Rent-a-Cop (1987)

Rent a Cop.jpg

Sometimes you have to go through a hell of a lot to find out what you’re really good at. A drug bust is about to go down and Chicago street cop Tony Church (Burt Reynolds) is on the case. Things go horribly wrong, though. His fellow officers get slaughtered at the hotel venue and Church takes the blame, getting fired from the force. Della (Liza Minnelli) a high-priced hooker, happened to be in a neighbouring room at the time and got a good look at the killer’s face. Now she’s scared and needs protection. She tracks down Church, who can’t find employment other than as a security guard and he’s playing Santa Claus at a big downtown store. Della offers him a fee and implores him to be her bodyguard until the killer is caught. The lunatic everyone’s after is called Dancer (James Remar) partly because he likes to bust a move in front of a mirror whenever he gets the chance. A colleague of Church’s, Roger (Richard Masur) is around to give Church advice and assistance, at least until it’s revealed that Roger is now totally corrupt and was the reason all his colleagues were killed. Della brings Church to her madam Beth (Dionne Warwick) who provides them with information about police officers on her client list. Church manages to keep Della alive but Dancer is taking out anyone who has crossed him and everything is leading to drugs bigwig Alexander (John Stanton)…. Hit me with your nightstick/Show me what you know! What a lyric! With nice support from former NFL star Bernie Casey (back from Sharky’s Machine) as Lemar and Robby Benson as rookie Pitts, the police colleagues staking out Tony’s place, there’s something to look at in every scene in a film which is hardly breaking the back of corruption in the constabulary – we saw that with street cop masterpiece Serpico. Michael Blodgett and Dennis Shryack’s script more or less keeps the difficult balance between the relationship angle and the psycho murderer story.  It’s held together by Burt and Liza who have some terrific repartee delivered in the anticipated fashion – him droll, her breathless, in keeping with his dry wit/good cop role and hers as a hooker with a heart of gold and a paradoxical fear of kindness. It was their third time performing together after Silent Movie and Lucky Lady and their timing is perfect even if you feel Reynolds isn’t wholly committed. The tone only slides for one sequence about 48 minutes in when Dancer attempts to kill Della and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is badly misjudged:  sometimes tragedy comes from action comedy plus bad music. 46. Is that the year or your number? However it’s hard not to like a movie where Burt gets to dress up as Santa and those photos of him playing college football are all him. Directed by Jerry London. Don’t you have anybody who’s alive?

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

When Harry Met Sally.jpg

I want to propose a toast to Harry and Sally. If Marie or I had been remotely attracted to either of them we wouldn’t be here today.  In 1977, college graduates Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) share an acrimonious car ride from the University of Chicago to New York, during which they argue about whether men and women can ever truly be strictly platonic friends. Five years later they run into each other as they’re making their way in the world. They so dislike each other they don’t even acknowledge that they know each other. Five years after that, Harry and Sally meet again at a bookstore, and in the company of their respective best friends, Jess (Bruno Kirby) and Marie (Carrie Fisher), attempt to stay friends without sex becoming an issue between them. When Jess and Marie get together Harry and Sally become closerthanthis.   Over the next two years when they each experience breakups they’re the first person the other calls … I’ll have what she’s having. The film that sets the modern standard for romcom, this is hardly cookie cutter stuff, from the interviews with old married couples (kind of a poke at the ultra serious Reds), the meetings at traditional gatherings in others’ happy coupledom (a nod to Hannah and her Sisters), the gabfests with friends, the disquisitions on the impossibility of male-female friendship and the infamously faked orgasm in the deli. Harry meets Sally every so often and that’s the main narrative, at particular intervals with little extraneous action except these super-smart exchanges that bristle with wit. They spend years fighting each other and then they surrender to the inevitable and fall in love. The dialogue is priceless and the performances are classic. And it’s as simple as this:  if you’re a guy, you’re Harry. If you’re a gal, you’re Sally (alphabetized movie collections and all). Writer Nora Ephron and director Rob Reiner’s collaboration got it all so very right. As evergreen as the great American songs delivered by Messrs Sinatra and Connick.  I’m going to be forty. Some day!

