When Harry Met Sally (1989)

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

 

 

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Risky Business (1983)

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What was it about Chicago’s North Shore that inspired such good movies in the 80s? It’s hard to believe but it’s 34 years since Tom Cruise became a star – and this smart, tart satire about sex and money is the reason why. Joel Goodson (Cruise) is mostly a good boy but his grades are not top notch and his dad is trying to get him into Princeton. The folks are going out of town for the weekend so it’s time to bust out some bucks and deliver some guys of their innocence courtesy of some hookers after one attempt goes wrong. One of them is Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) who as well as spending the night, has an idea for some moneymaking activities to pay her bill – and the damage to the family Porsche – which coincide with the visit from the Princeton rep (Richard Masur): Joel has turned his folks’ house into a brothel. He makes a pile of money. Then Lana’s pimp (Joe Pantoliano) wants a piece and holds the furniture ransom.  Cruise is flawless in Paul Brickman’s directing debut (working from his original screenplay.) We all know the iconic moments – Cruise dancing in his pants, his winning smile, the sex act on the train (the last time Cruise knowingly participated in such a thing onscreen – and performed to Phil Collins of all people!) but it’s a sharp social commentary too, with a great soundtrack courtesy of Tangerine Dream (remember them?!) as well of course as Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll. This was really on the money and retains its impact. Classic.

Candyman (1992)

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Your friends will abandon you. So true. Clive Barker’s stories terrify me and The Forbidden in The Books of Blood series is a brilliant conflation of fairytale and horror, laced with social commentary about contemporary urban life in the parts of town you drive by pretty damn quick. Transferred by writer/director Bernard Rose to the Chicago Projects, this takes on a terrifyingly current resonance. Rose said when he recce’d Cabrini Green he sensed ‘palpable fear.’ The wonderful Virginia Madsen is researching urban legends with her postgrad colleague Kasi Lemmons while her sceptical lecturer hubby Xander Berkeley is carrying on with another student. The legend of Candyman exerts a hold over a ghetto building whose architecture mimics her own apartment block so she can forensically experience the way the idea literally infiltrated a drug-infested black community where vicious murders are taking place. She befriends a young mother and the graffiti pointing her to the origins of the story lures her back and she encounters the man whose name you do not want to say five times …. Bloody, sensual, exciting and a trip for the brain, this story of a tragic monster born of slavery is incarnated in the elegant, noble charismatic form of Tony Todd, blessed with a deep voice, a fur-trimmed greatcoat and a hook for a hand and boy does he use it to win the woman of his life, hypnotising her into his romantic history. Incredible from start to bloody  finish, this is a brilliant exercise in genre, tapping into primal fears and political tensions and putting the sex into bee stings. Thrilling, with great cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond – get that titles sequence! – and an urban legend of a score by Philip Glass. Poetic and fabulous. Sweets to the sweet!

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016)

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The Chicago Greeks are back in a gentle tale of a family that’s way too close and not even in an interesting Godfather-type fashion. They just work in the same family restaurant and live next door to each other along one street and now Oma (Lainie Kazan) and Opa (Michael Constantine) find out they never got legally married and their daughter Toula (Nia Vardalos) realises her own marriage to high school principal Chris-In-The-Morning (John Corbett) is under strain as she attempts to be everything to everyone. And their daughter Paris (Elena Kampouris) wants to go to college far away and there’s her parents’ wedding to arrange and …. zzz  …. Sorry I nodded off there. Very mild, inoffensive stuff, well performed by an entertaining cast, written once again by star Vardalos and directed by Kirk Jones. There are so many family members I lost track of who was who but I think they even dropped in a gay brother? cousin? somewhere towards the end. Covering all the diversity bases I guess in case the Greeks make a protest at the Academy Awards. Fine for a post-prandial snooze at this undemanding point of the holidays.

In the Line of Fire (1993)

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Frank Horrigan is the ageing Secret Service man being taunted by phonecalls from someone who knows way too much about him – including that he was on the detail for JFK in Dallas. Turns out the guy is a former CIA assassin who couldn’t get acclimatised to life after Nam. (I know!) The threat to the current incumbent who’s on the campaign trail is overwhelming and Frank wants to get with the present detail despite being on bad terms with the whole team. He’s accompanied by newbie Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) but gets to know a woman secret agent, Lilly Raines, (‘window dressing’ as he puts it), the fabulous Rene Russo who’s probably been cast for her striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. The brilliance of this cat-and-mouse thriller is that it’s constructed between the poles of guilt and nostalgia – Frank’s guilt at not being able to save JFK, plus what might have been – and the desire not to let history get repeated. There’s also the joy of Clint playing versions of his previous law enforcing self with Dirty Harry references in abundance, verbal and visual. The byplay with Russo is extremely witty and their first (foiled) attempt to go to bed is great slapstick – look at all the weapons come off!  John Malkovich as the disguise-happy Mitch Leary is a great choice for the loopy assassin whose hero is Sirhan Sirhan and we know that this must end in a murder attempt replaying of RFK’s death at a venue similar to the Ambassador Hotel, this time in the midwest. This is a witty, fast-moving, clever, inventive, knowing, brutal and brilliantly written entertainment by Jeff Maguire (working from a story by producer Jeff Apple), superbly directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  The score by Ennio Morricone really works with the other jazz  soundtrack licks including Clint himself tinkling the ivories in all those hotel bars. With John Heard in a supporting role, Fred Dalton Thompson as White House Chief of Staff and Buddy Van Horn looking after the stunts, we are in great hands here as all those ideas about the Warren Commission, lone assassins and your ordinary everyday conspiracy theories are unpicked while an unstoppable romance between Clint and John unfolds in deadly fashion. Fantastic.

