Jaws (1975)

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Ibsen by way of a Peter Benchley bestseller and an adventurous and gifted director called Steven Spielberg. I got caught up in this again late last night and was gripped, as ever, by this visceral tale of beachside terror which hasn’t aged a day and in many respects remains my favourite Spielberg movie. There is so much to relish. The atmosphere, aided immeasurably by John Williams’ stunningly suggestive score – which was the soundtrack in the bathroom of the late lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London – utterly terrifying!. The performances:  who doesn’t love Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist? Roy Scheider as the seaside town police chief who’s scarified of water? Robert Shaw as the drunken shark hunting Captain Quint? And those hellishly cute kids. And what about the titles sequence? There’s the politics of the summer season and the mayor who doesn’t want word to get out. The anger of the bereaved mother. The bloodied water and beach toys. The track-zoom of realisation. The clear storytelling. White sharks got a bad press out of this epic battle but there has rarely been a better exploration of the ecology of man and beast. Quite literally sensational. Classic, brilliant, the original of the species. Written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with a little assist from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, and John Milius.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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And that’s how you play Get the Guest. Edward Albee’s shocking 1962 play was bought by Jack Warner and the intention was to hire Bette Davis and James Mason – and how fun would that have been, having Davis quote herself with that unforgettable first line, What a dump!? But it’s Elizabeth Taylor who gets to declare the immortal line, squinting, bug-eyed with drink, into the harsh light after a night out on campus with unambitious lecturer hubby historian Richard Burton. When young marrieds George Segal and Sandy Dennis enter their den of iniquitous untruths and illusion their own marriage is laid bare as well in a devastating series of tragicomic slurs and fantasies, a miasma of lies, put downs and storytelling. Albee’s play was of course a profane satire about the sham foundations of marriage and social mores of the time;  this film helped dismantle the Production Code and was the first film Jack Valenti really had to look at in terms of what constituted entertainment for consenting adults. Albee said of the leads that Taylor was quite good while Burton was incredible. That’s in the eye of the beholder – in fact Taylor is extraordinary and it is remarkable that she gave her greatest exhibition of not merely star quality but intensely affecting emotional performances in works written by homosexual playwrights – one thinks of her in Suddenly Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, complex works that, like this, have a strain of flagrant misogyny running through them. Ernest Lehman did the adaptation which mostly cleaves to the play with just a couple of exceptions and it’s ‘opened out’ with the dance scene in the diner – and what a humdinger that is! What is perhaps most astonishing is that this was Mike Nichols’ directing debut, supposedly at Taylor’s insistence. Just look at the way he frames shots with Haskell Wexler as his DoP: he said he learned everything he knew about directing from watching A Place in the Sun. Taylor and Burton are at the apex of their careers here, particularly with regard to their joint projects. But despite the plethora of nominations it was she and Dennis who walked away with the Academy Awards – A Man For All Seasons took all the other big plaudits that year. There is a reason that Taylor is known for being the last great Hollywood star – and it’s right here. Phenomenal.

Legally Blonde (2001)

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Years before the feel-good musical! Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is the beyond blonde Californian sorority queen who just wants to settle down with her boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) after graduation from college and on the night she thinks he’s going to propose he dumps her  – for a brunette swot Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair) who’s going to Harvard Law with him.  Elle decides to follow him and crams for the Law School Admission Test – and winds up at Harvard too, pretty in pink with her beloved chihuahua in tow. She’s laughed out of class and takes refuge at a hair salon owned by Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) and gets real, hits the books and winds up being romanced by her tutor Luke Wilson and getting on the team to defend a wealthy widow who’s accused of murdering her much older husband. Very funny outing with the redoubtable Witherspoon giving a barnstorming performance in a smart satire with a big princess heart at its centre.  The concluding courtroom scene is a doozy. With a slew of nice supporting cast including Ali Larter, Oz Perkins, Victor Garber and Raquel Welch, this is nicely shot by Anthony B. Richmond, and directed by Robert Luketic from a screenplay by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, adapting Amanda Brown’s novel (the first in a series).

The Last Detail (1973)

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I am the motherfucking shore patrol! Jack Nicholson was one of the biggest stars of the 70s after Easy Rider and this adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s terrific novel is one of the key buddy movies of the period. Nicholson plays Billy ‘Badass’ Buddusky, Signalman First Class who’s awaiting orders at Norfolk naval base with Richard ‘Mule’ Mulhall (Otis Young) when they are directed to escort young Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to prison in Maine in the depths of winter.  He tried to steal $40 from a charity collection box – and the problem is it’s a favourite of his commanding officer’s wife so he’s got eight years for his efforts.  They set out on a Bon Voyage tour of the north east, getting into all sorts of scrapes and seeing the virginal Larry’s miserable home in Philadelphia en route.  Screenwriter Robert Towne, working for the first (but not the last) time with director Hal Ashby radically altered Ponicsan’s Camus-loving protagonist with his beyond-beautiful wife and recast him as a more ultimately compromised man, adding him to the gallery of unformed underachievers that populates his screenplays:  J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, George Roundy in Shampoo, Mac in Tequila Sunrise.  All of these men are compromised in their need for the means to survive. Of these characters, it could be said that Buddusky (certainly in Towne’s interpretation of the original character as conceived by Ponicsan) is actually the least tragic (he does not succumb to the fate administered in Ponicsan’s novel, thereby rendering the title meaningless!), the most pragmatic – and the most well-adjusted. Towne’s interpretation of Buddusky aligns him in the vanguard of New Hollywood in its politicised, anti-authoritarian heyday.  While his work on the film was undoubtedly influenced by his producer (Gerald Ayres) and director (particularly, it seems, by Ashby), he wrote it with Nicholson in mind and it copperfastened his position as upcoming screenwriter in the early Seventies.  Nicholson’s casting also helped get the film made – the original draft screenplay had ‘342 fucks.’ (There were 65 in the final release.) However Towne had also envisioned the film being cast with Rupert Crosse who died before it got the greenlight so the spotlight of the film now shifted more completely to Nicholson, and the script’s emphasis was therefore changed: Nicholson simply did not have the same kind of relationship with Otis Young, Crosse’s replacement. It was now truly a star vehicle. Meadows was played by Texan newcomer Randy Quaid, who towered over Nicholson, lending even more comedy to the situation. (John Travolta made it to the last two but it was Quaid’s height which lent his character even more poignancy.) It took Nicholson’s winning the Best Actor award at Cannes to get Columbia to finally release the film which was a long time in the editing room. Nicholson still regards it as his best role – Chinatown notwithstanding! Ribald, profane, oddly touching and screamingly funny, this is a tonally perfect comic drama and one you won’t forget in a hurry. For more on it and the significance of Nicholson’s work with his greatest collaborator, screenwriter Robert Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489670058&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Manchester By The Sea (2016)

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I can’t beat it. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a janitor in Boston, permanently hunched and haunted and beset by half-dressed female tenants who want to have sex with him and complain to his boss when he evinces no interest whatsoever and just fixes their toilets. He barely speaks. When he gets a call that older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died suddenly he is forced back to his titular hometown where people refer to him as ‘the Lee Chandler’ and he finds out from his brother’s lawyer he’s been named guardian to his irritating, underage, sexually voracious nephew Patrick (goofy ginger Lucas Hedges). It takes us a long time and a lot of repetitive scenes to get to the reason for his devastation:  the death of his young family for which he feels incalculable guilt. Patrick has no reaction to his father’s demise and just gets on with getting it on with whatever nasty teenage girls have sex with him, plays hockey and generally acts like dumb teenagers do when confronted with intimations of mortality (I was recently at a funeral when the teenage son of the woman whose death was being commemorated left midway to smoke cigarettes with several girls. This shit happens.) So much  of this is low-key and true that when these guys eventually drop their protective masks it is both surprising and shocking and explosive in terms of the situations  in which they finally let loose as much as anything else. Michelle Williams has one wonderful scene as Lee’s ex-wife (pictured in the poster) and it is of such delicacy that it elicits pure emotions not just from Affleck but the audience, otherwise her role is mainly confined to flashbacks of their marriage and its unfortunate and tragicomic ending (that ambulance scene is literally killer). So paradoxically despite its overlength the unsentimental narrative focus is somewhat diverted to the wrong situations and some scenes are consigned to montage underscored by rather obvious and ill-chosen music when we would prefer to hear the dialogue.  The flashback structure works brilliantly however. The rarely seen Gretchen Mol (the Next Big Thing, according to Vanity Fair circa 1998  when she co-starred with this film’s producer and intended star Matt Damon in Rounders) shows up as Patrick’s alkie mom, long estranged from the family. Affleck is simply masterful as this man who desires punishment but nobody wants him to suffer any more, except for a few women who believe he killed his kids. However it’s a long time getting to the point about how people deal differently with bereavement and even if we agree, such is real life, a playwright, screenwriter (and director) as smart as Kenneth Lonergan should and could have got there quicker.

