend and they quickly make friends as Abby tries to avoid embarrassing Harper in public. She contacts her best friend John (Dan Levy) for advice and he counsels her from a distance while she begins to crack under the pressure of not being part of Harper’s proper family, still living in their closet as Harper avoids coming out. Then John visits just as Ted is about to impress the local dignitaries at their annual party … Just because Harper isn’t ready doesn’t mean she never will be, and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you. Co-written by actress turned director Clea DuVall with Mary Holland, this is LGBTQ up the wazoo. We’re in a movie with a Mommie Dearest-type called Tipper so we’re probably nodding to the days of Parental Guidance on vinyl records. A smoothly run surprise-free but enthusiastic entertainment beautifully performed (by all but Davis, who looks very out of place in this ensemble) that was publicised as making gay inroads into festive films. But that was done years ago with the brilliant The Family Stone which is a very amusing well written equal opportunities offender, unlike this, which is really about undoing straight thinking. It’s no accident that the only person speaking common sense is Levy, the token camper; and the father who learns a lesson is gay in real life. The married sister has a black husband which is probably a far bigger issue in reality than the fact that they’re Ivy League law grads who sell hampers and live in an adulterous relationship. There’s more going on here than these family secrets in this clumsy Meet the Parents knock off. The big romcom reference structurally is My Best Friend’s Wedding but we never have the kind of release supplied by that classic although Levy is a breath of fresh air, clearly expressing the film’s true point of view. The earnest virtue-signalling screenplay never seems to explore the real elephant in the room leaving this feeling naggingly incomplete. Maybe it’s a lesbian thing. Ho ho ho hum.  I want you to break out of that closet!

Dark City (1950)

You can’t live without getting involved. Danny Haley (Charlton Heston) was a war hero but now he fleeces dupes in a rigged poker game. He likes going to a local bar where Fran Garland (Lizabeth Scott) sings and he romances her from time to time. He and his pals see Air Force vet Arthur Winant (Don DeFore) as an easy mark, but they’ve reckoned without Winant’s homicidal brother Sidney (Mike Mazurki), a psychotic former soldier, who wants revenge after Arthur apparently kills himself. Despite paying for police protection Police Chief Garvey (Dean Jagger) has Danny’s number but no proof that he caused his death, in fact suspecting that it’s Winant’s own brother who’s responsible. Danny tracks down Arthur’s widow Victoria (Viveca Lindfors) and attempts to find Sidney before he finds him and his card shark friends but finds himself falling for her before he skips town for Vegas with the blessing of the cops when Sidney is getting too close … Guys like you don’t get arrested. You get killed first. A taut B about post-war psychosis among returning soldiers gives Heston his movie debut and a leading role at that. It’s a sharp piece of genre work with a cat and mouse structure giving it pace. Benefitting from complex characterisation, ripe dialogue and a nice song performed by Scott (actually dubbed by Trudy Stevens) to punctuate the action every 12 minutes or so, this is a story with its roots in a real social problem about criminal behaviour among returning GIs. As such it sits nicely in those crime noirs of the period. It moves well and has a pair of good roles for the female characters, nicely essayed by Scott and Lindfors. It’s also of interest because sidekick characters Augie (Jack Webb) and Soldier (Harry Morgan) went on to star in TV’s Dragnet. There are some great LA location shots by DoP Victor Milner of the Griffith Observatory, Union Station, North Hollywood, an amusement pier in Ocean Park, the Wilshire Plaza Hotel and the Valley Vista Motel on Ventura Blvd. in the San Fernando Valley. And there are some terrific backdrops shot in Las Vegas and Chicago. Written by John Meredyth Lucas and adapted by Ketti Frings from Larry Marcus’ story No Escape. Briskly directed by William Dieterle. You’ve got no excuse for being here

The Small Back Room (1949)

Aka Hour of Glory. Men and women are all the same when they dance.
Brilliant but tormented and alcoholic bomb expert Sammy Rice (David Farrar) works for the British government during World War II. Army captain Dick Stuart (Michael Gough) drafts him into a secret project concerning a new small land mine that German planes have been dropping over England’s beaches. But despite the ministrations of his faithful assistant and girlfriend, Susan (Kathleen Byron), Rice’s increasingly problematic alcoholism and a recent injury threaten his ability to work. When he is called, hungover, to a bomb that has cost his colleague his life it’s a life and death situation and he requires every bit of his focus to not end up the same way … You mustn’t keep a dog and bark yourself, you know. Powell and Pressburger’s post-war drama about the detailed, painstaking jobs done by ordinary – or perhaps extraordinary – men and women fighting them on the wartime beaches is a baleful psychological study of desperation. The beads of perspiration in those endless close ups of the brilliant Farrar and the sexual allegory of dance and music is wonderfully choreographed in a kind of asynchronous narrative that eventually finds its climax. The clock is quite literally ticking throughout in a story of almost unbearable tension. There are terrific supporting roles for Jack Hawkins, Cyril Cusack and an unbilled Robert Morley, playing a government minister. Adapted by Powell and Pressburger from Nigel Balchin’s novel, this is an underrated entry in the auteurist pair’s output and a true cult classic. Unmissable British cinema. It is not the prestige of a particular department that is important but men’s lives

