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.

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Matilda (1996)

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– Get in the car Melinda! – It’s Matilda! Whatever. Matilda (Mara Wilson) is born into a family that can’t stand her. She’s a genius among trolls and wants to go to school. Father (Danny DeVito) is a gangster and mother (Rhea Perlman) is a tramp. This gifted offspring channels her frustration at their raised voices and anger into telekinesis and when she’s bullied by the violent principal Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) at Crunchem Hall (say it quickly) Elementary School, class teacher Miss Honey (Embeth Davitz) feels her pain and befriends her. Trunchbull is her late father’s step- sister in law and had her put out of the house where her beloved doll is still in her childhood bedroom. When Matilda convinces her of her powers they set out to retrieve it … Roald Dahl’s classic gets a good adaptation by Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord (with some changes) but it’s DeVito’s direction that grabs you:  using his typical style of low angles and forced perspective, you are emotionally placed in little Matilda’s horrible domestic experience and left in no doubt as to how she feels – born to the wrong people, displaced in the wrong home, needing friends. For children of all ages, with Paul Reubens as one of two FBI agents expertly dispatched by the little girl.

Home Again (2017)

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You’re telling me you have live-in childcare, tech support AND sex?! Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon) decamps back to LA with her two young daughters when she separates from her music manager husband Austen (Michael Sheen) in NYC.  On the night of her 40th birthday she goes partying with her best girlfriends Dolly Wells (of TV’s Dot and Em) and Jen Kirkman and is hit on by twentysomething Harry (Pico Alexander) who with his brother Teddy (Nat Wolff) and friend George (Jon Rudnitsky) have made a hit short film and are new in town to try to turn it into a feature after getting interest from the WCA talent agency (cue funny meeting). The guys wind up back at hers, Harry throws up while about to do the deed with Alice and next morning George realises her father was the great auteur director John Kinney when he stumbles into a room filled with scripts, posters, camera and – ta-da! – Oscar. And then whaddya know, the late great one’s wife and muse Lillian Stewart (Candice Bergen) walks into the house and invites the would-be filmmakers to live in the guesthouse. Call it philanthropy – she’s feeling kind since she outlived the man who impregnated a younger woman and had a second family – this might be a riff on reality a la Nancy Meyers since it’s her daughter Hallie’s romcom debut.   It’s a peculiar setup in many ways – but the kids love the guys, Alice is having a hard time doing business as an interior decorator with super bitch Zoey Bell (Lake Bell) and this odd domestic situation is not unpleasant. The compulsion to return those nuisance long-distance calls to NYC subside.  Harry isn’t aware that sensitive George fancies Alice too and has taken a side job as a rewrite man, Teddy is auditioning for other roles so he’s now left with the heavy lifting of raising finance among the Hollywood set led by horror director Justin Miller (Reid Scott). When Alice is finally ready to introduce Harry to her friends as her date it clashes with a money meeting and he stands her up, causing a real rupture. Then her not-quite-ex decides to find out what’s really going on on the west coast … Light and funny, this isn’t quite as sharp and zesty as Meyers’ best work (Meyers produced) and there are too many montages set to music as a substitute for character development and dialogue and not remotely enough the type of complications that you’d expect from such a plot. Wells and Kirkman are two fine comic actresses in their own right but they don’t get the full Greek chorus role they deserve and the subplot with Bell (from It’s Complicated) is underdeveloped. Lola Flanery is terrific as the older of the two kids with serious anxiety problems but a talent for writing which George encourages.  Reese is always good value and she’s fine in a somewhat underwritten part which never really lets her rip other than getting drunk and spouting some home truths; while as her young lover Pico Alexander is serious eye candy and they really spark on screen. You’ll have seen him in A Most Violent Year and Indignation. You’ll certainly see him again. Mild, likeable entertainment. Written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer.

Dazed and Confused (1993)

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Alright alright alright. School’s out in 1976 and it’s time for the incoming freshmen from junior high to get hazed by the seniors. There’s a lot of riding around, talking, smoking, and there’s a party later on tonight before someone gets it together to score those Aerosmith tickets everybody wants. There’s little mention of politics, just a throwaway about the Warren Commission. Family Plot is playing at the cinema. Everyone’s concerned about their social standing and who’s getting with who and Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) and his friends are determined to get their own back on bully O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) after a vicious paddling. Richard Linklater’s richly nostalgic slice of life take on a day in the life of average high schoolers is so laidback you’d think it wasn’t written or constructed or performed or directed – and it’s all shot and lit very nicely by Lee Daniel. Relax. Watch. Sublime.

