Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998)

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The post-feminist take on Cinderella, or how you can get your man and still retain your dignity and read Utopia without feeling guilty. Susannah Grant is a sassy screenwriter and this fairytale is plonked right into history as the Queen of France (Jeanne Moreau) regales the Brothers Grimm the story of Danielle, the unfortunate girl whose father has married a right cow (Anjelica Huston) with two daughters (Megan Dodds and Melanie Lynskey) and then he goes and dies and leaves her in their terrible hands. Drew Barrymore is the girl who loses her shoe after making it to the ball, Dougray Scott is the well-read but out of control prince who doesn’t want to settle down in organised matrimony to the dismay of his parents. This is smart and witty without the pantomime that usually accompanies the story and Barrymore is just about perfect as you’d expect in a gorgeous looking outing shot on location in France.  The final twist is but well deserved! Great fun. Directed by Andy Tennant.

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Stars in My Crown (1950)

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– Good story. – Don’t rush me. A prime example of Americana, based on Joe David Brown’s novel, Joel McCrea is the preacher determined to bring God to the settlement of Walesburg after the Civil War. He has to take the villagers seriously – at gunpoint, to bring them round. In this episodic narrative told by his adopted nephew Dean Stockwell as an adult (voiced by Marshall Thompson) there is a low key romance with church organist Ellen Drew; the arrival of typhoid fever which threatens not just lives but the respect between him and  young doctor James Mitchell;  McCrea’s struggle when he refuses to accept the school well is the cause of the outbreak; and the repeated threats to black farmer Famous (Juano Hernandez) prove this is far from twee.  Indeed when the KKK bring a burning cross to the patch that he has made home you realise this is a lot more than a story of tough love. McCrea is a solid leading man and he is excellent here as a man whose faith is truly tested.There’s really good work from Alan Hale as the Swedish father of five who never goes to church but is always ready to lend a helping hand and James Arness and Amanda Blake feature years before Gunsmoke. This is far from your average western, a keen mix of humour, commentary and drama. Brown adapted his novel but it was the work of the screenwriter Margaret Fitts that’s interesting. She did several screen adaptations and is one of those women who did such good writing for the western genre, including adapting her own novel, The King and Four Queens, which became the Clark Gable movie. This was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a man many consider in the realm of auteur.

Beetlejuice (1988)

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Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are the young couple living in rackety splendour in rural Connecticut but their death in a car crash on a covered bridge stymies their plans for kids. Their return to the house springs a surprise when they realise they’re dead and Sylvia Sidney materialises as their ghostly caseworker. When a nauseating yuppie family – Jeffrey Jones, second wife Catherine O’Hara and Winona Ryder as gloomy goth girl Lydia – moves in, their attempts at haunting them fail miserably. So they summon up self-promoting troublemaker Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) from the other side to try and get rid of them permanently – with surprising results when Lydia tunes into their wavelength and would prefer to have them as her parents. Tim Burton does a sensational job with a screenplay originally written by Michael McDowell and rewritten by producer Larry Wilson and Warren Skaaren. Bizarre, funny, good-natured and fizzing with effects and wonderful performances, especially Keaton’s, this is probably the best ghost story from the perspective of the ghosts themselves that you’ll ever see! Say it three times to see what happens – Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice.  Bee….!!!!

Irreconcilable Differences (1984)

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Nowadays Nancy Meyers is more celebrated for her rightful foregrounding of the older woman’s experiences:  in the early 80s after having her screenplay (with Charles Shyer) for Protocol rewritten by Buck Henry (apparently at Goldie Hawn’s behest after they wrote Private Benjamin for her) she decided to write a very caustic appraisal of Hollywood, marriage and the whole darned thing. Ryan O’Neal is the film professor hitching a ride west to Hollywood;  Shelly Long is the wannabe writer who picks him up. He’s cherrypicked by a producer and mentored to write a movie and becomes a director who abandons Long and their young daughter Drew Barrymore and when his movie with new love Sharon Stone fails and Shelly’s career soars, Barrymore sues for emancipation from their madness. It’s brilliantly written, performed – look at Barrymore! Extraordinary! – and smartly directed by Shyer, cunningly incorporating screwball staging with references to Ernst Lubitsch (and Peter Bogdanovich). I’m a huge fan of Nancy Meyers – so I wrote a book about her:  https://www.amazon.com/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481113546&sr=1-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