Z (1969)

He is alive. Greece, the 1960s. Doctor Gregorios Lambrakis (Yves Montand) leader of the opposition is injured during an anti-military/nuclear demonstration in an incident that causes his death. The government and army are trying to suppress the truth – their involvement with a right-wing organisation in a covert assassination. But they don’t control the hospital where Lambrakis is brought and the autopsy reveals the cause of death. Then tenacious Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is determined to not to let them get away with it despite every witness getting beaten up en route to his office … Always blame the Americans. Even if you’re wrong. Adapted from Vassilis Vassilikos’ 1966 novel by Greek-born director Costa-Gavras and Jorge Semprun (with uncredited work by blacklisted Ben Barzman), this political thriller gained its frisson and urgency from its lightly fictionalised portrayal of recent events in Greece which this more or less accurately depicts. Nowadays its style is commonplace but its skill in evoking the dangers of the official version and the suppression of free speech is more important than ever. Inspired by real-life events, including the ‘disappearing’ of opposition Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Barka in Paris in 1965, with a surgical reference to JFK, the beauty of the construction is in having Montand’s experiences including with wife Helene (Irene Papas) dominating the first half, while the second is about the steady work of investigation carried out by Trintignant, who winds up unmasking a conspiracy at the highest level. Beautifully shot by Raoul Coutard and scored by Mikis Theodorakis. Tough, taut, suspenseful filmmaking that is exciting and dreadful simultaneously, speaking truth to power about corruption, passionate engagement and the casual use of street thugs to commit murder for the state. There is even room for humour as Trintignant insists on treating the officers like anyone else when they are indicted and each one of them believes him to be a Communist when in fact his right wing credentials are impeccable. In real life the military junta came to power and banned the venerable Papas, who was a member of the Communist Party:  she wasn’t the only one of course but she survived to celebrate her 94th birthday on 3rd September last. Essential cinema. Why do the ideas we stand for incite such violence?

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Wilfrid the Fox! That’s what they call him, and that’s what he is! When Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) approaches ailing veteran London barrister Sir Wilfrid Roberts (Charles Laughton) to defend him on a charge of murdering a wealthy widow who was enamored of him, going so far as to make him the main beneficiary of her will. Strong circumstantial evidence all points to Vole as the killer. Sir Wilfrid’s nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) objects on the grounds of her client’s ill health. Vole’s former wife Christine Helm (Marlene Dietrich) a German refugee provides an alibi for him. But then she turns up in court to testify against him and Sir Wilfrid is contacted by a mysterious woman, who (for a fee) provides him with letters written by Christine to a mysterious lover named Max  …  I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders. Adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1953 stage play (based on her 1925 short story) by Larry Marcus with the screenplay by Harry Kurnitz (who had written whodunnits pseudonymously) and director Billy Wilder, who chose this project because he so admired its construction. Essentially, this is his Hitchcock film, a brilliantly made comic suspenser with rat-a-tat dialogue to die for and what an ending! And what stars! In a film which hugely improved on Christie’s characterisation, Dietrich smothers the screen with charisma in both her (dis)guises while Power is superb as the smooth charmer he made his own. Lanchester is gifted as many good lines as anyone in the cast including,  Personally, I think the government should do something about those foreign wives. Like an embargo. How else can we take care of our own surplus. Don’t you agree Sir Wilfrid? Her real-life husband of course plays the wily lawyer and he is magnificent: his expressions and business are masterful. There are some welcome familiar faces – John Williams (a Hitchcock regular), Henry Daniell and Una O’Connor, the only original member of the Broadway cast to reprise her role. Beautifully staged and paced, shot by Russell Harlan on sets by Alexandre Trauner with Dietrich costumed by Edith Head, this breathtaking entertainment is a classic film, an object lesson in adaptation with wit and ingenuity to spare. Both Dietrich and Power sing I May Never Go Home Anymore (uncredited) and this is his last completed film. But this is England, where I thought you never arrest, let alone convict, people for crimes they have not committed

The Hustle (2019)

