Coming to America (1988)

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Look on the bright side – at least we learned how to make french fries. Pampered Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) is the king-in-waiting of an African country and wants for nothing, except a wife who will love him in spite of his title. Even all those agreeably nude dolls washing and toileting him every day can’t make him change his mind. To escape an arranged marriage as per the tradition that only his father the king (James Earl Jones) could undo, Akeem flees to America accompanied by sidekick Semmi (Arsenio Hall) to find his queen. He takes up residence in the worst apartment ever and utters cuss words he’s never heard before, taking them for colloquial blessings. Disguised as a foreign student working in fast food at a yellow McD’s joint for Mr McDowell (John Amos) whose business resembles the other famous McD’s except for not having seeds on the buns, he romances Lisa (Shari Headley). However he struggles with revealing his true identity and doesn’t know how to broach his marital intentions to his father. The chickens finally come home to roost when Semmi gets fed up of the ruse, pretends to his own girlfriend that he’s the prince and finally contacts the royal parents … Directed by John Landis, this fish out of water romcom is a lot of fun and allows Murphy (and Hall) to don a range of disguises (Murphy even dons whiteface to play a Jewish man in a barber’s!) that don’t however detract from the forward thrust of the narrative. There’s also a nice scene sequence with Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, updating the story from the last Landis-Murphy collaboration, Trading Places. The screenplay is credited to David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein with a story by Murphy, but a lengthy lawsuit by legendary columnist Art Buchwald eventually acknowledged that the source material was his. Good, almost old-fashioned fun.

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Miller’s Crossing (1990)

 

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There’s nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is the hardman and advisor to Irish American gangster Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who’s at war with Italian Mafia boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) at the height of Prohibition. When crooked bookie Bernie (John Turturro) the brother of Leo’s mistress and Tom’s lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) is threatened by Caspar, the dark-hearted and brainy Reagan is found out by Leo and appears to switch sides in an escalating rivalry over liquor distribution that has a huge body count… It’s hard to pick out a single sequence of brilliance in this positively baroque outing but today I’m choosing the attempt on Leo’s life to the sounds of Frank Patterson warbling Danny Boy: what a stunning declaration of visual bravura (kudos to DoP Barry Sonnenfeld). Brutal, witty, dazzling, beautiful, postmodern and classic, this is a masterpiece. The dialogue is straight out of old gangster movies (and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key) and coming out of Byrne’s accented mouth sounds hilarious:  you gasp at some of the lines, they’re so stunningly written. The narrative is constructed on well known gangster tropes and turns them inside out in a film that acts as a commentary on the genre – Tom’s asides with the Irish policemen are an excruciating Greek chorus! – as well as exulting in its excesses, its ghastly violence, its humour, its morality, its sheer decadence. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen and directed by the former, this is one of the modern greats that engages the brain, the heart and the mind with Reagan’s psychology supplying Byrne with a career-defining role. Astounding.

The Hatton Garden Job (2017)

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The way I see it this is an old school gig that needs an old school crew. This interpretation of the notorious 2015 jewellery/safe deposit box raid in London worth £200 million tips its hat to any number of heist thrillers and one senses that with a bit more money (ironically)  and a few more smartly shot scenes it might have made a bigger impact. A bunch of ageing East End and Kent crims  (Larry Lamb, Phil Daniels, David Calder, Clive Russell) are assembled by anonymous younger cohort (Matthew Goode) to carry out the audacious robbery, assisted by a crooked copper and the most powerful woman in Europe, Hungarian queen pin (Joely Richardson). The gang, the process itself and the compromises in its wake are kept ticking over by a committed set of performances and an energetic soundtrack which is all about One Last Job.  There is an aspect to this which makes me think of The Ladykillers – there is more than a sense of caper and farce, introduced when Phil Daniels comments there’s old school and then there’s just old, a comment that has a neat payoff in the middle of the robbery that should have ratcheted up the tension a zillion degrees (or 200 million…) More could have been made of London and the action better managed – Rififi showed us how to make real drama out of detail –  but this is also beholden to a contemporary geezer style:  let’s call it le cinema de Guy Ritchie which damages it because these are essentially nice guys who are neither threatening enough nor funny enough – so the stakes are raised in the wrong way. But then it has a bit of sense and puts together an ending reminiscent of The Usual Suspects. So this falls between two stools but it’s not awful, Guv!  Written by Ray Bogdanovich, Dean Lines and director Ronnie Thompson.

