Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

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There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is the creme de la creme of Hollywood directors, maker of such fine escapist fare as Ants in Your Pants of 1939. The audiences love him! But he wants to make a social contribution and desires more than anything critical favour and socially relevant material. His butler (Robert Greig) and valet (Eric Blore – how I love him!) deplore the idea. He is followed by a fully-staffed double-decker bus provided by studio boss Lebrand (Robert Warwick) should his needs demand anything solid like a bed or food. He fails first time out but second time he determines to dress up like a hobo and find out what real life is like for the working man. He encounters a waitress known only as The Girl (Veronica Lake) who takes pity on him and he ultimately realises – after serious trials – that making ordinary joes laugh and relieving their impoverished misery is far better than any serious-minded nonsense like his planned adaptation of that crack preachy serious novel, O, Brother Where Art Thou?  McCrea is superb and Lake is stunning as the super-sweet girl who falls for this man who’s supposedly hit hard times. As if! Was there ever a finer Hollywood satire? Hardly. From the camera-stylo de Preston Sturges whose favourite players are all over the cast. He’s the only filmmaker whose office I tried to locate on the Paramount Studios tour. Oh! The hilarity! Sheer, unadulterated genius.

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Calendar Girls (2003)

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It’s not just jam and Jerusalem you know. Annie (Julie Walters) and Chris (Helen Mirren) are the two bored laggards at their Yorkshire branch of the Women’s Institute. When Annie’s husband dies young from leukaemia they come up with a plan to raise money for a relatives’ seating area in the hospital – but last year’s WI calendar only raised a few hundred quid so inspired by Chris’ son’s porn mag collection they devise a calendar with a difference. It’s a raving success. But Chris’s son goes off the rails, Annie is inundated with mail from her fellow bereaved and a trip to the Jay Leno show in LA brings out the tensions between the two. This real-life inspirational story of middle-class middle-aged countrywomen could have been truly mawkish but the interpretation by Tim Firth and Juliet Towhidi covers timidity, adultery, WI politics and bake-off rivalry amid the joking and stripping. Mirren and Walters are both specific and broad when it’s required. There are great character roles particularly for Penelope Wilton, but also Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie and Geraldine James with Ciaran Hinds, John Alderton and Philip Glenister bringing up the shapely rear. There’s a great moment when the band Anthrax introduce themselves to the infamous ladies. Directed by Nigel Cole.

Happy 70th Birthday Richard Dreyfuss 29th October 2017!

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Cinema’s Everyman is now 70 years old. He had a vast acting career in TV as a teenager and young man in everything from Peyton Place to The Big Valley, and even though you can see him in a small and uncredited role in The Graduate and meeting a typically bad end for a JD in The Young Runaways, it was George Lucas’ American Graffiti that brought him to prominence as a mature actor in cinema.  It was swiftly followed by an award-winning performance in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in which he thought he had been a disaster (he was wrong).  However when he teamed up with Steven Spielberg in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind he really announced himself and embedded himself in our collective consciousness. Seen latterly as an alter ego for the filmmaker, he had the capacity to embody ordinariness, discombobulation, dry humour and awe:  not a bad combination and one that made him the most appealing man on the planet. Then came The Goodbye Girl:  universal love and an Academy Award (which he keeps in his refrigerator). Nobody could take Richard III remotely seriously after that outing which was presumed to be a take on Dustin Hoffman’s insufferability when he became famous (Hoffman was turned down for the role!) One of his best parts was in Prisoner of Honor, a TV film about his namesake in the Dreyfus Affair for director Ken Russell. After a decade in which he did a variety of principally comedic roles (and a few years off after which he appeared for a variety of reasons to be mutating into a character actor) he reunited with Spielberg for the magical Always, a remake of A Guy Named Joe, one of those WW2 films the director cherished. With Mr Holland’s Opus he was in a film that seemed aimed at the cheap seats and it worked – he gave an enormously moving performance in a movie designed around the emotional power of music. Latterly he has moved between TV and the big screen and was enormously impressive in the better of the two recent TV movies about Bernie Madoff. Vocal about Jewish issues, civics and mental illness, Dreyfuss is also a writer, stage performer and all round good guy. You’re a mensch – many, many, many happy returns!

Spielberg (2017)

