Bugsy (1991)

Bugsy

I don’t go by what other men have done. Gangster Ben ‘Bugsy’ Siegel (Warren Beatty), who works for Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) and Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano (Bill Graham), goes west to Los Angeles and falls in love with Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) a tough-talking Hollywood starlet who has slept around with several men, as he is regularly reminded by his pals, who he meets on a film set where his friend George Raft (Joe Mantegna) is the lead.  He buys a house in Beverly Hills and shops at all the best tailors and furnishes his house beautifully while his wife Esta (Wendy Phillips) and young daughters remain in Scarsdale, New York. His job is to wrest control back of betting parlours currently run by Jack Dragna (Richard Sarafian) but life is complicated when Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) robs one of his places – Bugsy decides to go into business with him instead of punishing him and puts him in charge of casinos, while Dragna is forced to admit to a raging Bugsy that he stole $14,000, and is told he now answers to Cohen. On a trip to a deadbeat casino in the desert Bugsy dreams up an idea for a casino to end all casinos, named after Virginia (Flamingo), bringing the stars to Nevada but the costs overrun dramatically and his childhood friend Lansky is not happy particularly when it seems Bugsy might be aware that Virginia has cooked the books … Looks matter if it matters how you look. Warren Beatty’s long-cherished project was written by James Toback and Beatty micro-managed the writing and production and the result is one of the most powerful and beautiful films of the Nineties:  a picture of America talking to itself, with a gangster for a visionary at its fulcrum, building a kingdom in the desert as though through damascene conversion while being seduced by Hollywood and its luminaries, watching his own screen test the most entertaining way to spend an evening other than having sex. It sows the seeds of his destruction because his inspiration is his thrilling and volatile lover and making her happy and making a name for himself but it’s also a profoundly political film for all that, as with most of Beatty’s work. It’s undoubtedly personal on many levels too not least because the legendarily promiscuous man known as The Pro in movie circles impregnated his co-star Bening who was already showing before production ended. They married after she had his baby and have remained together since. His avocation of the institution is an important part of the narrative and gangsterism is a version of family here too but he chases tail, right into an elevator and straight to his penthouse too. Perhaps he wants to show us how it’s done by the nattiest dresser in town. It’s a statement about how a nation came to be but unlike The Godfather films it’s one that demonstrates how the idea literally reflects the image of the man who dreams it up in all his vainglory:  he enjoys nothing more than checking his hair in the glass when he’s kicking someone half to death (perhaps a metaphor too far). He is a narcissist to the very end, charming and totally ruthless while Ennio Morricone gives him a tragic signature tune. Impeccably made and kind of great with outstanding performances by Beatty, Bening and Kingsley. Directed by Barry Levinson. I have found the answer to the dream of America

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Kramer Vs Kramer

I’m sorry I was late but I was busy making a living. Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a workaholic ad man who returns home late on the biggest night of his career to find his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) packing her suitcase claiming she needs to find herself. She deserts him and their young son Billy (Justin Henry) and he has to find a way of taking care of the boy while juggling a busy career. He initially blames their divorced neighbour Margaret (Jane Alexander) for putting Joanna up to it but they become friends as he muddles through cooking, school appointments, playing in the park and working at home late at night while managing life alone with Billy. Then 15 months later Joanna shows up looking for custody and Ted loses his job because he can’t balance his work and life commitments. A court battle looms with the courts already tilted in favour of the mother … I have worked very hard to become a whole human being and I don’t think I should be punished for that.  For film scholar Hannah Hamad this is the Ur-film of Hollywood post-feminist paternal dramas, a mode that has dominated the industry ever since (just watch every movie out of America since 1980, more or less!). It’s also the film that put domestic melodrama back at the forefront of American cinema, garnering most of the principal Academy Awards in its year for something that had it been made in France would have been just another humdrum if moving drama. But it has stars – and is simply brilliantly performed with a naturalism that is breathtaking. Hoffman is great as the guy who has to get to know how to live as a working and caretaking parent. The kitchen scenes between him and Henry doing father-son bonding are fantastic. It’s smart too about the working environment and the boys’ club it engenders; and tough on the idea that any woman would want more from life than catering to the needs of a small child:  when Ted sleeps with office lawyer Phyllis (JoBeth Williams) she leaves early not to go home and give a kid breakfast but to go downtown for a meeting. Writer/director Robert Benton adapted Avery Corman’s novel and exhibits none of the quaint, quirky humour that distinguishes his other films. Slickly done, touching and hot-button on all the social issues of the day:  not just a film, a cultural event. I didn’t know it would happen to me. MM #2800

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven

You must fight. Fight! A poor Mexican village is regularly raid by a gang of bandits led by Calvera (Eli Wallach). When Calvera kills a villager, the leaders decide they have had enough and one of the elders (Vladimir Sokoloff) advises them to fight back. Taking their few objects of value, three of them ride to a town just inside the US hoping to barter for weapons. Instead they they are impressed by Cajun gunslighter Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) who suggests they instead hiregunfighters to defend the village, and he eventually decides to lead the group. Despite the meager pay offered, he finds five willing gunmen:  gunfighter Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) broke after a round from gambling;  Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) who thinks his old friend Chris is hiding a much bigger reward for the work; half Irish, half Mexican Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson) who has fallen on hard times; knife and gun expert Britt (James Coburn) who relishes the challenge; and Lee (Robert Vaughn) the well-attired gunman on the run who is burdened by nightmares about the men he has killed. On their way to the village they are followed by aspiring gunfighter, hotheaded Chico (Horst Buchholz) whose previous attempts to join the group were spurned by Chris but he impresses the villagers with his passion and Chris asks him to be part of what is now a group of seven.  Chico then encounters Petra (Rosenda Materos) and the men realise the farmers had hidden their women to protect them from being raped by the bandits. Three of Calvera’s men are dispatched to recce the village; the seven kill all three. Calvera and his bandits arrive in force and another eight of them are killed. The villagers celebrate, thinking Calvera won’t return and ask the men to leave. But Chico infiltrates Calvera’s camp and learns that Calvera must return, as his men are short of food and the seven have to prepare for a final encounter … I’ve been offered a lot of money – but never everything. A film so perfectly archetypal it feels like it’s been inscribed in our collective consciousness since the dawn of time. Screenwriter Walter Newman said that the success of a film always commences with the premise and everyone concerned knew they had a good one because Akira Kurosawa had already made it in Japan. Newman and the blacklisted Walter Bernstein did an uncredited rewrite of the screenplay The Seven Samurai which had been adapted by William Roberts from the work by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. Each character has his own arc, with his flaws, luck and skills underwriting his destiny. The story of the youngster Chico earning his stripes and finding love with Petra (Rosenda Monteros) gives the story a bedrock as a rites of passage experience but it’s the camaraderie, solidarity and the good intentions that make this a human interest story – the willingness to fight for a cause, putting the good of the group over selfish needs. The cast? How can you even begin to describe the charisma pouring off the screen? Inimitable. The set pieces by director John Sturges are matched by the more intimate episodes and the dialogue is never less than whip smart. Elmer Bernstein’s score is another essential part of the film’s rich mythology – an unforgettable, urgent, rousing call to action that heralds bravery, sacrifice and tragedy. Simply great. I have never had this kind of courage

Turn the Key Softly (1953)

Turn the Key Softly

I’m saying goodbye to regulations. Well-spoken burglar Monica Marsden (Yvonne Mitchell), pretty prostitute Stella Jarvis (Joan Collins) and elderly shoplifter Granny Quilliam (Kathleen Harrison) are released from Holloway Women’s Prison on the same day and venture out in London, meeting up for an early dinner in the West End as they negotiate their first day of freedom. Monica returns to her flat where she promises her friend Joan (Dorothy Alison) not to meet up again with David (Terence Morgan), a ne’er do well for whose crime she took the fall. She secures a job in an office with a start on Monday, despite her prison record. But when she returns to the flat David is waiting for her and wines and dines her, with the promise of a night at the theatre. Stella meets up with her busdriver fiancé Bob (Glyn Houston) and promises to get a room to stay in at Canonbury but spends his money on earrings. meeting up with her former working girl friends. Granny returns to her rundown Shepherds Bush room to her beloved special friend Johnny – who turns out to be a dog – and after cooking him food visits her daughter in the suburbs to the delight of her grand daughter but they weren’t expecting her and she has to return to town where she goes for a posh dinner at Monica’s expense, champagne included. Stella takes off with a man who took a fancy to Monica on the Tube earlier, and Monica leaves in a taxi with David for an evening that she hadn’t counted on … Sooner or later they’re sure to find out. This post-war British crime drama is a fantastically atmospheric show and tell about London society and its war-damaged physicality – between rainy Leicester Square where The Snows of Kilimanjaro is playing (and La Collins would co-star with Gregory Peck within just a few short years) and the council flats sitting cheek-by-jowl with semi-derelict terraces, you can practically sniff the desperation, the spivvery and the desire for something better in the documentary-style location shooting by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Mitchell is the real star here and has the better part of the narrative which turns upon her desire for her dastardly lover who manages to deceive her once again following an afternoon in the sack;  but Harrison has a marvellous role (you just know it won’t end well) and plays it beautifully; while Collins is well cast as the good time girl who has found a decent man and she makes the most of some smartly written moments. When she makes her decision about which way to go in life there’s a decidedly odd shot at Piccadilly Circus with her former prostitute colleague featuring close on camera. It’s a terrific film for women, this exploration of an array of femininity of differing ages and types re-entering the world on its tricky terms. What starts as a kind of melodrama with a social message about stigma turns into a suspenser, high on the rooftops of a city theatre, with a rather tragic ending. Very satisfying indeed. Adapted by Maurice Cowan from John Brophy’s novel, this is written and directed by documentary veteran Jack Lee, the elder brother of novelist Laurie.

 

Everybody Knows (2018)

Everybody Knows

Aka Todos lo saben. It’s for our daughter. Laura (Penélope Cruz) and her two children travel from Argentina to her home town outside Madrid to attend her younger sister’s wedding, an old-style village party. The joyful family reunion soon turns tragic when her impulsive teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) gets kidnapped that night and a ransom is demanded without police involvement in order to guarantee the girl’s safety. Laura’s brother-in-law Fernando (Eduard Fernández) who is married to Laura’s older sister Anna (Elvira Minguez) and whose daughter Rocio (Sara Sálamo) has split from her husband, asks retired police officer Jorge (José Ángel Egido) for advice and he tells Laura she should suspect family members. Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) arrives from Argentina: not only is he not wealthy, he is bankrupt and unemployed, a recovering alcoholic who invokes God all the time. Her former lover Paco (Javier Bardem) who acquired some of her family’s land where he grows vines assists Laura and then she make a request of him which has the ultimate effect of revealing a dark web of hidden secrets that could have triggered the kidnapping in the first place … Why is she telling you now? Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi’s drama winds inexorably tighter until it has the viewer in a vise, quite unexpectedly, in a melodrama driven by suspicion. It starts as a conventional family gathering, devolves into a crime scenario and finally pivots on a revelation that supposedly nobody knew. It is that scintilla of knowledge, a closely guarded secret, which has brought about a reckoning. Real-life husband and wife stars Bardem and Cruz are as committed as you’d expect in an observational narrative which has a different kind of focus from the standard thriller setup – it’s shaped from ongoing family issues, unexpressed bitterness about money and who knows what kinds of resentments that have developed over the years. Only Paco, the outsider, whose roots are deep in the family circle, has the finances to secure Irene’s release but it will destroy him if he gives it up. This is a story that refuses the usual genre stylings and focuses on the familial – scrabbling for money in an impoverished if scenic setting, pushing people to make admissions they’d rather not, ending in a kind of fug of denial despite the crushingly obvious:  all families are built on secrets and lies and it takes just one expertly aimed splinter at the heart to rip them apart and yet people persist in acting as though nothing has happened. There is a sense of paralysis here that makes this frighteningly true to life. Everybody knows

5 Flights Up (2014)

5 Flights Up

Aka Ruth & Alex; Life Itself. Who’d have thought that the whole of my life’s work is worth less than the room it was painted in? After forty years in the same building, ageing retired couple former teacher Ruth (Diane Keaton) and artist Alex Carver (Morgan Freeman) can’t manage the stairs very well any more so they put their Brooklyn apartment on the market using her realtor niece Lilly (Cynthia Nixon). As people pass through the property they think about what has happened there over the years and its significance to their relationship. When it looks like they have a viable offer, they visit a few places themselves and feel compelled to bid on one immediately; their dog Dorothy has to be taken to the veterinarian but Alex is initially reluctant to pay for the surgery she requires to repair a ruptured disc; a terrorist story in the area is unfolding on the TV … Do we really want someone like her living here? Adapted by Charlie Peters from Heroic Measures, a novel by Jill Ciment, Richard Loncraine directs two of the best actors of their generation sensitively and with a lot of humour so in spite of the ticking clock motif on the real estate deal this becomes a rumination on life, love, marriage and community and the stuff that really matters but it’s not exactly gentle. It touches on issues of race and society without making huge drama out of them:  the TV story about the alleged terrorist provides some opportune comments about prejudice. There are nice bits with the same people showing up at the different open houses so that mini-storylines run under the main narrative. It’s mellow entertainment with a resolution that isn’t terribly surprising but wraps things up satisfyingly. Maybe views are for younger people who still have things to look at

Walk, Don’t Run (1966)

Walk Dont Run

You remind me of myself a few years ago. Quite a few years ago. When British industrialist Sir William Rutland (Cary Grant) arrives days early for a meeting in Tokyo he doesn’t realise that due to the housing shortage throughout the 1964 Summer Olympics there’s nowhere to stay and even Julius Haversack (John Standing) at the British Embassy can’t be of assistance. He answers a small ad for an apartment share and when he arrives at the destination he finds British girl Christine Easton (Samantha Eggar) in a tiny place and she has a strict timetable to which Rutland must adhere. When he sublets to homeless American Olympic athlete Steve Davis (Jim Hutton) Christine has to put up with it because she’s already spent Rutland’s share of the rent. Then Rutland disagrees with her plans to marry Haversack and plays Cupid, while both he and Christine try to find out what sport Davis is competing in and resort to taking a cab and finding themselves in the middle of a race-walk … You’ve gone too far. And if you’ve any sense of decency you will leave. In the morning. A remake of the 1943 movie The More the Merrier, this is relocated from wartime Washington to the Tokyo Olympics and has neither the biting wit of the original screenplay by Sol Saks (and an uncredited Garson Kanin) nor the firm direction of George Stevens but is quite pleasant fluff although Eggar lacks comedy chops. There are some good moments – when Hutton is suspected of being a spy;  when the father of Eggar’s friend Aiko (Miiko Taka) is confused by the various relationships and mistakenly hands Grant a fertility symbol: Grant turns around to Standing, declaring I think we’re engaged, reminding us of his ad lib in Bringing Up Baby, I just went gay all of a sudden.  And given that it’s Grant’s final film it’s amusing to hear him humming the themes from both Charade and An Affair to Remember while he’s doing his shtick in Eggar’s tiny kitchen, thematically resonant as well as self-referential. There’s a nice bit at Aiko’s house when the TV is screening a Jimmy Stewart western – dubbed! Imagine a movie without his inimitable voice and in Japanese! Written by Robert Russell and Frank Ross and directed by Charles Walters with a score by Quincy Jones who co-wrote the songs Stay With Me and Happy Feet with singer Peggy Lee. He’s an Englishman, isn’t he?

