Manhattan (1979)

 

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Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. Oh, I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be. 42-year old TV comedy writer Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is involved with high school student Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and freaking out about his Lesbian ex-wife Jill’s (Meryl Streep) forthcoming memoir of their marriage breakup; while his best friend, University professor Yale Pollack (Michael Murphy) is cheating on his wonderful wife Emily (Anne Byrne) with cerebral egotist book editor Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton). Isaac quits his job in a fit of pique which he instantly regrets and has to downsize in order to finance a year when he will try to write a book. Yale breaks up with Mary so when Tracy says she wants to go to London to study acting Isaac and Mary get together … I’m dating a girl who does homework. Elaine’s, the Empire Diner, The Russian Tea Room, Central Park, the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, Bloomingdale’s, Dean and Deluca, the Lincoln Center, Rizzoli’s bookstore, Zabar’s, the now-demolished Cinema Studio, this is the one where Allen fully expresses his love of his native city and it’s more than a Valentine as the story inspired by George Gershwin’s music, starting with Rhapsody in Blue, transports us into the inner workings of the characters and their preposterous lifestyle problems. The script by Allen and Marshall Brickman gives Keaton absurdly self-aggrandising dialogue protesting the burden of her beauty, Allen jokes about his castrating Zionist mother and jibes about Lesbian fathers, and everyone bar 17-year old Tracy is fairly ridiculous but even she is a serious sexpot who wants to go to London to train as an actor (supposedly based on Allen’s relationship with Stacy Nelkin). A gorgeous, funny, satirical film about silly people whose therapists call them, weeping, and they carry on doing stupid things, risking their relationships and their careers on a romantic whim in a disposable culture. (That’s Mia Farrow’s sister Tisa talking about the wrong kind of orgasm, BTW.)  It’s all told with love and humour and shot in ridiculously beautiful widescreen monochrome by Gordon Willis because of course the real unadulterated love spoken of here is for New York City and it gives the writer his voice.  Of the two of us I wasn’t the amoral psychotic promiscuous one  MM #2,600

A New Leaf (1971)

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You have managed to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born. A spoiled and self-absorbed playboy who has squandered his inheritance, Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) is ageing and desperate to find a way to maintain his lavish lifestyle. He approaches his disbelieving Uncle Harry (James Coco) who agrees to loan him some money but only on condition he marries within 6 weeks or he will take everything Henry has left in his name, ten times the loan amount. Henry sees an opportunity when he meets Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), an awkward and bookish botanist and heiress whose greatest hope is to discover a new fern. Though Henry proposes marriage within three days of meeting, he has no intention of remaining with her and plans a sinister scheme. As he attempts to murder Henrietta, it may not be as easy as he had thought and he finds himself protecting her from her thieving household staff and caring about her appearance … I eat I sleep I swim I dry off.  I’m primitive! Writer/director Elaine May’s hilarious black comedy may have been re-cut by the studio (headed up by the legendary Robert Evans) against her wishes (losing two murders in the process) but Matthau preferred this version and it’s laugh out loud brilliant and humane, quite a combination. Matthau’s hangdog look perfectly encapsulates his desperate situation as the destitute playboy who against his killer instincts finds his inner decency; while May is a delight as the klutzy eccentric who knows more than she lets on. Coco is hideously funny as the rich uncle with the motorized pepper mill who has a metaphorical noose over Henry; while James Weston scores as Henrietta’s lawyer desperate not to lose his valuable client. Some of the best scenes are between Henry and his ‘gentlemen’s gentleman’ Harold (Jack Rose) who commences by suggesting suicide as an alternative to the awful embarrassment of public poverty when the cheques start to bounce; and then points out the ironic development that Henrietta’s helplessness has triggered Henry’s surprising financial acumen. Startlingly funny and rather cruel about men and women and a certain social niche, this has lost none of its edge or its warmth because it truly understands the vast compromises required by marriage and there are moments of inspired physical comedy.  Adapted by May from Jack Ritchie’s short story The Green Heart. I’m going to find a suitable woman and mur …. marry her!

September (1987)

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I have no reason to get up tomorrow. Following a suicide attempt, Lane (Mia Farrow) retreats to her summerhouse in Vermont to rest but it’s not the peaceful haven it should be when her visitors disrupt the healing process and everyone present seems to be in love with the wrong person. Lane has difficulty dealing with her obnoxious tactless former actress mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), who is visiting with her stepfather Lloyd (Jack Warden). Lane lusts after struggling writer Peter (Sam Waterston) who is actually interested in her best friend Stephanie (Dianne Wiest) and a friendly neighbour, French teacher Howard (Denholm Elliott) carries a torch for Lane… It’s hell gettin’ older. Especially when you feel 21 inside. One of my fondest moviegoing memories is of watching this in a cinema on W. 57th Street NYC filled with the kind of people I was seeing onscreen – how better to view a Woody Allen film than surrounded by an audience that resembled the actors. I was among his people! It was irresistible and I spent most of my time people-watching, more engaged with the Allen-types, not the drama unspooling in front of me. Allen’s films at this point were apparently split between those aiming for a Fellini-esque feeling (Radio Days) or Bergman-esque interiority, like here, and Autumn Sonata is directly referenced in its plot, its central relationship and even costuming. Owing a lot to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, it’s a theatrical piece and Stritch makes a meal of her part as the attention-seeking star who wants someone to write a book about her against Lane’s wishes – because Lane supposedly shot her mother’s lover when she was a kid (just like Lana Turner’s daughter …).This was famously shot twice (kinda like the lover!) with Farrow’s own mother Maureen O’Sullivan in the role taken by Stritch, with Charles Durning in the great Jack Warden’s role and Christopher Walken AND Sam Shepard replaced by Waterston. Truly a film that is the sum of its parts, it somehow contrives to look better than it feels. Is there anything more terrifying than the destruction of the world?

Shock (1946)

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It’s hard for a doctor to make promises. We can only do our best. Psychiatrist Dr Cross (Vincent Price) is treating catatonic Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw) after she has witnessed a man hit a woman with a candlestick causing her death. When she comes to realise that it was in fact Cross murdering his wife he commits her to a sanatorium where his nurse lover Elaine Jordan (Lynn Bari) persuades him to give Janet  an overdose of insulin but Cross finds getting away with murder a second time a difficult prospect … I’m neither a miracle man nor a prophet, Lieutenant. If medicine were an exact science, not an art, I might be able to tell you. This controversial post-war thriller is notable for being Price’s first starring role and for attracting criticism of its portrayal of psychiatry, a profession thought to be both unimpeachable and necessary for the treatment of returning WW2 vets. This is highlighted by the return of Janet’s husband Paul (Frank Latimore), in his soldier’s uniform, embodying a sociocultural crisis. The sense of jeopardy is well sustained, Bari is a superb femme fatale (she wasn’t known as The Woo Woo Girl for nothing) and the murderous Price’s own ethical crisis is nicely handled. Written by Eugene Ling and Albert DeMond (from his story) with additional dialogue by Martin Berkeley. There’s a highly effective score by David Buttolph and it’s well photographed by Joseph MacDonald and Glen MacWilliams, beautifully designed by Boris Leven and Lyle Wheeler,  with editing by Harmon Jones. Directed by Alfred L. Werker. Doctor, the important thing is – what can you do for her?  * In Celebration of the Centenary of Lynn Bari’s birth 18th December 2019 *

War Paint (1953)

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I once read a lot of books about humanity. All wrong. When we get back I’ll write a new one. With only nine days to deliver a peace treaty to Gray Smoke, the chief of a strong Native American tribe, cavalry Lieutenant Billings (Robert Stack) and his troopers are in a race against time to avoid all-out war. Since time is of the essence, Billings recruits the chief’s son Taslik (Keith Larsen), to guide the men to the settlement. However Billings and his men are unaware that a group of renegades, wary of the suspicious U.S. treaty, seek to kill the messengers before they can complete their mission and they find that the Bureau of Indian Affairs officer Kirby has been killed – by Taslik . Gradually depleted of supplies including mapping equipment, water and horses, they realise Taslik has led them in a circle but are unaware they are being tracked by his sister Wanima (Joan Taylor) who is causing the landslides and is watching and waiting with a rifle … Without water he’s as dead as we are. This western is rich in irony, not least in the casting because Stack’s impassivity is a good physical reflection of the painted features of Larsen. The backstories of each trooper are drawn out smartly:  Charnofsky (John Doucette) is Polish and says he fled the old country because the Tsar wanted to put me in the military! As the men are gradually driven mad by thirst and greed, the infighting worsens, casualties mount and there is a truly compelling account of a death by poison; one man chooses suicide rather than wait for what appears to be inevitable. The original script had a mercy killing which elicited the ire of the Production Code Administration and had to be removed. All in all a convincing narrative, shot in the relentless glare of Death Valley. It’s written by C. Fred Freiberger, William Tunberg and producer Aubrey Schenck, who wrote the original story, while the screenplay credits are to Richard Alan Simmons and Martin Berkeley. The score is by Arthur Lange and Emil Newman and any film that has a song called Elaine can’t be half bad. Directed by Lesley Selander. Kinda lost track here. Only thing that breaks up the time is the wars

48 HRS (1982)

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I wanna know what the fuck this is all about! I gave you 48 hours to come up with somethin’ and the clock’s runnin’! Renegade San Francisco cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) pulls bank robber Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) from a federal prison on a 48-hour leave to help him capture Hammond’s old partner, Albert Ganz (James Remar). After escaping from a prison work crew where he shot up two of the guards, Ganz is on a killing spree around San Francisco, on the trail of half a million dollars that went missing after one of his robberies. The cocky Reggie knows where the money is, but spars with the hotheaded Jack as he enjoys his temporary freedom…  I’ve been in prison for three years. My dick gets hard if the wind blows. The great screenwriter turned director Walter Hill surrenders full tilt boogie to the action genre and makes one of the best films of the Eighties with this tough buddy movie starring one of the best double acts to ever appear on screen:  Nolte’s gruff cop to Murphy’s fast-talking crim provides an exercise in contrast and juxtaposition – straight/funny, white/black, law/disorder- with their fast prolix exchanges both profane and meaningful as they find each other on the same side. The scene in the redneck bar is justly famous but the tone and thrust of the entire muscular narrative is warm and funny, characterful and plain, overtly racist and sexist, in a constant battle of oneupmanship. This was Murphy’s big screen debut and it made him a star. It all plays brilliantly, with Remar making a return visit to Hill territory following The Warriors and the city of San Francisco provides the stylish stomping ground while Annette O’Toole is Nolte’s love interest, Elaine. Written by Roger Spottiswoode, Hill & Larry Gross and Steven E. DeSouza, this is the basic cop-buddy template, the mother of all action comedy. Now, get this! We ain’t partners. We ain’t brothers. And we ain’t friends

There Was a Little Boy (1993) (TVM)

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Hey! She doesn’t want me! Fifteen years after their baby boy was stolen from their apartment, English teacher Julie (Cybill Shepherd) is expecting her second child with wealthy husband Gregg (John Heard). He has never given up on finding Robbie, she accepts his guilt despite it happening on her watch while she was taking a bath. She is teaching in a downtown high school and finds herself forced to deal with a difficult transfer student Jesse (Scott Bairstow) who appears functionally illiterate but is actually gifted and they form an uneasy connection. His own mother Esperanza (Elaine Kagan) is on welfare and ill with a lung condition and they get by with his thieving from the store. When Julie tries to sell off  Robbie’s baby cot, Gregg objects and finds in the base a necklace with a religious medal attached which doesn’t belong to either of them and which they trace to a local Catholic priest who is now gaga and cannot positively identify the owner. However Jesse’s own actions lead Julie in the right direction to find her long-lost son …  I am your worst nightmare:  a politically incorrect teacher who dares to flunk your ass. Adapted by Wesley Bishop from the novel by Claire R. Jacobs, this operates somewhere between Teacher in the Hood and Maternal Melo, The action scenes are well handled, the irony of Jesse’s identity well flagged (it’s not really the point), the trade-off in guilt between husband and wife completely believable, the acting good, and it’s directed by the admirable Mimi Leder who of course proceeded to make those terrific actioners Deep Impact and The Peacemaker before the wheels came off her cinema career for a long time after Pay It Forward. She returned to the fray late last year with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex. Hurray for that. And if that doesn’t suffice, how about all those early 90s chintzy couches. I lost a son and a husband. I won’t let that happen again

