The Third Man (1949)

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Western pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in post-WW2 Vienna at the invitation of old schoolfriend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to find that he is just in time for his funeral. British military intelligence in the form of Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) makes his acquaintance while Holly believes there was a third man present at Harry’s mysterious death and he finds himself falling for Harry’s lover Anna (Alida Valli). There are some films whose imagery is practically enamelled in one’s brain and this is one of them, regularly voted the greatest British film ever (despite the crucial involvement of David O. Selznick) with its unforgettable score, the shimmering rain-slicked streets, the chase through the sewers, the treacherous manchild, the funeral, the theatre, the appalling talk at the British Council, the cuckoo clock speech, the Prater … A combination of spy thriller, spiv drama, film noir, character study, western, romance, this was an unusually brilliant collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, whose friend Kim Philby was a source of much of the story. And this is ultimately a film about stories and storytelling. But nothing can explain this film’s legend – not even Orson Welles’ tall tales – it must be seen to feel that tangible atmosphere, those shadows, the light at the end of the tunnel, those canted angles, that amazing sense of place. My book on its complex origins, production and afterlife in radio and TV is published today on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Trouble-Harry-Third-Man-ebook/dp/B072BTQN48/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1494840986&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon.

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Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

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Woody Allen’s musical comedy is a delightful collage of Thirties movie genres – romance, screwball, ghost, crime, all told by the daughter DJ (Natasha Lyonne) of perpetually unlucky in love writer Joe (Allen) and his ex-wife Steffi (Goldie Hawn), who now lives in Upper East Side splendour with liberal lawyer Alan Alda, his engaged daughter Skylar (Drew Barrymore) and their right-wing son Scott (Lukas Haas) and 14 year old twins (Natalie Portman and Gaby Hoffman),  plus his ancient dad whose Alzheimer’s means he has to be supervised by their wicked Bavarian housekeeper. They have posh people problems ie none at all and when DJ pushes her father into a relationship with an unhappily married art historian patient Von (Julia Roberts) of her friend’s mother, a psychoanalyst, we get to see the sights in Venice where Joe affects a knowledge of Tintoretto to get into her good books. Everyone gets to sing (whether they can or not), there’s a dance routine in a maternity ward, a robbery involving one of Steffi’s pet criminals who breaks up Skylar’s relationship with Edward Norton, and it all culminates in a Duck Soup ball in Paris on Christmas Eve with Steffi and Joe recreating their romance from many years ago with a high-wire romantic dance by the Seine. Simply wonderful, nutty fun with a to-die-for soundtrack put together by Dick Hyman.

Love and Death (1975)

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I fell over laughing when I first saw this on TV aged about 13 so I thought it was time to revisit and see if it holds up. With a screenplay by Allen, Donald Ogden Stewart and Mildred Cram you’d have a high expectation of this satire of Russian literature and the Napoleonic war being extremely funny and it is! Cram was a very popular short story writer and got the Academy Award for  perenially popular Love Affair (1939) which most of us know better from its modern iteration, Sleepless in Seattle. DOS of course was a famous humorist and wit, a member of the Algonquin Round Table and had a slew of movie credits to his name. He is immortalised as Bill Gorton in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A member of the Anti-Nazi League prior to WW2, he was nailed by HUAC and had to abandon the US for the UK. Let’s just say he was a lot funnier than any of the censorious goons who hounded him out. Allen? He takes the concept of Monsieur Beaucaire and puts himself in the Bob Hope role, a coward running through swathes of Tolstoy with a disrespectful pitchfork in pursuit of real-life lady love Diane Keaton, playing the helpless trampy cousin he adores, and it’s an amuse-bouche for Annie Hall, that other devoted homage to anti-heroic schmuckery, sex and all-round meaninglessness in the face of egotistical slaughter. This is the film that birthed the exchange, Sex without love is an empty experience/As empty experiences go, it’s one of the best:  not necessarily what you’d expect in a piss-take of War and Peace. Supremely silly with screamingly witty lines and an abundance of hilarious sight gags – even the bloody battlefield scenes are a hoot. Gotta go watch it again and pretend I’m still 13. With Harold Gould, Olga Georges-Picot, Jessica Harper, and Death.

Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

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Christmas is coming so it’s time to take this out. But it works at Halloween, Easter and ice cream season too – which is all year round, isn’t it?! This classic Hollywood musical comedy drama is simply perfection. Adapted from Sally Benson’s New Yorker stories of a midwestern family at the start of the twentieth century, it tells the story of the Smiths through the seasons.  Made at the height of WW2, this fantasy about a pretty family shimmers with the lustrous care of director Vincente Minnelli, whose background in theatre design comes to the fore in terms of staging, decor, colour, choreography and performance. Judy Garland has some great moments in a film stuffed with them – The Trolley Song, the romance with The Boy Next Door, the amusing scenes with her sister Lucille Bremer; but the standout moments are mostly those with little Margaret O’Brien as Tootie, on her Halloween outing, her destruction of the snowmen and her distress at their father’s proposed move to NYC.  Judy soothes her with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Funny, sad, touching and joyous, this is a forever film.

Field of Dreams (1989)

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If you build it he will come. Kevin Costner is hearing voices in the cornfield and they’re not in his head. So he builds a baseball diamond where the crops ought to be and gives the ghosts of the Chicago White Sox team accused of fixing the 1919 World Series a chance to play again. That’s it. And it’s so much more:  it’s about redemption, fixing father-son relationships, being loyal, second chances, learning how to express love, living your dreams. It’s a charming, brilliant, magical adaptation of WP Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe by writer/director Phil Alden Robinson and is a modern classic. Romantic in the best sense, this is truly worth your while. In real life, a very long court battle to build a real field of dreams (24 to be exact) on the movie’s location site in Dyersville just got the go-ahead by the Iowa Supreme Court. Corny!

Home Alone (1990)

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Sensational, kinetic, lively action comedy from the late and beloved chronicler of childhood and adolescence, auteur John Hughes.  Little Kevin is terrorised by everyone in his family – and they forget about him when they depart for a trip to Paris for Christmas, leaving him on his own in their big suburban Chicago house to deal with a pair of bungling thieves. Macaulay Culkin is brilliant as the kid whose dream comes true – to be spared his awful family, even for a short time. This held the record as the biggest grossing live action comedy in the US until Hangover Part II came along to spoil the party.  Simply sublime entertainment for any time of year.

In & Out (1997)

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I miss Premiere magazine so much. Once a month,that cellophane-wrapped thud on the hall floor, after the postman had been by, struck joy in my heart. Specifically, I miss Paul Rudnick, that grade-A satirist whose campy sendups made me whoop with laughter. He was Libby Gelman-Waxner! But lo! Hollywood really did come calling to him hence his spot-on insider comments and this exquisitely rendered smalltown gayfest is true to classical tradition yet ever so sweetly rubs the generic nose in contemporary mores. Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) is the inspirational smalltown Indiana high school English teacher who’s outed at the Academy Awards by his dimwit former student Hollywood actor Cameron Drake  (Matt Dillon) despite being three days from his very straight wedding to formerly fat colleague Emily Montgomery  (Joan Cusack). His wrist literally becomes limp when he’s called gay in front of billions of people. Mom Debbie Reynolds and dad Wilford Brimley want the wedding to go ahead and he’s sure he does too until showbiz correspondent Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck) waltzes into town with the other paparazzi  – and stays. Just wait for the Selleck-Kline clinch! Howard’s Barbra Streisand-themed stag night is all for naught as he recognises his true nature and battles with the authorities to keep his job while his students eventually do an ‘I Am Spartacus’ act at graduation and Cameron rides back into town in his white sports car to save the day. Great fun, hilarious jibes and Kline gives an extraordinarily precise comic performance in a beautifully rendered upside-down satire of American family movies. Reynolds is especially good as the mother who will just die without a day in church. This was of course inspired by Tom Hanks’ unwitting outing of his former high school teacher when he was collecting the Oscar for Philadelphia. Adeptly directed by comedy expert Frank Oz.

The Intern (2015)

