Cafe Society (2016)

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Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood straight outta the Bronx  c.1935 to work with his movie agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and falls for his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Everything looks beautiful, bathed in magic moment sunshine and swoony evening light and people talk about Irene Dunne and Willie Wyler but it turns out Vonnie is Phil’s mistress and he leaves his wife to marry her leaving Bobby brokenhearted and back in his beloved Bronx working front of house for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in a glamorous nightclub. He marries divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively) whom he promptly rechristens Vonnie. She has a baby and her time is taken up caring for her. Then Phil and Vonnie visit while passing through NYC and a romance of sorts recommences but as Bobby realises, Vonnie (this Vonnie) is now his aunt … This is a film of two halves, which do not mesh.  The leads are in their third film together but Stewart is much too modern to play her role, Eisenberg is quite weird – that hunched-shouldered look doth not a schlub make – and the good performances are in supporting roles:  Jeannie Berlin and particularly Ken Stott as the Dorfman parents, Stoll, who is literally criminally underused and Stephen Kunken as the brother in law who inadvertently causes Bobby’s sister Evelyn to have Ben murder their neighbour. Despite the episodes of violence, the talk about what is reality and what is cinema, and the central idea about marriage and what people do to keep relationships going despite clear incompatibility – and there’s a strange (self-?) reference to a man with a teenaged mistress… – this just doesn’t work. The faraway looks in the leads’ eyes at the unsatisfying and inconclusive climax, a country apart, merely highlight the vacuum at the story’s centre. Minor Allen to be sure. It looks great though, so thank you Vittorio Storaro.

Tropic Thunder (2008)

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Everybody knows you never go full retard! Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) is the Aussie Method actor par excellence in blackface giving retrospective advice to Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) the ludicrously vain Hollywood star who made that very mistake in his quest for Oscar. Now they’re in the jungles of Vietnam doing their version of the War years after everyone else has stopped those kinds of movies and causing no end of difficulties for hapless Brit director (Steve Coogan) who is killed in the fray. Back at the studio the vile boss Les Grossman (an unrecognisable Tom Cruise) just sees insurance $$$$ when Speedman gets separated from the crew as they go shooting guerilla style in a self-defeating move – and he’s kidnapped by drugs lords who make him act out Stupid Jack, the only film they have on VHS. Only Tugg’s agent (Matthew McConaughey) cares about his charge. The other actors, who include Fatties franchise star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) decide to rescue Tugg without realising their director is dead and this is not a movie any more … This is a Hollywood satire that also operates as a proper action movie and what a rare feat that is. Just when you think it’s a sketch show that goes on too long, Tugg kills a panda (he’s crusading for their rights on the back of Vanity Fair) and Danny McBride calls Nick Nolte ‘the Milli Vanilli of patriots.’ Gut-bustingly funny when it works, and you know all the movies it’s spoofing, Grossman was apparently all Cruise’s idea and some might say it’s a rather vicious take on Sumner Redstone as revenge for booting him off the Paramount lot when he jumped on Oprah’s couch. From a story by Justin Theroux and Ben Stiller, written by Etan Cohen. Directing by Ben Stiller. Dancing by Les Grossman!

Jonathan Demme 02/22/44-04/26/17

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Multi-talented director Jonathan Demme has died. He got his start with Roger Corman and debuted with a biker movie and naturally graduated to women in prison flicks before entering mainstream Hollywood and making his name with some fine films starring terrific women like Goldie Hawn and Melanie Griffith.  His first critically acclaimed movie was however the wonderful Bo Goldman screenplay Melvin and Howard, one of the best of the Seventies with an unforgettable performance by Jason Robards as Howard Hughes and beautifully shot by longtime collaborator Tak Fujimoto. He made some wonderful documentaries particularly the landmark music film Stop Making Sense with Talking Heads:  who can forget David Byrne on stage in that enormously boxy suit? But his name will be forever associated with a shocking adaptation that is one of that tiny number of films to win the Big 5 at the Academy Awards – The Silence of the Lambs won for Actor, Actress, Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Director. He may have made some missteps and unnecessary remakes but humour, humanity and compassion shone from his work. Demme will be missed.

LIFE (2015)

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Luke Davies’ screenplay centring on the circumstances behind the unforgettable LIFE photo essay about James Dean in an issue from March 1955 is uncertain about who the story’s protagonist is:   the most exciting actor most of us have ever seen, as incarnated by Dane DeHaan, or photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson)? Peculiarly it is Stock who comes across as pathological, unhappy and desperate whereas Dean seems a decent sort being screwed around by Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley) who knows he’s on to something great but wants to control this rebel from bad PR. Stock supposedly met Dean at a party at Nick Ray’s when he was casting Rebel Without a Cause and the distractions are looking at an actress who looks nothing like Natalie Wood and an epicene man who only bares a slight resemblance to Ray, along with the overriding story arc of Stock’s failed teenage marriage and his unwillingness to spend time with a very young son. Dean’s relationship with Pier Angeli is artfully used to construct the parameters of his Hollywood life;  while the trip the two men make back to Indiana before the premiere of East of Eden which commences in NYC’s Times Square is of course the setting for one of most people’s favourite poster, latterly called The Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The real story here is about the relationship between a photographer and his subject, whom he virtually stalked for the story, perhaps sensing something in Dean that Dean did not yet suspect was within himself. It’s nicely put together and shot, as you would expect from Anton Corbijn, a man who knows something about the craft behind creating iconic images – his rock career is probably the most notable of any photographer/video director of the last thirty years. But somehow even De Haan’s uncanny interpretation is not the favoured performance here and the ghastly Pattinson gets equal screen time in some sort of deluded payoff to the director’s former job. I don’t get it. How’d that happen?! There seems to be some kind of queer subtext that isn’t quite brought to the surface – despite the rumours about Dean, it’s Stock who appears to be unhealthily obsessive and projecting something that isn’t really there.  It makes you wonder about all those people who made money off their Jimmy stories when he was no longer around. Oh well, better to be talked about … than not. An opportunity mostly missed, sadly.

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Happy 80th Birthday Jack Nicholson! 22nd April 2017

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Is there anyone who doesn’t like this man? The legendary wild man of the American cinema turns an unbelievable 80 this weekend. The self-proclaimed Irish Democrat from the Jersey shore has never given anything less than an interesting performance and there’s a lot to choose from as you can see from the posters – chronicling sixty years of his films from his beginnings with Roger Corman and the first decade where he really paid his dues and wrote several screenplays into the bargain. We all have our own favourites amongst his work and there are the great films like Five Easy PiecesCuckoo’s Nest and Chinatown (written by Robert Towne for him – they became friends at an acting workshop) and The Shining.  And there are the not fully great ones where he crafts truly hilarious or interesting or moving characters, like The Border or Ironweed, Blood and Wine, The King of Marvin Gardens or The Pledge. He’s been pleasurable in truly terrible films like As Good as it Gets or a challenging one like Carnal Knowledge. His forays into directing have been fascinating – Drive, He Said, The Missouri Breaks, Goin’ South, The Two Jakes. He will hopefully return to the screen in the US version of Toni Erdmann, recently announced, but until then he has a truly magnificent back catalogue to plunder. Choose your own Jack Nicholson Adventure. Happy Birthday to a great star and an astonishing talent.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)

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Highly entertaining documentary about the exploitation/trash maestro who had ambitions way beyond his pay grade.  We hear from a variety of his alumni and the man himself, his brother Gene (another producer), his wife (and fellow producer) Julie and former assistant Frances Doel, among many others, about how the engineer who got screwed over money on the movie The Gunfighter decided to put on a show himself and debuted with The Monster From the Ocean Floor. By the time he made The Wild Angels he was directing his 100th movie which is stunning. He meant the world to Jack Nicholson who made his debut with The Cry Baby Killer – and then didn’t work again for a year! Nicholson describes Corman as his ‘lifeblood’ and bursts into tears. Corman kept him in work and gave him writing and acting jobs for a decade before he made his breakthrough with Easy Rider – which wouldn’t have happened without The Trip, which Nicholson wrote and it starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper: AIP wouldn’t make Easy Rider with Hopper and it went on to make history – as well as pots of money (as it were…) There are great clips of all the era’s material but the best storytelling comes from William Shatner recalling the personal jeopardy the Cormans experienced during the making of The Intruder, that fierce discourse on integration. The seventies stuff –  crazy funny movies like Hollywood Boulevard and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is interspersed with really good interviews with Allan Arkush and Joe Dante and we learn about Corman’s own personal viewing tastes, choosing to distribute great films by European auteurs through his own company. The big studios took his formula and made multi-million dollar versions of Fifties exploitation content that made his name so he moved more fully into straight to video. There is no mention of the studio he set up in Ireland in the Nineties – presumably on grounds of taste.  Nor of his big studio movie from 1993, Frankenstein Unbound, his last directorial outing. Personally I’d like to have seen Monte Hellman speak about their collaborations but instead we get Paul WS Anderson and Eli Roth. That’s showbiz! Directed by Alex Stapleton.

