The Grass is Greener (1961)

The Grass is Greener green

Our love for each other is founded on mutual distrust. In order to maintain their crumbling and damp stately home, Earl Vincent Rhyall aka Victor (Cary Grant) and his wife Lady Hilary (Deborah Kerr) reluctantly open it to coach parties of tourists, one of whom, American oil millionaire Charles Delacro (Robert Mitchum), falls for the lady of the manor. Feeling rather neglected, she begins to return his advances and spends four days with him at the Savoy in London. In order to win her back, the Earl has to call on the services of his old flame, Hattie Durant (Jean Simmons) and his very laconic, very English butler Trevor Sellers (Moray Watson) who’s really looking for material for a novel. When Hilary and Charles return to the manor, Victor decides there’s only one way to settle things and it’s straight out of the eighteenth century... That’s the way the world wags. It’s the third time Grant was paired with Kerr following Dream Wife and An Affair to Remember; ditto for Mitchum and Simmons after Angel Face and She Couldn’t Say No; and Mitchum had been memorably cast opposite Kerr in Heaven Knows Mr Allison and more recently in The Sundowners, also released in December 1960. Director Stanley Donen knew what he was doing with this immaculately polished stage adaptation by Hugh Williams and Margaret Vyner of their West End success. Yes, it’s theatrical but it’s beautifully mounted, the setting is fabulous and the Dior costumes wonderful (particularly Simmons’) and the cast really get their teeth into the smart dialogue. There are good in- jokes – including about Rock Hudson (originally intended for Mitchum’s role), a mutual friend of both men called ‘Josh Peters’ (a nod to Donen’s two young sons) and Paramount Studios. A class act, in every sense of the term, this was shot by Christopher Challis at Osterley Park, just outside London and the interiors were by Felix Harbord. There’s no honour where there’s sex

 

Bad Education (2019)

Bad Education

You were always the guy in the suits. Long Island, New York, 2002. Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is the superintendent of Roslyn School District which oversees Roslyn High School. Frank, along with his assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) have overseen major improvements in the district, with Roslyn becoming the 4th ranked public school in the country under their watch. This in turn stimulates the local economy, reaping rewards for school board head and real estate broker Bob Spicer (Ray Romano). Frank is beloved by students and parents alike, and sought after by women; Frank claims to have lost his wife several years ago, but is in fact gay, living with Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella) in NYC. While attending a conference in Las Vegas, Frank begins an affair with former student Kyle Contreras (Rafeal Casal) who has given up his dream of writing sci fi for waiting tables and dancing. While writing an article for the Roslyn school paper about an $8m sky bridge the school is planning to construct, student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) begins to discover discrepancies in the district’s finances. Unbeknownst to anyone at the school, Frank and Pam are co-conspirators in a massive embezzlement scheme that has cost millions of taxpayer dollars and her steady research leads all the way to the top and when Frank gives up Pam there will be hell to pay ... We come in here at the crack of dawn because we’re good people.  We want you to have a good life. Adapted from Bad Superintendent, a story by Robert Kolker in New York magazine by Mike Makowsky, who was a middle school student in that school district when Tassone was arrested for grand larceny.  Viswanathan isn’t a particularly interesting performer but she does what all journalists have done since watching All the President’s Men – she follows the money. It’s dogged old-school reporting stuff, looking at purchase orders, not finding receipts and then questioning everyone concerned.  It’s fun to see those moments with her doubtful student paper editor Nick Fleischman (Alex Wolff) doing a junior Ben Bradlee. The moment one hour in where she finds the so-called offices of the school’s pamphlet producer and realises it’s Tassone’s plush apartment where he’s co-habiting with a man is brilliantly done – capped when Tassone arrives and sees her desperate to leave the building. Jackman is superb as a charismatic man with many secrets, utilising his ability to psychoanalyse everyone around him to get the better of them since he seems to care so much about them. For the longest time we don’t even know the extent of his involvement as information is drip fed slowly through the narrative. His vanity is reflected in the scenes with him attending to his cosmetic routine, culminating in surgery. Jackman finds ways to plumb the breadth of the character and elicit empathy, stealing our hearts as easily as expensing first class flights to London with his boyfriend and deflecting come-ons from women in the parents’ association book club. Janney is superb in a chewy role – able to talk her way out of trouble, trying to buy her children’s affections even when her son is a total loser and ultimately choosing the path of revenge. Erring more on the dramatic rather than the comedic side of genre, this gives a rare insight into white collar crime – the quotidian corruption that afflicts cosy cartels running public bodies leading to those occasional stupefying headlines when you see something has gone bust yet all the admin people are living high on the hog while their workplaces are falling apart with damp. The sidebars about food intake, digestive issues, cosmetics, clothes, jewellery, pushy parenting and spoiling wrong ‘uns are well judged subplots amplifying the drudgery of the teaching environment and the desire to rise above the mere plebs. It’s wordy, it’s smart, it’s filled with people covering their asses and it’s called the ring of truth. Directed by Cory Finley. I am not the sociopath here

