Life of the Party (2018)

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Once a dighead, always a dighead. When her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) suddenly dumps her, longtime and dedicated housewife Deanna Miles (Melissa McCarthy) turns regret into reset by going back to college. Unfortunately, Deanna winds up at the same college as her less-than-thrilled daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon). Plunging headlong into the campus experience, the outspoken new student soon begins a journey of self-discovery while fully embracing all of the fun, freedom and frat boys that she can handle. She shocks and delights best friend Christine (Maya Rudolph) with updates on her conquest of Jack (Luke Benward) who’s less than half her age but the chickens come home to roost when Dan announces he’s to marry his realtor Marcie (Julie Bowen) and Deanna and her strange ensemble of girls decide it’s time to make their presence felt … Melissa McCarthy is so nice. And this is nice. It’s not nasty and vengeful and gross which is what you might expect from a woman going through a midlife crisis when her husband cheats on her – I mean even she and her co-writer and director (and husband) Ben Falcone surely saw Back to School, never mind Animal House. It’s illogical and silly and for a comic performer of McCarthy’s ability that’s a staggering fail. She was in class with her archaeology professor and they don’t have a single conversation outside the lecture hall. She’s loud and proud yet can’t speak in public and falls over sweating in class. She embarrasses her daughter but it’s… fine? They simultaneously do the walk of shame and she doesn’t comment on her daughter’s sexual activity? Neither mother nor daughter’s reactions ring remotely true. (If this were a properly Freudian piss take they’d have slept with the same guy).  She was cool back in the day but now she wears hair clips and sparkly letter sweaters? Nonsense. And all those girls are so odd. As though every phobia and weirdly concocted affectation of millennials was assembled into some seriously strange students.  And of course Deanna seeks to reassure them. So far so snowflake.  And Christine and her husband have what is frankly an unbelievable marriage. The worst crime? It’s nice! McCarthy was brilliant in Spy – one of the best sendups I’ve ever seen which knew her value and her capacity for sharp delivery and hilarious slapstick and put it into a screamingly funny genre workout. Now? She’s just a Mom. I don’t get it.

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Dinner for Schmucks (2010)

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Any one of you would throw me under the bus for a bigger bonus, but Barry would throw himself under a car to protect a mouse… that was already dead. Tim (Paul Rudd) a rising executive, works for cut-throat boss Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) who hosts a monthly event in which the guest who brings the biggest idiot gets a career boost. Though he declines the invitation at first, he’s ambitious and he changes his mind when he meets IRS employee Barry (Steve Carell), a man who builds dioramas using stuffed mice. He must be the biggest moron of all time! The scheme backfires when Barry’s blundering good intentions send Tim’s life into a downward spiral, inviting an old one-night stand Darla (Lucy Punch) over not realising she’s Tim’s stalker.   It all  threatens a major business deal and possibly scuttles Tim’s romantic relationship with Julie (Stephanie Szostak).  Then it’s dinner time … Directed by Jay Roach who knows his way around comedy, this remake of the French film Le Dîner des cons treads a fine line between mockery and viciousness pretty deftly. Partly this is down to the writing (screenplay by Michael Handelman and David Guion from Francis Veber’s original) and party it’s down to the sweetness and nobility that Carell brings to his particular spin on stupidity and the niceness Rudd brings to his potentially nasty piece of work. In other words, either of these guys could be a schmuck. The original is excruciating:  this is somewhat milder, a black comedy with a heart, sporting a cast of lesser and greater American (and some Brit) comic actors. Wait for the dinner!

