Double Indemnity (1944)

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It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets roped into a murderous scheme when he falls for the sensual Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who is intent on killing her husband (Tom Powers) by arranging his ‘accidental death’ and living off the fraudulent accidental death claim. Prompted by the late Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), insurance investigator and Neff’s mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) looks into the case, and gradually begins to uncover the truth… Staggering film noir, this early masterpiece from director Billy Wilder boasts a screenplay co-written (sort of) with Raymond Chandler, adapted from the James M. Cain story Three of a Kind. Rarely has the sensibility of a filmmaker been so attuned to the material in such crystalline fashion:  in this treatise on corruption, crime, sex, adultery and murder the casting plays to all the character strengths with Wilder seeing in the light actor MacMurray something infinitely schlemiel-like, sleazy and vulnerable.  It is literally picture-perfect, offering us a visual and psychological template for noir, a story told in flashback, shot on location all over Los Angeles, from Jerry’s Market to the Chateau Marmont, Glendale Station to the Hollywood Bowl, with venetian blinds, curling cigarette smoke and tilted fedoras filling out the emotional space shot by DoP John Seitz. Did a city ever feel so lonesome? Stanwyck was never better – dolled up in a blonde wig with bangs and an ankle bracelet begging to be opened, this is one of the fatalest femmes ever on screen. Robinson is fantastic as the fatherly man who unravels this story of the blackest of hearts, while this study of behaviour is decorated with the kind of dialogue that you savour forever. How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Classsic Hollywood, in every possible sense of that term.

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Move Over Darling (1963)

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Suppose Mr Arden’s wife came back, like Irene Dunne done. Did. Five years after her disappearance at sea, Nicky Arden (James Garner) is in the process of having his wife declared dead so he can marry his new fiancée Bianca (Polly Bergen) when Ellen (Doris Day) materialises and the honeymoon is delayed but Nick finds out Ellen wasn’t alone on the island after the shipwreck after all …  A remake of one of the greatest screen comedies starring two of my favourite people? You had me at hello! This got partly remade as Something’s Got To Give with Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin but got put on hold.  Her premature death led to this iteration of Enoch Arden and My Favorite Wife, which was written by Samuel and Bella Spewack and Leo McCarey (upon whom Cary Grant modelled much of his suave screwball persona for their collaboration on The Awful Truth, another ingenious marital sex comedy.) Arnold Schulman, Nunnally Johnson and Walter Bernstein reworked that screenplay for the Monroe version (she agreed to star in it because of Johnson, and then George Cukor had it rewritten which upset her greatly); and then Hal Kanter and Jack Sher wrote this.  We can blame Tennyson for the original. The set for the Arden home was the same from the Monroe version and it was based on Cukor’s legendarily luxurious Hollywood digs. We even get to spend time at the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Garner and Day are brilliantly cast and work wonderfully well together, making this one of the biggest hits of its year (it was released on Christmas Day). They had proven their chemistry on The Thrill of it All and make for a crazy good looking couple. With Thelma Ritter as Nicky’s mom, Chuck Connors as the island Adam, and Don Knotts, Edgar Buchanan and John Astin rounding out the cast, we’re in great hands. The title song, co-written by Day’s son Terry Melcher and arranged by Jack Nitzsche, was a monster. Terrific, slick, funny blend of farce and sex comedy, this censor-baiting entertainment is of its time but wears it well. Directed by Michael Gordon.

The Disaster Artist (2017)

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Just because you want it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.  In mid-1990s San Francisco acting wannabe Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) encounters the wild and unusual Tommy Wiseau in improv class.  Wiseau has an impenetrable accent, wads of cash and looks like a vampire.  When Greg screens Rebel Without a Cause for Tommy he’s blown away and immediately drives them down to Cholame to the scene of James Dean’s fatal crash.They throw in their lot to move to LA where he owns another property and Greg gets an agent while Tommy alienates the rich and famous. He decides to write his own movie for them to make together and funds it from his account ‘literally a bottomless pit’ as a teller regales producer Seth Rogen who plays the film’s script supervisor. He does everything but learn his lines and throws hissy fits lasting days particularly when Greg moves out to live with his actress girlfriend Amber (Alison Brie) who gets him a guest role on Malcolm in the Middle after they run into Bryan Cranston at Canter’s but Tommy makes him turn it down.  Tommy fires crew and he and Greg have a monster argument.  Months later Greg is back in theatre and the premier of The Room beckons. It promises to be horrendous so will Greg even attend? … The true story (adapted from Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book) of how a vaguely paranoid European immigrant to the US made a terrible vanity project film starring himself with his best friend Greg Sestero and unintentionally became a cult hero.  The genetically gifted Franco brothers (James played James Dean in the 2001 biopic, Dave looks more like Montgomery Clift with the passing years) have some serious bromance moments here. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the major irony here is perhaps that just as Tommy needed to take a step back and learn his lines, perhaps this production was just a tad hamstrung by his approval of the film in the first place so director/star James Franco never goes totally mediaeval on us although he gives it the old college try. The credits sequence is like a blooper reel – with a split screen showing us just how precise the film within the film is including the anatomically incorrect sex scene. Maybe it’s not the crazy fest you expect but it’s a charming tribute to the madness that is required to get movies made particularly when you’re paying for them yourself.

That’s Not Me (2017)

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I don’t want to be half of something. Polly Cuthbert (Alice Foulcher) dreams of making it as an actor but she’s very picky and when her agent advises her to take the role of an albino on a popular soap opera she turns it down because ‘it would be like blacking up.’ She’s holding out for an audition on an HBO show with Jared Leto. She keeps on working as a checkout girl at a cinema. Her less talented but commercially minded (literally!) identical twin Amy takes the soap role instead and gets the audition with Leto and becomes famous. Polly’s dreams are shattered and she’s mistaken for her famous sister at every turn, and she scrambles to catch up – juggling terrible auditions (where she’s mistaken for Amy), painfully awkward dates and her underwhelming job. Running out of options, she takes an ill-advised trip to the coalface of celebrity dreams: Los Angeles, California where she’s months late for pilot season and rooms with an old drama school friend who had a tiny role in a David Lynch film.  There Polly begins to realise that maybe there’s no such thing as ‘making it’ after all and she comes back to Oz after two terrible days and takes advantage of people who believe she’s Amy – until she gets found out and winds up on the front of a scandal mag … Terrific comedy dealing with a quarter-life crisis in a brilliantly conceived twins psychodrama – why does Polly even want to act, asks a clearly impoverished Zoe Cooper (Isabel Lucas) when she turns up at her doorstep in LA and reveals her own spiralling madness as she empties fish heads on a studio desk in an attempt to get a role in an all-female remake of Jaws? Because her parents told her she could, whimpers Polly. It’s just not good enough:  she hasn’t even acted in anything since 2011. Her sister Amy exacts a wonderful revenge which turns on her ability to act – and it’s ideal. Wonderfully judged script by Foulcher and debut feature director Gregory Erdstein in a story that’s tonally right at every turn. It’s no accident that Polly’s favourite film is It’s a Wonderful Life:  let’s not forget (as she she has) that it’s all about someone giving up on their dreams to live a suicidally depressing utterly humdrum life. Foulcher is fantastic.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

