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 Frank Swan (Kevin Pollak), 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 ex-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

Magic Town (1947)

Magic Town

The air becomes charged with electricity around desperate men. WW2 vet Lawrence ‘Rip’ Smith (James Stewart) is looking to find a way to beat fellow pollster George Stringer and his military colleague Professor Frederick Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) tells him about Grandview, a town that offers a precisely representative model for the entire United States. Rip promises a client a result within 24 hours that Stringer has been working on for a long time and he and his team arrive in the town posing as insurance salesmen. He has to deal with Mary Peterman  (Jane Wyman) who is trying to persuade the Mayor (Harry Holman) to build more property and give the town a civic centre – which would alter the demographic. It forces Rip to address the town and they side with him, not Mary who writes an editorial about him in her family newspaper. While they are attracted to each other, he is gathering information as well as coaching the school basketball team. When she overhears him calling a client, she writes another story about the reason for his being in Grandview and a national paper picks it up and Rip’s mission is made known in the ‘public opinion capital of the U.S.’ … Okay now. You’re a typical American – act like it! Robert Riskin’s script is rather reminiscent of a Frank Capra film – but then he wrote most of them, despite Capra’s self-aggrandising public line that his was The Name Above the Title. And yet this isn’t directed by Capra, but by William Wellman. While it readily captures much of the kind of atmosphere and social concerns of Riskin’s pre-WW2 work in that partnership the shifts from comedy to drama aren’t managed in the same way – with Riskin as producer from a story he wrote with Joseph Krumgold and Wellman directing, the sharp ends of the story are confronted directly, suggesting the compromises the screenwriter might have been making prior to this production. Rip wants money, Mary is after a good story with a political edge. This exists almost in inverse relationship to Riskin’s previous narratives, with the kinds of conversations that Capra softened into sentiment given a much tougher emphasis here (underlined by the Roy Webb’s score). So it’s the same type of material as before but given a much different treatment, although it all comes together in the end with the people creating their own destiny.  This as ever with Riskin is a blue-sky picture asking people what kind of country they want the United States to be and to make it happen democratically – but he never takes his eye off the ball, locating the peculiar way in which families run towns and thereby society as a whole. Fascinating as a prism through which to view Stewart’s stuttering post-war career (It’s a Wonderful Life was also a box office failure) as well as clarifying what Riskin had done for Capra now that they were separate entities. That’s Mickey Rooney’s dad Joe Yule as the radio comic. How do you like your fancy beautiful circus of a town now?

Barnacle Bill (1957)

Barnacle Bill theatrical

Aka All At Sea. From the dawn of time we have always mixed in nautical circles. Royal Navy Captain William Horatio Ambrose (Alec Guinness) has an unfortunate problem – seasickness. It’s particularly embarrassing given his family’s 400-year history in the profession. He spent WW2 teaching in training schools and wasn’t exactly a success. He decides to invest in an amusement pier in the seaside town of Sandcastle but encounters opposition from the local Councillors when he attempts to establish the Victorian structure as a centre for entertainment for the young instead of the old codgers so decides upon a radical course – to have it registered as a foreign sailing vessel (the Arabella, in honour of his former foe now ally, beach hut proprietress Mrs Barringon, played by Irene Browne). He advertises cruises, to which the public flock in droves. When the councillors decide to charge him berthing fees he cuts off their land connection and his enemies plot a course of sabotage … For the price of my modest savings at last a command of my own. T.E.B. Clarke’s script might have a little too much quirk for modern tastes but it’s a lot of fun, with a couple of sequences featuring Bill’s ancestors that tip the nod to Guinness’ eight roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets – because Guinness plays them all. There are lots of other familiar faces including Percy Herbert as his first officer; Eric Pohlmann as the Ambassador from Liberama, happy to give his pier a boat number; Richard Wattis as a civil servant; and Victor Maddern as a treacherous dredge boater. There is a great sense of sly rather than vicious satire, backed up with lots of fun visual jokes – an escape artist rolling about stuck in a sack; a bunch of uniforms waging war in pedalos!; Bill and Mrs Barrington getting drunk and sliding up and down the floors of Crazy Cottage in wonderfully canted shots – and several good scenes mocking petty conspiracies and the backhanders people have to pay to councils, profiting off their situation. Ultimately cut off from the rest of his ‘ship,’ Bill arrives in France, to the delight of the locals. One might call it his Dunkirk. John Addison has a lot of fun pastiching seafaring tunes and shanties. Watch out for Jackie Collins as a beat girl. A massively underrated late Ealing feature, ripe for rediscovery. Directed by Charles Frend, also responsible for The Cruel Sea. What larks! What goes down must come up!

