Lucy Gallant (1955)

Lucy Gallant

Don’t get people mixed up with flowers. That only works for the birds and the bees or didn’t anyone tell you? 1941. Stranded by a storm in Sage City Texas en route to Mexico, Lucy Gallant (Jane Wyman) is assisted by handsome rancher Casey Cole (Charlton Heston) who helps find her suitable lodging in a town celebrating recent oil strikes. Local women’s reaction starting with Irma Wilson (Mary Field) and her daughter Laura (Gloria Talbott) to her fashion persuades Lucy to sell the contents of her trousseau and she decides to stay and open a dress shop with the backing of the local bank manager Charles Madden (William Demarest). Lucy lives at Molly Basserman’s (Thelma Ritter) boarding house and runs her store out of Lady ‘Mac’ MacBeth’s (Claire Trevor) brothel, The Red Derrick. She resists newly rich Casey’s romantic approaches explaining that she’d been on the verge of marriage when her fiancé jilted her following her father’s indictment for fraud. Casey proposes to her but only if she gives up business. She returns to find her store has burned down. He underwrites a bank loan for her to rebuild bigger and better without her knowledge. When WW2 breaks out Casey enlists and after the war he returns and they quarrel. He becomes engaged to a fashion model in  Paris but the relationship breaks up and Casey returns to Texas just when Lucy believes she is about to have her greatest success … Some champagne please, I feel like breaking glasses. Adapted from a novella by prolific short story writer Margaret Cousins, the screenplay by John Lee Mahin and Winston Miller feels somewhat laboured and the leads have little to do. The salty presence of Trevor and Ritter as Lucy’s solid female backup is welcome relief from a fairly turgid romance and the sexism is rather unpleasant. The brightest spot is towards the end with a spectacular fashion show guest hosted by legendary Edith Head (who designed the costumes) in a rare appearance (minus her signature blue lenses); while real-life Texas Governor Allan Shivers appears as himself. It can’t hold a candle to Giant, which also tells the story of modern Texas up to the same period. Directed by Robert Parrish. I really shouldn’t let you do it but I will

 

Dark Shadows (2012)

Dark Shadows

I killed your parents, and every one of your lovers. They kept us apart. AD 1972.  Two hundred years after he’s been condemned to a living death as a vampire by Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) a spurned servant who happens to be a witch, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is accidentally exhumed and vows to help his impoverished dysfunctional descendants while falling for his reincarnated lost love Victoria/Josette (Bella Heathcote). He returns to Collinwood where he hypnotises caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) into being his servant, introduces matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) to the family’s treasure trove, ordering her to keep it secret from her nee’er do well brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his eccentric little boy David (Gully McGrath) and her own rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). They have a permanent houseguest in Dr Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), David’s hard-drinking psychiatrist. They also have a rival in the local fishing business in Angel Bay Cannery run by Angie Bouchard (Green) who is still alive and well and determined to finally win Barnabas for herself but he is still in love with Josette… She has the most fertile birthing hips I have ever laid eyes upon. Just your everyday story of immigrants to the New World who turn into vampires because of an ancestral curse, this is one of those Tim Burton films that seems to fall between two stools:  homage and nostalgia, in this earnest adaptation/pastiche of a TV daytime drama hitherto unknown to me but certainly filed nowadays under the heading of Cult. The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith is from a story credited to him and John August and adapted from Dan Curtis’ original show and was reportedly being regularly rewritten on set which is not unusual. It might account for the strangely disconnected feel of the production, which however looks incredible thanks to the designer Rick Heinrichs. At its heart it’s a morality tale about family:  Family is the only real wealth. While the plot’s construction is of the laborious join the dots variety, there are some cute generation gap and proto feminist threads, good time shift moments, like Barnabas’ shocked reaction to television (What sorcery is this?), rock star Alice Cooper (who else?!) performing a concert and of course Depp, who gives a superbly physical Max Schreck-like performance and has very amusing sparring exchanges with all concerned. Not really sure if it wants to be a straight-up horror or a campy comedy and falls between both stools. Luckily Christopher Lee shows up as the king of the fishermen. Green would go on to replace Bonham Carter as Burton’s long term companion. Okay. If you wanna get with her, you’re gonna have to change your approach. Drop the whole weird Swinging London thing and hang out with a few normal people

Hello Down There (1969)

Hello Down There

Aka Sub-a-Dub-Dub. Pretty goldfish, we could have a whale of a time. Marine scientist Fred Miller (Tony Randall) talks his aquaphobic romance novelist wife Vivian (Janet Leigh) into spending thirty days in an experimental home he’s designed for boss T.R. Hollister (Jim Backus) in order to secure funding. But he’s got to take the entire family to live ninety feet under the sea in The Onion and that means their teenage son Tommie (Gary Tigerman) and daughter Lorrie (Kay Cole) who happen to be on the verge of signing a record deal for their pop group led by her boyfriend Harold (Richard Dreyfuss) and his brother Marvin (Lou Wagner). A rival designer, Mel Cheever (Ken Berry) from Undersea Development literally rocks their boat with his sea bed dredging and then a hurricane strikes …  Doctor, I think you’ve been smoking my bananas. An underwater musical? Why not? This blends 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Lost in Space and precedes TV’s The Partridge Family with its band of teenyboppers. Boasting a baby submarine, a seal called Gladys who loves watching the washing machine churn in the ultra mod interior, two helpful dolphins called Duke and Duchess bobbing about the lounge and Roddy McDowall as Nate Ashbury, a wunderkind hepcat music mogul, what more could you possibly want Daddy-o? Oh yes – sharks. And here it is – Dreyfuss’ first encounter with the pesky creatures – who insist on paying the Onion a visit when Leigh mistakenly flushes the trash without first incinerating it. It’s soft-hearted nutty family fun but it’s clearly nodding to Leigh’s fear of water (after Psycho!) and the only person getting their keks off regularly is Randall so whatever floats your boat. Dreyfuss’ songs are sung by composer Jeff Barry and Merv Griffin appears as himself when the kids get to perform on his show from their new abode. Harvey Lembeck appears as a sonar operator on a passing ship which misinterprets the signals from the kids’ songs as enemy activity prompting political anxiety. A real blast from the past. Written by John McGreevey and Frank Telford from a story by Ivan Tors and Art Arthur. Directed by cult sci fi fave Jack Arnold with those marvellous underwater sequences shot by Ricou Browning at Miami’s Seaquarium and in the Bahamas.  One of a unique group of films featuring the point of view of a fish. That’s all we need – more sharks!

Magic Town (1947)

Magic Town

The air becomes charged with electricity around desperate men. WW2 vet Lawrence ‘Rip’ Smith (James Stewart) is looking to find a way to beat fellow pollster George Stringer and his military colleague Professor Frederick Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) tells him about Grandview, a town that offers a precisely representative model for the entire United States. Rip promises a client a result within 24 hours that Stringer has been working on for a long time and he and his team arrive in the town posing as insurance salesmen. He has to deal with Mary Peterman  (Jane Wyman) who is trying to persuade the Mayor (Harry Holman) to build more property and give the town a civic centre – which would alter the demographic. It forces Rip to address the town and they side with him, not Mary who writes an editorial about him in her family newspaper. While they are attracted to each other, he is gathering information as well as coaching the school basketball team. When she overhears him calling a client, she writes another story about the reason for his being in Grandview and a national paper picks it up and Rip’s mission is made known in the ‘public opinion capital of the U.S.’ … Okay now. You’re a typical American – act like it! Robert Riskin’s script is rather reminiscent of a Frank Capra film – but then he wrote most of them, despite Capra’s self-aggrandising public line that his was The Name Above the Title. And yet this isn’t directed by Capra, but by William Wellman. While it readily captures much of the kind of atmosphere and social concerns of Riskin’s pre-WW2 work in that partnership the shifts from comedy to drama aren’t managed in the same way – with Riskin as producer from a story he wrote with Joseph Krumgold and Wellman directing, the sharp ends of the story are confronted directly, suggesting the compromises the screenwriter might have been making prior to this production. Rip wants money, Mary is after a good story with a political edge. This exists almost in inverse relationship to Riskin’s previous narratives, with the kinds of conversations that Capra softened into sentiment given a much tougher emphasis here (underlined by the Roy Webb’s score). So it’s the same type of material as before but given a much different treatment, although it all comes together in the end with the people creating their own destiny.  This as ever with Riskin is a blue-sky picture asking people what kind of country they want the United States to be and to make it happen democratically – but he never takes his eye off the ball, locating the peculiar way in which families run towns and thereby society as a whole. Fascinating as a prism through which to view Stewart’s stuttering post-war career (It’s a Wonderful Life was also a box office failure) as well as clarifying what Riskin had done for Capra now that they were separate entities. That’s Mickey Rooney’s dad Joe Yule as the radio comic. How do you like your fancy beautiful circus of a town now?

You Only Live Twice (1967)

You Only Live Twice

Bad news from outer space. When an American space capsule is supposedly swallowed by a Russian spaceship it’s an international incident. James Bond has apparently been killed in Hong Kong but he is ‘resurrected’ following his own funeral and sent undercover to Japan to find out who is behind the political aggression and the owner of the mysterious spacecraft. However while Russia and the US blame each other and Japan is under suspiion, he discovers with the assistance of his Japanese opposite number Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tanba) that SPECTRE is responsible for this attempt to start World War III and uncovers a trail that leads to the mysterious Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) whose evil empire is run from the centre of a volcano … Now that you’re dead our old friends will perhaps pay a little less attention to you than before. The one where Bond turns Japanese and trains as a ninja. A carnival of implausibilities that has the benefit of some gorgeous Japanese locations, stylish direction by Lewis Gilbert and introducing cat-loving megalomaniac Blofeld in the form of Pleasence, who we only glimpse over his shoulder as he strokes his pussycat before the big reveal. What an amazing villain! And how ripe for parody! Roald Dahl’s screenplay may throw out most of Ian Fleming’s novel (there is ‘additional story material’ by Harold Jack Bloom) but he does something clever – he takes the title seriously and has the second half begin exactly as the first, replacing a US with a Soviet rocket and doing a Screenplay 101 with the differing outcome second time around. The Cold War/space race theme might remind you of a certain Dr Strangelove. There are some good media jibes – If you’re going to force me to watch television I’m going to need a smoke, says James before aiming his cigarette at the enemy; astonishing production design by Ken Adam; and very resourceful sidekicks in Aki (Akika Wakabayashi) and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama); as well as the series’ first German Bond girl, Karin Dor, aka Miss Crime, due to the number of thrillers she starred in. Sadly it doesn’t save her here. This is gorgeously shot by Freddie Young and the restoration is impeccable. The John Barry and Leslie Bricusse theme song is performed by Nancy Sinatra. For a European you are very cultivated! 

Father of the Bride (1991)

Father of the Bride 1991

From that moment on I decided to shut my mouth and go with the flow. Los Angeles-based shoe factory proprietor George Banks (Steve Martin) leads the perfect life with his wife Nina (Diane Keaton), beloved twentysomething student architect daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams) and little son Mattie (Kieran Culkin). However, when Annie returns from her semester in Rome with Bryan Mackenzie (George Newbern) her new fiancé in tow, he has a hard time letting go of her. George makes a show of himself when he and Nina meet Bryan’s parents at their palatial Hollywood home; then Nina and Annie plan a grand celebration with bizarre wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer (Martin Short) and the costs escalate wildly to the point where George believes the entire scheme is a conspiracy against him … It’s very nice. We’ll change it all though. Let’s go! This remake and update of the gold-plated classical Hollywood family comedy is much modernised by husband and wife writer/director Charles Shyer and screenwriter Nancy Meyers but retains a good heart. Carried by a marvellous cast with Martin superb in a difficult role – sentimental and farcical in equal measure as he confronts a crisis triggered by the loss of his darling little girl to another man!  – his voiceover narration is perfectly pitched between loss, self-pitying acceptance and mockery. It’s interesting to see Meyers lookalike Keaton back in the camp after Baby Boom (and not for the last time).  The early Nineties era of comedy is well represented with Short side-splitting as the insufferable but indispensable wedding planner with his impenetrable strangulated locutions; and Eugene Levy has a nice bit auditioning as a wedding singer. The ironies abound including the car parking issue forcing George to miss the whole thing; and the first snowfall in Los Angeles in 36 years that means the absurd swans have to be kept warm in a bathtub (if nothing else, a brilliant visual moment). The updating includes giving Annie a career and given the dramatic significance of homes in Meyers’ work it’s apt that she is (albeit briefly) an architect – a homemaker of a different variety. George and Nina’s marriage is a great relationship model without being sickening – a tribute to the spot-on performing by the leads in a scenario that has more than one outright slapstick sequence – meeting the future in-laws at their outrageous mansion is a highlight. Adapted by Meyers & Shyer from the original screenplay written by another husband and wife team, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, which was adapted from Edward Streeter’s novel. The eagle-eyed will spot the filmmakers’ children Hallie and Annie as Williams’ flower girls. Hallie has of course continued in the business and is a now a writer/director herself. Hugely successful, this was followed four years later by an amusing sequel. For more on this you can read my book about Nancy Meyers:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1? dchild=1&keywords=elaine+lennon+pathways+of+desire&qid=1588162542&s=books&sr=1-1. Directed by Charles Shyer. That’s when it hit me like a Mack Truck. Annie was like me and Brian was like Nina. They were a perfect match

The Operative (2019)

The Operative

We do not execute at any cost. If something is not according to plan you have the right to call it off.  British-Jewish Mossad agent Thomas (Martin Freeman) who is based in Germany is summoned to try and figure out the whereabouts of an agent he recruited following her father’s funeral in London because she is a valuable asset who has vanished without trace.  He met and persuaded this mysterious woman Anne/Rachel (Diane Kruger) to become an agent, sending her to Tehran on an undercover mission where she falls in love with Farhad (Casvar) whose business Mossad are hoping to use as cover for a nuclear weapons exchange to destabilise the national programme. When her missions become more dangerous and Farhad is kidnapped by her colleagues, she decides to quit, forcing her boss to find her before she becomes a threat to Israel… You should visit Israel. To connect to the place. The people. Adapted from the Hebrew novel The English Teacher by former intelligence officer Yiftach Reicher-Atir, writer/director Yuval Adler has made a smartly told, nuanced story benefitting from a defining performance by an almost unrecognisable dressed-down Kruger. The Tehran section is as educative as it is narrative, with Rachel’s love story an echo of her real feelings about the city and its people. Her enigmatic persona – she persists in telling people she’s adopted even though she isn’t – is not properly explored which suggests a hinterland the film doesn’t entirely reconcile. The letdown is Freeman, who apparently replaced Eric Bana as Rachel’s handler. Refreshing mainly because of its insights into the region’s geopolitics from a new perspective. I can’t believe I’m here. Doing this

Along Came Polly (2004)

Along Came Polly

I’ve found the perfect woman. Risk-averse insurance company risk assessor Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller) takes a chance on marrying his ideal woman, realtor Lisa Kramer (Debra Messing) but she has an affair with nudist scuba instructor Claude (Hank Azaria) on the first day of their St Bart’s honeymoon. His best friend actor Sandy Lyle (Philip Seymour Hoffman) known from his bagpipe-playing role in an 80s teen movie advises him to play the field and at a gallery opening they encounter their junior school classmate Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston) now working as a waitress. He asks her out and finds his life taking a different turn when they date because she’s a kook who tries everything (including Latin dancing and Middle Eastern food) but commits to nothing while his buttoned-up persona descends into a kind of undone madness by association. Meanwhile he has to assess daredevil accident-prone businessman Leland Van Lew (Bryan Brown) who is forever leaving a trail of destruction behind him but represents a great deal of money to the firm run by Stan Indursky (Alec Baldwin). Chaos ensues when Lisa returns to reconcile with Reuben and he has to make decisions that don’t depend on his Risk Master technology … I can’t have thrown up 19 times in 48 days if I wasn’t in love with you. Writer-director John Hamburg was listening in screenwriting class because he pushes every single character to do the opposite of what their nature impels them to – with delightfully nutty comic results in this modern take on screwball, the ill-advised toilet humour notwithstanding (an issue arising from Reuben’s unfortunate Irritable Bowel Syndrome condition). Sure, there are cheap laughs, including Polly’s flatmate – her blind ferret Rodolpho – but all of the character flaws are cleverly turned into neat plot pivots: when Reuben’s silent dad Irving (Bob Dishy) finally speaks he talks only common sense and spins the plot into its final happy resolution, with Sandy letting go of his past and getting his greatest role, posing as Reuben so that Reuben can stop Polly from leaving the country, with Polly committing at last and Reuben ultimately taking a risk. It’s crazy but works because at its beating heart it’s dramatically logical. Great silly fun with Stiller and Aniston making for a tremendously charismatic couple in a story that makes neat references to The Breakfast Club and Friends. What kind of guy are you?

East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden

The way he looks at you. Sorta like an animal. In 1917 Salinas Cal (James Dean) and Aaron (Richard Davalos) Trask are the sons of decent farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) who is chairman of the local wartime draft board. Both compete for his attention but Cal has discovered that the mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) they were told was long dead is in fact the madam of a whorehouse in Monterey, 15 miles away. He borrows money from her to profit from a rise in the bean farming market intending to repay his father for his failed experiment in freezing food for long-haul shipping.  But his father prefers Aaron’s announcement of his engagement to Abra (Julie Harris) whom Cal starts to desire just as Aaron feels pressure to enlist and Cal decides to surprise him … I’ve been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn’t even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don’t want it anymore… I can’t use it anymore. I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off. Was there ever a more important or sinuous entrance in the history of cinema than James Dean’s arrival here? The way he moves, coiled like a caged animal set to pounce, slinking along like a cat, then hunched and feral, infiltrating our consciousness and catalysing our puzzlement and desire? I first saw this aged 12 and that’s the perfect age to watch it for the first time, this story of bad parenting, bullying, abandonment, sibling rivalry, envy and first love, all choreographed to the backdrop of the outbreak of WW1 in a masterful adaptation (by Paul Osborn) of the last section of John Steinbeck’s great 1952 novel. Everything about it is right:  the shooting style laying out the gorgeous landscape of Salinas, alternately warm and sunny, chill and foggy; the wide screen that’s barely able to contain the raw emotionality; the marvellous, occasionally strident score by Leonard Rosenman with its soaring, sonorous swoops. And there’s the cast. Jo Van Fleet gives a great performance (in her screen debut) as the wild whoremongering mother  – just look at her strut when we first see her (this is a film of brilliant entrances), providing the angular example of difference to this half-grown boy of hers; Massey is upstanding, a self-righteous, arrogant man, given to sermonising, incapable of leading by empathy; Harris is generous to a fault, allowing Dean to be everything, all at once, boy, man, lover. He burns up the screen with playfulness, confusion and rage. His scenes with Davalos, the Abel to his Cain, bespeak a softness and eroticism rarely equalled and play into the latterday perceptions of his orientation – or perhaps director Elia Kazan just understood how he needed to be in the part, getting into your head by whatever means necessary. Kazan recalled the audience reaction to Dean at the first screening and said that kids were screaming and yelling and practically falling over the balcony to get closer to him, they went wild. That’s how he makes you feel, James Dean. You want to get closer to him. You want to be him. This is really where that sensation began:  of feelings being teased, opened up, acknowledged. Once seen, never forgotten. You’re a likeable kid

The Big Circus (1959)

The Big Circus

You are a human bullet … blasted out of a mighty cannon! Bankrupt circus owner Hank Whirling (Victor Mature) manages to get his show back on the road, but has reckoned without the reaction of his disgruntled former partners, who are determined to see him fail just when he needs to impress a banker who is determined to inspect the business. He has to take on Randy Sherman (Red Buttons) to watch the spending. He also has to keep a close eye on his younger sister Jeannie (Kathryn Grant) and a daredevil high-flyer Zach Colino (Gilbert Roland), who rashly promises to perform the stunt of the century but amid a series of supposed accidents that turn out to be the work of a saboteur they have to make it to New York before Hank’s former partner Jules Borman (Nesdon Booth) … You face the snarling fangs of the King of Beasts! Written by Charles Bennett and Irving Wallace from a story by producer/auteur Irwin Allen, this is a splendidly splashy spectacular, bursting with vigour and vitality, just the ticket for a family entertainment in these (non-) testing times. Spills, thrills and elephants with dramatic acrobatics, an escaped lion, attempted sabotage and financial finagling. Mature was almost on the skids but he does very well here. Rhonda Fleming is excellent in the supporting role of PR Helen Harrison and has some bright scenes. With Vincent Price as your ringmaster and Peter Lorre as Skeeter the clown where better to turn than this well-constructed mystery?!  Directed by Joseph M. Newman. Roll up! Roll up!