Manhattan (1979)

 

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Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. Oh, I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be. 42-year old TV comedy writer Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is involved with high school student Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and freaking out about his Lesbian ex-wife Jill’s (Meryl Streep) forthcoming memoir of their marriage breakup; while his best friend, University professor Yale Pollack (Michael Murphy) is cheating on his wonderful wife Emily (Anne Byrne) with cerebral egotist book editor Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton). Isaac quits his job in a fit of pique which he instantly regrets and has to downsize in order to finance a year when he will try to write a book. Yale breaks up with Mary so when Tracy says she wants to go to London to study acting Isaac and Mary get together … I’m dating a girl who does homework. Elaine’s, the Empire Diner, The Russian Tea Room, Central Park, the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, Bloomingdale’s, Dean and Deluca, the Lincoln Center, Rizzoli’s bookstore, Zabar’s, the now-demolished Cinema Studio, this is the one where Allen fully expresses his love of his native city and it’s more than a Valentine as the story inspired by George Gershwin’s music, starting with Rhapsody in Blue, transports us into the inner workings of the characters and their preposterous lifestyle problems. The script by Allen and Marshall Brickman gives Keaton absurdly self-aggrandising dialogue protesting the burden of her beauty, Allen jokes about his castrating Zionist mother and jibes about Lesbian fathers, and everyone bar 17-year old Tracy is fairly ridiculous but even she is a serious sexpot who wants to go to London to train as an actor (supposedly based on Allen’s relationship with Stacy Nelkin). A gorgeous, funny, satirical film about silly people whose therapists call them, weeping, and they carry on doing stupid things, risking their relationships and their careers on a romantic whim in a disposable culture. (That’s Mia Farrow’s sister Tisa talking about the wrong kind of orgasm, BTW.)  It’s all told with love and humour and shot in ridiculously beautiful widescreen monochrome by Gordon Willis because of course the real unadulterated love spoken of here is for New York City and it gives the writer his voice.  Of the two of us I wasn’t the amoral psychotic promiscuous one  MM #2,600

The Facts of Life (1960)

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Am I really going to San Francisco to spend the weekend… with the husband of my best friend? When neighbours Kitty Weaver (Lucille Ball) and Larry Gilbert (Bob Hope) meet it’s irritation at first sight but there’s an undeniable attraction which they eventually act upon during the annual neighbourhood vacation in Acapulco when they’re forced to spend it together. Problem is, they’re both married, she to habitual gambler Jack (Don DeFore), he to perfect homemaker Mary (Ruth Hussey) and they both have two children. They vow to take off together after circumstances and regular encounters at social gatherings mean they keep running into each other but a messed up drunken assignation at a motel makes them rethink. Then things change after Larry finds out that Kitty has written a note to Jack to tell him she’s leaving him when the pair take go to San Francisco for the weekend during the winter vacation … This is my first affair, so please be kind. A breezy but cold-eyed comedy of suburban middle class adultery is not necessarily what you might expect with that cast, but that’s what legendary screenwriting partners Norman Panama and Melvin Frank created and it’s very well played by the leads who of course are both peerless comedy performers and this is the third of the four films they made together. It’s as though Johns Cheever and Updike decided to up sticks and go Hollywood and take all the baggage of midcentury masculinity with them. Panama and Frank are of course great comic screenwriters.  Their first screen credit was on Hope’s 1942 movie My Favorite Blonde and later work with him includes Road to Utopia, Monsieur Beaucaire and an uncredited rewrite of The Princess and the Pirate so they know his strengths (they are his, as it were) and they turn a messy uncomfortable familial disruption into an easily enjoyed romcom whose moral messiness is tidied into great dialogue and barely concealed social anxiety.  This is the essence of comedy and it’s their forte. There are some shockingly barbed exchanges and there are excruciating sequences when the couple discuss the legal and financial ramifications of two divorces and realise when they’re finally alone together that they’re probably mismatched; when they almost get found out by neighbours at San Francisco Airport the tension is horrific.  There’s a notable score by Johnny Mercer and Leigh Harline with the title song performed by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé and while Frank gets the sole directing credit, it appears Panama co-directed. There’s an unexpectedly conventional titles sequence designed by Saul Bass, putting us right in the mood for the tenor of that era’s comedy style and it all looks beautiful in monochrome thanks to cinematographer Charles Lang. Night-time Los Angeles looks glossy even in black and white.  It’s an interesting one to compare with another film about an extra-marital suburban affair filmed the same year, Strangers When We Meet. Played a beat slower with a fraction less of the leads’ comedy mugging and shot in colour, this could match its melodramatic tone. Are you sure you’re with the right woman?