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His strength is really his ability to tell a story in pictures instinctively. What makes Steven Spielberg tick? Susan Lacy’s HBO documentary commences with on-set filming of Bridge of Spies and then materialises into a meticulously constructed mosaic of interviews, excerpts and archive footage beginning with footage shot by the film’s subject as a child when he used home movies to escape his loneliness and his parents’ disintegrating marriage. As Martin Scorsese states, Spielberg has always been a personal filmmaker, utilising movie themes to articulate his own experiences. And perhaps the one shocking revelation here is that Spielberg didn’t speak to his own father for 15 years, mistakenly believing that he had split the family. The truth was that his mother was having an affair with his father’s best friend, whom she eventually married. His father and his older sisters spared the boy the truth. He didn’t have the grades to get into film school so he conned his way into Universal Pictures by getting off the tour bus and putting his name on the door of an office (maybe…) and impressed Sid Sheinberg enough to get him to underwrite his TV work there for 7 years, making his debut directing  movie queen Joan Crawford in an episode of Rod Serling’s show Night Gallery. Getting involved with that group of fellow wannabe filmmakers who came to be christened The Movie Brats, he had a support system of guys (they were all guys!) who would eventually become the most successful directors in the business. They all talk here – Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma and it’s nice to hear them speaking directly rather than through the medium of the third party commentators in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls. The culture was converging, the older directors were on their way out, they were on their way in. Amongst that crowd Spielberg was a nerd who wasn’t into sports or drugs or rock ‘n’ roll, as De Palma observes. Reworking his family difficulties into his films Spielberg created a modern point of view and an immediacy that plugged into the zeitgeist like no other filmmaker:  he knew what we wanted before we did. His one big budget failure was 1941 and it was George Lucas who got him back on track making a film that he promised him would be better than James Bond after he spent a year in a hole ruminating his misstep. So it was that after Jaws and CE3K he then entered into the world of franchises with Lucas making Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lacy is careful to permit Spielberg to critique his own failures or damp squibs even while his contemporaries and stars and co-workers are heaping praise on his energy, his techniques and the panic he manages to hide when he doesn’t know what to do next:  his reaction to the set being placed in the wrong situation on the beach for Saving Private Ryan being a case in point. It’s as though his eye bypasses his brain and goes straight to the camera. He himself states that from his earliest days he felt he was writing with the camera (he probably wasn’t what the Cahiers critics had in mind). A happy second marriage to actress Kate Capshaw and the addition of children made him confront more difficult topics after getting critically burned with The Colour Purple, a film that exercised many when the popcorn king dared take on the black experience and from a matriarchal perspective at that. He wasn’t exactly drowning in awards with the fantastic WW2 epic Empire of the Sun either and screenwriter Tom Stoppard questions his resorting to sentiment. But it was another instance of his desire to empower a child and to take control of  the story of their life. Making Schindler’s List made him confront his Jewishness. He admits he dumped his bag of tricks and utilised a handheld camera bringing an immediacy to the terror in monochrome. At the same time that he was shooting the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto on location he was editing Jurassic Park in the evenings: when everyone in the edit suite saw the astonishing leap in computerised dinosaurs created by Dennis Muren they knew it was something special. As Lucas appositely states, it was the end of one era, the beginning of a new one. Saving Private Ryan was also a war film like no other and the shock of the shooting experience is vividly conveyed by Tom Hanks.  Lacy is canny in deploying some of the best US critics to venture their reading of the director, after setting up the Pauline Kael prediction about how Spielberg’s career would pan out – not as a screen artist –  while the UK’s Dilys Powell isn’t mentioned:  Janet Maslin, J. Hoberman and AO Scott all have their say and it makes for a very thoughtful chorus of opinions given their sometime antipathy to his work (and some of the more problematic films like The Terminal or Hook are basically ignored).  Latterly his films have taken a prescient turn, from the scenes in Minority Report and War of the Worlds that vividly reference the shock of 9/11 and the surveillance society, to the Middle East issues that are tackled in Munich: any equivocation in these stories can be calibrated with the explanation that the man himself is torn about how to deal with the perpetrators of terror. So, for Hoberman,  He’s the Hollywood equivalent of a public intellectual. The loosely connected Amistad, Bridge of Spies and Lincoln deal with democracy and the law and the origins and problems of America itself. Despite his success, Dustin Hoffman says Steven’s like a guy who works for Steven Spielberg. The director himself is quick to point out that he has worked with a large team of the same people for decades and calls editor Michael Kahn his blood brother; John Williams he says rewrites his films with music. In the end, all his films he says are father and son stories about separation and reunification – even Lincoln!  And there’s an unpredicted coda to his parents’ bitter divorce (what you might call a twist ending). This is very long at 147 minutes but there isn’t any gristle in an absorbing and fluid chronicle bringing together the many influences around the most important filmmaker of our time. It’s an authorised film but doesn’t suffer for that – he is very open about what drives him and how he works.  He declares happily that he has never had therapy:  Movies are my therapy. Hallelujah – for that we are all truly grateful.

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.

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.

Less Than Zero (1987)

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Clay (Andrew McCarthy) is back in Los Angeles for Christmas following his first semester at college and finds that his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) is now using cocaine and his best friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.) whom he found sleeping with Blair over Thanksgiving is a serious cokehead indebted to the tune of $50,000 to the nasty Rip (James Spader – frighteningly reasonable) who runs a rent boy ring and gets his creditors to service his clients. This portrait of life in the higher-earning echelons of LA is chilling. Bret Easton Ellis’ iconic novel is a talisman of the mid-late Eighties coming of age set and the icy precision of his affectless prose is inimitable. Once read, never forgotten. Harley Peyton’s screenplay is a fair adaptation but the casting lets this down – with the exception of Downey who is simply sensational as the tragic Julian, gifted with a record company for graduation by his father (Nicholas Pryor) and then simply dumped when he screws up.  This lovable loser’s mouth drools with the effects of his addiction when rehab doesn’t work and he spirals unhappily trying to bum money off his uncle to open a nightclub. Watch the scene when he talks to Clay’s little sister as though she’s a lover who’s pushing him away – knockout. The Beverly Hills scene with its horrible parents and their multiple marriages and awkward dinners with exes and stepchildren, making teenagers grow up too fast, is all too real.  While McCarthy and Gertz just don’t really work – McCarthy’s supposed to be a vaguely distanced observer but he doesn’t convey much beyond a bemused smile, Gertz looks confused and both look too old – the shooting style is cool and superficial, like the lives it critiques. Directed by Marek Kanievska.

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.