What Women Want (2000)

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This is the kind of film you can’t really unpick:  it’s put together like a watch by writer/director Nancy Meyers who was offered a rewrite on the script but only did it on condition it would be her directing debut. (She didn’t get writing credit.) Her marriage to producing/writing/director partner Charles Shyer over, she was ready to strike out on her own. She completely redid the original premise and boy did she hit a home run. She spent most of the Nineties making movies looking at men in the burbs, married and a little confused in the context of family; now she takes uber-male Gibson, macho advertising dude, and literally gives him insight into how women think. He cross-dresses, puts on makeup and in an accident worthy of magic realism, hears everything women around him are going through. Talk about a makeover! It helps him with his teenaged firebrand daughter Alex (Ashley Johnson) but it also gives him the edge on rival ad woman Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt) with whom he inconveniently falls into a friendship that threatens to become romantic… There’s laughter, there’s tears, there’s romance,  there’s ads for women’s products. “If you know women, you can rule,” his shrink advises Nick. Nancy Meyers knows what women want. And for that she is one of the half-dozen or so Hollywood filmmakers with final cut. For more on this, I’ve written a book on the woman who celebrates her 67th birthday today. https://www.amazon.com/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481117503&sr=1-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.Pathways of Desire cover Amazon.jpg

Home Alone (1990)

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Sensational, kinetic, lively action comedy from the late and beloved chronicler of childhood and adolescence, auteur John Hughes.  Little Kevin is terrorised by everyone in his family – and they forget about him when they depart for a trip to Paris for Christmas, leaving him on his own in their big suburban Chicago house to deal with a pair of bungling thieves. Macaulay Culkin is brilliant as the kid whose dream comes true – to be spared his awful family, even for a short time. This held the record as the biggest grossing live action comedy in the US until Hangover Part II came along to spoil the party.  Simply sublime entertainment for any time of year.

Never Been Kissed (1999)

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Speaking of Drew Barrymore… what do you mean a high school/newspaper movie mashup?! And here it is. She’s Josie Geller, junior copywriter st the Chicago Sun-Times, run by the hilariously irascible Garry Marshall (golly I miss him already) sent back undercover to her old high school to get juicy stories  exposing teenage culture. But only the geeks led by Leelee Sobieski like her so it takes her lovable older brother, failed pro ball player Rob (David Arquette) to re-enrol, thus conferring her with enough cool to infiltrate the best clique. Thing is, she falls for her teacher, the (then-) gorgeous Michael Vartan (seriously – what has happened to him?) There are frequent funny flashbacks to the first time round and some very knowing homages, especially to Carrie (youknowwhatimean). Talk about reinvention. Great fun and Barrymore is winsome and believable in a script by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, directed by Raja Gosnell.

Bad Teacher (2011)

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Cameron Diaz in the role of her career and playing it to the hilt. She’s Elizabeth Halsey, a talentless, lazy middle school teacher in Chicago who has to go back to work when her sugar daddy dumps her. She wants a boob job so will do anything to fund it including trying to seduce a wealthy awkward supply teacher (Justin Timberlake, her real-life ex) and resorts to actually trying to get her useless students to perform when she realises there’s a bonus if she can get them to ace their SATs. She goes from playing them videos every class to becoming a total hard-ass to the astonishment of ultra-competitive and perfectly nutty Lucy Punch and sexy phys ed teacher Jason Segel whom she never notices. She takes things to the extreme when she dons a wig from the school production of Annie and pays an examiner a visit (a preview of coming attractions for Diaz, of course …) This is in awesomely bad taste, an un-PC farrago of outrage, dry humping, cheating, viciousness, nasty put-downs, amorality and rivalry. That it’s all set in a school is what makes it the sweeter. The only lesson learned here is not to get caught. The tagline is great:  ‘She doesn’t give an F!’ Written by the duo of Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg and directed by Jake Kasdan. A sequel has been announced. I for one cannot wait.

Al Capone (1959)

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The rise and fall of one of the biggest American mafia hoods. The great Rod Steiger required serious persuasion to take on the role of the legendary mobster and insisted on a raft of rewrites (by Malvin Wald and Henry F. Greenberg) to deglamourise the murderous thug. Presumably the documentary voiceover that occasionally disrupts the drama over stock footage and newspaper montages was inserted at his request. Luckily cool girl Fay Spain (Dragstrip Girl) is around to provide an impressive show as  the requisite hard to get woman for this forceful look at gangsterism. Their scenes together are terrific. Tough, realistic and as generous to all parties as one might expect. An Allied Artists production.