Hollywoodland (2006)

I can see the pieces. How they should fit. How I want them to fit. When Hollywood superstar, TV’s Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck) dies in the bedroom of his home by a single gunshot to his head during a party in June 1959, private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is hired by Reeves’ mother Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith) to investigate his death. He gets caught in a web of lies involving MGM general manager Eddie Mannix’s (Bob Hoskins) and his wife Toni (Diane Lane) with whom Reeves was having an open if adulterous relationship until he took up with younger woman Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) as he is trying to make his own films as a director …. An actor can’t always act – sometimes he has to work. Easily one of the most pleasurable throwback movies made in (relatively) recent times, this is based on one of Tinseltown’s more notorious unsolved crimes. It’s told in classical Hollywood fashion, a romance revealed in parallel with an investigation, the latter of necessity post mortem, the former in flashback, the biography of a rather disappointed self-loathing actor who despises the role responsible for his fame at a time when the film business was in flux. Affleck is superb as the small screen incarnation of the archetypal super hero in what is still his best performance. Lane matches him every step of the way as the ageing starlet cheating on the studio’s most dangerous fixer. Beautifully put together, gorgeously shot by Jonathan Freeman and nicely resolved even if the private eye’s own travails rather detract from the movement of the narrative which posits an alternative ending to that proposed by Kashner and Schoenberger’s book Hollywood Kryptonite. Murderous Mannix is portrayed here by Hoskins whose screen wife Lane was married in real life to Josh Brolin, who played him for the Coen Brothers in Hail, Caesar! and was up for the role of Batman that went to … Affleck! Written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter. I hope you’ve discovered the meaning of justice

Very Ralph (2019) (TVM)

Susan Lacy’s superb documentary about fashion designer Ralph Lauren is many stories. It’s about a Jewish boy who had an uncanny ability to put clothes together but lacked his artist father’s painting talent. It’s about a little guy at school bullied for his unfortunate surname, Lifschitz: it was his brother John who persuaded him they should both alter their names to Lauren. Even as a young man I had a story.  It’s about a tie salesman in NYC in the early 1960s noted as a stylish man about town who eventually decided to design his own ties with the assistance of his wife Ricki and her Viennese-immigrant parents from their tiny cold water apartment with the El running overhead:  It was like a movie just like Barefoot in the Park. It’s about Bloomingdales backing him.  It’s about how he came close to losing everything, very early. It’s about his close knit family. It’s about a soft-spoken man with a speech impediment who couldn’t very well call his line Baseball if he couldn’t even say it so he hit on Polo. It’s about the man who revolutionised men’s fashion by adapting Savile Row custom tailoring while letting women look like women – or more precisely, like his wife Ricki – a tomboy, a jock, an elegant woman. He hired Bruce Weber to shoot ‘movies’ for his photoshoots because he gave him the natural style that he wanted without involving agencies. It’s about the movies he grew up adoring and the things he likes – military, safari, western, English riding. The rap and hip hop community adapted his look. He allowed models be themselves.  He’s the first designer to go into homeware, The rest? Why not let the cast of admirers and fashion mavens tell us:

I had the eye and I didn’t know where it came from

You are always aspiring

My vision is what my wife looks like

He wanted to tell stories

He gives them the whole package

I thought of him as a cultural force

The eye of the outsider – that’s what Ralph has

I just think that he loves women in a way that other designers don’t – he celebrates women

He taps into a longing – for belonging

He understands icons because he is one

He’s timeless but he’s definitely living in the now

Sometimes you have to fulfill your dreams to know what the real dream is about. The real dream is family, children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sabotage (1936)

Sabotage Hitchcock

Aka A Woman Alone/I Married a Murderer. You don’t need second sight in a case like this. A ring of foreign saboteurs is causing havoc in London with a series of explosive terrorist attacks. Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka) is part of the group, but he maintains a cover as a cinema proprietor. His wife (Sylvia Sidney) is beginning to suspect something, though, and so is Scotland Yard undercover Detective Sgt. Ted Spencer (John Loder) who has been assigned to work at the shop next door to the cinema. What neither of them knows is that Verloc uses his wife’s little brother Stevie (Desmond Tester) to deliver the bombs in film canisters… You made London laugh. When one sets out to put the fear of death into people, it’s not helpful to make them laugh. We’re not comedians. Hitchcock always regretted having something major happen in this production – something he never permitted again because he felt it was a mistake, breaking the rules of suspense he was so careful to engineer the scaffolding his narratives. Nonetheless this impressively constructed story of terror on the streets of London between the wars is hugely atmospheric with excellent effects, a great chase and a startling conclusion. Adapted (loosely) from Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent (confusingly the title of another Hitchcock film the same year) this is updated by Charles Bennett and action takes place at Piccadilly Circus, Simpsons’ restaurant and other familiar locales including the cinema that is Verloc’s base which allows some meta comments about the viewing experience with the film within a film being Disney’s Who Killed Cock Robin? one of the Silly Symphonies. The acting wasn’t all to Hitchcock’s taste however and he altered dialogue on set when he was forced to hire Loder instead of an ailing Robert Donat and the film probably suffers a little as a result but this is a tense, serious and exciting work. Shot by Bernard Knowles and edited by Charles Frend. Made at Gainsborough Studios and around London. They’re the people that you and I will never catch. It’s the men they employ that we’re after

