The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) attends the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in a small Western town. Flashing back 25 years, we learn Doniphon saved Stoddard, then a lawyer, when he was roughed up by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). As the territory’s safety hung in the balance, Doniphon and Stoddard, two of the only people standing up to him, proved to be very important, but different, foes to Valance. Stoddard opened a law office over the offices of the Shinbone Star, the newspaper which is run by a steadfast editor determined to expose the reality of the violence terrorising the territory and preserve the freedom of the press. Both Doniphon and Stoddard are in love with the same woman, Hallie (Vera Miles) who cooks in her immigrant parents’ restaurant and whom Stoddard teaches to read and write. When the newspaper prints a (mis-spelled) headline declaring Valance is defeated, he takes revenge – and then the peace-loving Stoddard takes up a gun … This is a film of polarities, exemplified by the civilising influence of Ransom opposed to Valance and Doniphon’s own belief in the power of the gun (which ironically opens up the possibility for bringing law and order to the place). Vera Miles is splendid as the illiterate love of both men:  What good has reading and writing done you? Look at you – in an apron!  An eloquent essay on the genre itself, this was not received warmly upon release. And yet its entire narrative provides the content for soon to be popular structuralist analysis of the western:  the East versus the West, old versus new, the wilderness versus civilisation, violence versus law and order, reality versus myth, the desert versus the garden. Never was a cactus rose deployed to such symbolic effect! John Ford made one of the great films but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch up. Adapted from Dorothy Johnson’s short story by producer Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah .

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Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)

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Why is it rich girls are always flat chested? Millie (Julie Andrews) arrives straight off the bus in 1920s NYC and determines to immediately transform her chance of winning a rich husband by becoming a flapper and taking an office job and determining to marry her handsome boss Trevor Graydon (John Gavin). She befriends innocent new arrival orphaned Miss Dorothy (Mary Tyler Moore) at the rooming house run by Mrs Meers (Beatrice Lillie) who is very busy with her Chinese staff running back and forth to a laundry. Paperclip salesman Jimmy Smith (James Fox) meets Millie at a friendship dance and is immediately besotted. But Millie wants money and only has eyes for Trevor. When Jimmy takes her and Dorothy to a rich friend’s house on Long Island where they meet the eccentric widow Muzzy (Carol Channing) Millie believes she’s falling for him – and then sees him in what appears to be a rendez vous with Dorothy. Meanwhile, Mrs Meers is plotting to kidnap Dorothy and sell her into white slavery – the latest in a series of such orphans that go missing … How can this be 50 years old already?! It moves and looks as clean as a whistle. Adapted by Richard Morris from 1956 British musical Chrysanthemum, this exercise in nostalgia is a great showcase for Lillie and Channing in particular. It’s a splendidly cheery and eccentric excursion into The Boy Friend territory which revels in very un-PC swipes at the Chinese, avaricious women and the vanities of the rich while singing them up a storm. Director George Roy Hill has fun with silent movie tropes including a Harold Lloyd-like skyscraper sequence and makes great use of amusing intertitles explaining Andrews’ thoughts with new songs from Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn alongside 20s numbers which greatly embellish this story of disguised identity and screwball romance. It’s much too long but is tremendously enlivened by the unique talents of Channing whose Academy Award-winning performance includes the showstopper Jazz Baby. Yeah!

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

 

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There’s nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is the hardman and advisor to Irish American gangster Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who’s at war with Italian Mafia boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) at the height of Prohibition. When crooked bookie Bernie (John Turturro) the brother of Leo’s mistress and Tom’s lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) is threatened by Caspar, the dark-hearted and brainy Reagan is found out by Leo and appears to switch sides in an escalating rivalry over liquor distribution that has a huge body count… It’s hard to pick out a single sequence of brilliance in this positively baroque outing but today I’m choosing the attempt on Leo’s life to the sounds of Frank Patterson warbling Danny Boy: what a stunning declaration of visual bravura (kudos to DoP Barry Sonnenfeld). Brutal, witty, dazzling, beautiful, postmodern and classic, this is a masterpiece. The dialogue is straight out of old gangster movies (and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key) and coming out of Byrne’s accented mouth sounds hilarious:  you gasp at some of the lines, they’re so stunningly written. The narrative is constructed on well known gangster tropes and turns them inside out in a film that acts as a commentary on the genre – Tom’s asides with the Irish policemen are an excruciating Greek chorus! – as well as exulting in its excesses, its ghastly violence, its humour, its morality, its sheer decadence. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen and directed by the former, this is one of the modern greats that engages the brain, the heart and the mind with Reagan’s psychology supplying Byrne with a career-defining role. Astounding.

