Last Holiday (2006)


I’m just gonna blow it. Diagnosis of a terminal brain condition prompts introverted saleswoman Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) to reflect on what she realizes has been an overly cautious life where the biggest thrill is singing in a choir. Her health plan won’t cover treatment. She withdraws her life savings and jets off to Europe – first class, to a top hotel outside Prague – where she lives like a millionaire for the last three weeks of her life during the Christmas holiday. Upbeat and passionate, she charms everybody she meets, including renowned Chef Didier (Gérard Depardieu). The only one missing from her new life in which her luck suddenly seems to be changing and her fortunes paradoxically altering for the better is her longtime crush Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) and then her medical report is reassessed … This is a remake of the J.B Priestley screenplay which was made in 1950 – starring Alec Guinness! That darkly ironic and witty piece of work is turned into something softer here with a sweetly endearing if occasionally sceptical turn by Latifah as Georgia. (It was originally meant for the late, great John Candy). The twist ending remains but in altogether more positive mode than the original. There’s a lot of fun living out Georgia’s last days doing death-defying winter sports and getting to know a pompous self-help writer. Certainly different from a trip to Dignitas…  Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman and directed by Wayne Wang, who has a way with women.


Panic in the Streets (1950)

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Methuselah is younger than I am tonight.  A US Health Service physician Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) is called to supervise the autopsy of an unknown man and realises the John Doe (actually Kochak and played by Lewis Charles) died of pneumonic plague, the pulmonary iteration of bubonic plague. We have already seen the man chased and shot by the flunkies of gangster Blackie (Walter Jack Palance), Poldi (Guy Thomajan) and Fitch (Zero Mostel) on the dockside. Revealing his discovery to the mayor and city officials, Reed is informed that he has 48 hours before the public will be told about a potential outbreak. Joined by Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), Reed must race against time to find out where the unknown man came from and stop journalists from printing the story so that they can prevent an epidemic. They begin their search among Slav and Armenian immigrants as the man’s body is cremated … From the low level and unwittingly infected crims racing to find the booty they believe the dead man Kochak was protecting, to the warehouses unloading produce on the New Orleans wharves, this paints a great portrait of a city that no longer resembles what we see in this post-war crime thriller. The lurid title only tells you part of the story which director Elia Kazan insisted be shot entirely on location, using the smarts he picked up on Boomerang to create episodes of masterly tension from Bourbon Street in the French Quarter (spot Brennans!) to the banks of the Mississippi, with Reed’s marital and parenting issues nicely etched – there are bills to pay and he should spend more time with his son instead of trying to be more ambitious, according to his wife Nancy, played by Barbara Bel Geddes – providing the day to day humdrum issues against which the bigger melodrama takes place in a race against time. The contrast in performing styles is gripping – from Widmark’s Method-like approach to Palance’s conventional and scary villain, Mostel’s semi-comic goon and Douglas’ usual rambunctious affect to Bel Geddes classical mode, this is a terrific demonstration of American theatre and film acting styles bumping up against each other. It’s beautifully shot by Joseph MacDonald and edited by Harmon Jones. Edna and Edward Anhalt’s story was adapted by Daniel Fuchs and the screenplay is by Richard Murphy but Kazan stated that it was rewritten every day while they were shooting. He would use what he learned of The Big Easy for his next (studio-bound) film, A Streetcar Named Desire. He believed this was the only perfect film he made “because it’s essentially a piece of mechanism and it doesn’t deal in any ambivalences at all, really. It just fits together in the sequence of storytelling rather perfectly. But that’s really why I did it, and I got a hell of a lot out of it for future films.”  Very impressive, cher!

Cat People (1982)