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It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

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British cinema is always in crisis yet has boasted its share of indisputably great filmmakers and Robert Hamer was one of them, even if nobody particularly noticed at the time. He had contributed The Haunted Mirror sequence to portmanteau horror Dead of Night a couple of years earlier and was adept at any number of genres. This Ealing production was not in the comedy idiom so beloved of moviegoers but rather belongs in the realm of poetic realism that started in France in the Thirties; we might instead call it film noir. Adapted from the novel by Arthur La Bern, by Angus MacPhail, Henry Cornelius and the director, the mainly Yiddish world of Bethnal Green carries on as  one of its inhabitants, married Rosie Sandigate  (Googie Withers), hides her ex-lover Tommy Swann (John McCallum) who’s escaped from Dartmoor and taken refuge in the familiy’s air raid shelter. She then conceals him in the bedroom she shares with her staid older husband (Edward Chapman). It’s Sunday morning and Tommy wants to have it away with her while she tries to carry on the masquerade of housework, laundry, preparing lunch and getting her feckless adult stepdaughters out of the way. Meanwhile the police (Jack Warner, who else?) and a newspaper reporter are on Tommy’s trail and it concludes in achingly existential fashion … Enormously evocative portrayal of a certain era adorned with an intensely felt performance of stridency and eroticism by the fabulous Withers (dontcha LOVE that name) who had met and married McCallum after they appeared in The Loves of Joanna Godden. It’s shot with gleaming precision by Douglas Slocombe while Georges Auric contributes an endearingly melodramatic incidental score for an atmospheric outing in which the radio plays such an elemental role in punctuating the drama. The ensemble has such familiar faces as Alfie Bass, Sydney Tafler, Hermione Baddeley, Jimmy Hanley and Sid James (as the leader of a dance band). Hamer would go on to make one of my favourite British films, Kind Hearts and Coronets but this is a marvellous reminder of the post-war era, the meaning of ‘a couple of anvils’ and how to feel when that dangerous wideboy resurfaces in your humdrum life.

Ricki and the Flash (2015)

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I’m a big fan of writer Diablo Cody so having her write a movie starring Meryl Streep and directed by Jonathan Demme made me hope for great things – like Young Adult, the criminally underrated comedy with Charlize Theron and still Cody’s best work … Ricki’s the sixtysomething mom who ran away from hubby and three small children to make music and is still rocking away in California bars at night and checking groceries by day – basically broke. (But living the dream! Yeah!) She gets a call from home, ex-hubby Pete  (Kevin Kline) informing her that their adult daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer ie Ms Streep’s own daughter) is in trouble after her husband cheated and split. Ricki rolls up to the mansion in Indiana in her rocker gear, Julie’s hair is on end and she’s off her trolley on prescription drugs. She’s vile to her mother. But the dog thinks Ricki’s cool. Then Pete tells Ricki that Julie attempted suicide. The women’s scenes together are really good – as you’d expect  – but the writing’s not as sharp as you want for performers of this calibre. There’s a good restaurant scene where  Ricki  discovers her older son is engaged (to an obnoxious snob) and her other son is gay (he used to be bi) and dad orders dinner over the row. It’s fun to see Streep and Kline back together for the first time since Sophie’s Choice but there’s no really felt narrative between them. Just a lot of years apart. Ricki brings Julie to the hairdresser and gets her off the pills. Then … stepmom comes back and narrative issues arise:  she’s black (I guess it’s PC), a high achiever, and she’s competing to be the better mom. Not too hard since she was there. Your basic bitch, as Kate Moss might have it. Ricki slopes back to CA to bandmate Rick Springfield and they have a good scene together – but he gets the best lines about parenting, plus the tears. Then there’s a wedding … Perhaps the big issue here is Ricki’s voice – in every sense. We hear one of her ‘own’ compositions, with Streep on guitar, wasted on weed, with Pete and Julie, when he admits he’s still got her album in a Rubber Maid in the garage. But everything  else is a cover version. We needed something true – written by a woman who’s seen it all. Wasn’t Lucinda Williams available for the whole soundtrack instead of just one song (ditto Emmylou)? A pity… That’s Cody dancing in the red striped dress in the bar, BTW.