Palm Beach (2019)

Palm Beach

It’s what they’ve dreamed of for themselves is not what they’ve turned out to be. Frank (Bryan Brown) is flying in his lifelong friends for his big birthday at his beautiful home overlooking the bay at Palm Beach, north of Sydney. Now retired from his tee-shirt business which made him very wealthy, he and his wife Charlotte (Greta Scacchi), feckless son Dan (Charlie Vickers) and medical student daughter Ella (Matilda Brown), are hosting the remaining members of The Pacific Sideburns, the band he managed in the Seventies who made the cover of Rolling Stone back in 1977 when they had their one big hit song. Now Leo (Sam Neill) is a journalist based in New Zealand, married to teacher Bridget (Jacqueline MacKenzie) and stepfather to her teenage daughter Caitlyn (Frances Berry). Billy (Richard E. Grant) is an ad man married to actress Eva (Heather Mitchell) who thinks at 60 she’s too young to be cast as Nicole Kidman’s mother. Holly (Claire van der Boom) is the daughter of their late lead singer Roxy and she arrives with her lover, an older man called Doug (Aaron Jeffery) in tow. Tensions erupt over money, career, cars and homes and then there’s a secret which has been niggling at someone’s conscience … The Pacific Sideburns go down as the voice of adult incontinence. Directed by that lovely actress Rachel Ward (who is of course married to leading man Brown), who co-wrote the screenplay with Joanna Murray-Smith, in her second theatrical outing behind the camera, this is a kind of Big Chill for a different generation and at a different stage of their lives. Fans of Australian cinema will be thrilled with the cast (which also includes blow-ins Grant and Scacchi), with Neill and Brown co-starring for the fifth time. This time out they’re in a production about rites of passage among friends (and frenemies) which isn’t afraid to be tough on its characters, none of whom is without baggage or post-60 year old issues. There are all kinds of relatable tensions over ageing, health and money with the added frisson of questionable DNA. The issue of whether Dan might be fathered by Leo becomes the main plank of the narrative particularly since Frank and Dan are permanently at daggers drawn. But Billy – who has made an ad for adult diapers in France using the band’s big hit – is envious of Frank’s money and taunts him about the chimneys on a neighbouring property blocking the view so often that Frank does something about it, leading to the film’s comic high point:  retirement is not for chickens, as his anti-depressants prove. Bonding over building a pizza oven is no picnic. It’s pretty hard to bond with the Gestapo, growls Sam Neill. The women have their own problems but try to get them out of their system with some therapeutic white wine-assisted yoga by the pool and tough conversations with their terminally self-obsessed men. The father-son relationship between Frank and Dan results in a terrible accident and it finally brings them all to their senses in a well managed conclusion to the comedy drama. This family affair also involves Brown and Ward’s real-life daughter as Frank’s daughter; while the film within a film is Ward’s 2001 short, The Big House. The songs are by the band The Teskey Brothers in a soundtrack peppered with great tunes. An extremely winning production with fantastic performances and smart writing, this is an amazing showcase for New South Wales in a location familiar to viewers of TV’s Home and Away. Very easy watching indeed. I’m on my way ASAP, especially if I can stay in that magnificent beach house. I call it uninvited clarity

 

What a Way to Go! (1964)

What a Way to Go

You don’t need a psychiatrist, you need your head examined. Louisa May Foster (Shirley MacLaine), a widow four times over, donates $200 million to the Internal Revenue Service because all her four marriages end in her husbands’ deaths, leading her to believe that the money is cursed and she is a jinx when all she wanted to do was marry for love. She winds up on the couch of psychiatrist Dr. Victor Stephanson (Bob Cummings) who asks her what has led her to do something so crazy and Louisa recounts her life starting with her childhood when her hypocrite mother (Margaret Dumont) preached penury but actually wanted to be rich and berated her poor husband. Louisa dates the richest boy in town Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin) but prefers the little shopkeeper Edgar Hopper (Dick Van Dyke) from high school who refuses to sell out and they bond over Thoreau – until he feels guilty and ends up accumulating huge wealth from non-stop working until it kills him. Then she travels to Paris for the holiday they never took where she encounters part-time taxi driver and wannabe artist Larry Flint (Paul Newman) and inspires him to create moneymaking paintings using machines that respond to Mendelssohn and kill him. She meets maple syrup tycoon Rod Anderson Jr.(Robert Mitchum) who flies her to NYC on his private plane when she misses her flight home and they marry immediately. When he sells up and they retire to a farm he mistakes a bull for a cow in the milking parlour and winds up in a water trough. Dead. Louisa goes for a coffee in a diner and meets Pinky Benson (Gene Kelly) a performer who stars in a terrible dinner theatre production every night. When she persuades him to be himself the crowd loves him, he becomes a star and they go Hollywood where the fans love him to death and Dr. Stephanson hasn’t been listening for the last two husbands …  Every man whose life I touch withers. This Betty Comden and Adolph Greene screenplay (from a story by Gwen Davis) proves an astonishing showcase for MacLaine with the film within a film parodies punctuating each marriage providing a great opportunity to send up various moviemaking styles, including silent movies, foreign art films, a Lush Budgett!! spectacular, and culminating in a wonderful musical pastiche with Kelly.  It’s a total treat to see these famous dancers performing together (look quickly for Teri Garr in the background!). It’s a breezy soufflé of a movie and a distinct change of pace for director J. Lee Thompson who previously worked with Mitchum on the classic thriller Cape Fear. Very charming and funny with lots of good jokes about the American Dream, the art world, Hollywood and fame, and terrific production values. That’s Reginald Gardiner as the unfortunate who has to paint Pinky’s house … pink. A wonderful opportunity to see some of the top male stars of the era making fun of themselves. Perhaps what’s most astonishing is that this was supposed to star Marilyn Monroe until her shocking death and Pinky’s swimming pool is the one from the abandoned set of Something’s Got To Give.  Thompson and MacLaine would work again the following year on the Cold War spoof John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. Shot by Leon Shamroy, edited by Marjorie Fowler, costumes by Edith Head, jewellery by Harry Winston and score by Nelson Riddle. Money corrupts, art erupts

 

A Touch of Larceny (1959)

A Touch of Larceny

I was implying I might be a matrimonial hazard if I were wealthy. Rakish former Naval submarine Commander Max ‘Rammer’ Easton (James Mason) realises he needs plenty of cash to win the heart of American widow Virginia Killain (Vera Miles) currently the companion and soon to be wife of his Naval colleague Sir Charles Holland (George Sanders). Max disappears after faking treachery as a Soviet spy, planning to reappear and sue all the tabloids which libelled him so as to win the hand of Virginia but his plans go awry when he really does get into trouble in the Western Isles … One of the hardest lessons in life is to accept defeat gracefully. Adapted by Roger MacDougall, director Guy Hamilton and producer Ivan Foxwell from Andrew Garve’s (a pseudonym for Paul Winterton) novel The Megstone Plot, this sees Mason at his best as the breezy playboy and former WW2 hero who has finally met a woman he can see himself living with – and the sparks fly between him and Miles in a comedy that has wit, guile and surprising wisdom. He sets himself up and then spends a third of the film as a raffish beachcomber listening to rumours of his supposed defection. Sanders feasts on the prospect of revenging the man who appears to have compromised his fiancée, whose intentions are far from clear. You’ll recognise Martin Stephens the creepy boy from The Innocents as Sanders’ nephew. There are good jokes about newspapers and that year’s current scandalous novel, The World of Suzie Wong. Perhaps its occasional moments of true feeling guy the comedy’s intent so that the tone shifts but in the main it’s an impressive production and the performances are terrific. An interesting syncopated beat to Mason’s other Cold War movie that year – North By Northwest. You know Max, one of these days somebody may take you seriously

Bad Education (2019)

