Top Hat (1935)

Top Hat

For the women the kiss, for the men the sword! American dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) comes to London to star in a show produced by Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). He meets and attempts to impress model Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) to win her affection, but she mistakes him for Horace. Jerry pursues her to Venice where she is promoting the work of Jerry’s love rival, fashion designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) and visiting her friend Madge (Helen Broderick) who is Horace’s wife … My dear, when you’re as old as I am, you take your men as you find them – if you can find them. With a score by Max Steiner and songs by Irving Berlin, who couldn’t love this arch, witty treatise on love? And there are also all those extra tasty treats for connoisseurs of the period – particularly our favourite, Eric Blore as Bates, Hardwick’s fussy valet; incredible gowns designed by Bernard Newman; and the high Art Deco production design typical of the era’s screwball romances but specifically the Big White Set by Van Nest Polglase constructed for the Astaire/Rogers musicals. It’s probably the best loved of the duo’s ten pairings and with good reason, the combination of song and dance reaching peaks of sheer perfection in this the fourth time they co-starred. In fact, it’s Heaven. Swoonsome, amusing entertainment in the smooth classical style. Written specifically for Astaire and Rogers by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott, adapted from a stage play, this was RKO’s most profitable film of the decade. Directed by Mark Sandrich. In dealing with a girl or horse, one just lets nature take its course

The Gauntlet (1977)

The Gauntlet

On a scale of one to ten, I’d have to give her a two, and that’s because I haven’t seen a one before. Hard-living ageing cop Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood) is recruited to escort Augustina ‘Gus’ Mally (Sondra Locke), a key witness in a Mob trial, from Las Vegas to Phoenix. But far from being a nothing witness in a nothing trial as Commissioner Blakelock (William Prince) insists, Gus is a lovely, well-educated if coarse call girl who claims to have explosive information on a significant figure that makes the two highly expendable targets. Ben starts to believe her story after numerous attempts are made to kill them and they have to travel across the unforgiving desert without official protection, pursued by angry bikers and corrupt police officers and he contacts his direct boss Josephson (Pat Hingle) to try to rearrange the outcome  ... Now, the next turkey who tries that, I’m gonna shoot him, stuff him, and stick an apple in his ass. Chris Petit remarks elsewhere that this in its own way is as significant to the Eastwood screen persona as Annie Hall is to Woody Allen’s – and that’s true, insofar as it examines masculinity (and it’s shown up in elemental form), quasi-feminist principles and gut-busting hardcore action and thrills based on the first formal rule of movie making – people chasing people. Written by Michael Butler and David Shryack, they were working on a screenplay originally intended for Brando and Streisand (can you imagine?) and Brando withdrew in favour of Steve McQueen and Streisand then walked – leading to Eastwood coming on board to direct and star so the self-deprecating humour took on a new edge as he challenges institutional corruption and general stupidity (mostly his own) once again. Locke is great as the prostitute with a planet-sized brain, a heart of gold and a mine of information and she’s every bit as resourceful as you’d expect when the two hit the road running. Fast, funny and occasionally quite furious, this is a key film in both of the stars’ careers. Shryack would go on to write Pale Rider (1985) for Eastwood and it was that decade’s biggest grossing western. There are some marvellous jazz solos from Art Pepper and Jon Faddis. Smart, rip roaring fun, a pursuit western in all but name. I can go anywhere I please if I have reasonable suspicion. Now if I have suspicion a felony’s been committed, I can just walk right in here anytime I feel like it, ’cause I got this badge, I got this gun, and I got the love of Jesus right here in my pretty green eyes

About a Boy (2002)

About a Boy

I’ll tell you one thing. Men are bastards.  Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is a wealthy child-free and hedonistic thirtysomething London bachelor who, in search of available women, invents an imaginary son and starts attending single parent meetings claiming he’s been left with a two year-old son. As a result of his attraction to Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), he meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) a solemn twelve-year-old boy with problems at school and a suicidal hippie mother Fiona (Toni Collette). Gradually, Will and Marcus become friends and Marcus pretends to be his son so Will can pursue a relationship with single mother Rachel (Rachel Weisz).  As Will teaches Marcus how to fit in, Marcus helps Will to finally be a man ... Two people aren’t enough. You need backup. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel by Peter Hedges and co-directors Chris and Paul Weitz, this has all the elements of a mawkish soap but the performances and humour raise it to another level. Grant’s always been a great cad but here he also learns lessons – he already knows he doesn’t want to be a conventional husband or have responsibility but through friendship with this odd kid he learns how to be authentically emotional and to be a good guy. The fact that he’s hanging out with a twelve-year old boy leads Fiona to confront him in a restaurant where everyone immediately assumes he’s a pederast in one of the best scenes in the film. Hoult is properly strange looking (the wonder is that Will takes him shoe shopping rather than for a haircut) but the point is that both of them are outcasts in their own way and need to grow up by facing their fears – which brings the film to its penultimate scene at a school concert which presents the potential for lifelong humiliation. The songs are intrinsic to the storytelling as is customary with Hornby’s work and it’s a mosaic of cool and cringe, including the horrible Christmas song composed by Will’s father which afforded him his louche lifestyle in the first place. A film of exceptional charm. As I sat there I had a strange feeling. I was enjoying myself

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!

