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.

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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.

Fletch (1985)

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Are you putting a whole fist up there Doc? Irwin Fletcher (Chevy Chase) is an undercover reporter doing a drugs story while disguised as a homeless junkie on the beach when he’s approached by businessman Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson) to kill him for $50,000 because he’s got bone cancer. Fletch identifies himself as Ted Nugent. He then investigates this fascinating proposition, donning a myriad of disguises and identities (we particularly like the 49c teeth), getting mired in Stanwyk’s marital disarray, property deals, police corruption involving Chief of Police Karlin (Joe Don Baker) – and murder. And he gets to know Alan’s LA wife Gail (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) in a mutually satisfying fashion. Win! Gregory Mcdonald’s novel gets a fast-moving adaptation from Andrew Bergman, a director in his own right (there was some additional uncredited work by fellow writer-director Phil Alden Robinson.)  Chase gives the performance (or performances) that you’d expect – droll and deadpan, always amiable (yet plucky!) and the running joke about his bizarre expense claims is well done. Fine, funny lighthearted fare handled with his customary aplomb by director Michael Ritchie, energised by a typically zippy plinkety-plonk score from Harold Faltermeyer, the go-to composer for zeitgeisty mid-Eighties entertainment. Chase even dons an Afro to play basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There’s a wonderful supporting cast including Geena Davis in the newsroom, David Harper (of The Waltons!) as ‘teenager’ and Kenneth Mars:  we are thrice blessed!

Cheaper by the Dozen (1950)

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They come cheaper by the dozen you know! Frank Gilbreth (Clifton Webb) and his wife Lillian (Myrna Loy) are efficiency experts – they would need to be with their enormous family – two are born in the course of the story, adapted from the biographical book by their son and daughter Frank and Ernestine by writer/producer Lamar Trotti. It’s a sweet, episodic narrative about the trials and tribulations of a good-natured family dealing with a house move, Father’s desire for recognition (talk of an invitation to a conference in Prague) and Mother (a psychologist) manfully giving birth to the twelfth child, a son, on father’s orders. The main drama is one boy’s desire for a dog and eldest daughter Ann (Jeanne Crain, who was 25 playing a teen) and her desire to be a flapper and cut her hair to stop being a freak.  Father believes in improving all his brood and amongst other things wants them to be great musicians but secretly knows they’re tuneless. There’s a very good scene when it turns out a fed up neighbour has suggested Mother be the local rep for Planned Parenthood. This was made at the height of Webb’s fame as Mr Belvedere and he’s terrific as the dad who is full of surprises – just watch him show the kids’ new headmistress how to bathe in seconds flat! – with Loy her usually sharp self. It looks lovely courtesy of legendary cinematographer Leon Shamroy and is nicely put together by director Walter Lang with thoroughly charming performances in a comic drama which uniquely for the Americana being produced at the time is finally tinged with tragedy.

 

Buffalo Bill (1944)

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They were all my friends. William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (Joel McCrea) is the legendary hunter and scout who rescues Senator Federici (Moroni Olsen) and his daughter Louisa (Maureen O’Hara). They fall in love and marry and Louisa bears him a son, named for Kit Carson. Bill becomes good friends with Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn), chief of the Cheyenne but Bill is forced by a collection of businessmen, politicians and the Army to fight them – a fight he doesn’t want. Writer Ned Buntline (Thomas Mitchell) immortalises his escapades and when he arrives in Washington is stunned that even little kids know who he is. When he receives distressing news of his baby son’s illness he blames his wife for their coming East and leaves her while his political disagreements become newspaper fodder. He is basically destitute until he’s offered work in a Wild West show … This more or less fictionalised biography is told with customary efficiency and verve from Twentieth-Century Fox with a screenplay by Clements Ripley, Aeneas MacKenzie, John Francis Larkin, Frank Winch and Cecile Kramer. It’s an absorbing yarn, shot in gorgeous Technicolor and moving like quickfire and has interesting touches, such as Dawn Starlight (Linda Darnell) trying on Louisa’s ‘white woman’ clothes for size and of course the marvellous action scenes, expertly choreographed.  Directed beautifully by ‘Wild’ Bill Wellman who is under-remembered now but is the subject of a great big new coffee table book which I am anticipating under the Christmas tree. Just sayin’!

