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.

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Possessed (1947)

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Beautiful woman. Intelligent. Frustrated. Frustrated like all the other women we see.  A woman (Joan Crawford) is found wandering around LA. She appears to be catatonic and when injected with a miracle drug by a psychiatrist is jolted into telling her story, relayed in a series of melodramatic flashbacks. She is Louise Howell, who previously worked as something of a psychiatric nurse to an invalided woman in the home of Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). She was in love with a neighbour across the lake, an engineer called David Sutton (Van Heflin) who dumps her because of her obsession with him and the idea of marrying him. When Mrs Graham drowns there is an inquest and the outcome is undetermined – did she commit suicide or did someone kill her? Louise is persuaded to remain at the DC home to look after the Graham children, a little boy called Wynn and Carol (Geraldine Brooks) who is at college. When Graham asks Louise to marry him she reluctantly agrees after a bruising encounter with David, who is doing some work for him. Then David falls for Carol and Louise starts hallucinating about doing harm to her … A fascinating portrait of a guilt-ridden woman who is steadily becoming unhinged which stands out in that group of late Forties psychological noirs in a drama that owes a lot structurally at least to Mildred Pierce.  Crawford is superb in a role which demands a lot of overwrought acting paired with more subtle intimations of the female experience and she’s matched very step of the way by Brooks as the stepdaughter who gets in the way. The story by Rita Weiman was adapted by Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall, and directed by Curtis Bernhardt who knew a thing or three about how to do a woman’s picture since he had just made the wonderful A Stolen Life with Bette Davis (and reportedly kept calling Crawford ‘Bette’). The sound effects add a marvellous frisson to proceedings and the glinting night light on the lake is something you won’t quickly forget. And Franz Waxman’s reworking of Schumann makes this so atmospheric. Quite the movie!

Houseboat (1958)

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Try to be a parent, not a policeman. When newly widowed Tom Winters (Cary Grant) arrives back to the home of his sister-in-law (Martha Hyer) he finds his three kids in understandable disarray and doesn’t want to leave them in her care. But they don’t fit easily into his life at the State Dept. in Washington.  Younger son Robert (Charles Herbert) takes off at a classical concert with the grown up daughter Cinzia (Sophia Loren) of a renowned visiting conductor who returns him to the family’s apartment the following day. Not knowing who she is, Tom asks her to be the family’s maid. She’s unhappy tagging along with her father so she joins them, dressed to the nines. He decides to remove everyone to Carolyn’s guesthouse – which is destroyed by a train when the tow truck driver Angelo (Harry Guardino) is distracted at the sight of Cinzia en route to the new location. He gives Tom his neglected houseboat as compensation. Unable to cook, launder or sew, Cinzia miraculously brings Tom together with his lost children as the houseboat lurches, cuts loose and gradually settles into metaphorical balance. She has to avoid the leers of Angelo while Tom is rationally persuaded into proposing marriage to freshly divorced Carolyn who’s been in love with him since she was 4 and he married her older sister:  he is blissfully ignorant of Cinzia who desperately craves his attention …  There’s so much music in this very fun romcom it might as well be a musical:  from the orchestral pieces to Sophia’s regular songs – Bing! Bang! Bong! being the most popular on a very bouncy soundtrack. Gorgeous stars, funny kids, agreeable supporting performances and a good setup combine to make this a delightful, charming ode to simply being: dolce far niente, as Loren urges. I couldn’t agree more! There’s a great scene in a laundromat when Grant gets embroiled in women’s gossip. Written by Jack Rose and director Melville Shavelson, with an uncredited screenplay by Betsy Drake (aka Mrs Cary Grant) who was supposed to co-star – until her husband allegedly had an affair with Loren on The Pride and the Passion, a liaison long over by the time filming on this commenced. Awkward!

Buffalo Bill (1944)

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They were all my friends. William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (Joel McCrea) is the legendary hunter and scout who rescues Senator Federici (Moroni Olsen) and his daughter Louisa (Maureen O’Hara). They fall in love and marry and Louisa bears him a son, named for Kit Carson. Bill becomes good friends with Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn), chief of the Cheyenne but Bill is forced by a collection of businessmen, politicians and the Army to fight them – a fight he doesn’t want. Writer Ned Buntline (Thomas Mitchell) immortalises his escapades and when he arrives in Washington is stunned that even little kids know who he is. When he receives distressing news of his baby son’s illness he blames his wife for their coming East and leaves her while his political disagreements become newspaper fodder. He is basically destitute until he’s offered work in a Wild West show … This more or less fictionalised biography is told with customary efficiency and verve from Twentieth-Century Fox with a screenplay by Clements Ripley, Aeneas MacKenzie, John Francis Larkin, Frank Winch and Cecile Kramer. It’s an absorbing yarn, shot in gorgeous Technicolor and moving like quickfire and has interesting touches, such as Dawn Starlight (Linda Darnell) trying on Louisa’s ‘white woman’ clothes for size and of course the marvellous action scenes, expertly choreographed.  Directed beautifully by ‘Wild’ Bill Wellman who is under-remembered now but is the subject of a great big new coffee table book which I am anticipating under the Christmas tree. Just sayin’!

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

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I fight against fascism. That is my trade. Jack Warner acquired Lillian Hellman’s hit play for an enormous sum and her lover Dashiell Hammett adapted it for the screen. Bette Davis gets top billing but she’s just one in an ensemble and therefore a supporting player in this tale of anti-fascist activists in Washington in wartime. She plays Sara, the wife of German anti-Nazi Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) who travel with their three children from Europe via Mexico back to her hometown to stay with her widowed mother (Lucile Watson) and brother David (Donald Woods) in a very upscale home. They have other houseguests: Teck De Brankovis (George Colouris) a smooth but desperate Romanian who lives off his wealthy wife Martha (Geraldine Fitzgerald, Davis’s Dark Victory co-star), a woman who is falling for David. Teck soon makes it clear he is a collaborator of the Nazis in Washington and rifles through Kurt’s briefcase threatening blackmail over his true identity.  As Chekhov once proved, if there’s a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third … This talky melodrama is a political tract that works in fits and starts. FDR fan Davis clashed with theatre director Herman Shumlin (who had staged it on Broadway) and argued against the casting of Watson, a Republican, who had established the role on stage. However Watson dominates every scene she’s in with an arresting presence. When she declares, Well we’ve been shaken out of the magnolias, you want to cheer. Very much of its time and terribly stagebound but it demonstrates a consciousness about goings-on in Europe and the wheeling and dealing of so-called diplomats on foreign soils at a time when it really mattered. To demonstrate their commitment to the project Warners refused to bow to pressure from the Hays Office and retained the original ending. They dropped most of the location backgrounds because they contained shots of Government buildings. Shumlin was a prolific stage director and also did Hellman’s The Little Foxes on Broadway. He made just one further film, Confidential Agent (1945). It is not noble. It is only the way I must live.

American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.

Mrs Pollifax – Spy (1971)

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A widowed retiree volunteers her services to the CIA and finds herself drugged in Mexico City and handcuffed to Darren McGavin on a plane to Albania. A different kind of gap year, perhaps. Rosalind Russell herself adapted the promising book by Dorothy Gilman (one of a series) in a production by her husband, Frederick Brisson. Instead of the fun travelogue spoof you might expect of the era, it’s a mostly dull stint in an Albanian prison (an hour…) with just a few colour shots in Mexico and an awful lot of sparse mountains. Remind me never to go to the land of Enver Hoxha or even Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which looks like an utterly miserable substitute. Unremarkable, to say the very least. It was Russell’s last film. Directed by Leslie Martinson.

Loving (2016)

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A true story about a case that came to stand for the end of miscegenation laws, this biographical drama directed by the gifted Jeff Nichols exemplifies why it is so tough to dramatise issues concerning people of limited articulacy. Poor white construction worker Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) marries his pregnant black girlfriend (Ruth Negga) whom he has known since childhood when they were growing up in a pocket of Virginia. Someone rats them out to the police (we never find out who, or how they might be related or connected with them) and Sheriff Marton Csokas puts them in jail for the weekend when he finds them in bed together. They take a deal to move out of state to Washington DC for 25 years but Csokas finds out when they come back to have their son. They commence a tentative legal challenge through a young inexperienced lawyer from the ACLU and move back to Virginia, quietly bringing up their family on a remote farm. Nothing much happens. Then the case goes to the Supreme Court. While Nichols is great at building tension and atmosphere and the threat of violence which never materialises, the narrative is so slight and the occasionally incomprehensible monosyllabic delivery so rare as to test the patience. There is a coy avoidance of both the couple’s intimacy and the legal fight itself – which rather begs the question about the content and aesthetic rationale. A huge burden is thereby placed on the shoulders of the taciturn protagonists who acquit themselves really well and Nichols regulars Bill Camp and Michael Shannon liven up proceedings. But the more I see of Csokas the more I wish someone would give him a lead. He’s great. This merely runs out of story:  it’s at least 25 minutes too long. Adapted from a book by Nancy Buirski.

Arlington Road (1999)

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You know you’re watching a terrific thriller when Joan Cusack’s sudden appearance at a phone booth makes you jump out of your seat in fright. The screenplay by the gifted Ehren Kruger is concerned with homegrown terrorism, a notion that has never gone away but had particular currency in the era of Timothy McVeigh. Jeff Bridges is the recently widowed history lecturer who discovers that his new neighbours might be plotting something very nasty indeed and realises too late that his young son is spending way too much time in their company. This is a brilliantly sustained tense piece of work which never drops the ball and is tonally pretty perfect. An underrated achievement. Directed by Mark Pellington.

State of Play (2009)

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Paul Abbott’s 2003 BBC series was a little bit legendary and it gets a nice big screen interpretation here as a cracking conspiracy thriller set in the world of Washington DC and newspapers, you know, those old-fashioned bits of paper that report facts and not ‘alternative facts’. Adapted by Tony Gilroy, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Billy Ray, Russell Crowe is the old school Saab-driving longhair who likes Irish rebel songs and whiskey when his old college roomie Congressman Ben Affleck (when his forehead still moved) gets mired in scandal as an assistant dies in front of a subway train. She’s widely rumoured to have been his romantic interest. When he approaches Crowe for help as the body count mounts, his committee looking into the doings of a security organisation with government contracts hoves into view. Meanwhile, Crowe takes on his blogging counterpart at the newspaper, Rachel McAdams, as his co-investigator, while editor Helen Mirren is under pressure from the new owners. This is a taut, pacy, tense workout with everyone at the top of their game and the issues of Homeland Security, reporting and the threat to newspapers from the worldwide web interlaced into nice character studies, as Affleck’s estranged wife, Robin Wright Penn, who has had an adulterous relationship with Crowe, complicates and diverts his attention from the bigger picture. An astonishingly timely piece of work. Terrific direction by Kevin Macdonald.