School for Scoundrels (1960)

School for Scoundrels

Aka School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating! Lifemanship is the science of being one up on your opponents at all times. Kind but gormless twit Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) is cheated, bullied and abused by everyone he encounters – from car salesmen the Winsome Welshmen, Dunstan (Dennis Price) and Dudley Dorchester (Peter Jones ), to a restaurant head waiter (John le Mesurier) and upper-class cad Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas). Even his own employees are hoodwinking him. When the charming April Smith (Janette Scott) is stolen away from him by Delauney, Henry takes drastic action and enrols in the College of Lifemanship, run by Mr Potter (Alastair Sim) where he can learn to beat others in life through classes in Partymanship, Woomanship and general One-upmanship. Well equipped now in the means to manipulate others and get ahead, he embarks on a course of his own – revengeWe like our motor cars to go to good homes – like dogs. A sublime cast rises to the occasion for an adaptation of Stephen Potter’s books by Irish screenwriter Patricia Moyes and producer Hal E. Chester, with Carmichael going through an enlightening character arc as the hapless victim of everyone else’s ploys – until he comes up with one of his own. Sim is the usual delight while T-T is as awesomely smarmy as you’d expect. To say that Price and Jones are an utter joy as the dastardly used car salesmen is to do them a disservice. With a supremely witty score by John Addison, this is the final film directed by the great Robert Hamer who was succumbing to the alcoholism that would kill him a few years later, so some scenes were filmed by Cyril Frankel and Chester. He who is not one up is one down

Tawny Pipit (1944)

Tawny Pipit

This is meat and drink to me. Fighter pilot Jimmy Bancroft (Bernard Miles) is recuperating from injuries sustained during WW2 in a Cotswolds village. He and his nurse Hazel Broome (Rosamund John) come across two rare birds they find nesting in a wheat field and have to stop two evacuated boys from stealing the eggs. Together with Colonel Barton-Barrington (Bernard Miles) and others in the local community they band together to save the area from roads development that would encroach on the nesting place, stopping army tanks from crossing the field and getting a boost from a visiting Soviet sniper Olga Bokalova (Lucie Mannheim) …  Most people have to start from the bottom and work up. We’ll start from the top and work down! Written and directed by star Miles and Charles Saunders, they created a rare propaganda picture of the bucolic home front during World War Two. Not only that, it dares to paint a portrait of deep eccentricity, silly officialdom and a bizarre scene of a female Russian soldier who inspires a moment of flag-waving solidarity between Britain and the Soviet Union. And in the middle of this romance about birds is an affecting narrative about a pilot getting better from his war wounds by saving those feathered creatures while developing a relationship with his nurse. The link between the thriving pipits and his successful mission is encapsulated in the final images of his aeroplane Anthus campestris swooping over the village’s church tower. Barmy and lovely, with beautiful cinematography by Eric Cross and an uplifting score by Noel Mewton-Wood. These eggs are yours and mine and his and his and his … they belong to England!

Parasite (2019)

Parasite

Aka Gisaengchung. They are nice because they are rich. Student Min (Seo-joon Park) is going abroad and while he is away, he asks his impoverished friend Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) to tutor Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), the young girl whom he loves by take over the private tuition in English he has been doing at the Parks’ family home. Ki-woo has done the university entrance exam four times but for whatever reason – likely poverty – he has not started a course of studies.  Some bluffing is required, with documents forged by his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park) who is also something of a talented actress. Both skills will prove useful in what becomes an ambitious Kim family project in deception and subterfuge to get out of their sewage-flooded semi-basement hovel: sister Ki-jung takes over as the troubled younger son’s art teacher and his father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) replace the family chauffeur and the housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), a woman inherited from the original owner, but they cannot reveal their family connection. What nobody but Moon-gwang knows is that the architect designed a secret bunker beneath the basement. When the Parks go on a camping holiday Ki-woo and his family take up temporary residence … We don’t need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next. Even if the country gets destroyed or sold out, nobody cares. Got it? South Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho hit the awards season jackpot with this black tragicomedy about class war and resentment. It’s set up as a kind of home invasion comedy but curdles into a dramatic commentary about class difference and the gulf of understanding between the haves and have-nots, culminating in mindless murder. It’s overlong and overdone and the dénouement is clearly planted in the seething danger underscoring  Ki-taek’s face, cheeks pinpricked with anger at the boss’ comments about his subway odour, but it’s redeemed by some unexpected moments, biting lines and something of a twisted ending. Not then the work of art much-touted by many critics, rather a triumph of marketing, a social farce bearing a touch of the Downton Abbeys coupled with an overriding problem – it is simply not possible to empathise with a single character. Don’t believe the hype. Co-written with Han Jin-won.  Rich people are naive. No resentments. No creases on them

Simon and Laura (1955)

Simon and Laura alt

I have acted with octogenarians, dipsomaniacs, dope-fiends, amnesiacs, and veteran cars. When television producers select warring married actors Simon Foster (Peter Finch) and his wife Laura (Kay Kendall), to be the subjects of a live television series documenting a completely happy marriage, they appear to be the perfect choice by chirpy producer David Prentice (Ian Carmichael) but they’re only chosen because the Oliviers aren’t available. On camera, the couple is caring and supportive of each other in the daily one-hour long show. In reality their relationship is rocky but because the show is a hit, Simon and Laura try to keep up the facade until cracks start to surface and romantic complications with the production staff threaten to upset the publicity machine and finally they go off-script on live TV … Do you know what happens when you allow yourself to be regularly exhibited in that glass rectangle? As a response to the incoming threat of TV which was more than existential but factual with the introduction of a new independent channel in addition to BBC, this adaptation of Alan Melville’s stage play by Peter Blackmore elides the situation into a marital farce in which the battling opposites learn to live with one another. The running joke about scripted reality shows is surprisingly pertinent today. See that the script stresses the solidarity of the home. Even what once was called a public intellectual, in the shape of journalist and commentator Gilbert Harding, makes an appearance, describing the dangers inherent in appearing on television:  the  reflexive ironies proliferate.  I find the rapier thrust of Madam’s conversation highly stimulating! The inimitably elegant Kendall is perfectly cast and gets a few barbs that recall her real-life (as it were) career as well as having some opportunities for slapstick antics; while Muriel Pavlow is terrific as the show’s scriptwriter Janet Honeyman, in an engaging cast filled with familiar faces like Richard Wattis, Thora Hird and Alan Wheatley. Finch is good in his first leading role in a British film as the put-upon middle-aged hubby who thinks it’s all rather beneath him but he’s almost upstaged by the obnoxious know it all kid (Clive Parritt) playing his TV son. Television? You call that a wonderful job? Three weeks’ rehearsal, not enough money to cover your bus fares out to Lime Grove, technical breakdown in your one big scene, and no repeat performance? No, thank you. (The line about the Oliviers must have been a little odd for him to hear after his affair with Vivien Leigh). A terrific satirical premise that blends Taming of the Shrew with the growing pains of TV, played at a rate of knots. Great fun. Directed by Muriel Box with beautiful production design by Carmen Dillon and costumes by Julie Harris. We’ll mirror the lives of an ordinary, happily married husband and wife!

 

Hot Air (2019)

Hot Air

Power down people. The American Dream is dead and buried. You’re dancing on its grave. Conservative radio host Lionel Macomb (Steve Coogan) spends his days broadcasting on hot button topics.  His life is completely turned upside down when his 16-year-old niece Tess (Taylor Russell) suddenly shows up, her addict mom, Lionel’s sister, Laurie (Tina Benko) in rehab. His long-suffering girlfriend Valerie Gannon (Neve Campbell) takes her under her wing but the teenager questions everything Lionel stands for and what he believes in while he is in a ratings war with his protegé and rival Gareth Whitley (Skylar Astin) whom Tess unwittingly assists …  My job is to make fools look foolish. Steve Coogan’s radio host is a long way from his legendary smug idiot Alan Partridge and yet they have something of a cousinly relationship – a guy who is so cocooned in his beliefs he can’t see the wood for the trees. He needs to be taught a lesson and it comes in the clichéd. form of a relative (and a black one at that) he didn’t really know existed who gives him the opportunity to change a life he didn’t know needed any alteration. Indeed, he has some self-knowledge but what he lacks is sentiment and his unresolved issues from growing up orphaned then abandoned by his feckless older sister have supposedly produced what one protester (and former employee) describes as toxic talk. What does he need to do? He needs to listen. It’s smooth and there are some zingers but it’s not really surprising in terms of linking the personal and the political: the idea that all conservative talk show hosts require is a happy childhood and good parenting to make them decent human beings is a rather naïve skew on the rationale for contemporary partisanship. Right wings hosts using the echo chamber of the airwaves as therapy? If you like:  this just doesn’t have the courage of its convictions, if it has any at all. Written by Will Reichel and directed by Frank Coraci. You become the thing you’re running from

 

Used Cars (1980)

Used Cars

Fifty bucks never killed anybody! Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) is an unscrupulous car salesman who aspires to become a State Senator for Arizona. In the meantime he works for the nice but ineffective old dealer Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) with a dodgy ticker selling bangers that die once they leave the lot. When Luke dies in mysterious circumstances, Rudy takes over the business, but he faces stiff competition from his rival across the street, the scheming Roy L. Fuchs – pronounced ‘fewks’ – (also Warden) who wants his brother’s business for himself because he’s paying off the Mayor to put the interstate freeway through the property. Rudy needs to get hold of $10,000 to launch his political campaign. In order to get more customers, Rudy and Roy each devise ever more ridiculous promotions to gain the upper hand. Now it’s every salesman for himself! Then Luke’s estranged daughter Barbara Jane (Deborah Harmon) shows up just when there’s a televised Presidential address to disrupt They are the lowest form of scum on the face of this earth and I urge you to stay away from them! John Milius gave the idea for the script to Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale and lo! comedy gold was born in this outrageous tale of oneupmanship, rivalry and sheer chutzpah, a parody of hucksters and a satire about the USA at the tail end of the 70s. Russell and Warden are fantastic. This country’s going to the dogs. Used to be, when you bought a politician the son of a bitch stayed bought! Gerrit Graham, David L. Lander, Frank McRae and Michael McKean are among the brilliant cast where everyone has an angle, even Toby the dog. Screamingly funny, this is one of the best bad taste comedies ever made and simply hurtles to its riotous conclusion taking absolutely everybody prisoner on its mercilessly outrageous joyride. Executive produced by Milius and Steven Spielberg. Nothing sells a car better than a car itself. Now remember this, you have to get their confidence, get their friendship, get their trust. Then get their money