Getting Straight (1970)

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A man who can’t believe in a cause can never believe in himself.  Graduate student Harry Bailey (Elliott Gould) was once one of the most visible undergraduate activists on campus, but now that he’s back studying for his master’s for a teaching qualification after a bruising experience with the real world while serving in Vietnam he’s trying to fly right. Trouble is, the campus is exploding with various student movements, and girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen), is caught up in most of them yet betrays her deeply traditional desire to be a suburban wife. As Harry gets closer to finishing his degree, he finds his iconoclastic attitude increasingly aligned with the students rather than the faculty and believes he can be a great high school teacher dedicated to finding the next Salinger, but what of the majority of kids he’ll teach? His beliefs are challenged by his professors and he gets in deep trouble when his draft-dodging friend Nick (Robert F. Lyons) sits one of his exams Good scientist. Lousy lay. The genial performance of Gould (sporting a moustache fit for Groucho Marx) is one of the reasons that this campus revolution movie survives slightly better reputationally than the other ones released that year, The Strawberry Statement and RPM (and supporting actress Jeannie Berlin is also in the latter). It’s also because it’s fair – a smart and savvy takedown of the student politics that always remain within the safe space of the campus and not the real world of Vietnam where Harry realised that reality bites the big one. The marines want guys who are crazy about killing, they don’t want guys who are just crazy, he deadpans when Nick shows signs of insanity – the Army rejects this doofus so he volunteers for their soul brothers and becomes a gung-ho fighter. It’s also about the vocation of teaching and how to communicate effectively and kindly to the majority, as Harry must be reminded when he expresses a desire to uncover and tutor only the gifted. Both Jeff Corey and Cecil Kellaway are a steadfast presence on faculty, proving that not all the Establishment is a washout.  The goose-cooking is complete in a viva where Harry finds himself confronted by a professor determined to make him believe The Great Gatsby is the work of a closet homosexual and Harry just gets mad as hell and can’t take it any more. A sharply observed portrait of a time and place teasing out the contradictory sexual and political strands of the period’s self-justifying rationale that is oddly resonant in today’s self-satisfied sociocultural echo chamber. Bergen is a great romantic other half, a fresh-faced and naively optimistic girl who would really like the happy suburban life away from all of this, yet she still gets stuck into protests. Harrison Ford makes a terrific impression in a well written supporting role. Adapted by Robert Kaufman from the novel by Ken Kolb and sympathetically directed by Richard Rush, lensed by his favourite DoP, László Kovács (Hell’s Angels on Wheels, Psych-Out, The Savage 7, Freebie and the Bean). It’s always just great with you

Miss Congeniality (2000)

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It’s not a beauty pageant, it’s a scholarship program. When a domestic terrorist threatens to bomb the Miss United States pageant, the FBI puts Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) in charge and he rushes to find a female agent to go undercover as a contestant, replacing the disqualified Miss New Jersey. Unfortunately, Eric’s partner FBI Special Agent Gracie  Hart (Sandra Bullock) is the only woman who can look the part despite her complete lack of refinement and femininity. She prides herself in being one of the guys and is horrified at the idea of becoming a girly girl.  Going undercover is tough and she’s taken under the wing of camp Brit Victor Melling (Michael Caine) for a total makeover, while hard as nails pageant director Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen) steadily assumes the role of suspect in chief … In place of friends and relationships you have sarcasm and a gun. A light and funny take on the transformation arc with a reversal of the usual tropes, this is Bullock’s baby – she produced and shepherded the production straight into our hearts. With its fish out of order scenario intact, this proceeds to reverse expectations – becoming a beauty queen is no walk in the park, demanding starvation, exfoliation and high heels;  masquerading as a socially conscious peace-lover when you’re a gun-wielding action woman gives her more pause than she thought;  while camouflaging her true identity from alpha females who look good in swimwear troubles her as she gains new friends. As the irony ratchets up a notch with William Shatner MC’ing proceedings and the chase complements the on-stage glass harp playing and self-defence exhibition, Bullock shines in a frothy, fun star performance.  After a while you forget why you’re here! Written by regular Bullock collaborator Marc Lawrence with Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas, this is directed by Donald Petrie and marks Caine and Bergen’s reunion thirtysomething years after The MagusHaven’t you been drinking too much Coppertone?

