Last Holiday (2006)

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I’m just gonna blow it. Diagnosis of a terminal brain condition prompts introverted saleswoman Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) to reflect on what she realizes has been an overly cautious life where the biggest thrill is singing in a choir. Her health plan won’t cover treatment. She withdraws her life savings and jets off to Europe – first class, to a top hotel outside Prague – where she lives like a millionaire for the last three weeks of her life during the Christmas holiday. Upbeat and passionate, she charms everybody she meets, including renowned Chef Didier (Gérard Depardieu). The only one missing from her new life in which her luck suddenly seems to be changing and her fortunes paradoxically altering for the better is her longtime crush Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) and then her medical report is reassessed … This is a remake of the J.B Priestley screenplay which was made in 1950 – starring Alec Guinness! That darkly ironic and witty piece of work is turned into something softer here with a sweetly endearing if occasionally sceptical turn by Latifah as Georgia. (It was originally meant for the late, great John Candy). The twist ending remains but in altogether more positive mode than the original. There’s a lot of fun living out Georgia’s last days doing death-defying winter sports and getting to know a pompous self-help writer. Certainly different from a trip to Dignitas…  Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman and directed by Wayne Wang, who has a way with women.

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The Lobster (2015)

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Lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.  In a dystopian society,  single people, according to the laws of The City, are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into an animal of their choice. David (Colin Farrell) is escorted there after his wife has left him for another man. The dog accompanying David is his brother. David chooses to become a lobster, due to their life cycle and his love of the sea. David makes acquaintances with a lisping man Robert (John C. Reilly) and a limping man John (Ben Whishaw) who become his quasi-friends. John explains that he was injured in an attempt to reconnect with his mother, who had been transformed into a wolf. The hotel’s rules and rituals include mandatory sexual stimulation by the maid and viewing propaganda films. David commences a forbidden romance with a Shortsighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) and they try to escape … Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos’ work is an acquired taste – and on Valentine’s Day this satire about our obsession with coupledom is timely but also challenging. Shot in Dublin and County Kerry which provide suitable backdrops for an absurdist and blackly comic exercise, this doesn’t completely fulfill the promise of its premise and works well for probably the first hour after which the plot about the Loners in the woods (led by Léa Seydoux) starts to feel tired. Farrell and the lead cast play very gamely indeed and there are some very amusing moments which are practically out of the midcentury absurdist rulebook – Ionesco, Beckett et al. Written by Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou. You’ll recognise the song in the end credits from Boy on a Dolphin.

Celebrity (1998)

