Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

The Godfather Part III (1990)

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Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in. As Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) ages and has a place of respect in society having divested himself of his casinos, he finds that being the head of the Corleone crime family isn’t getting any easier. He wants out of the Mafia and buys his way into the Vatican Bank but NYC mob kingpin Altobello (Eli Wallach) isn’t eager to let one of the most powerful and wealthy families go legit. Making matters even worse is Michael’s nephew, Vincent (Andy Garcia) the illegitimate son of Sonny. Not only does Vincent want out from under smalltime mobster Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) who’s now got the Corleones’ New York business, he wants a piece of the Corleone family’s criminal empire, as well as Michael’s teenage daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola) who’s crushing on him. Ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton) appeals to Michael to allow their son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) quit law school to pursue a career as an opera singer.  A trip to Sicily looms as all the threads of the Corleone family start to be pieced together after a massacre in Atlantic City and scores need to be settled Why did they fear me so much and love you so much? Francis Ford Coppola revisits the scene of arguably his greatest triumph, The Godfather Saga, with writer Mario Puzo and yet he viewed it as a separate entity to that two-headed masterpiece. Perhaps it’s a riff on the material or a tribute act. The transition is tricky with a brusque crewcut Pacino boasting a different boo-ya voice at the beginning when the Catholic Church honours him following a $100 million donation; and the symbolism writ large in the concluding sequence, a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana in which the weakness of our own central Christ figure is punished with the greatest violence – the death of close family.  This story then mutates from a pastiche of its previous triumphs to a a pastiche of an opera. Michael is doing penance for the death of Fredo, his dumb older brother who betrayed the family. He is physically weak from diabetes and the accompanying stroke;  his efforts to go totally legitimate have angered his Mafia rivals from whose ties he cannot fully break and they want in on the deal with the Vatican;  his brother Sonny’s bastard son Vincent is nipping at his heels while sleeping with his own daughter; he is still in love with a remarried Kay, whom he finally introduces to Sicily;  he is in bed with God’s own gangsters. It’s a sweeping canvas which gradually reveals itself even if the setup is awkward:  we open on the windows at the Lake Tahoe house and see they are decorated with inlaid spider webs:  we soon see that sister Connie (Talia Shire) is the wicked crone behind the throne in her widow’s weeds, her flightiness long behind her. Like Wallach, her performance is cut from the finest prosciutto as she encourages Vincent in his ruthless ride to the top of the crime world. Mantegna isn’t a lot better as Joey Zasa. Wrapped into real life events at the Vatican in the late 70s/early 80s which gives Donal Donnelly, Raf Vallone and Helmut Berger some fine supporting roles, with an almost wordless John Savage as Tom Hagen’s priest son, this has the ring of truth but not the class of classicism even with that marvellous cast reunited, something of a miracle in itself:  it feels like the gang’s almost all here. I cheered when I saw Richard Bright back as Al Neri! So sue me! And good grief Enzo the Baker is back too! Duvall is replaced by George Hamilton as consigliere, not Coppola’s doing, but because he wasn’t going to be paid a decent salary. What were they thinking?! Even Martin Scorsese’s mother shows up! That’s Little Italy for ya! There are some witty exchanges amid the setpieces when everything beds in and the tragedy is set to violently unwind. The death of Sofia Coppola was the price she had to pay for being her father’s daughter, non e veroFinance is the gun, politics is the trigger.

 

 

 

Junior Bonner (1972)

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Rodeo time, I gotta get it on down the road/What road? I mean, I’m workin’ on my first million, and you’re still workin’ on eight seconds. Middle-aged rodeo rider Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen) returns to his Arizona hometown where he reunites with his family, which includes his charming, troublemaker of a father, Ace (Robert Preston), and his ambitious real estate-developer brother Curly (Joe Don Baker). Mom Elvira (Ida Lupino) is estranged from her husband. So while Ace dreams of finding his fortune in Australia, Junior is determined to conquer a tough bull named Sunshine by riding it for eight seconds. Can Junior claim victory over Sunshine and stay in the rodeo business?… Junior, you’re my brother, and I guess I love you. Well, we’re family. I don’t care what you do. You can sell one lot or a hundred lots. I’m just tryin’ to keep us together. Directed by Sam Peckinpah from a script by Jeb Rosebrook, this is a wonderful, warm, sympathetic portrait of a man having issues with ageing, returning home to a scrappy if welcoming family in a changing West and finally figuring out who he is. This is another Peckinpah film about the coming of modernity to the frontier and when we see The Wild Bunch embroidered on a suited-and-booted rider’s saddle blanket it’s just one thread of symbolic commentary in the bountiful narrative. There’s a great use of split-screen for the Prescott rodeo and the performances are memorable in an affecting, compelling film, probably Peckinpah’s most gentle outing with an undertow of violence beneath the gentility and quest for honour. McQueen is brilliant as the cowboy staking his claim. There’s one of him, and one of me