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You think it’s love but it’s blood.  Irena Gallier (Nastassia Kinski) has a dark family secret, one that resurfaces dramatically when she reconnects with her estranged brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). She moves into his home in New Orleans but when he disappears for a few days during which a vicious murder occurs, Irena finds herself enamored with zoologist Oliver Yates (John Heard) whom she meets in the city zoo. As her brother makes his own advances toward her she begins to experience feelings which she knows make her different to other humans. Oliver’s colleague Alice (Annette O’Toole) is suspicious of this beautiful naive woman whose eyes betray her.  It’s not long before the dangerous curse of the Gallier clan rears its feline head and Irena finds out her parents were brother and sister, descended from leopards who mated with humans and who transform back to their original species after coitus… I was prepared to dislike this as much as I did the first time I saw it, which was a long time ago. Paul Schrader’s adaptation or remake (with Alan Ormsby) of DeWitt Bodeen’s supremely gripping horror fantasy for producer Val Lewton forty years earlier seemed to have been trashed to make an exploitative wild sex fantasy with the undertow of nastiness which I always found to be Schrader’s troubling trademark. This time around however I found it compelling, daring and even – yes – moving. This fantastical mix of zoology, myth and desire is audaciously put together with some very telling references – a scene in a river straight out of Italian rice movies; a setup to remind us of Richard Avedon’s portrait of Kinski with a python the previous year; and the overriding idea of sex’s transformative power. The occasional forays into fantasy land are utterly beguiling. With that cast and their contrasting performing styles it’s hard to pick out a favourite because it’s so well written and their roles so well determined that they do completely different things. If it were left to my cat Gilbert, he’d point out McDowell’s because of the utterly arresting incarnation of half-man half-cat on the bathroom floor (a scene that disgusted me when I first saw it…) which made him sit right up, presumably recognising kin. Kinski has a terrific time in her difficult role which is literally a sex kitten who becomes a cat woman; while Heard is the man obsessed who has to do things most men wouldn’t mind in order to set her free. Meet the parents would have been quite the feat in this case. It’s a remarkable achievement and I’m thrilled to have seen it again to revise my smart ass opinion from years ago. A nightmarish portrayal of a sexual awakening that has touches of greatness, adorned by a magnificent score by Giorgio Moroder and that song by David Bowie. Wow!


Runaway Jury (2003)

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Trials are too important to be left to juries! Nothing like the element of surprise to heat up a legal drama and this has it in spades. After a workplace shooting in New Orleans that kills married broker Jacob (Dylan McDermott), lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) takes up the case against the gun manufacturer for the man’s widow Celeste (Joanna Going) but has to deal with a ‘jury consultant’, Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman). When Nicholas Easter (John Cusack), a man without an apparent past, gets on the jury he seems to be able to exert influence on the outcome – with the assistance of his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) who’s operating at the end of a telephone. Both sides are approached to make them an offer to sway the decision – a situation rendered immensely complicated when they are sequestered in a motel on the East Texas border … John Grisham’s thriller was in development for half a dozen years and its original topic – big tobacco – was altered after The Insider (coincidentally featuring Bruce McGill, the judge here) but taps into the very emotive theme of gun rights, the Second Amendment and – in the big reveal – a school shooting. The setting of N’Oleans heaps atmosphere into this very effectively plotted thriller and you’ll recognise a lot of landmarks. The playing – that cast! – is exceptional with Hackman making his return to Grisham territory 9 years after The Firm in which he also essayed a very shady character. Really well managed even if the coda errs on the side of sentiment. Adapted by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman. Directed by Gary Fleder.


Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

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It was a counter-intuitive move to cast Tom Cruise as Lee Child’s protagonist:  built like a brick shithouse, the Reacher on the page and Cruise clearly bear little resemblance to each other. However much you might like to read about a guy committing GBH against every baddie he meets, it wouldn’t really work on film. So casting a wirier, less obvious action man was a good thing to do and the first film was a fast-moving surprise. This however cannot hold a candle to it in terms of a genre workout. It gets off to a good start – with a scene that was used in every EPK package used for the PR – and Reacher then meets up with army major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) after a cute phonecall but she’s banged up on faked espionage charges when he arrives for a face to face. When he breaks her out he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy with origins in Afghanistan, nailed for a murder he didn’t commit and protecting a teenage girl called Samantha Dutton (Danika Yarosh) who just might be his daughter. With a setting in and around N’Oleans this has at least the virtue of a great backdrop and those ladies run as much as Cruise does – with equal if not more screen time. That said, the adaptation by Richard Wenk, Marshall Herskowitz and director Ed Zwick lacks verve and the entire production feels identitkit, lessening the sense of jeopardy.  The idea of a glum Cruise coming to terms with unintentional fatherhood never really gets the treatment it should in this flourish-free thriller. Oh well! Child himself has a nice little cameo at the airport.


