Harlow (1965)

Harlow

Everything about me is real.  Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) arrives in Los Angeles as a teenager, pushed into showbiz by her sex-mad mother Mama Jean (Angela Lansbury) and grasping stepfather Marino Bello (Raf Vallone). Kindhearted agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons) becomes Jean’s mentor and rescues her from glamour shots and the casting couch, while a devious Howard Hughes-like mogul Richard Manley (Leslie Nielsen) grows infatuated with the beautiful young actress. Harlow herself falls for writer/producer Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) before tragedy strikes right after their marriage and her efforts to get together with fellow studio star Jack Harrison (Mike Connors) come to nothing …  You have the body of a woman and the emotions of a child!  The big-budget version of the screen icon’s life was beaten to it by a cheaper experimental film starring Carol Lynley that barely scraped into theatres so this is the one that people remember, if at all. Adapted in part from Landau and Irving Shulman’s pulpy biography of the sex goddess by John Michael Hayes, this skips and jumps through Harlow’s life, eliminating altogether any direct reference to her relationship with William Powell (Connors plays a variation on him) or her co-star Clark Gable, more or less fabricating whole sequences and introducing an element of wantonness involving her stepfather that seems excessive even in this version of events. It’s rather lurid and seems to deviate from what is known of Harlow’s true character but it’s rather interesting to see an interpretation of the platinum blonde in vivid Technicolor with Edith Head making the most of the opportunity to create some stunning gowns. Baker had featured in the controversial Hayes adaptation of Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers a year earlier and shot a famous nude scene in the role of Rina, a thinly veiled version of Harlow – so her casting here is no surprise given that Paramount produced both pictures. Effectively, then, this is a remake in part of part of a year-old film. Baker is a decade older than Harlow at the time of her death but her performance is tender and appealing, capturing some of the spirit of Harlow’s great characters against a melodramatic backdrop that nonetheless plays fast and loose with the facts including the circumstances of her demise. Lansbury and Vallone are extremely impressive as the lusty parental figures while Buttons is very good as the kind man who remains her one true friend. A fascinating insight into how Hollywood saw itself at one time. Welcome to the velvet prison. Hayes deserves his reputation as a great writer of dialogue and he manages to invest showbiz clichés with the ring of truth especially when uttered venomously by Connors; Julie Parrish appears uncredited as Connors’ wife and would make a couple of appearances opposite him on Mannix five years later. The production design by Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira and James W. Payne is jaw dropping. The theme song Lonely Girl is sung by Bobby Vinton. Directed by Gordon Douglas. There’s nobody deader than I am right now. Oh, I guarantee all of you I won’t be by tomorrow

Road to Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition

Where would this town be without Mr John Rooney? In 1931 Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hitman and enforcer for Irish-American mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) in the Rock Island area. His son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) hides in the car one night after the wake for one of Rooney’s henchmen and sees his Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) administer a shot in the head to the dead man’s brother Finn (Ciarán Hinds) who talked too much at the event; while he understands for the first time what his father does for a living when he witnesses the bloodshed. Rooney sends Connor to kill Michael and the boy but Connor instead kills his wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and other son Peter (Liam Aiken) in cold blood and Michael goes on the run with Michael Jr in an attempt to gain revenge for his family’s murder. He finds that he has no friends and no protection and is advised by Mafia man Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to give up. He reckons without a freelance corpse photographer Maguire (Jude Law) following him and thinks that by uncovering Connor’s theft that Rooney will accept him as the son he never had … A man of honour always pays his debts and keeps his word. I like this far better now that years have passed, Newman is gone and what I originally thought of as directorial heavy-handedness is more readily recognisable as a comfort with the excessive expressionistic qualities of the source material. Hanks’ doughy face with its deep-set eyes seems peculiarly unsuited for this kind of role but paradoxically lends the performance an unexpected quality. His six-week road trip with his son gives him an opportunity to impart lessons and learn about the boy for the first time. He makes us know that Michael Jr is not to follow him into this deadly business. His scenes with Newman are marvellous – a kind of trading off in acting styles, one legend passing on lessons to the next, borne out in the storytelling. What Michael doesn’t know is that blood means more than sympathy, no matter the horrors involved in being part of the Rooney family. Of course Connor would betray his father;  and of course his father knows. It’s a hard thing to watch Michael learn the truth. Loyalty sucks. This is a gallery of masculine roles – Craig as the ever-smiling psychotic son, Law as the rotten-toothed shooter masquerading as the photographer of death – a correlative of the film’s own morbidity; Hoechlin as the boy learning at his father’s elbow as the guns go off. Hinds impresses in those early scenes, quietly seething then mouthing off at his brother’s wake, a crime which will  not go unpunished. Dylan Baker’s accountant Alexander Rance has a decidedly old-fashioned homosexual taint of prissiness. This is a linear story of fathers and sons, cause and effect, crime, punishment and revenge in an Oedipal setting dictated by the rules of inevitability that can be traced to Greek tragedy. There are no surprises but the pleasures of the production design by Dennis Gassner, the cinematography by Conrad Hall (who earned a posthumous Academy Award) and the performances make this worth a re-viewing. Screenplay by David Self from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers

UFO (2019)

UFO

The guy on TV was lying.  College student Derek (Alex Sharp) tries to use his exceptional mathematical skills to interpret messages that appear to have been sent around a UFO sighting at a local airport, suggesting extra-terrestrial attempts at contact. Accompanied by his room mate Lee (Benjamin Beatty) and girlfriend Natalie (Ella Purnell) he is rebuffed by the airport staff and Government officials including FBI Agent Franklin Ahls (David Strathairn) and suspects a cover up. He requests the assistance of his professor Dr. Hendricks (Gillian Anderson) who thinks he is brilliant along the lines of a Thomas Edison but doesn’t really want anything to do with a gifted guy prepared to risk his scholarship by flunking her class. But he is haunted by memories of a childhood sighting which his mother refused to acknowledge … Do you know how many threats the airport gets every day? It’s not quite correct to describe this as suspenseful because it doesn’t conform to the usual tenets of dramatic pitch:  rather it settles for a flat realist line mirroring the landscape, leaving the maths to do the talking.  What’s marvellous is the lo-fi approach of paper, pencils and calculators to try and decrypt the probability and navigate the universe. Anderson is cannily cast, linking her meta-fashion to The X-Files, a shortcut to the idea dominating the story: We Are Not Alone. An intriguing exercise of singular focus utilising real-life information and TV newscasts about a 2006 incident at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Written and directed by Ryan Eslinger with a smart score by West Dylan Thordson. They put the Fine Structure Constant in their message. The mathematical equations and graphs are a thing of beauty, no matter how impenetrable. Practically a Hipster PDA exercise in astrophysics. That’s Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s son as Lee. The wavelength is the unit of the measurement – it IS co-ordinates

The Mule (2018)

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For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for everything. Broke, alone and facing foreclosure on his business, 90-year-old horticulturist and Korean War veteran Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) takes a job as a drug courier for a Mexican cartel and transports huge loads to Chicago in the trunk of his pick-up truck. His immediate success leads to easy money and the opportunity to help other folks in trouble. A larger shipment soon draws the attention of hard-charging DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) who has to work hard to convince his boss (Laurence Fishburne) to track the culprit. When Earl’s past mistakes start to weigh heavily on his conscience, and his guilt over the way he treated his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and his estranged daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) plunges him into grief, he must decide whether to right those wrongs before law enforcement and cartel thugs catch up to him but his drug lord amigo Laton (Andy Garcia) is no longer in charge Next time you see me, I’ll be texting my brains out!  Adroitly positioned between comedy and drama and boasting an amiable performance by star/director Eastwood, this manages to be both droll and horrifying with a raft of racial references that frankly could be taken either way except they’re made by a white man of a wholly different world and he happens to be very sympathetic: there are thematic connections with Gran Torino (also written by Nick Schenk)to completely different effect. Garcia has fun as Laton the  kingpin (until he’s not) and Cooper is probably paying his dues in a by-the-numbers role in exchange for having been directed to greatness in American Sniper albeit they have a nicely ironic meeting in a diner which improves upon the non-event that was Heat‘s encounter between De Niro and Pacino.  Mostly shot with a great feel for landscape, there are surprising lapses in the cinematography (focus pull, anyone?) that like a lot of Eastwood’s output indicate there’s been some slapdash shooting. Nonetheless, even with the predictable subject matter and the silly sentimentality (Wiest is like a latterday saint) Eastwood plays with his star persona in absurdly engaging fashion (even casting his own daughter Alison as his screen daughter) so much so that you’ll be looking for an orangutan in that truck. This has things to say about ageing, family, friendship, community, the generation gap(s!) and regrets. His unique lyrical interpretation of those radio songs just rocks practically turning this into a musical. Adapted from the true life story of Leo Sharp, an octogenarian mule for the Sinaloa cartel, this was inspired by a New York Times article by Sam Dolnick although all character names have been changed. As an exercise in self-critical auteurist filmmaking, this is rather amazing. Roll on, Rowdy! At least I’ll know where to find you

 

Halloween (1978)

