Book Club (2018)

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 If women our age were meant to have sex God wouldn’t do what he does to our bodies. Four friends in Los Angeles, widowed Diane (Diane Keaton), hotel owner Vivian (Jane Fonda), divorced federal judge Sharon (Candice Bergen) and married chef Carol (Mary Steenburgen) have had a book club for thirty years and this month’s choice is Fifty Shades of Grey. It causes them all to re-evaluate their unhappy sex and romantic lives. Diane agrees to a date with a pilot (Andy Garcia) she meets on an aeroplane journey which offers a pleasing diversion from her two daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) nagging her to move to their basement in Arizona (bizarre).  Vivian hooks up with Arthur (Don Johnson) the radio producer she didn’t marry forty years earlier.  Sharon goes on dates with men she meets online.  Carol hasn’t had sex with newly retired Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) in six months and their dance classes fizzle out. As the women read the next books in the trilogy their lives become more complicated … There are some frankly strange story issues here and I don’t just mean E.L. James’ source books: Diane’s daughters’ behaviour is literally unbelievable, even for a comedy (and the pregnant one doesn’t even give birth by the end, probably a good thing);  Sharon’s second date doesn’t actually materialise (with Wallace Shawn); and we never see any of them doing the deed (part of the thesis about ender relationships).   However there are pluses:  there are great innuendo-ridden exchanges, particularly in the first half, when sex really is on the table. Fonda makes a meal of them: I don’t sleep with people I like, you know that. I gave that up in the 90’s. As in life, when emotions get in the way the dialogue dips a lot which is ironic considering this is about book lovers, as it were (insert your own Fifty Shades joke here – and E.L. James and her husband even make a short appearance).   The production design (Rachel O’Toole) and cinematography (Andrew Dunn) enhance a film fuelled by female star power (the men are mostly useless) with some very nice shots of the Santa Monica Pier and the Painted Desert to liven up your ageist horizons.  Written by debut director Bill Holderman with Erin Simms who presumably wanted us all to experience some kind of late life fake orgasm.

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Life of the Party (2018)

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Once a dighead, always a dighead. When her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) suddenly dumps her, longtime and dedicated housewife Deanna Miles (Melissa McCarthy) turns regret into reset by going back to college. Unfortunately, Deanna winds up at the same college as her less-than-thrilled daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon). Plunging headlong into the campus experience, the outspoken new student soon begins a journey of self-discovery while fully embracing all of the fun, freedom and frat boys that she can handle. She shocks and delights best friend Christine (Maya Rudolph) with updates on her conquest of Jack (Luke Benward) who’s less than half her age but the chickens come home to roost when Dan announces he’s to marry his realtor Marcie (Julie Bowen) and Deanna and her strange ensemble of girls decide it’s time to make their presence felt … Melissa McCarthy is so nice. And this is nice. It’s not nasty and vengeful and gross which is what you might expect from a woman going through a midlife crisis when her husband cheats on her – I mean even she and her co-writer and director (and husband) Ben Falcone surely saw Back to School, never mind Animal House. It’s illogical and silly and for a comic performer of McCarthy’s ability that’s a staggering fail. She was in class with her archaeology professor and they don’t have a single conversation outside the lecture hall. She’s loud and proud yet can’t speak in public and falls over sweating in class. She embarrasses her daughter but it’s… fine? They simultaneously do the walk of shame and she doesn’t comment on her daughter’s sexual activity? Neither mother nor daughter’s reactions ring remotely true. (If this were a properly Freudian piss take they’d have slept with the same guy).  She was cool back in the day but now she wears hair clips and sparkly letter sweaters? Nonsense. And all those girls are so odd. As though every phobia and weirdly concocted affectation of millennials was assembled into some seriously strange students.  And of course Deanna seeks to reassure them. So far so snowflake.  And Christine and her husband have what is frankly an unbelievable marriage. The worst crime? It’s nice! McCarthy was brilliant in Spy – one of the best sendups I’ve ever seen which knew her value and her capacity for sharp delivery and hilarious slapstick and put it into a screamingly funny genre workout. Now? She’s just a Mom. I don’t get it.