It Happened to Jane (1959)

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Doris plays Jane Osgood, a widowed mother of two trading lobster. When a shipment of 300 of the poor creatures dies in transit she asks her lawyer George (Jack Lemmon) to sue the railroad company and she’s awarded money. The company files against her and George wants her to take the train in lieu then the newspapers get hold of the story and she threatens to appear on TV. George is jealous of Larry (Steve Forrest) who’s a journalist she’s smitten with and the railroad bypasses the town, endangering all the businesses … Cute undemanding comedy with great stars and fun script by Norman Katkov and Max Wilk, this saw director/producer Richard Quine reunited again with regular star Lemmon and the great Ernie Kovacs, who had also appeared in Bell, Book and Candle:  he’s cast here as “the meanest man in the world”! Re-released in 1961 as Twinkle and Shine.

Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

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She must be at least thirty! squeak the privileged brides-to-be in Wellesley, “that finishing school disguised as a college”, as subversive art lecturer Julia Roberts so eloquently expresses it. It’s 1953 and the old values prevail as much as the long shadow of WW2 lingers among the women and the elitist daughters of society who are more interested in being married than establishing their own careers. Roberts is a migrant from California and just doesn’t get it and her freewheeling teaching style lands her in the soup. Bitchy class bully Kirsten Dunst wants to teach her a lesson and her editorials on the campus newspaper land Juliet Stevenson out on her ear for handing out contraception to some students. Dominic West is the philandering Italian lecturer who sleeps with students and has a secret of his own, while Julia’s reunion with longtime love John Slattery goes hopelessly wrong and she turns to her colleague for respite. The fraudulent lives of people and what they do to cope and how they live with themselves is the real subject here, as liberalism brushes up against conservatism and you’re not quite sure who wins at the end. Beautifully shot, with some good performances wrapped up in those long skirts and saddle shoes. Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, directed by Mike Newell, this made a lot of headlines over Roberts’ salary – at 25 million, it made her the best paid actress of all time. It may be circumscribed in some ways but there are nice supporting performances by Donna Mitchell, Marian Seldes and Marcia Gay Harden, while Maggie Gyllenhaal gets a good showcase as the promiscuous girl who sees through the hypocrisy.

What About Bob? (1991)