JFK (1991)

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11/22/63. No matter where you stand on whodunnit, this adaptation of N’Oleans DA Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs’s book hits so many targets so precisely you have to just wonder in awe at Oliver Stone’s masterful cinematic achievement. The legal-conspiracy thriller reached new – and mature, true – heights with this exploration of the facts, theories, rumours and lurid stories surrounding the many oversights and strange findings of the Warren Commission. The expedient assassination of the most charismatic American President and the many malcontents who might have ordered it are explored in a series of brilliant character portraits in Stone and Zachary Sklar’s screenplay and performed by a game, talented cast. Garrison is played by Kevin Costner but there are so many great supporting actors – Joe Pesci and his wig are unforgettable as David Ferrie, Walter Matthau is great as Senator Long,  Gary Oldman is the patsy, Lee Harvey Oswald, Kevin Bacon impresses as Willie O’Keeffe. And more. So many more! I don’t know if Stone ever discussed this with Woody Harrelson, whose hitman dad was rumoured to be the shooter on the grassy knoll, and I don’t know if the second fatal shot was shockingly administered in error (maybe) by one of the agents on the car (that’s the most probable scenario, given the ammo burns, IMHO), and frankly it always seemed logical that LBJ ordered the hit, but  what do I know?! This packs a visceral punch. And it was 53 years ago today.  What a revolting anniversary to have to mark. Politics, American-style, with all those mysterious lone gunmen and Manchurian candidates. Stunning, shocking, what film is for.


Midnight Special (2016)


A little boy wearing goggles in a car being moved around by Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton. An end of days cult in the desert led by Sam Shepard. The FBI chasing the men with the boy. How to describe this masterful exercise in sci-fi and supernature by writer/director Jeff Nichols? A cast in which Adam Driver, the biggest baddie ever in my cinematic universe, is the nicest person? Kirsten Dunst is a mom? A mystery which hangs on an article of faith in which we have no known investment? This is simply great: an intelligent foray into genre that waits to give us information, drip, drip, drip and we have to work out what to believe. And why. Big wow.


Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953)

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In which our bumbling twosome don’t actually go to Mars but accidentally blast off and stop in N’Orleans at the Mardi Gras where a couple of gangsters hitch a ride. Then they all fetch up on Venus (stop the John Gray jokes there in the back) where Mari Blanchard, Martha Hyer and their exclusively lady friends have seen it all before. If you look fast you can spot Anita Ekberg as a guard.  Sci fi was a hot topic so the duo was bound to have a go and indeed this might have been inspired by Robert Heinlein’s 1950 film treatment in which they go to the moon … Some good sight gags (moon boots, the Statue of Liberty) and wisecracks about Miss Universe (Ekberg – or Ekborg?! was Miss Sweden!) but nothing to get hung about.



French Quarter (1978)

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We love N’Oleans, cher. And we love odd films. So this curiosity from the late 70s drive-in circuit is just the ticket. Directed by Dennis Kane from his screenplay with Barney Cohen. Bereaved drifter Alisha Fontaine (a newcomer of 17 going on 35 who had done a biker flick and a drugs movie some years earlier…) turns up on the Greyhound bus and doesn’t like life as a stripper. By some voodoo trick she winds up in the same bed 100 years earlier, in a brothel. Pretty Baby X French Lieutenant’s Woman, as one wag has it, this has okay production values, narrative stretch (with a VO to keep us in the loop) and some serious strangeness. Bizarrely, the soundtrack is composed by the great Dick Hyman and there are tracks by Jelly Roll Morton (who shows up 100 years ago!!!). Virginia Mayo’s late career appearance is a welcome addition. And there’s Barry Sullivan too!  (And spot a Playboy Bunny). Was it all just an especially piquant dream?


Elsa & Fred (2014)

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A gentle comedy about two old-timers getting it together. She’s a gadabout fibber, he’s a temperamental victim of his daughter’s do-gooding interfering. As new neighbours they seem hellbent on making trouble for each other but it turns into something else … A gentle disquisition on ender relationships from the director Michael Radford, adapted from the 2005 Spanish-Argentinian film by Anna Pavignano (who did Il Postino with Radford) but according to Christopher Plummer, rewritten on set in N’Oleans by him, Shirley MacLaine and Radford.