It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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You sit here and you spin your little web and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Up in Heaven Clarence (Henry Travers) is awaiting his angel’s wings when a case is made to him about George Bailey (James Stewart) who’s thinking about jumping off a bridge and into a wintry river at Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve 1945. Clarence is told George’s story: as a young boy rescuing his brother Harry from an icy pond, to his father’s death just when his own life should have been taking off and he winds up staying in this loathsome little town running the bank and having his honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) ruined when there’s a run on the bank’s funds … and losing himself amid other people’s accidents, deaths and rank stupidity while the town runs afoul of greedy financier Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George is such a great guy with dreams of travel and adventure and the truth is he never leaves home and becomes a martyr to other people. I’ve always found this immensely depressing. What happens to him – the sheer passive aggression directed at him and the loss of all of his ambitions in order to satisfy other people’s banal wishes at the expense of his own life’s desires  – is a complete downer. Reworking A Christmas Carol with added danger it feels like a post-war attempt to make people feel happy with their very limited lot. Which is why I watch this very rarely and with complete reluctance precisely because its petty moralising is achieved so beautifully and rationally … So sue me! Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling and directed by Frank Capra.

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Houseboat (1958)

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Try to be a parent, not a policeman. When newly widowed Tom Winters (Cary Grant) arrives back to the home of his sister-in-law (Martha Hyer) he finds his three kids in understandable disarray and doesn’t want to leave them in her care. But they don’t fit easily into his life at the State Dept. in Washington.  Younger son Robert (Charles Herbert) takes off at a classical concert with the grown up daughter Cinzia (Sophia Loren) of a renowned visiting conductor who returns him to the family’s apartment the following day. Not knowing who she is, Tom asks her to be the family’s maid. She’s unhappy tagging along with her father so she joins them, dressed to the nines. He decides to remove everyone to Carolyn’s guesthouse – which is destroyed by a train when the tow truck driver Angelo (Harry Guardino) is distracted at the sight of Cinzia en route to the new location. He gives Tom his neglected houseboat as compensation. Unable to cook, launder or sew, Cinzia miraculously brings Tom together with his lost children as the houseboat lurches, cuts loose and gradually settles into metaphorical balance. She has to avoid the leers of Angelo while Tom is rationally persuaded into proposing marriage to freshly divorced Carolyn who’s been in love with him since she was 4 and he married her older sister:  he is blissfully ignorant of Cinzia who desperately craves his attention …  There’s so much music in this very fun romcom it might as well be a musical:  from the orchestral pieces to Sophia’s regular songs – Bing! Bang! Bong! being the most popular on a very bouncy soundtrack. Gorgeous stars, funny kids, agreeable supporting performances and a good setup combine to make this a delightful, charming ode to simply being: dolce far niente, as Loren urges. I couldn’t agree more! There’s a great scene in a laundromat when Grant gets embroiled in women’s gossip. Written by Jack Rose and director Melville Shavelson, with an uncredited screenplay by Betsy Drake (aka Mrs Cary Grant) who was supposed to co-star – until her husband allegedly had an affair with Loren on The Pride and the Passion, a liaison long over by the time filming on this commenced. Awkward!

Peyton Place (1957)

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Quality is a very good thing in a roll of cloth but it’s very dull on a big date. Mike Rossi (Lee Phillips) arrives in the small New England town of Peyton Place to interview for high school principal, usurping the favourite teacher (Mildred Dunnock). He drives past a shack where Selena Cross (Hope Lange) lives with her mother (Betty Field), little brother and drunken stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Selena’s best friend is the graduating class’s star student and wannabe writer Allison Mackenzie (Diane Varsi) whose widowed mother Constance (Lana Turner) has a clothing store and immediately attracts Mike’s interest. Allison has a crush on Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) heir to the local fabric mill but he only has eyes for trashy Betty (Terry Moore). Allison confides in Norman (Russ Tamblyn) whose watchful mother has altogether too much to do with her shy son. All of the characters attempt to assert their individuality and grow up but malicious rumours, a rape and a suicide followed by a murder are just around the corner as Lucas forces himself on his stepdaughter and Constance reveals to Allison the truth about her obscure origins; then the newspaper carries a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor … Even decades after Grace Metalious’ novel was published it bore the whiff of scandal and my eleven-year old self carried it as though it were dangerous contraband – which of course it was, for about a minute. Part of its attraction was the back cover photograph of the authoress, a gorgeous young thing with a Fifties Tammy ponytail wearing a plaid shirt, cut offs and penny loafers – it was years before I would learn that this was a model (paid tribute by a shot of Allison in the film) and that Metalious was in reality a bloated alcoholic who died not long afterwards:  not such a role model after all!  The bestselling exposition of a horribly inward looking and vicious group of people in an outwardly lovely small town in Maine gets a meticulous adaptation by John Michael Hayes who was working carefully around the censor yet still managed to craft a moving even shocking melodrama from some explosive storylines arranged through the seasons. Lange comes off best in a film which has some daring off-casting – including Turner as the frigid so-called widow, cannily using her star carnality against the character. (In reality she would encounter her own extraordinary scandal with teenage daughter Cheryl within a year of this film’s release). Lloyd Nolan playing the local doctor has a field day in the showstopping courtroom revelation telling some vicious home truths amid some frankly disbelieving onlookers including the unrepentant gossips. Tamblyn gets one of the roles of his career as Norman, the son who is loved just a little too much by his mom… I hadn’t seen this in a long time but much to my surprise was immediately humming along again with the wonderfully lyrical score by Franz Waxman. In many ways this evocative drama sums up the morality of the Fifties even while being set on the eve of WW2 and the early Forties. A very pleasant, beautifully made and surprising reminder of a book whose opening line I’ve never forgotten:  Indian Summer is like a woman … Ah! The film is sixty years old this year. Directed by Mark Robson.

Graduation (2016)

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Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a middle-aged doctor in a small Romanian town and father of a teenage daughter Eliza (Maria Victoria Dragus) who needs good results in a written exam to take up her place on a scholarship to Cambridge. He finds out from his mistress Sandra (Malina Malovici) who teaches at Eliza’s school that the girl has been assaulted on a building site at the school entrance where he drops her off every day. She’s narrowly avoided being raped but her wrist is injured and the headmaster wants to stop her taking part in the exam because she could have notes written on it – until Sandra intervenes. Then the police inspector investigating the attack suggests to Romeo that his daughter’s results might be improved if Romeo can find a liver for a corrupt customs inspector Bulai. Romeo discusses the situation with his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) who doesn’t want him embroiled in the national disease of corruption. When he suggests the plan to Eliza she listens but doesn’t give him any response.  Eliza finds out about her father’s mistress and threatens to tell her mother – who already knows. While he tries to pursue her attacker and she attends a lineup in the police station during which one suspect shouts at her through two-way glass, prosecutors turn up at the hospital and start asking questions about Bulai …  Cristian Mungiu’s film is mundane in its detail (and its star) but nonetheless compelling as he traces an almost Kafkaesque story of a more or less regular guy dealing with a sequence of horrible events which he has worked so hard to help his young daughter avoid as he has plotted her escape to a more civilised life since she was born. She persists in taking her own path as he can’t even persuade her that her handsome older boyfriend Marius (Rares Andrici) who openly admits to having cheated at his own final exams watched as she was attacked  – he got a screenshot from surveillance cameras to prove it.  The lack of reaction when he finds out his teenage girl is not a virgin following the attempted rape is a lesson to showier filmmakers. This is an unexpectedly gripping family drama that moves with the relentlessly grinding pace of the ghastly bureaucratic society it depicts.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

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My God I’ve never seen anything like it – a gigantic wall of water heading directly for the ship! The SS Poseidon is on its last voyage from New York to Athens before retirement. Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) is a troublesome priest being sent to Africa as punishment. Detective Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-prostitute wife Linda (Stella Stevens) are dealing with her seasickness and a man who recognises her. Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) and her little brother Robin (Eric Shea) are squabbling on the trip that will see them meet with their parents. Manny Rosen (Jack Albertson) and his wife Belle (Shelley Winters) are going to Israel to meet their new grandson. Nonnie (Carol Lynley) is rehearsing songs with her brother in the ballroom for the New Year’s Eve dance. Bachelor James Martin (Red Buttons) confesses his shyness at the captain’s table at dinner. And then a tidal wave (what we now call a tsunami) capsizes the ship and their whole world is upside down and flooding quickly … Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel gets a great adaptation by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes who distill people’s essential characters into pithy exchanges and lines of action – let’s face it in a situation like this there’s no time for sweet nothings. Producer Irwin Allen assembled a star-ridden cast for this disaster movie to end them all. A raft of Oscar winners – Borgnine, Winters, Buttons, Albertson – make it into the final half dozen who swim, climb and beat their way to the engine room on the upturned vessel and the pressure (water, religious and otherwise) is intense as they are led by Scott who is invested with crazed levels of commitment by Hackman. But before they can be saved there are terrible personal sacrifices… And you thought you’ve had bad New Year’s Eves! This is thrilling from start to finish! Directed by Ronald Neame with a lot of interiors done on the Queen Mary docked at Long Beach and a resonant score by John Williams.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

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There are times when I think what a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life. In 1930s England James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) serves as butler to the doltish Lord Darlington (James Fox). Stevens is so dedicated that he forgoes visiting his father (Peter Vaughan) on his deathbed in order to serve a bunch of blackshirts dinner. He overlooks Darlington’s Nazi sympathies and growing anti-Semitism even dispensing with the service of two young Jewish refugees who he knows will be returned to Germany. Twenty years after the disgraced Darlington’s death and in the wake of the Suez Crisis Stevens tries to make contact once again with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), Darlington’s head housekeeper who married their former colleague Benn (the late and lamented Tim Pigott-Smith). He travels to see her in the West Country and in the course of his trip begins to regret his blind loyalty and servitude to his former master who pursued a libel case to the detriment of his reputation and whose American critic Congressman Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve) now owns Darlington Hall. Stevens now works for him and his life is utterly unfulfilled. He must make up for lost time. The Merchant Ivory team regroup with their Howards End stars and the amazing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prize winning novel ponders class relations, political naivete and the lack of wisdom in relationships at every conceivable level. A friend of mine commented caustically on it at the time of its release, The fireplaces are wonderful. And it’s true, they are, but that is much too reductive of a project which  cannot translate the more subtle nuances of the novel instead transmitting through performance on a sometimes barely perceptible register of glances or a slight movement what mere writing cannot – the affect of loss and its immense impact on the totality of a life. Hopkins has one of the most difficult roles of his career – the stubborn butler who simply cannot accept the limitations of his boss or his father’s revelation. His refusal to admit emotionality is devastating. His humiliation at the pleasure of his lordship’s house guests makes you squirm on his behalf. Thompson is heartbreaking as the woman who loves him but hurts him rather than tell him directly. Their final leavetaking is horrifying in its simplicity and tragedy. There are two other exquisite scenes and they both predominantly feature fingers:  when Stevens finds his father collapsed and must wrench his fingers from a trolley after the old man has had a stroke;  and when Miss Kenton prises with great difficulty a novel from his own hand to declare rather disbelievingly that it is only a sentimental romance. The fear of embarrassment is all over this epic tale of a country’s honour in microcosm. It is an achievement that seems much larger in retrospect than a quarter of a century ago. A stylish, intelligent, immensely moving drama.

Evita (1996)

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Statesmanship is more than entertaining peasants. 1952 Buenos Aires: a film in a cinema is stopped by the newsflash that Eva Peron (Madonna) is dead. Flashback to years earlier: a little girl running into a church and placing flowers on the body of the man who was her father before she is hustled out. 1930s:  Eva Duarte is sleeping with a tango singer Magaldi (Jimmy Nail) before making her name as a radio actress and then befriending a powerful man Colonel Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce) at a fundraiser following an earthquake. She becomes his mistress and encourages and hustles for him as he parlays his way to power, using her broadcasting nous to raise support for him during his imprisonment by political rivals who fear his rise. Throughout this larger than life musical drama (entirely sung through) Che Guevara (Antonio Banderas) is the shapeshifting commentator on the sidelines, positioning us in the narrative, until the final – unthinkable – departure of Evita. This is a robust, admirable adaptation by director Alan Parker and Oliver Stone of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice behemoth that bestrode theatre in the 1970s after its introduction as a concept album – a musical drama that deconstructs the life of the Argentine bastard who became an actress and whore before marrying the dissolute Peron and utilising her powers of demagoguery to help him and his Nazi thugs to Government. All of this is contextualised under the guise of sympathy for the impoverished masses of which she believed she was one because she was the illegitimate offspring of a married middle class man.  The story problem here is the persona of Evita herself – she’s a narcissistic exhibitionist whose principal passion is herself and this presents the issue of empathy for the viewing experience. It’s an epic political pageant but it’s politics as psychodrama:  you can admire the scale but it’s a mirthless spectacle about horrendous people. Madonna does an excellent job with the songs but her limited technical acting abilities aren’t helped by the parameters of the role itself, which is primarily declarative in function. The first opportunity she really gets to properly emote is on her deathbed: everything else is essentially a con job of presentation, inherent to the character herself. Banderas and Pryce are commentators and therefore essential to the interacting of the personal with the political on a broad canvas shot in muted amber tones which is admittedly captivating and occasionally jaw-dropping in ambition. There are some wonderful visual flourishes and pastiche references to classical filmmaking (Parker even makes a cameo appearance). At its heart this is a vengeful journey into fascistic madness framed by two funerals.  It’s certainly interesting to see this again (in any form) in the week in which the Perons’ successors are finally sentencing the pilots who carried out the murders of tens of thousands of dissidents by dropping them in the shark-infested Atlantic 40 years ago rather than wasting time torturing them – so many people had already invested their energies doing that and it was obviously tiring them out. Can you imagine what these toxic avengers would have done if they’d been allowed on the Falklands? Oh what a circus, oh what a show.

Union Pacific (1939)

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First time I’ve discarded aces for a queen! President Lincoln signed off on the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act to authorise pushing the Union Pacific Railroad west across the wilderness toward California. However now that Lincoln is dead financial opportunist Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) hopes to profit from obstructing it. Chief troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) has his hands full fighting Barrows’ agent the gambler Sid Campeau (the wonderfully devilish Brian Donlevy). Campeau’s partner veteran Dick Allen (Robert Preston) is Jeff’s war buddy and rival suitor for Irish rail engineer’s daughter Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck). Who will survive the effort to push the railroad through at any cost? And who will win Molly? Cecil B. DeMille’s rousing, sprawling western was in the vanguard of historical tales bringing together the rival attempts at forming a national history – and this all culminates at Promontory Point Utah when Leland Stanford drove a ceremonial spike to unite this with the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. Filled with great starry performances this is history on a human scale. Despite Stanwyck’s typical luminosity and McCrea’s decency and likeability,  it’s probably Preston who comes off best, even photographically, in his showy role. Filled with fighting, shooting, murder, building and dismantling, Indian attacks, drinking, gambling, love and death, with one killing from the window of a train that is shocking to this day, this is truly a film for the ages. A splendid, zesty example of the power of classical Hollywood. Written by Walter DeLeon, Jack Cunningham and C. Gardner Sullivan, adapting Ernest Haycox’ novel Troubleshooter. This is the first ever winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes – awarded in 2002 due to the debut Festival’s cancellation following the outbreak of WW2!

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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If there’s one thing I know for certain it’s not to get between a woman and her hairdresser. It’s 1973 and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) are setting up the Women’s Tennis Association in opposition to the US Lawn Tennis Association led by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) because they want equal pay for women players after he’s announced a tournament where women will get precisely one eighth of the men’s prize. BJK is number one in the world and he threatens her – she won’t be able to play in the Grand Slams:  but more and more women players are joining her tour, and Virginia Slims are on board with sponsorship. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is the former player now living off his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and on borrowed time in their marriage because he gambles on everything. He acts incensed about BJK’s stance and challenges her to a match but she doesn’t want to be part of his ongoing sideshow. So he challenges Margaret Court  (Jessica McNamee) instead after she beats the married BJK following a crisis: she’s had what appears to be a one-night stand with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) – it proves to be anything but and she is now second in the world. Court loses and then BJK sees an opportunity when Riggs offers her a prize of $100,000.  Her personal life is disintegrating, her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) realises he’s losing her but he tells Marilyn that they’re on the sidelines – because tennis is Billie Jean’s whole life. Then the Bobby bandwagon starts and there’s a huge TV match about to happen … Where to start? What a proposition – the biographical story of a woman who changed the face of modern sport at the same time as she discovered her true sexuality AND responded to a challenge from a man who called her a hairy-legged feminist. So much of this film is about the private versus the public, the individual versus the system, performance on and off court, that it demands – and gets – a finely balanced screenplay from Simon Beaufoy (probably his best by a long shot). The story problem is not just BJK’s discovery of her Lesbianism and the role she is cornered into playing (or be ashamed of herself for the rest of her life, given her perceived position in the women’s game) it’s also about the assertion of love, self and pride and the driven nature of athletes in a money-ridden pro sport. At the same time, it’s showbiz, and that’s where Steve Carell comes in. In Bobby Riggs he has found the role of a lifetime, the role he was born to play as a friend of mine put it. A reckless bon viveur, loudmouth, fun dad, shiftless husband and compulsive gambler it’s really something to see him personify this self-declared male chauvinist pig with such commitment. There are many great scenes here but when he gets up at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and tells them all their real problem is that they’re bad at gambling – reader, I nearly choked. And that’s where the story magic lies – in bringing together in a legendary face-off two utterly contrasting types and drawing out their similarities – their need to succeed, their desire to win, above everything else in their lives. You’ll be scratching your head afterwards, wondering, Did this really happen?! For real?! Yes it did, albeit women’s equality is still a thing of fiction for many 44 years later.  The only niggle is the sense that some story points have been retro-fitted to customise this to contemporary sensibilities:  Court’s reaction to the knowledge that BJK might be a Lesbian when the hairdresser on the tour is obviously staying in her room chimes with what was made known about her Christian beliefs last year; Alan Cumming as designer Teddy Tinling gets to spout some very new spiels about equality. In reality the married BJK met Barnett (what an apposite name for a hairdresser) a couple of years earlier and could have devastated her sporting career. And of course their toxic breakup a decade later made BJK work years after she wanted to retire in order to pay her off after she made public their affair and sued her. Barnett then attempted to kill herself and was left paralysed from the waist down. BJK was a moneyspinner and everything she did was made public by  those around her including her husband – he supplied her name to Ms. magazine when they were compiling a list of women who’d had an abortion. None of that makes it into a heavily fictionalised biography which is always headed towards the main event at the Houston Astrodome. BJK and her current female partner were the film’s consultants, after all. However, you can’t imagine anyone other than Stone and Carell playing BJK and Riggs and you can’t say better than that. The final complementary scenes in their respective dressing rooms are marvellously conceived. When you see the impact of the entire trajectory on Stone’s face – the enormity of what she has achieved and the realisation – you want to stand up and cheer as much as she is sitting down, crumpled and crying. There are wondrous supporting performances from Silverman, Stowell and Riseborough, who sparkles throughout. And Cumming is good in a stereotypical role of gay costumier and it’s always a delight to see Shue. This is handled with great care as dramedy by the Little Miss Sunshine team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Do yourself a favour – go see it. It’s ace!

Deadfall (1968)

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How do you account for the fact the jewel thief is the one criminal that respectable people sympathise with? Cat burglar Henry Clarke (Michael Caine) checks himself into a Spanish sanitarium for alcoholics to befriend the wealthy Salinas (David Buck) in order to rob his mansion. He is visited in the clinic by Italian beauty Fé Moreau (Giovanna Ralli) and asked to join with her and her much older husband Richard (Eric Portman) in robbing Salinas’ place when he’s attending a concert. As a test run they break into another stately home. After risking his life on a ledge, Clarke becomes so angered by Richard’s failure to crack the safe that he digs it out of the wall and he drags it and its contents out of the house. Fé and Clarke begin an affair, which Richard doesn’t mind because he has a new young male lover. Fé buys a Jaguar convertible for Clarke and tells him the safe contained jewels worth at least a half-a-million dollars. Before the time comes to rob Salinas, Fé travels to Tangier without letting Clarke know she was leaving. Richard then reveals to Clarke that he betrayed his male lover to the Nazis and then impregnated the man’s wife. Their baby was Fé and she doesn’t know the truth. Clarke is devastated and breaks into Salinas’ mansion on his own. Fé returns and is shocked and disbelieving when Richard reveals the truth about their relationship. She races to the Salinas mansion and her arrival alerts a security guard who shoots Clarke coming out a window… Bryan Forbes adapted Desmond Cory’s novel which has the trappings of a Hitchcock suspense thriller but instead turns into a relationship melodrama with a rather disturbing Freudian twist. Forbes made some fantastic films in the Sixties and had previously teamed up with Caine, Leonard Rossiter (as Fillmore) and his wife Nanette Newman (the Girl here) in The Wrong Box but the setup takes too long, the key tryout burglary is crosscut with John Barry conducting a concert which is really strangely shot by Gerry Turpin (imagine how Hitch would have staged it – or just watch The Man Who Knew Too Much) and the strangulated diction of Portman makes you wonder why nobody thought of Curt Jurgens for the role. His dialogue basically states the film’s themes and his enunciation is horrifically enervating: I have no idea how Caine acted opposite him. On the plus side it’s mostly well shot save for that concert hall, Caine looks his beautiful feline best enhanced by the Spanish location tan and Barry’s score is deeply attached to the film’s strange emotions, even quoting himself by using the theme from Beat Girl to stress the decadence. And it’s nice to see the glorious Ralli at work as well as watching the great Catalan guitarist Renata Tarrago play the solo on stage. Clouds, silver linings, etc.