La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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My review of Shawn Levy’s book Dolce Vita Confidential which excavates in scrupulous detail the circumstances leading up to the film’s production is here:  http://offscreen.com/view/dolce-vita-swinging-rome.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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I’m not home. I never will be. I first encountered a Nam vet on Central Park West. He chased me despite being on crutches that were well past their sell-by date. I guess maybe it was because I had more legs than he did. I was waiting tables in a township on Long Island called Massapequa at a ghastly restaurant where a deranged and thankfully distant relative worked. Massapequa is the hometown of the Baldwin brothers and Ron Kovic, the subject of this impassioned film by Oliver Stone, a man whose own combat experiences had informed his previous film, Platoon, that astonishingly immersive journey of a naif to manhood in a horrifying exposition of American soldiers’ experiences. Ron Kovic’s book is the basis of another coming of age tale, this time of a Catholic boy whose parents’ devotion to JFK unwittingly unleashes their sports-mad son’s inner patriot.  I hadn’t seen this since its release and my fresh impression of its first sequences was of overwrought melodrama, underlined by John Williams’ overheated score. But this is all of a piece with the film’s intentions:  starting with a heightened picture of America’s hearth and home;  the futility and horror of war; the brutality of veterans’ experiences in epically gruesome, filthy underfunded hospitals (Kovic’s God-loving mother never even paid him a visit); the utter loneliness of being a castrated, paralysed man with a beating heart and functioning brain who is ridiculed by the anti-war protesters; the recognition that the only people with whom he now has anything in common are the other vets who are even more fucked up than he is. And so it moves into its more austere final sections. Politicisation. Separation from a family who refuse to accept he could have killed women and children and for whom he is a mere embarassment in a block where the other soldiers at least died. Is there a better correlative image in Stone’s entire oeuvre than the crane shot over the Wilson family home, where Ron has confessed to killing new recruit, their nineteen year old son William, in the dunes of Nam as the sun flared during an ambush, then he is wheeled away by a helper amid the scraps and detritus dumped in their yard and the leafy branches fade into a fluttering stars and stripes – and we are plunged into more police brutality at the 1972 Republican convention where he has joined the protest movement? This is elegant filmmaking. It is not without its humour or self-awareness. Ron has finally had his cherry broken by a Mexican whore in a sequence of T&A that reunites Stone with Willem Defoe who welcomes him to this sick paradise and he thinks it’s love – but hides his gift for her when he realises sex with a cripple is just a job for her. These vets’ wheelchair-off is a salve for those of us who might have liked to see one between Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, who beat him to an Academy Award that year (DDL gurned more). I’ve never been back to Massapequa or that cruddy restaurant but Stephen Baldwin has a small role as a schoolfriend, Tom Berenger gets him to join up, Frank Whaley is the other surviving vet who helps Ron out of his doomladen hole and Kyra Sedgwick is the gorgeous girl he loved so much he ran through the rain to dance with her at the Prom and she turns him on to the anti-war crusade. Cruise is simply great, giving a complete performance from boy to man in a narrative which exemplifies the art of juxtaposition and emotional arcs. This is cinema, utterly moving and indignant and humane. Watch it and weep.

Hot Enough for June (1964)

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Aka Agent 8 3/4.Dirk Bogarde is a louche unpublished London writer who happens to speak Czech so he’s whipped off the dole queue by British Intelligence and winds up hapless in Prague, trying to bring back a coded message he doesn’t understand, not even realising he’s been hired as a spy. This breezy spoof was one of many films riding on the coat-tails of the James Bond phenomenon and the versatile Bogarde is perfect in a role originally intended for Laurence Harvey, in this colourful mix of homage, pastiche, satire and romance, with buckets of tension as he eventually makes a connection in the Gents’ at a glass factory and makes out with the gorgeous Sylvia Koscina (making her English-language debut) who conceals her role for the secret police. There’s great byplay between spymaster Robert Morley and his opposite number, Leo McKern, and some wonderful dressing up as Bogarde tries to get back to London in one piece. Great location photography (in Padua, since the Cold War was ongoing!) by Ernest Steward distinguishes this attractive time piece. Adapted from Lionel Davidson’s The Night of Wenceslas by Lukas Heller. Directed by Ralph Thomas and produced by Betty Box, this was one of the later of their thirty-plus collaborations.

Blow Out (1981)

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Take an Antonioni classic, Blow-up, make it about sound rather than pictures, add a dash of Kennedy crisis (Chappaquiddick/Texas), mix in a hint of right-wing conspiracy theories, use the ideas in Coppola’s The Conversation, and whisk into a Hitchcockian pastiche. And there you have it. A recipe for one of the key films of the Eighties, courtesy of Brian De Palma. This man knows his movies. Shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, sound by Pino Donaggio, star by John Travolta. Yum.