Home to Danger (1951)

Home to Danger

I never suspect anything, Sir. Barbara Cummings (Rona Anderson) returns to Britain following the death of her estranged, wealthy father who is believed to have committed suicide. It is expected that the bulk of the estate will pass to his business partner Hughes (Alan Wheatley). However, when the will is read out and she is reunited with her childhood sweetheart novelist Robert (Guy Rolfe) she is given most of the money as a gesture of reconciliation by her father. She clings to her belief that he did not kill himself and investigates the circumstances of his death. Before long, plots are being hatched to kill her and she is followed to her country house by Lips Leonard (Peter Jones) whose murder at the property leads Barbara and Robert to the backstreets of London and a drugs deal that implicates Hughes with Jimmy-the-One (Dennis Harkin) leading them to where it’s all at … Is this a new version of our old game? Probably of most interest nowadays for Stanley Baker’s early performance as a kind of wild-eyed half-wit called Willie Dougan who of course knows more than anyone realises, although for myself I’ll go a long way to see Peter Jones lurking in the undergrowth. This is a neatly constructed and well-performed programmer destined for the lower half of a double bill. The drug-oriented content is a surprise but this was becoming a social problem and is clearly demarcated in a city milieu. It features the final performance by Francis Lister who plays a murderous children’s home proprietor. Written by Ian Stuart Black  from an original screen story by Francis Edge and John Temple-Smith. Produced by Lance Comfort at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith with a score by Malcolm Arnold and it’s shot by Reginald Wyer. Directed by Terence Fisher. You never know where you are with a dope

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2019)

What She Said The Art of Pauline Kael

People don’t tend to like a good critic. They tend to hate your guts. Film critic Pauline Kael had an unimaginable influence in the world of thumbs up, thumbs down reviewing and accumulated acolytes and rivals as she cultivated what she believed was an expressive art form. She was a failed playwright from California who moved to New York City, had an illegitimate daughter by experimental filmmaker James Broughton and returned to Berkeley where she started talking about movies on a radio show. What she failed at in her theatre writing she achieved in reviewing. Something just clicked, as one interviewee recalls. She loved Shoeshine, damned Limelight and got herself in print with a book called I Lost it at the Movies which made her a name. And that title underwrites everything about a woman who regarded every movie as a date. She worked at McCalls’ until she was asked to leave because she did not sit on the fence and was not in tune with the mainstream. She crucified some films, like Hiroshima, mon amour and Lawrence of Arabia. She deplored American cinema at the time. Bonnie and Clyde is the review that made her famous in the wake of Bosley Crowther’s famously damning criticism. Her review was rejected by The New Republic and when The New Yorker published it it was a sensation and she got a job there on a six-month on, six-month off contract.  Robert Towne, who consulted on the film, describes how it helped the film. She loved movies and famously wrote Trash, Art and the Movies where she delineates the difference between the good and the bad as she saw it. She experienced sexism, as she stated on a 1973 TV show:  It is very difficult for men to accept that women can argue reasonably. She had her favourites – Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Warren Beatty among them. Camille Paglia shudders and says she can’t understand why she went to the mat for Last Tango in Paris:  she bought her own ticket at the New York Film Festival and stole the march on her rivals, giving it a rave that weekend. Mean Streets she loved and Scorsese was one filmmaker who benefitted from her cheerleading. She crucified films she thought were phony – she described Shoah as having a lack of moral complexity and summed up Apocalypse Now as white man – he devil. She would not be intimidated. She hated horror movies – she lived in New York City and said she had a hard enough time living in such a scary place without having to contend with The Exorcist and its ilk. There’s an excerpt of a TV interview with author William Peter Blatty saying that Kael’s reviews are full of personal poison. She got herself a great big house in Massachusetts and would spend a week at a time in New York at screenings. She enhanced some careers,  damaged others. She had her camp followers and encouraged Paulettes like Paul Schrader who would take on a job on the LA Weekly and then jump on the bandwagon for a particular film at her request. She had a rivalry with auteurist critic Andrew Sarris whom she castigates in her essay Circles and Squares. His widow Molly Haskell says of Kael, No male critic had as much testosterone as Pauline. While this is quite good on context it never really nails the nitty gritty of what it is to be a journalist and to go out on a limb giving the only viciously – and presumptively – perceptive account of a film that other critics are afraid to give what she would call a con. Her famous book about Citizen Kane‘s authorship rehabilitated the reputation of forgotten screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his role in creating that masterpiece.  But just as Beatty sought to keep her quiet by giving her a job in Hollywood it showed she had blind spots and was perhaps rather naive:  she had come to believe her own publicity much as she professed to scorn the studios’: She was a virgin who was very willing to be seduced. Those six months made her bid a hasty retreat to the rather safer confines of critcism. When she loved something, you knew it:  she came out in a big way for Casualties of War. After 24 years and suffering from Parkinson’s she retired from The New Yorker. Readings from letters and telegrams that celebrities wrote to her capture some of the devastation she wrought including one from Gregory Peck:  You may have cost me good roles in the most productive phase of my career. Her review of Blade Runner was so damaging that director Ridley Scott hasn’t read a review since. On the other hand, Steven Spielberg wrote, 1000 reviews later you are the only writer who really understood Jaws.  It is interesting  – and impossible to credit in the democratised, non-edited non-hierarchical space and era of social media and the internet in which nobody has any particular importance – that one critic could have held such sway over popular opinion in a world where limited opening dominated. For Pauline Kael everything was a conversation. There are a lot of interviews here but their content feels circumstantial rather than deep or meaningful. It’s something of an irony. Written and directed by Rob Garver.  The movies needed her

 

The Beach Bum (2019)

The Beach Bum

He may be a jerk, but he’s a great man. Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) is a fun-loving, pot-smoking, beer-drinking writer who lives life on his own terms in Key West, Florida. Luckily, his wealthy wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) loves him for exactly those qualities. She lives further up the coast in Miami and cavorts about with Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) courtesy of their open marriage. Following his daughter Heather’s (Stefania LaVie Owen) wedding, a tragic accident brings unexpected changes to Moondog’s relaxed lifestyle. Suddenly, putting his literary talent to good use and finishing his next great book is a more pressing matter than he would have liked it to be and he embarks upon a life-changing quest, encountering all kinds of freaks en route including a dolphin tour guide Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence), a sociopathic roomie Flicker (Zac Efron) in rehab and Southern friend and good ol’ boy Lewis (Jonah Hill) I gotta go low to get high. An extraordinary looking piece of auteur work from Harmony Korine, courtesy of the inventive and beautiful shooting of cinematographer Benoît Debie, this is a nod to McConaughey’s arch stoner credentials and the persona he established back in Dazed and Confused. And what about this for an example of his poetry:  Look down at my penis./ Knowing it was inside you twice today/Makes me feel beautiful.  He is convinced the world is conspiring to make him happy no matter what happens. There’s little plot to speak of once the main action is established in the first thirty minutes but what unspools is so genial and unforced and funny that you can’t help but wish you were part of the woozy hedonistic bonhomie. Jimmy Buffett appears as … Jimmy Buffett in a film that’s so Zen it’s horizontal. Bliss. We can do anything we want or nothing at all