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Stranger Than Fiction.jpg

I may well be dead – just not typed.  IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a pernickety type who lives by the time on his wristwatch. When he hears the voice of author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) in his head  he thinks he’s going crazy but then discovers that he is the ill-fated protagonist of her latest novel.  While Eiffel’s assistant Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) tries to cure the author’s case of writer’s block, Harold and a professor of literary theory Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) set out to find the woman and make her change her story from tragedy to comedy.  Meanwhile, Harold falls for one of his delinquent auditees, baker and Harvard Law dropout Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and wants to do something meaningful with his life. It’s essential to ensure that Eiffel doesn’t let him die but when Hilbert reads the book he declares it’s her masterpiece and Harold simply must succumb to her ending … Quirky, funny rumination on protagonists, motivation, narration, literary theory and (accidents of) fate – with Ferrell playing low-key to the point of diffidence and Thompson practically persecuted when she realises she is writing about a real living person and has the power to control him – the problem is, all her subjects die.  Great jokes about academia and storytelling (‘little did he know’ is the omniscient phrase that gives away to Hilbert that Harold is sane!). This may come off as a lesser iteration of Charlie Kaufman or even Woody Allen but it’s charming and funny – and cleverer than thou.  Written by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

The Breakfast Club.jpg

You see a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal.  Five teenagers enduring Saturday detention in a Chicago high school bond over their enmity of their supervisor (Paul Gleason). Yawn. Except this was probably the most audacious film of its year, courtesy of auteur John Hughes who got teens like nobody did. Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) is the nerd from the academic clubs,  Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) is the champion wrestler bullied by his folks, Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) is the strange outcast, Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is daddy’s little girl who bunked off to go to the mall, while John Bender (Judd Nelson) is the tough guy whose father beats him.  They are all from completely opposing school cliques with nothing in common and they hate each other and everything they believe each other stands for. Then they realise that they all have major issues at home and that they could have some fun even if they never speak to each other after the bell rings … Party like it’s 1984. You know you want to.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

Somebody Up There Likes Me

Maybe Chicago’s got a heart but I ain’t found one.  Young Italian-American Rocky Barbella (Paul Newman) endures abuse from his father (Harold J. Stone) and despite his mother (Eileen Heckart) and her constant efforts to intervene he messes with small-time crime with his streetwise friend Romolo (Sal Mineo).  His consequent run-ins with the law lead him in and out of detention centers and prisons. When it seems he has it together, Rocky is drafted into the wartime Army but can’t stick the regime and goes AWOL. He takes up boxing to earn quick money with coach Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane), but when he discovers he has a natural talent in the ring, he builds the confidence to pursue his love interest, Norma (Pier Angeli), and fulfill his potential as a middleweight fighter. Pressured to take a bribe, his reputation takes a major hit.  He doesn’t know how to redeem himself except by fighting …  Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Rocky Graziano’s autobiography is full of clichés – but they’re good ones because they’re true. Filled with big, dramatic performances and great action which is what you want from a gutsy story of an abused child through his spells in juvie and prison and the Army, this is a wonderful portrait of NYC and its denizens and the final bout is heart-stopping. The right hooks aren’t confined to Rocky, Lehman’s dialogue is ripe with zingers:  The trouble with reading the phonebook is you always know how it’s going to come out.  Gleaming monochrome cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and a song by Perry Como add to a magnificent movie bio experience but one is forced to ask what Paul Newman’s career would have looked like if its intended lead James Dean hadn’t died before this went into production:  his Rebel co-star Mineo (who looks altogether lustrous) bolsters the teen crim story and the beautiful Angeli was engaged to Dean for a while (as well as doing The Silver Chalice with Newman). His ghost is everywhere. Look for Steve McQueen, Robert Loggia and Dean Jones down the cast list.  Directed by Robert Wise.

Carmen Jones (1954)

Carmen Jones

Boy, if the army was made up of nothin’ but soldiers like you, war wouldn’t do nobody no good.  During WWII parachute factory worker Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge) is romanced by a stalwart GI named Joe (Harry Belafonte) who is about to go to flying school. Conflict arises when a boxing champ captures Carmen’s heart after she has seduced Joe and caused him to go AWOL. Carmen remains a flamboyant flirt and Joe is pursued by the Military Police and the romantic duo have a final terrible fight … Bizet’s stunning and tragic, earthy opera gets an update and a racial twist in this striking, zesty adaptation by Oscar Hammerstein II. The performers are dubbed but that doesn’t detract from the incredibly raunchy Dandridge (vocals by Marilyn Horne) who was being manipulated by director Otto Preminger at the time:  she simply steams up the screen with Belafonte hopelessly in her grip – until she is in his. Pearl Bailey is also dazzling in the role of Frankie. But this is all about Dandridge and she is astonishing. Daring and wonderful.

The Big Sick (2017)

The Big Sick.jpg

What’s my stance on 9/11? Oh um, anti. It was a tragedy, I mean we lost 19 of our best guys. In present day Chicago, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a Pakistani comic who meets an American graduate student in psychology named Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his stand-up shows. They have sex on the first date and as their relationship blossoms, he soon becomes worried about what his traditional Moslem parents will think of her. His mother brings prospective brides (for an expected arranged marriage) to their weekly family dinner, something Kumail doesn’t admit until Emily finds a tin box filled with the women’s photos called The Ex-Files, in homage to his favourite TV show. Then she admits she was married as an undergraduate. They break up. When Emily suddenly comes down with an illness that means she must be placed in an induced coma, which Kumail has to approve, he finds himself developing a bond with her deeply concerned mother (Holly Hunter) and father (Ray Romano) who travel from South Carolina to keep a bedside vigil and know all about him, but his parents know nothing about her. And he’s got to get a spot in the Montreal Comedy Festival …. A culture clash romcom that feels plugged into a political charger, taking place in reverse:  have sexual relations, get to know each other, split up, meet the parents. While Emily lies in a coma the difficult intercultural exchanges take place:  a kind of discourse over Sleeping Beauty (although she has a complex about her looks stemming from high school bullying) that presumably has some deeper significance about white women.  A romantic comedy in which one of the protagonists is mainly unconscious is daring if not foolhardy except that this is all about him, you see, the Pakistani navigating his ethnicity in America. The culture wars that take place end up being defused in a comedy club and are stimulating because they then wind up being resolved through common humanity involving putting down ignorant white frat boys wearing baseball caps making jokes about Islamic terrorists.  A plea for understanding? Probably, but mainly for Kumail. Quelle surprise. This autobiographical work was written by Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon (who presumably has Stockholm Syndrome), directed by Michael Showalter.

Planes Trains and Automobiles (1987)

Planes Trains and Automobiles.jpg

I really don’t care for the way your company left me in the middle of fucking nowhere with fucking keys to a fucking car that isn’t fucking there. And I really didn’t care to fucking walk, down a fucking highway, and across a fucking runway to get back here to have you smile in my fucking face. I want a fucking car… right… fucking… now. Advertising executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) is something of a control freak. Trying to get home to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with his wife (Laila Robins) and kids, his flight is rerouted to a distant city in Kansas because of a freak snowstorm, and his sanity begins to fray. Worse yet, he is forced to bunk up with talkative slob Del Griffith (John Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman, whom he finds extremely annoying. Together they have to overcome the insanity of holiday travel to reach their intended destination… John Hughes’ films still tug at our heartstrings because they have a core of humanity beneath the hilarity.  Martin and Candy are perfectly paired – the nutty fastidious guy versus the relaxed nice guy, a kind of Odd Couple on a road trip with some outrageously good banter balancing the physical silliness. Martin’s descent into incivility is a joy:  anyone who’s ever been desperate to pick up their rental car will relate to how Neal loses it at the hire desk! I remember hearing when Candy had died feeling a terrible sorrow and thinking that of all the larger than life actors out there he was the one I most wanted to have around a very long time. I haven’t changed my mind. This is still very funny indeed.

Message in a Bottle (1999)

Message in a Bottle theatrical.jpg

Choose between yesterday and tomorrow.  During her morning jog on the beach, journalist Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn) discovers a bottle protruding from the sand. Inside it, she finds a heartbreaking, anonymous love letter. After her paper publishes the letter, Osborne tracks down the letter’s reclusive author, world-weary widower Garret Blake (Kevin Costner), in the Carolinas. But, as Osborne finds herself falling hopelessly in love with Blake, she becomes wracked with guilt over the real impetus for her visit. As she deals with her own marital mishaps and life back in Chicago with her young son Jason (Jesse James) she can’t bring herself to be truthful with Garret, all the while exploiting his personal tragedy for her newspaper… Adapted by Gerald Di Pego from the Nicholas Sparks novel, it took me a while to see this:  it was released February 1999 and I was travelling from N’Orleans to New Jersey and it seemed to me to be always playing a township or three too far to travel that snowy Spring. It was worth waiting for. It’s a gloriously romantic confection, with conflict, high stakes and a guilty secret or two at its core – there are real lessons to be learned here from the grown-ups with mirroring marital and parenting dilemmas. Penn is terrific as the journo who is basically a stalker and Costner is perfect as the romantic foil whose life is much more complex than she suspects. And guess who plays his father? Paul Newman, that’s who. There are nice bits in the office with Robbie Coltrane revelling in the role of editor and Illeana Douglas as her best friend at work while John Savage is impressive as Costner’s brother in law. This works because it’s tough on the characters even through a rose-tinted lens and the ending, well, it’s not easy but it’s immensely satisfying. It was the first Sparks novel to be adapted to the screen. Love letters?  Message in a bottle? A tragic sacrifice? Death? I hear ya. Just gorgeous cinematography by Caleb Deschanel and music by Gabriel Yared. Sniff. Directed by Luis Mandoki.

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

When Harry Met Sally.jpg

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.