Legend of the Falls (1994)

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He is the rock they broke themselves against. Early 20th-century Montana, Colonel William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) lives in the wilderness with his sons, Tristan (Brad Pitt), Alfred (Aidan Quinn) and Samuel (Henry Thomas). Alfred’s the good rule-abiding one, Tristan is the wild man who hunts and shoots and whose best friend is One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), while Samuel returns from Harvard with a fiancee, Susannah (Julia Ormond), an Eastern woman who initially appears to be a replacement for Ludlow’s wife who never got the hang of western living and abandoned her husband and sons. Ludlow resigned from civilisation following the Civil War due to his distress at how Native Americans were being treated. Eventually, the unconventional but close-knit family encounters tragedy when Samuel is killed in World War I. Tristan and Alfred survive their tours of duty, but, soon after they return home, both men fall for Susannah (Julia Ormond), and their intense rivalry begins to destroy the family. Alfred becomes a Congressman and Tristan disappears for years, travelling the world. He returns to find his father has had a stroke and his former lover Susannah didn’t wait for him and married Alfred, unhappily.  He finds love with the Indian girl who grew up around the family, Isabel Two (Karina Lombard) but then his smalltime rum-running business gets in the way of the O’Bannion gang’s business at the height of Prohibition …   Here at Mondo Towers I have Aussie flu and it’s snowing and I’m miserable so it was time to wheel out the big guns – an unapologetically old-fashioned western romance with enough unrequited love and gunfire and hunting and bear fights and tragedy and murder to fill an entire shelf of stories. The novella by Jim Harrison was adapted by Susan Shilliday and William D. Wittliff and they’re unafraid of throwing big swoony feelings at the screen.  Never mind the snide reviews, this is a really satisfying emotional widescreen experience. Beautifully shot by John Toll with an extraordinarily touching score by James Horner. Directed by Edward Zwick. Exit, pursued by a bear! Gulp.

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The Letter (1940)

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With all my heart, I still love the man I killed. In Singapore, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of a rubber plantation administrator, shoots and kills a man, Geoff Hammond, claiming that he tried to take advantage of her. She is arrested and her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) hires attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to defend her. Her claim of self-defence is doubted by the locals. During the trial Howard uncovers an incriminating letter that casts doubt on Leslie’s story. The two become embroiled in a blackmail scheme involving a Malayan clerk Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) and the dead man’s widow Mrs Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) … One of the great melodramas of the era, this Somerset Maugham adaptation by Howard Koch had already received an interpretation in 1929 with Jeanne Eagels in the leading role and Marshall had played Geoff Hammond. With the dream team of Davis and director William Wyler it became an opportunity for Warners to make an intense, lush festival of emotions concerning race and sex shot by Tony Gaudio, costumed by Orry-Kelly and scored by Max Steiner. Davis is simply unforgettable, as is the opening scene, when a shot rings out under a full moon …

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

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You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. Six-year old Scout Finch (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in sleepy smalltown Maycomb, Alabama during the Depression, spending their time with their friend Dill (John Megna) who visits every summer, spying on their reclusive and mysterious neighbour the mentally defective Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). When Atticus (Gregory Peck) their widowed father and a respected lawyer, defends a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) against fabricated rape charges by a redneck white girl Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox) whose own father Bob (James Anderson) has attacked her, the trial and surrounding issues expose the children to evils of racism and stereotyping and the accuser’s father has a bone to pick with Finch and his children … This feels like it has always been here:  the gracious Peck in the role with which he would come to be identified and young Scout’s view of unfolding events, the most violent of which are all offscreen. Horton Foote’s careful adaptation of Harper Lee’s instant classic and Pulitzer Prize-winner (with Dill a stand-in for her own childhood friend, Truman Capote) both heightens and elevates the issue of white supremacy in some of the shot set-ups by director Robert Mulligan, never mind the text in which the innocent victim of white justice is mysteriously shot by the police while allegedly escaping. Perhaps that’s the quibble of someone viewing it in retrospect twice over – the 1960s take on a 30s point of view. The sense of place and period ambiance is impeccable and the playing of the motherless girl by Badham (sister of director John) is hugely influential in its insistence on how we see things are – or were, perhaps, with no distractions or subplots to take from this essential drama of the rights of the vulnerable with the odd scene properly essaying the effect of horror films, just as a child experiences life. Each of the children makes a lasting impression. The courtroom scene is classic and the quiet dignity of the black community rising to their feet as Atticus leaves the legendary trial sequence is very moving. Quite monumental.