The Weaker Sex (1948)

The Weaker Sex

I wish I didn’t feel so cut off.   Widowed Martha Dacre (Ursula Jeans) tries to keep house and home together for her two serving daughters Helen (Joan Hopkins) who’s involved with radio officer Nigel (Derek Bond) and Lolly (Lana Morris) who’s going out with sailor Roddy (John Stone);  and servicemen billeted on her in Portsmouth, a naval base during WW2. While son Benjie (Digby Wolfe) is away in the Navy she has chosen to stay at home as a housewife, but when she learns that his ship has been damaged during the D Day landings, she regrets not taking a more active role in the war and works in a canteen and as a fire watcher. The family story moves forward from D-Day to VE-Day, the 1945 general election and on to 1948. Martha eventually re-marries to her late husband’s colleague, naval officer Geoffrey (Cecil Parker) who was one of those billeted on her and has become a father-figure to her son and daughters…  Oh dear, who’d be a mother? This British homefront drama was released three years following the conclusion of hostilities so it has the benefit of victorious hindsight as well as expressing the postwar era when everyone was completely obsessed with the lack of food. Adapted from actress Esther McCracken’s 1944 stage play No Medals by Paul Soskin with additional scenes created by Val Valentine to bring it up to the year of shooting, it’s a witty drama filled with resigned Keep Calm and Carry On messages underscored by dissatisfaction at the dreariness of housework and the plight of women whose life is dictated by the unavailability of food which becomes a thoroughly good running joke:  The housewives’ battle cry – the fishmonger’s got fish! cackles housekeeper Mrs Gaye (Thora Hird). Intended as post-war propaganda, a kind of decent British take on Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver (minus the Nazi in the garden) with added politics, it’s smart, unfussy and fair, yet trenchant and involving.  Jeans is terrific as the middle class woman finding herself rather (class) envious of Harriet Lessing (Marian Spencer) living in a serviced flat and volunteering:  there’s humour to be had in a lovely payoff when Harriet gets her public comeuppance after the war as rationing motivates her to head the local Militant Housewives League and she gets caught up in an unholy scrimmage which fetches up on the front page of the papers. Parker is a great casting choice – the guy not ashamed of being seen decked out in his uniform doing the vacuuming who can say unabashed to Jeans, I never had a genuinely platonic friendship with a woman before. Of course we know where that leads. He digs in and gets creative when he’s sick of being starved of regular food – and milks a goat. I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life is duty. There is a great sense of warmth in the family relationships and a scene of remarkable tension when Helen and Martha play a card game awaiting a phonecall to find out whether Nigel has survived a bombing.  Jeans tells herself when awaiting more bad news, I mustn’t back down. I must try to be of some use. Parker responds, This language of ours is so completely inadequate. They are expressing the weariness of a nation almost done in yet somehow dragging itself up to cope with the inevitability of ongoing loss. There are occasional dips into newsreel montages to bring a context to the experiences as the story commences in the run up to D Day, through VE Day, the 1945 General Election, Hiroshima and after, but the footage is smoothly integrated and doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow. Hugely successful in its day it’s a really rather spiffing reminder of how and why Britain came through the war, the importance of family and sadly that tragic deaths don’t just occur in wartime. Crisply shot by Erwin Hillier amid exquisite sets by Alex Vetchinsky and this raft of wonderful performances are very well directed by Roy [Ward] Baker. Shabby perhaps, but not yet shoddy

The Hate U Give (2018)

