Donnie Darko (2001)

Donnie Darko theatrical.jpg

This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

Advertisements

La La Land (2016)

La La Land movie poster.jpg

I left this singing the songs and wiping tears from my eyes. Hardly a typical exit from a movie on a viciously cold winter’s day but confirmation that everything you’ve heard about this is true:  it’s absolutely, unexpectedly wonderful. The opening is casually breathtaking, a pass-it-along song among disenchanted motorists stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway in LA, singing and dancing as far as the eye can see in an utterly joyous spectacle. Ryan Gosling is playing and re-playing a piano sequence on the tape deck of his vintage car while Emma Stone is in the car in front, talking on the phone and looking at a scene for an audition. She doesn’t see the traffic move along, he overtakes, glares at her and she gives him the finger. This meet cute is in three parts and the second is at a club where he gets fired for playing his preferred jazz tunes;  then a pool party where he’s playing in an 80s covers band and she requests I Ran. He invites her to see Rebel Without a Cause (my favourite movie!) at The Rialto and then the romance begins in earnest, under the stars at the Griffith Observatory, over the course of the seasons, with everything colour coded, in tribute perhaps to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but with liberal references to a slew of other musicals that have soundtracked our lives. Everything is perfectly judged as they move in together, she attends hilariously awful auditions, he has to slowly forego his dream of a jazz club and must earn his crust playing with John Legend (I know), just as he’s persuaded her to love the musical form she associates with Kenny G (exactly). He explains to her what jazz is:  Conflict and Compromise. And that’s how the story works. There is wit and smarts to spare, not just movie references, since the score by Justin Hurwitz is its own animal and the free jazz improv daubs this Damien Chazelle work with its own singular mojo. The narrative combines the integrated musical, the backstage musical and straightforward musical drama in a discursive work which posits settling against success, love against loss, against a bedrock of millennial failures and wannabes – baristas, waiters and jobless performers, living in an LA rarely seen on screen with its rackety streets, vintage accoutrements, nouveau restaurants and old style clubs, not to mention the Warners’ lot. This is just brilliant filmmaking, with an audacious ending and fantastically good performances by the leads who are terrific given their deliberately limited dancing and singing abilities. Gosling has improved so much (wasn’t The Nice Guys the making of him?); and Stone gives a gracious, complex, fully rounded empathy to a role that beautifully complements his sardonic but passionate dude. A widescreen valentine to Hollywood, music, movies, and La-La-Land, that destination for dreamers everywhere. Stunning.

The Way We Were (1973)

The Way We Were movie poster.jpg

Just watch the first ten minutes and realise this is how movies used to be. The Seventies! Oh! Katie Morosky (Barbra Streisand) is producing radio shows in the wake of WW2 in NYC. She walks into a bar with her colleague and a girl is standing beside a Naval officer who’s falling asleep on a stool but remarkably remaining upright. And watch Katie’s face and see her draw in her breath at this beautiful man. Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford). It’s one of the great moments of cinema. Everyone in the audience enjoys a sharp intake of breath along with Barbra. This really is one beautiful man. And we’re into a titles sequence that fills in the pre-WW2 backstory at college, Barbra sings the title song, an incredible composition by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, and we learn she was a Communist, he was a feckless WASP. And they were drawn to each other, somehow, beyond all expectations … Arthur Laurents’ screenplay was orginally intended for Streisand and Ryan O’Neal but with Ray Stark on board as producer he didn’t want to upset Streisand after her affair with O’Neal ended. Sydney Pollack was hired at Laurents’ own suggestion as director. Boy did he regret it. The casting of that vastly enigmatic superstar Redford somehow lends the bastardised bowdlerized version of the screenplay (there were 11 other writers) a depth its plot holes couldn’t disguise and that weren’t in Laurents’ work. The team had to come crawling back to Laurents who naturally demanded a huge sum of money – to restore some sort  of order to the mess they’d made of his sharply focused work. Katie and Hubbell wind up in Hollywood, he’s a successful screenwriter but her activism in the HUAC witch hunt creates difficulties for his career and we get a lot of in-house studio politics as well as seeing the compromises that a screenwriter (ironically) endures. You can read Laurents’ extraordinary memoir for his own account but what is sad is that Ray Stark consistently blocked efforts by both Redford and Streisand, and Laurents, to make a sequel. K-k-k-k-k-Katie! We’ll always have that look, that song, those scenes. A remarkable work in nostalgia starring screen presences at the height of their incomparable powers.F-f-f-f-f-fabulous! The way cinema was.

Summer of ’42 (1971)

Summer_of_'42_POSTER.jpg

Oh, the humanity. I saw this at an impressionable age and it has stayed with me in a way that few films do. It also introduced me to the music of Michel Legrand. When I went away to college at 17 I stepped into a piano bar one evening and once I was sitting down the house musician played this theme, The Summer Knows:  instantly I felt more at ease in my own skin. It calls up all sorts of feelings of recognition, yearning, regret, hope, fear. What is it about this film? The music, certainly. The story of a boy’s sentimental education with a young Army wife who then becomes a war widow. The setting on Nantucket. The summer breezes blowing the grasses on the dunes. The waves, the waves, constantly forming the backdrop to experience. Now Voyager in the movie theatre. Jennifer O’Neill’s incredible beauty. Gary Grimes’ awkwardness as Hermie. Jerry Houser’s typical boy, Oscy. And of course the bespectacled Oliver Conant as Benjie, whose sex manual gives the boys the keys to the kingdom, as they see the world of girls. TV writer Herman Raucher narrates his own story:  because this is what happened to him aged 14. He was persuaded to novelize his screenplay and it was a bestseller before the film’s release, going through many print runs. He got ten per cent of the film’s gross because Warners weren’t sure it would make money:  it never quit and he would never agree to a remake. Robert Mulligan directed. It is a remarkably resonant and touching work and it’s what Shelley Duvall is watching on TV in The Shining. There’s a sequel that I’ve never seen. This will do. It’s perfect.

The Godfather (1971)

The Godfather poster

Make him an offer he can’t refuse. Go to the mattresses. Leave the gun, take the cannolis. The Godfather is truly the I Ching, non vero? Mario Puzo’s novel is gripping but kinda schlocky, Francis Ford Coppola saw a way to imbue it with a kind of classicism at a time when the few Mafia movies that had been made were really just cheap-ish thrillers. The story is that of family, brothers, inheritance, murder and mayhem. If you do the Paramount Studios tour (and I thoroughly recommend it) you can see the NYC set where Michael takes out the crooked cop and the rival who’s tried to assassinate his father Don Vito – a friend obsessed with production design asked me if the floor (tiled) was still there and I had to disappoint them. But it was a thrill. Because no matter how many times you see this film it lures you in, just like they do Sonny to the tollbooth on the Causeway (jeez, the first time I saw this I didn’t go to bed till 2 in the morning. The image of James Caan being rattled like a ragdoll under machine gunfire is unforgettable and horrible. Never mind the horse’s head…)  Watching Pacino transform from the good youngest son to the efficiently vengeful killing machine is really something – his movement under the greatcoat and bowler at the movie’s end makes you weep, and that closing shot, when his wife is literally shut out in that long shot … Oh, I feel like I’m turning into Edward G. Robinson:  Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?!  Coppola did a fine job in making over the material so that you feel like you’re watching a parable about America rather than a tale of scuzzy mobsters. But he knew mid-production there was a scene missing and so he asked screenwriter and script doctor Robert Towne to help him out: the result being the garden scene when the Don is handing over the family business to the war hero son he thought would become a Senator. You can read about that in my book about Towne: https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472425177&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon. What a fabulous film.

The Dressmaker (2015)

The_Dressmaker_film_poster.jpg

Tone is a hard thing to pull off in a movie. Black comedy is probably the  most difficult of all but when it works it’s rewarding. This starts like a western with a train pulling into a wretched early Fifties Outback town of shacks and small minds but instead of a gunslinger or a sheriff disembarking it’s a dressmaker: her weapon of choice? A Singer sewing machine. The music underlines our anticipation of tumbleweed blowing through the unmarked streets. It’s rare enough to hear the names Vionnet or Balenciaga but in this context it’s disturbing. Kate Winslet is Tilly Dunnage, newly returned from Paris by way of Spain and London and Italy. “Why would a beautiful and clever girl like you come back here?” an old crone neighbour asks her. Turns out she was banished as a young girl, accused of murdering a boy whom we see in flashbacks. She has no recollection of killing him and her alkie mother Molly (Judy Davis) engages in verbal fisticuffs with her about that and everything else as Tilly cleans her up, gets a shedload of clients and changes the way all the women dress; the policeman (Hugo Weaving) apologises for sending her away while testing her textiles; a rival dressmaker turns up halfway through; and a sexy neighbour Teddy  (Liam Hemsworth) makes a relationship possible, if only temporarily. This is a compelling revenge western, with Winslet relishing the possibilities of the femme fatale/sharpsewer in this genre-busting adaptation of  Rosalie Ham’s novel  by director Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan. Laughs are to be had at the effect of a great dress on an Aussie Rules game, a screening of Sunset Blvd., the Cinderella transformation of Gertrude (Sarah Snook) into ‘Trudy’ and a supreme act of sabotage. A dish best served cold, performed with great galloping gusto by all concerned.

Foul Play (1978)

Foul Play poster.jpg

Beware the dwarf! I just love Goldie Hawn. And I love pretty much every single thing she’s ever done: now how many actors or actresses can you say that about? Seeing her puts a smile on my face. And this Hitchcockian farce from the pen of Colin Higgins is screamingly funny. She’s quiet divorced librarian Gloria Mundy who picks up Scotty, a hitchhiker with a roll of film concealed in his cigarette packet, and gets embroiled in a plot to assassinate the Pope in San Francisco. There’s an albino killer, a dangerous dwarf, a snake, a sexy cop (Chevy Chase) and a most unseemly setup at the Catholic bishopric. There’s a brilliant sidebar relationship with sex addict Dudley Moore, regular interludes with a fellow librarian who’s convinced every man is after her for sex and all the while Goldie is trying not to get killed for something she knows nothing about. It’s laugh-a-minute hilarity from the get-go with Barry Manilow’s songs to soothe the fevered brow as the antics proceed at breathtaking pace performed with gusto by a wonderful cast. A must-see.