Sweet Home Alabama (2002)

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In my entire life I have never met anyone so manipulative, so deceitful. And I’m in politics!  New York fashion designer and socialite Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon) suddenly finds herself engaged to the city’s most eligible bachelor Andrew Hennings(Patrick Dempsey) whose mother just happens to be Mayor (Candice Bergen). But Melanie’s past holds many secrets, including Jake Perry (Josh Lucas), the redneck husband she married in high school, who refuses to divorce her seven years after being sent the papers. Determined to end their relationship once and for all, Melanie sneaks back home to Alabama to confront him, only to discover that you can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl…. I don’t care if he’s a Yankee. At least he’s sober! Douglas J. Eboch’s story was developed as a screenplay by C. Jay Cox and it’s a tour de force for Witherspoon whose astonishing charm keeps this Southern-fried screwball show on the road as she gets to pick between two smouldering romantic interests:  her good ol’ boy sort-of ex who deep down is as polished as the sand struck by lightning that makes those glass sculptures of his;  and the smooth city charmer who really loves her despite his overbearing mom warning him off since she sees him as the next JFK. The story is nicely buoyed by turning Deep South tropes on their head and having a lot of fun with Civil War re-enactments – Fred Ward has a ball as Mel’s enthusiastic dad and it’s nice to see Mary Kay Place getting a turn as her mother who wants more for her than the life she had. At the heart of this story is a smalltown girl made good who once blew up the local bank and now struggles with her identity and this grounds the fairytale-fish out of water narrative as it comes back to haunt her in the most amusing way. Reverting to type never seemed so entertaining. You will certainly know the songs. Directed by Andy Tennant.  How many times does your only daughter get married? Other than before …

 

The Magus (1968)

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We have all been cast as the traitor for one simple reason:  we have all failed to love.  Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine) takes up a position as schoolteacher on the Greek island of Phraxos where his predecessor has committed suicide. He wants to write and to escape the pressures of his relationship with Anne (Anna Karina) an emotionally complex air hostess.  He becomes obsessed with a rich old man Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn) living in a big complex on the other side of the island who draws him into his odd domestic arrangements which include beautiful American actress Lily (Candice Bergen).  As Maurice starts to play mind games with Nicholas and tells him of his alleged involvement in the deaths of more than 80 villagers during the Nazi occupation, Nicholas loses his grip on reality – he doesn’t know if Maurice is a filmmaker, a psychiatrist, a Nazi collaborator or a demonic magician. They play a dice game which inevitably signals more than its elements. He is put on trial, with everyone from Maurice’s stories and films attending… The once fiendishly famous John Fowles adapted his own novel which once upon a time no self-respecting student could be seen without.  He may have fallen out of fashion but his work is entrancing and important and if this doesn’t live up to its billing that can be laid at the door of Fowles himself and director Guy Green (Caine and Bergen certainly did). However, it’s a beguiling production, one of the best looking you will ever see courtesy of DoP Billy Williams (Green himself was of course an Academy Award-winning cinematographer) and in its narrative creases you might detect a kind of text much more acknowledged these days – psychogeography, the T.S. Eliot references hint at this of course although even entry level kids can rhyme off the line, No man is an island. The Magus himself is a reference to the diabolical Aleister Crowley (whose home had been in Sicily) but Quinn’s character creates a backstory based in real-life horror and a mass execution, all the while taking on the physical qualities of a latterday Picasso. Fowles himself appears as a boat captain who speaks to Nicholas.  There’s a tremendous cast – including Julian Glover, Takis Emmanuel and Paul Stassino – telling a complex story of identity, responsibility, punishment and redemption that is streamlined to its essential parts and it adds up to something utterly beautiful.  We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time

Book Club (2018)