Evita (1996)

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Statesmanship is more than entertaining peasants. 1952 Buenos Aires: a film in a cinema is stopped by the newsflash that Eva Peron (Madonna) is dead. Flashback to years earlier: a little girl running into a church and placing flowers on the body of the man who was her father before she is hustled out. 1930s:  Eva Duarte is sleeping with a tango singer Magaldi (Jimmy Nail) before making her name as a radio actress and then befriending a powerful man Colonel Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce) at a fundraiser following an earthquake. She becomes his mistress and encourages and hustles for him as he parlays his way to power, using her broadcasting nous to raise support for him during his imprisonment by political rivals who fear his rise. Throughout this larger than life musical drama (entirely sung through) Che Guevara (Antonio Banderas) is the shapeshifting commentator on the sidelines, positioning us in the narrative, until the final – unthinkable – departure of Evita. This is a robust, admirable adaptation by director Alan Parker and Oliver Stone of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice behemoth that bestrode theatre in the 1970s after its introduction as a concept album – a musical drama that deconstructs the life of the Argentine bastard who became an actress and whore before marrying the dissolute Peron and utilising her powers of demagoguery to help him and his Nazi thugs to Government. All of this is contextualised under the guise of sympathy for the impoverished masses of which she believed she was one because she was the illegitimate offspring of a married middle class man.  The story problem here is the persona of Evita herself – she’s a narcissistic exhibitionist whose principal passion is herself and this presents the issue of empathy for the viewing experience. It’s an epic political pageant but it’s politics as psychodrama:  you can admire the scale but it’s a mirthless spectacle about horrendous people. Madonna does an excellent job with the songs but her limited technical acting abilities aren’t helped by the parameters of the role itself, which is primarily declarative in function. The first opportunity she really gets to properly emote is on her deathbed: everything else is essentially a con job of presentation, inherent to the character herself. Banderas and Pryce are commentators and therefore essential to the interacting of the personal with the political on a broad canvas shot in muted amber tones which is admittedly captivating and occasionally jaw-dropping in ambition. There are some wonderful visual flourishes and pastiche references to classical filmmaking (Parker even makes a cameo appearance). At its heart this is a vengeful journey into fascistic madness framed by two funerals.  It’s certainly interesting to see this again (in any form) in the week in which the Perons’ successors are finally sentencing the pilots who carried out the murders of tens of thousands of dissidents by dropping them in the shark-infested Atlantic 40 years ago rather than wasting time torturing them – so many people had already invested their energies doing that and it was obviously tiring them out. Can you imagine what these toxic avengers would have done if they’d been allowed on the Falklands? Oh what a circus, oh what a show.

Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

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Every day when I get up and I see there’s a whole new other day I go absolutely ape! Richard Benson (William Holden) is holed up in a swish Paris apartment with a great view and he has two days left of his 20-week contract to fulfill a screenwriting assignment commissioned on the basis of the title by a monied producer.  He’s spent all that time travelling around Europe, having an affair with a Greek actress and drinking. Now he’s hired a typist called Gabrielle Simpson (Audrey Hepburn) who’s really a wannabe writer who spent the first six months of her two-year stint in the city living a very louche life. He dictates various opening scenes of The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower and eventually constructs a version which takes off with Gabrielle standing in for the lead actress in a story which mutates into a spy thriller. Her actor boyfriend in the story (Tony Curtis) dumps her (in reality she has a date to keep in two days – Bastille Day) and she gets embroiled with Benson himself as the presumed villain. When Gabrielle takes over the storytelling she turns him into a vampire because of a childhood obsession with Dracula. He rewrites it like the hack he really is and gives it a Hollywood ending – straight out of Casablanca. Real life meshes with reel life and Noel Coward – playing his producer Alexander Myerheim – materialises at a party in the film within a film. Marlene Dietrich has a cameo and Curtis has great fun in his supporting role as a narcissistic Method actor. This postmodern remake of the French film Holiday for Henrietta by Julien Duvivier and Henri Jeanson got a rewrite by George Axelrod and it’s brimming with Hollywood references and a surplus of nods to the films of both stars:  talk about meta! It was put into production by Paramount who exercised their contractual rights over Holden and Hepburn, reunited after Sabrina a decade earlier. They had had a much-fabled affair then and Hepburn allegedly turned down Holden’s offer of marriage due to his vasectomy as she was obsessed with having a child. She was by now married to actor and director Mel Ferrer and Holden turned up to the set in a very bad way, still not over her. His drinking was out of control and he had numerous accidents befall him which ended up scuppering the final scene. It was directed by Richard Quine, who had previously made The World of Suzie Wong with him and that gets a shout out too. Hepburn’s husband Ferrer has a cameo here as a partygoer and Sinatra does some singing duties when Benson announces the titles of the film within a film. There are far more laughs here than the contemporary reviews would give it credit, with some shrewd screenplay analysis and Benson even talks at regular intervals about his planned book The Art of Screenplay Writing which sounds like a useful handbook. Hepburn was outfitted as ever by Hubert de Givenchy who betrays her terrifyingly anorectic frame and he also gets a credit for her perfume despite this not being released in Smell-O-Rama. Hepburn had legendary Claude Renoir (the same) fired as director of photography because she felt he wasn’t flattering her and had him replaced with Charles Lang, who accompanied her to her next film, Charade, which shares a location with this – the Punch and Judy show at the front of the Theatre de Marigny. There’s a sinuous score by Nelson Riddle.