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)

The Pink Panther Strikes Again

Do you know what kind of bomb it was?/The exploding kind. Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) escapes from a mental hospital and determines to commandeer a Doomsday machine invented by Dr Hugo Fassbender (Richard Vernon) in order to wipe out the entire world if necessary – just as long as he can kiss his bête noire Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) farewell. He kidnaps Fassbender and his daughter Margo  (Briony McRoberts) and holds them captive in his Bavarian castle but not willing to take any chances, he also hires a series of hitmen (Eddie Stacey, Herb Tanney, Terry Maidment) to help out. Meanwhile, Clouseau is diverted by the attentions of alluring Russian spy Olga (Lesley-Anne Down) …  Now we’ll see who has the last laugh. They’ve all betrayed me, and now they will have to pay. What shall I destroy? Buckingham Palace? Too small. How about London? Not big enough. England! Yes, England. In which Dreyfus becomes a kind of Blofeld-styled criminal mastermind crossed with Count Dracula, the animated titles pastiche so many genres it’s just a shame they don’t get to pay homage to them all (including Edwards’ wife Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music!). Not as well constructed as the preceding films, this genre mashup does pay dividends in the expertly engineered sight gags and one extended action sequence involving Lom, Sellers and the redoubtable Burt Kwouk as Cato. Some might take issue with the scene in the gay club and the crossdressing performers but this is a scenario that Edwards would plunder to astonishing effect in the later Victor/Victoria. There’s a packed ensemble of English actors and it’s only a shame that the great Leonard Rossiter hasn’t more to do as Clouseau’s shocked opposite number. Look quickly for Omar Sharif as an Egyptian hitman while Byron Kane does a Kissingeresque Secretary of State. Lots of fun but not for the purist – even though it had me from the moment Lom’s eye twitched. Written by Frank Waldman and director Blake Edwards. I thought you said that your dog didn’t bite!/That is not my dog

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

The Return of the Pink Panther

Compared to Clouseau, Attila the Hun was a Red Cross volunteer. The famous jewel and national treasure of Lugash, the Pink Panther, is stolen once again in a daring heist with only the trademark glove as evidence. Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) is rehabilitated from his demotion to the street beat by Chief Inspector Dreyfuss (Herbert Lom) of the Sureté and sets off on a mission to nab the notorious thief who is probably Sir Charles Lytton (Christopher Plummer). But when Clouseau carries out surveillance at his house in Nice he encounters his resourceful wife Claudine (Catherine Schell) who leads him on a wild goose chase to Gstaad… There’s something about a wife – even with a beard. Marking the return of both writer/director Blake Edwards (writing with Frank Waldman) and star Sellers to the series following a misguided iteration with Alan Arkin in 1968, this succeeds due to some fabulous slapstick set pieces with all kinds of ordinary things defeating the brainless Inspector – a blind bank robbery lookout with his minky (a scene that is actually gasp-inducing), a telephone, a vacuum cleaner, his own moustache and a fake nose. Great visual gags involving tiny vehicles (á la M. Hulot), an unfortunately located swimming pool, in-house martial artist Cato (Burt Kwouk) and some very funny verbals including Sellers’ horrific mangling of the French language make up for the deadening miscasting of Plummer in the role previously handled effortlessly by David Niven. Sellers is so hilarious as the anarachic disaster-prone idiot he had Schell giggling uncontrollably – and those takes are in the final cut! There’s also the priceless running joke of an increasingly deranged Lom and his gun lighter. If it’s in the first act … well, you know your Chekhov. Seriously funny at times with extraordinary titles designed by Richard Williams. With friends like you, who needs enemies?

The 39 Steps (1959)

The 39 Steps 1959

If you’re looking for Richard Hannay this is the man you want. Freshly returned to London, British diplomat Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) goes to the aid of a nanny ‘Nannie’ (Faith Brook) in a park only to discover there is no baby in the pram and follows her to a music hall where he watches Mr Memory (James Hayter). She goes back to his flat and reveals that she is a spy working for British intelligence looking for the organisation The Thirty-Nine Steps who are after information on the British ballistic missiles project. When she is murdered in his flat he goes on the run, encountering a bevy of schoolgirls on a train with their teacher Miss Fisher (Taina Elg) who reports him to the police but he jumps off the vehicle on the Forth Bridge and hitches a ride on a truck driven by ex-con Percy Baker (Sidney James) who advises him to stay at The Gallows Inn run by occultist Nellie Lumsden (Brenda De Banzie) and her husband who help him escape during a cycling race.  He approaches Professor Logan (Barry Jones) only to find the man is in fact the leader of the spy ring and he must keep running … I’m not having a Sagittarius in the house tonight! Hitchcock was responsible for the first adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy-chase thriller and this is a more or less straight remake, with the romance-chase narrative lines crisscrossing pleasingly as per the generic template established by The Master. More may be a slightly ridiculous hero but this is played for comic effect and its Hitchcockian homage continues in the casting of De Banzie who essays a knowing spiritualist in her crofting cottage. It has the advantage of location shooting, a winning plot, doubtful romantic interest, a deal of suspense and a collective tongue planted firmly in cheek. Directed by Ralph Thomas, written by Frank Harvey and produced by Betty Box. Keep out of the woods. Especially in August!

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?

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