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If you’ve ever had the misfortune to be acquainted with someone in therapy then you’ll know that they use their acquired techniques to manipulate, bully, threaten and terrorise their innocent target. Unbeknownst to myself, a much older friend was an alcoholic analysand. And I was the utterly innocent (admittedly obtuse, people had warned me) target her therapist told her to terrorise – apparently this is what they do. I found out when summoned out of my office (to discommode me) by this talentless self-obsessed madwoman when she announced it loudly in public (an essential component) that her therapist revealed to her that I was professionally jealous of her (she was unemployed until the grand old age of 51 when she finally got a temporary job) and I endured twenty minutes of crazed vitriol. I stood up, told her to have a drink and felt a spring in my step as the weight of five horrendous years of her narcissistic attacks lifted from my shoulders.  I ran for ten miles on the treadmill at the gym. Three days later I got a letter from a literary agent I’d never heard of issuing a legal threat on behalf of my now former friend claiming authorship to one of my works to which she now exclusively attached her name (her notion of co-writing being to smoke in my face, drink coffee like an addict and snigger). I then (self-therapy alert) wrote a study on authorship. Ahem. So when I first saw this film many years ago I found it funny. Now it’s about as funny as a funeral and practically a documentary. And all that trauma has come flooding back … Bill Murray is narcissistic divorced Bob who’s driven his last shrink nuts with his phobias and is taken on unwittingly by Dr Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) who’s about to become mega-famous thanks to a forthcoming interview on Good Morning America to publicise his new book, Baby Steps. Through a series of cunning acts Bob hunts him and his family down at their lakeside retreat where they’re vacationing until Labor Day and proceeds to drive the doc crazy … Tom Schulman’s screenplay is based on a story by veteran Alvin Sargent and co-producer Laura Ziskin (with Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett). Being Hollywood vets I can only guess at the real stories they could tell. Like I said, I used to find this hilarious and Murray is of course brilliant as the nutcase but Dreyfuss has the real acting moments here, turned inside out and crazy by his gifted sociopathic charge, finding himself put on Librium and in a straitjacket in the lunatic asylum. They hated each other on set but how it plays on screen as the nutter alienates the doctor’s family, marrying his sister and appropriating his life. How nice it is to see a doctor victimised with their own tools for a change! Starring Joan Lunden as herself. My ‘friend’? You won’t have heard of her. Obviously.

A Stolen Life (1946)

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What could possibly be better than a Bette Davis film? Why, a film with two Bette Davis performances, of course! And this, her first self-produced outing, is a compelling drama with that hoary Forties trope of the good twin/bad twin variety. Reserved artist Kate Bosworth (I know…) goes to visit her cousin Charlie Ruggles at the family’s enormous cottage getaway on Martha’s Vineyard only to fall for lighthouse keeper Glenn Ford, whom Davis ensured to cast. Their cosy dates are usurped by the visit of her identical twin Pat, a confident, glamorous and highly sexed character who masquerades as Kate, steals her beau, marries him and then dies in a boating accident with her twin, after which Kate pretends to be her and discovers the truth about her sister’s life …  This is a brilliant, Grade A  melodrama, a blend of noir, horror and psychology, playing on Davis’ complex duality, all set on open seas, fog-enshrouded cliffs, chi-chi Boston townhouses and an artist’s garret. Davis’ performance as her introverted Self and her own Other  – rumoured to be based on professional nemesis Miriam Hopkins! – is captivating. This was technically a remake, the story having already been made in England before WW2, adapted from the source novel by Karel Benes with Elisabeth Bergner in the lead. But this is very much a Hollywood adaptation by Margaret Buell Wilder and the screenplay came from the practised hand of hit playwright and novelist Catherine Turney, a woman regularly hired by Warner Bros for the films of Davis and her other great rival, Joan Crawford. I’ve written an essay on the subject which you can find here:  http://www.offscreen.com/view/double_life_part1.

The City of the Dead (1960)

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‘Burn, witch, burn!’ are the first words heard here and indeed there is something of a relationship with the Fritz Leiber book  (Conjure Wife) which became that film title in a similar production context also known as Night of the Eagle (1962), made by Anglo-Amalgamated in England. Indeed Independent Artists would bring in New Yorker George Baxt to work on the screenplay, just as he does here.  This commenced as a television pilot for Boris Karloff. It was extended by producer Milton Subotsky, who made it with Max Rosenberg. They would have a company called Amicus Productions but it was actually made by Vulcan Productions. Christopher Lee was the ostensible star as a college lecturer but we see far more of Venetia Stevenson as the student who goes to the New England town that saw witches die on Candlemas Eve hundreds of years earlier.  Patricia Jessel has a juicy dual role as a witch burned and the proprietress of the hotel where the unfortunate girl fetches up. There is a tremendously eerie atmosphere in the fogbound village of Whitewood and a little gore, albeit in black and white. In the US this was released as Horror Hotel.