The Hate U Give

Reasons to live give reasons to die.  Teenager Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is constantly switching between two worlds – the poor, mostly black neighborhood of Garden Heights where she lives with her parents and brothers and the wealthy, mostly white private school Williamson Prep that she attends with her half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson). They are in an extreme minority and she has a white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa) and a white best friend, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter). The uneasy balance between these worlds is soon shattered when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil (Algee Smith) at the hands of a police officer despite his having done nothing except driving while black. Facing pressure from all sides of the community, Starr must find her own voice and decide to stand up for what’s right while her father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) fears that speaking out will bring down the wrath of local drug dealer King (Anthony Mackie) his former gang leader; and mom Lisa (Regina Hall) tries to keep everyone on the right path ... If you don’t see my blackness you don’t see me. Sadly that terrific screenwriter Audrey Wells succumbed to cancer on the eve of this film’s release, an adaptation of a Young Adult novel (by Angie Thomas) which despite some structural flaws and a somewhat aphoristic and preachy line in virtue-signalling dialogue is a triumph of performance and to a lesser extent, presentation. Stenberg is very good as the protagonist, a girl who struggles with her identity living between two communities but who cannot leave her past behind because she can’t forget that’s her family, her race, her true self. You can see in this the traces of Boyz in the Hood and the legacy of that film lies in a story twist here: a father who actually sticks with his family following a spell in jail for the drug lord but who tries to change the course of his children’s experience by quoting from the Black Power handbook while the kids relate to Tupac (hence the title, from THUG LIFE).  It’s also about hypocrisy, peer pressure, racism and (dread the term) cultural appropriation. More than anything, it’s about doing the right thing. There are some very good narrative bumps – when Starr’s policeman uncle Carlos (Common) tells her precisely what goes through a cop’s head when he is alone on a traffic stop;  when Starr shows Hailey what happens when a hairbrush is mistaken for a gun; and when Tupac’s lyrical prediction comes true. The location is not specified but it’s stunningly shot by Mihai Mâlaimare Jr and well directed by George Tillman Jr.  Violence. Brutality. It’s the same story, just a different name

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)

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He’s gonna give the dog fleas. Unlucky homeless guy Dave (Nick Nolte) decides to call it quits, and so sneaks into a stranger’s backyard in the posh enclave of Beverly Hills and tries to drown himself in the pool. However, Jerry’s plans are stopped by the pool’s owner, white-collar businessman Dave (Richard Dreyfuss), who pulls the tramp out of the water and into the pool house. But Dave’s hospitality and his status-obsessed wife Barbara (Bette Midler), don’t impress Jerry, who ignores them and first makes their crazy dog Matisse (Mike!) take his instructions and then pursues the family’s maid, Carmen (Elizabeth Peña) who is Jerry’s lover. Then Barbara succumbs to him during a massage. As he insinuates himself into the family they each think he’s solely devoted to them. Things finally come to a head at the New Year’s party when Dave is trying to impress potential Chinese buyers and his anorexic daughter Jenny (Tracy Nelson) reveals the reason she’s eating again … I went shopping for gratification. But it was like sex without a climax. Paul Mazursky’s remake of the 1932 Renoir film Boudu Saved From Drowning (itself adapted from a French play) is a sprightly screwball farce with some very funny performances in this story of a one-man home invasion who seduces all before him, starting with the dog, who has his own psychiatrist. Taking potshots at midlife crises, below-stairs relationships, race relations, wellness fads, consciousness raising and silly people who have more money than sense, it might not be the vicious satire you expect from Mazursky but it’s hilarious from start to finish with some really smart verbal transitions from scene to scene. Co-written with Leon Capetanos. I knew that bum was trouble

Clockwise (1986)