Awakenings (1990)

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I’m not very good with people.  It’s 1969.  Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) is a research neurologist who finds himself working with people for the first time at a public hospital in the Bronx, NYC. He is confronted with older catatonic patients who he discovers lost their capacity for communication following the encephalitis lethargica epidemic of 1917-1928. Once he realises there is more to them than just reflex actions he sets up righting decades of ignorance and experiments with doses of L-Dopa intended for Parkinsonian symptoms, starting with Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) whose immediate response is remarkable and triggers Sayer’s campaign to have it given to the others. He is supported by Nurse Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner) and he helps Leonard’s mother (Ruth Nelson) come to terms with her son’s maturity – she thinks he is still the little boy she once knew. Leonard wants to socialise and develops a relationship with Paula (Penelope Ann Miller) the daughter of another patient but when it comes time to argue for more personal freedom Leonard starts to manifest facial tics and the dosages have to be revised as the realisation that his patient’s awakening may be temporary dawns on Sayer …  The late Oliver Sacks’ books were a thing in the Eighties – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was a very cool set of case studies and the stories in Awakenings gave Harold Pinter the inspiration for A Kind of Alaska.  This raises issues about what being alive really means and who knows best and what’s in the patient’s interest. It however strays into Rain Man territory and one is given pause for thought by De Niro’s early (and later) gurning catatonic impersonation when Tropic Thunder‘s warnings about ‘going full retard’ come to mind. This falls into the slush trap one too many times yet paradoxically it’s meticulously constructed as the real awakening is that of Sayer – to pain, feeling, response, caring.  Written by Steven Zaillian and directed by Penny Marshall who has a way with the performers but the treacly score doesn’t help. It’s nice to see John Heard and the wonderful Julie Kavner in significant supporting roles. There is probably a big ironic meta-cinematic text here considering drug buddies Williams and De Niro were the last people to see John Belushi alive and they communicate with each other here via a Ouija Board but I’m sure I don’t know what that is. The drugs don’t work? Perhaps. Read Sacks’ books instead, they’re amazing.

20th Century Women (2016)

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Wondering if you’re happy is a shortcut to being depressed. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.  Architect Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling 1905 fixer-upper boarding house at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion.  William (Billy Crudup) the contractor renting a room doesn’t seem like an appropriate father figure so Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the house and neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning) a savvy and provocative teenage neighbour who often spends the night sleeping there – to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like what’s happening to him and finds it difficult to reconcile the female-centric education with the man she wants him to be … Mike Mills’ autobiographical film has something of an arm’s length feel which you can surmise from the title. In creating this portrait of his mother he is keen to contextualise her in terms of her time and the opportunities open to her. Jamie often excuses the attitudes of this quasi-androgynous high-achieving divorcee with the line, Don’t worry about Mom, she’s from the Depression. Framing his semi-biographical comic drama in the terms of feminist and punk politics sometimes seems like a microscope powered by sociology is being applied in a film essay style instead of a dramatic eye when you want these lives to intersect more. However the drama is triggered by the opening scene when the family car spontaneously combusts in a parking lot.  It’s a good catalyst for the series of events to follow as Jamie’s adolescence progresses and Dorothea says in a moment of truth to Abbie, You get to see him out in the world and I never will. It’s a startling admission and something in these lines fuels a powerful drama that’s concealed between the smarts and upfront sex talk. Look at Bening’s face when her son tells her he thinks it’s good for him to be informed about clitoral stimulation. She’s the one who wanted him to learn how to be a man after all – she just didn’t know how it would make her feel when he goes out of his way to learn how to be a good man. There’s a lot to like here in an ironic mode and in a sense it’s crystallised by the cultural references – culminating in the clips from Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech when he says the country is at a turning point:  they serve to illuminate the theme of the personal as political.  We are all living in the fallout from what was going on in northern Cali in the late 70s and Mills captures this in an uncanny fashion, fixing on a time that has birthed where we are now (albeit now it’s monetised). The production design is just right – the mix of the early 70s vogue for Art Nouveau with the well-placed mushroom lamp, the battle between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans which has a visual result on the doors of Dorothea’s Bug. There are a lot of good aesthetic and narrative choices here coupled with some very sympathetic performances amid a raft of generational and gendered experiences, Abbie and Julie’s mother issues being succinctly handled in parallel stories within medical and therapeutic settings. There is of course a nostalgic air but it’s cut through with intellectual argument bathed in California sun. Sensitive, seductive, suprising and satisfying.

