L.A. Story (1991)

LA Story

Why is it that we don’t always recognize the moment when love begins but we always know when it ends? Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin) has the easiest job in the world: he’s a TV weatherman in Los Angeles, where the weather is so predictable he tapes his ‘wacky’ forecasts days in advance. Bored with his job, his life and his relationship with longtime girlfriend Trudi (Marilu Henner), foundering while she carries on an affair with a colleague, Harris begins to receive secret messages from an electronic freeway sign near his home, which lead him to pursue romance with a married British journalist Sara (Victoria Tennant) doing a story on LA lifestyles and a vapid young model SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker). Sara doesn’t want to let down her husband Roland Mackey (Richard E. Grant) but Harris believes she could be his source of happiness … Let us just say I was deeply unhappy, but I didn’t know it because I was so happy all the time. Written by Martin and directed by Mick Jackson, this pleasantly zany romcom perfectly encapsulates what many believe to be true of a certain kind of social scene in Los Angeles, an updated take on Cyra McFadden’s earlier self-help satire Serial, perhaps, with fads and fashions plucked from the air like oranges from trees or aphorisms from freeway signs. If it never hits the comic heights you would expect from Martin, this is a Valentine to the city, an observational fantasy that sees contentment as a home run while a certain kind of busy wit unspools through these characters’ lives...it’s not what I expected. It’s a place where they’ve taken a desert and turned it into their dreams. I’ve seen a lot of L.A. and I think it’s also a place of secrets: secret houses, secret lives, secret pleasures. And no one is looking to the outside for verification that what they’re doing is all right. Not quite the Odyssey Harris’ name suggests but an intriguing and insightful journey nonetheless, with an outstanding soundtrack which will practically bring tears to the eyes of Nineties kids. Ordinarily, I don’t like to be around interesting people because it means I have to be interesting too

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Kramer Vs Kramer

I’m sorry I was late but I was busy making a living. Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a workaholic ad man who returns home late on the biggest night of his career to find his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) packing her suitcase claiming she needs to find herself. She deserts him and their young son Billy (Justin Henry) and he has to find a way of taking care of the boy while juggling a busy career. He initially blames their divorced neighbour Margaret (Jane Alexander) for putting Joanna up to it but they become friends as he muddles through cooking, school appointments, playing in the park and working at home late at night while managing life alone with Billy. Then 15 months later Joanna shows up looking for custody and Ted loses his job because he can’t balance his work and life commitments. A court battle looms with the courts already tilted in favour of the mother … I have worked very hard to become a whole human being and I don’t think I should be punished for that.  For film scholar Hannah Hamad this is the Ur-film of Hollywood post-feminist paternal dramas, a mode that has dominated the industry ever since (just watch every movie out of America since 1980, more or less!). It’s also the film that put domestic melodrama back at the forefront of American cinema, garnering most of the principal Academy Awards in its year for something that had it been made in France would have been just another humdrum if moving drama. But it has stars – and is simply brilliantly performed with a naturalism that is breathtaking. Hoffman is great as the guy who has to get to know how to live as a working and caretaking parent. The kitchen scenes between him and Henry doing father-son bonding are fantastic. It’s smart too about the working environment and the boys’ club it engenders; and tough on the idea that any woman would want more from life than catering to the needs of a small child:  when Ted sleeps with office lawyer Phyllis (JoBeth Williams) she leaves early not to go home and give a kid breakfast but to go downtown for a meeting. Writer/director Robert Benton adapted Avery Corman’s novel and exhibits none of the quaint, quirky humour that distinguishes his other films. Slickly done, touching and hot-button on all the social issues of the day:  not just a film, a cultural event. I didn’t know it would happen to me. MM #2800

Torn Curtain (1966)

Torn Curtain

How do you like playing the dirty defector? During a trip to Copenhagen, American physicist and rocket scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) is attending a conference with his lab assistant and fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) and he picks up a telegram and tells her he is going to Stockholm. She follows him as he travels to Berlin where he publicly announces he is defecting to pursue his research for the Soviet Union. During a trip to a farm Michael meets a ‘farmer’ contact (Mort Mills) and it is clear that he is on a secret spying mission for the US. At the farmhouse he is watched by his official guard Herman Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who suspects what he is doing and Michael and the farmer’s ‘wife’ (Carolyn Conwell) are forced to kill him. He travels to Leipzig and tells Sarah what is really going on. He goes to the University in an attempt to persuade Professor Lindt (Ludwig Donath) to share his secrets but the man realises Michael has little to share and calls the authorities and the chase to catch him with Sarah commences … I forbid you to leave this room! A Hitchcock film in which various getaways are staged using bicycles, buses and boats, this is the one that forced him to conclude he no longer wished to work with stars. And what stars! Newman, who had already played a variation on this role in The Prize and Andrews, the world’s favourite actress at the time. They were not the choice of the director but of moneyman Lew Wasserman who probably played too large a role in his career and contributed to what could be described as his decline in the Sixties. And it’s true that they are weirdly mismatched. Nonetheless there is ample opportunity for local actors, Lila Kedrova, Tamara Toumanova and Ludwig Donath to shine. Peter Lorre Jr even has an uncredited role as a treacherous taxi driver! Many feel this is one of Hitchcock’s lesser films and one might ask, given that he had originated the Cold War spy thriller genre with a masterpiece, North By Northwest, why he felt he had to make another one. But we forget how fascinating the Iron Curtain was, and not just to filmmakers. What an opportunity to look at a society where spying on people wasn’t confined to Government but permeated everyday life – most Germans were snoops and tattle tales, and not in a good way. The landscape is another reason – all that flat land. (A reminder of the crop dusting scene…). The opportunity to kill someone in virtual silence because there’s a taxi driver outside the door – and what a sequence that is, using whatever comes to hand in a farmhouse kitchen.  Hitchcock told Truffaut in their famous interview that the point of that was to demonstrate how hard it actually was to kill somebody, something that the conventions of the contemporary spy thriller avoided. There is a sense in which Hitchcock is playing his greatest hits – the set pieces are fun and  quite reminiscent of ones he did earlier. Perhaps that’s understandable given that this was his fiftieth film and projects he felt more deeply about had failed to get off the ground. Despite being inspired by the defections of famed British traitors Burgess and Maclean the script originally focused on the female character and so Irish writer Brian Moore whose gynocentric novels were so acclaimed did the original draft. At that point Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant were Hitchcock’s dream cast – a replay of old attractions. But when that changed he got Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall to rewrite and the story was radically altered but Moore still got sole credit. (Moore repaid the slight by caricaturing Hitchcock in his novel Fergus). There are some horribly clunky visuals that make it obvious this was shot on the Universal lot – very unlike a director who should have been at the peak of his powers. Is he deliberately making the artificiality of the genre more transparent?! Even more oddly, Hitchcock dumped Bernard Herrmann’s unsatisfactory score (which you can find on the DVD and watch it again) and commissioned John Addison to do the version used on the theatrical release – viewing this with a different musical accompaniment alters the affect (something that a Channel 4 documentary demonstrated twenty-plus years ago). Fascinating, suspenseful and altogether necessary and not just for Hitchcock completionists. You told me nothing! You know nothing!

Tolkien (2019)

Tolkien

You’ll get your happy ending. Following the death of first his father then his mother, young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien finds love, friendship and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at boarding school who play sports and go to a tearoom each week and regale each other with their interests prior to going to University. Their brotherhood soon strengthens as Tolkien (Harry Gilby/Nicholas Hoult) weathers the storm of a tumultuous courtship with fellow orphan Edith Bratt (Mimi Keen/Lily Collins). From this impoverished childhood and a reliance on the kindness of strangers – Catholic Father Francis (Colm Meaney) who himself was a protegé of Cardinal Newman; and sponsor Mrs Faulkner (Pam Ferris) who takes him in; through the need for a scholarship to Oxford where after being sent down he meets a philologist Professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) who saves his linguistic bacon:  Languages never steal;  and the outbreak of World War I – he finds both his intellectual calling and his writing voice as he tries to find out what has happened to his closest friend, Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle) while the explosions and gunfire rage and play into his hallucinatory thoughts and childhood memories of the stories his mother told him. These early life experiences later inspire the budding author to write the classic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the RingsWe are your brothers through everything. We are an alliance – an invisible alliance.  The early life and influences of the legendary fantasy novelist are explored in this beautiful production which is engagingly staged and beguilingly played by a very sympathetic cast. The trench warfare scenes on the Somme in 1916 which frame the story are well done and transition extremely affectingly back and forth to Tolkien’s upbringing, the links with his novels well established without being laid on with a trowel (Ronald’s batman is called Sam). Rarer still is the fact that the younger incarnations of the protagonists are easily the match for their older namesakes in performing skill. If not now – when? Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford and directed by Dome Karukoski, this was made without the approval of Tolkien’s family yet it has a sensitivity to war and youth and writing that are heartfelt and extremely winning. Things aren’t beautiful because of how they sound. They’re beautiful because of what they mean

Along Came Polly (2004)