Men always underestimate us. Josephine Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway) is a glamorous, seductive British woman who likes defrauding gullible men out of their money. Into her well-ordered, meticulous world comes cunning and fun-loving Australian woman Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who loves to swindle unsuspecting marks. Despite their different methods, the two soon join forces to combine their talents for the ultimate score – a young and naive tech billionaire Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp) in the lovely Riviera town of Beaumont-sur-mer in the the South of FranceMy condition is 100% mental.  This remake of Bedtime Story (1964) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) coasts on the comic gifts of at least one of its leading ladies in this gender-reversed tale of cons.  Despite their best efforts and the intricate plotting it never really gets going. The original screenplay by Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning was rewritten for the 1988 film by Dale Launer and is updated/flipped here by Jac Schaefer. Hathaway and Wilson have fun playing in this tale of opposites as the classy versus the low rent double act, Hathaway essaying Michael Caine while Wilson does Steve Martin’s role. There are a few good jokes and a meta reference to Hathaway’s Princess Diaries past when Penny ridicules Josephine’s Julie Andrews accent. Stupidly, this is never revealed as fake despite its evidently poor production:  if she had ironically been identified as an even lower class hustler impersonating a class act we might have got somewhere. The imperfect writing doesn’t play compellingly to the women’s obvious strengths – although at times it threatens to be breathtaking, it settles for the merely silly, denying its own potential for taking down the patriarchal dudes. At least there’s a good butler with Nicholas Woodeson as Albert. A theme song by Meghan Trainor doesn’t save it. Rebel Wilson produced and it’s directed in his debut by The Thick of It‘s Chris Addison. Why are women better suited to the con than men?

The Running Man (1963)

You’re not in Croydon any more. Stella Black (Lee Remick) returns from the memorial service for Rex, her late husband, a pilot who died in a gliding accident. He (Laurence Harvey) is in fact alive and well and in hiding at a secluded seaside boarding house having defrauded his insurer Excelsior out of a huge sum of money for his premature death after they failed to pay out for an accident involving his airline business. Stella joins him in Malaga, Spain where he has changed his appearance and is living under the assumed name of Jim Jerome. Things start to go wrong when an insurance investigator Stephen Maddox (Alan Bates) appears to be following Stella as she drives her expensive car and enjoys the high life at a lovely hotel … He shouldn’t have married her. Adapted by John Mortimer from Shelley Smith’s novel The Ballad of the Running Man, this starts out as a sunny neo noir suspenser and turns into something quite different with a nice twist that dictates the outcome. Harvey and Remick are superb as the beautiful blonde married couple whose fate alters irrevocably and their relationship with it; while the issue of mistaken identity regarding Bates is wonderfully played out, subtly inverting the entire premise so that it rebounds with catastrophic consequences. Thanks to Robert Krasker’s cinematography (a very different experience to the kind of exploitation of locations in The Third Man) Spain looks stunning and the sinister nature of the story comes entirely from the construction and playing. Never was misunderstanding so well portrayed: everything here is lost in translation. Watch out for Fernando Rey as a policeman and Noel Purcell and Eddie Byrne have small roles in a production partly shot at Ardmore Studios in Ireland.  Directed by Carol Reed. They’ll have to put up the insurance premiums on anyone who wants to make love to you

Flashdance (1983)

It’s her social security number, asshole – she works for you! Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) is an eighteen year old juggling two odd jobs in Pittsburgh – welding by day at a steel mill, dancing by night in a working men’s club. But she aspires to become a successful ballet dancer. Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri) is her boss and he becomes her lover and he supports and encourages her to fulfill her dream; so does her mentor Hanna Long (Lilia Skala) a retired ballerina who once danced in the Ziegfeld Follies. Her best friends are Jeanie (Sunny Johnson) a waitress and an aspiring ice skater and Jeanie’s boyfriend Richie (Kyle T. Heffner) who works as a short order cook but dreams of making it as a stand up comic and going to Hollywood. Alex is afraid to push herself when she sees that fellow competitors for Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory have years of training and it takes her friends’ botched efforts and a nudge in the right direction to make her take that big step towards her future … Dreaming is wonderful but it won’t put you closer to what you want. This was a cultural phenomenon back in the day and it’s the music video dream brought to life via the extraordinary backlit cinematography (by Donald Peterman) favoured by auteur Adrian Lyne, a simple plot borrowed from the backstage musicals of Busby Berkeley and the most thumping soundtrack ever dreamed up for the screen. And it is a dream, this story of a beautiful teen who fears failure but keeps on truckin’ and despite the huge warehouse loft apartment, the amazing figure and the somewhat grave demeanour, she’s oddly relatable precisely because she lacks confidence and gets around on a racing bike. Beals is a wonderfully charismatic performer who looks good in or partly out of clothes. Her casual attitude to what she wears is disarming, particularly when she takes off her tux in front of Nouri’s ex Katie (Belinda Bauer) and we see underneath is a fake shirt and it’s backless and barely there. Somehow everything she does feels empowering and sexy. There was some controversy stirred up over the fact that the dancer who (clearly!) performs the electrifying routines for Beals, Marine Jahan, was mysteriously uncredited and she called out the producers herself but it didn’t stop this going gonzo at the box office.  Super Bowl XXI made up for it when she was the featured dancer in the half-time performance. (Sharon Shapiro did the body flips but no word on any further acknowledgement). The soundtrack is by Giorgio Moroder with the songs led by Irene Cara’s What a Feeling, doing for this what her theme for Fame did for that other sassy youthful production with a dark side and legwarmers. This is what feminism looked like in 1983 and it’s hot stuff, if you ask me.  The first collaboration between producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, this fabulous fairytale was written by Tom Hedley and Joe Eszterhas from Hedley’s story and directed by Lyne, a man who clearly loves women. Don’t you understand? When you give up your dream you die

