It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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You sit here and you spin your little web and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Up in Heaven Clarence (Henry Travers) is awaiting his angel’s wings when a case is made to him about George Bailey (James Stewart) who’s thinking about jumping off a bridge and into a wintry river at Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve 1945. Clarence is told George’s story: as a young boy rescuing his brother Harry from an icy pond, to his father’s death just when his own life should have been taking off and he winds up staying in this loathsome little town running the bank and having his honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) ruined when there’s a run on the bank’s funds … and losing himself amid other people’s accidents, deaths and rank stupidity while the town runs afoul of greedy financier Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George is such a great guy with dreams of travel and adventure and the truth is he never leaves home and becomes a martyr to other people. I’ve always found this immensely depressing. What happens to him – the sheer passive aggression directed at him and the loss of all of his ambitions in order to satisfy other people’s banal wishes at the expense of his own life’s desires  – is a complete downer. Reworking A Christmas Carol with added danger it feels like a post-war attempt to make people feel happy with their very limited lot. Which is why I watch this very rarely and with complete reluctance precisely because its petty moralising is achieved so beautifully and rationally … So sue me! Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling and directed by Frank Capra.

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White Christmas (1954)

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I’m dreaming of a white Christmas with every Christmas card I write. Singer Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) has his life saved on Christmas night towards the end of WW2 (Bing Crosby) by soldier Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) who persuades him to become a double act. Davis fancies Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) who performs with her sister Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and he basically cons Wallace into joining them at a ski lodge in rural Vermont where the girls are going to perform a Christmas show – but they discover there’s no snow and it’s owned by Gen. Waverly (Dean Jagger), the boys’ commander in World War II, who, they learn, is having financial difficulties; his quaint country inn is failing. A season without snow could be a disaster. So what’s the foursome to do but plan a yuletide miracle: a fun-filled musical extravaganza that’s sure to put Waverly and his business back in the black! Then Betty figures Wallace isn’t the guy she thinks he is and abandons ship … Christmas is coming and this is as much a part of the celebration as that vat of cocoa and egg nog I’m currently drowning in as I watch the snow coming down. Originally intended for Fred Astaire opposite Crosby (who’d already had a bit of a hit with that little title tune in their smash movie Holiday Inn…) Astaire dropped out when he read the script so it went to Donald O’Connor. Then Crosby’s wife died and he went into mourning before coming back to it when Danny Kaye got involved and, well, here we are. There are nice jibes about showbiz, a nod to what retired people are supposed to do with their time when their faculties are still intact, and not a few great songs which are only written by the legendary Irving Berlin. With dance numbers to die for, romantic confusion and some crisp witticisms delivered with style – with a crew like that, would you expect any less? – this is tremendous, sentimental entertainment.  Shot in VistaVision (Paramount’s version of widescreen) this has some of the most gleaming reds you’ll see in cinema:  no Santa suit will ever match up to what these guys and gals wear for the ultimate seasonal singalong. Written by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank and directed by Michael (‘Bring on the empty horses!’) Curtiz. Look fast for George Chakiris in the dance troupe. 

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

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My number’s Pennsylvania 6-5000. Glenn Miller (James Stewart) is a young impoverished trombonist who pawns the instrument every time he leaves his latest band because nobody wants to use his arrangements: he hears music in a certain way but hasn’t the means to achieve his own orchestra, at least not yet. He’s confident it’ll happen some day just as he is that Helen (June Allyson) the girl he once dated at college in Colorado will marry him so he buys her a fake string of pearls and gets her to see him for the first time in two years despite her being engaged to someone else. Then he disappears again.  When she agrees to meet him in NYC she marries him and while he falls in and out of jobs she gets him to form his own crew with the money she squirrelled away without his knowing and by 1939 he has one of the biggest swing bands in the US … This biographical film is just so good it’s hard to know where to start:  the transitions which are so brilliantly inscribed by visually expert director Anthony Mann, particularly in the early scenes when the pawn shop is so central to Miller’s whole life;  the ease with which we grasp Miller’s misery at not being able to translate the music in his head to live performance (the squirming during a showgirl’s bowdlerized delivery of Moonlight Serenade has to be seen to be believed); the simple way the adoption of their children is handled; and the depiction of friendship with pianist Chummy (Henry Morgan) and its significance to running a smooth band. If you’re a jazz fan you’ll get a shiver of recognition every time a familiar chord strikes up and kudos to arranger Henry Mancini (who had played with Miller and was part of the ‘ghost’ band made up of the original and the Army Air Force players when he died) who errs just the right side of easy. There’s another recognition factor too – watching Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa perform is another plus;  as is the scene in London during a German bombing raid when the band play on in the open air – and the audience applaud once they get up again. Stewart is splendid in the title role and his resemblance to Miller doesn’t hurt. He was paired previously with Allyson in The Stratton Story and would work with her again in director Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command. This was the star and director’s fifth film collaboration  (out of eight) and the first non-Western. It was a huge hit, as was the soundtrack album and is a genuinely thrilling musical which will give real fans immense pleasure. There’s a great final scene with that little brown jug. Gulp. Written by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper.

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.

 

 

Lethal Weapon (1987)

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Where did you get him – Psychos R Us? Its Christmas in LA. A beautiful young blonde takes some pills and swan dives from a high rise apartment onto the roof of a parked car. Ageing police officer and family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is newly paired with psychotically reckless widowed undercover cop and former Green Beret Marty Riggs (Mel Gibson) who has been suicidal and virtually homicidal since the death of his wife in a car crash. The dead girl is Amanda Hunsaker the daughter of an acquaintance of Murtaugh’s from Nam. Her pills were drugged with drain cleaner so she would have been dead within 15 minutes one way or another. After a shootout with Amanda’s pimp, Murtaugh figures the reason his friend was trying to contact him in the days before Amanda’s death was because he wanted to rat out his colleagues in a heroin smuggling ring dating back to their days in Air America, the CIA front for smuggling in Laos and they likely killed the girl as a warning. The group is led by General McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) whose enforcer Jack Joshua (Gary Busey) is a violent psychotic who meets his match in Marty Riggs and when he captures him it’s torture  … Shane Black’s screenplay caused a sensation when it sold for megabucks back in the day.  It has some uncredited work done by Jeffrey Boam because the original was much darker than what we see here. Sure it’s a trashy loud violent action buddy movie but its real strength is the bed of emotions played by Glover and Gibson, two well-matched actors who have charisma to burn and were ingeniously cast by the legendary Marion Dougherty. Murtaugh’s quandary as the father of a teenage daughter is amplified by his Nam buddy’s heartache over his daughter’s plight and motivates him to pursue the conspirators (and is also a significant plot point); while Riggs’s deranged grief is understandable to anyone who’s bereaved:  his rooftop rescue of a jumper is breathtaking.  The deadpan style is emphasised when Murtaugh is warned by a police psychiatrist after the fact about what could happen when Riggs blows. The treatment of the suicide storyline is extremely well written. It’s all about how these guys choose to express their feelings and confront their fears while carrying out their duties in this smart and funny slambang sensation which is so sharply directed by Richard Donner. It has visual and narrative energy in abundance: Donner makes his usual visual jokes about where he places his credit and puts The Lost Boys on a cinema marquee and the film is dedicated to stuntman Dar Robinson who died after production. This was the first in a long-running franchise and three years later Gibson starred in Air America a film about those very merry pranksters who are the villains here Produced by Joel Silver.

Why Him? (2016)

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Her spine meets the arch of her tailbone and I want to pitch a tent and live in there. Tech millionaire Laird Mayhew (James Franco) introduces himself to the print-business owner father Ned (Bryan Cranston) of his Stanford student girlfriend Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) by flashing him over Skype on the older man’s 55th birthday. Invited to celebrate Christmas in California Stephanie takes her family to her boyfriend’s modernist mansion where the tattooed ignoramous bro hugs everyone, says everything that is inappropriate (likes Mom Megan Mullally rather overtly, charms little brother Griffin Gluck) and introduces Ned to a newly constructed bowling alley decorated with his image. He is just too much. And as for his assistant Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) who does a Cato/Clouseau act with Laird which neither recognises when Ned understands the obvious reference… But when Laird asks Ned for his blessing in marriage to Stephanie he oversteps horrifically and it doesn’t end there … From a story by Jonah Hill, this was co-written by Ian Helfer and director John Hamburg and works both as (actual) lavatory humour (a huge plot point) and Silicon Valley satire (listen to what the poor intern says) while overtly reworking the story of Father of the Bride as it negotiates the problems a dad might have with a boor screwing his daughter on a table while he’s hiding underneath Get past the foul-mouthed quasi-autistic socially awkward techno savant fatherless antagonist and enjoy Cranston’s facial expressions which were made for just such a hellish but amusing meeting of bizarrely attuned minds in this generational bromance clash where it would appear both men are hiding problems with the state of their very different businesses. Mullally gets a chance to do what she does best too while you might recognise Zack Pearlman, Adam Devine and Andrew Rannells from The Intern which makes this rather meta. Definitely for fans of the band Kiss! (And Elon Musk…) A Christmas movie with a difference.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

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Those were the days when people knew how to be in love. Jeff Arch’s story was a meta discourse about people’s views of love and relationships being mediated by the movies. Nora Ephron turned it into a valentine to An Affair to Remember, a 1957 movie starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Together with her sister Delia it became as much com as rom, but it still has a baseline of melancholy and that killer feeling, bittersweet. Sam (Tom Hanks) is the widowed architect whose son Jonah (Ross Malinger) wants him to find The One so he can have a mother again. They live in Seattle. Annie (Meg Ryan) is the very proper journalist in Baltimore who gets engaged to the allergy-afflicted Walter (Bill Pullman).  She hears Jonah on a late night radio phone-in and stops at a diner where the waitresses talk of nothing else but this sweet  guy whose son wants him to remarry. She thinks there’s a story there but there’s more, as her friend Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) figures when her newly affianced friend is so distracted.  While she vaguely plans to hunt down Sam and carry out some friendly stalking, he starts to date again and his son is disgusted by his choice, one of his co-workers. Sam and Annie see each other across a crowded road when she nearly gets hit by a couple of trucks. Her letter to him asks him to meet at the top of the Empire State building on Valentine’s Day a la Cary and Deborah and it’s sent by Becky without her knowledge.  Things pick up when Jonah flies to NYC to keep the date and she’s there having dinner with Walter during a romantic weekend at The Plaza … The tropes from When Harry Met Sally are here – the mirroring conversations, the advice from friends, the movie references, and even that film’s director Rob Reiner plays Sam’s friend and even though she’ d already made a movie this was what really made Nora Ephron as an auteur. It’s a clever premise, discursive as well as fairytale, positing the idea that even though they’re a country apart a pair of compatible people are destined to meet. Eventually. Isn’t that wild? Separating a romantic couple until the very last five minutes of a film?! What a risk! With a helping hand from fate, a kid and a dream of finding love on Valentine’s Day, it helps that this hits three holiday celebrations including Christmas and New Year’s.  It shouldn’t work but it does, helped with some tart lines about men and women and what people settle for as opposed to what everyone really wants. What a dream team, boosted by some wonderful songs. Irresistible.

Amazing Stories The Movie II (1987)

Amazing Stories The Movie.jpgThis anthology consists of four episodes of the 1985-87 television series which was licensed by Steven Spielberg from the original science fiction comic (with co-producers Joshua Brand and John Falsey).   In ‘Santa Claus ’85’ the man himself (Douglas Seale) gets arrested when a burglar alarm goes off as he’s delivering presents. Luckily a little boy (Gabriel Damon) comes to his aid. (Directed by Phil Joanou, story by Spielberg). In ‘The Wedding Ring’ museum thief (Danny DeVito) gives a purloined ring to his downcast waitress wife (Rhea Perlman), unaware that the previous owner’s ghost inhabits it. And that woman was a black widow. His wife becomes a sex-crazed killer wannabe and he has to get rid of the jewellery or face certain death. (Directed by Danny DeVito, story by Spielberg). Seventy-five years after he accidentally caused a train to crash, an old man (Roberts Blossom) waits for his penance in order to make amends – which turns out to be a ‘Ghost Train’ bursting through his son’s house while his grandson (Lukas Haas) is the only one who can hear the Highball Express coming (and Drew Barrymore’s on it if you look sharp!) (Directed by Steven Spielberg, story by Spielberg). In ‘The Doll,’ a lonely bachelor (John Lithgow) buys a mysterious doll for his niece (Rain Phoenix) from the lovable old dollmaker Mr Liebermacher (Albert Hague) but she hates it and he is drawn to this porcelain creature whom he christens Mary and believes she must be inspired by a real-life woman. (Directed by Phil Joanou, story by the great Richard Matheson). Beautifully made, not one of these stories outstays its welcome and it’s well-balanced between scary and funny and just a little bit magical as people meet their destinies. The star power and the performances by the kids are what stay with you, along with scores by Craig Safan, Thomas Newman, Georges Delerue and John Williams:  now that’s amazing. The original of the species. Good fun.

Less Than Zero (1987)

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Clay (Andrew McCarthy) is back in Los Angeles for Christmas following his first semester at college and finds that his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) is now using cocaine and his best friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.) whom he found sleeping with Blair over Thanksgiving is a serious cokehead indebted to the tune of $50,000 to the nasty Rip (James Spader – frighteningly reasonable) who runs a rent boy ring and gets his creditors to service his clients. This portrait of life in the higher-earning echelons of LA is chilling. Bret Easton Ellis’ iconic novel is a talisman of the mid-late Eighties coming of age set and the icy precision of his affectless prose is inimitable. Once read, never forgotten. Harley Peyton’s screenplay is a fair adaptation but the casting lets this down – with the exception of Downey who is simply sensational as the tragic Julian, gifted with a record company for graduation by his father (Nicholas Pryor) and then simply dumped when he screws up.  This lovable loser’s mouth drools with the effects of his addiction when rehab doesn’t work and he spirals unhappily trying to bum money off his uncle to open a nightclub. Watch the scene when he talks to Clay’s little sister as though she’s a lover who’s pushing him away – knockout. The Beverly Hills scene with its horrible parents and their multiple marriages and awkward dinners with exes and stepchildren, making teenagers grow up too fast, is all too real.  While McCarthy and Gertz just don’t really work – McCarthy’s supposed to be a vaguely distanced observer but he doesn’t convey much beyond a bemused smile, Gertz looks confused and both look too old – the shooting style is cool and superficial, like the lives it critiques. Directed by Marek Kanievska.

The Odessa File (1974)

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The faction novel by Frederick Forsyth has a special place in my heart because it was the first book I borrowed when I finally got a ticket to join the Adult section of my local public library after I turned 12. And it stunned me when I discovered that Forsyth was merely fictionalising in very approximate fashion the story of the Butcher of Riga, Eduard Roschman (Maximilian Schell) who is protected by the Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehoerigen (Former SS Members) in winter 1963. Journalist Peter Milller (Jon Voight) happens upon the story by simple expedient of pulling over in a Hamburg street to hear that President Kennedy has died and then literally chases an ambulance to an apartment building where an elderly Holocaust survivor has gassed himself. A policeman friend hands him the man’s diary and he uncovers the story behind the suicide of Salomon Tauber which contains one gleaming detail:  the murder by Roschmann at Riga port of a colleague who won a very rare German military medal. After meeting many unhelpful people in authority in a Germany still clearly run by the Nazis (there were 12 million of them after all, and they all just returned to civilian life and kept their pensions) he goes to Vienna where he visits Simon Wiesenthal who tells him about the ODESSA. He is beaten up, his dancer girlfriend (Mary Tamm) is threatened by some ex-Nazis and then ‘befriended’ by a policewoman when Miller goes off grid. He’s kidnapped by Mossad agents who want to know who he is and why he’s after Roschmann, supposedly dead almost two decades ago.  Then he dons a disguise … There are a few alterations to the source by Kenneth Ross and George (The Prisoner) Markstein and this is a fairly conventional procedural but still satisfying considering the strength of the subject matter (a topic plundered years later by novelist Sam Bourne aka Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland.) Voight is very good in what could be a difficult part and he gets a superb twist ending – when we learn the deeply personal reason for his search in addition to the quest for a great story. In a nice touch Maria Schell plays Voight’s mother, making this the only time she and Maximilian acted in the same film. The lovely Mary Tamm would later become a notable assistant to BBC’s Doctor Who and would have a good role as Blanche Ingram in TV’s Jane Eyre opposite Timothy Dalton. She died too soon.  There is an interesting score by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a special mention for Perry Como’s rendition of Christmas Dream and some superb cinematography by the great Oswald Morris and scene-setting by production designer Rolf Zehetbauer in this Anglo-German production – which might just account for the somewhat cleaned-up account of post-war Nazism. As it’s directed by multi-hyphenate Ronald Neame you wouldn’t expect anything less than a great-looking movie.  In another pleasing twist to the narrative, this prompted the tracking down of the real Roschmann to South America. But you’ll have to consult the history books to find out what happened next …