Ronin (1998)

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Lady I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.  IRA woman Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) assembles a team of ex-special ops men turned mercenaries in Paris to carry out a heist on a briefcase carrying some mysterious material. They include ex-CIA agent Frank (Robert DeNiro), Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and French op Vincent (Jean Reno). They are joined by Englishman Spence (Sean Bean) and German Gregor (Stellan Skarsgaard). Each has a special gift to bring to this party. Spence immediately thinks he knows Frank from somewhere and the narrative die is cast:  as each member of the heist team begins to distrust the other, the body count mounts and this travelogue (through the south of France) speeds at an exhilarating pace with amazing car chases punctuating the stylish action around Arles and Nice. Deirdre meets secretly with fellow IRA op Seamus (Jonathan Pryce) and while she is double-crossing the team their numbers are dwindling at the hands of the Russian mob whose path they cross. Added to the mix is the ice skater Natacha Kirilova (Katharina Witt) whose showcase becomes the venue for the penultimate showdown. J. D. Zeik’s story and screenplay received a major rewrite from David Mamet under the name Richard Weisz and this super smart spy thriller benefits from shrewd juxtaposition of action with gleaming character detail. Add to that beautiful cinematography, some of the best car stunts outside of Bullitt (with Sudduth doing most of his own driving) and spot-on performances and you have a cracking genre entertainment which at the time marked a major comeback for the amazing John Frankenheimer.  The francophile was making a return to the south of France for the first time since French Connection II.  It’s great to see Michael Lonsdale as a fixer whose interest in samurai supplies the story behind the title. The final revelation is both surprising and satisfying. And the contents of that briefcase?  Well you’ve seen enough Hitchcock films to figure it out for yourself. Fantastic stuff, brilliantly directed.

Little Children (2006)

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It’s the hunger. The hunger for an alternative, and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness. Sarah (Kate Winslet) is in a stultifying situation – stay at home mom to a very robust little girl, she’s obliged to endure the Mean Girl quips of competitive moms at the playground, all of whom appear obsessed with house husband Brad (Patrick Wilson) who keeps failing his bar exams and is kept by his beautiful documentary filmmaker wife (Jennifer Connelly). On a dare, Sarah gets to know him – and they fall into a deeply sexual relationship while their children are on playdates. He conceals their meetings from his wife and they occur in between his trips to hang out with the local teenaged skateboarding gang and playing touch football with off-duty police officers. He reacquaints himself with Larry (Noah Emmerich) a retired officer who’s on a mission to go after a supposedly reformed returned paedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) in the neighbourhood:  Brad accompanies him to the house where they find the man is living with his elderly mother (Phyllis Somerville) who is trying to get her son to find a nice girl (which results in an utterly horrifying scene). Sarah finds her husband masturbating to online porn and she starts to think of escape… Adapted by Tom Perrotta from his own novel, this exerts a literary pull in a good way with a voiceover orienting us to people’s workaday notions and sordid lives in much the manner of Updike or Cheever or indeed Madame Bovary which features as the local book club’s choice. Shocking, adult entertainment about people as they probably really are, shallow, nasty and pretty terrible when they trap each other into relationships, this is outstandingly performed and made. Directed by Todd Field.