Bad Education

You were always the guy in the suits. Long Island, New York, 2002. Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is the superintendent of Roslyn School District which oversees Roslyn High School. Frank, along with his assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) have overseen major improvements in the district, with Roslyn becoming the 4th ranked public school in the country under their watch. This in turn stimulates the local economy, reaping rewards for school board head and real estate broker Bob Spicer (Ray Romano). Frank is beloved by students and parents alike, and sought after by women; Frank claims to have lost his wife several years ago, but is in fact gay, living with Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella) in NYC. While attending a conference in Las Vegas, Frank begins an affair with former student Kyle Contreras (Rafeal Casal) who has given up his dream of writing sci fi for waiting tables and dancing. While writing an article for the Roslyn school paper about an $8m sky bridge the school is planning to construct, student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) begins to discover discrepancies in the district’s finances. Unbeknownst to anyone at the school, Frank and Pam are co-conspirators in a massive embezzlement scheme that has cost millions of taxpayer dollars and her steady research leads all the way to the top and when Frank gives up Pam there will be hell to pay ... We come in here at the crack of dawn because we’re good people.  We want you to have a good life. Adapted from Bad Superintendent, a story by Robert Kolker in New York magazine by Mike Makowsky, who was a middle school student in that school district when Tassone was arrested for grand larceny.  Viswanathan isn’t a particularly interesting performer but she does what all journalists have done since watching All the President’s Men – she follows the money. It’s dogged old-school reporting stuff, looking at purchase orders, not finding receipts and then questioning everyone concerned.  It’s fun to see those moments with her doubtful student paper editor Nick Fleischman (Alex Wolff) doing a junior Ben Bradlee. The moment one hour in where she finds the so-called offices of the school’s pamphlet producer and realises it’s Tassone’s plush apartment where he’s co-habiting with a man is brilliantly done – capped when Tassone arrives and sees her desperate to leave the building. Jackman is superb as a charismatic man with many secrets, utilising his ability to psychoanalyse everyone around him to get the better of them since he seems to care so much about them. For the longest time we don’t even know the extent of his involvement as information is drip fed slowly through the narrative. His vanity is reflected in the scenes with him attending to his cosmetic routine, culminating in surgery. Jackman finds ways to plumb the breadth of the character and elicit empathy, stealing our hearts as easily as expensing first class flights to London with his boyfriend and deflecting come-ons from women in the parents’ association book club. Janney is superb in a chewy role – able to talk her way out of trouble, trying to buy her children’s affections even when her son is a total loser and ultimately choosing the path of revenge. Erring more on the dramatic rather than the comedic side of genre, this gives a rare insight into white collar crime – the quotidian corruption that afflicts cosy cartels running public bodies leading to those occasional stupefying headlines when you see something has gone bust yet all the admin people are living high on the hog while their workplaces are falling apart with damp. The sidebars about food intake, digestive issues, cosmetics, clothes, jewellery, pushy parenting and spoiling wrong ‘uns are well judged subplots amplifying the drudgery of the teaching environment and the desire to rise above the mere plebs. It’s wordy, it’s smart, it’s filled with people covering their asses and it’s called the ring of truth. Directed by Cory Finley. I am not the sociopath here

Harlow (1965)

Harlow

Everything about me is real.  Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) arrives in Los Angeles as a teenager, pushed into showbiz by her sex-mad mother Mama Jean (Angela Lansbury) and grasping stepfather Marino Bello (Raf Vallone). Kindhearted agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons) becomes Jean’s mentor and rescues her from glamour shots and the casting couch, while a devious Howard Hughes-like mogul Richard Manley (Leslie Nielsen) grows infatuated with the beautiful young actress. Harlow herself falls for writer/producer Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) before tragedy strikes right after their marriage and her efforts to get together with fellow studio star Jack Harrison (Mike Connors) come to nothing …  You have the body of a woman and the emotions of a child!  The big-budget version of the screen icon’s life was beaten to it by a cheaper experimental film starring Carol Lynley that barely scraped into theatres so this is the one that people remember, if at all. Adapted in part from Landau and Irving Shulman’s pulpy biography of the sex goddess by John Michael Hayes, this skips and jumps through Harlow’s life, eliminating altogether any direct reference to her relationship with William Powell (Connors plays a variation on him) or her co-star Clark Gable, more or less fabricating whole sequences and introducing an element of wantonness involving her stepfather that seems excessive even in this version of events. It’s rather lurid and seems to deviate from what is known of Harlow’s true character but it’s rather interesting to see an interpretation of the platinum blonde in vivid Technicolor with Edith Head making the most of the opportunity to create some stunning gowns. Baker had featured in the controversial Hayes adaptation of Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers a year earlier and shot a famous nude scene in the role of Rina, a thinly veiled version of Harlow – so her casting here is no surprise given that Paramount produced both pictures. Effectively, then, this is a remake in part of part of a year-old film. Baker is a decade older than Harlow at the time of her death but her performance is tender and appealing, capturing some of the spirit of Harlow’s great characters against a melodramatic backdrop that nonetheless plays fast and loose with the facts including the circumstances of her demise. Lansbury and Vallone are extremely impressive as the lusty parental figures while Buttons is very good as the kind man who remains her one true friend. A fascinating insight into how Hollywood saw itself at one time. Welcome to the velvet prison. Hayes deserves his reputation as a great writer of dialogue and he manages to invest showbiz clichés with the ring of truth especially when uttered venomously by Connors; Julie Parrish appears uncredited as Connors’ wife and would make a couple of appearances opposite him on Mannix five years later. The production design by Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira and James W. Payne is jaw dropping. The theme song Lonely Girl is sung by Bobby Vinton. Directed by Gordon Douglas. There’s nobody deader than I am right now. Oh, I guarantee all of you I won’t be by tomorrow