The Shiralee (1957)

I’m not sore – I’m just indifferent. When freewheeling drover and occasional poacher Jim Macauley (Peter Finch) arrives home to Sydney from his regular ‘walkabout’ and finds his wife Marge (Elizabeth Sellars) in the arms of another man, he leaves with his young daughter Buster (Dana Wilson), whom he barely knows. He soon realises that he has to let go of his wandering ways in order to care for the little girl but when her mother wants her back and the child has an accident on his watch a legal battle must be fought … I’m no angel, but I played square with you. Peter Finch’s favourite of his own films, this is a wonderfully unsentimental portrait of a marriage gone wrong, a kid with an errant dad keen to make things right -well, if there isn’t a pretty girl handy.  It’s a picturesque exploration of the parts of Australia, beginning to be populated as the frontier of this vast new country continued to expand. The rugged landscape (north east New South Wales) is expertly framed by cinematographer Paul Beeson in one of a handful of films made by Ealing Films on location in Australia. There are entrancing performances from the leads with Finch superb as the man conflicted between the wish to redeem himself and enjoy the freedom of the open road. Niall MacGinnis has a good supporting role as an unreliable friend and Bud Tingwell turns up too;   while Sid James and Tessie O’Shea provide succour for the vagabond father and charmingly tomboyish daughter especially when his ex-girlfriend Lily’s (Rosemary Harris) father Parker (Russell Napier) wants him out of the area because of the wrong he did her years earlier – he left her pregnant. Neil Patterson co-wrote the adaptation of D’Arcy Niland’s novel with director Leslie Norman, father of much missed movie critic Barry. An absorbing modern western with a keen sense of character and place, sympathetically scored by the great John Addison. The song of the title (which incidentally means ‘burden’) became a hit for Tommy Steele.  I want her because she’s mine


Casino (1995)

There are three ways of doing things around here: the right way, the wrong way, and the way that I do it. You understand? Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is a Jewish handicapper asked by the Chicago Mob to oversee the day-to-day casino and hotel operations at the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas in 1973. His childhood friend, mobster Nicky Santoro (Pesci), is a made man and makes life tricky for Ace. Ace falls for call girl and chip hustler Ginger McKenna (Stone) whom he eventually marries. They have a daughter Amy (Erika von Tagen) but Ginger gets into drugs and her behaviour becomes loud and difficult. Ace has problems getting a gaming licence despite keeping local politicos happy and the skimmed money is being skimmed by people he employs. All his relationship begin to break down and the FBI are closing in when Ginger runs away with her lover and pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods) taking Amy with them … When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believed, that’s the kind of love I had.  At first glance it doesn’t seem elegiac yet this Scorsese collaboration with co-writer Nicholas Pileggi (from his Casino:  Love and Honor in Las Vegas) five years after Goodfellas operates as a long goodbye to a way of life essentially foreign, about strangers in a strange land. It’s adapted from the lives of Frank Rosenthal, Anthony Spilotro and Geri McGee. The mob were never at ease in the desert landscape and the story problem doesn’t end there because all the relationships here are uneven and mismatched:  Jewish and Italian, Ace and Nicky, Ace and Ginger, the Mob and Vegas. It starts audaciously: with a bomb. Yet the victim is one of the narrators. The competing voiceovers by Ace and Nicky are stark illustrations of the power plays beyond the gaming tables. The storytelling, spanning a decade to 1983 (and ‘many years before’) is a familiar one of bribery, corruption, murder, gambling, crooked politicians, prostitution, children, golf, drugs and great clothes, And the production design by Dante Ferretti lit up by Robert Richardson’s beautiful cinematography offers a stark contrast to the coarseness of these terrible people. It’s long and talky and horrifically violent and startling in terms of juxtapositions and acting. At the centre of the extraordinary soundtrack in this epic of marriages gone wrong is the score for Godard’s Contempt (Le mepris) by Georges Delerue, pointing our response in the correct direction. We are left to contemplate the magnificent, complete performance by Sharon Stone, one of the best in modern cinema, the cause and effect in this epic and tragic tale of the misbegotten. In the end it is a pitiless exploration of humanity. A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes