St Elmo’s Fire (1985)

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How can I be so tired at twenty-two? I just don’t know who to be any more.  Seven recent Georgetown graduates hang out at St Elmo’s Bar.  Alec (Judd Nelson) is a political wannabe dating architect Leslie (Ally Sheedy); along with Washington Post writer Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), banker and party girl Jules (Demi Moore) and law student/waiter Kirby (Emilio Estevez) they’re waiting to find out how their friends welfare clerk Wendy (Mare Winningham) and former frat boy and reluctant new dad, sax player Billy (Rob Lowe) are following a car accident.  Kirby takes a fancy to ER doctor Dale (Andie McDowell) whom he’s liked since college… The quarter-life crisis wasn’t even a thing when this was made and the critics slaughtered it but for me I guess it pretty much looked like what would happen to me eventually! Half of The Breakfast Club love, live, have sex, split up and get high and come down again to a horrifying David Foster soundtrack that just screams mid-Eighties. I love it. So sue me. Written by Carl Kurlander and director Joel Schumacher.

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9 to 5 (1980)

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Okay, I’m gonna leave, but let me tell you one thing before I go: don’t you ever refer to me as ‘your girl’ again.  Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda) is forced into the workplace after her divorce from husband Dick (Lawrence Pressman). She is introduced around Consolidated Companies by supervisor and widowed mom Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin) who is routinely put down by boss Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman) who steals her ideas for updating office practice. His married secretary Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton) is presumed by everyone to be his mistress – because that’s what he tells them.  The three women spend a night together having drug-induced fantasies of killing him. Doralee panics the following day when she suspects she really has poisoned the tyrant but it’s all a misunderstanding and they then swear revenge on the sexist liar by kidnapping him and running the company themselves… This has a really great premise:  three women take on a male chauvinist sex-harassing idea-stealing embezzling pig and…  forty minutes in it descends into a drug-fuelled fantasy and absurdist farce and everything falls apart. With one of the most charismatic casts you’ll ever encounter and singing star Parton making a fantastic screen debut you’ll wonder how this was so poorly conceived.  It was all Fonda’s idea and Patricia Resnick did the first draft before production and it evolved from a labour drama into a straightforward comedy. We are literally taken away from the scene of the action – the office – and back to Hart’s house where he swings from the ceiling in an apparatus that looks like it’s from an S&M store. Writer-director Colin (Foul Play) Higgins (who rewrote it) wrecks his own movie as he loses the plot but it’s still good-natured and did bonzo box office and even led to a TV series, due in no small part to the amazing title song which Parton composed during filming as she tapped her acrylic nails along to the rhythm of the typewriters.  Higgins said the cast were a joy and he went on to do The Best Little Whore House in Texas with Dolly. All’s well that ends well!

Dinner for Schmucks (2010)

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Any one of you would throw me under the bus for a bigger bonus, but Barry would throw himself under a car to protect a mouse… that was already dead. Tim (Paul Rudd) a rising executive, works for cut-throat boss Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) who hosts a monthly event in which the guest who brings the biggest idiot gets a career boost. Though he declines the invitation at first, he’s ambitious and he changes his mind when he meets IRS employee Barry (Steve Carell), a man who builds dioramas using stuffed mice. He must be the biggest moron of all time! The scheme backfires when Barry’s blundering good intentions send Tim’s life into a downward spiral, inviting an old one-night stand Darla (Lucy Punch) over not realising she’s Tim’s stalker.   It all  threatens a major business deal and possibly scuttles Tim’s romantic relationship with Julie (Stephanie Szostak).  Then it’s dinner time … Directed by Jay Roach who knows his way around comedy, this remake of the French film Le Dîner des cons treads a fine line between mockery and viciousness pretty deftly. Partly this is down to the writing (screenplay by Michael Handelman and David Guion from Francis Veber’s original) and party it’s down to the sweetness and nobility that Carell brings to his particular spin on stupidity and the niceness Rudd brings to his potentially nasty piece of work. In other words, either of these guys could be a schmuck. The original is excruciating:  this is somewhat milder, a black comedy with a heart, sporting a cast of lesser and greater American (and some Brit) comic actors. Wait for the dinner!

