Planes Trains and Automobiles (1987)

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I really don’t care for the way your company left me in the middle of fucking nowhere with fucking keys to a fucking car that isn’t fucking there. And I really didn’t care to fucking walk, down a fucking highway, and across a fucking runway to get back here to have you smile in my fucking face. I want a fucking car… right… fucking… now. Advertising executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) is something of a control freak. Trying to get home to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with his wife (Laila Robins) and kids, his flight is rerouted to a distant city in Kansas because of a freak snowstorm, and his sanity begins to fray. Worse yet, he is forced to bunk up with talkative slob Del Griffith (John Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman, whom he finds extremely annoying. Together they have to overcome the insanity of holiday travel to reach their intended destination… John Hughes’ films still tug at our heartstrings because they have a core of humanity beneath the hilarity.  Martin and Candy are perfectly paired – the nutty fastidious guy versus the relaxed nice guy, a kind of Odd Couple on a road trip with some outrageously good banter balancing the physical silliness. Martin’s descent into incivility is a joy:  anyone who’s ever been desperate to pick up their rental car will relate to how Neal loses it at the hire desk! I remember hearing when Candy had died feeling a terrible sorrow and thinking that of all the larger than life actors out there he was the one I most wanted to have around a very long time. I haven’t changed my mind. This is still very funny indeed.

Lady Bird (2017)

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Just because something looks ugly doesn’t mean that it’s morally wrong. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. She longs to go to an eastern college in “a city with culture”. Her family is struggling financially, and her mother, a psychiatric nurse working double shifts (Laurie Metcalf) tells her she’s  ungrateful for what she has. She and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) join their school theatre programme for a production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, where Lady Bird meets a boy called Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges). They develop a romantic relationship, and, to her mother’s disappointment, Lady Bird joins Danny’s family for Thanksgiving. Their relationship ends when Lady Bird discovers Danny kissing a boy in a bathroom stall. At the behest of her mother, Lady Bird takes a job at a coffee shop, where she meets a young musician, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). He and Lady Bird begin a romantic relationship, and she and Julie drift apart. After the beautiful Jenna (Odeya Rush), one of the popular girls at the school, is reprimanded by Sister Sarah (Lois Smith) for wearing a short skirt, Lady Bird suggests the two bond by vandalizing the Sister’s car. Lady Bird gives Danny’s grandmother’s home as her address to appear wealthy. She drops out of the theatre programme. At the coffee shop, she consoles Danny after he expresses his struggle to come out. After Kyle tells her he is a virgin, she loses her virginity to him, but he later denies saying this. Jenna discovers that Lady Bird lied about her address. Lady Bird discovers that her father (Tracy Letts) has lost his job and has been battling depression for most of his life. Lady Bird begins applying to east-coast colleges with her father’s support despite her mother’s insistence that the family cannot afford it. She is elated to discover that she has been placed on the wait list for a New York college. She sets out for her high school prom with Kyle, Jenna, and Jenna’s boyfriend, but the four decide to go to a party instead. Lady Bird asks them to drop her off at Julie’s apartment, where the two tearfully rekindle their friendship and go to the prom together. After graduation, Mom finds Lady Bird applied to an out of state school and they stop talking. Lady Bird celebrates her coming of age by buying cigarettes and a lottery ticket and a copy of Playgirl, passes her driver’s test first time and redecorates. She gets into college in NYC and Mom refuses to see her off at the airport, has a change of heart and drives back, but Lady Bird has already left.  In New York, Lady Bird finds thoughtful letters written by her mother and salvaged by her father, and begins using her birth name again. She is hospitalized after drinking heavily at a party. After leaving the hospital, she observes a Sunday church service, then calls home and leaves an apologetic message for her mother… Very novelistic and composed of many vignettes, this leaves a rather odd feeling in its wake: a sense of dissociation, perhaps. It’s a more modest success than its critical reception would suggest with the exceptional characterisation of Metcalf and Letts emphasising the continuities in relationships that are at the screenplay’s heart. It’s about a self-centred teenager (is there any other kind) finding herself in a nexus of people who are themselves struggling and lying and just making it through the day. Ronan is playing an avatar for debutant writer-director Greta Gerwig and it’s a Valentine to her hometown but it also functions as a tribute to misguided, confused, artistically oriented kids who want something else other than their uncultured boring origins but they don’t know quite what. Ronan’s performance doesn’t feel quite as centred as it needs to be. It has its moments but they’re mostly quiet ones with the mother-daughter frenemy status the quivering fulcrum around which everything orbits. Somehow this is less than the sum of its parts and it had a curiously deflating effect on the audience with whom I watched it. Hmmm…

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

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It’s sort of weird being honored for the worst day of your life. A young Iraq war combat veteran (Joe Alwyn) and his Bravo Squad comrades are honoured at halftime during a football game home in Texas approaching Thanksgiving in 2004 . Parallel flashbacks (to the incident being honoured;  to a previous homecoming?!) are intercut with the game. The high point of the event is a song performed by Destiny’s Child (in reality some stand-ins shot over the shoulder) and this is intercut with the assault in Iraq in which Billy rescues his hurt commanding officer, the mystically minded Shroom (Vin Diesel). His dad’s in a wheelchair, Mom doesn’t want politics discussed at dinner, his sister (Kristen Stewart) is the reason he volunteered after he injured her boyfriend following a car crash that left her with a scarred face. She wants him to get an honorable discharge because she feels guilty. A film so lacking in dramatic impetus as to be almost entirely inert with a lousy structure that drains the very lifeblood from the narrative. There’s some old faff about the soldiers’ story being put onscreen and the deal is welshed on by team owner Steve Martin who is clearly having a laugh in a straight role. Garrett Hedlund, as the head of the squad, is the only actor to attempt anything resembling a performance. Adapted by Jean-Christophe Castelli from a book by Ben Fountain and shot at pointlessly high speeds by director Ang Lee who probably did it that way to stay awake. Mystifying to the point you’ll feel like you have PTSD afterwards.