Please Turn Over (1959)

Please Turn Over

I do wish Julia would go out more. In a small English town a scandal ensues after bored teenage hairdresser Jo Halliday (Julia Lockwood) secretly writes a novel called Naked Revolt, turning versions of her family, friends and neighbours into sex-mad boozers.  Her father Edward (Ted Ray) is an inoffensive accountant now believed to be an embezzler, her mother Janet (Jean Kent) is thought to be carrying on with a retired soldier turned driving instructor Willoughby (Lionel Jeffries) whom people now assume is Jo’s father.  Her fitness-obsessed aunt Gladys (June Jago) is treated as an alcoholic having an affair with the local philandering doctor Henry Manners (Leslie Phillips). Although initially surprised to see themselves written into the book, everyone begins to learn more about themselves and each other through the novel, meanwhile Angry Young Playwright Robert Hughes (Tim Seely) is interested in adapting the novel to the stage and begins a relationship with Jo …. My goodness! That’s a highly sagacious aphorism, what’s its current application? Adapted from Basil Thomas’ play Book of the Month by Norman Hudis this is the British version of Peyton Place and it’s a much more anodyne portrait of small town secrets. Directed by Gerald Thomas and produced by Peter Rogers, this is a Carry On production but more subtle than its origins would suggest with a superb British cast of familiar faces like Joan Sims, Joan Hickson and Victor Maddern. Lockwood is the daughter of star Margaret Lockwood and acquits herself very well as the knowing ingenue. It looks good thanks to the cinematography of Ted Scaife. Good fun but unfortunately the author Basil Thomas didn’t live to see this on the screen – he died in 1957 aged just 44. Those that are the most affected are always the last to know

Action in the North Atlantic (1943)

Action in the North Atlantic

Aka Heroes Without Uniforms. We’ve run into a wolfpack. Merchant Marine sailors First Mate Joe Rossi (Humphrey Bogart) and Captain Steve Jarvis (Raymond Massey) survive the sinking of SS Northern Star by German U-boat U-37 en route from Halifax. After 11 days drifting they are rescued. Steve spends time with his wife Sarah (Ruth Gordon), while Joe meets and marries singer Pearl O’Neill (Julie Bishop). At the union hall, merchant seamen, including the Northern Star survivors, spend their time waiting to be assigned to a new ship. Over a round of poker, Johnnie Pulaski (Dane Clark) jokes about getting a shore job and reveals his fear of dying at sea. The others shame him into signing along with them on another ship. Alfred “Boats” O’Hara (Alan Hale, Sr.) is tracked down by his wife, who has apparently not seen him since he was rescued. She angrily serves him with a divorce summons. O’Hara, knowing he is headed back to sea, gleefully tears it up, saying Them ‘Liberty Boats’ are sure well named! When they are charged with getting supply vessel Seawitch to Russian allies in Murmansk as part of a sea convoy and the group of ships comes under attack from U-37 again, Rossi and Jarvis are motivated by the opportunity to strike back at the Germans but now have to dodge Luftwaffe bullets too  For a sailor’s wife this war is just another storm.  Tremendously exciting action adventure paying tribute to the men of the US Merchant Marine. The evocation of a group under pressure with their particular avocations and tics is expertly done and the characterisation is a model for war movies. There are all kinds of devices and diversions, from an onboard kitten and his successor; to envy of a Naval officer Cadet Ezra Parker (Dick Hogan); and the usual carping about the quality of the nosh. With a screenplay by John Howard Lawson (from a story by Guy Gilpatric) and additional dialogue by A.I. Bezzerides and W. R. Burnett you can be sure there are some riproaring lines: A trip to perdition would be like a pleasure cruise compared with what we’re going into. Wonderfully shot by Ted McCord with marvellous effects, you would never guess that this was shot on the studio lot due to wartime restrictions. Directed by Lloyd Bacon with uncredited work by Byron Haskin and Raoul Walsh. I’ve got faith – in God, President Roosevelt and the Brooklyn Dodgers – in the order of their importance!

Road to Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition

Where would this town be without Mr John Rooney? In 1931 Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hitman and enforcer for Irish-American mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) in the Rock Island area. His son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) hides in the car one night after the wake for one of Rooney’s henchmen and sees his Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) administer a shot in the head to the dead man’s brother Finn (Ciarán Hinds) who talked too much at the event; while he understands for the first time what his father does for a living when he witnesses the bloodshed. Rooney sends Connor to kill Michael and the boy but Connor instead kills his wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and other son Peter (Liam Aiken) in cold blood and Michael goes on the run with Michael Jr in an attempt to gain revenge for his family’s murder. He finds that he has no friends and no protection and is advised by Mafia man Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to give up. He reckons without a freelance corpse photographer Maguire (Jude Law) following him and thinks that by uncovering Connor’s theft that Rooney will accept him as the son he never had … A man of honour always pays his debts and keeps his word. I like this far better now that years have passed, Newman is gone and what I originally thought of as directorial heavy-handedness is more readily recognisable as a comfort with the excessive expressionistic qualities of the source material. Hanks’ doughy face with its deep-set eyes seems peculiarly unsuited for this kind of role but paradoxically lends the performance an unexpected quality. His six-week road trip with his son gives him an opportunity to impart lessons and learn about the boy for the first time. He makes us know that Michael Jr is not to follow him into this deadly business. His scenes with Newman are marvellous – a kind of trading off in acting styles, one legend passing on lessons to the next, borne out in the storytelling. What Michael doesn’t know is that blood means more than sympathy, no matter the horrors involved in being part of the Rooney family. Of course Connor would betray his father;  and of course his father knows. It’s a hard thing to watch Michael learn the truth. Loyalty sucks. This is a gallery of masculine roles – Craig as the ever-smiling psychotic son, Law as the rotten-toothed shooter masquerading as the photographer of death – a correlative of the film’s own morbidity; Hoechlin as the boy learning at his father’s elbow as the guns go off. Hinds impresses in those early scenes, quietly seething then mouthing off at his brother’s wake, a crime which will  not go unpunished. Dylan Baker’s accountant Alexander Rance has a decidedly old-fashioned homosexual taint of prissiness. This is a linear story of fathers and sons, cause and effect, crime, punishment and revenge in an Oedipal setting dictated by the rules of inevitability that can be traced to Greek tragedy. There are no surprises but the pleasures of the production design by Dennis Gassner, the cinematography by Conrad Hall (who earned a posthumous Academy Award) and the performances make this worth a re-viewing. Screenplay by David Self from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers

Above Suspicion (1943)

Above Suspicion

Her conception of foreign affairs derives directly from Hollywood. In 1939 just prior to WW2 honeymooning couple Oxford professor Richard Myles (Fred MacMurray) and his new bride, undergraduate Frances (Joan Crawford) are recruited to spy on the Nazis for British intelligence. Initially finding the mission fun the trail gets them in real danger as they try to interpret their encounters with contacts.  They then realise a fellow guest Peter Galt (Richard Ainley) at their holiday destination is actually a hitman on a mission of his own and his girlfriend has been murdered at Dachau after the Brits let them take on a job without informing them how bad the Nazis really were … Here we have an iron maiden, also known as the German Statue of Liberty. Crawford may have railed at the preposterous plot in TV’s Feud:  Bette and Joan and it would be her last film at MGM but the fact is Helen MacInnes based her excellent wartime novel on something that actually happened to herself and her husband. Crawford has several good moments – and a ‘bit’ involving what happens her ankle when she’s nervous – including when Conrad Veidt inveigles his way into their museum visit and shows her an instrument of torture which she describes as a totalitarian manicure. It’s a preview of coming attractions. She and MacMurray have chemistry and there are terrifically tense musical moments with some remarks that just skid past innuendo regarding their honeymoon. Fact is, they’ve been dumped in a really dangerous situation and now don’t they know it and the mention of concentration camps proves beyond reasonable doubt the Allies had a pretty good idea what was going on despite post-war claims. There’s an assassination that will only surprise someone who’s never watched a film. A sprightly script by Keith Winter & Melville Baker and Patricia Coleman (with uncredited work by Leonard Lee) keeps things moving quickly in Hollywood’s version of Europe, circa, whenever, and who can’t love a movie that reveals suave Basil Rathbone in Nazi regalia? Directed by Richard Thorpe but it should have been Hitchcock, as Crawford herself stated. Typical tourists – above suspicion

The Romantic Englishwoman (1975)

The Romantic Englishwoman

Women are an occupied country. Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson) is the bored wife of a successful English pulp writer Lewis Fielding (Michael Caine) who is currently suffering from writer’s block. She leaves him and their son David (Marcus Richardson) and runs away to the German spa town of Baden-Baden. There she meets Thomas (Helmut Berger), who claims to be a poet but who is actually a petty thief, conman, drug courier and gigolo. Though the two are briefly attracted to each other, she returns home. He, hunted by gangsters headed by Swan (Mich[a]el Lonsdale) for a drug consignment he has lost, follows her to England. Lewis, highly suspicious of his wife, invites the young man to stay with them and act as his secretary. Lewis embarks on writing a screenplay for German film producer Herman (Rene Kolldehoff) – a penetrating psychological story about The New Woman. Initially resenting the presence of the handsome stranger now installed in their home as her husband’s amanuensis and carrying on with the nanny Isabel (Béatrice Romand), Elizabeth starts an affair with him and the two run away with no money to Monaco and the South of France. Lewis follows them, while he in turn is followed by the gangsters looking for Thomas… It’s about this ungrateful woman who is married to this man of great charm, brilliance, and integrity. She thinks he won’t let her be herself, and she feels stuck in a straitjacket when she ought to be out and about and taking the waters and finding herself. With a cast like that, this had me at Hello. Director Joseph Losey’s customarily cool eye is lent a glint in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Thomas Wiseman’s novel (with the screenplay co-written by the author) in a work that teeters on the edges of satire. A house bristling with tension is meat and drink to both Stoppard and Losey, whose best films concern the malign effects of an interloper introducing instability into a home.  It’s engineered to produce some uncanny results – as it appears that Lewis the novelist is capable of real-life plotting and we are left wondering if Elizabeth’s affair has occurred at all or whether it might be him working out a story. Perhaps it’s his jealous fantasy or it might be his elaborate fictionalising of reality. Invariably there are resonances of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad but it’s far funnier. Like that film, it’s something of an intellectual game with a mystery at its centre. Aren’t you sick of these foreign films? Viewed as a pure exploration of writerly paranoia as well as the marital comedy intended by the novel, it’s a hall of mirrors exercise also reminiscent of another instance of the era’s art house modernism, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  The flashback/fantasy elevator sequence that is Lewis’ might also belong to Elizabeth. You might enjoy the moment when Thomas mistakes Lewis for the other Fielding (Henry) but he still hangs in there without embarrassment and seduces all around him. Or when Lewis suggests to his producer that he make a thriller rather than the more subtle study he’s suggesting – and then you realise that’s what this British-French co-production becomes. It’s richly ironic – Lewis and Elizabeth have such a vigorously happy marriage a neighbour (Tom Chatto) interrupts a bout of al fresco lovemaking but none of them seems remotely surprised, as if this is a regular occurrence. And any film that has Lonsdale introduce himself as the Irish Minister for Sport has a sense of humour. If it seems inconsistent there is compensation in the beauty of the performances (particularly Jackson’s, which is charming, warm and funny – All she wanted was everything!) and the gorgeous settings, with a very fine score by Richard Hartley. The elegance, precision and self-referentiality make this a must for Losey fans. It was probably a tricky shoot – Jackson and Berger couldn’t stand each other, allegedly. And Caine placed a bet that he could make the director smile by the end of the shoot. He lost. Wiseman commemorated his experience with Losey in his novel Genius Jack. It’s not kind. This, however, is a sly treat you don’t want to miss. You are a novelist, an imaginer of fiction.