Halloween 1978 theatrical

Every kid in Haddonfield thinks this place is haunted. On a cold Halloween night in 1963, six year old Michael Myers brutally murdered his 17-year-old sister, Judith. He was sentenced and locked away for 15 years in a sanitarium for the childhood murder of his older sister Judith. Now it’s October 30, 1978 and while being transferred for a court date 21-year-old Michael (Nick Castle) steals a car and escapes Smith’s Grove. He returns to his quiet hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, where he looks for his next victims, stalking and killing promiscuous teenage babysitters on Halloween night. He targets Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) while being hunted down by his psychiatrist Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence) … I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.  John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s cunning screenplay dissects and reconstructs the slasher movie and places it in the suburbs where carefree teens drink and drug and play around unaware that their grisly deaths are imminent as light briefly illuminates the dangerous darkness. The movies’ first properly famous virginal Final Girl is immortalised by Curtis in her screen debut, cast in her mother Janet’s immense Psycho shadow. On the one hand this is a clever homage and pastiche of feminist and misogynistic tropes;  on the other it’s a towering work of terror and one of the greatest horror films ever made, the granddaddy of them all.  Dazzling. You’ve fooled them, haven’t you, Michael? But not me

The Founder (2016)

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It’s the name. That glorious name, McDonald’s. It could be, anything you want it to be… it’s limitless, it’s wide open… it sounds, uh… it sounds like… it sounds like America. In 1954 struggling Illinois salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) beefs up his pitch by listening to recordings of self-help books to help him on the road selling milkshake makers to drive-in restaurant proprietors. Then he meets Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), who are running a very speedy burger operation in 1950s Southern California. Kroc is knocked out by the brothers’ hyperefficient system of making the food and sees franchise potential. With the help of a financial expert Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) who directs him to look at the property side of the business nationwide, Kroc leverages his position to pull the company from the brothers and create a multi-billion dollar empire… This tale of venality and daylight robbery is shot in presumably ironic glossy light by the estimable John Schwartzman, crowning a dazzling performance by Keaton who is really on top form here.  His phonecalls to the brothers are the underpinning of the narrative structure and how he splits them from their joint decision-making process is a masterclass. It operates like a thriller, showing Kroc go down by mortgaging the home he shares with his unhappy hangdog wife Ethel (Laura Dern) and then rising to the top by deceiving the brothers horribly – Mac is susceptible to his sales patter, Dick regrets the day they bought his milkshake machine – and, as we suspect he will, marrying franchise operator Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini) who is as grasping as himself:  when they look in each other’s eyes they see dollar signs (they duet on Pennies From Heaven in front of her husband, played by Patrick Wilson). Then they conquered the world with their disgusting fake food and counted their money in Beverly Hills. How depressing. Greed is not good. Produced by Jeremy Renner, written by Robert Siegel, directed by John Lee Hancock. To be filed under True Crime.

Planes Trains and Automobiles (1987)

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I really don’t care for the way your company left me in the middle of fucking nowhere with fucking keys to a fucking car that isn’t fucking there. And I really didn’t care to fucking walk, down a fucking highway, and across a fucking runway to get back here to have you smile in my fucking face. I want a fucking car… right… fucking… now. Advertising executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) is something of a control freak. Trying to get home to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with his wife (Laila Robins) and kids, his flight is rerouted to a distant city in Kansas because of a freak snowstorm, and his sanity begins to fray. Worse yet, he is forced to bunk up with talkative slob Del Griffith (John Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman, whom he finds extremely annoying. Together they have to overcome the insanity of holiday travel to reach their intended destination… John Hughes’ films still tug at our heartstrings because they have a core of humanity beneath the hilarity.  Martin and Candy are perfectly paired – the nutty fastidious guy versus the relaxed nice guy, a kind of Odd Couple on a road trip with some outrageously good banter balancing the physical silliness. Martin’s descent into incivility is a joy:  anyone who’s ever been desperate to pick up their rental car will relate to how Neal loses it at the hire desk! I remember hearing when Candy had died feeling a terrible sorrow and thinking that of all the larger than life actors out there he was the one I most wanted to have around a very long time. I haven’t changed my mind. This is still very funny indeed.

Wayne’s World (1992)

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We’re not worthy! Sleazy advertising guy Benjamin Oliver (Rob Lowe) wants to take the public access show Wayne’s World to the world of commercial television. Slackers Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) battle to save the show and Wayne’s hot girlfriend, band singer Cassandra (Tia Carrere) from Oliver …  That’s just the start. This spin-off from a Saturday Night Live skit was dumped on Valentine’s Day 1992 – to a very appreciative audience as it happens. It went from here to cult fasterthanthis. Mike Myers’ McJobber Wayne Campbell became a spokesman for disenfranchised yet optimistic youth – even if we didn’t all put on a cable access show in our parents’ basement. Dana Carvey’s disciple Garth became a doer and not just a dweeb with an unfortunate overbite. These metalhead guys are lovable and full of heart and this perfectly postmodern comedy is a screamingly funny outing that has a host of sayings that still pepper my conversation while ordering Chinese food, singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody in the mirthmobile and eating Grey Poupon. Not! Directed by Penelope Spheeris. Party on! A sphincter says what?! Excellent! And monkeys might fly out of my butt! As if!