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Gorgeous mouth. You knew you’d get sore lips walking her home.  Wannabe actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) is rooming in Primrose Hill in 1978 when he’s introduced to the girl next door who just happens to be former movie star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening). He teaches her disco dancing and they swiftly embark on an affair that takes him to New York and California where she lives in a trailer overlooking the ocean. They split up when her absences raise his suspicions but a couple of years later he receives a call that she’s collapsed while performing in a play and Gloria ends up living in his family’s Liverpool home with himself and his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) and it appears she is now desperately ill … Turner’s memoir was published many years ago in the aftermath of Grahame’s death and the almost too good to be true story receives a very sympathetic adaptation to the screen, erotic and poignant, wistful and revealing. Artfully told backwards and forwards with inventive visual transitions, Bening and Bell give marvellously empathetic performances in a film that revels in its theatre and movie references, with particular homage paid to Bogey (Grahame’s co-star in In a Lonely Place) and Romeo and Juliet, which she so wanted to play on stage and whose romantic tragedy proves appropriate for the penultimate scene. Turner knew so little about Grahame he had to wait to see her onscreen at a retrospective watching Naked Alibi as Grahame sat beside him. Their first date is at Alien during which he nearly barfs with fear and she screams with laughter. Twenty-nine years and a lifetime of cinema and marriages (four, plus four children) separate them and their arguments (spurred by her discovery of cancer which she conceals from him) split them up and somehow she wants to spend her final days in the bosom of his loud Liverpudlian family. His parents put off their trip to Australia to see their oldest offspring, while brother Joe (Stephen Graham) objects to her monopolising of the family home. Bening captures her tics – some very good use of her famous mouth in particular scenes, some adept and brittle posing, and great attitude. Her own mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is a true thespian while her sister Joy (Frances Barber) tells Peter the reality of Gloria’s much-married past (he had no idea she’d scandalously married her stepson). That triggers mutual revelations of bisexuality. Both the leads have to play the gamut of emotions, till near death do they part as they are driven by their desire for each other and their fractious situation. Adapted by Matt Greenhalgh and directed by Paul McGuigan, this is a rather splendid look at what could happen to Hollywood stars when the machine spat them out and they were the unemployed victims of rancid rumours spread by way of explanation; but it’s also a deeply felt account of an unlikely relationship which was a true friendship at its core between a vulnerable woman who wanted to be treated decently and the first man to treat her with respect. Elegant.

Book Club (2018)

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 If women our age were meant to have sex God wouldn’t do what he does to our bodies. Four friends in Los Angeles, widowed Diane (Diane Keaton), hotel owner Vivian (Jane Fonda), divorced federal judge Sharon (Candice Bergen) and married chef Carol (Mary Steenburgen) have had a book club for thirty years and this month’s choice is Fifty Shades of Grey. It causes them all to re-evaluate their unhappy sex and romantic lives. Diane agrees to a date with a pilot (Andy Garcia) she meets on an aeroplane journey which offers a pleasing diversion from her two daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) nagging her to move to their basement in Arizona (bizarre).  Vivian hooks up with Arthur (Don Johnson) the radio producer she didn’t marry forty years earlier.  Sharon goes on dates with men she meets online.  Carol hasn’t had sex with newly retired Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) in six months and their dance classes fizzle out. As the women read the next books in the trilogy their lives become more complicated … There are some frankly strange story issues here and I don’t just mean E.L. James’ source books: Diane’s daughters’ behaviour is literally unbelievable, even for a comedy (and the pregnant one doesn’t even give birth by the end, probably a good thing);  Sharon’s second date doesn’t actually materialise (with Wallace Shawn); and we never see any of them doing the deed (part of the thesis about ender relationships).   However there are pluses:  there are great innuendo-ridden exchanges, particularly in the first half, when sex really is on the table. Fonda makes a meal of them: I don’t sleep with people I like, you know that. I gave that up in the 90’s. As in life, when emotions get in the way the dialogue dips a lot which is ironic considering this is about book lovers, as it were (insert your own Fifty Shades joke here – and E.L. James and her husband even make a short appearance).   The production design (Rachel O’Toole) and cinematography (Andrew Dunn) enhance a film fuelled by female star power (the men are mostly useless) with some very nice shots of the Santa Monica Pier and the Painted Desert to liven up your ageist horizons.  Written by debut director Bill Holderman with Erin Simms who presumably wanted us all to experience some kind of late life fake orgasm.

