Altman (2014)

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Altmanesque? Life, liberty and the pursuit of truth. That’s Elliott Gould’s perception of the man with whom he collaborated on some of the key movies of the Seventies. This documentary about Robert Altman is not quite as freestyled, improvised and ensemble-driven as his most acclaimed directorial works but it comes close, using a lot of home movies to illustrate the domestic life that lay behind the man and his films. Ron Mann directs a script by Len Blum which traces his evolution from making industrial films following an early script sale to Hollywood, and a lengthy career in TV episodics which resulted in an abrupt leavetaking following a row over the portrayal of race and the equivalent of then-undiagnosed PTSD, through the astonishing innovative features. There are interviews with family members, including his third wife and some of his children (who wound up working with him, partly as a means of seeing him) as well as actors who perhaps achieved more in those films than in any other in terms of the way their skill sets were utilised. There are interview clips both new and old, film excerpts including on-location footage (expletives undeleted) and the up and down career arcs covering the fall from grace through most of the Eighties when he then reinvented how TV could do drama with Tanner ’88. Then the comeback, cocking a snook at Hollywood with The Player. When he got his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars he made a surprise admission which elicited the appropriate reaction from the star-studded crowd – another glorious directing coup. A fine piece of work (despite some odd editing decisions) doing justice to a peripatetic talent.

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Home Again (2017)

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You’re telling me you have live-in childcare, tech support AND sex?! Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon) decamps back to LA with her two young daughters when she separates from her music manager husband Austen (Michael Sheen) in NYC.  On the night of her 40th birthday she goes partying with her best girlfriends Dolly Wells (of TV’s Dot and Em) and Jen Kirkman and is hit on by twentysomething Harry (Pico Alexander) who with his brother Teddy (Nat Wolff) and friend George (Jon Rudnitsky) have made a hit short film and are new in town to try to turn it into a feature after getting interest from the WCA talent agency (cue funny meeting). The guys wind up back at hers, Harry throws up while about to do the deed with Alice and next morning George realises her father was the great auteur director John Kinney when he stumbles into a room filled with scripts, posters, camera and – ta-da! – Oscar. And then whaddya know, the late great one’s wife and muse Lillian Stewart (Candice Bergen) walks into the house and invites the would-be filmmakers to live in the guesthouse. Call it philanthropy – she’s feeling kind since she outlived the man who impregnated a younger woman and had a second family – this might be a riff on reality a la Nancy Meyers since it’s her daughter Hallie’s romcom debut.   It’s a peculiar setup in many ways – but the kids love the guys, Alice is having a hard time doing business as an interior decorator with super bitch Zoey Bell (Lake Bell) and this odd domestic situation is not unpleasant. The compulsion to return those nuisance long-distance calls to NYC subside.  Harry isn’t aware that sensitive George fancies Alice too and has taken a side job as a rewrite man, Teddy is auditioning for other roles so he’s now left with the heavy lifting of raising finance among the Hollywood set led by horror director Justin Miller (Reid Scott). When Alice is finally ready to introduce Harry to her friends as her date it clashes with a money meeting and he stands her up, causing a real rupture. Then her not-quite-ex decides to find out what’s really going on on the west coast … Light and funny, this isn’t quite as sharp and zesty as Meyers’ best work (Meyers produced) and there are too many montages set to music as a substitute for character development and dialogue and not remotely enough the type of complications that you’d expect from such a plot. Wells and Kirkman are two fine comic actresses in their own right but they don’t get the full Greek chorus role they deserve and the subplot with Bell (from It’s Complicated) is underdeveloped. Lola Flanery is terrific as the older of the two kids with serious anxiety problems but a talent for writing which George encourages.  Reese is always good value and she’s fine in a somewhat underwritten part which never really lets her rip other than getting drunk and spouting some home truths; while as her young lover Pico Alexander is serious eye candy and they really spark on screen. You’ll have seen him in A Most Violent Year and Indignation. You’ll certainly see him again. Mild, likeable entertainment. Written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer.

Bowfinger (1999)

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Find me a script with a retarded slave – then I’ll get an Oscar! Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin) is a producer-director on the outs and an Indian accountant has written a script about aliens he wants to bring to action superstar Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). It could be Bobby’s big break! Unfortunately Ramsey is a narcissist who’s deeply paranoid about the industry’s problem with black actors – and what about those aliens! He’s being mentored at the Mindhead cult by Terry Stricter (Terence Stamp) whose religious dicta are not much use. Bobby’s solution? Shoot the movie around Kit – without him knowing! They do it guerilla-style using a crew of illegal Mexican border-hoppers – with an ageing actress Carol (Christine Baranski) and Daisy (Heather Graham) the newcomer hot off the Ohio bus to Hollywood, doorstepping Ramsey at his usual Beverly Hills haunts. Even they don’t know he’s not really in it. Then Kit really goes crazy with all the aliens confronting him on the street and is sequestered at Mindhead’s ‘Special Celebrity Quarters’ – so Bowfinger recruits his idiot lookalike, Jiff – who happens to be Kit’s brother … Written by Martin who is re-teamed (for the fourth time) with director Frank Oz, this is good fun with some killer lines but never really hits the cynical heights you might expect. There are the lousy potshots about the trampy actress who’ll sleep with literally anyone to get more scenes;  the very obvious digs at Scientology’s hold on Hollywood’s top actors; and the general jokes about dumb action films. Held together by an energetic sense of its own ridiculousness and everything (and everyone…) it’s sending up.  Robert Downey Jr appears in a small part as a movie executive.

Tobe Hooper 01/25/1943-08/26/2017

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Tobe Hooper movies were a part of my growing up:  Salem’s Lot was on TV when I was a kid and I cycled home on a dark and stormy night from my friend’s place faster than the Wicked Witch of the West. It was the scariest thing I had ever seen. I still can’t sit through it for more than a few minutes. Not long after that we were taken to the big city with her college-age siblings who took us to the kinda thing no kid should see – that late night horror flick, The Funhouse. I could not remember a thing about it afterwards I had closed my eyes so frequently. Carnivals were never quite the same attraction for me after that experience. My friend’s brothers jumping at us from lamp posts right after it didn’t help. And then there was Poltergeist, produced by Steven Spielberg. It’s a pretty perfect film with just the right amount of terror in suburbia cushioned by the conventions of family life to make you think, That’ll never happen in my neighbourhood. And that was part of the point of the Hooper signature – the terror lurking in the ordinary, the slow build to unrelenting fear, the calm before the release of Grand Guignol-style horrors that are never far beneath the surface. There were rumours Spielberg himself had directed Poltergeist but a shot-by-shot analysis disproves that theory. Of course I had to be over 18 to rent Texas Chainsaw Massacre which pre-dated Hooper’s advance on the mainstream by several years. Growing up on the edge of the countryside made me nervous anyhow but the sound of chainsaws sends me back to that particular brand of cannibalism in perpetuity. Horrifying. Awesomely so. Those guys spawned their own progeny – well inbreeding is kind of a rural preoccupation, ain’t it?! Hooper took a producer role on the sequels. The Cannon films – Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars – were of course more normalised 80s-style horror/sci fi but I liked the latter enormously. It was beautifully made and sent me back to the original.  He may have fallen off my particular charts aside from his TV episodes and movies, in an industry that became dispersed and driven more by quickly made video releases but those crucial early films with their stunningly controlled worlds which seemed rather closely related to my own lived reality make him a legend. RIP.

Jerry Lewis 03/16/1926-08/20/2017

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The great American comic Jerry Lewis has died. One half of a famed partnership with crooner Dean Martin, in which he played an idiot to the smarter singer, he was a star of TV and radio before they conquered feature films. After working with Frank Tashlin it seemed Lewis found a desire to make films himself. Janet Leigh speaks about the fun weekends she spent at his home shooting slapstick shorts – he would of course become a famed auteur, making very formally dynamic comedies with himself as the star. The greatest of these is probably The Nutty Professor in which he apparently sends up Dino’s image as cooler-than-thou hep singer Buddy Love. In other works like The Bell Boy he creates astonishing tableaux of the kind beloved of the French director and comic Jacques Tati. He would come a cropper with The Day The Clown Cried, a Holocaust film too far which was buried by the studio (he reputedly owned the sole remaining print) but the French embraced him and he even starred in a couple of films in France in the 80s. That was the period when the American audience embraced him again as he starred for Scorsese in The King of Comedy, where he seemed to channel a part of himself that was not visible in his annual charity telethons. His appearances in supporting roles in films like Funny Bones kept him on the big screen but he more or less retired in 1995 until some very recent roles. His persona is indelibly connected with midcentury cinema but his career as director-star is something special. Rest in peace, Jerry, we shall not see your like again.