Mermaids (1990)

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Weird things happen. It’s 1963. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte Flax (Winona Ryder) is tired of her wacky mom (Cher) moving their family any time she feels it is necessary. When they move to a small Massachusetts town Mrs. Flax begins dating kindly shopkeeper Lou (Bob Hoskins) whose wife has run away. Charlotte and her 9-year-old swimming enthusiast sister, Kate (Christina Ricci), hope that they can finally settle down. But when Charlotte’s attraction to an older man Joe (Michael Schoeffling) the convent’s caretaker gets in the way, the family must learn to accept each other for who they truly are just as the President is assassinated and the nation mourns…  June Roberts’ adaptation of Patty Dann’s book is adept and appropriate, giving Winona Ryder one of her best roles and she plays it beautifully. Funny, warm and engaging, this works on so many levels but it doesn’t dodge the effect of maternal neglect – which is also a case of overpowering personality:  Charlotte’s fantasy fugue to New Haven is a sharp reminder that mother-daughter relationships are a minefield and when the daughter starts imitating the mother’s promiscuous behaviour (in between attempts to live like a Catholic saint) Mom doesn’t like it and there’s collateral damage. The girls are not products of marriages – just a teen romance and a one-night stand with an Olympic athlete (maybe) and when things get tough, Mom always gets going.  It’s Charlotte who wants to settle down. There’s a wonderful running joke about Mom’s inability to prepare any food other than hors d’oeuvres or sandwiches served with star-shaped cookie cutters. With great dialogue, lovely scene-setting and on the button performances (Cher giving one of her best), there’s nothing in this well-judged comedy drama you can’t like even though it unexpectedly swerves directions, more than once.  The characters are still sympathetic despite being curiously narcissistic:  that’s good writing. Cher tops it off with The Shoop Shoop Song! Directed by Richard Benjamin.

20th Century Women (2016)