Live By Night (2016)

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What you put out in the world will always come back to you but never how you predict. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the WW1-weary son of Irish-American police officer (Brendan Gleeson) who tries to be good but you know how it is. He’s trying to make his way as a small-time crook in 1927 Boston but crosses paths with gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) by stealing from him and sleeping with his sassy Irish girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). He’s blackmailed by White’s rival mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to kill White or he’ll rat on the affair so robs a bank to flee to California with Emma. That was the original plan but police officers get killed and Emma apparently drowns being chased by police after White came close to killing Joe. Despite the efforts of his father he serves three years in prison for the police killings and his father is dead when he gets out so he does a deal with Piscatore to take over his rum business in Florida where he can get revenge on White. It means setting up business with Suarez (Miguel Pimentele) and he shacks up with his sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana). He and his sidekick Dion (Chris Messina) take over and then someone thought dead turns up in a photograph and Maso has a showdown with Joe and it turns into a triple cross situation  … There are a lot of admirable things in this production: the settings, the design (even if the cars are way too clean), some brilliant lines (rather than exchanges of dialogue) and a depiction of the Prohibition era in Florida that introduces the Ku Klux Klan into the mix because these gangsters are Catholic. Affleck’s commitment to bringing Dennis Lehane’s Boston Irish mythology to the screen is to be commended but his waxy inexpressiveness is central to why this doesn’t work (blank is simply not a good look in a gangster movie). Miller makes him look better than he is in their scenes together – they crackle – but she departs the story early. All the bits are here, they just don’t add up, and that usually leads us back to the screenwriter – also Affleck. There are plotlines thrown away in a photograph or a newspaper cutting. There are technical issues too – some of the sound mix particularly at the beginning is poor. A smarter filmmaker would have dropped a lot of the overhead shots and the dumb narration (look at how it doesn’t work and compare it with Goodfellas!) and cast a better actor in the lead:  just watch how Chris Cooper in his small role as police chief Figgis in Tampa wipes the floor with Affleck in his first scene and listen to him deliver the line about a fallen world. That’s when he introduces his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) who’s on her way to a Hollywood screen test:  bad move. This storyline takes a good turn paying off in a parable about evangelical Protestantism but the conclusion is just dumped for yet another newspaper story after a scene which unravels the sins of fathers who want better things for their kids. Oedipal scenarios aside, this is a guy who traffics liquor and murders people but still thinks he’s his father’s good son. Affleck looks quite laughable in his oversized suit but then you realise that he resembles legendary screen heavy Lawrence Tierney who was so incredibly nasty in days of yore.  Hmmm! What might have been. Oh! The vanity!

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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In the face of the fabulous new your thought is to kill it?  Los Angeles 2049. K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner for Wallace, the new incarnation of the Tyrell Corporation led by blind Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) whose right hand woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is enchanted by K’s story that a replicant may have had a child. He is ordered by LAPD (in the guise of Robin Wright) to get rid of any evidence that a replicant could have given birth in order to see off a war between replicants and humans. He returns to the site of a dead tree and finds something that makes him think he can remember something from his own childhood and it leads him into a spiral of discovery that involves tracking down his predecessor before Prohibition and the Blackout, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who appears to have something to do with the rebel replicants underground …. Where to start? This hybridised metafictive spawn of one of the greatest achievements in cinema is no easy ride. The way it looks for one. It’s horrible. Mostly greys with occasional harking back to the navy and neon and a sour yellow, a nod to the burnished autumnal shadings of the original. The Orientalised appearances are now more subtly rendered but are even more prevalent as though mixed into a Caucasian blender. Then there are the women. Luv is clearly meant to remind us of Rachael (Sean Young) while the reference to Nabokov’s Pale Fire is intended to tell us that there are two fictional characters sparring with one another here – but the question is, which two, and of them, who’s real and who’s a replicant? The quasi-Oedipal story steers right into a quagmire of identities and dreams and purported flashbacks. Other quotes – Kafka, Treasure Island, and even the songs that play as holograms in a burned-out Vegas – also serve to get us to look one way, instead of another. The idea of relationships as a figment of your imagination – literally, a hologram – is conceptually brilliant and well executed (in every sense) but takes too long as a narrative device to be told and then unravel. The ending is enormously clever and draws on facets of Philip K. Dick’s own backstory: it’s literally a tidal wash of action and memories. But are they real? Are they implants? Hampton Fancher is back but with co-writer Michael Green this time instead of David Webb Peoples. You can see the spliced DNA with Harlan Ellison (an insistence on procreation) as well as PKD  (what is humanity? what is reality?) and the literary turns which have some good jokes. There are some nice lines too and even if they’re on the nose they actually future proof it somewhat:  You’ve never seen a miracle.  Or, I know it’s real. Or, Dying for the right cause is the most human thing you can do. They actually conceal what is paid off by misdirecting us.  It gets away with its visual tributes to the original cast with the prostitute who looks like Darryl Hannah and Hoeks who clearly resembles Sean Young even in ill-fitting costume.  Directed by Denis Villeneuve who is one of the most audacious mainstream directors at the present time with Ridley Scott producing,  I appreciate what they’re doing here but it’s a pale twenty-first century facsimile, more replicant than human.  Ford enters the fray so late and Gosling is not my favourite actor albeit he acquits himself well as someone who starts to feel things he shouldn’t given his somewhat obscure origins as a police functionary. But I have feelings too. Nothing can compare with the sensory overload that is Blade Runner, the daddy of the species. Notwithstanding the foregoing, as all the best legal minds argue, the ending is brilliant. Oh! The humanity.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