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)

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They said I was a valued customer now they send me hate mail! Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) loves to shop. The trouble is, she shops so much that she is drowning in debt. She dreams of working at the city’s top fashion magazine Alette run by the accented dragon lady   (Kirstin Scott Thomas) but, so far, has not been able to get her foot in the door. Then she lands a job as an advice columnist for a financial magazine owned by the same company and run by the very attractive Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy). Her pseudonymous column (The Girl in the Green Scarf) becomes an overnight success, but her secret threatens to ruin her love life and career as the man she describes to her boss as her stalker is actually a debt collector and her best friend and roommate Suze (Krysten Ritter) suspects she is not really attending meetings of Shopaholics Anonymous … Sophie Kinsella’s first two Shopaholic novels get a NYC makeover here and if the plot runs out of steam towards the conclusion you can’t say they don’t give it the old college try. Fisher is fantastically effervescent as the very winning protagonist – when she convinces herself of the joys of shopping at her addicts’ group and runs out to – yup, shop! – you practically cheer. It’s a frothy look at addiction if that’s possible with some very persuasive scenes to those of us who might have succumbed to that jacket in, uh, every colour.  Screenplay by Tracey Jackson, Tim Firth and Kayla Alpert and directed with exuberance by P. J. Hogan who knows how to make a rockin’ girls’ movie. Will the real Rebecca Bloomwood please stand up?! Bright, breezy and a lot of fun.

The Big Money (1958)

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Willie Frith (Ian Carmichael) is the underachieving bad seed of a family of thieves Father (James Hayter), Mother (Kathleen Harrison) and sister Doreen (Jill Ireland), unworthy of his position as number one son.  One day, he steals a briefcase from a dodgy clergyman (Robert Helpmann), which is full of pound notes. But – the notes all have the same serial number, making them hard to spend. Seduced by the big money, he starts passing the counterfeits, one bill at a time. Much of his need for money is to impress Gloria (Belinda Lee), the pretty barmaid at his local pub. She dreams of the millionaire who will come and give her the good life. Unfortunately, he cannot pass the fake money fast enough to keep up with her wants. When she helps herself to some of the counterfeit money, it gets the attention of the police and the mobsters. It all ends in a free-for-all, between the police, Arabs, and mobsters, in disguise. Finally, she has to decide whether she loves him or his money… Bright and breezy and gorgeously shot (by Jack Cardiff and Jack E. Cox) including a sequence at Royal Ascot, this is a fun Britcom with Carmichael typically endearing as the bumbling bungler, Helpmann terrific as the enterprising vicar and a great showcase for the stunning and tragic Lee, who took over a role intended for Diana Dors. Written by John Baines with additional scenes by Patrick Campbell and directed by John Paddy Carstairs.

Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

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Every time he goes out of this house he shakes my hand and he kisses you.  Advertising executive Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) discovers his wife Muriel’s (Myrna Loy) plan to redecorate their cramped New York apartment which they share with their two young daughters. He proposes instead that they move to rural Connecticut. She agrees, and the two are soon conned into buying a 200-year old farmhouse that turns out to be a complete nightmare. Construction and repair bills accumulate quickly as the house has to be torn down and completely rebuilt, and Jim worries that their future hangs in the balance unless he can come up with a catchy new jingle that will sell ham while Jim’s friend and lawyer Bill (Melvyn Douglas) steps in to help and spends the night with Muriel during a thunderstorm … Written and produced by comic experts Norman Panama and Melvin Frank adapting Eric Hodgins’ 1946 bestseller, this is a terrific example of Grant and fellow screwball player Loy in their prime. They have marvellous chemistry. Director H.C. Potter handles the action and slapstick beautifully while the marital woes are worked out architecturally. Loy’s paint scheme scene is a classic and Douglas is a hoot as the friend. Watch for Lex Barker as a carpenter. With a score by Leigh Harline and crisp photography by James Wong Howe this is prime post-war RKO fluff. Anyone who’s made the mistake of buying and remodelling a fixer-upper will relate! Hint:  don’t do that, watch this instead. It’s a lot cheaper.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

