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 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

Bugsy (1991)

Bugsy

I don’t go by what other men have done. Gangster Ben ‘Bugsy’ Siegel (Warren Beatty), who works for Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) and Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano (Bill Graham), goes west to Los Angeles and falls in love with Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) a tough-talking Hollywood starlet who has slept around with several men, as he is regularly reminded by his pals, who he meets on a film set where his friend George Raft (Joe Mantegna) is the lead.  He buys a house in Beverly Hills and shops at all the best tailors and furnishes his house beautifully while his wife Esta (Wendy Phillips) and young daughters remain in Scarsdale, New York. His job is to wrest control back of betting parlours currently run by Jack Dragna (Richard Sarafian) but life is complicated when Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) robs one of his places – Bugsy decides to go into business with him instead of punishing him and puts him in charge of casinos, while Dragna is forced to admit to a raging Bugsy that he stole $14,000, and is told he now answers to Cohen. On a trip to a deadbeat casino in the desert Bugsy dreams up an idea for a casino to end all casinos, named after Virginia (Flamingo), bringing the stars to Nevada but the costs overrun dramatically and his childhood friend Lansky is not happy particularly when it seems Bugsy might be aware that Virginia has cooked the books … Looks matter if it matters how you look. Warren Beatty’s long-cherished project was written by James Toback and Beatty micro-managed the writing and production and the result is one of the most powerful and beautiful films of the Nineties:  a picture of America talking to itself, with a gangster for a visionary at its fulcrum, building a kingdom in the desert as though through damascene conversion while being seduced by Hollywood and its luminaries, watching his own screen test the most entertaining way to spend an evening other than having sex. It sows the seeds of his destruction because his inspiration is his thrilling and volatile lover and making her happy and making a name for himself but it’s also a profoundly political film for all that, as with most of Beatty’s work. It’s undoubtedly personal on many levels too not least because the legendarily promiscuous man known as The Pro in movie circles impregnated his co-star Bening who was already showing before production ended. They married after she had his baby and have remained together since. His avocation of the institution is an important part of the narrative and gangsterism is a version of family here too but he chases tail, right into an elevator and straight to his penthouse too. Perhaps he wants to show us how it’s done by the nattiest dresser in town. It’s a statement about how a nation came to be but unlike The Godfather films it’s one that demonstrates how the idea literally reflects the image of the man who dreams it up in all his vainglory:  he enjoys nothing more than checking his hair in the glass when he’s kicking someone half to death (perhaps a metaphor too far). He is a narcissist to the very end, charming and totally ruthless while Ennio Morricone gives him a tragic signature tune. Impeccably made and kind of great with outstanding performances by Beatty, Bening and Kingsley. Directed by Barry Levinson. I have found the answer to the dream of America

Driven (2018)

Driven 2018

A flying car that can’t fucking fly! FBI informant Jim Hoffman (Jason Sudeikis) is in trouble with the agency and Benedict Tisa (Corey Stoll) has him on tap to give information about drug trafficker Morgan Hetrick (Michael Cudlitz) after he’s been caught flying cocaine for him. He’s living under witness protection with wife Ellen (Judy Greer) in a ritzy San Diego neighbourhood and his next door neighbour happens to be the charismatic former General Motors magnate John DeLorean (Lee Pace) who lives with former model Cristina Ferrara (Isabel Arraiza) and is dreaming of building his own futuristic car. The couples socialise and Jim ingratiates himself into a friendship with the designer as he negotiates deals and suddenly decides to open a factory in Northern Ireland in the middle of The Troubles:  Do you know how many people were murdered there last year? Ninety! Do you know how many people were murdered in Detroit last year? Nine hundred! But when his former secretary Molly (Tara Summers) goes public with information about his offshore accounts, the British Government withdraws funding and he’s in deep financial trouble. Jim comes up with an idea to save John’s skin but it’s really to save his own – to buy cocaine from Hetrick in order to rescue the factory means he can settle scores with the FBI but it means betraying DeLorean in an undercover sting for cocaine trafficking… In the America I grew up in a man was defined by the job that he did. For anyone born within an ass’s roar of Northern Ireland the name DeLorean conjures up a misty-eyed recollection of when bad times were kinda good because Belfast was home to his car manufacturing for a spell. So it’s appropriate that two men from that locale (who previously collaborated on The Journey) make this biographical film about the FBI sting that almost took DeLorean down when the British Government reneged on their deal to make the most inspiring car that ever made it into movies. Screenwriter Colin Bateman is of course a gifted comic novelist, while Nick Hamm has made several films in different genres in his time and it’s nicely staged, looks great and only has a hint of the tragedy it really is, kept buoyant with a vague ridiculousness that makes you keep asking yourself how this ever happened. Sudeikis scores as the slippery informant whose conscience only works some of the time although he’s a lightweight actor and sometimes the complexity doesn’t hit home when the comedy turns serious. Pace plays DeLorean as part-mystic, part-showman, part chinless con-man and the final twist is one to savour. In some ways this is worth watching just to see the tonsorially challenged Stoll don a frightwig. But mainly, it’s all about the car that brought us all back to the future and the man who dreamed it up. It’s not all true, but it might be and you wish it could have turned out differently. Co-written by Alejandro Carpio.  I will be remembered. My car will be remembered. Our scuzzy coke deal won’t be remembered

L.A. Story (1991)

LA Story

Why is it that we don’t always recognize the moment when love begins but we always know when it ends? Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin) has the easiest job in the world: he’s a TV weatherman in Los Angeles, where the weather is so predictable he tapes his ‘wacky’ forecasts days in advance. Bored with his job, his life and his relationship with longtime girlfriend Trudi (Marilu Henner), foundering while she carries on an affair with a colleague Frank Swan (Kevin Pollak), Harris begins to receive secret messages from an electronic freeway sign near his home, which lead him to pursue romance with a married British journalist Sara (Victoria Tennant) doing a story on LA lifestyles and a vapid young model SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker). Sara doesn’t want to let down her ex-husband Roland Mackey (Richard E. Grant) but Harris believes she could be his source of happiness … Let us just say I was deeply unhappy, but I didn’t know it because I was so happy all the time. Written by Martin and directed by Mick Jackson, this pleasantly zany romcom perfectly encapsulates what many believe to be true of a certain kind of social scene in Los Angeles, an updated take on Cyra McFadden’s earlier self-help satire Serial, perhaps, with fads and fashions plucked from the air like oranges from trees or aphorisms from freeway signs. If it never hits the comic heights you would expect from Martin, this is a Valentine to the city, an observational fantasy that sees contentment as a home run while a certain kind of busy wit unspools through these characters’ lives...it’s not what I expected. It’s a place where they’ve taken a desert and turned it into their dreams. I’ve seen a lot of L.A. and I think it’s also a place of secrets: secret houses, secret lives, secret pleasures. And no one is looking to the outside for verification that what they’re doing is all right. Not quite the Odyssey Harris’ name suggests but an intriguing and insightful journey nonetheless, with an outstanding soundtrack which will practically bring tears to the eyes of Nineties kids. Ordinarily, I don’t like to be around interesting people because it means I have to be interesting too

Father of the Bride (1991)

Father of the Bride 1991

From that moment on I decided to shut my mouth and go with the flow. Los Angeles-based shoe factory proprietor George Banks (Steve Martin) leads the perfect life with his wife Nina (Diane Keaton), beloved twentysomething student architect daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams) and little son Mattie (Kieran Culkin). However, when Annie returns from her semester in Rome with Bryan Mackenzie (George Newbern) her new fiancé in tow, he has a hard time letting go of her. George makes a show of himself when he and Nina meet Bryan’s parents at their palatial Hollywood home; then Nina and Annie plan a grand celebration with bizarre wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer (Martin Short) and the costs escalate wildly to the point where George believes the entire scheme is a conspiracy against him … It’s very nice. We’ll change it all though. Let’s go! This remake and update of the gold-plated classical Hollywood family comedy is much modernised by husband and wife writer/director Charles Shyer and screenwriter Nancy Meyers but retains a good heart. Carried by a marvellous cast with Martin superb in a difficult role – sentimental and farcical in equal measure as he confronts a crisis triggered by the loss of his darling little girl to another man!  – his voiceover narration is perfectly pitched between loss, self-pitying acceptance and mockery. It’s interesting to see Meyers lookalike Keaton back in the camp after Baby Boom (and not for the last time).  The early Nineties era of comedy is well represented with Short side-splitting as the insufferable but indispensable wedding planner with his impenetrable strangulated locutions; and Eugene Levy has a nice bit auditioning as a wedding singer. The ironies abound including the car parking issue forcing George to miss the whole thing; and the first snowfall in Los Angeles in 36 years that means the absurd swans have to be kept warm in a bathtub (if nothing else, a brilliant visual moment). The updating includes giving Annie a career and given the dramatic significance of homes in Meyers’ work it’s apt that she is (albeit briefly) an architect – a homemaker of a different variety. George and Nina’s marriage is a great relationship model without being sickening – a tribute to the spot-on performing by the leads in a scenario that has more than one outright slapstick sequence – meeting the future in-laws at their outrageous mansion is a highlight. Adapted by Meyers & Shyer from the original screenplay written by another husband and wife team, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, which was adapted from Edward Streeter’s novel. The eagle-eyed will spot the filmmakers’ children Hallie and Annie as Williams’ flower girls. Hallie has of course continued in the business and is a now a writer/director herself. Hugely successful, this was followed four years later by an amusing sequel. For more on this you can read my book about Nancy Meyers:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1? dchild=1&keywords=elaine+lennon+pathways+of+desire&qid=1588162542&s=books&sr=1-1. Directed by Charles Shyer. That’s when it hit me like a Mack Truck. Annie was like me and Brian was like Nina. They were a perfect match