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The first step to knowing who you are is knowing where you are and when you are. Comprehensive school headmaster Brian Stimpson (John Cleese) is obsessed with timeliness, order and discipline. He tends to add the word ‘Right’ to everything he says, which inadvertently gives people misdirections and wrong impressions.  After meticulously preparing a speech for a Headmasters’ conference, Brian misses his train. With no one else to turn to, he asks student Laura Wisely (Sharon Maiden) for a lift to Norwich. Laura, upset over a break-up with what turns out to be a married colleague of Brian’s, impulsively agrees to drive him in her parents’ car – which alarms her mother (Pat Keen) and father (Geoffrey Hutchings), who worry that she has run away with a married man so they alert the police. Brian and Laura forget to pay for petrol; crash into a squad car; run into an old college friend of Brian’s (Penelope Wilton) who gets the impression that Brian is having an affair with this schoolgirl; get stuck in the mud; and then find themselves in a monastery – all the while unaware that a growing number of people are chasing them who wind up at the conference long before Brian ever manages to get there … We can’t go forwards so we’ll go backwards instead. Novelist and playwright Michael Frayn wrote this on spec as an experiment in screenwriting and John Cleese agreed to it the moment his agent sent it to him. In his tour de force performance of a man gradually unravelling as his scheme is destroyed by one simple mistake, you can see that it’s a perfect fit for the man who made Basil Fawlty part of the lexicon. Mild-mannered English comedy it may be but at times it’s supremely funny and as well constructed as, well, a clock. Superb support from Alison Steadman as his disbelieving wife, Maiden as the worldly sixth-former eager to use her study period on an away day to make her lover jealous, and a cast of more or less familiar faces, all winding Brian up even while he tries to re-run that all-important speech in his head. Highly amusing. Directed by Christopher Morahan. It’s not the despair. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope

Long Shot (2019)

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I look like Cap’n Crunch’s Grindr date! Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) is a daring if shambling journalist favouring the Democrats who has a knack for getting into trouble. We meet him infiltrating a White Power group where he gets identified as a Jewish leftwing writer and he jumps out a first-floor window to escape their wrath halfway through getting a Swastika tattoo. Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is one of the most influential women in the world – the US Secretary of State, a smart, sophisticated and accomplished politician who needs to up her ratings to succeed her boss, TV star President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk). Her polling improves every time she’s photographed with the goofy Canadian Prime Minister (Alexander Skarsgard) as she’s counselled to do at every opportunity by her advisor Maggie (June Diane Raphael). When Fred unexpectedly runs into Charlotte at a party his best friend Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr) takes him to after he’s left his Brooklyn alt-weekly following a takeover by the repulsive mogul Parker Wembly (Andy Serkis), he finds himself in the company of his former baby sitter and childhood crush. When Charlotte decides to make a run for the presidency she hires Fred as her speechwriter to up the funny factor – much to the dismay of her entourage as she’s embarking on a world tour to persuade leaders to sign up to her programme to save The Bees, The Trees and The Seas and he joins them on the road …  I’m a racist. You’re a Republican. I don’t know what is wrong with me. As a product of the adolescent house of Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg you might think this had a gross out element and it does – any film that could have its leading man ultimately labelled The Come Guy has taken a turn in that direction (hence the title). But it’s the getting there that is astonishingly well put together. The stereotypes here are all too recognisable: the woman who can handle herself, and the man who … handles himself in a very particular way; the WASPy politician who has to deal with a doofus Commander in Chief who himself takes his cues from his TV show as the US President (Odenkirk is very good) along with a toothy Canadian jerk PM (Skarsgard sportingly sports buck teeth) similarly looking for a viable political romance, not to mention the hourly misogyny dealt her by an astonishingly sexist TV channel;  the shabbily dressed leftwing Jewish journo (in another time he’d have been part of the counterculture) who learns the hard way that maturing requires a deal of compromise which he only realises when his best friend admits he’s not just a Republican – but a Christian to boot – and then has the lightbulb moment that he is in his own way a racist and a sexist, everything he despises. Therefore beneath this very funny, role-reversing political comedy about two people who want the impossible – a relationship of equals – is a plea to see things from the other side’s point of view.  He needs to grow up, she needs to be reminded of the passionate truth-teller she used to be so they both teach each other valuable lessons. The big political crisis is solved after Fred has given Charlotte her first taste of MDMA (she thinks it’s called The Molly) so that a hostage-taking disaster is averted when she’s off her skull. This is very much of its time, the potshots are relevant and smart if obvious, the sex scenes are hilarious (she has a better time, quicker, and apologises, just like a guy), and the timing is exquisite. And no, it’s not the intellectual wordfest of The West Wing nor does it attempt the kind of fireworks we might wish for from the classic Thirties screwballs but it has its own rhythm and nuance with flawless performances even if the satire isn’t as up to the second as we require in the Twitterverse. There is, though, a teal rain jacket and those Game of Thrones references. Principally it works because of its humanity but it also ploughs a furrow of Nineties nostalgia – bonding over Roxette and Boyz II Men – as well as boasting an environmental message and emitting a howl against media conglomerates and rightwing hatemongers. At its centre is a couple trying to make things work while working together in a horribly public situation with the politics regularly giving way to charming encounters where the stars play against type. That’s clever screenwriting, by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah. Deftly directed by Jonathan Levine, this epitomises all that is right, left and wrong about the American political scene with a hugely optimistic message at its core about the State of the Union. Highly entertaining with an awesome Theron taking charge. We totally almost just died

The Bookshop (2017)

The Bookshop

Dear Mr. Thornton, a good book is the precious distillation of a master’s spirit, embalmed and preserved for the purpose of achieving a life beyond life, which is why it is undoubtedly a necessary commodity. East Anglia, 1959. Young widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) risks everything to move into an abandoned building and open up a bookshop – the first such shop in the sleepy seaside town of Hardborough.  This soon brings her fierce enemies: she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers and also crosses Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) the town’s vengeful, embittered alpha female and doyenne of the local scene and earmarked The Old House (as it becomes known) as an arts centre. Only Mr Brundish (Bill Nighy) a reclusive bibiliophile who develops an interest in the novels of Ray Bradbury seems sympathetic to Florence’s business… In the case of biographies, it’s better, I find, if they’re about good people, whereas novels are much more interesting if they are about nasty people. Whatever delicacy or nuance Penelope Fitzgerald’s source novel (a Booker nominee) may possess is simply flattened here by an almost inert style-free interpretation from writer/director Isabel Coixet, inept barely-there directing and some terrible miscasting in a setting that doesn’t look remotely like Norfolk or Suffolk because it’s not, it’s County Down in Northern Ireland and that’s not all that’s wrong with the production design. Mortimer is heroically trying to save a poor choice of material directed with no sense of momentum or invention and the distracting narration (by Julie Christie) is utilised to strike some interest in the premise which would otherwise be almost impenetrable. Nighy has little to do except walk about looking grumpy and Reg Wilson as Clarkson’s retired General husband looks utterly incompetent far beyond the demands of his dim character. James Lance has a good role as the poisonous shop assistant toff but his serpentine ways make the outcome all too predictable; Honor Kneafsey as little Christine the girl who becomes a book lover and gives the story a decent payoff is quite effective as a plot device to explain the narration and bring it up to date. What is good but hardly well dramatised is the way every level of a community moves against a single woman and conspires to totally destroy her utterly unapologetically. A failure but a small one since so few people will have seen it and those who have will have experienced the utter misery of the protagonist for every single second of this film in a rotten adaptation that literally never gets started. How right she was when she said that no one ever feels alone in a bookshop

That Good Night (2017)

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The ultimate deadline. Ageing emigré novelist and screenwriter Ralph (John Hurt) discovers that he is terminally ill. He contacts his estranged illegitimate son Michael (Max Brown) to attempt to reconcile at his Portuguese home but when Michael shows up with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Lynch) she irritates Ralph and things get off to a rocky start despite the intervention of Ralph’s wife Anna (Sofia Hellin) whom Ralph met when she nursed him following a heart attack years earlier.  He doesn’t want to be a burden to her and thinks a quick death in secret is what’s needed.  He hires a doctor (Charles Dance) to administer a drug that will allow him to die but he wakes and discovers he’s been double crossed but finds he’s enjoying his second chance at life … Your mother deliberately set out to get pregnant. Adapted by Charles Savage from N.J. Crisp’s play this is mildly spiky but underpowered family drama. With the spectral presence of Dance as Doctor Death, it is leavened by the witty and perceptive dialogue – Ralph isn’t trying to be unreasonable but he is in his awkward way determined to make amends. Hurt gives his final lead performance in a sadly appropriate context, growling out those lines with a wicked glint. Beautifully made and performed. Directed by Eric Styles. When you’re old you think you won’t die on time