Gilbert Lennon 17th April 2003 – 2nd August 2019

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The world’s most charming and cine-literate cat died in my arms at 1120 today following a very short illness. Gilbert was the light of my life and accompanied me everywhere, including my travels on the internet to which he was a keen contributor and editor via this diary. I thought of a lot of things but not this. Now he is on the wild road with his brothers and sister. Vaya con Dios, amigo. You are the best of everything and Mondo Movies and I will not be right without you.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

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I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400

Lucky (2017)

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The one thing worse than awkward silence is small talk. Every day in the desert town of Piru, California, 90-year old Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) does 21 reps of his 5 yoga exercises, drinks some milk, shouts Cunts! at the botanic garden that barred him for smoking and enters a diner owned by Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley) where he has a large milky coffee and does the crossword. Then he buys some smokes in Bibi’s (Bertila Damas) shop on his way back home, where he settles down to his TV quiz shows before heading to Elaine’s (Beth Grant), the local bar, where he chews the fat with a group of friends:  Howard (David Lynch) gets depressed about President Roosevelt, who, it transpires, is his tortoise,who outlasted Howard’s two wives and who’s disappeared; Paulie (James Darren) misses his late wife and Lucky reckons he is fortunate never to have married. Lucky falls over when he’s home alone (he’s always home alone) and winds up in hospital where the doctor Christian Kneedley (Ed Begley Jr) tells him he’s a medical wonder. The diner waitress Loretta (Yvonne Huff) calls to his house and they watch Liberace on TV and smoke grass and Lucky insinuates that he is homosexual and asks Loretta not to talk about it. At Elaine’s Howard is treated ingratiatingly by a lawyer Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston) he hired for end of life bequests who Lucky thinks is gaming his friend. Back at the diner he chats with Fred (Tom Skerritt) a tourist and fellow WW2 veteran and they share stories about the Philippines. At the birthday party of Bibi’s son, Lucky sings in Spanish and that evening finds his friends once again … All I can think is it’s a combination of genetic good luck and you’re one tough son of a bitch. Harry Dean Stanton was always old, or so it seemed. The first time we see Lucky outside it’s a conscious re-staging of that famous low angle medium close up from Paris, Texas. But now he’s thirty-five years older and it’s a different hat and he’s not on the move any longer, save for those few exercises on the floor of his house, and the furthest he walks is shuffling down the street of his small town for his unvarying daily routine. He’s an atheist looking at death and trying to figure out what matters. Every scene is detailed and deals with an aspect of philosophy, a preparedness for the next phase, set in motion by the definition of realism which Lucky finds in a dictionary when doing the crossword. It’s funny and humane and brought to life by effervescent performances from a range of actors you never dreamed of putting together, but here they are. Written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, this feels very elegiac but never depressing, more of a coming to terms with the inevitable, featuring some comic interludes which never intrude on the tone of the deep felt emotionality. Lynch has an extraordinary monologue about his tortoise that ends with the line: There are some thing in this universe that are bigger than all of us and that tortoise is one of them.  It’s a wonderfully humble moment and it crystallises the film’s central idea as well as reminding us what a lucky charm Stanton was for Lynch’s career. Those sunlit desert scenes are beautifully shot by Tim Suhrstedt while the songs are mostly by Elvis Kuehn but you’ll get a lump in your throat when you hear Johnny Cash singing Will Oldham’s I See a Darkness. Directed by veteran actor John Carroll Lynch, it ends on a shot of Lucky walking into the desert, sort of like President Roosevelt (the tortoise). A perfect conclusion to an incomparable career, this was the cherishable Stanton’s final film and he’s the leading man at last. I always thought that what we all agreed was what we were looking at