Stand By Me (1986)

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Did your mother have any kids that lived?! The Writer (Richard Dreyfuss) is returning to Castle Rock, the small town in Oregon where he grew up. He’s got a newspaper in his hand announcing the death of one of his childhood friends and recalls the summer that everything changed when they and two other twelve year old boys went on an odyssey to view the body of a kid hit by a train passing through several miles away. It’s 1959.  Gordie (Wil Wheaton) is the neglected younger son in a family after his older brother (John Cusack) was killed on the way to basic training. His best friend is Chris (River Phoenix) who’s got a bad name because he comes from a criminal family. Teddy (Corey Feldman) is the abused child of a mentally ill man who claimed to be a WW2 hero. And Vern (Jerry O’Connell) is the chubby kid who overhears about the whereabouts of a missing boy when his older brother talks about it on the porch. They pretend they’re going on a camping trip and learn more about each other than they ever knew as they dodge death on a railway bridge, deal with leeches and a mythical killer dog and Gordie entertains his chums with the Barforama story to beat them all.  Then the older boys come a calling to retrieve the dead body … Wise, witty, sad, moving and hilarious, this is such a true story of friendship and family and is told in a brief 83 minutes, not a moment of which is wasted. The adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body (in Different Seasons) by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans is canny and kind, balanced between comedy and drama and utilising the flashback structure (there are flashbacks within the overall flashback narrative) to illustrate the experience and the effects of the incident very well (it’s quite complex within the novella). Beautifully played sense of time and place, with the interactions between those talented boys utterly believable, this is a modern classic. I never had any friends later in life like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone? Absolutely wonderful. Directed by Rob Reiner.

Live By Night (2016)

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What you put out in the world will always come back to you but never how you predict. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the WW1-weary son of Irish-American police officer (Brendan Gleeson) who tries to be good but you know how it is. He’s trying to make his way as a small-time crook in 1927 Boston but crosses paths with gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) by stealing from him and sleeping with his sassy Irish girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). He’s blackmailed by White’s rival mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to kill White or he’ll rat on the affair so robs a bank to flee to California with Emma. That was the original plan but police officers get killed and Emma apparently drowns being chased by police after White came close to killing Joe. Despite the efforts of his father he serves three years in prison for the police killings and his father is dead when he gets out so he does a deal with Piscatore to take over his rum business in Florida where he can get revenge on White. It means setting up business with Suarez (Miguel Pimentele) and he shacks up with his sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana). He and his sidekick Dion (Chris Messina) take over and then someone thought dead turns up in a photograph and Maso has a showdown with Joe and it turns into a triple cross situation  … There are a lot of admirable things in this production: the settings, the design (even if the cars are way too clean), some brilliant lines (rather than exchanges of dialogue) and a depiction of the Prohibition era in Florida that introduces the Ku Klux Klan into the mix because these gangsters are Catholic. Affleck’s commitment to bringing Dennis Lehane’s Boston Irish mythology to the screen is to be commended but his waxy inexpressiveness is central to why this doesn’t work (blank is simply not a good look in a gangster movie). Miller makes him look better than he is in their scenes together – they crackle – but she departs the story early. All the bits are here, they just don’t add up, and that usually leads us back to the screenwriter – also Affleck. There are plotlines thrown away in a photograph or a newspaper cutting. There are technical issues too – some of the sound mix particularly at the beginning is poor. A smarter filmmaker would have dropped a lot of the overhead shots and the dumb narration (look at how it doesn’t work and compare it with Goodfellas!) and cast a better actor in the lead:  just watch how Chris Cooper in his small role as police chief Figgis in Tampa wipes the floor with Affleck in his first scene and listen to him deliver the line about a fallen world. That’s when he introduces his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) who’s on her way to a Hollywood screen test:  bad move. This storyline takes a good turn paying off in a parable about evangelical Protestantism but the conclusion is just dumped for yet another newspaper story after a scene which unravels the sins of fathers who want better things for their kids. Oedipal scenarios aside, this is a guy who traffics liquor and murders people but still thinks he’s his father’s good son. Affleck looks quite laughable in his oversized suit but then you realise that he resembles legendary screen heavy Lawrence Tierney who was so incredibly nasty in days of yore.  Hmmm! What might have been. Oh! The vanity!