 

Snowbound (1948)

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Terrifically tricksy adaptation of the Hammond Innes (remember him?!) novel The Lonely Skier.  Dennis Price (you had me at hello!) is a former soldier recruited by his WW2 CO Robert Newton (Price is an extra on his film set) to pretend to be a screenwriter at an Alpine resort where a motley assortment of characters is gathering – the most English Englishman ever, Guy Middleton, Italian comtessa Mila Parely, Marcel Dalio. Stanley Holloway and a self-announced Greek, Herbert Lom (yeah, right!).  Price is producing reports for Newton in between ski runs and it eventually transpires that they’re all in search of a horde of gold stashed during the war. There’s wads of tension, a Christie-esque scene in which Holloway laughingly disrupts a gun quarrel by dint of opening a door, a marvellous torchlit search on the mountains when Price is inevitably injured by Lom – a Nazi, obviously – and left for dead, and a conflagration for a conclusion. It’s a bit too clever by far but give me mountains, give me snow, give me gluhwein, I’m there. Wonderfully atmospheric. Adapted by Keith Campbell and David Evans directed by David MacDonald. A Gainsborough production.

Happy Birthday Roger Corman! 04/05/2017

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Aside from being a great opportunity to look at 50 years of wonderful poster art and titles to die for, today is trash-horror-exploitation maestro Roger Corman’s 91st birthday. The legendary Pope of Pop Cinema started life as an engineer but lasted just 4 days in the job. After a spell studying literature and reading scripts for Hollywood studios he got into the whole filmmaking thang himself and created a company that eventually served as a film school for some of the most notable directors in American cinema, from Francis Ford Coppola to Martin Scorsese, Stephanie Rothman to Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich to Penelope Spheeris. The most acclaimed of his work is the Edgar Allan Poe series, adapted by top-class scenarists like Richard Matheson and Robert Towne. His own best work as director (The Intruder) was so controversial he steered clear of such subject matter (racism) again and passion projects like Von Richthofen and Brown aka The Red Baron eventually gave way to serial producing:  his last directorial effort was a quarter of a century ago (Frankenstein Unbound). He audited acting classes with blacklistee Jeff Corey to understand performance and meet talent – which is how Jack Nicholson got his break in Cry Baby Killer and Robert Towne started writing screenplays. What I love about his early work is the way the women come to the fore:  June Kenney, Fay Spain, Beverly Garland and Susan Cabot are some of my favourite ladies and some of his alumni like Paul Bartel, Ron Howard and Demme have called upon him to act in small character parts in their mainstream successes. I once presented him with a project on biker movies and it was returned to me with the dry comment ‘Very accurate.’  High praise indeed! A scattering of my own fave raves from this renaissance man would include Gunslinger, Sorority Girl, A Bucket of Blood, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Wild Angels and Cockfighter. So much choice! Happy Birthday Mr Corman!