The Object of My Affection (1998)

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This adaptation of Stephen McCauley’s novel (by playwright Wendy Wasserstein) has impeccable theatrical credentials, as it is directed by Nicholas Hytner, but also has crossover appeal because of the crucial casting of TV star Jennifer Aniston and visiting Friends regular Paul Rudd. This romcom with a difference – because the titular object is a gay man – touches so many contemporary hot button topics:  alternative families, LGBTQ lifestyles, single motherhood, class, social status – and does so with a light-ish style, in quite a long comic/dramatic narrative that allows for decent character exposition and actual conversations. Aniston is the social worker stepsister of Allison Janney, who’s married to a hot literary agent, Alan Alda. Their daughter attends a private school where the terrific young first grade teacher Paul Rudd runs a great musical production every year. He winds up at one of their dinner parties where fellow invitee Aniston unwittingly reveals to him that his gay lover Tim Daly wants him out of their apartment. So she rents him a room at her place … and falls for him while she’s pregnant with her laywer boyfriend’s baby. She thinks she and Rudd can raise her baby together. Trouble is, his ex wants him back, then he falls for a gay mentor’s own roommate, and the baby is on the way, while the lawyer (John Pankow) himself finds love elsewhere after being shut out for so long. A lot like life, with a good feeling for how people really are and the playing is superb with Nigel Hawthorne a particular joy as a wise old queen who gently asks Aniston at Thanksgiving Dinner what will happen when all her male homosexual friends disappear. For fag hags everywhere!

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.

Home for the Holidays (1995)

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The holiday movie is a game of two halves: go for comedy and you’re swerving from true sentimental meaning;  go for drama and you’re avoiding the utterly futile fun of bringing (invariably dysfunctional) families together. So the comedy-drama is the middle road of choice and that’s what director Jodie Foster steers through here with a script by the fascinating and wayward WD Richter (adapted from a short story by Chris Radant). Newly fired Holly Hunter is the divorced mother of a teenage girl who flies to Baltimore for the Thanksgiving gathering back home with her folks Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning: her awful sister Cynthia Stevenson has already arrived complete with husband Steve Guttenberg and teenage children;  her gay brother Robert Downey Jr shows up with his new friend, Dylan McDermott, which is a mystery since he’s in a long-term relationship; and there is (of course) an eccentric aunt, Geraldine Chaplin. The situation descends into the anticipated back-biting, blame and viciousness while it becomes clear that Downey  has actually married his boyfriend and McDermott is there to be introduced to Hunter. The great cast (including my beloved Austin Pendleton!) works as an insurance policy against the predictability:  when Foster was given the script which she then produced through her own company as her sophomore outing she and Richter worked on the material to more closely reflect her own experiences. What is it Tolstoy said about families? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. A lot of turkey was eaten during this production and quite a bit of it winds up onscreen. Happy Thanksgiving!

Mistress America (2015)

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I was mystified when that auteurist production Sight & Sound put Greta Gerwig on the cover a couple of summers ago. I find the woman … immensely irritating. To put it mildly. Then I liked her, kind of, in Frances Ha, which she made with Noah Baumbach, the husband of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Who has now divorced him. Draw your own conclusions. So here she’s the stepsister to be to Tracy (Lola Kirke) a wannabe writer who hates her college freshman experience and needs a friend in NYC. Her mom is about to marry Brooke’s dad, so they meet up, have a great night because thirtysomething Brooke is such a crazy hip chick, and she writes a short story about it to finally win friends and influence people in Barnard. Anything to get into the Lit Soc.  Only it’s about Brooke. Which all comes out at a day out in Greenwich, a trip necessitated by Brooke’s boyfriend pulling the plug on a bizarre idea for a restaurant and locking her out of her apartment. Mamie-Claire in the Greenwich mansion made a fortune from Brooke’s teeshirt business idea (she’s a total flake who never follows through) and stole her boyfriend and even her bloody cats. So Tracy interprets a spiritualist’s message that Brooke should get money from her to restore everyone’s path. It all goes catastrophically wrong when her story is read by everyone in the house in a bizarre semi-screwball sequence that dominates the film. The women fall out. And it turns out their parents have split up … This allegedly charming movie just aggravated me. I can’t stand Gerwig. (But at least she no longer feels compelled to get her top off in every film.) She co-wrote this with Baumbach. And it has a good point to make about the kind of writers who feed vampirically off their friends’ lives. And there’s a thrill to see your work published for the first time, sure, I get that. Baumbach made While We’re Young, one of my favourite films of the last couple of years, but this? I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

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This came out right after I’d spent my first summer in New York City. Seeing it was like being immersed in a very warm welcoming bath. And what a cherishable film it is, a Chekhovian comedy drama about the impossible lives and loves of a trio of sisters played by the incredible Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey with Allen himself and Michael Caine and Max von Sydow rounding out the cast. This is on constant rotation chez moi. One of the greats.