Captain Ron (1992)

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Some day Marty will do something worth writing about. Chicago businessman Martin Harvey (Martin Short) is leading a humdrum life with his wife Katherine (Mary Kay Place), trampy teenage daughter Caroline (Meadow Sisto) and little boy Ben (Benjamin Salisbury) until he inherits a yacht formerly owned by Clark Gable from his late uncle, last seen in  the US in 1962. They head off to the island of St Pomme de Terre (Saint Potato) in the West Indies to do it up and sell it through yacht broker Paul Anka (!) and inadvertently hire an eye-patched pirate type – the titular Ron (Kurt Russell) –  to lead them through tranquil aquarmarine waters as they venture through the islands cleaning up what turns out to be a wreck. Marty doesn’t trust Ron one iota but learns to trust in himself as his kids and wife become their truly adventurous selves – Place in particular has a whale of a time. There are no pirates in the Caribbean, says Marty. Then they give guerillas a lift from island to island and have their boat stolen by pirates and take their raft to Cuba -where the yacht is docked… Critics slated this for obvious reasons – why on earth was brilliant comic Short cast in the role of straight man in this twist on the Yuppies in Peril strand so popular in the early 90s? There are compensations, principally in some of the setups and the cinematography. The midlife crisis narrative of course has a twist – that’s in the narration by Marty and in the ending, when Ron doesn’t have a glass eye in his new job:  pirate tales are all in the telling, after all. Colourful and amusing. Written by John Dwyer and directed by Thom Eberhardt.

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)

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I’ve never made any secret of the fact that basically I’m on my way to Australia. Calendar Colorado is lawless town rich on the proceeds of a gold find during a funeral and it needs someone to pull it into shape. A sharpshooting chancer Jason McCullough (James Garner) claiming to be on his way to Oz takes a well-paid job to clean up as sheriff, hired by mayor Olly Perkins (Harry Morgan). That involves putting the Danby family in line so he imprisons idiot son Joe (Bruce Dern) in a jail without bars by dint of a chalk line and some red paint … This sendup of western tropes gets by on its good nature and pure charm with Garner backed up by a hilarious Joan Hackett as the accident-prone Prudy Perkins whose attractions are still visible even when she sets her own bustle alight. Jack Elam parodies his earlier roles as the tough guy seconded as deputy while Walter Brennan leads the dastardly Danbys, hellbent on making money from the guys mining the gold before it can be shipped out. Written and produced by William Bowers and directed by Burt Kennedy, that expert at a comic take on the genre whose serious side he had exploited in collaboration with Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott the previous decade. Bright and funny entertainment.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

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Those were the days when people knew how to be in love. Jeff Arch’s story was a meta discourse about people’s views of love and relationships being mediated by the movies. Nora Ephron turned it into a valentine to An Affair to Remember, a 1957 movie starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Together with her sister Delia it became as much com as rom, but it still has a baseline of melancholy and that killer feeling, bittersweet. Sam (Tom Hanks) is the widowed architect whose son Jonah (Ross Malinger) wants him to find The One so he can have a mother again. They live in Seattle. Annie (Meg Ryan) is the very proper journalist in Baltimore who gets engaged to the allergy-afflicted Walter (Bill Pullman).  She hears Jonah on a late night radio phone-in and stops at a diner where the waitresses talk of nothing else but this sweet  guy whose son wants him to remarry. She thinks there’s a story there but there’s more, as her friend Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) figures when her newly affianced friend is so distracted.  While she vaguely plans to hunt down Sam and carry out some friendly stalking, he starts to date again and his son is disgusted by his choice, one of his co-workers. Sam and Annie see each other across a crowded road when she nearly gets hit by a couple of trucks. Her letter to him asks him to meet at the top of the Empire State building on Valentine’s Day a la Cary and Deborah and it’s sent by Becky without her knowledge.  Things pick up when Jonah flies to NYC to keep the date and she’s there having dinner with Walter during a romantic weekend at The Plaza … The tropes from When Harry Met Sally are here – the mirroring conversations, the advice from friends, the movie references, and even that film’s director Rob Reiner plays Sam’s friend and even though she’ d already made a movie this was what really made Nora Ephron as an auteur. It’s a clever premise, discursive as well as fairytale, positing the idea that even though they’re a country apart a pair of compatible people are destined to meet. Eventually. Isn’t that wild? Separating a romantic couple until the very last five minutes of a film?! What a risk! With a helping hand from fate, a kid and a dream of finding love on Valentine’s Day, it helps that this hits three holiday celebrations including Christmas and New Year’s.  It shouldn’t work but it does, helped with some tart lines about men and women and what people settle for as opposed to what everyone really wants. What a dream team, boosted by some wonderful songs. Irresistible.