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Wondering if you’re happy is a shortcut to being depressed. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.  Architect Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling 1905 fixer-upper boarding house at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion.  William (Billy Crudup) the contractor renting a room doesn’t seem like an appropriate father figure so Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the house and neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning) a savvy and provocative teenage neighbour who often spends the night sleeping there – to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like what’s happening to him and finds it difficult to reconcile the female-centric education with the man she wants him to be … Mike Mills’ autobiographical film has something of an arm’s length feel which you can surmise from the title. In creating this portrait of his mother he is keen to contextualise her in terms of her time and the opportunities open to her. Jamie often excuses the attitudes of this quasi-androgynous high-achieving divorcee with the line, Don’t worry about Mom, she’s from the Depression. Framing his semi-biographical comic drama in the terms of feminist and punk politics sometimes seems like a microscope powered by sociology is being applied in a film essay style instead of a dramatic eye when you want these lives to intersect more. However the drama is triggered by the opening scene when the family car spontaneously combusts in a parking lot.  It’s a good catalyst for the series of events to follow as Jamie’s adolescence progresses and Dorothea says in a moment of truth to Abbie, You get to see him out in the world and I never will. It’s a startling admission and something in these lines fuels a powerful drama that’s concealed between the smarts and upfront sex talk. Look at Bening’s face when her son tells her he thinks it’s good for him to be informed about clitoral stimulation. She’s the one who wanted him to learn how to be a man after all – she just didn’t know how it would make her feel when he goes out of his way to learn how to be a good man. There’s a lot to like here in an ironic mode and in a sense it’s crystallised by the cultural references – culminating in the clips from Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech when he says the country is at a turning point:  they serve to illuminate the theme of the personal as political.  We are all living in the fallout from what was going on in northern Cali in the late 70s and Mills captures this in an uncanny fashion, fixing on a time that has birthed where we are now (albeit now it’s monetised). The production design is just right – the mix of the early 70s vogue for Art Nouveau with the well-placed mushroom lamp, the battle between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans which has a visual result on the doors of Dorothea’s Bug. There are a lot of good aesthetic and narrative choices here coupled with some very sympathetic performances amid a raft of generational and gendered experiences, Abbie and Julie’s mother issues being succinctly handled in parallel stories within medical and therapeutic settings. There is of course a nostalgic air but it’s cut through with intellectual argument bathed in California sun. Sensitive, seductive, suprising and satisfying.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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I’ve studied you all these years – a little girl in a cage waiting for someone to let her out. In 1928 young Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) inadvertently causes the death of her cruel, authoritarian and extremely wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha lies to the police and Walter (Kirk Douglas), who saw the crime, corroborates the girl’s story. Eventually, they grow up and wed out of convenience; the meek and alcoholic Walter is genuinely in love, and Martha thinks that her secret is safe since she has married the one witness to her aunt’s death. As District Attorney he saw her lie on the stand and put an innocent man to death for the crime. However now Martha is trying to get Walter elected Governor and her childhood pal Sam (Van Heflin) shows up.  Martha knows her dark past may not stay a secret for long and Sam’s romance with Toni (Lizabeth Scott) – an ex-con just out of jail – threatens to come between them …  The film noir as hothouse melodrama, this has Stanwyck at her most manipulative since Double Indemnity but the surrounding performances are impressive as satellites to her cunning. Adapted by Robert Rossen (and an uncredited Robert Riskin)  from playwright John Patrick’s short story Love Lies Bleeding, this plays fast and loose with love and death, desire and obsession, betrayal and murder, marriage and entrapment. The pickup between Heflin and Scott is really something and the dialogue is really striking – just look at the way the Bible crops up at crucial plot points. Stanwyck’s string of extra-marital affairs reveals a longing for sex not often portrayed in Hollywood films of the era. Douglas makes an impressive debut as the weak husband just as capable of lying. The twisting DNA spiral of guilt and secrecy plays out brilliantly as these conflicted personalities bump up against one another in a deadly game. And what a twist(ed) ending! Listen to how the rain hits the windows of that fabulous house during some of the toughest conversations – talk about atmospheric! The cinematography by Victor Miler and score by Miklós Rósza are quite splendid. Directed by Lewis Milestone.

Message in a Bottle (1999)

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Choose between yesterday and tomorrow.  During her morning jog on the beach, journalist Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn) discovers a bottle protruding from the sand. Inside it, she finds a heartbreaking, anonymous love letter. After her paper publishes the letter, Osborne tracks down the letter’s reclusive author, world-weary widower Garret Blake (Kevin Costner), in the Carolinas. But, as Osborne finds herself falling hopelessly in love with Blake, she becomes wracked with guilt over the real impetus for her visit. As she deals with her own marital mishaps and life back in Chicago with her young son Jason (Jesse James) she can’t bring herself to be truthful with Garret, all the while exploiting his personal tragedy for her newspaper… Adapted by Gerald Di Pego from the Nicholas Sparks novel, it took me a while to see this:  it was released February 1999 and I was travelling from N’Orleans to New Jersey and it seemed to me to be always playing a township or three too far to travel that snowy Spring. It was worth waiting for. It’s a gloriously romantic confection, with conflict, high stakes and a guilty secret or two at its core – there are real lessons to be learned here from the grown-ups with mirroring marital and parenting dilemmas. Penn is terrific as the journo who is basically a stalker and Costner is perfect as the romantic foil whose life is much more complex than she suspects. And guess who plays his father? Paul Newman, that’s who. There are nice bits in the office with Robbie Coltrane revelling in the role of editor and Illeana Douglas as her best friend at work while John Savage is impressive as Costner’s brother in law. This works because it’s tough on the characters even through a rose-tinted lens and the ending, well, it’s not easy but it’s immensely satisfying. It was the first Sparks novel to be adapted to the screen. Love letters?  Message in a bottle? A tragic sacrifice? Death? I hear ya. Just gorgeous cinematography by Caleb Deschanel and music by Gabriel Yared. Sniff. Directed by Luis Mandoki.

