The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Nobody fucks with the Jesus. The Dude abides. Where to start with one of the most cherished films there has ever been? Not in the beginning. I may have almost had a coronary from laughing the first time I saw this at a festival screening prior to its release, but a lot of critics just did not get it. It’s the Coen Brothers in excelsis, a broad Chandler adaptation and tribute to Los Angeles,  a hymn to male friendship and the Tao of easy living with some extraordinarily surreal fantasy and dream sequences – not to mention some deadly bowling. Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, a guy so laid back he’s horizontal but he gets a little antsy when some thieves mistake him for The Big Lebowski and piss on his rug (it really tied the room together). Best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is his bowling buddy, an uptight Nam vet with adoptive-Jewish issues in this hilarious offside take on director John Milius. Steve Buscemi is their sweet-natured friend Donny and John Turturro is the unforgettable sports foe, a hispanic gangsta paedo in a hairnet, Jesus Quintana. After the rug issue is handled, Dude is hired by his namesake (David Huddleston) a wheelchair-bound multimillionaire philanthropist, to exchange a ransom when his young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped. Naturally Dude screws it up. There’s a band of nihilists led by Peter Stormare, some porn producers (Bunny makes flesh flicks), Lebowski’s randy artist daughter (Julianne Moore) and a private eye following everyone. And there’s Sam Elliott, narrating this tale of tumbleweed and laziness.  Everyone has their signature song in one of the great movie soundtracks and Dude has not only Creedence but White Russians to really mellow his day. Just like The Big Sleep, the plot really doesn’t matter a fig. This is inspired lunacy and I love it SO much.

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Sausage Party (2016)

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I’ve never given those perishables on the supermarket shelves a lot of thought but after this I’m giving them a pretty wide berth. Designed as a satire of Pixar/Disney emotional journeys, this goes places that Francis Ford Coppola was threatening decades ago – big screen porn (thank goodness he didn’t do it). Lewd, foul-mouthed and anatomically correct, this louche fantasia imagines that processed goods realise that they are not going to the Great Beyond but that they are destined for a Holocaust in shoppers’ homes…  Talk about losing your religion. You see the poster, you get where this is going – for 89 minutes, with some of America’s top talent relishing the opportunity to say and do things that frankly nobody does in public unless they’re making sex tapes. Not exactly this generation’s Fritz the Cat. Overdone. Directed by Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan, written by Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg from a story by Rogen, Goldberg and Jonah Hill.

Big Business (1988)

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Is this how you dress for the office? You look like a blood clot! Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin in a reworking of The Comedy of Errors? (With maybe a touch of The Prince and the Pauper… and Aesop).  NYC 1988?  The Plaza? Hell yeah! They’re the two mismatched pairs of identical twin sisters separated at birth in a country hospital in the 1940s and now … the bumpkins are coming to the big city to deal with the proposed takeover of their family firm in Jupiter Hollow which is being handled by … their posh twins whose socialite folks were just passing through forty years earlier! And neither set knows the other set exists! And they have the same names – Rose and Sadie – because the poor farmer overheard the rich guy naming his daughters! Bette is the obnoxiously bitchy divorced CEO with a kid she pays to do better at school, Lily is the timid flibbertigibbet sister who can eat anything and is sympathetic to the factory at Jupiter Hollow because their father wanted it in the family to honour their birthplace; and Bette is also the louder bumpkin with the skinny sweet sister who runs their company. When they get the posh women’s suite at the Plaza all sorts of screwball mixups ensue which should be a little funnier – costume and accents are not as riotous as they might be but when push comes to shove country Sadie’s wannabe beau (Fred Ward) turns up and the company’s execs think he’s a conman – who doesn’t get it when they invite him to sleep on their couch (they’re a gay couple).  The finale – the meeting with the stockholders – is run like a scene from Dynasty because country Rose has studied Alexis Carrington like a book. The writing (by Dori Pierson and Marc Reid Rubel) lets this brilliant premise deflate – not to get too Aristotelian about it there are  no real scenes of ‘recognition’ other than the failsafe one in the Ladies’ bathroom and the original baby switch which leads to the concluding life swap is never dealt with satisfactorily in terms of even reference to it – this convoluted plot never really stands scrutiny. But it’s a breezy show even if these fabulous women never really get their considerable comic chops into it. Wonder what would have happened if Barbra Streisand and Goldie Hawn had starred, as was intended?! Heck, the clothes are just great. Directed by Jim Abrahams.

The Meddler (2015)

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Dramedy is a thing. Comedy + drama. And it sounds like it should be a messy genre splice but in reality it’s probably the principal form of filmed entertainment. This is a superb example – a theme you dread, a widowed mom who moves cross-country to live off her daughter’s coat-tails, but it works, and how. Susan Sarandon is the displaced Brooklynite Marnie unwilling to put a headstone on her late hubby’s ashes anywhere and she’s bought an apartment that used to be in The Hills. Her go-to soundtrack is Beyonce, she adores action movies (Jason Statham anyone?) and she loves nothing more than phoning her daughter day and night on her iPhone (major product placement here) and shopping at LA’s Grove (I hear ya.) Rose Byrne is Lori the TV scriptwriter who’s the recipient of her home-invader Mom’s 24/7 calls and she’s heartbroken after breaking up with movie star Jacob and the truth is both women are heartbroken after Dad’s death. Which is more than a year ago, as it turns out. Marnie’s in a state of some denial. She gets involved with Lori’s friends and pays for a Lesbian wedding, volunteers at a hospital and dogsits when Lori goes east to shoot a pilot (a phrase that sees Marnie arrested at an airport). She visits Lori’s therapist. To discuss Lori. She likes the Apple salesman so much she takes him to nightschool cos he’s got no wheels. She walks onto a Hollywood set and winds up being background in a film which leads her to meet a retired cop and biker, Randy Zipper (JK Simmons) who likes her almost as much as his chickens. In one of the film’s many amusing apercus, we learn, For the optimal combination of happiness and productivity, all roads lead to Dolly Parton. Boy are those hens happy layers! This is warm, funny, affecting but not sickening, and really terrific about mom-daughter relationships. Sarandon is superb and Byrne is always good value. Nifty supporting performances from Michael McKean, Lucy Punch, Harry Hamlin and Jerrod Carmichael really light up a totally surprising, entertaining and tonally true story about relationships, bereavement, sex … and chickens. And remember, ladies:  eyes, throat, crotch! Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria.

Mojave (2016)

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A rich and unhappy Los Angeles artist takes off to the desert and meets a homicidal maniac who follows him home and wreaks havoc in his life. This curiosity from award-winning screenwriter William (The Departed) Monahan shows how a solipsistic turn can be rather problematic for a writer turned director and the casting doesn’t help:  Garrett Hedlund is pretty believable if not sympathetic as the fashionably scruffy Angeleno experiencing some sort of fugue but Oscar Isaac (Hernandez Estrada, whatever) is his usually laughable ludicrous self and sunders the screen story from the moment he appears (indeed there’s no reason as to why he actually appears at all). The subplot with lawyer Walton Goggins and whoring studio head Mark Wahlberg brings a kind of Entourage feeling to this immersion in discomfiting affluence while the requisite French girlfriend Louise Bourgoin increases the sense of literariness that suffuses a film already awash in references to Greed. Pretentious, toi? I couldn’t possibly comment. I’m far too self-absorbed to bother.

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

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Ryan O’Neal is the absent-minded musicologist whose rocks are upset by scatty accident-prone college dropout Barbra Streisand in this Peter Bogdanovich homage to and adaptation of the great screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby. A San Francisco hotel is the location where a kiss-chase on a mammoth scale proceeds, with thieves and assorted academics and hotel staff running in circles, all because of a very popular type of plaid suitcase. With Streisand crooning as Ryan tickles the keys and a to-die-for supporting cast – Madeline Kahn! Kenneth Mars! Austin Pendleton! – this is a sheerly hilarious, swoony delight from start to delectable finish. Amongst the many movie references is an homage to the car chase in Bullitt! Written by Buck Henry, Robert Benton and David Newman, and Bogdanovich himself. One of the funniest films ever made.

I Capture the Castle (2003)

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Dodie Smith’s classic 1930s coming of age story gets a beautiful treatment in this adaptation by Heidi Thomas, directed by Tim Fywell. Romola Garai is the seventeen-year old Cassandra Mortmain, daughter of the desiccated formerly successful novelist, a cadaverous James (Bill Nighy) who has been blocked for twelve years. He’s married to dedicated nudist and avant garde artist Topaz (Tara Fitzgerald), his second wife. He served time in prison for attacking Cassandra’s mother with a cake knife. They live in ungenteel poverty in a rented castle which is in a state of terrific decay with a beautiful sister Rose (Rose Byrne) and young brother Thomas. The gorgeous farmhand next door Stephen (Henry Cavill) loves Cassandra but she only has eyes for American Simon (Henry  Thomas) who inherits the whole property of which the castle serves a part; while Simon falls for Rose. Simon’s brother Neil (Marc Blucas) and Cassandra confide in each other … and while superficial romance proceeds and social niceties are observed, and a forthcoming marriage might save them all, the principal relationships fall apart and Cassandra tries to fix everything while losing the man she really loves. Fantastically observed and – it has to be said – captivating – adaptation, with spot-on performances all round. Look fast for Dolly Wells as a horrible saleswoman.

The Stepford Wives (1975)

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This starts smartly, although you don’t realise it until the film is over. Hip photographer Joanna (Katharine Ross) is leaving her NYC apartment because her hubby Peter Masterson insists Connecticut is a better place to raise their family. She looks across the street from the station wagon and spots a guy lugging a mannequin over a zebra crossing. She takes a snap. Talk about semaphore!  She is befriended by cooler-than-thou neighbour the fabulous Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) and then starts figuring out that all the other passive women who enjoy screaming orgasms with their unprepossessing husbands are like clones of each other and there’s something sinister going on at the Men’s Club, which her husband has eagerly joined. Then Bobbie changes. Completely … Ira Levin’s stunning satire of modern marriage was inspired by his divorce, his resultant anger at the women’s movement and a visit to Disney’s Hall of Presidents, a model for fembots everywhere. William Goldman did the screenplay but wouldn’t do another draft for director Bryan Forbes, who had employed his own wife, the lovely Nanette Newman, in a supporting role. Supposedly this had caused a costuming change across the female ensemble. So writer/director/novelist/actor Forbes took a pass himself and this movie simply improves upon each viewing. Look at the clever cinematography:  when that family car enters Stepford we view it from – a graveyard! Brilliantly photographed by Owen Roizman, this is the look of US burbs forever. Great, scary fun and the women are fantastic! And they’re everywhere!

Shampoo (1975)

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

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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How can an exercise in realism conceivably work as a magical heartwarming Christmas movie? And yet this does. George Seaton, an admirable writer/director/producer, took a story by Valentine Davies, went on the streets of New York City and into the halls of its most famous department store,Macys, and unravelled the likelihood of there being a Santa Claus. Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) is the busy working divorced mom who needs to find a convincing replacement for the toy department Santa because the latest one showed up drunk at the Thanksgiving Day parade. She hires as his replacement Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) an elderly gentleman she’s met on the streets because he looks right but when she realises he thinks he’s the real thing she regrets her decision. She can’t get him fired because he has created so much goodwill in the shoppers.  Her small daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) is an outright sceptic and neighbour attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne) is romancing her and trying to persuade the little girl to believe in the magic of Christmas. When Susan sees Kris speak Dutch to a war orphan she begins to change her opinion. An argument with a co-worker sees Kris committed to Bellevue mental hospital and Fred defends him in court where his competence is questioned.  The existence  of Santa Claus is debated and thousands of letters addressed to him are presented as evidence in the court room … Susan’s dream of a proper family home is granted on Christmas morning when Kris recommends an alternative way home with less traffic and a For Sale sign invites them inside, where a red cane indicates Kris has brought them the gift they always wanted. It’s the home she has dreamed of having. Natalie Wood is mesmerising as the little girl who comes to believe in Santa, Edmund Gwenn is the perfect Kris Kringle and Maureen O’Hara, who had returned to live in Ireland, was persuaded back to the US by the quality of the script. Seaton was a significant multi-hyphenate who had early success first as radio’s Lone Ranger, then as a writer for the Marx Brothers. He worked as a director then parlayed his way to auteur status with this (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay) and The Big Lift. Both can be considered significant examples of post-WW2 filmmaking. He also received the Oscar for The Country Girl and he directed Grace Kelly and several others to Oscar success – including this film’s performance by Edmund Gwenn for Supporting Actor as Santa Claus.  He’d get my vote every year. An evergreen.