Trumbo (2015)

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You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy.  In the early Forties in Hollywood Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is the highest paid scriptwriter but he’s also a member of the Communist Party. In a 1947 purge led by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott) Trumbo and several of his fellow writers are hounded into appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington where they go off-script and ten of them wind up being imprisoned and their careers are ruined. When they get out they have to rebuild and face down their betrayers as they scrabble to write for the black market … Adapted from Bruce Cook’s biography of the blacklisted screenwriter, this is so good on so many levels. It takes a relatively complex history of the Hollywood anti-communist campaign and makes it understandable and it comprehensively names all the people who were behind it as well as communicating the terrible fear that descended upon the creative industries when what America was really fighting was creeping liberalism (which it learned decades later and which was also feared by the communists). It accurately portrays the documented differences among the Hollywood Ten and how they were perceived by their peers (not entirely positively especially following their self-aggrandising performances at the HUAC hearings) and the terrible compromises and betrayals between friends:  Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) didn’t work for a year and gave names of those men already behind bars. How to win against the oppressive Hollywood machine drives so much of their post-prison experience – sue them like the composite figure of Arlen Hird (Louis CK) wants to do? or do what they’re good at and beat the bastards at their own game? like Trumbo does – and how apposite that Trumbo was selected to rewrite Spartacus after winning the Oscar for both Roman Holiday and The Brave One under a front and then a pseudonym. What raises this again above other films dramatising the same situation is the sheer wit and brio with which it is written and performed – which you’d frankly expect of anything with Trumbo’s name attached:  kudos to John McNamara. It also clarifies the extent to which this was a self-administered situation – these guys were screwed over by the studios voluntarily, not Government decree. Cranston is perfect in the role which is suffused with sadness and smarts and he embodies the writer we all really want to be – smoking like a train, drinking like a fish, tranked up on benzedrine and writing in the bathtub. A wonderfully ironic touch for a man who didn’t wallow. It’s wonderful to watch him deal with his daughter Nicola (Elle Fanning) become as politicised as him and he must assume a different parental role as she matures:  he admires her but he can’t be disturbed to get out of the tub and celebrate her birthday because he’s got a deadline.  There are great scenes:  when Trumbo notices that Robinson sold a Van Gogh to pay for the writers’ legal defence;  the writing of the cheapie scripts for the King Brothers. This is a complicated portrait of a fascinating and contradictory individual. Diane Lane has a thankless and almost dialogue-free part as his brilliant wife Cleo but her charismatic presence transforms her scenes:  she is duly thanked by Trumbo in the film’s final scene in 1970 during a Writers Guild ceremony. John Goodman is fantastic as the Poverty Row producer Frank King who meets a Motion Picture Alliance thug with a baseball bat and leaves him in no doubt as to what will happen if he gets the way of his hiring Trumbo because he’s in the business for money and pussy and doesn’t care about politics.  There’s a fantastic scene sequence that illustrates the different working methodologies of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger:  Trumbo played them off one against the other to get his credits restored. The best tragicomic moment is perhaps in the clink when Trumbo encounters his nemesis J. Parnell Thomas who’s been imprisoned for a real crime – tax evasion. Trumbo was however convicted of one thing – contempt. He was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and this film does not shirk from that fact.  Directed sensitively and with panache by Jay Roach who has made a film that is literate, eloquent and humane. I am Spartacus.

Girl Flu (2017)