Mother’s Day (2016)

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Mother’s Day is a thing now? Wow. More cards and festival-type activities. Speaking of Garry Marshall, who we love(d), he spent the last number of years doing these multi-strand dramedies with a few top-lining stars and a lot of… B listers. This sadly is his last directing gig and it’s … actors doing their best with middling material. Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) is the stressed-out single divorced mom of two boys whose ex has married a teenager (sort of). She can’t deal with the whole sexy stepmom thing. Friend Jesse (Kate Hudson) is married to an Indian without her folks knowing. (They’re in Texas constantly on the road in their RV – maybe…) Her sister Gabi (Sarah Chalke)  is shacked up with a woman with a sperm-donated child. She’s pretending to be engaged to a man. And there’s a playground friend Kristin (Britt Robertson) who’s shacked up with her boyfriend Zack (Brit comic Jack Whitehall) but won’t marry him despite their having a child. She says it’s because she’s adopted. More likely because she’s not old enough. Julia Roberts is the TV hostess with the mostess on a shopping channel shucking mood pendants to them all (we are in Georgia, home shopping channel capital of the world as we know from JLaw’s mop movie). Bradley (Jason Sudeikis) is the gym proprietor widower with two teenaged daughters who can’t stop looking at his late wife (Jennifer Garner) singing karaoke in videos recorded before her death on military duty. It’s been a year now so why isn’t he dating? Oh dear God why? Why not? Who cares? I hope they all had a good old time taking advantage of the State of Georgia’s generous movie tax incentives. It looks like a very nice place. I admit this PC sludge isn’t as bad as that awful multi-generational crud Christmas With the Coopers but this was no way for Marshall to go out. He made The Flamingo Kid for crying out loud! Stick a pin in me, call me a pinata, I’m done.

Beat Girl (1959)

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One of those legendary Brit cult films that seem like such a curate’s egg at this distance. Divorced architect David Farrar brings a French poodle (Noelle Adam) home to his sulky beatnik teenage daughter Jennifer (Gillian Hills) and she discovers Maman was a stripper and a whore. She spends her time with other privileged kids like Peter McEnery and Shirley Anne Field and they groove to Adam Faith’s music at the Offbeat Cafe before taking off in a chicken run just for kicks. The strip club near the Offbeat run by Christopher Lee is the key to Maman’s past and Jennifer gets a taste for it after finding out from him that her colleague Greta (Delphi Lawrence) shared more than just a background in dance class in Paris. This is part-melodrama, part-shocker, with one extraordinarily lewd strip scene featuring the talents of ‘Pascaline’. Adam Faith’s musical partnership with John Barry finally bore fruit for him after this and he scored some chart hits (his speech impediment is what’s striking here); while this was Barry’s first film score and the first British soundtrack album ever released. Lawrence doesn’t feature in the credits despite being central to the plot;  Oliver Reed – whose uncle Carol got him the role – is in the ensemble as ‘Plaid Shirt’;  if you look fast you’ll spot Carol White in the Offbeat. The story and screenplay were by Dail Ambler, while direction was by Anglo-French Jew Edmond Greville, whose career came to a halt under the Nazi Occupation. Gillian Hills had already been in Vadim’s Dangerous Liaisons 1960, which, as far as snowy Alpine adultery dramas go, is top of the list. She later became famous as a ‘ye ye’ singer in France and she’ll always have a place in my heart for playing Alison in the TV version of The Owl Service as well as starring as Elizabeth in Demons of the Mind, written by my late friend, Christopher Wicking. She had several other acting roles but later turned to illustration and married the manager of AC/DC. Tres cool, daddy-o!

Stepmom (1998)

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You are Susan Sarandon. You’ve given up a great job as a book editor at Random House to raise your family with Ed Harris. He has divorced you. You’re stuck at home like some dull Fifties housewife with two increasingly annoying children when you find he is shacked up with a beyond-beautiful photographer. What madwoman would want to get together with a man who’s already had kids? Julia Roberts, that’s who! Then she competes with you to win their affections and YOU get cancer. So what does this late Nineties exploitation fest teach us? Life’s a bitch – and then you die. The story is by Gigi Levangie, whose Hollywood novels are quite brilliant. Check them out. Before you marry a divorced father and inherit the kids – permanently … Gruesome, sentimental and quite brilliantly performed.