Legal Eagles (1986)

Legal Eagles

Objection, your honour. The defence has just fondled one of the jurors. Divorced New York City assistant District Attorney Tom Logan (Robert Redford) is busy alternately fighting and flirting with his defence lawyer adversary Laura Kelly (Deborah Winger) and her unpredictable artist client Chelsea Deardon (Daryl Hannah) who is on trial for a murder she did not commit and wraps Tom around her little finger as the case against her builds … I’m not going to lose him. Where is he? Truly a star vehicle from writer/director Ivan Reitman with Redford in his once-a-decade comedy but armed with a really good supporting cast too including Brian Dennehy, Terence Stamp, Christine Baranski and Davids Clennon and Hart. Styled as a Tracy-Hepburn battle of the sexes comedy it lacks the quickfire dialogue you’d expect and Winger plays her role kind of soft but Redford is really charming. The leads are slightly overwhelmed by Hannah, cast on point as the kooky performance artist in a story which recalls the scandal that descended upon the estate of Mark Rothko. The screenplay is by Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr., that powerhouse screenwriting partnership, from a story by Reitman and the screenwriters. It’s a bit overloaded for such lightweight fun but it does have a lovely sense of NYC and if you look quickly you’ll see a bottle of Newman’s Own salad dressing on Winger’s dining table. Do you always cross-examine people?/Only when they lie to me

That Darn Cat! (1965)

That Darn Cat 1965

Do I look like Eliot Ness? Siamese pretty boy Darn Cat aka DC returns to the suburban home he shares with sisters Patti (Hayley Mills) and Ingrid aka Inkie Randall (Dorothy Provine) with a partly-inscribed watch replacing his collar after he follows bank robbers Iggy (Frank Gorshin) and Dan (Neville Brand) to their hideout where they’re hiding their kidnap victim Margaret Miller (Grayson Hall). Patti sees the news story and thinks the watch belongs to the woman and reports the case to the FBI who detail Agent Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones) to the case.  He has a really tough job tailing DC on his nighttime excursions trying to track down the robbers … D.C.’s a cat! He can’t help his instincts. He’s a hunter, just like you are. Only he’s not stupid enough to stand out in the pouring rain all day! Long and funny slapstick cat actioner with Mills utterly charming and Jones perfectly cast as the agent charged with following the titular feline. There are good jokes about surf movies, TV weather and nosy neighbours, with Elsa Lanchester a particular irritant. Roddy McDowall is a hoot as Gregory, the woefully misguided mama’s boy who serves as a brief romantic interest for Ingrid, mainly because he can drive her to work every day. Provine has a marvellous moment looking to camera in one of their scenes. Adapted by Bill Walsh and The Gordons, from their 1963 novel Undercover Cat, this has enough satirical elements to win over a wide audience. Bobby Darin sings the title song, composed by the Sherman brothers. You might recognise one of the two versatile Seal Point Siamese cats who play DC as the co-star of The Incredible Journey. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Sir, a mouse is no more permitted in here, than a man without a car

Instant Family (2018)

Instant Family.jpg

Is it a problem, the whole white saviour thing? Building contractor Pete Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) and his interior designer wife Ellie (Rose Byrne) have a perfect life, flipping houses and making money. However their child-free status is starting to get to Ellie and she persuades Mark to think about fostering. They train under the supervision of social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) and get overwhelmed when they encounter wisecracking 15-year old Lizzie (Isabela Moner) but she has a little brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz) and the couple don’t want to break up the family, whose crack addict mom is in jail.  The honeymoon period is followed by serious tantrums and disruption … If I chatted to a random kid in the park I could get arrested.  A film constructed on such a hideously sentimental premise you might not look beyond the awesome shabby chic interiors and hear some very shrewd and witty observations about race, parenting and family.  But what the hell were they thinking to deploy the great Joan Cusack as the weirdo in the last scene? Cringe! Must be the flu meds. Ahem. Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders. I never get tired of watching white people fight