Coming to America (1988)

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Look on the bright side – at least we learned how to make french fries. Pampered Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) is the king-in-waiting of an African country and wants for nothing, except a wife who will love him in spite of his title. Even all those agreeably nude dolls washing and toileting him every day can’t make him change his mind. To escape an arranged marriage as per the tradition that only his father the king (James Earl Jones) could undo, Akeem flees to America accompanied by sidekick Semmi (Arsenio Hall) to find his queen. He takes up residence in the worst apartment ever and utters cuss words he’s never heard before, taking them for colloquial blessings. Disguised as a foreign student working in fast food at a yellow McD’s joint for Mr McDowell (John Amos) whose business resembles the other famous McD’s except for not having seeds on the buns, he romances Lisa (Shari Headley). However he struggles with revealing his true identity and doesn’t know how to broach his marital intentions to his father. The chickens finally come home to roost when Semmi gets fed up of the ruse, pretends to his own girlfriend that he’s the prince and finally contacts the royal parents … Directed by John Landis, this fish out of water romcom is a lot of fun and allows Murphy (and Hall) to don a range of disguises (Murphy even dons whiteface to play a Jewish man in a barber’s!) that don’t however detract from the forward thrust of the narrative. There’s also a nice scene sequence with Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, updating the story from the last Landis-Murphy collaboration, Trading Places. The screenplay is credited to David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein with a story by Murphy, but a lengthy lawsuit by legendary columnist Art Buchwald eventually acknowledged that the source material was his. Good, almost old-fashioned fun.

Get Out (2017)

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A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) reluctantly agrees to meet the family of his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) after dating for 5 months. But he’s unsure of a warm reception. During their drive to the family’s countryside estate, they hit a deer and report the incident. The white policeman asks for Chris’ ID even though he was not driving, but Rose intervenes and the encounter goes unrecorded. At the house, Rose’s parents, neurosurgeon Dean (Bradley Whitford) and psychiatrist/hypnotherapist Missy (Catherine Keener) make odd comments about black people. Chris notices that the black workers at the estate are uncannily compliant. Unable to sleep, Chris goes out for a smoke and sees groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) running from the woods. He sees housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) apparently watching him from a window. Missy catches Chris rand talks him into a hypnotherapy session to cure his smoking addiction and he enters ‘the sunken place’. He awakens from his ‘nightmare’ –  cigarettes now revolt him. Georgina unplugs his phone, draining his battery. Wealthy white people arrive for the Armitages’ annual get-together. They take a great interest in Chris, admiring his physique or expressing admiration for famous black figures. Chris meets Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield) a black man married to a much older white woman, who also acts strangely. Chris tries to fist bump, to no avail. Chris calls his friend, black Transport Authority Officer Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery) about the hypnosis and the strange behavior at the house. When Chris tries to stealthily photograph Logan, the camera flash makes Logan hysterical; he screams at Chris to get out. Dean claims he has epilepsy. Chris persuades Rose to leave with him, while Dean holds an auction – with a picture of Chris on display. Chris sends Logan’s photo on his phone to Rod who recognizes him as a missing person. While packing to leave, Chris finds photos of Rose in prior relationships with black people -including Walter and Georgina. Rose and the family block his exit and Missy hypnotises him. Suspecting a conspiracy, Rod goes to the police but is laughed out of it. Chris awakens strapped to a chair watching  featuring Rose’s grandfather Roman on a TV screen explains that the family transplants the brains of white people into black bodies – the consciousness of the host remains in the ‘sunken place’ – seeing but powerless. Jim Hudson (Stephen Root) a blind art dealer, tells Chris he wants his body so he can regain sight and Chris’s artistic talents. Chris plugs his ears with stuffing pulled from the chair, blocking the hypnotic commands instigated by Missy. When Rose’s crazed brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) comes to collect him for the surgery, Chris bludgeons him. Then he impales Dean with the antlers of a mounted stag, and stabs Missy. Chris steals a car and drives away but hits Georgina. Guilty over his mother’s death in a hit and run when he was a kid, he carries Georgina into the car, but she is possessed by Rose’s grandmother Marianne; she attacks him and Chris crashes, killing her. Rose and Walter, who is possessed by Roman, catch up with him. Chris awakens the real “Walter” with his phone flash; Walter takes Rose’s rifle, shoots her, and kills himself, and Roman with him. Chris begins to strangle Rose, but cannot bring himself to kill her. Rod arrives in a TSA vehicle and he and Chris drive away as Rose succumbs to her wound. Daring, witty, horrifying and verging on every cusp of taste and political correctness, here’s a take on race relations via The Stepford Wives that’s gut-bustingly sharp and funny with absolutely no false moments. Who could credit that this astonishing satirical suspense thriller is the debut of comic actor Jordan Peele? It’s stunning. One of the year’s must-see films. I told you not to go in the house!