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I’ve become the person I’ve always hated, but I’m happier. Novelist Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) is in a crisis – he’s got writer’s block and everything is falling apart and his two critically panned novels are such failures he has to work as a travel writer.  It was seeing all the losers at his high school reunion that triggered his decision to divorce his sexually bashful and rather neurotic wife, Robin (Judy Davis), and he dives into a new job as an entertainment journalist. His assignments take him to the swankiest corners of Manhattan, but as he jumps from one lavish party to another and engages in numerous empty romances, with some seriously combative actresses and models keeping him busy, he starts to doubt the worth of his work. He’s writing screenplays on the side to keep in the creative game hoping some of his interview subjects will give him the time of day. Meanwhile, top TV producer Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna) falls for Robin and introduces her to the world of celebrity. Suddenly she finds herself with a TV show and Lee finds himself competing with his ex-wife … The celebrity-packed ensemble in this Woody Allen film cannot conceal that this is one of the many in his body of work which disappoints – that said, there are some great lines, filled with truth about the horrors of middle life:  the sheer mundanity of marriage, the compromises, the failures, the lack of a career, the diverging paths couples might take following their divorce. And there’s a truly horrible scene when Lee meets one of the critics who wrote a devastating review of one of his books. There’s not a little self-parody in this monochrome outing (shot by Sven Nykvist), with Tony sneering about film director John Papadakis (Andre Gregory), He’s very arty, pretentious, one of those assholes who shoots all his films in black and white. Branagh isn’t a great lead for such material in which he is basically a hammy avatar for all Allen’s own starring roles and his accent occasionally grates:  as he treads and sleeps his way through New York society you wonder at his unfeasible romantic success. Davis isn’t a whole lot better. But there are many bright moments in this unfocused work, as actors, artists and models step forward and do their ‘bit’ with some bristling lines in a film which in another universe might have wanted to be La Dolce Vita but is really a cynical trawl through misplaced modern values while paradoxically extolling them. There’s a very funny scene when Robin asks a prostitute Nina (Bebe Neuwirth) who’s been on her show for some training in oral sex and her mentor chokes on a banana. We even muster sympathy for the besotted Lee when he scorns his devoted book editor galpal Bonnie (Famke Janssen) for the unreliable actress Nola (Winona Ryder) and has to watch her rip up the only copy of his third, potentially brilliant novel and see the pages fly away from a boat at South Street Seaport. A Nobel Prize-winning author whom she’s also editing turns out a surprisingly similar book on the same subject (this happened to a friend of mine minus the outing to Sweden). Donald Trump makes an appearance as an interviewee, declaring his intention to tear down St Patrick’s Cathedral and replace it with a Big Beautiful Building and Leonardo Di Caprio plays a bratty druggy movie star into threesomes – and foursomes. Bruce Jay Friedman makes his second 1998 movie appearance (the other was You’ve Got Mail) most likely because he used to write fake stories about celebrities for fan magazines! There’s a unique opportunity to visit the late, lamented Elaine’s where Woody used to play clarinet every Monday night (hence his absence from the Academy Awards over the years). Like a lot of Allen’s work, both lesser and greater, this feels a lot better now that a lot of time has passed even if it’s a tad overlong. Weird. I wrote about you before I even knew you existed.

Island of Terror (1966)

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Some peculiar goings on going on on this island!  On the remote Petrie’s Island off the east Irish coast a farmer goes missing and his wife contacts the police. Constable John Harris (Sam Kydd) goes looking for him and finds him dead in a cave without a single bone in his body. Horrified, Harris swiftly fetches the town physician Dr. Reginald Landers (Eddie Byrne) but Dr. Landers is unable to determine what happened to the dead man’s skeleton. Landers journeys to the mainland to seek the help of noted London pathologist Dr. Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing). Like Landers, Stanley is unable to even hypothesize what could have happened to Ian Bellows, so both men seek out Dr. David West (Edward Judd) an expert on bones and bone diseases. Although Stanley and Landers interrupt West’s dinner date with the wealthy jetsetter Toni Merrill, West is intrigued by the problem and so agrees to accompany the two doctors back to Petrie’s Island to examine the corpse. In order for them to reach the island that much faster, Merrill offers the use of her father’s private helicopter in exchange for the three men allowing her to come along on the adventure. Once back at Petrie’s Island, Merrill’s father’s helicopter is forced to return to the mainland so he can use it, leaving the foursome effectively stranded on Petrie until the helicopter can return. West and Stanley learn that a group of cancer researchers led by Dr. Lawrence Phillips (Peter Forbes-Robertson( seeking a cure for cancer, have a secluded castle laboratory on the island. Paying a visit to Phillips’ lab reveals that he and his colleagues are just as dead (and boneless) as Ian Bellows. Reasoning that whatever it is must have begun in that lab, West, Stanley and Landers gather up Phillips’ notes and take them to study them. From them they learn that in his quest to cure cancer, Phillips may have accidentally created a new lifeform from the siliconatom. Thinking the doctors are at the castle, Constable Harris bikes up there looking for them to tell them about the discovery of a dead, boneless horse, only to wander into the laboratory’s “test animals” room and be attacked and killed by an offscreen tentacled creature, the result of Dr. Phillips’ experiments. The creatures are eventually dubbed “silicates” by West and Stanley, and kill their victims by injecting a bone-dissolving  enzyme into their bodies. The silicates are also incredibly difficult to kill, as Landers learns when he tries and fails to kill one at the castle with an axe when they first encounter them. After learning all they can from the late Dr. Phillips’ notes, West and Stanley recruit the islanders, led by “boss” Roger Campbell (Niall McGinnis) and store owner Peter Argyle (James Caffrey, who seems to serve as Campbell’s second-in-command in an unofficial capacity), to attack the silicates with anything they’ve got. Bullets, petrol bombs, and dynamite all fail to even harm the silicates. But when one is found dead, apparently having ingested a rare isotope called Strontium-90 from Phillips’ lab (via Phillips’ accidentally irradiated Great Dane), West and Stanley realise they must find more of the isotope at the castle and figure out how to contaminate the remaining silicates with it before it is too late. They obtain enough isotope to contaminate a herd of cattle – at the cost of Stanley’s left hand, when he’s grabbed by a silicate – and the silicates feed on these and begin to die. The story ends with evacuation and … a twist. Rather unsatisfying outing from Hammer, despite the icky slimy tentacled monster and the expansive cast which also includes several Irish actors – making up for the lack of a location shoot (it was made at Pinewood). The most interesting part of this action-adventure-disaster is the electronic soundtrack by Malcolm Lockyer and the cool helicopters which photograph rather marvellously.

Sgt. Bilko (1996)

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Can’t is a four-letter word in this platoon! Sergeant Bilko (Steve Martin) is in charge of the motor pool at his Kansas base but more importantly he oversees his base’s gambling operations and occasionally runs a little con game, all under the oblivious nose of his commanding officer, Colonel Hall (Dan Aykroyd). After Bilko’s old nemesis, Major Thorn (Phil Hartman), shows up, intent on ruining his career and stealing his girlfriend, Rita (Glenne Headly), Bilko must take extra care to cover his tracks while concocting the perfect scheme to take down his foe… I have been avoiding this since it came out (a long time ago) because I grew up watching the Phil Silvers show on re-runs practically every night. I even gifted myself a box set of the series a short while back.  However I’m glad to report that far from the grimfest I half-expected it’s a very likeable physical comedy with some great setpieces perfectly cued to showcase Martin’s adeptness at farce. The material and scenarios are somewhat updated to accommodate modern mores – which provide some fun during a dorm check – and Hartman gets a wonderful opportunity to exact revenge for a laugh out loud prank which we see in flashback:  the best boxing match ever on film with both participants taking a dive! And then Bilko gets his turn when all the chips are down and the guys line up to help him out. It’ll never erase the great TV show but there are compensations – Headly as the woman forever scorned (until she bests him) and the chance to see a soft side of Aykroyd who allows all the chicanery to take place without ever expressing a cruel word. And Austin Pendleton shows Bilko how to play poker! There’s even Chris Rock and Phil Silvers’ daughter Cathy who come to audit the base and cannot catch Bilko for love or money. It’s like watching a magician!  she declares. Very funny indeed. Andy Breckman adapted Nat Hiken’s show and it’s directed by Jonathan Lynn.

The Great Outdoors (1988)

 

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Dad, isn’t it illegal to drive with a bear on the hood of your car? Chicagoan Chet Ripley (John Candy), along with his wife, Connie (Stephanie Faracy), and their two kids, Buck (Chris Young) and Ben (Ian Giatti) take off to the mountains on vacation, installing themselves in a huge cabin in the woods with fond memories of the honeymoon they spent long ago. But a serene weekend of fishing in Wisconsin gets crashed by Connie’s obnoxious brother-in-law, Roman Craig (Dan Aykroyd), his wife, Kate (Annette Bening, making her debut), and the couple’s two ginger daughters. As the excursion wears on, the Ripleys find themselves at odds with the stuffy Craigs and eventually the real reason for their invasion comes to light but not before they’re haunted by really big bears and some streetwise raccoons tell us what they really think … Written by John Hughes, this is not one of the great man’s better films and while there are pratfalls and slapstick episodes aplenty and much is carried by the wonderful Candy’s warm persona, this takes a slight story and goes a long way – for a little too long. However there are compensations – there’s a wonderful structural payoff to Candy’s shaggy dog story (about bears) in the concluding scenes (and a few in between);  the ghastly ginger children get theirs, sort of;  there’s a cute teenage romance;  and there are some gleefully tasteless scenes – one with a dead man in a wheelchair which has to be seen. How I miss Mr Candy, whose every scene plays beautifully.  Directed by Howard Deutch. 