Mr Jones (2019)

Mr Jones

The Soviets have built more in five years than our Government has in ten. In 1933, Gareth Jones (James Norton) is an ambitious young Welsh journalist who has gained renown for his interview with Adolf Hitler. Thanks to his connections to Britain’s former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), he is able to get official permission to travel to the Soviet Union. Jones intends to try and interview Stalin and find out more about the Soviet Union’s economic expansion and its apparently successful five-year development plan. Jones is restricted to Moscow where he encounters Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) a libertine who sticks to the Communist Party line.  He befriends and romances German journalist Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) who reluctantly sees him follow the path of murdered journalist Kleb in pursuit of a story. He jumps his train and travels unofficially to Ukraine to discover evidence of the Holodomor (famine) including empty villages, starving people, cannibalism, and the enforced collection of grain exported out of the region while millions die. He escapes with his life because Duranty bargains for it on condition he report nothing but lies. On his return to the UK he struggles to get the true story taken seriously and is forced to return home to Wales in ignominy … They are killing us. Millions.  Framed by the writing of Animal Farm after a credulous commie-admiring Eric Blair aka George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) expresses disbelief that Stalin is anything but a good guy, this is an oddly diffident telling of a shocking true story that’s art-directed within an inch of its life. Introducing Orwell feels like a disservice to Jones. Norton has a difficult job because the screenplay by Andrea Chalupa is too mannerly and the film’s aesthetic betrays his intent. Director Agnieszka Holland is a fine filmmaker but the colour grading, the great lighting (there’s even a red night sky shot from below as Jones and Brooks walk through Moscow) and the excessive use of handheld shooting to express Jones’ inner turmoil somehow detracts from the original fake news story. It happens three times during food scenes including when he realises he’s eating some kids’ older brother. Shocking but somehow not surprising and amazingly relevant given the present state of totalitarian things, everywhere, in a world where Presidents express the wish to have journalists executed and some of them succeed. Some things never change. Chilling. I have no expectations. I just have questions

Appointment in Berlin (1943)

Appointment in Berlin

That’s the whole point of Secret Service – to prevent people suspecting. In 1938 disillusioned and recently disgraced RAF officer Wing Commander Keith Wilson (George Sanders) risks his life in Berlin by broadcasting pro-Nazi propaganda as a cover for counter-espionage. His broadcasts have a military code enabling British manoeuvres. He falls in love with Ilse (Marguerite Chapman) sister of a high-ranking Nazi Rudolph von Preising (Onslow Stevens) and forges links with journalist Greta van Leyden (Gale Sondergaard) who is actually a spy as well and when a message needs to be taken to Holland he’s the only one left standing … If you are going in at the deep end you may as well do it for England. In a rare tragic role, Sanders scores as the officer whose disgust at Britain’s politically neutral stance prior to WW2 leads him to become a pariah – lending him handy cover when England expects. The question of identity hovers over every scene here as Ilse’s transformation is nicely nuanced whereas Sondergaard’s situation is more extreme and her ending is well staged. There’s an amusing double act from a pair of American neutrals whose constant haranguing of supposedly treacherous Wilson adds humour to proceedings – inevitably they assist in his time of need. Nice references to Goebbels and his role in the manufacturing of truth. An interesting propaganda picture of pre-war problems and the reason why cross-border co-operation was required. Michael Hogan and Horace McCoy wrote the screenplay based on B.P. Fineman’s story.  Directed by Alfred E. Green. It’s finally happened