Kinsey (2004)

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Are my answers typical? Professor Alfred ‘Prok’ Kinsey (Liam Neeson) is interviewed about his sexual history by one of his graduate students Clyde Martin (Sarsgaard) and reflects on how he became the author of famous studies of modern Americans’ sexual behaviour. He grew up in a repressed household headed by Alfred Seguine Kinsey (John Lithgow) and disobeyed him to study biology and became a lecturer, marrying his student Mac (Laura Linney). After completing his study of gall wasp behaviour and addressing the sexual issues within his own marriage his advice is sought by students and he begins teaching a sex ed course that raises questions he cannot answer.  He devises a questionnaire to find out what passes for normal activity among his students but soon realises that 100 completed documents are not remotely sufficient.  He commences a countrywide research project in which he taxonomises sexual behaviour inside and outside average marriages and subgroups like homosexuals at a time when all these things are illegal in several states … The forces of chastity are massing again. Writer/director Bill Condon’s biography of the famed sex researcher whose reports rocked midcentury America is careful, detailed and filled with good performances (appropriately). Both Linney and Neeson contribute complete characters and their respective realisation that Clyde wants to seduce Prok are extremely touching and when you consider it’s established in a phonecall it’s all the more affecting. Their marriage is a profile of the parameters of this study – until things become more extreme and the grad students carrying out the research offer their own services to be recorded. The issue of agreed infidelity and extra-marital sex is just one of the common behavioural tics dealt with here and deftly personalised. There are of course some limits to even these sexologists’ tolerance – and Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell) storms out when a particularly noxious individual (William Sadler) decides to regale him and Kinsey about his incest, bestiality and more, including incidents with pre-adolescent children. There are some abusive perversions that are just too tough to take. Word about the nature of the team’s methodologies gets out and their funding is cut by the Rockefeller Foundation, an issue that is particularly effective as a narrative device because it reminds us of the real-world difficulties in securing funding and the consequences that not funding this particular study might have had – its far-reaching insights into human behaviour in a highly censorious era was groundbreaking.  Oliver Platt is particularly good as the genial Herman Wells, President of the University at Bloomington whose support of the controversial work is so important. The confrontational nature of the film doesn’t descend to pornography chiefly because the humanity of the protagonists – and that of the study’s participants – is carefully graphed against the social norms. The topper to Alfred Senior’s difficult relationship with his son is very sad and crystallises the reasons behind his bullying, a habit Prock has inherited and replays with his own son Bruce (Luke MacFarlane) over mealtimes. At this point we don’t need any lectures on nature versus nurture or gene theory. The coda is a wonderful exchange between Kinsey and his latest interview subject played by Lynn Redgrave. It’s a marvellous conclusion to a remarkable film that deals with biology, family and the life force. A very satisfying experience. Where love is concerned we’re all in the dark

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In & Out (1997)

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I miss Premiere magazine so much. Once a month,that cellophane-wrapped thud on the hall floor, after the postman had been by, struck joy in my heart. Specifically, I miss Paul Rudnick, that grade-A satirist whose campy sendups made me whoop with laughter. He was Libby Gelman-Waxner! But lo! Hollywood really did come calling to him hence his spot-on insider comments and this exquisitely rendered smalltown gayfest is true to classical tradition yet ever so sweetly rubs the generic nose in contemporary mores. Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) is the inspirational smalltown Indiana high school English teacher who’s outed at the Academy Awards by his dimwit former student Hollywood actor Cameron Drake  (Matt Dillon) despite being three days from his very straight wedding to formerly fat colleague Emily Montgomery  (Joan Cusack). His wrist literally becomes limp when he’s called gay in front of billions of people. Mom Debbie Reynolds and dad Wilford Brimley want the wedding to go ahead and he’s sure he does too until showbiz correspondent Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck) waltzes into town with the other paparazzi  – and stays. Just wait for the Selleck-Kline clinch! Howard’s Barbra Streisand-themed stag night is all for naught as he recognises his true nature and battles with the authorities to keep his job while his students eventually do an ‘I Am Spartacus’ act at graduation and Cameron rides back into town in his white sports car to save the day. Great fun, hilarious jibes and Kline gives an extraordinarily precise comic performance in a beautifully rendered upside-down satire of American family movies. Reynolds is especially good as the mother who will just die without a day in church. This was of course inspired by Tom Hanks’ unwitting outing of his former high school teacher when he was collecting the Oscar for Philadelphia. Adeptly directed by comedy expert Frank Oz.

Ricki and the Flash (2015)

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I’m a big fan of writer Diablo Cody so having her write a movie starring Meryl Streep and directed by Jonathan Demme made me hope for great things – like Young Adult, the criminally underrated comedy with Charlize Theron and still Cody’s best work … Ricki’s the sixtysomething mom who ran away from hubby and three small children to make music and is still rocking away in California bars at night and checking groceries by day – basically broke. (But living the dream! Yeah!) She gets a call from home, ex-hubby Pete  (Kevin Kline) informing her that their adult daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer ie Ms Streep’s own daughter) is in trouble after her husband cheated and split. Ricki rolls up to the mansion in Indiana in her rocker gear, Julie’s hair is on end and she’s off her trolley on prescription drugs. She’s vile to her mother. But the dog thinks Ricki’s cool. Then Pete tells Ricki that Julie attempted suicide. The women’s scenes together are really good – as you’d expect  – but the writing’s not as sharp as you want for performers of this calibre. There’s a good restaurant scene where  Ricki  discovers her older son is engaged (to an obnoxious snob) and her other son is gay (he used to be bi) and dad orders dinner over the row. It’s fun to see Streep and Kline back together for the first time since Sophie’s Choice but there’s no really felt narrative between them. Just a lot of years apart. Ricki brings Julie to the hairdresser and gets her off the pills. Then … stepmom comes back and narrative issues arise:  she’s black (I guess it’s PC), a high achiever, and she’s competing to be the better mom. Not too hard since she was there. Your basic bitch, as Kate Moss might have it. Ricki slopes back to CA to bandmate Rick Springfield and they have a good scene together – but he gets the best lines about parenting, plus the tears. Then there’s a wedding … Perhaps the big issue here is Ricki’s voice – in every sense. We hear one of her ‘own’ compositions, with Streep on guitar, wasted on weed, with Pete and Julie, when he admits he’s still got her album in a Rubber Maid in the garage. But everything  else is a cover version. We needed something true – written by a woman who’s seen it all. Wasn’t Lucinda Williams available for the whole soundtrack instead of just one song (ditto Emmylou)? A pity… That’s Cody dancing in the red striped dress in the bar, BTW.

On Moonlight Bay (1951)

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Sheerly delightful musical comedy starring Doris Day. She’s tomboy Marjorie Winfield who moves house with her family and starts dating the boy next door, college boy William Sherman (Gordon MacRae), meanwhile bank VP pop Leon Ames (reprising his role from Meet Me in St Louis) disagrees with William’s notions about money and marriage. He declares of Marjorie, All she knows about men are their batting averages! Precocious son Wesley (the brilliant Billy Gray) spends his time devising schemes that wind up in disaster, housekeeper Mary Wickes keeps everyone going and Mom Rosemary DeCamp is the still centre of an ever-brewing storm. When William goes off to WW1, stuffed shirt Hubert (Jack Smith) tries to woo the more feminine Doris who tries to lose her mechanic’s gear. Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson conjured the wonderful screenplay from the Penrod stories by Booth Tarkington (whose work also inspired Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons).  There are some wonderful individual scenes, including a silent movie insert, there are great songs and the atmosphere is tangible. Did I mention that there’s snow? And a snowball fight and a sleigh ride? Oh joy! It was devised as standard studio fare by Warners but had Ernest Haller doing the incredible cinematography and Max Steiner on scoring duties. It was such a huge success it was followed with a sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, another fabulously charming outing. This period romcom is on constant rotation at mine. Lovely lovely lovely!

The Judge (2014)

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It is probably more than coincidence that the antagonist in The Judge (Dobkin, 2014) is Robert Duvall, Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962).  Here he plays the title character, a smalltown and self-righteous official called Joseph Palmer who winds up in bigtime trouble the night his beloved wife is buried and has to be (highly reluctantly) defended by son Hank, Robert Downey Jr., the film’s producer, a criminal lawyer in Chicago whose wife is divorcing him.  He says of his position, “Everybody wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in the bathtub.” It is a long tale, well told, with hints of incest, lost love, and plenty of prolix speeches from Hank, a Downey specialty overindulged somewhat here. Massachusetts stands in very prettily for Hoosier country, Indiana, while the family’s secrets are steadily unfolded, one by one. This patriarchal drama brings together two of the screen’s powerhouse performers, with the extravagantly gifted Downey turning in a mighty performance opposite not just the other legendary Robert D, but Billy Bob Thornton, with whom Duvall has also shared some impressive time in Sling Blade (1996) and The Apostle (1997). This is a long, cool drink of a movie with a closing sequence that suggests it might be a third franchise for Downey. The jury is out.