Piccadilly Incident (1946)

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Don’t touch me! A brutally effective wartime tearjerker with WREN Diana Fraser (Anna Neagle) meeting cute with Captain Alan Pearson (Michael Wilding) in an air raid and taking refuge in his Piccadilly flat. They fall madly in love and marry because she’s being deployed abroad in 72 hours and they encounter his father, a judge (AE Matthews) in a restaurant and celebrate their hasty wedding.  They share some very sensual scenes but her sojourn in Singapore lasts a lot longer than anticipated – when the city falls and the ship she’s on is wrecked she fetches up on a desert island and is gone three years before being rescued. She is reported missing presumed drowned. Upon her return she finds his flat has been bombed and goes to his country seat where she meets the American woman Alan married in her absence and they have a baby. She watches him performing – in one of several musical segues, one of which is a ballet sequence devised by future director Wendy Toye – and pretends she’s found someone else. They are both injured in a bombing and she makes a deathbed confession as he kisses her … This romance carried out amid bombs and blackouts is bookended with the legal fate of Alan’s illegitimate son making Florence Tranter’s wartime take on Enoch Arden (screenplay by actor/writer Nicholas Phipps) both more realistic and trapped in its time:  nonetheless the accidental pairing of director Herbert Wilcox’s wife Neagle with Wilding (it was supposed to be Rex Harrison) was hugely popular (number 2 at the 1946 UK box office after The Wicked Lady) and they were re-teamed a further five times to make more, beautiful music together. No wonder.  Sob. Watch out for an uncredited Roger Moore at a table.

Sideways (2004)

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Pinot’s a very thin-skinned grape, it doesn’t like light or humidity. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a wine-loving high school English teacher and wannabe author whose best friend actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is getting married next Saturday:  road trip! To California wine country, where he can educate Jack in the mysteries of tasting. Two middle aged men on an emotional journey, one a depressive mourning his marriage, the other a past-it who can’t wait to get it up. Maya (Virginia Madsen) is the college professor’s wife waiting tables who has the best palate for wine of any woman Miles has ever met and Jack fancies her smartass friend and single mom Stephanie (Sandra Oh). There ensue some funny sexcapades (Jack), sad drunk dials (Miles), terror on the golf course and major education in oenology:  sometimes all it takes is the feel of a bunch of grapes in the hand to get the mojo going and a bottle of wine can bring anyone back to life. The marvellous Maya turns out to be the woman who coaxes Miles to his truest expression. Funny, louche, and humane with killer lines and tone-perfect performances from all concerned. Beautifully written, staged and shot, this is the comical male midlife response to Thelma and Louise, minus the violence and police. Mature, full-bodied and earthy, it simply gets better every year. From Rex Pickett’s unpublished novel, adapted by Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne. Savour it.

I Saw the Light (2015)

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It starts with a marriage in a garage and within the first ten minutes I had switched this off twice. Elizabeth Olsen plays the talentless attention-seeking narcissistic divorced mother Audrey Sheppard, who latches onto Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) like a leech and whines and wheedles her way on his radio show alienating his band, his producers and his manager mother Lillie (Cherry Jones). Her vile off-key nasal voice literally drove me to distraction and the OFF button. It may be true to life but boy did it rile me. Sometimes verisimilitude is fine for dialect coaches but not the audience. This manages to boast a sterling performance by Hiddleston in a story which tells you nothing about how this genius’ mind worked. It has no interest in portraying how he got those demons, how his mother drove his father away, how she ran her son’s life, just the external consequences and incomprehensible relationships. A musical biopic with no interest in music? How a man who couldn’t understand notation came to write some of the century’s greatest songs? No context for those significant radio shows? The wider musical landscape? His dealings with his bandmates? The beating Williams took before his strange death in his own car after being treated by a quack for his chronic alcoholism en route to a concert? Nope. That’s all folks. Hiddleston, who sings all the songs himself, and very well, is wasted. What a shame. If you knew nothing about Williams before you will know even less after this. Stick with Your Cheatin’ Heart  (1964) with George Hamilton.  Or prepare to get really irritated indeed. Adapted from the biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen by writer/director Marc Abraham.

The Awful Truth (1937)

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Leo McCarey was probably the best looking, classiest, coolest director in Hollywood in his time. When smoother-than-thou Cary Grant suffered a crisis of confidence shooting this comedy of remarriage and couldn’t switch roles with Ralph Bellamy he ended up imitating McCarey and inadvertently became the hero of the screwball genre and probably the greatest comic actor of all time – and that’s saying something. And this was the role that shaped his approach to most of his other performances. He and Irene Dunne are both playing around and agree to a divorce – but argue for custody of the fabulous Mr Smith the wire fox terrier played by Skippy aka Asta from The Thin Man series – and who wouldn’t? Bellamy is the hayseed oilman she takes up with, Molly Lamont is the wealthy playgirl Cary fools around with, but they can’t avoid their attraction to each other. This ends with a notorious tease and a black cat. Truly, Leo McCarey had the Lubitsch Touch – better even than Lubitsch himself. Art Deco screwball at its most sophisticated and witty. Adapted from Arthur Richman’s play by Vina Delmar with help from Sidney Buchman and McCarey himself. Sublime.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016)