Sunset (1988)

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Blake Edwards’ adaptation of Rod Amateau’s unpublished manuscript about the friendship between movie cowboy Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) and real life Wyatt Earp (James Garner) had the potential to be something quite brilliant:  it doesn’t carry it off due to inconsistencies of tone (never quite slapstick, never quite thriller) and performance (Willis didn’t heed his director to take his role seriously) but it retains its interest. Hollywood’s well-preserved 1920s villas provide a magnificent backdrop to a story set in 1929 just when the industry was getting to grips with the transition to sound. Earp in real life had moved to Los Angeles in 1910 but here he’s newly arrived and hired on a silent movie set to advise Mix and they get embroiled in a murder at the Kit Kat Club, a high class brothel where the whores are movie star lookalikes (shades of LA Confidential) run by the cross-dressing Cheryl (Mariel Hemingway.) Earp tries to help his old girlfriend Christina (Patricia Hodge) who happens to be married to studio boss Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell), a thinly disguised version of Chaplin, and her son, who is in constant trouble and goes missing. The mystery at the story’s heart involves police corruption with those reliable villains M. Emmet Walsh and Richard Bradford and Warhol stud Joe Dallasandro showing up as a gangster. There’s a scene at that year’s Academy Awards (not anatomically correct, but still fun) and lots of really interesting performances in the wings including John Fountain playing his grandfather, the legendary John Gilbert. Willis’ unpreparedness made for a difficult time and Garner (a gentleman) commented on it, a rare instance of his speaking out against a colleague and his own performance really saves the film. Garner had of course worked with Edwards before – on Victor/Victoria. His interpretation of Earp is markedly lighter than his earlier one in Hour of the Gun.  There’s a cute running joke about his inability to drive a car – he does it a lot and in real life Garner was an accomplished racer and stunt driver particularly on The Rockford Files. In a neat nod to that, Dermot Mulroney makes his debut – he would play (my beloved!) Rockford in a TVM reboot. The other pluses are the LA locations used including the Ambassador Hotel, the Roosevelt Hotel, Melody Ranch, Bell Ranch and Orange Empire Railway Museum. Not great Edwards but worth a watch for the idea and Garner, with the usually reliable score from Henry Mancini as well as delectable photography by Anthony B. Richmond. A missed opportunity to make a satisfying Hollywood murder mystery but heck with all that talent I’ll take this anyhow.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Nobody fucks with the Jesus. The Dude abides. Where to start with one of the most cherished films there has ever been? Not in the beginning. I may have almost had a coronary from laughing the first time I saw this at a festival screening prior to its release, but a lot of critics just did not get it. It’s the Coen Brothers in excelsis, a broad Chandler adaptation and tribute to Los Angeles,  a hymn to male friendship and the Tao of easy living with some extraordinarily surreal fantasy and dream sequences – not to mention some deadly bowling. Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, a guy so laid back he’s horizontal but he gets a little antsy when some thieves mistake him for The Big Lebowski and piss on his rug (it really tied the room together). Best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is his bowling buddy, an uptight Nam vet with adoptive-Jewish issues in this hilarious offside take on director John Milius. Steve Buscemi is their sweet-natured friend Donny and John Turturro is the unforgettable sports foe, a hispanic gangsta paedo in a hairnet, Jesus Quintana. After the rug issue is handled, Dude is hired by his namesake (David Huddleston) a wheelchair-bound multimillionaire philanthropist, to exchange a ransom when his young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped. Naturally Dude screws it up. There’s a band of nihilists led by Peter Stormare, some porn producers (Bunny makes flesh flicks), Lebowski’s randy artist daughter (Julianne Moore) and a private eye following everyone. And there’s Sam Elliott, narrating this tale of tumbleweed and laziness.  Everyone has their signature song in one of the great movie soundtracks and Dude has not only Creedence but White Russians to really mellow his day. Just like The Big Sleep, the plot really doesn’t matter a fig. This is inspired lunacy and I love it SO much.

George A. Romero 02/04/1940-07/16/2017

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The death has taken place of George A. Romero, a true horror auteur whose Night of the Living Dead  (1968) extended the boundaries of the horror movie in some style – political and racial. And it gave zombies a voice!  He began his career as a gofer on the set of North By Northwest – not too shabby an introduction to the world of cinema. It would be another decade until he set the world alight – and he continued to make zombie films in a loosely affiliated series that he was going to continue as late as July 13th last when he released poster art for the forthcoming Road of the Dead, the first of the series he wasn’t going to direct. He had a lot of friends in the horror world, literary and cinematic, because they respected the tone of his films, his originality, his sensibility and his tenacity. He gave Stephen King his first screenwriting job in the anthology Creepshow, a Valentine to all those 50s comics that so influenced American writers and directors. Pittsburgh was of course home to most of his best known works and The Crazies and Martin remain minor classics. He was such an original and such a smart, conscientious filmmaker that it’s hard to qualify his contribution. Legend. Icon. Rest in peace.