Along Came Polly (2004)

Along Came Polly

I’ve found the perfect woman. Risk-averse insurance company risk assessor Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller) takes a chance on marrying his ideal woman, realtor Lisa Kramer (Debra Messing) but she has an affair with nudist scuba instructor Claude (Hank Azaria) on the first day of their St Bart’s honeymoon. His best friend actor Sandy Lyle (Philip Seymour Hoffman) known from his bagpipe-playing role in an 80s teen movie advises him to play the field and at a gallery opening they encounter their junior school classmate Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston) now working as a waitress. He asks her out and finds his life taking a different turn when they date because she’s a kook who tries everything (including Latin dancing and Middle Eastern food) but commits to nothing while his buttoned-up persona descends into a kind of undone madness by association. Meanwhile he has to assess daredevil accident-prone businessman Leland Van Lew (Bryan Brown) who is forever leaving a trail of destruction behind him but represents a great deal of money to the firm run by Stan Indursky (Alec Baldwin). Chaos ensues when Lisa returns to reconcile with Reuben and he has to make decisions that don’t depend on his Risk Master technology … I can’t have thrown up 19 times in 48 days if I wasn’t in love with you. Writer-director John Hamburg was listening in screenwriting class because he pushes every single character to do the opposite of what their nature impels them to – with delightfully nutty comic results in this modern take on screwball, the ill-advised toilet humour notwithstanding (an issue arising from Reuben’s unfortunate Irritable Bowel Syndrome condition). Sure, there are cheap laughs, including Polly’s flatmate – her blind ferret Rodolpho – but all of the character flaws are cleverly turned into neat plot pivots: when Reuben’s silent dad Irving (Bob Dishy) finally speaks he talks only common sense and spins the plot into its final happy resolution, with Sandy letting go of his past and getting his greatest role, posing as Reuben so that Reuben can stop Polly from leaving the country, with Polly committing at last and Reuben ultimately taking a risk. It’s crazy but works because at its beating heart it’s dramatically logical. Great silly fun with Stiller and Aniston making for a tremendously charismatic couple in a story that makes neat references to The Breakfast Club and Friends. What kind of guy are you?

mid90s (2019)

Mid90s

A lot of the time we feel that our lives the worst, but I think that if you looked in anybody else’s closet, you wouldn’t trade your shit for their shit. So let’s go. Thirteen-year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is living in a tough home with his co-dependent mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and bullying older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). However he escapes through his love of skateboarding and when he befriends a local crew of older kids who like to get stoned, including Ray (Na-Kel Smith), Ruben (Gio Galicia), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) and Fuckshitt (Olan Prenatt), he learns to stop self-harming and become the person he is meant to be and finally stands up for himself …  You literally take the hardest hits out of anybody I’d ever seen in my life. You know you don’t have to do that, right? Told with affection and not a little verve, this is a winning writing/directing debut from actor Jonah Hill who owes a debt to Harmony Korine and Larry Clark (Kids) in terms of an almost affectless, naturalistic approach to this rites of passage tale about negotiating masculinity at a crucial time of formation. It benefits enormously from Suljic’s central performance which gives some ballast to a tough family dynamic. Waterston is very good as the single mom who tends to over-share;  Hedges delivers that typical dead-eyed inexpressivity as surely as his vicious fraternal punches when he’s wearing a Bill Clinton mask. But there is a certain joyousness among the skateboarding gang who live like teenage outlaws, a group united in their bad home lives but fractured by differing ambitions. When Stevie has his initiation into the joys of girls, Estee (Alexa Demie) expresses to her girlfriends what everyone thinks about him at this point – he has great hair. Another girl informs her that after what she’s let him do and see, He’ll worship you forever! This is mostly an episodic narrative, a slice of 90s life filled with authentic banter and silliness, punctuated with absurdism, violence and giggles. Sometimes your friends get you through everything, just by hanging out, zipping along the streets and along buildings on a wooden board while you tag along, stumbling, trying to keep up. Like life. You’re so cute. You’re, like, at that age before guys become dicks