Along Came Polly

I’ve found the perfect woman. Risk-averse insurance company risk assessor Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller) takes a chance on marrying his ideal woman, realtor Lisa Kramer (Debra Messing) but she has an affair with nudist scuba instructor Claude (Hank Azaria) on the first day of their St Bart’s honeymoon. His best friend actor Sandy Lyle (Philip Seymour Hoffman) known from his bagpipe-playing role in an 80s teen movie advises him to play the field and at a gallery opening they encounter their junior school classmate Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston) now working as a waitress. He asks her out and finds his life taking a different turn when they date because she’s a kook who tries everything (including Latin dancing and Middle Eastern food) but commits to nothing while his buttoned-up persona descends into a kind of undone madness by association. Meanwhile he has to assess daredevil accident-prone businessman Leland Van Lew (Bryan Brown) who is forever leaving a trail of destruction behind him but represents a great deal of money to the firm run by Stan Indursky (Alec Baldwin). Chaos ensues when Lisa returns to reconcile with Reuben and he has to make decisions that don’t depend on his Risk Master technology … I can’t have thrown up 19 times in 48 days if I wasn’t in love with you. Writer-director John Hamburg was listening in screenwriting class because he pushes every single character to do the opposite of what their nature impels them to – with delightfully nutty comic results in this modern take on screwball, the ill-advised toilet humour notwithstanding (an issue arising from Reuben’s unfortunate Irritable Bowel Syndrome condition). Sure, there are cheap laughs, including Polly’s flatmate – her blind ferret Rodolpho – but all of the character flaws are cleverly turned into neat plot pivots: when Reuben’s silent dad Irving (Bob Dishy) finally speaks he talks only common sense and spins the plot into its final happy resolution, with Sandy letting go of his past and getting his greatest role, posing as Reuben so that Reuben can stop Polly from leaving the country, with Polly committing at last and Reuben ultimately taking a risk. It’s crazy but works because at its beating heart it’s dramatically logical. Great silly fun with Stiller and Aniston making for a tremendously charismatic couple in a story that makes neat references to The Breakfast Club and Friends. What kind of guy are you?

Knight and Day (2010)

Knight and Day

Sometimes things happen for a reason. June Havens (Cameron Diaz) is a car fanatic preparing to board a flight back home for her sister’s wedding when she bumps into Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) in the middle of a busy airport. A few minutes later, they’re making small talk on the plane when June excuses herself to the bathroom, and all hell breaks loose in the fuselage. By the time June emerges with her makeup fixed and ready for some romance, Roy has killed everybody on board, including the pilots. After crash-landing the plane in a darkened cornfield, Roy tells June that she should expect a visit from government agents, but warns her that by cooperating with them she risks almost certain death. He drugs her and she wakes up at home the following day, and his prediction comes true when June is confronted by a group of CIA agents who come under heavy fire while bombarding her with questions about her mysterious companion who it transpires is a lethal CIA operative who is to be feared. Suddenly, Roy is back, whisking June away to safety and away from her ex, fireman Rodney (Mark Blucas).  Before long the girl who never travelled far from home and doesn’t even possess a passport is off on an impromptu global adventure that takes her from the Azores to Austria, France, and Spain. Somewhere in all of the confusion and gunfire, June begins to forge a bond with Roy, a disgraced spy who’s trying to clear his name while trying to avoid being murdered. Unfortunately, it’s never quite clear whether he’s one of the good guys and by the time he reveals that he’s attempting to protect a valuable new energy source, a never-ending battery hidden in a toy knight and created by an autistic wunderkind called Simon Feck (Paul Dano), he’s got to protect him from not just his former colleague Fitz (Peter Sarsgard) but also a gang keen to get it for themselves … Nobody follows us or I kill myself and then her. A completely nutty action comedy with thrills, spills and mayhem is just what the doctor ordered so here it is, a star vehicle perfectly tailored to the respective talents of Cruise and Diaz, previously paired in the rather (in)different Vanilla Sky and taking place on planes, trains, automobiles and motorbikes. And yet they weren’t meant to be the stars when this was originally mooted and of the twelve writers – you read correctly, twelve – only one, Patrick O’Neill, gets credited. It takes some narrative shortcuts – every time June might pose a problem, Roy drugs her – but he doesn’t take advantage (no, really!) and she has some skills, and she gets to use them in the wittiest way possible no matter that she might fire off in all directions. Totally left field, barmy fun with amazing stunts, a stunning car-bike chase in the middle of a bull run and a nice twist ending. That’s Gal Gadot as a spy in a restaurant. Directed by James Mangold. Who are you?

