Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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When this was first released I saw it with a friend who promptly re-christened it Mouth Wide Open because I nodded off pretty quickly and woke suddenly during the orgy and announced, Clearly nobody here has ever been to one. And a shocking 18 years later it is still sad to see that Kubrick’s last film doesn’t have the intended shock value, the performances are variable and it’s very difficult to understand how it could have taken 400 days to shoot what are primarily lengthy talking scenes albeit the famously nitpicking Kubrick reconstructed Greenwich Village in London because of his fear of flying. Frederic Raphael updated Schnitzler’s early 20th century Vienna-set Traumnovelle to late 1990s New York City where Alice (Nicole Kidman) confesses to wealthy doctor husband Bill (Tom Cruise) that she fantasised sexually about a Naval officer she saw one day at a hotel where they were staying. Bill then descends into a long night of soul-searching and sex as he imagines what his wife might have done had she made the choice to cheat. He helps a wealthy patron Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) save a whore who’s OD’d during sex, attends a masked orgy on Long Island (a kind of warped tribute to North by Northwest) where his former med school chum is providing musical accompaniment in a blindfold and back in the city realises he’s being followed but it’s more than an existential threat. When Ziegler tells Bill that he’s fortunate not to know the names of the very powerful people in disguise at the sex party you don’t know if it’s raising questions about the Bilderberg group or another political conspiracy at large but it seems pretty daft. Whether you view this as an ineffectual satire of marriage or a cautionary commentary about sexually transmitted disease (there’s a telling scene featuring a prostitute and HIV) or perhaps a plain silly excursion into unerotic escapades, the press at the time made hay of the fact that the married couple at its centre saw their relationship disintegrate in real life and were divorced not long afterwards. The soundtrack which is principally two ominous notes would disgrace a five year old after their first piano lesson. Inexplicable in oh so many ways and yet fascinating and strangely memorable in visual loops precisely because it’s Kubrick. And the last word uttered (by Kidman) is … not expected in such a conservative outing and thereby enhances the legend.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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I’m not home. I never will be. I first encountered a Nam vet on Central Park West. He chased me despite being on crutches that were well past their sell-by date. I guess maybe it was because I had more legs than he did. I was waiting tables in a township on Long Island called Massapequa at a ghastly restaurant where a deranged and thankfully distant relative worked. Massapequa is the hometown of the Baldwin brothers and Ron Kovic, the subject of this impassioned film by Oliver Stone, a man whose own combat experiences had informed his previous film, Platoon, that astonishingly immersive journey of a naif to manhood in a horrifying exposition of American soldiers’ experiences. Ron Kovic’s book is the basis of another coming of age tale, this time of a Catholic boy whose parents’ devotion to JFK unwittingly unleashes their sports-mad son’s inner patriot.  I hadn’t seen this since its release and my fresh impression of its first sequences was of overwrought melodrama, underlined by John Williams’ overheated score. But this is all of a piece with the film’s intentions:  starting with a heightened picture of America’s hearth and home;  the futility and horror of war; the brutality of veterans’ experiences in epically gruesome, filthy underfunded hospitals (Kovic’s God-loving mother never even paid him a visit); the utter loneliness of being a castrated, paralysed man with a beating heart and functioning brain who is ridiculed by the anti-war protesters; the recognition that the only people with whom he now has anything in common are the other vets who are even more fucked up than he is. And so it moves into its more austere final sections. Politicisation. Separation from a family who refuse to accept he could have killed women and children and for whom he is a mere embarassment in a block where the other soldiers at least died. Is there a better correlative image in Stone’s entire oeuvre than the crane shot over the Wilson family home, where Ron has confessed to killing new recruit, their nineteen year old son William, in the dunes of Nam as the sun flared during an ambush, then he is wheeled away by a helper amid the scraps and detritus dumped in their yard and the leafy branches fade into a fluttering stars and stripes – and we are plunged into more police brutality at the 1972 Republican convention where he has joined the protest movement? This is elegant filmmaking. It is not without its humour or self-awareness. Ron has finally had his cherry broken by a Mexican whore in a sequence of T&A that reunites Stone with Willem Defoe who welcomes him to this sick paradise and he thinks it’s love – but hides his gift for her when he realises sex with a cripple is just a job for her. These vets’ wheelchair-off is a salve for those of us who might have liked to see one between Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, who beat him to an Academy Award that year (DDL gurned more). I’ve never been back to Massapequa or that cruddy restaurant but Stephen Baldwin has a small role as a schoolfriend, Tom Berenger gets him to join up, Frank Whaley is the other surviving vet who helps Ron out of his doomladen hole and Kyra Sedgwick is the gorgeous girl he loved so much he ran through the rain to dance with her at the Prom and she turns him on to the anti-war crusade. Cruise is simply great, giving a complete performance from boy to man in a narrative which exemplifies the art of juxtaposition and emotional arcs. This is cinema, utterly moving and indignant and humane. Watch it and weep.

Metropolitan (1990)

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When a down on his luck student gets taken up by a clique calling themselves The Sally Fowler Rat Pack he sees another aspect of the rarefied debutante season in winter on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Whit Stillman’s warm and deftly witty debut is a low budget surprise (financed by selling his apartment) and based on his own experiences home from college living with his divorced mother back in 1970 (his father had worked for JFK). Tom Townsend (Edward Clements)  is the wan ginger protagonist who used to be a trust fund kid before his parents divorce but now can’t afford a decent overcoat and is still pining for his ex, socialite Serena (Ellia Thompson).  Audrey (Carolyn Farina, a brunette preppie Molly Ringwald) has a crush on him that he doesn’t acknowledge. She’s a passionate Jane Austen fan, he’s only read criticism (that’s a funny exchange). Nick (Chris Eigeman) eggs on his new protege while dissing the very girl he himself is sleeping with; Serena is involved with the awful Rick (Will Kempe); and now Sally Fowler (Dylan Hundley) may be falling for him. Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) is not convinced that Tom is worthy of Audrey and is the naysayer in the group. But when Audrey and Sally get caught up in a plan to spend time at despicable Rick’s in West Hampton someone has to come riding to the rescue (in a yellow taxi).  This is a very winning comedy of manners  (and the screenplay was given a nod at the Academy Awards) which weaves Austen references in so subtly you get surprised when you see motor cars on the streets of Manhattan. Eigeman is fantastic and gets the lion’s share of the best lines which are mostly thrown away in drifts of sentences so that you have to watch this twice to catch some of them (not a problem). My favourite? Playing strip poker with an exhibitionist somehow takes the challenge away. Bliss.

The Godfather (1971)

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Make him an offer he can’t refuse. Go to the mattresses. Leave the gun, take the cannolis. The Godfather is truly the I Ching, non vero? Mario Puzo’s novel is gripping but kinda schlocky, Francis Ford Coppola saw a way to imbue it with a kind of classicism at a time when the few Mafia movies that had been made were really just cheap-ish thrillers. The story is that of family, brothers, inheritance, murder and mayhem. If you do the Paramount Studios tour (and I thoroughly recommend it) you can see the NYC set where Michael takes out the crooked cop and the rival who’s tried to assassinate his father Don Vito – a friend obsessed with production design asked me if the floor (tiled) was still there and I had to disappoint them. But it was a thrill. Because no matter how many times you see this film it lures you in, just like they do Sonny to the tollbooth on the Causeway (jeez, the first time I saw this I didn’t go to bed till 2 in the morning. The image of James Caan being rattled like a ragdoll under machine gunfire is unforgettable and horrible. Never mind the horse’s head…)  Watching Pacino transform from the good youngest son to the efficiently vengeful killing machine is really something – his movement under the greatcoat and bowler at the movie’s end makes you weep, and that closing shot, when his wife is literally shut out in that long shot … Oh, I feel like I’m turning into Edward G. Robinson:  Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?!  Coppola did a fine job in making over the material so that you feel like you’re watching a parable about America rather than a tale of scuzzy mobsters. But he knew mid-production there was a scene missing and so he asked screenwriter and script doctor Robert Towne to help him out: the result being the garden scene when the Don is handing over the family business to the war hero son he thought would become a Senator. You can read about that in my book about Towne: https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472425177&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon. What a fabulous film.

North by Northwest (1959)

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Alfred Hitchcock wanted to acquire the rights to Graham Greene’s scintillating Cold War (predictive) satire, Our Man in Havana. But Greene was disgusted by what Joe Mankiewicz had recently done with his Vietnam novel, The Quiet American, utterly reversing its political critique, and demurred. Hitchcock was in a rut and his only go project was an adaptation of The Wreck of the Mary Deare but got nowhere in his meetings with screenwriter Ernest Lehman. He really wanted to make a movie with all his usual tropes, starting with an innocent man caught in a case of mistaken identity, culminating in a cliffhanger at Lincoln’s nose on Mount Rushmore. Lehman took his work seriously and travelled across the United States, starting at the United Nations in NYC and finishing at the Presidential monument. And what a ride this is, the first ever movie to mention the CIA, then enjoying a decade of interventionist invasions, coups and takeovers with nary a word in the collaborationist media. Thus we have heavy drinking Mad Man Cary Grant mistaken for a (decoy) spy as he has a drink with colleagues (A Most Unusual Day is the muzak playing in the hotel lobby) and chased all over the place, from suave James Mason’s Long Island mansion in Glen Cove (homaged in Eyes Wide Shut), fingered for murder in the Delegates’ Lounge at the UN, meeting cute with Eva Marie Saint on a train ride, chased by a crop-dusting plane in cornfields, to (literally) hanging out of Mount Rushmore. It’s all about a piece of microfilm  and fake spies, but nobody cares. This is extraordinary, audacious filmmaking, with everyone concerned at the top of their game, from the cinematographer Robert Burks, to editor George Tomasini, composer Bernard Herrmann who gifts it with a marvellous score and the classic title sequence designed by Saul Bass, to Cary Grant, who couldn’t have been more sophisticated if he tried. Did anyone ever look better in a grey suit? Hitchcock made a series of serious spy films in the 1960s, attempting to deflate the ironic effect of this film – it bred James Bond (Hitchcock was the first choice to direct Dr No) and a host of camp imitators. The audience didn’t like the realism that was John le Carre’s signature being hoicked onto Hitchcock’s style and despite the success of the star-led Torn Curtain, the director’s influence began to diminish. Yet we are in constant danger of underestimating his importance. With this, the action film was born:  an attractive hero, an innuendo-laden romance with a dubious woman, staggering standalone setpieces, and all the while tongue firmly in cheek while satirising contemporary politics at large in a film with a crazy plot that nobody cares about but which physically acknowledges the audience, De Mille-style. The only letdown nowadays is the impossibility of seeing it in VistaVision – what an amazing experience that must have been in 1959. Dazzling.

Something’s Gotta Give (2003)

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Jack. Diane. How much do we love Nancy Meyers? She wrote it for them and boy do they make it their own. He’s Harry Sanborn, rap mogul, dating art dealer Marin (Amanda Peet) and he has a heart attack at her mother’s Long Island beachfront property as they’re about to consummate their new relationship. Mom just happens to be Erica Barry, the Broadway playwright. He finds himself sequestered there by doc Keanu Reeves, unwillingly falling for  a woman of his own age for the very first time. She’s got writer’s block and objects to him on every level, except … she never meets anyone outside of work and now she’s got this horrible old guy after her and Keanu fancies her too. Meyers admitted that she wrote this from the experience of feeling invisible following her divorce from Charles Shyer, her husband, directing, writing and producing partner of a quarter of a century, and this is all about figuring out how to integrate your personal experiences into an art form when everything goes to hell in a handcart. Keaton’s scene at her computer when she ranges from tearful rage to hilarity as she writes her next hit play starring Harry, her new subject – replete with a row of his avatars with their rears on view to the world in the hospital replay on Broadway – is brilliantly written, directed and played.  She’s a great romantic heroine and you can bet with Meyers there’s a twist or two to the narrative – irony and genre-twisting being her speciality. Erica manages to be an unhappy emotional vampire for whom we root. Art imitates life and then some. This has a transformational arc that’s equal parts Pygmalion and Cinderella. If you want to read more on her work, I’ve written a book about her films:   https://www.amazon.com/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1474803514&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.