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Those were the days when people knew how to be in love. Jeff Arch’s story was a meta discourse about people’s views of love and relationships being mediated by the movies. Nora Ephron turned it into a valentine to An Affair to Remember, a 1957 movie starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Together with her sister Delia it became as much com as rom, but it still has a baseline of melancholy and that killer feeling, bittersweet. Sam (Tom Hanks) is the widowed architect whose son Jonah (Ross Malinger) wants him to find The One so he can have a mother again. They live in Seattle. Annie (Meg Ryan) is the very proper journalist in Baltimore who gets engaged to the allergy-afflicted Walter (Bill Pullman).  She hears Jonah on a late night radio phone-in and stops at a diner where the waitresses talk of nothing else but this sweet  guy whose son wants him to remarry. She thinks there’s a story there but there’s more, as her friend Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) figures when her newly affianced friend is so distracted.  While she vaguely plans to hunt down Sam and carry out some friendly stalking, he starts to date again and his son is disgusted by his choice, one of his co-workers. Sam and Annie see each other across a crowded road when she nearly gets hit by a couple of trucks. Her letter to him asks him to meet at the top of the Empire State building on Valentine’s Day a la Cary and Deborah and it’s sent by Becky without her knowledge.  Things pick up when Jonah flies to NYC to keep the date and she’s there having dinner with Walter during a romantic weekend at The Plaza … The tropes from When Harry Met Sally are here – the mirroring conversations, the advice from friends, the movie references, and even that film’s director Rob Reiner plays Sam’s friend and even though she’ d already made a movie this was what really made Nora Ephron as an auteur. It’s a clever premise, discursive as well as fairytale, positing the idea that even though they’re a country apart a pair of compatible people are destined to meet. Eventually. Isn’t that wild? Separating a romantic couple until the very last five minutes of a film?! What a risk! With a helping hand from fate, a kid and a dream of finding love on Valentine’s Day, it helps that this hits three holiday celebrations including Christmas and New Year’s.  It shouldn’t work but it does, helped with some tart lines about men and women and what people settle for as opposed to what everyone really wants. What a dream team, boosted by some wonderful songs. Irresistible.

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.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

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Aka Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Men Tell No Tales. Thanks to the Australian government’s tax incentives, that Pirates-shaped gap in my life has finally been plugged with a new instalment in the delayed series. I love these films, and all pirate films, and have had to sate myself with the genius Black Sails in the interim (I have one series to go, so no spoilers please! I’m still not over Charles Vane’s execution!). This is number 5 in the franchise and it operates as a kind of unofficial reboot because it has been (gasp) 14 long years since the first film, Curse of the Black Pearl, was released. And it’s aptly returned to this for most of the bones in terms of story, character and structure, even if this has way more shaggy-dogness about it in an untidy set of plot mechanics. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann vows to find Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to right the wrong on his father who’s abiding in a watery limbo on the Flying Dutchman. He knows that the Trident of Poseidon will break the curse. Death meanwhile lurks on the high seas in the form of Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghostly crew who cannot set foot on dry land – also condemned and cursed by Sparrow’s antics. An astronomer Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario) is being executed as a witch in St Martin where a bank is being opened – and this is where Captain Jack makes his spectacular reappearance with his unruly and disgruntled crew led by Kevin McNally, with their awful ship in dry dock where they’re all broke. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is summoned by Henry to help out and he is ironically reunited with a daughter who doesn’t know the provenance of the map she seeks … Colourful, silly, not entirely logical and definitely rehashing plot points from the earlier films particularly the first one, this is handled pretty well by Norwegian directing duo Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg working from a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, with a story by Nathanson and Terry Rossio.  The young lovers story gets a run-through, the Barbossa plot gets a very fitting conclusion, there’s a fascinating flashback (I want one to give me skin like that in real life) and there are homages here and there to make you smile – the zombie sharks being a reference to the original summer blockbuster granddaddy of them all, the ghost crew a nod to the original’s skeleton crew, Depp taking his Robert Newton/Keith impersonation to new heights of pantomime, a great Paul McCartney cameo and a bank robbery like no other. Some of the lines could have done with a rewrite – especially the jokes which are heavy on the misogyny; and there’s no real mad surrealism which has graced previous episodes (is there anything as wild as the hallucination of the ship on dry land and the multiple Jacks?!). While most of the legendary tropes are present bar a real Brit villain the last action sequence is so darned complex I genuinely forgot what it was about. But it’s full of fun and wild adventure and I for one love this series even if number 4 fell far short of expectations. Thwaites and Scodelario make a pretty useful couple to base the next set of films, kicking some new plotlines into touch. What do you want – live action Space Mountain?! Hoist the mainbrace! Wahey me hearties! More!