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Nancy Meyers is a spectacular filmmaker:  she makes deftly witty social satires starring female protagonists and she’s been at it since 1980 when she co-wrote Private Benjamin for the heroic Goldie Hawn. There was a long gap between It’s Complicated (2009) and this – so long I wrote a book about her work, fearing the worst. Then she came back with another zeitgeisty comedy, starring Robert De Niro as the titular character, an active widower seeking more to do with his time and seeing an opportunity with a politically correct seniors internship programme at an e-commerce firm in his Brooklyn neighbourhood.  His boss is the driven company founder, millennial Anne Hathaway who runs this fashion seller with a sharp focus that somehow blinds her to the people around her – the wussy stay at home husband and cute daughter, the chauffeur who drinks (despite her espousing of bicycle riding in the warehouse suite), and the capacity of former businessman De Niro to assist her in the running of her firm because her financier wants to replace her as CEO. This jabs at a lot of contemporary targets – women and work, work-life balance, the generation gap, seniors in relationships (the brilliant Rene Russo is CRIMINALLY under-used as De Niro’s romantic interest) and corporate life. Even if Hathaway wasn’t originally intended to co-star (it was supposed to be Tina Fey opposite Michael Caine, then Reese Witherspoon), it has the unexpected slippage effect from her role in The Devil Wears Prada and we might see her as Andie all grown up in a dream(-ier) job where she’s the boss. De Niro is a flinty protagonist (she’s really the antagonist here) and this perhaps is where the film-story balance comes a little undone:  there are snotty, spiteful moms in the playground, her own awful mother hounding her on the phone, a dull spouse (couldn’t she do any better?! And pay a babysitter?!)  and a decided lack of interests outside of work – compare the narrative solution in Baby Boom in which Diane Keaton hit on a highly domestic answer to a business problem. This targets so many bases and is a lot of fun at times – even De Niro’s break-in caper with his dude co-workers – yet it doesn’t really say a lot about the specifics of this fashion website idea or why it’s so important to Hathaway, has remarkably conservative ideas about men and women and never feels like it truly exploits its characters:  Anne Hathaway needed to go really crazy at some point! She’s … aggressive passive. In the meantime, you can get my book about Nancy Meyers here: https://www.amazon.com/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1474702335&sr=1-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Mother’s Day (2016)

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Mother’s Day is a thing now? Wow. More cards and festival-type activities. Speaking of Garry Marshall, who we love(d), he spent the last number of years doing these multi-strand dramedies with a few top-lining stars and a lot of… B listers. This sadly is his last directing gig and it’s … actors doing their best with middling material. Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) is the stressed-out single divorced mom of two boys whose ex has married a teenager (sort of). She can’t deal with the whole sexy stepmom thing. Friend Jesse (Kate Hudson) is married to an Indian without her folks knowing. (They’re in Texas constantly on the road in their RV – maybe…) Her sister Gabi (Sarah Chalke)  is shacked up with a woman with a sperm-donated child. She’s pretending to be engaged to a man. And there’s a playground friend Kristin (Britt Robertson) who’s shacked up with her boyfriend Zack (Brit comic Jack Whitehall) but won’t marry him despite their having a child. She says it’s because she’s adopted. More likely because she’s not old enough. Julia Roberts is the TV hostess with the mostess on a shopping channel shucking mood pendants to them all (we are in Georgia, home shopping channel capital of the world as we know from JLaw’s mop movie). Bradley (Jason Sudeikis) is the gym proprietor widower with two teenaged daughters who can’t stop looking at his late wife (Jennifer Garner) singing karaoke in videos recorded before her death on military duty. It’s been a year now so why isn’t he dating? Oh dear God why? Why not? Who cares? I hope they all had a good old time taking advantage of the State of Georgia’s generous movie tax incentives. It looks like a very nice place. I admit this PC sludge isn’t as bad as that awful multi-generational crud Christmas With the Coopers but this was no way for Marshall to go out. He made The Flamingo Kid for crying out loud! Stick a pin in me, call me a pinata, I’m done.

Something’s Gotta Give (2003)

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Jack. Diane. How much do we love Nancy Meyers? She wrote it for them and boy do they make it their own. He’s Harry Sanborn, rap mogul, dating art dealer Marin (Amanda Peet) and he has a heart attack at her mother’s Long Island beachfront property as they’re about to consummate their new relationship. Mom just happens to be Erica Barry, the Broadway playwright. He finds himself sequestered there by doc Keanu Reeves, unwillingly falling for  a woman of his own age for the very first time. She’s got writer’s block and objects to him on every level, except … she never meets anyone outside of work and now she’s got this horrible old guy after her and Keanu fancies her too. Meyers admitted that she wrote this from the experience of feeling invisible following her divorce from Charles Shyer, her husband, directing, writing and producing partner of a quarter of a century, and this is all about figuring out how to integrate your personal experiences into an art form when everything goes to hell in a handcart. Keaton’s scene at her computer when she ranges from tearful rage to hilarity as she writes her next hit play starring Harry, her new subject – replete with a row of his avatars with their rears on view to the world in the hospital replay on Broadway – is brilliantly written, directed and played.  She’s a great romantic heroine and you can bet with Meyers there’s a twist or two to the narrative – irony and genre-twisting being her speciality. Erica manages to be an unhappy emotional vampire for whom we root. Art imitates life and then some. This has a transformational arc that’s equal parts Pygmalion and Cinderella. If you want to read more on her work, I’ve written a book about her films:   https://www.amazon.com/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1474803514&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.