Threesome (1994)

Threesome

No matter what happens somebody’s gonna get screwed. Shy Eddy (Josh Charles) finds he’s rooming with brash Stuart (Stephen Baldwin) when he arrives on a new campus. They learn to tolerate and even like each other despite being diametric opposites. When Alex (Lara Flynn Boyle) is accidentally billeted to the single room in their dorm suite she has to stay put because she can’t prove she’s female. She wants to have sex with Eddy but he’s inexperienced, while Stuart comes on to her too strong. The guys gang up on her when she brings home another guy. Then Eddy confesses he’s not exactly heterosexual but has never slept with either a guy or a girl and things get complicated when he realises he likes Stuart. A car trip and a naked swim bring out feelings between the three that they finally act upon  … You were just about ready to tap into something savage and emotional and you ruined it by trying to be something you’re not. Filmmaker Andrew Fleming occupies a peculiar space in cinema – an auteur in mid-range movies, mostly writing sympathetically from the point of view of young people finding their way in the world. This 90s production has a personal dimension, as it’s apparently based partly on his own college experiences. It’s beautifully shot (by Alexander Gruszynski) and filled with contemporary songs that land thematically. Alex’s attempts to seduce Eddy are initially played for comedy, as are Stuart’s attempts to sleep with Alex. They then agree to disagree and form a mysterious triangle that elicits comment on campus including from the Lobby Lizards (Martha Gehman and Alexis Arquette) but are still trying to figure out how they can sustain a friendship while dealing with the lustful feelings they are failing to manage. I love Freud, unfashionable though he may be. It’s shrewd and funny, with some great character detail and never swerves the issues even if they’re delivered in comic bits rather than serious exchanges – they’re soulful and heartfelt. I understood the moral of the story. Two’s company. Three’s pathetic

The Constant Husband (1955)

The Constant Husband

Aka Marriage a la Mode. What are you? Who the devil are you? When William Egerton (Rex Harrison) aka Charles Hathaway Peter, Pietro and Bill, emerges from a lengthy period of amnesia to find himself in a hotel in Wales. He retrieves a trunk of his belongings from a station and finds evidence that he was a conman and a serial bigamist. A professor of psychological medicine Llewellyn (Cecil Parker) helps him to start piecing his life back together but William discovers he has been married to seven women all over the country – at the same time. He is pleased to find that he is married to a lovely fashion photographer Monica Hendricks (Kay Kendall) in London, but when he goes to his office at the Munitions Ministry to ask his boss for sick leave, he is thrown out as a stranger. He is also persona non grata in his club, since he pushed a waiter over a balcony. He is kidnapped by the injured waiter (George Cole) and learns that he was also married to the waiter’s relative Lola ( ) who is now a circus acrobat, and whose Italian family run a restaurant. He is arrested and tried, and, ignoring his female barrister Miss Chesterman’s (Margaret Leighton) case for the defence, admits his guilt and asks to go to prison for a quiet life away from all his wives, who all want him back. On leaving prison he is still sought by his wives as well as by his barrister … I am beginning to be seriously concerned about my character. Director Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine’s screenplay is an exercise in caddish charm, capitalising on the persona (on- and offscreen) of Harrison who had successfully essayed the type in Gilliat’s A Rake’s Progress, a decade earlier. As the women pile up, his dilemma worsens and the potential for criminal charges exponentially increases.  The lesson if there is one in this farcical narrative is a kind of redemption but the ironic outcome has our hero simply running away from the imprisonment of marriage into a real prison: all the while these women cannot control their attraction to him. Male wishful thinking? Hmm! The witty, literate script comes to a head in an hilarious courtroom scene in which Harrison agrees with the prosecution’s characterisation of the dingy exploits of a shopworn cavalier; while Leighton bemoans sexism in the court yet falls for her hopeless client; and a lawyer wonders at the supportive wives, The same again is every woman’s ideal  –they’re gluttons for punishment. This skates between a wry play on Harrison’s lifestyle and outright misogyny.  Zesty, funny and played to the hilt by a fabulous cast of familiar British faces. The meta-irony is that Harrison commenced an adulterous affair with the fabulous Kendall, whom he married. Think of all your morbid fancies of yesterday – then look at this!