Snatched (2017)

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I worship Goldie Hawn. Foul Play is on constant rotation chez moi. After a terrible 15 year break, she’s back, playing Amy Schumer’s mother. I use those words with caution because in one phrase I have alienated Goldie fans and realise that Schumer fans may not even know who Hawn is. Schumer is dumped by her boyfriend in a scene that is excruciating for all the wrong reasons – too long, badly written, overly expository and revelatory of one crucial fact:  Schumer cannot act. Then after social media intervention by her mom who lives with three rather cool cats  (Andrew, Arthur and Philip) she goes home because she has non-refundable tickets for a holiday to Ecuador and nobody will go with her. Turns out there’s an autistic/agoraphobe/nerd brother (Ike Barinholtz) resident too. After more, long, excruciating, badly written scenes, we fetch up with Goldie and Amy in a luxury resort in Ecuador. Amy wants to have sex with an Aussie adventurer (Tom Bateman) but he’s just keen to bring her on a day out. She brings mom too and they’re kidnapped. There are a few funny bits – Amy has the classic millennial reaction to being parted from her smartphone;  she ends up killing someone with a spade (“Are you sure?” she asks Goldie; “I saw his brains,” Goldie deadpans in response);  they partner up with an Indiana Jones-wannnabe jungle guide (Christopher Meloni) who turns out to be a total phony with a week to live (a bit less, actually); the complete lack of interest from the State Dept.; and there’s a tribute to Alien with a massive tapeworm.  But… there’s the brother’s subplot with the State Dept. And don’t get me started on the bewildering squandering of Wanda Sykes and a mute Joan Cusack (mute! Joan Cusack MUTE!!!!) as a sidebar of handy Lesbian rescuers who just …. disappear in a manner that is literally the opposite of good characterisation and plotting . OMG. I lay most of the issues at writer Katie Dippold’s door:  the scenes are long, lazy and the episodes of (literal) toilet humour – playing to Schumer’s apparent strengths/demographic – are just vile. The story simply doesn’t make sense from scene to scene – and don’t ask me how it winds up in Colombia from Ecuador. I mean I understand South American kidnap and murder gangs don’t go through passport control, but …  Misdirected by Jonathan Levine. Schumer is morphing into Will Ferrell. I still love Goldie! Give her a better film!

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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And that’s how you play Get the Guest. Edward Albee’s shocking 1962 play was bought by Jack Warner and the intention was to hire Bette Davis and James Mason – and how fun would that have been, having Davis quote herself with that unforgettable first line, What a dump!? But it’s Elizabeth Taylor who gets to declare the immortal line, squinting, bug-eyed with drink, into the harsh light after a night out on campus with unambitious lecturer hubby historian Richard Burton. When young marrieds George Segal and Sandy Dennis enter their den of iniquitous untruths and illusion their own marriage is laid bare as well in a devastating series of tragicomic slurs and fantasies, a miasma of lies, put downs and storytelling. Albee’s play was of course a profane satire about the sham foundations of marriage and social mores of the time;  this film helped dismantle the Production Code and was the first film Jack Valenti really had to look at in terms of what constituted entertainment for consenting adults. Albee said of the leads that Taylor was quite good while Burton was incredible. That’s in the eye of the beholder – in fact Taylor is extraordinary and it is remarkable that she gave her greatest exhibition of not merely star quality but intensely affecting emotional performances in works written by homosexual playwrights – one thinks of her in Suddenly Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, complex works that, like this, have a strain of flagrant misogyny running through them. Ernest Lehman did the adaptation which mostly cleaves to the play with just a couple of exceptions and it’s ‘opened out’ with the dance scene in the diner – and what a humdinger that is! What is perhaps most astonishing is that this was Mike Nichols’ directing debut, supposedly at Taylor’s insistence. Just look at the way he frames shots with Haskell Wexler as his DoP: he said he learned everything he knew about directing from watching A Place in the Sun. Taylor and Burton are at the apex of their careers here, particularly with regard to their joint projects. But despite the plethora of nominations it was she and Dennis who walked away with the Academy Awards – A Man For All Seasons took all the other big plaudits that year. There is a reason that Taylor is known for being the last great Hollywood star – and it’s right here. Phenomenal.