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The Chicago Greeks are back in a gentle tale of a family that’s way too close and not even in an interesting Godfather-type fashion. They just work in the same family restaurant and live next door to each other along one street and now Oma (Lainie Kazan) and Opa (Michael Constantine) find out they never got legally married and their daughter Toula (Nia Vardalos) realises her own marriage to high school principal Chris-In-The-Morning (John Corbett) is under strain as she attempts to be everything to everyone. And their daughter Paris (Elena Kampouris) wants to go to college far away and there’s her parents’ wedding to arrange and …. zzz  …. Sorry I nodded off there. Very mild, inoffensive stuff, well performed by an entertaining cast, written once again by star Vardalos and directed by Kirk Jones. There are so many family members I lost track of who was who but I think they even dropped in a gay brother? cousin? somewhere towards the end. Covering all the diversity bases I guess in case the Greeks make a protest at the Academy Awards. Fine for a post-prandial snooze at this undemanding point of the holidays.

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.

Shampoo (1975)

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The unthinkable death of Carrie Fisher prompted me to put on one of my favourite Seventies film and the one which marked her striking debut.  She’s the spoiled precocious teenage daughter of Felicia (Lee Grant) and Lester (Jack Warden). The former is screwing her Beverly Hills hairdresser, George Roundy (Warren Beatty) and it is one of their couplings that opens the film in radical fashion – in the dark. Lester meanwhile is having his own adulterous affair with Jackie (Julie Christie) whose former BF is George, who is currently co-habiting with Jill  (Goldie Hawn). All the women think they are unique in George’s affections but one of the film’s good visual jokes is that he gives them all precisely the same hairstyle (and that’s not all he gives them…) They all meet up at a party  on Election Night 1968 and their complex roundelay of relationships and infidelities unravels piece by piece. Some of this arose from screenwriter Robert Towne’s experiences with a dancer whose former boyfriend was a Beverly Hills hairdresser, who, far from being gay, was like a rooster in a henhouse. Apparently there were quite a few of them around Hollywood at the time. The other influence was Restoration comedy.  Towne regretted giving co-writing credit to his star, Warren Beatty, but it does have a political component not evident in his other work. Directed with great finesse by Hal Ashby and boasting a host of marvellous performances in a naughty, caustic tragicomedy that just improves on every viewing, this is a key film of the period. You can read more about it in my book about Towne, https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1482705700&sr=8-3&keywords=elaine+lennon. Rest In Peace, Princess Carrie.

Rebecca (1940)

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Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again … One of the most famous opening lines in a novel. Daphne du Maurier got the A-treatment by new arrival to Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock, working closely with producer David O.Selznick to bring a hugely popular bestseller to the screen. It’s the story of ‘I’ (we never do learn her name) companion to obnoxious American woman Mrs Van Hopper, who escapes her bullying to marry Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the widower of the eponymous Rebecca, a glamorous socialite who supposedly drowned. When she arrives at their country house Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) jealously guards her late mistress’ domain and tries to drive this innocent girl mad … Joan Fontaine made a spectacular impact as the ingenuous Second Mrs de Winter in a production dogged by censorship problems – look at what they had to do the ending! But the recovery from those issues (adapted by Joan Harrison and Robert E Sherwood) works beautifully and is adorned by superb performances elsewhere –  George Sanders as Jack Favell, for instance, can’t you practically smell the sweat on his adulterer’s shirt collar?! There are so many great scenes – the hotel bedroom when Mrs Van Hopper stabs out her cigarette, when Fontaine arrives at the costume ball in the dress Rebecca had worn, when Danvers encourages her to commit suicide, the boathouse …    And the overwhelming monogrammed R  … It’s a textual dream. The final images are unforgettable. Rumours abounded that Selznick took over the film and overruled Hitchcock one too many times leading him to edit in camera in future, but du Maurier’s work had a strong influence not just on the great director but on Forties cinema in general. I trace the powerful connections between this haunting drama and Hitchcock’s later Shadow of a Doubt, here:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Girl-Who-Knew-Too-Much-ebook/dp/B01KTWF08U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480331252&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.