Micki + Maude (1984)

Micki and Maude

I’m so hung over my head feels like a tuning fork. TV reporter Rob Salinger (Dudley Moore) desperately wants to be a father but his ambitious lawyer wife Micki (Ann Reinking) wants to be a judge and hasn’t time for a baby just now. When Rob has an affair with beautiful cellist Maude (Amy Irving) she shocks him when she informs him she’s pregnant and he determines to divorce Micki. But at the dinner he’s arranged to break the bad news Micki announces she’s finally pregnant and has to be on bed rest for the duration of the pregnancy.  Rob doesn’t want to ruin things so he marries Maude, pretending that he’s divorced Micki and lives with both women bigamously until their anticipated due dates coincide and they give birth in neighbouring suites at the same hospital … When Daddy retires he’s going to take up decorating full time. Blake Edwards’ marital comedy is heartwarming and funny and depends upon his usual quotient of farce although that is mostly confined to the final trimester of this battle of the sexes outing. John Pleshette is Rob’s TV director, looking and sounding not a little unlike Edwards himself;  Edwards’ ensemble regular Richard Mulligan plays Rob’s best friend, his TV producer; Wallace Shawn is a doctor; and there’s a wonderful Meet the Parents sequence when Rob is introduced to Maude’s father, Barkhas Guillory (H.B. Haggerty) a mean-looking wealthy wrestler who’s surrounded by much bigger colleagues like André the Giant. And he wants to buy the couple a house in the Hollywood Hills that he plans to decorate himself. In a film that could be purely stereotypical, this is turning some tropes upside down. And, in time-honoured fashion befitting a comedy expert, Edwards brings it all to a very satisfying, sincere conclusion, helped by Moore’s sweet performance as the politest bigamist in town. Great fun. Written by Jonathan Reynolds. It won’t get the fat gene

Gemini (2017)

Gemini 2017

I want to kill you right now. When Hollywood actress Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz) is shot dead in her home, LAPD Detective Ahn (John Cho) becomes suspicious of her assistant, Jill LeBeau (Lola Kirke) whose gun is found beside her boss’s body. Jill, on the other hand, decides to investigate on her own and clear her name, uncovering a list of suspects in a tricky web of relationships including Heather’s ex-boyfriend Devin (Reeve Carney), girlfriend Tracy (Heather Lee), agent Jamie (Michelle Forbes), producer Greg (Nelson Franklin) whose passion project is destroyed by Heather’s decision not to do it and then there’s her lookalike superfan stalker Sierra (Jessica Parker Kennedy)… You think you understood Heather. Written and directed by Aaron Katz, this noir-ish thriller stars two of the most interesting young actresses around and a nice setting – contemporary Hollywood. The story of the personal assistant has been done elsewhere – notably by Kristen Stewart, in a different context; and previously by Julia Roberts to Catherine Zeta-Jones’ romcom queen – and it’s a loaded gun of a premise with this hipster iteration complicated by murder. However it’s let down by underpowered writing which teases and suggests, extending to the occasionally oblique shooting style, and that means the twist doesn’t entirely carry the weighty intensity it ought. The shadow of Mulholland Drive falls far into this indie story’s LA dark night of the soul but it boasts a great sense of the city’s architecture, from 24-hour laundromat to modernist mansion. Ricki Lake appears as a TV host offering the usual redemption narrative conduit; while Forbes, whose appearance is all too brief, is one of the coolest of the Nineties cool girls and it’s a shame the script didn’t give her more to do. A film that has inappropriate lightness where it ought to fill you with anticipatory dread, it still has an oddly haunting quality you can’t quite let go with its circle of women carving out lives and identities not quite separate from each other. You know how you said you didn’t feel safe?  I feel like that all the time

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen