Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Kramer Vs Kramer

I’m sorry I was late but I was busy making a living. Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a workaholic ad man who returns home late on the biggest night of his career to find his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) packing her suitcase claiming she needs to find herself. She deserts him and their young son Billy (Justin Henry) and he has to find a way of taking care of the boy while juggling a busy career. He initially blames their divorced neighbour Margaret (Jane Alexander) for putting Joanna up to it but they become friends as he muddles through cooking, school appointments, playing in the park and working at home late at night while managing life alone with Billy. Then 15 months later Joanna shows up looking for custody and Ted loses his job because he can’t balance his work and life commitments. A court battle looms with the courts already tilted in favour of the mother … I have worked very hard to become a whole human being and I don’t think I should be punished for that.  For film scholar Hannah Hamad this is the Ur-film of Hollywood post-feminist paternal dramas, a mode that has dominated the industry ever since (just watch every movie out of America since 1980, more or less!). It’s also the film that put domestic melodrama back at the forefront of American cinema, garnering most of the principal Academy Awards in its year for something that had it been made in France would have been just another humdrum if moving drama. But it has stars – and is simply brilliantly performed with a naturalism that is breathtaking. Hoffman is great as the guy who has to get to know how to live as a working and caretaking parent. The kitchen scenes between him and Henry doing father-son bonding are fantastic. It’s smart too about the working environment and the boys’ club it engenders; and tough on the idea that any woman would want more from life than catering to the needs of a small child:  when Ted sleeps with office lawyer Phyllis (JoBeth Williams) she leaves early not to go home and give a kid breakfast but to go downtown for a meeting. Writer/director Robert Benton adapted Avery Corman’s novel and exhibits none of the quaint, quirky humour that distinguishes his other films. Slickly done, touching and hot-button on all the social issues of the day:  not just a film, a cultural event. I didn’t know it would happen to me. MM #2800

Happy 70th Birthday Meryl Streep 22nd June 2019!

Distinguished from pretty much her first appearance, as David Thomson remarked, that is not always a compliment. Mary Louise Streep – for that is her birthname – is now playing a character called Mary Louise in the new iteration of TV smash Big Little Lies which was only meant to last one season, adapted as it was from a standalone novel. Enough is never enough, but this is one show that grabbed people by the collar and Streep agreed to be in it without seeing a script. From the start she was somehow not just talented and attractive but clever and full of technique, even if not universally adored. Admired, perhaps. All that technique has never quite bridged that empathy gap except on truly extraordinary productions. Perhaps she has become more endearing because following a late-career move into nutty films – the Mamma Mia musicals, sating her desire for the role she never got in Evita – and two truly well-written roles (perhaps not coincidentally by women) in Julie & Julia and It’s Complicated have made her less of a Greer Garson type and more of a Bette Davis, someone finally willing to make a bit of a fool of herself and let rip. The only time I’ve ever witnessed her come unstuck was in a BBC interview alongside Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg doing PR for The Post:  asked a relatively lightweight political question, she couldn’t muster a response. Perhaps that reputation as the world’s most intelligent actress is a little off the mark after all even with three Academy Awards for 21 nominations – she’s best with a script. Whatever, we love her, as tragic heroine or granny, she’s pretty great.  Happy birthday Meryl Streep!

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

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This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime. When the daughter Carolyn (Annie Corley) and son Michael (Victor Slezak) of Italian war bride mother Francesca (Meryl Streep) return to Iowa for her funeral they discover among her belongings evidence of a four-day extra-marital affair she had in 1965 with Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) who was photographing covered bridges for National Geographic magazine. As they uncover the story and the secret she kept for decades, they recognise some truths about their own relationships … I don’t want to need you – because I can’t have you. Time was, author Robert James Waller was trawling the world’s talk shows, hawking his book and singing his songs and that was only in the Nineties. And it’s absurd to think of it now, but Clint Eastwood is still directing movies so this can be described as middle-period Clint. He and Streep (doing Anna Magnani in some scenes) are phenomenal together – have we ever seen them be so appealing, so vulnerable, as these middle aged lovers who’ve been around the block and been burned and bored and now find this wondrous once in a lifetime love?  Adapted by Richard LaGravenese from the slim bestseller, this is a long, slow, languorous look at a couple who know it’s now or never, flawed perhaps only by over length and the framing story doesn’t really add to the experience (this was the idea of Steven Spielberg, who originally planned on directing).  Nonetheless it’s totally satisfying, filled with nuance and passion and detail, and if you don’t shed a tear when those windscreen wipers are going from side to side, in that classic penultimate sequence, well, face it, you’re already dead. Wonderful. You never think love like this is ever going to happen

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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The truth does not make it easier to understand, you know. I mean, you think that you find out the truth about me, and then you’ll understand me. And then you would forgive me for all those… for all my lies. Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young writer, moves to Brooklyn (or The Sodom of the North as his father calls it) in the hot summer of 1947 to begin work on his first novel. As he becomes friendly with his upstairs neighbour Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her biologist lover Nathan (Kevin Kline), a Jew, he learns that Sophie is a Holocaust survivor. Flashbacks reveal her harrowing story, from pre-war prosperity to Auschwitz. In the present, Sophie and Nathan’s relationship increasingly unravels as Stingo grows closer to Sophie and Nathan’s fragile mental state becomes ever more apparent just as Sophie’s past haunts her … Alan J. Pakula abandoned his customary 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller style to adapt William Styron’s novel – and yet one wonders if the Nazi takeover and atrocities aren’t the perfect subject for such an approach? As it is this too-faithful work exercises a Gothic hold despite the dayglo colours of Nestor Alemendros’ cinematography.  Death is in the narrative cracks. MacNicol is strange enough to withstand the attention as the rather naif narrator, Kline epitomises the term kinetic in a tremendously physical interpretation of the disturbed Nathan as he literally envelops Streep, whose luminous moony pallor dominates every scene. The structure – revealing the tragic titular decision – is painstaking but it somehow works against the dramatic tension in a film that is too long and paradoxically fears taking a risk. It’s Streep who makes this work in a jaw-dropping performance which created her legend.

Mamma Mia! (2008)

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Producer Judy Craymer had a brilliant idea for a theatre musical:  use the songs of Abba for a jukebox production, wrapped into a story written by Catherine Johnson. And then she hired Phyllida Lloyd to direct it and it became a huge global hit – and then Lloyd got to do the film version too. Amanda Seyfried is Sophie, the twenty-year old daughter of hippie single mom Meryl Streep who’s brought her up in splendid desolation  on a Greek island in a rundown hotel. She’s engaged to be married to Sky (Dominic Cooper) and when she finds her mother’s diary realises her father could be one of three men – Planned Parenthood not being a priority round these parts. So she invites all three candidates to the nuptials without telling Meryl, who’s bringing her own besties, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski:  the potential dads are Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard. The Rule of Three is used a lot in this film of Greek choruses. Sophie figures she’ll know her father when she sees him. She doesn’t. There’s intrigue, slapstick, group choreographed singalongs and then everyone begins to twig what Sophie has done.There’s a showdown in front of the Irish priest at the wedding. Everybody sings, the men are notably terrible. It’s awfully badly made. It’s camp as a caravan site and tasteless in the extreme. It’s a truly, truly terrible film. It’s also one of the most enjoyable you’ll ever experience and definitely the best karaoke session you’ll ever have. And you ain’t seen nothin’ till you see some of the finest actors on the planet disgrace themselves discoing during the end credits sequence. Inexplicable.

Ricki and the Flash (2015)

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I’m a big fan of writer Diablo Cody so having her write a movie starring Meryl Streep and directed by Jonathan Demme made me hope for great things – like Young Adult, the criminally underrated comedy with Charlize Theron and still Cody’s best work … Ricki’s the sixtysomething mom who ran away from hubby and three small children to make music and is still rocking away in California bars at night and checking groceries by day – basically broke. (But living the dream! Yeah!) She gets a call from home, ex-hubby Pete  (Kevin Kline) informing her that their adult daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer ie Ms Streep’s own daughter) is in trouble after her husband cheated and split. Ricki rolls up to the mansion in Indiana in her rocker gear, Julie’s hair is on end and she’s off her trolley on prescription drugs. She’s vile to her mother. But the dog thinks Ricki’s cool. Then Pete tells Ricki that Julie attempted suicide. The women’s scenes together are really good – as you’d expect  – but the writing’s not as sharp as you want for performers of this calibre. There’s a good restaurant scene where  Ricki  discovers her older son is engaged (to an obnoxious snob) and her other son is gay (he used to be bi) and dad orders dinner over the row. It’s fun to see Streep and Kline back together for the first time since Sophie’s Choice but there’s no really felt narrative between them. Just a lot of years apart. Ricki brings Julie to the hairdresser and gets her off the pills. Then … stepmom comes back and narrative issues arise:  she’s black (I guess it’s PC), a high achiever, and she’s competing to be the better mom. Not too hard since she was there. Your basic bitch, as Kate Moss might have it. Ricki slopes back to CA to bandmate Rick Springfield and they have a good scene together – but he gets the best lines about parenting, plus the tears. Then there’s a wedding … Perhaps the big issue here is Ricki’s voice – in every sense. We hear one of her ‘own’ compositions, with Streep on guitar, wasted on weed, with Pete and Julie, when he admits he’s still got her album in a Rubber Maid in the garage. But everything  else is a cover version. We needed something true – written by a woman who’s seen it all. Wasn’t Lucinda Williams available for the whole soundtrack instead of just one song (ditto Emmylou)? A pity… That’s Cody dancing in the red striped dress in the bar, BTW.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

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Florence Foster Jenkins was a socialite and philanthropist devoted to music. Late in life she decided the world was ready for her and recorded herself to soothe the boys in uniform fighting in WW2 and her song was such a radio hit she booked Carnegie Hall. (Because  it ain’t over till the flat lady sings.) She was a laughing stock and didn’t know it. What she heard … was not what the world heard. Husband St Clair Bayfield, a failed actor, protected her from the bad press but the final performance was a bit de trop … La Streep gives it her all as the lousy singer with a passion for potato salad and no inner critic, despite being a founder of New York’s Verdi Club and a close personal friend of Toscanini (John Kavanagh). The vocal coach (David Haig) who gets wind of her show ensures to be out of town and begs St Clair (Hugh Grant) not to credit him. The accompanist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) is simply stunned by how awful Florence is but St Clair makes him an offer he can’t refuse and he joins her each day for training:he has ambitions to be a composer so she sings his song too. His reaction shots are priceless. Then, like St Clair, he realises Florence is a good person, they have a good life, and no harm is being done. We really see Florence from his perspective. We learn slowly that Florence contracted syphilis from her philandering first husband and this laugh out loud comedy attains a touch of poignancy and humanity as we see the effects of the illness contracted on her wedding night aged 18. Florence is cared for by her Irish housekeeper Kitty (Brid Brennan, reuniting with Streep 18 years after Dancing at Lughnasa). Florence’s relationship with St Clair is strictly platonic – he keeps a mistress, Kathleen  (Rebecca Ferguson) in the apartment Florence finances and we sympathise with her situation, even as Kathleen’s artsy-fartsy boho friends mock Florence. That’s good writing, by Nicholas Martin, and if this feels a tad long, it’s still good, under Stephen Frears’ direction. The story is really all about Bayfield and Grant is exceptional in the role. There’s been a stage show (Glorious! by Peter Quilter) and a French film (Marguerite) based on the same subject and despite being shot in the UK (mainly Liverpool), this looks pretty authentic to me. But golly I wanted a plate of potato salad after seeing it! Tasty.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

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What a difficult thing it is to be the first. And the best. This was the first Nam movie. Michael Cimino was directing for just the second time after earning his stripes with Clint Eastwood on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. He co-wrote the original story – he had been writing for years of course – with Deric Washburn, who got the screenplay credit. Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker had written an unproduced script about Russian roulette and Vegas so they share story credit.  Cimino recced locations all over the US for verisimilitude and many of the extras are the real-life inhabitants of those places masquerading as western Pennsylvania circa 1967. The vets in the rehab facility are the real thing. The setpieces establishing the men’s friendship (drinking, hunting, the wedding party) are leisurely and help us empathise with them when with an extraordinary jump cut they and we are transported to the killing fields. We love these guys by now. One of them (John Savage) is weaker than the others and it’s De Niro who leads the charge against the vicious Vietnamese: their contempt for life is all over the movie (and no surprise to those of us related to POWs held by the Japanese.) And yet the film could be about any war, anywhere: the cast said Vietnam was never even mentioned and it was shot in Thailand. This is a film about people under pressure and how they react to that pressure. Nicky (Christopher Walken) stays behind and it is of course his scene with De Niro for which the film is notorious. It never fails to shock. The overwhelming emotion in the scene strangely is that it is about love – and that of course is what certain people hated. The final gathering, in which the original team of Russian American steel workers are reunited at his funeral and Meryl Streep leads them in God Bless America really pissed off a lot of liberals. Warren Beatty allegedly orchestrated a campaign against the film during awards season (Heaven Can Wait was in competition!) Cimino came from making Heaven’s Gate to the Academy Awards where it took 5 including Best Director and Best Picture (De Niro lost out to Jon Voight but Walken took Best Supporting Actor). Afterwards Cimino found himself sharing an elevator with Jane Fonda and wanted to congratulate her for winning Best Actress for Coming Home: she refused to acknowledge him (she hadn’t seen the film. Her own rehab flick was up against it for Picture). The music, adapting Stanley Myers’ theme, is exquisite, as is the sound design. The acting is extraordinary and probably unsurpassed by those performers in a flawless cast (professional and amateur alike). Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is perfection.If you’re not crying by the end of this, the greatest Seventies movie of them all, then you’re probably  …no, I won’t go there. Cimino was responsible for some of cinema’s finest hours and they’re right here. RIP.

Heartburn (1986)

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You know when you really want to like a film a lot more than it permits? Yup, this is the one that got away from Nora Ephron when she was adapting her ‘novel’ which was in fact a dissection of her marriage to womanising Washington Post columnist Carl Bernstein. The scenes go on way too long. They’re not terribly interesting people.  He cheats on her, all too predictably, when she’s pregnant with their second kid. Maybe they should have renovated the house quicker and he would have felt more comfortable at home than in motels with the wife of the English ambassador (Margaret Jay, rather infamously.) Being Ephron, there are some good lines, but they don’t go to our unhappily married couple. When she waddles home to her widowed father, just coming back from Atlantic City with ‘a looker,’ he explains that this is why he hangs around with women,  “I hate men, this is the kind of thing they do.” And we have to agree with him on this one:  “You want monogamy, marry a swan.” Should have done better, Mike Nichols. And Nora, I miss you, but you should have had someone do the adaptation for you. Your dad?! Carbonara, anyone? I’m hungry now.