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 If women our age were meant to have sex God wouldn’t do what he does to our bodies. Four friends in Los Angeles, widowed Diane (Diane Keaton), hotel owner Vivian (Jane Fonda), divorced federal judge Sharon (Candice Bergen) and married chef Carol (Mary Steenburgen) have had a book club for thirty years and this month’s choice is Fifty Shades of Grey. It causes them all to re-evaluate their unhappy sex and romantic lives. Diane agrees to a date with a pilot (Andy Garcia) she meets on an aeroplane journey which offers a pleasing diversion from her two daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) nagging her to move to their basement in Arizona (bizarre).  Vivian hooks up with Arthur (Don Johnson) the radio producer she didn’t marry forty years earlier.  Sharon goes on dates with men she meets online.  Carol hasn’t had sex with newly retired Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) in six months and their dance classes fizzle out. As the women read the next books in the trilogy their lives become more complicated … There are some frankly strange story issues here and I don’t just mean E.L. James’ source books: Diane’s daughters’ behaviour is literally unbelievable, even for a comedy (and the pregnant one doesn’t even give birth by the end, probably a good thing);  Sharon’s second date doesn’t actually materialise (with Wallace Shawn); and we never see any of them doing the deed (part of the thesis about ender relationships).   However there are pluses:  there are great innuendo-ridden exchanges, particularly in the first half, when sex really is on the table. Fonda makes a meal of them: I don’t sleep with people I like, you know that. I gave that up in the 90’s. As in life, when emotions get in the way the dialogue dips a lot which is ironic considering this is about book lovers, as it were (insert your own Fifty Shades joke here – and E.L. James and her husband even make a short appearance).   The production design (Rachel O’Toole) and cinematography (Andrew Dunn) enhance a film fuelled by female star power (the men are mostly useless) with some very nice shots of the Santa Monica Pier and the Painted Desert to liven up your ageist horizons.  Written by debut director Bill Holderman with Erin Simms who presumably wanted us all to experience some kind of late life fake orgasm.

Rules Don’t Apply (2017)

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A girl can get in trouble for having a case of the smarts. 1964 Acapulco:  a decrepit and isolated Howard Hughes is on the verge of making a televised phonecall from his hotel hideout to prove he doesn’t have dementia to dispute a claim by the writer of a book who may never actually have met him. Flashback to 1958, Hollywood:  Small-town Virginia beauty queen and devout Baptist Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), under contract to the infamous Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) arrives in Los Angeles with her mother (Annette Bening) to do a screen test for a film called Stella Starlight. She is picked up at the airport by her driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) only two weeks on the job and also from a religiously conservative background. He’s engaged to his seventh grade girlfriend. He drives them to their new home above the Hollywood Bowl where the sound of evening concerts wafts their way. She’s earning more than her college professor father ever did. The instant attraction between Marla and Frank not only puts their religious convictions to the test but also defies Hughes’ number one rule: no employee is allowed to have an intimate relationship with a contract actress and there are 26 of them installed all over Hollywood. Hughes is battling TWA shareholders over his proposals for the fleet as well as having to appear before a Senate sub-committee;  Marla bemoans the fact that she is a songwriter who doesn’t sing – so what kind of an actress can she be? And Frank wants to become a property developer and tries to persuade his employer to invest in him but Hughes is talking about a new birth control pill to him and when he meets Marla he talks to her about this thing called DNA that some English people discovered a few years back … It’s quite impossible to watch this without thinking of all the references, forwards and backwards, that it conjures:  that Beatty was tipped to play Hughes by Time after the mogul’s death, a decade after he had already espoused an interest in the mysterious billionaire who also lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a spell;  that he himself arrived in Hollywood at the end of the Fifties (via theatre) from Virginia and liked to play piano and got by with help from the homosexuals he impressed and the actresses like Joan Collins he squired about town;  Ehrenreich might be another aspect of Beatty as a youngster on the make, keen to impress mentors like Jean Renoir and George Stevens;  the motif of father and son takes a whole meta leap in his casting Ashley Hamilton, a Beatty lookalike who might well be his son (I think this is an inside joke, as it were), as a Hughes stand-in;  the dig at Beatty’s own rep for having a satyr-like lifestyle with the quickie Hughes has with Marla which deflowers her after she’s had her first taste of alcohol. It’s just inescapable. And if that seems distasteful, Beatty is 80 playing 50, and it has a ring of farce about it, as does much of the film which telescopes things like Hughes’ crash in LA for dramatic effect and plays scenes like they’re in a screwball comedy. There’s a lovely visual joke when he orders Frank to drive him somewhere at 3AM and they sit and eat fast food (after Frank says a prayer) and eventually we see where they’re seated – in front of Hughes’ enormous aeroplane (and Frank has never flown). This is too funny to merit the lousy reviews and too invested in its own nostalgia to be a serious take on either Hollywood or Hughes but it has its points of interest as another variation on the myth of both subjects. In real life it was long rumoured that Hughes had a son by Katharine Hepburn who allegedly had him adopted at the end of the Thirties. Timewise it picks up somewhere after The Aviator ends, but not strictly so. All it shares with that film is the banana leaf wallpaper. Tonally, it’s shifting from one generic mode to another (all that Mahler from Death in Venice is pointing to tragedy and age and decay, not youth and beauty and promise) but it’s difficult to dislike. It’s extremely well cast: Collins is terrific as the gauche naive young woman in the big city who’s given up her music scholarship and Ehrenreich is very good as the ambitious and conflicted guy who wants a mentor; Matthew Broderick does well as Levar, the senior driver jaded by long years of service to this eccentric and Oliver Platt (who did the great Bulworth with Beatty twenty years ago) has fun in a small role but Candice Bergen is wasted in the role of Nadine, the office manager. Bening is really great as Mrs Mabrey but she just … disappears. Beatty plays Hughes sympathetically, even unflatteringly (he knew him, albeit very slightly) and these young people’s relationship is ultimately played for its future potential despite its signposting as evidence of the hypocrisy lying directly beneath a church-led society. Written by Beatty with a story credit to him and Bo Goldman, and directed by Beatty, his first film in two decades.

Home Again (2017)

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You’re telling me you have live-in childcare, tech support AND sex?! Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon) decamps back to LA with her two young daughters when she separates from her music manager husband Austen (Michael Sheen) in NYC.  On the night of her 40th birthday she goes partying with her best girlfriends Dolly Wells (of TV’s Dot and Em) and Jen Kirkman and is hit on by twentysomething Harry (Pico Alexander) who with his brother Teddy (Nat Wolff) and friend George (Jon Rudnitsky) have made a hit short film and are new in town to try to turn it into a feature after getting interest from the WCA talent agency (cue funny meeting). The guys wind up back at hers, Harry throws up while about to do the deed with Alice and next morning George realises her father was the great auteur director John Kinney when he stumbles into a room filled with scripts, posters, camera and – ta-da! – Oscar. And then whaddya know, the late great one’s wife and muse Lillian Stewart (Candice Bergen) walks into the house and invites the would-be filmmakers to live in the guesthouse. Call it philanthropy – she’s feeling kind since she outlived the man who impregnated a younger woman and had a second family – this might be a riff on reality a la Nancy Meyers since it’s her daughter Hallie’s romcom debut.   It’s a peculiar setup in many ways – but the kids love the guys, Alice is having a hard time doing business as an interior decorator with super bitch Zoey Bell (Lake Bell) and this odd domestic situation is not unpleasant. The compulsion to return those nuisance long-distance calls to NYC subside.  Harry isn’t aware that sensitive George fancies Alice too and has taken a side job as a rewrite man, Teddy is auditioning for other roles so he’s now left with the heavy lifting of raising finance among the Hollywood set led by horror director Justin Miller (Reid Scott). When Alice is finally ready to introduce Harry to her friends as her date it clashes with a money meeting and he stands her up, causing a real rupture. Then her not-quite-ex decides to find out what’s really going on on the west coast … Light and funny, this isn’t quite as sharp and zesty as Meyers’ best work (Meyers produced) and there are too many montages set to music as a substitute for character development and dialogue and not remotely enough the type of complications that you’d expect from such a plot. Wells and Kirkman are two fine comic actresses in their own right but they don’t get the full Greek chorus role they deserve and the subplot with Bell (from It’s Complicated) is underdeveloped. Lola Flanery is terrific as the older of the two kids with serious anxiety problems but a talent for writing which George encourages.  Reese is always good value and she’s fine in a somewhat underwritten part which never really lets her rip other than getting drunk and spouting some home truths; while as her young lover Pico Alexander is serious eye candy and they really spark on screen. You’ll have seen him in A Most Violent Year and Indignation. You’ll certainly see him again. Mild, likeable entertainment. Written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer.