St Elmo’s Fire (1985)

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How can I be so tired at twenty-two? I just don’t know who to be any more.  Seven recent Georgetown graduates hang out at St Elmo’s Bar.  Alec (Judd Nelson) is a political wannabe dating architect Leslie (Ally Sheedy); along with Washington Post writer Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), banker and party girl Jules (Demi Moore) and law student/waiter Kirby (Emilio Estevez) they’re waiting to find out how their friends welfare clerk Wendy (Mare Winningham) and former frat boy and reluctant new dad, sax player Billy (Rob Lowe) are following a car accident.  Kirby takes a fancy to ER doctor Dale (Andie McDowell) whom he’s liked since college… The quarter-life crisis wasn’t even a thing when this was made and the critics slaughtered it but for me I guess it pretty much looked like what would happen to me eventually! Half of The Breakfast Club love, live, have sex, split up and get high and come down again to a horrifying David Foster soundtrack that just screams mid-Eighties. I love it. So sue me. Written by Carl Kurlander and director Joel Schumacher.

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Silkwood (1983)

 

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You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?  Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) works at a plutonium processing plant, along with her boyfriend, Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell), and their roommate, Dolly Pelliker (Cher). When Karen becomes concerned about safety practices at the plant, she begins raising awareness of violations that could put workers at risk. Intent on continuing her investigation, Karen discovers a suspicious development: She has been exposed to high levels of radiation, probably intentionally because of her union activism. Her decision to follow up on the cause jeopardises her life … Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen’s screenplay is a dramatisation of what actually happened to the real Karen Silkwood and there is much to cherish about this film, not least the brilliant performances. What may have happened in November 1974 after Silkwood went to meet with a reporter from The New York Times has been well documented but this is a very human portrayal of friendships, romance and labour relations, a rare combination in cinema and never done so sympathetically. Mike Nichols does an impeccable job of finding the right tone in what is basically a noir-ish conspiracy thriller but laced into the narrative are hints of a Lesbian relationship between Karen and Dolly, complicating their home life with Drew and deepening the surrounding texture which is political and social, growing out of the problems around unions and workers and the knotty issues in the nuclear industry. Streep’s most likeable performance to date.

Dave (1993)

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I’m the President, and as they say, the buck stops here. So I take full responsibility for each one of my illegal actions. But that’s not the whole story. I think the American people are entitled to the real truth. Shifty White House chief of staff Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) hatches a scheme to use a double for the president Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) at a public photo opportunity. Smalltown temp agency owner Dave Kovic (Kline) fits the bill, but after the president suffers a debilitating stroke having extra-marital sex, opportunist Alexander arranges for Dave to step in full time without even informing the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) when a scandal threatens to engulf the Presidency. It doesn’t take long before the press, the nation and the president’s wife realize something is wrong because this is a nice conscientious guy and not the lying distant philanderer they all know and dislike  … Practically a White House take on The Prisoner of Zenda, this is an opportunity for some very pleasant if hardly ground-shaking political satire with perfectly timed performances by an engaging cast.  Gary Ross’s screenplay gets nice mileage out of the identical-impersonator scenario but it feels a little dated in the wake of House of Cards not to mention reality. Ivan Reitman makes the most out of the visual jokes.

Miss Sloane (2017)

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Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.  Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) remains one of the most sought-after lobbyists in Washington, D.C. She will do or say anything to get ahead of the competition. When asked to help oppose a bill that imposes regulations on firearms, she instead joins a scrappy boutique firm led by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) that represents the backers of the law. Her defiant stance and determination to win now makes her the target of powerful new enemies who threaten her career. We find her facing a congressional hearing headed up by Senator Ronald Sperling (John Lithgow) where the needling gets to her and she breaks legal advice to plead the Fifth to respond to a petty point about Indonesia and opens the door to an onslaught of past crimes in the name of getting ahead on Capitol Hill … This wordy worthy drama is hard to take:  Chastain is as we have come to expect – technically adept, capable of delivering very prolix speeches but essentially unsympathetic (not that she cares) in spite of this being about a very current hot button topic – gun control and the powerful lobby that comes out to vote no matter what. Written by Jonathan Perera and directed by John Madden, this is literate, middle of the road social consciousness drama only rendered tolerable by performance and ultimately some finessed construction and screw-tightening towards the conclusion. But like Chastain’s other film this year, Molly’s Game, the stakes aren’t high enough to make us do anything more than yawn at these horrible people.

All the President’s Men (1976)

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Where’s the goddamn story? There’s a break in at the Watergate building and a laidback and very green Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is suspicious when the Cuban-American burglars appear in court with high-level representation. Boss Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) teams him up with chippy Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to help out  – Bernstein writes better copy. Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) is not convinced that there’s much there but reluctantly gives the go-ahead.  With the help of a mysterious source, code-named Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), the two reporters make a connection between the burglars and a White House staffer. They encounter dirty tricks, ‘rat-fucking’ and an organisation known as CREEP. Follow the money Despite dire warnings about their safety, the duo follows the money all the way to the top… Part conspiracy thriller, part detective story, part newspaper flick, this only errs on the forgivably smug side that you’d expect if you’d been one of the hacks who’d (mistakenly) stumbled on an Oval Office-level conspiracy in the early 1970s. Part of director Alan J. Pakula’s unofficial paranoid trilogy (along with Klute and The Parallax View) this was adapted from Woodward and Bernstein’s book by William Goldman in the first instance – or actually four – before it was rewritten by Bernstein and Nora Ephron and then by Pakula and Redford, albeit those claims have been debunked. It’s a film that shows you the process of how to get and write the story – the sheer drudgery of sitting at desks, making phonecalls, being fobbed off, meeting strange men in car parks, going to libraries to borrow books, boredom, fear, anticipation, surveillance, and typing, typing, typing, the whole kit and caboodle. But when it’s played by two of the world’s biggest film stars at the time and they make calling someone on the phone so unbearably tense, you know you’re in good hands. As Redford’s biographer Michael Feeney Callan clarifies, Redford’s mind was already elsewhere during production despite the project being his and he was permanently distracted, yet we are carried on this tidal wave of information that started as a local story and became a national scandal – despite knowing the rather fabled outcome. What a way to make your name. Katharine Graham’s role was excised entirely from the action, to be resurrected in the preceding scandal of the Pentagon Papers dramatised in the recent The Post. Remarkable on every level, with the characters becoming at times functionaries of a cannily authentic production design by George Jenkins and a shooting style by Gordon Willis that emphasises light – its presence and absence, its curtailment and its blazing power – amid an ensemble of brilliant players in roles large and small, thrillingly brought to life. Classic.

 

 

Marathon Man (1976)

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How am I to fathom your mind if you continue to hide it from me?  Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a Columbia graduate student and long-distance runner who has just enrolled in a doctoral seminar with Prof. Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver) where his focus will be the fate of his father a fellow historian driven to suicide in the McCarthy era purely on the grounds of his Judaism.  He is oblivious to the fact that his older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), is not in fact an oil executive but a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) and who is almost murdered by a blue-eyed Asian hitman in a Paris hotel. Doc visits Babe in NYC and meets his girlfriend the allegedly Swiss Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) whom he figures out immediately as one of Szell’s couriers. Babe doesn’t believe there’s a bad bone in her body.  Doc is murdered and his colleague Janeway (William Devane) tells Babe the muggers who ambushed him in Central Park are Szell’s henchmen but they won’t come for him tonight – but they do, and Babe is held at the end of Szell’s dentist’s drill constantly being asked Is it safe?  He is caught in the middle of a transaction being expedited by The Division who clean up matters arising from disagreements between Washington and the CIA ...  Director John Schlesinger reunited with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman to make this iconic paranoid thriller adaptation by William Goldman of his 1974 novel which invokes all sorts of historic nightmares not to mention the fear of unnecessary dental surgery. For a liberal pacifist you have some sense of vengeance Doc tells Babe when he realises he still has the gun their father used to blow his brains out. The last time I saw this was in the middle of another sleepless night during a three-month bout of glandular fever and the words Is it safe? made it impossible for me to recover, for, oh, probably another month at that point. There might be plotholes you could drive a truck through that not even Robert Towne’s putative and uncredited rewrite fixed but even fully conscious and in broad daylight it remains a transfixing piece of work whose echoes are still felt. The schematic structure is emblematic of a film whose many well-constructed sequences take place in famous locations – Columbia, Central Park, the diamond district, where Szell is recognised by two of his victims. Szell! Der Weisse Engel! shrieks a camp survivor as the old Nazi is ironically forced to get a price for his diamonds from the very race he tortured and executed with extreme prejudice thirty years earlier. The entire text is replete with such irony, expressed by Janeway in the line Everything we do cuts both ways after he supposedly rescues Babe only to deliver him back to the Nazi. The dialogue is biting and great:  I believe in my country/So did we all. Michael Small’s score is superb with a real feel for the emotive fraternal and familial issues underlying the narrative action whose logic turns on the notion of history itself and the versions of truth which we tell ourselves and in turn are told to keep us happy.  He did much the same job on The Parallax View, another paranoid conspiracy thriller whose similarly allusive style (and on which Towne also did some controversial rewrite work during a writers’ strike) makes it the best political film of its time. It looks incredible, thanks to Conrad Hall. Oh the Seventies really had great films. Nowadays they’d probably give Szell a sympathetic backstory. Not so much in real life for Keller whose father actually was a Nazi. History is all around us in this persistent, resonant film. Pauline Kael called it a Jewish revenge fantasy. Goy veh.

Philomena (2013)

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It’s  funny isn’t it? All the pieces of paper designed to help you find him have been destroyed, but guess what, the one piece of paper designed to stop you finding him has been lovingly preserved. God and his infinite wisdom decided to spare that from the flames. In 1952 Irish teenager Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) became pregnant out of wedlock and was sent to a convent. When her baby, Anthony, was a toddler, the nuns took Philomena’s child away from her and put him up for adoption in the US. For the next 50 years, she searched tirelessly for her son. When former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) – who’s been fired from the Labour Party in disgrace – learns of her story, he becomes her ally after initial reluctance to take on a human interest story. They travel together to America to find Anthony and become unexpectedly close in the process… Actor and writer Coogan who (with Jeff Pope) adapted Sixsmith’s book about the real life Philomena finds a real niche for emotive comedy in this tragic story of a mother’s search for the son she was forced to give up after an illicit episode of underage sex leading to years spent in the service of the Irish Catholic nuns who took her in.  Dench and Coogan prove a formidable double act, he the reasoned, caring journo, she the guilt-ridden sharp-tongued mother whose legitimate daughter coaxes her to look for her other offspring many years later, when they are put off by the obdurate misinformation emanating from the Christian sisterhood who blithely conceal a terrible secret. Moving, well played and deftly handled. Directed by Stephen Frears.

The Invasion (2007)

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Civilisation crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation, we are all capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this was not so, where every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence. Well, this is to imagine a world where human beings cease to be human.  In Washington, D.C. psychologist Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her colleague Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) are the only two people who are aware of an epidemic running rampant through the city. They discover an alien virus aboard a space shuttle that crashed during an unscheduled landing attempt that transforms anyone who comes into contact with it into unfeeling drones while they sleep. The government is calling it a flu virus. Carol realises her son Oliver’s (Jackson Bond) immune system holds the key to stopping the spread of the plague and she races to find him before it is too late but his father, politician ex-husband Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) has taken him out of state … The late great Jack Finney wrote some indelible sci fi that could be used to anatomise and exemplify social forces – so The Body Snatchers has had meaning for generation after generation, commencing with its first (quite brilliant) movie adaptation Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is the fourth effort and its muddled birth in some ways tarnished its critical reputation.  Written variously by David Kajganich and the uncredited Wachowski brothers/sisters and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel with uncredited reshoots by James McTeigue, the original story’s clarity is both lost and highlighted in its city setting:  the quick slide into conformity is more obvious than in the 1956 classic simply because there are so many more people whose transformation is visible on the streets.  The central irony – that a woman controlling her patients’ minds and feelings with pharmaceuticals is now objecting to a world in which by the icky expedient of vomiting on someone’s face or into their coffee (nice) everyone can live in peace minus their individuality or expressivity – is straightforwardly verbalised by Carol’s ex. But the quick running time and the conclusion – collective amnesia, luckily administered Governmentally with yet another vaccine – means the bigger picture of mind control by Big Pharma and Bigger Government (a nasty coinciding of socio-financial interests since, oh, the 1990s?) is sort of lost in a mish-mash of action with awkward acting compounding the stiff plotting. There is one really silly flash forward. Metaphor? Metonymy? How would I know? I am on Day 30 of Aussie flu and can’t get a shot to save my sniffles. But if I said I was depressed they’d be racing to inoculate, n’est-ce pas???…!!! Uneven, but relevant.

 

The Post (2017)

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We have to be a check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable, who will? Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is the first female publisher of The Washington Post. With help from editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Graham races to catch up with The New York Times who are publishing Neil Sheehan’s explosive stories to expose a massive cover-up of Government secrets that spans three decades and four U.S. presidents. Together, they must overcome their differences as they risk their careers and freedom to help bring long-buried truths to light with the Attorney General acting on orders from Nixon to injunct The Times.  A source known to journalist Ben Babdikian (Bob Odenkirk) hiding out in a motel on the other side of the country is sitting with a 4,000 page file from Bob McNamara’s office which demonstrates that the Government knew Vietnam would be lost as early as April 1965… It was all Nora Ephron’s idea. She suggested to Liz Hannah that she should adapt Graham’s memoirs. She wrote a screenplay. Then Josh (Spotlight) Singer rewrote it and it became a reporter’s movie. Why don’t we suppose you’re a writer not a novelist?  As much about sexism as political conspiracy (on that it differs from All the President’s Men, its father superior in the paranoid thriller stakes) this is about a woman making a decision to publish the Pentagon Papers with or without the permission of her all-male board with the shareholders anxious not to upset President Nixon or his cohorts and lower their share value. Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe her advisor has a ball as the man who knows to expect the unexpected and his laugh at the conclusion is as much relief to us as to him. Much of the tension derives from Streep’s inculcating of Graham’s society dame and her realisation that what was acceptable years earlier – her ‘great’ father leaving his legacy to her husband – is no longer necessary and she is a middle aged grandmother finally coming into her own. Her mingling with the upper echelons of Washington society is intrinsic to the process of the story – both the gathering and the telling. Hanks’ interpretation of Bradlee takes a totally different approach than Jason Robards in the earlier film – he is another man entirely, and it’s to the benefit of the text. He is also a society man. The sentimentality of his friendship with JFK literally blinded him to the corruption of the office. Now he needs to kick Government ass. The journalism is fun but not remotely as engaging as ATPM even if it’s entertaining to watch people dropping coins at the phone kiosk and to hear the real recordings of Nixon’s phonecalls which narrate some of the segments. This is a message movie and it has a cliffhanging ending at Watergate! That it finishes on a horribly scored triumphalist note instead of the more pleasing sonorousness of hot metal and type is an aesthetic flaw I find quite unforgivable. Like anyone cares! Jefferson must be rolling in his grave.

Rules Don’t Apply (2017)

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A girl can get in trouble for having a case of the smarts. 1964 Acapulco:  a decrepit and isolated Howard Hughes is on the verge of making a televised phonecall from his hotel hideout to prove he doesn’t have dementia to dispute a claim by the writer of a book who may never actually have met him. Flashback to 1958, Hollywood:  Small-town Virginia beauty queen and devout Baptist Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), under contract to the infamous Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) arrives in Los Angeles with her mother (Annette Bening) to do a screen test for a film called Stella Starlight. She is picked up at the airport by her driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) only two weeks on the job and also from a religiously conservative background. He’s engaged to his seventh grade girlfriend. He drives them to their new home above the Hollywood Bowl where the sound of evening concerts wafts their way. She’s earning more than her college professor father ever did. The instant attraction between Marla and Frank not only puts their religious convictions to the test but also defies Hughes’ number one rule: no employee is allowed to have an intimate relationship with a contract actress and there are 26 of them installed all over Hollywood. Hughes is battling TWA shareholders over his proposals for the fleet as well as having to appear before a Senate sub-committee;  Marla bemoans the fact that she is a songwriter who doesn’t sing – so what kind of an actress can she be? And Frank wants to become a property developer and tries to persuade his employer to invest in him but Hughes is talking about a new birth control pill to him and when he meets Marla he talks to her about this thing called DNA that some English people discovered a few years back … It’s quite impossible to watch this without thinking of all the references, forwards and backwards, that it conjures:  that Beatty was tipped to play Hughes by Time after the mogul’s death, a decade after he had already espoused an interest in the mysterious billionaire who also lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a spell;  that he himself arrived in Hollywood at the end of the Fifties (via theatre) from Virginia and liked to play piano and got by with help from the homosexuals he impressed and the actresses like Joan Collins he squired about town;  Ehrenreich might be another aspect of Beatty as a youngster on the make, keen to impress mentors like Jean Renoir and George Stevens;  the motif of father and son takes a whole meta leap in his casting Ashley Hamilton, a Beatty lookalike who might well be his son (I think this is an inside joke, as it were), as a Hughes stand-in;  the dig at Beatty’s own rep for having a satyr-like lifestyle with the quickie Hughes has with Marla which deflowers her after she’s had her first taste of alcohol. It’s just inescapable. And if that seems distasteful, Beatty is 80 playing 50, and it has a ring of farce about it, as does much of the film which telescopes things like Hughes’ crash in LA for dramatic effect and plays scenes like they’re in a screwball comedy. There’s a lovely visual joke when he orders Frank to drive him somewhere at 3AM and they sit and eat fast food (after Frank says a prayer) and eventually we see where they’re seated – in front of Hughes’ enormous aeroplane (and Frank has never flown). This is too funny to merit the lousy reviews and too invested in its own nostalgia to be a serious take on either Hollywood or Hughes but it has its points of interest as another variation on the myth of both subjects. In real life it was long rumoured that Hughes had a son by Katharine Hepburn who allegedly had him adopted at the end of the Thirties. Timewise it picks up somewhere after The Aviator ends, but not strictly so. All it shares with that film is the banana leaf wallpaper. Tonally, it’s shifting from one generic mode to another (all that Mahler from Death in Venice is pointing to tragedy and age and decay, not youth and beauty and promise) but it’s difficult to dislike. It’s extremely well cast: Collins is terrific as the gauche naive young woman in the big city who’s given up her music scholarship and Ehrenreich is very good as the ambitious and conflicted guy who wants a mentor; Matthew Broderick does well as Levar, the senior driver jaded by long years of service to this eccentric and Oliver Platt (who did the great Bulworth with Beatty twenty years ago) has fun in a small role but Candice Bergen is wasted in the role of Nadine, the office manager. Bening is really great as Mrs Mabrey but she just … disappears. Beatty plays Hughes sympathetically, even unflatteringly (he knew him, albeit very slightly) and these young people’s relationship is ultimately played for its future potential despite its signposting as evidence of the hypocrisy lying directly beneath a church-led society. Written by Beatty with a story credit to him and Bo Goldman, and directed by Beatty, his first film in two decades.