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I’m never going to have kids. I already have my mom. Robin aka (Baby) Bird (Jade Pettyjohn) moves from the San Fernando Valley burbs to the hipster Echo Park neighbourhood to housesit her grandmother’s home with her selfish stoner waitress mom Jenny (Katee Sackhoff). She has to become a woman whether she wants to or not when she gets her first period in the middle of a sixth grade picnic and the meanest of the mean girls Rachel (Isabella Acres) bullies her. She finds herself abandoned in ignorance and finds out how to deal with the blood letting from Mom’s friend Lili (Heather Matarazzo).  Mom’s boyfriend Arlo (Jeremy Sisto) tries to help the flaky Jenny to grow up:  it’s not happening to you!  he tells her as she wallows in self-indulgence, fatally unsuited to being a mother.  Bird finds out that she’ll never be able to return to the Valley but she has new friends here, against the odds even as she goes through the worst week in living memory … Sharp and funny on a gross-out topic, the writing and directing debut of actress and story consultant Dorie Barton is a refreshing and very impressive blast boasting seriously charming performances in a new twist on mother-daughter dramedy. While Grandma is blithely Skyping from an ashram in India (ensuring we know why her daughter is useless at being a mother) Jenny leaves Arlo to pick up the family’s pieces and even pretend to be Bird’s boyfriend when the bullies threaten. My mother is a narcissist and my father is a workaholic, he tells Lilli. That figures, she retorts. Smart, well written and a really authentic comedy of embarrassment and growing up the hard way. I want a real mom.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

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Color me gone! A mechanic (Dennis Wilson) and a driver (James Taylor) live only to race and maintain their grey 1955 Chevy. Heading east from California with no particular agenda, they give a girl (Laurie Bird) a ride, and en route she incites jealousy between the men by sleeping with them both. Meanwhile, the trio encounters an overbearing 1970 Pontiac GTO driver (Warren Oates) who makes up stories about his life and agrees to race them to New York, each side putting at stake their most prized possession: their car… Stunningly shot (by Gregory Sandor though credited to union member Jack Deerson), almost dialogue-free, this seminal road movie (when that term really meant something) is a showcase of cinematic poetry in motion exhibiting the performing talents of two of the most important music stars of the era. Taciturnity is their mojo as they engage in this eastern, a reversal of the traditional drift of men across the continent, living in the moment.  Oates is remarkable as the man living his own personal fantasy. It helps if you’re a car freak but it’s not necessary. This is a study of a society without a point. Turn on. Tune in. Drop out. Directed by Monte Hellman from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer (who plays a hot rod driver), Will Corry and uncredited contributions from Floyd Mutrux. Absolutely iconic.

CHiPS (2017)

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Aka CHiPS:  Law and Disorder. If you haven’t been fucking your wife in over a year then somebody else has! Jon Baker (writer/director Dax Shepard) and Frank ‘Ponch’ Poncherello (Michael Peña) have just joined the California Highway Patrol in Los Angeles, but for very different reasons. Baker is a former pro-motorbike rider who’s trying to put his life and marriage to Karen (Kristen Bell aka Mrs Shepard) back together. He’s utterly hopeless at everything else and has to score in the top 10% in citations amongst other criteria just to keep his head above water.  Poncherello is a cocky undercover FBI agent who’s investigating a multimillion dollar armoured car heist that may be an inside job. Forced to work together, the inexperienced rookie and hardened veteran begin clashing instead of clicking while trying to nab the bad guys. Baker is phobic and allergic with a history of extraordinary injuries and whose motorsickle skills are literally lifesaving. Ponch is a sex maniac who has a history of shooting at his partners to save thugs. They literally complete each other  … In contrast with a lot of quasi-parodic TV show sendups this adaptation of the beloved show actually has a life of its own – deftly utilising the contrasting buddy structure to tackle racism, homophobia, marriage, locker room behaviour and sex in the most outrageously downbeat and self-deprecating way possible which can only be a good thing and it’s relentlessly good-natured even when the junkie son of villainous corrupt cop Ray Kurtz  (Vincent D’Onofrio) is being decapitated. Even so, it still revels in sexism but it’s hard to dislike.  Peña and Shepard play extremely well off each other and with Mrs S in the cast alongside another Veronica Mars alum (Ryan Hansen) in the large ensemble plus Jane Kaczmarek as a randy Captain and Maya Rudolph (uncredited) as a recruiter there’s a lot of fun to be had.  There’s fantastic use of Los Angeles as location and overall it’s an enjoyable if lowbrow entertainment. Shepard can act and write and direct. Triple threat! Good to see Erik Estrada in the concluding scene. Memories are made of this…