Happy 80th Birthday Warren Beatty! 03/30/2017

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Actor, producer, writer, auteur, legend. Warren Beatty turns 80 March 30th. From his discovery by homosexual playwright William Inge to his part in the Best Picture debacle at this year’s Academy Awards he has never seemed too far from the significant centre of writing and cinematic artistry that is Hollywood. He hero-worshipped Jean Renoir, George Stevens, the directors he felt that mattered and who could help him. He starred for Elia Kazan in Splendor in the Grass, that startlingly emotive Freudian psycho-fest that commenced his relationship with Natalie Wood, one of a series of Oscar-nominated actresses to whom he hooked his star over the following two decades. He became an actor-auteur proper in the wake of Mickey One, that New Wave-inspired drama about a Lenny Bruce-type comic made by Arthur Penn. When he bumped into novice screenwriter Robert Towne at the office of their mutual psychoanalyst he found the right man to do a major overhaul of a script called Bonnie and Clyde and changed cinema history.  (For more on their working relationship and friendship see my book ChinaTowne:   https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490790984&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon. ) The pair decamped to London and were part of the Swinging Sixties – those 200 or so people who all seemed to have sex with one another in 1967 – and when Towne saw a Restoration play there he thought up an idea for a movie about a heterosexual hairdresser based in part on an ex’s stylist who lived like a rooster in a henhouse. It became Shampoo several years later and it’s a profoundly caustic, sad, hilarious take on what was wrong in the US using Election Night 1968 as its fulcrum. Beatty plays George Roundy, the promiscuous motorcycle rider who is outwitted by absolutely everybody and he is superb in a role which yields unexpected pathos. It was a very personal story but also a political one, an interest which he’d espoused since he and sister Shirley MacLaine had campaigned for George McGovern. He had previously tried to express his worries with the government and the existential dread behind it with The Parallax View, a stunning look at the major conspiracy theories of the time. He pursued his interest in screenwriting (he’d persuaded Towne to give him a co-credit on Shampoo) with Heaven Can Wait, a light comic remake which had unexpected success following his brutal and rather low awards campaign.  He expended a lot of energy making Reds, about American communist John Reed, which despite its epic political text is really about free love, infidelity and naivete. Following the failure of buddy comedy Ishtar made by his friend Elaine May (who occasionally did uncredited script rewrites for him) he made the comic strip extravaganza Dick Tracy which didn’t do as well as everyone had predicted. He bounced back with the gorgeous gangster flick Bugsy about the notorious mobster, a film that introduced him to wife Annette Bening (which came as a surprise to his girlfriend of the time who allegedly found them in flagrante in his trailer one lunchtime). They starred together in Love Affair (with a script assist again from Towne) but he really bounced back with the hilarious political satire Bulworth, one of the best films of the Nineties. If he never backed the winning political horse – Gary Hart, John McCain (close friends) – he has taken his time, too much, perhaps, in making films that he wants to make a splash. His latest, Rules Don’t Apply, a paean to Hollywood and Howard Hughes that was a box office flop with an ill-advised wide release, was preceded by a rare interview in Vanity Fair. He revealed that he had been at a gathering at Peter Lawford’s the evening of Marilyn Monroe’s death which Lawford always said she hadn’t attended. He said that he had walked on the beach with her and played piano and she’d been drunk by sunset. He didn’t say what time she left but she was found dead in her home a couple of hours later. But that wasn’t the story that made the newspaper headlines – it was the ‘revelation’ of the number of women he’d allegedly slept with, which he’d debunked. Don’t look here, look there, has always been his mantra. David Thomson got it right when he constructed that half-biography, half-fiction about him, Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes. He has retained long friendships and associations and been loyal to collaborators and made a lot of astonishingly persuasive and lengthy phonecalls, usually commencing with the line, What’s new, pussycat? Which tells its own story. People never really see what’s in front of their eyes, or what really matters. That’s why Beatty kept the envelope on Oscars night. He knows what’s important. Life. Reality. Now that’s a real star.

The Love Lottery (1954)

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Long before George Clooney thought of it, matinee idol Rex Allerton (David Niven) decamps to Lake Como to escape the hordes of girlie fans who besiege him everywhere he goes, even in his dreams:  this commences with one such nightmare when he’s torn to pieces at a premiere by the adoring mob who all look like Peggy Cummins. He falls for mathematician Anne Vernon who’s doing the calculations for gangster Herbert Lom that blackmail him into being the prize in a worldwide raffle. This mild satire from Ealing has some ambition but the writing doesn’t really hold up – the story by Charles Neilson-Terry and Zelma Bramley Moore was written by Harry Kurnitz and producer Monja Danischewsky. There are some good scenes and Niven does a lot with thin material with Vernon making hay as the clever woman who eventually falls for his charms. The attempt to marry his lady love in church is good but the payoff gag with Cummins isn’t really done as well as it could have been. There are a lot of short dream sequences which detract from the narrative momentum but on the plus side it’s beautifully shot by Douglas Slocombe and edited by Seth Holt, directed by Charles Crichton. And Humphrey Bogart does everyone a favour by showing up in a cameo.