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Now it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn toward you, but – well, there haven’t been any quiet moments. Harried paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) has to make a good impression on society matron Mrs. Random (May Robson), who is considering donating one million dollars to his museum. On the day before his wedding to Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), Huxley meets Mrs. Random’s high-spirited young niece, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), a madcap adventuress who immediately falls for the straitlaced scientist when she steals his car and crashes it on a golf course. The ever-growing chaos – including a missing dinosaur bone and a pet leopard – threatens to swallow him whole… Wildly inventive, hilarious and classic screwball comedy from director Howard Hawks, written by Hagar Wilde and Dudley Nichols and performed by a group of actors indelibly engraved on our collective brains for their roles here.  Hepburn learned from Grant’s uptight persona to play it straight and if it were any slower this would be a film noir because she is one of the fatalest femmes you could ever dread to meet in a text bursting with double entendres. With Charles Ruggles, Barry Fitzgerald and Fritz Feld (as a psychiatrist!) bringing up the rear, Asta the dog from The Thin Man series and The Awful Truth (uncredited! the injustice of it!) and Grant going ‘gay all of a sudden’ what we have here is gaspingly funny cinematic perfection.

Going in Style (2017)

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These banks practically destroyed this country. They crushed a lot of people’s dreams, and nothing ever happened to them. We three old guys, we hit a bank. We get away with it, we retire in dignity. Worst comes to the worst, we get caught, we get a bed, three meals a day, and better health care than we got now. Lifelong friends Willie (Morgan Freeman), Joe (Michael Caine) and Albert (Alan Arkin) decide to buck retirement and step off the straight-and-narrow when their pension funds become a casualty of corporate financial misdeeds. They’re living on social security and eating dog food so what have they got to lose by taking a little action? Desperate to pay the bills and come through for their loved ones, they risk it all by knocking off the very bank that absconded with their money … The original had Art Carney, George Burns and  Lee Strasberg but in Theodore Melfi’s screenplay from the 1979 story by Edward Cannon, director Zach Braff appeals to the grey dollar audience with some of our favourite Sixties and Seventies performers with Freeman for good measure. Why wouldn’t you want to see this aged crew carry out a heist?! It’s conventionally made but has a resonance maybe moreso than the Seventies’ film did, with the banking crisis still having the ripple effect into everyone’s lives as a life’s work and savings vanish. It’s a lot of fun but says things about society and also the effect that participating in such a crime might have while quietly acknowledging that serial administrations simply permitted corporate criminals to ruin lives on an unprecedented scale and nine years later the effects are still being felt.  The guys have some good repartee and it’s pleasing to see a bunch of geezers making off with bags of swag.  Plus there’s Matt Dillon as an FBI guy and Ann-Margret for the Grumpy Old Men/Viva Las Vegas demographic.  What’s not to like?! For a comedy with a message this is a lot of fun.

The Furies (1950)

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I have no stomach for the way you live. It’s the 1870s. Widower T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) rules his sprawling New Mexico ranch with an iron fist, a born-again Napoleon who pays with his own currency, TC’s. But his authority doesn’t extend to his strong-willed daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), who both hates and loves her father with equal ferocity. He abandoned her mother for an inter-racial affair and she died at The Furies, her bedroom a mausoleum left precisely as she left it with Vance fiercely guarding it. Tensions rise when Vance falls for bad boy saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), whom T.C. buys off. But the family conflict turns violent when T.C. decides to marry Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) and evict Vance’s childhood friend Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) from his land… Charles Schnee adapted Niven Busch’s novel and Anthony Mann does quite an exquisite job of staging the action, with his customary mountainous settings providing an objective correlative for a literally furious woman to take revenge. The interiors are no less impressive with the Gothic trappings enhancing the Freudian subtext with both Oedipus and Electra active in the arena of gender identification. There is a mythical quality to this classic narrative and the visuals reinforce a sense of homoerotic voyeurism in a film which constantly veers toward the psychosexual. Stanwyck is magnificent in one of the key roles of her career and the first of her seven western parts in the 1950s which laid the groundwork for her Big Valley matriarch a decade later. There is a domestic scene of horrifying violence that is for the record books. Rivalry was rarely so vicious. Notable for being Walter Huston’s final film performance.  It was shot by Victor Milner with uncredited work done by Lee Garmes and Franz Waxman provides the aggressively tragic score. I write about Stanwyck’s Fifties Westerns  in Steers, Queers and Pioneers, which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/stanwyck-part-1/.