Turn the Key Softly (1953)

Turn the Key Softly

I’m saying goodbye to regulations. Well-spoken burglar Monica Marsden (Yvonne Mitchell), pretty prostitute Stella Jarvis (Joan Collins) and elderly shoplifter Granny Quilliam (Kathleen Harrison) are released from Holloway Women’s Prison on the same day and venture out in London, meeting up for an early dinner in the West End as they negotiate their first day of freedom. Monica returns to her flat where she promises her friend Joan (Dorothy Alison) not to meet up again with David (Terence Morgan), a ne’er do well for whose crime she took the fall. She secures a job in an office with a start on Monday, despite her prison record. But when she returns to the flat David is waiting for her and wines and dines her, with the promise of a night at the theatre. Stella meets up with her busdriver fiancé Bob (Glyn Houston) and promises to get a room to stay in at Canonbury but spends his money on earrings. meeting up with her former working girl friends. Granny returns to her rundown Shepherds Bush room to her beloved special friend Johnny – who turns out to be a dog – and after cooking him food visits her daughter in the suburbs to the delight of her grand daughter but they weren’t expecting her and she has to return to town where she goes for a posh dinner at Monica’s expense, champagne included. Stella takes off with a man who took a fancy to Monica on the Tube earlier, and Monica leaves in a taxi with David for an evening that she hadn’t counted on … Sooner or later they’re sure to find out. This post-war British crime drama is a fantastically atmospheric show and tell about London society and its war-damaged physicality – between rainy Leicester Square where The Snows of Kilimanjaro is playing (and La Collins would co-star with Gregory Peck within just a few short years) and the council flats sitting cheek-by-jowl with semi-derelict terraces, you can practically sniff the desperation, the spivvery and the desire for something better in the documentary-style location shooting by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Mitchell is the real star here and has the better part of the narrative which turns upon her desire for her dastardly lover who manages to deceive her once again following an afternoon in the sack;  but Harrison has a marvellous role (you just know it won’t end well) and plays it beautifully; while Collins is well cast as the good time girl who has found a decent man and she makes the most of some smartly written moments. When she makes her decision about which way to go in life there’s a decidedly odd shot at Piccadilly Circus with her former prostitute colleague featuring close on camera. It’s a terrific film for women, this exploration of an array of femininity of differing ages and types re-entering the world on its tricky terms. What starts as a kind of melodrama with a social message about stigma turns into a suspenser, high on the rooftops of a city theatre, with a rather tragic ending. Very satisfying indeed. Adapted by Maurice Cowan from John Brophy’s novel, this is written and directed by documentary veteran Jack Lee, the elder brother of novelist Laurie.

 

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

You never, ever let an attractive woman take a power position in your home. Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra) is happily married to lab tech Michael (Matt McCoy) with a little daughter Emma (Madeline Zima) and when she attends a new obstetrician Victor Mott (John de Lancie) she feels she has been molested during what should have been a routine check-up. Michael encourages her to report Mott to the state medical board and other women follow suit.  Mott commits suicide by shooting himself before a legal hearing can take place and his pregnant widow (Rebecca De Mornay) loses her baby, has an emergency hysterectomy and is broke because her husband’s suicide voids an insurance payout needed for his victims and their fabulous modernist home is put up for sale. She presents herself to the Bartels as nanny ‘Peyton Flanders’ and endears herself to Emma; makes Michael’s married ex, realtor Marlene Craven (Julianne Moore) warn Claire about the danger of having a good looking nanny; and is witnessed by disabled handyman Solomon (Ernie Hudson) breastfeeding newborn baby Joey.  Peyton then reports Solomon falsely for sexually assaulting Emma, ensuring his exit from their home. She arranges an accident to happen to Claire in the greenhouse but when she realises Marlene is on to her, she changes her victim … He wasn’t examining me. It was like he was getting off on it. What if I accused him and I was wrong? How amazing to hear these words come out of Sciorra’s mouth 28 years after this was released and two months after her testimony about what happened to her at the hands of studio head Harvey Weinstein, who derailed her career. This nuttily addictive home invasion/yuppies in peril thriller from writer Amanda Silver (granddaughter of screenwriter Sidney Buchman) ticks so many boxes for female viewers it positively tingles – capturing women’s vulnerability on so many levels: tapping into fears about ob-gyn appointments, pregnancy, a husband’s wandering eye, younger prettier women and the systematic way in which one apparently benign interloper can utterly undo a family’s stability with her insidious attractiveness and manipulative charms. The scene when De Mornay nurses Sciorra’s child is … startling. This is my family! A deeply pleasurable exploitation thriller raised to the level of zeitgeist comment by virtue of taut writing, brilliantly stylish directing by Curtis Hanson and a pair of well managed, contrasting performances by the leading ladies who make this property porno utterly compelling. De Mornay’s unravelling is perfectly, incrementally established. And it’s a treat to see this good early performance by Moore, even if she’s the least believable smoker in screen history; while sweet and resourceful little Zima grew up to be the lethally Lolita-esque teenage sexpot in TV’s Californication. This ferociously slick fun is probably the reason most women wouldn’t have a nanny within a yard of their homes if it could possibly be avoided. Don’t f*** with me retard! My version of the story will be better than yours