The Freshman (1990)

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I had been in New York nineteen minutes and eleven seconds and I was already ruined. Kansas/Vermont/Montana boy Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick) is robbed moments after arriving in New York to study film at NYU. When he sees his mugger Victor (Bruno Kirby) through a window several days later during a meeting with his tutor Fleeber (Paul Benedict), he confronts him. Victor promises to return his property and get him a job with his uncle, Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando), who turns out to be a Mafia boss. Clark can’t help but notice his uncanny resemblance to The Godfather. His first job (for $500!) is to pick up a komodo dragon from a lot in New Jersey which escapes at a gas station when his roommate Steve (Frank Whaley) opens the car door to smoke. The dragon runs amok in a mall. When Clark tells his mom on the phone about his new job his environmental activist stepdad Dwight (Kenneth Welsh) overhears. Carmine has lined up his daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller) to marry Clark. As Clark continues his shady work for Carmine, he discovers an elaborate underworld that has caught the attention of the authorities. He’s chased by men from the Department of Justice who are particularly interested in the wildlife Carmine is importing and he’s persuaded to become an informer. As things come to a head, not everything is what it seems. The endangered species are being prepared for a deluxe meal at a gourmet club where Carmine fleeces the rich for millions … I was once asked at a dinner party what I thought of Bergman. I responded, Ingmar or Andrew? Because that’s the kind of all-round entertaining dinner guest I am! In truth I’ve always enjoyed Andrew Bergman’s movies – they never fail to engage or amuse and this is no different. In fact I’d forgotten just how hilarious this is. You ain’t seen nothing till you’ve seen Brando on ice skates. This is a genuinely funny spoof with lots of endearing performances and a couple of artfully chosen excerpts from a certain pair of classic Mafia movies serve as commentary on the narrative that pastiches them. And if you have ever taken a film studies class you will get a kick out of Benedict’s painfully apt role as the self-obsessed lecturer. Brando is quite brilliant parodying himself and Broderick even out-Ferrises himself in some scenes. Great fun.

The Post (2017)

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We have to be a check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable, who will? Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is the first female publisher of The Washington Post. With help from editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Graham races to catch up with The New York Times who are publishing Neil Sheehan’s explosive stories to expose a massive cover-up of Government secrets that spans three decades and four U.S. presidents. Together, they must overcome their differences as they risk their careers and freedom to help bring long-buried truths to light with the Attorney General acting on orders from Nixon to injunct The Times.  A source known to journalist Ben Babdikian (Bob Odenkirk) hiding out in a motel on the other side of the country is sitting with a 4,000 page file from Bob McNamara’s office which demonstrates that the Government knew Vietnam would be lost as early as April 1965… It was all Nora Ephron’s idea. She suggested to Liz Hannah that she should adapt Graham’s memoirs. She wrote a screenplay. Then Josh (Spotlight) Singer rewrote it and it became a reporter’s movie. Why don’t we suppose you’re a writer not a novelist?  As much about sexism as political conspiracy (on that it differs from All the President’s Men, its father superior in the paranoid thriller stakes) this is about a woman making a decision to publish the Pentagon Papers with or without the permission of her all-male board with the shareholders anxious not to upset President Nixon or his cohorts and lower their share value. Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe her advisor has a ball as the man who knows to expect the unexpected and his laugh at the conclusion is as much relief to us as to him. Much of the tension derives from Streep’s inculcating of Graham’s society dame and her realisation that what was acceptable years earlier – her ‘great’ father leaving his legacy to her husband – is no longer necessary and she is a middle aged grandmother finally coming into her own. Her mingling with the upper echelons of Washington society is intrinsic to the process of the story – both the gathering and the telling. Hanks’ interpretation of Bradlee takes a totally different approach than Jason Robards in the earlier film – he is another man entirely, and it’s to the benefit of the text. He is also a society man. The sentimentality of his friendship with JFK literally blinded him to the corruption of the office. Now he needs to kick Government ass. The journalism is fun but not remotely as engaging as ATPM even if it’s entertaining to watch people dropping coins at the phone kiosk and to hear the real recordings of Nixon’s phonecalls which narrate some of the segments. This is a message movie and it has a cliffhanging ending at Watergate! That it finishes on a horribly scored triumphalist note instead of the more pleasing sonorousness of hot metal and type is an aesthetic flaw I find quite unforgivable. Like anyone cares! Jefferson must be rolling in his grave.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

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I can’t say anything defamatory and I can’t say fuck piss or cunt. After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, divorcee Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) hires three billboards leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) the town’s chief of police. When his second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist immature mama’s boy with a penchant for violence – gets involved, the battle is only exacerbated. Willoughby’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis is known around town so the locals don’t take kindly to Mildred’s action. Dixon’s intervention with Red (Caleb Landry Jones) who hired out the advertising is incredibly violent – he throws him out a first floor window – and it’s witnessed by Willoughby’s replacement (Clark Peters) and gets him fired. When Mildred petrol bombs the sheriff’s office she doesn’t realise Dixon is in it and he sustains terrible burns but resolves to become a better person and resume the investigation into the horrific murder of Mildred’s teenage daughter … Martin McDonagh’s tragicomedy touches several nerves – guilt, race, revenge, justice. The beauty of its construction lies in its allowing so many characters to really breathe and develop just a tad longer than you expect. Those little touches and finessing of actions make this more sentimental than the dark text might suggest. That includes difficult exchanges between Mildred and her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and the wonderful relationship between Willoughby and his wife Anne (the great Abbie Cornish) which really expand the premise and lift the lid on family life. Yet the sudden violence such as that between Mildred and her ex Charlie (John Hawkes) still contrives to shock. There are two big character journeys here however and as played by McDormand and Rockwell the form demands that they ultimately come to a sort of detente – and it’s the nature of it that is confounding yet satisfying even if it takes a little too long.  A resonant piece of work.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

 

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I want you to do something. I want you to get yourself out of the bed, and get over to the window and scream as loud as you can. Otherwise you only have another three minutes to live. Due to a glitch on the phone line, cough drop queen Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), a spoiled controlling heiress confined to a wheelchair, overhears a conversation about a plan to kill a woman. Unable to leave her home or reach her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) – who’s employed as one of her wealthy father’s many powerless company vice-presidents – and written off by the police, Leona struggles to uncover the truth through a series of phone calls that only lead her deeper into a mystery, which may involve her college love rival, Sally (Ann Richards), and a scheme to sell pharmaceuticals on the black market. As she speaks to different people, flashbacks illuminate the plot but she struggles to find Henry and then she thinks she hears somebody downstairs … Lucille Fletcher’s radio play was called the best ever written by none other than Welles – and he would know. Stanwyck’s hysteria is irritating and wholly appropriate – sweating it out at the end of the line, curtains billowing into her luxurious bedroom where she is literally an unmoving target in a nailbiting thriller which never lets you go as it plays out in real time. This is a superbly controlled noir Gothic thriller with just enough breathing space in the flashbacks until the inexorable, horrible finale – and that last line of dialogue! Adapted by Fletcher and directed by Anatole Litvak.