Father Goose (1964)

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Great blood! A battle of the sexes comedy masquerading as a wartime spy film, this features Cary Grant’s penultimate screen outing as history prof Walter Eckland living as a beach bum and persuaded by his old friend Commander Frank Houghton (Trevor Howard) of the Australian Navy to report for the Allies on Japanese activities around his remote Pacific island following an evacuation in the area. He’s a lousy watch and spends most of his time drinking so he’s ordered to fetch his replacement on a nearby island. Instead he finds stuck-up French teacher Catherine (Leslie Caron) who was washed ashore with seven of her charges, the children of diplomats whose ship was wrecked. In between the sparring the romantic sparks fly and Eckland’s unexpected rapport with the children leads one of them to speak for the first time. And the difficulties between the adults dissolve leading them to contemplate marriage over the radio with a Navy chaplain presiding. Then the Japanese arrive … once, twice and then with feeling. It’s time to get off the island and into a submarine. Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff adapted S. H. Barnett’s short story A Place of Dragons and their screenplay won the Academy Award – definitely not what you’d figure in these PC days when clever light comedy is far from the trophy room. It was Stone’s second script for Grant after Charade and while it doesn’t have the depth or construction or even the raft of smart dialogue (there is some nursery rhyme byplay) of that Hitchcockian thriller, it’s an agreeable way to spend a couple of hours. It looks lovely and Grant and Caron are very good together. But here’s the thing:  Grant turned down My Fair Lady to do this and he wanted his Charade co-star Audrey Hepburn to co-star with him in this but she had already committed to My Fair Lady … Wow! Apparently Grant felt this was the screen role that most resembled him in real life which is pretty incredible when the general belief was that he was the suave smooth talking gent he generally portrayed. He got on so well with the children he kept in touch  with them as they grew up and had their own families – and of course he married after this and had a daughter of his own. Directed by Ralph Nelson.

Invaders from Mars (1986)

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When a spacecraft lands in the hill behind the house where David Gardner (Hunter Carson) lives, his parents don’t believe his story. And then they start behaving strangely – and it’s not just them, it’s his ghastly teacher Mrs McKeitch (Louise Fletcher) and horrible little classmate Heather (Virginia Keehne). And as for the police … This remake of the striking and iconic Cold War classic (directed by William Cameron Menzies) falls between the stools of sci fi and horror, in other words right into the lap of auteur Tobe Hooper who was working for the Go-Go boys. David enlists the help of the school nurse (Karen Black, Carson’s real-life mother) who believes his bizarre story. It turns out aliens have landed in order to mine copper and the military are starting to figure out something odd is going on. If this isn’t the classic it might have been, Dan O’Bannon (& Don Jakoby) make a good attempt to scythe fears about parental weirdness, Cold War paranoia and school bullying into this genre piece – which also has something to say about dumb scientists who think they know what aliens are really up to… It all ends in a conflagration. Or does it?! Remember:  never trust a teacher who eats the lab experiments while they’re still alive and watch out for people with Band-Aids on their necks! Based on the original screenplay by Richard Blake with an appearance by the original little boy, Jimmy Hunt, as the police chief.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

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Gabba gabba hey! The kind of film you want to be brilliant but falls far short – a hodge podge of high school tropes, teen rebellion and let’s put on a show, mixed in with The Ramones – performing some of their best and worst songs. PJ Soles is the big-haired cheerleader type who’s just wild for the pre-punk rockers and is at war with the new school principal (cult star Mary Woronov) at Vince Lombardi High. 70s heart-throb Vince Van Patten (now more often to be seen on the World Poker Tour) is the geek trying to win the heart of brainiac Dey Young (sister of Leigh Taylor Young) and talks about the weather.  Soles has written a song for the band to sing but has to deal with their number one groupie (the gorgeous Lynn Farrell) when lining up for tickets to see them. There’s some OTT stuff featuring teacher Paul Bartel, a Nazi-style burning of the toxic vinyl, overgrown boy scouts working as a security detail for Woronov and some bad acting by those fake NYC bros. All the kids really want to do is dance!  Truly a cult relic but worth catching for some of the songs and the explosive finale – when the kids do what every kid ever wanted to do to their own high school! A Roger Corman production based on a story by director Allan Arkush and Joe Dante with a screenplay by Richard Whitely, Russ Dvonch and Joseph McBride – the same Mr McBride is one of the better film historians with books on Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and Steven Spielberg, among others, to his impressive credit.

Back to the Future (1985)

 

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Are you telling me you made a time machine out of a DeLorean?! Simply great storytelling here in a knotty, brilliantly constructed time travel-adventure-comedy that has a great big throbbing heart bursting with love at its centre. When you consider it came from the wickedly funny minds of Roberts Gale and Zemeckis – remember the amazing Used Cars?! – it seems an even bigger achievement. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is an average teenager in Twin Pines, a small town with a nice square boasting a clock that hasn’t worked since 1955, a cinema running soft porn, and screwed up parents with an alkie mom (Lea Thompson), a meek dad (Crispin Glover), loser sister and a thirty year old brother in a MacJob. He has a cute girlfriend, a skateboard and an eccentric friend called Doc (Christopher Lloyd) a scientist who has wasted his family’s fortune making a ‘flux capacitor’ fuelled by plutonium. Just when the nutty professor manages to prove he can travel back in time with an Eighties sports car (to die for!) the Libyans come calling and when Doc is mown down in a hail of gunfire Marty guns the engines of the DeLorean and at 88mph is catapulted back to the week the town clock stopped working in a lightning storm. He’s initially mistaken for a spaceman and finds that his housing estate is only just being constructed.  He needs to ensure that his parents get together in high school or the future will look very different as he and his siblings’ images begin to disappear from the family photo back in 1985 and Marty’s mom begins to fall for him in one of the more brilliant takes on incest in film history!  Plus he has to get back to 1985 to save Doc’s life in what is literally a race against time! … Fast, sharp-witted and brilliantly inventive, this has the kind of gleaming detail (skateboards, digital watches, Diet Pepsi, puffa jackets for 1985;  Davy Crockett, sci-fi comics, a classic diner, a Barbara Stanwyck oater at the movie theatre for 1955) that makes it almost documentary-like in resonance and relatability. The organisation of the narrative is mind-boggling when you consider the complexity of the story elements. Add in hugely likeable stars, great one-liners, and a genuine sense of fun,  this is proof that you can rewrite history and even get some very subtle revenge on the school bully!  One of the cinema’s evergreen classics, this is tonally perfect:  it just sings with joy. Brilliant.

The Sense of an Ending (2017)

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Literariness is embedded in the very loins of this, utilising as it does the title of theorist Frank Kermode’s famous 1967 volume. Julian Barnes is a determinedly literary writer but his 2011 novel isn’t just about verbal and written narrative, it’s also a story told in pictures, photographs which document the early life of retired camera shop proprietor Tony (Jim Broadbent), divorced from Margaret (Harriet Walter) and whose daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is about to give birth to a child she is having on her own. He receives notice that he has been left a small sum of money and an item (which turns out to be a diary) by Sarah Ford, the mother (Emily Mortimer) of his first lover, the mysterious Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), and whom he only met once at their home 50 years earlier when the older woman flirted with him and Veronica’s brother made clear his attraction to him too. The diary is not forthcoming and Tony pursues it relentlessly when he finds out it belonged not to Sarah but to Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn) his academically gifted classmate who cheated with Veronica. The unravelling of this mystery hinges on a horrible letter the young Tony (Billy Howle) wrote to Veronica (Freya Mavor) when they were all at Cambridge. What caused Adrian to commit suicide and what is the mature Veronica now withholding from him? He embarks on what his wife and daughter call the ‘stalking’ of his former girlfriend and the earlier story unspools in parallel. What this lacks in tension it makes up for in the carefully observed minutiae of performance and appearance, appropriately for a text that is all about the accumulation and capture of such information. It’s shot beautifully by Christopher Ross in an anti-nostalgic attempt to uncover a meaning to life in London’s leafy northern suburbs with tastefully restrained middle class homes:  a little ornamentation is always enough to hint at discernment if not understanding. When all the threads are gradually united there is a patina of sorrow, bringing together the book’s philosophical core interests in history and action. Adapted by Nick Payne and directed by Ritesh Batra.

Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.