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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Jumanji (1995)

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You’re playing the game I started in 1969.  In 1869 in New Hampshire two men bury a board game. 100 years later young Alan Harris (Adam Hann-Byrd) can do nothing right for his exacting father (Jonathan Hyde) who owns a shoe factory and intends that Alan go to the same prep school he attended. Alan invites schoolfriend Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy) over and when they play the board game he found after being chased by bullies he gets sucked into it and she runs from the house. 26 years later orphaned siblings Peter (Bradley Pierce) and Judy Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst) move to the town with their aunt (Bebe Neuwirth). While exploring the old mansion she got at rock bottom price, the youngsters find a curious, jungle-themed game called Jumanji in the attic. When they start playing, they free the adult Alan Parrish (Robin Williams), who’s been stuck in the game’s inner jungle world for decades.  They go in search of the adult Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) who’s now a psychic with an extreme need for therapy. They join forces and if they win Jumanji, the kids can free Alan for good – but that means braving giant bugs, ill-mannered monkeys and even stampeding rhinos as well as a killer big-game hunter who bears a distinct resemblance to Alan’s father … Adapted from Chris Van Allsburg’s eponymous novel by Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh and Jim Strain, this is a superb, action-packed family adventure that never loses sight of the father-son story at its heart principally because the characters are highly relatable. Dunst plays a compulsive liar while her brother is more sensitive but they’re not obnoxious and their aunt’s impoverished attempts at parenting are entirely understandable. Particularly when a monkey takes over her car. When Robin Williams is unleashed from the game in full survival mode from the hellish jungle he’s absolutely on it with a few nice put-downs that aren’t too cruel for a school age kid. It’s great fun to see Pierce transform into a monkey – complete with tail. This is resolved wonderfully and directed at a terrific pace with superb design at every level. Cracking! Directed by Joe Johnston.

Our Man in Havana (1959)

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Everything’s legal in Havana. Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness) is an English ex-pat living in pre-revolutionary Havana with his vain teenage daughter Milly (Jo Morrow). He owns a vacuum cleaner shop but isn’t very successful and Milly is annoyed he’s unable to fulfill his promise of a horse and country club membership, so he accepts an offer from Hawthorne (Noel Coward) of the British Secret Service to recruit a network of spies in Cuba. Wormold hasn’t got a clue where to start but when his friend Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) suggests that the best secrets are known to no one, he decides to manufacture a list of agents from people he only knows by sight and provides fictional tales for the benefit of his paymasters in London. He is soon seen as the best agent in the Western hemisphere and is particularly happy with his new friend, the beautiful spy Beatrice Severn (Maureen O’Hara) but it all unravels when the local police decode his cables and everything he has invented bizarrely begins to come true when they start rounding up his network and he learns that he is the target of a group out to kill him… This film is, rather like North by Northwest, a taste of things to come:  an irreverent picture of the Cold War, the assumptions of the West and of course a picture of Cuba on the verge of a revolutionary breakdown (it was shot immediately after the Batista regime was overthrown). Graham Greene was reluctant to let anyone film his novels following the near-desecration of The Quiet American but this novel (the last he would term an entertainment and based on his WW2 experiences in Portugal) survives pretty unscathed with its comic tone evident throughout the cast (albeit Greene hated Maureen O’Hara). Who doesn’t love Ernie Kovacs? Or Guinness, for that matter, who perfectly inhabits this hapless effortful beast Wormold. I particularly liked his take on a game of checkers. Beautifully photographed by the great Oswald Morris  – but in black and white – in Havana?! Why?!  Directed, not by Hitchcock, who had tried to acquire the rights from Greene, but by Carol Reed. It was their third collaboration following The Fallen Idol and The Third ManOne never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.

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.

The Rainmaker (1997)

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I sit here with this poor suffering kid and I swear revenge. Struggling new attorney Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) resorts to working for a shady lawyer Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke), where he meets paralegal Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito). He has a couple of clients including Colleen ‘Miss Birdie’ Birdson (Teresa Wright) whose millions turn out to be a bust but at least she has a garage apartment he can rent instead of living in his car. When the insurance company of Dot Black (Mary Kay Place) refuses her dying son coverage, Baylor and Shifflet team up to fight the corrupt corporation, taking on its callous lawyer Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight). Meanwhile, Baylor becomes involved with Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), an abused wife, whose husband (Andrew Shue) complicates matters when he confronts Baylor…  Director Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Herr do a fine job of making a very well balanced adaptation of John Grisham’s bestseller, with a nice portion of (occasionally gallows) humour to oppose the sometimes shocking domestic violence. There’s an exceptional cast doing some very convincing roleplay here. It’s a pleasure to see Rourke as the smoothly corrupt Stone, with his first scene referencing Rumble Fish (which he starred in for Coppola years earlier) by virtue of a well-placed aquarium. Damon is fine as the naif who has to grow up and take responsibility for people of all ages and persuasions and the relationship with DeVito is very well drawn. There are no real dramatic surprises, just a well made film but Virginia Madsen has an excellent part in the film’s last courtroom sequence and Place is fantastic as the mother who wants justice for her sick son. The wonderful Teresa Wright made her final screen appearance here.

John Wick Chapter Two (2017)

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He once killed three men in a bar with a pencil. Who the fuck can do that? John Wick, that’s who. They killed his wife, his puppy and stole his Mustang last time out. It’s four days later and he’s got his car back (John Leguiziamo tells him it’ll be fixed by 2030). Then the Camorra burn his house down because he won’t do as they ask. So he very reluctantly takes a marker to kill the guy’s sister in Rome before she takes a seat at the top table of gangsters. He’s taken care of at the Continental by the most accommodating hotel manager you’ve never met, Franco Nero. There’s an incredible bathtub scene with a woman in a pool of blood like a suicided angel. Then the chase through the catacombs by a rapper (Common) with a grudge on behalf of his dead employer… And revenge will swiftly follow. After an operatic orgiastic surrender to extraordinary violence Ian McShane puts every hitman on the planet on his tail. Them’s the breaks! I will kill them all, vows Wick. He’s got an hour – what a cliffhanging ending! A perfect setup for the next installment with the impressively inexpressive Keanu Reeves, the angriest widowed hitman on the planet, now injured, in trouble, waiting for the insurance company to pay up on his house and his new puppy padding at his heels with 59 minutes to go and running for his life as even the homeless killers in NYC are booked for the next job … What an awesome exercise in kinetic action, coupled with extraordinarily beautiful visuals (kudos to DoP Dan Laustsen) constituting an ode to blood-letting and architecture and the odd nod to religion (his home is referred to as The Priest’s Temple) and perhaps secret societies. With an old school Commodore and typists putting out the word for his head on a stick (or a pencil) in a very elaborate Heath Robinson contraption, this has oodles of style and savoir faire with a fair bit of swagger to spare and just the correct amount of terse, witty dialogue. The bleed is in the aorta. Pull it out and you will die. Consider this a professional courtesy. The perfect antidote to Christmas! Written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Chad Stahelski.

Paddington 2 (2017)

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Exit bear, pursued by an actor. Paddington is now settled with the Brown family and wants to earn money for a beautiful pop-up book of London which he finds in Mr Gruber’s antiques shop as a gift for Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday. He takes a series of odd jobs which all end up more or less in chaos. When the family attend a funfair opened by thespian neighbour Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) he lets slip to the self-absorbed one about the book and nobody notices Buchanan’s interest. Paddington then disturbs a burglary at Mr Gruber’s and gets put in prison after chasing the thief and being charged himself:  the pop-up book was stolen, leaving far more ostensibly valuable items behind. The family work to get Paddington out of prison, with Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) doing artist’s impressions of him from witness descriptions. She can’t convince Henry (Hugh Bonneville) of Buchanan’s guilt – he’s too preoccupied by his own midlife crisis. Buchanan has the book and dons a series of theatrical disguises to follow the clues around great city landmarks to an immense treasure. Meanwhile, in prison, Paddington has convinced the brutal cook Nuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) to make marmalade sandwiches and change the menu and get the prison warder to read everyone bedtime stories:  everyone is his friend … This is a fiendishly inventive and funny narrative whose winning spirit is in every frame. Grant has a whale of a time as a splendidly awful actor who now does dog food commercials (his agent Joanna Lumley explains he can only act on his own) while the Brown family’s attempts to prove Paddington’s innocence rely on each of their particular talents:  Judy (Madeleine Harris) writes her own newspaper while Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) aka J-Dog is intimately acquainted with steam trains. Mary’s in training for a cross-Channel swim which comes in amazingly handy. Fizzing with irreverent whimsy, dazzling production design, joyful exuberance, sorrow, good manners, respect and – gulp – love, this is, in the words of choreographer Craig Revel Horwood (responsible for Grant’s incredible jailhouse hoofing in the credits), Fab-U-Lous.  Adapted by Simon Farnaby and director Paul King from those unmissable books of my childhood by Michael Bond. This little bear is the best superhero ever. Just wonderful.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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You sit here and you spin your little web and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Up in Heaven Clarence (Henry Travers) is awaiting his angel’s wings when a case is made to him about George Bailey (James Stewart) who’s thinking about jumping off a bridge and into a wintry river at Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve 1945. Clarence is told George’s story: as a young boy rescuing his brother Harry from an icy pond, to his father’s death just when his own life should have been taking off and he winds up staying in this loathsome little town running the bank and having his honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) ruined when there’s a run on the bank’s funds … and losing himself amid other people’s accidents, deaths and rank stupidity while the town runs afoul of greedy financier Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George is such a great guy with dreams of travel and adventure and the truth is he never leaves home and becomes a martyr to other people. I’ve always found this immensely depressing. What happens to him – the sheer passive aggression directed at him and the loss of all of his ambitions in order to satisfy other people’s banal wishes at the expense of his own life’s desires  – is a complete downer. Reworking A Christmas Carol with added danger it feels like a post-war attempt to make people feel happy with their very limited lot. Which is why I watch this very rarely and with complete reluctance precisely because its petty moralising is achieved so beautifully and rationally … So sue me! Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling and directed by Frank Capra.

Peyton Place (1957)

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Quality is a very good thing in a roll of cloth but it’s very dull on a big date. Mike Rossi (Lee Phillips) arrives in the small New England town of Peyton Place to interview for high school principal, usurping the favourite teacher (Mildred Dunnock). He drives past a shack where Selena Cross (Hope Lange) lives with her mother (Betty Field), little brother and drunken stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Selena’s best friend is the graduating class’s star student and wannabe writer Allison Mackenzie (Diane Varsi) whose widowed mother Constance (Lana Turner) has a clothing store and immediately attracts Mike’s interest. Allison has a crush on Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) heir to the local fabric mill but he only has eyes for trashy Betty (Terry Moore). Allison confides in Norman (Russ Tamblyn) whose watchful mother has altogether too much to do with her shy son. All of the characters attempt to assert their individuality and grow up but malicious rumours, a rape and a suicide followed by a murder are just around the corner as Lucas forces himself on his stepdaughter and Constance reveals to Allison the truth about her obscure origins; then the newspaper carries a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor … Even decades after Grace Metalious’ novel was published it bore the whiff of scandal and my eleven-year old self carried it as though it were dangerous contraband – which of course it was, for about a minute. Part of its attraction was the back cover photograph of the authoress, a gorgeous young thing with a Fifties Tammy ponytail wearing a plaid shirt, cut offs and penny loafers – it was years before I would learn that this was a model (paid tribute by a shot of Allison in the film) and that Metalious was in reality a bloated alcoholic who died not long afterwards:  not such a role model after all!  The bestselling exposition of a horribly inward looking and vicious group of people in an outwardly lovely small town in Maine gets a meticulous adaptation by John Michael Hayes who was working carefully around the censor yet still managed to craft a moving even shocking melodrama from some explosive storylines arranged through the seasons. Lange comes off best in a film which has some daring off-casting – including Turner as the frigid so-called widow, cannily using her star carnality against the character. (In reality she would encounter her own extraordinary scandal with teenage daughter Cheryl within a year of this film’s release). Lloyd Nolan playing the local doctor has a field day in the showstopping courtroom revelation telling some vicious home truths amid some frankly disbelieving onlookers including the unrepentant gossips. Tamblyn gets one of the roles of his career as Norman, the son who is loved just a little too much by his mom… I hadn’t seen this in a long time but much to my surprise was immediately humming along again with the wonderfully lyrical score by Franz Waxman. In many ways this evocative drama sums up the morality of the Fifties even while being set on the eve of WW2 and the early Forties. A very pleasant, beautifully made and surprising reminder of a book whose opening line I’ve never forgotten:  Indian Summer is like a woman … Ah! The film is sixty years old this year. Directed by Mark Robson.

Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

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I was being romantic then you go and disturb me with your kinky fuckery.  Sex is ever thus. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is assistant to a fiction editor Jack Hyde (!) (Eric Johnson) at a publishing company and he has designs on her. She bumps into Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) at an exhibition where her friend’s giant photos of her are the star attraction – and he’s bought them all. He inveigles his way back into her life, screws her, has her boss fired after he comes on to her, and then she gets his job. Only trouble is a girl is following her – subplot one. It’s Christian’s previous submissive – who bows before him causing Ana to have a crisis of at least two minutes because she knows she will never kneel down when he tells her! Then Christian asks her to move in and he instructs her once again. Then he nearly dies in a helicopter crash – except he doesn’t. At his birthday party he announces their engagement and the woman who introduced him to S&M (Kim Basinger) gets teed off and his mom (Marcia Gay Harden) hears about it and banishes her. Like the one night stand that stays for breakfast, this nonsense will just not go away and they even had the cheek to include Jeff Buckley and The Police on the soundtrack. Ms Johnson’s clothes slip off as regularly as Dornan’s accent and it’s all as smooth as those Ben Wa balls. Allegedly not as filthy as the books by E.L. James this is still shit. Barely plotted, it was adapted by Niall Leonard (her husband). Directed by James Foley.