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!

Buffalo Bill (1944)

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They were all my friends. William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (Joel McCrea) is the legendary hunter and scout who rescues Senator Federici (Moroni Olsen) and his daughter Louisa (Maureen O’Hara). They fall in love and marry and Louisa bears him a son, named for Kit Carson. Bill becomes good friends with Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn), chief of the Cheyenne but Bill is forced by a collection of businessmen, politicians and the Army to fight them – a fight he doesn’t want. Writer Ned Buntline (Thomas Mitchell) immortalises his escapades and when he arrives in Washington is stunned that even little kids know who he is. When he receives distressing news of his baby son’s illness he blames his wife for their coming East and leaves her while his political disagreements become newspaper fodder. He is basically destitute until he’s offered work in a Wild West show … This more or less fictionalised biography is told with customary efficiency and verve from Twentieth-Century Fox with a screenplay by Clements Ripley, Aeneas MacKenzie, John Francis Larkin, Frank Winch and Cecile Kramer. It’s an absorbing yarn, shot in gorgeous Technicolor and moving like quickfire and has interesting touches, such as Dawn Starlight (Linda Darnell) trying on Louisa’s ‘white woman’ clothes for size and of course the marvellous action scenes, expertly choreographed.  Directed beautifully by ‘Wild’ Bill Wellman who is under-remembered now but is the subject of a great big new coffee table book which I am anticipating under the Christmas tree. Just sayin’!

Two Rode Together (1961)

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They’re expecting a Messiah, a Moses, to deliver them from their bondage – and I’ve got to send them you! Cynical Texas marshal (James Stewart) and conscientious Army officer (Richard Widmark) are deputised to rescue white people kidnapped by Comanches years earlier but only when negotiations with them succeed. They get two of them back to camp – some mother’s son and a Mexican woman – but find they have completely forgotten their origins and a massive culture clash ensues with the boy killing the woman who is convinced she is his mother and Elena ostracised by white society for becoming an Indian squaw.  The casting of this John Ford western is interesting as Stewart wears his talismanic hat from the Anthony Mann westerns and pours cold water on everything while Widmark always tries to do the right thing; Shirley Jones makes an impact as the girl who can’t get her missing brother out of her mind. Ford didn’t want to make this since he felt he had said all he needed to say about this sort of thing with The Searchers and he was basically correct. But his new star, Stewart, and the widescreen shooting make this worth a watch and the double act at its heart is genuinely interesting. Adapted by Frank Nugent from Will Cook’s novel Comanche Captives.

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!

Fences (2016)

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Some people build fences to keep people out and some people build fences to keep people in. Troy (Denzel Washington) is a trash collector married to Rose (Viola Davis) for eighteen years in 1950s Pittsburgh. His life is filled with regrets, particularly when it comes to his chance of playing baseball twenty years ago before the game had mixed leagues. He believes he has cheated The Grim Reaper in the past. His son Cory (Jovan Adepo) is promising at football but he squashes his ambitions. For fear of racial discrimination? Jealousy?  This is the kind of film I dread seeing never mind commenting about for fear of the thought police. It’s a draggy theatre adaptation of a famously acclaimed work which is worthy and conscious and PC and all that kinda annoying stuff. It’s all talk. Troy left an abusive home, killed a man in a robbery, went to prison, found a talent for baseball. Until one hour in, it’s hard to watch, even with Washington and Davis reprising their Broadway roles and some good sidebars with the supporting actors: Stephen Henderson as his friend, Mykelti Williamson as his ‘touched’ younger brother, his illegitimate son Russell Hornsby who arrives to collect money. They are physically placed as though everyone were still behind a proscenium. Then – when Troy confesses to Rose his mistress is about to have his bastard and it’s all about him – she lights up and grips the screen by the throat and it finally gains a life of its own – legitimate cinema, as it were. This is all about family and responsibility and the weight you attach to your experiences even at the cost to your relationships. What Troy does next – and how Rose responds – is the whole show. The original play by August Wilson (whose alterations to the proposed screenplay shortened it over the long period of development prior to his death) takes place in a yard, like a lot of American plays. Part of the reason it took so long to reach the screen was Wilson’s insistence upon a black director. Washington’s direction of the adaptation reinstates the text and once that first difficult act is done, he gets more courage and inserts a song and a montage of how life has gone. And then … So it’s not great cinema but it gives concrete proof of Davis’ brilliant stage performance. Personally I found Washington harder to take not just for his personification but his enunciation. This is a tough watch for all the above reasons. Three strikes …