Matilda (1996)

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– Get in the car Melinda! – It’s Matilda! Whatever. Matilda (Mara Wilson) is born into a family that can’t stand her. She’s a genius among trolls and wants to go to school. Father (Danny DeVito) is a gangster and mother (Rhea Perlman) is a tramp. This gifted offspring channels her frustration at their raised voices and anger into telekinesis and when she’s bullied by the violent principal Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) at Crunchem Hall (say it quickly) Elementary School, class teacher Miss Honey (Embeth Davitz) feels her pain and befriends her. Trunchbull is her late father’s step- sister in law and had her put out of the house where her beloved doll is still in her childhood bedroom. When Matilda convinces her of her powers they set out to retrieve it … Roald Dahl’s classic gets a good adaptation by Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord (with some changes) but it’s DeVito’s direction that grabs you:  using his typical style of low angles and forced perspective, you are emotionally placed in little Matilda’s horrible domestic experience and left in no doubt as to how she feels – born to the wrong people, displaced in the wrong home, needing friends. For children of all ages, with Paul Reubens as one of two FBI agents expertly dispatched by the little girl.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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Even these days it isn’t as easy to go crazy as you might think. Divorced Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his smalltown practice in California after being away for a couple of weeks at a medical conference. Seems like half the population has been complaining of a mysterious feeling and then not returning, claiming to be better. And the other half says family members aren’t themselves – they’re impostors, lacking nothing except emotion. When his ex Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) returns from England after her own failed marriage they visit mystery writer Jack Bellicec (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) because his double is lying on the billiards table and frankly it freaks them out. Becky’s father is a little strange too and as for the local psychiatrist…. Soon it appears the whole town is being taken over by alien seed pods now being actively cultivated to make everyone the same. Whether you take this as ‘straight’ sci fi or horror (as if that were ever a thing), a political allegory (it works for  communism or fascism) or a warning about the homogeneity and groupthink of Fifties culture or even a comment on the brainwashing techniques used during the Korean War, this is brilliant cinema. From the sly innuendo of McCarthy getting back together with his ex, to the satirical thrusts at a humdrum life, this hasn’t aged a day. The scene when Teddy sees Jack’s double open his eyes while Jack is asleep is really thrilling. And as for the pods throbbing in the greenhouse! Adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from sci fi legend Jack Finney’s Colliers serial (later a novel) it was directed by Don Siegel. Whit Bisssell is the Dr in the concluding scenes and Sam Peckinpah plays Charlie the meter reader – he was director Siegel’s dialogue coach on this and four other of his Fifties films. The prologue and epilogue were added because the studio got cold feet over the pessimistic content –  but you will never forget the sight of McCarthy shouting at the trucks on the highway, and this was its original ending. Nevertheless, this is extraordinary, urgent and fiercely exciting, simply one of the best films ever made.

A Month by the Lake (1995)

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My father taught me it’s better to observe than to be observed.  It’s 1937. Miss Bentley (Vanessa Redgrave) is making her annual pilgrimage to Lake Como, the destination she frequented with her late father. She’s an unmarried woman of a certain age, the sporty delight of gorgeous young Italian men and a jolly hockey sticks type who fraternises with the ladies of the establishment (mainly Alida Valli). Then she spots a newcomer, Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox) with whose ears she becomes obsessed and whom she attempts to attract while beating him at tennis and making him miss the steamer back to the hotel. When a young Italian family employ a new American nanny Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman) straight out of finishing school he mistakes the girl’s earnest gesture upon his early leavetaking – and returns. The complications that arise are gently dramatised and the unfolding romances culminate in a broadcast that reminds us that this is the last such summer for several years… This is a charming and subtle comedy of flirtation, manners and misunderstandings. H.E. Bates’ novella gets a thorough treatment from Trevor Bentham and is really well acted by Redgrave who channels her inner Joyce Grenfell, fusing boyishness with withheld emotion:  she has a particularly funny scene when handsome young gun Vittorio (Allesandro Gassman, son of actor/director Vittorio) attempts to seduce her. She conquers him with the camera she carries everywhere. Produced by Fox’s younger brother Robert (previously married to Redgrave’s daughter, Natasha Richardson) this almost-family affair was filmed around Varenna, Bellagio and Lierna and it looks utterly splendid. A lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon – or indeed a month. Directed by John Irvin.