Miss Sloane (2017)

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Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.  Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) remains one of the most sought-after lobbyists in Washington, D.C. She will do or say anything to get ahead of the competition. When asked to help oppose a bill that imposes regulations on firearms, she instead joins a scrappy boutique firm led by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) that represents the backers of the law. Her defiant stance and determination to win now makes her the target of powerful new enemies who threaten her career. We find her facing a congressional hearing headed up by Senator Ronald Sperling (John Lithgow) where the needling gets to her and she breaks legal advice to plead the Fifth to respond to a petty point about Indonesia and opens the door to an onslaught of past crimes in the name of getting ahead on Capitol Hill … This wordy worthy drama is hard to take:  Chastain is as we have come to expect – technically adept, capable of delivering very prolix speeches but essentially unsympathetic (not that she cares) in spite of this being about a very current hot button topic – gun control and the powerful lobby that comes out to vote no matter what. Written by Jonathan Perera and directed by John Madden, this is literate, middle of the road social consciousness drama only rendered tolerable by performance and ultimately some finessed construction and screw-tightening towards the conclusion. But like Chastain’s other film this year, Molly’s Game, the stakes aren’t high enough to make us do anything more than yawn at these horrible people.

Where There’s a Will (1936)

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A merry Christmas, girls and boys / I’ve brought you jewels, instead of toys / In spite of what you think / it seems to me I’ve earned a drink. A bumbling incompetent solicitor Benjamin Stubbins (Will Hay) is tricked by some American gangsters into helping them pull off a robbery …  Hardly the jewel in old school Brit comic (and pilot and astronomer…!) Hay’s crown (that’s Oh, Mr Porter!), this saw him team up with a good team but it’s a blink and you’ll miss it affair, aside from a few edits to produce visual payoffs on lines.  There’s fun with the office repartee between him and the truculent youth he employs (Graham Moffatt) and it’s an opportunity to see former Ziegfeld girl Gina Malo as a wisecracking moll. She spent the better part of her film career in operatic musicals in Britain.  It all ends as you think it might at a Christmas party and guess who’s Father Christmas? The screenplay is by Sidney Gilliat and Leslie Arliss with additions by Hay, director William Beaudine and Robert Edmunds.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

 

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No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Due to his knowledge of the native Bedouin tribes, British Army Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to Arabia to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and serve as liaison between the Arabs and the British in their fight against the Turks. With the aid of the native Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence rebels against the orders of his superior officer and strikes out on a daring camel journey across the harsh desert to attack a well-guarded Turkish port… The greatest film ever made? Probably. One of my more shocking cinematic excursions was to see this at London’s Odeon Marble Arch when it was re-released in a new print:  I hared to the early evening screening, thought I was incredibly late when I got my ticket because the foyer was deserted, ran upstairs two steps at a time and took my seat. And realised I was the only person there. This is one of the most feverishly protagonist-led narratives you will ever see, by which I mean that what you are seeing is the world created by Lawrence, whether or not it is true to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the entire facts of the matter or the man.  Like Psycho, everything in it exists to explain his perspective, his character, his essence. And it starts so shockingly, in a way that horrified me when I first saw it on TV one afternoon when I was probably nine years old:  his death in an English country lane on a summer’s day on a motorcycle. This frames an action adventure rooted in archaeology, espionage, politics, propaganda and the division of the vast desert lands and their warring tribes into convenient nation-states. It’s a narrative that is  free of women but includes issues of homosexuality and torture. It uses the trope of the journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) rewriting history as it is being made. It is filled with imagery that pulses through your brain – the arrival of Ali across the shimmering sands;  the (literal) match cut;  Lawrence shot from below in his white Arabic robes, stalking the hijacked train;  the magical appearance of water. I watch this on a regular basis and get lost in it every time. It’s extraordinary, arresting, brilliant, startling, stunning. O’Toole is utterly luminous as this complex man. Blacklisted Michael Wilson and British screenwriter Robert Bolt did drafts of the script and it may not be entirely historically accurate but it is true. Shot by Freddie Young, scored by Maurice Jarre, directed by David Lean. Magnificent. Happy Birthday to me.