It’s A Wonderful Life

 ★★★★★ 

Light up your Christmas this year, with this timeless classic starring the unforgettable James Stewart as George Bailey and featuring a superb ensemble cast including Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore.

Whenever the perennial subject of The Greatest Film Ever Made rears its head, I always turn into a smart-arse and confidently explain that such a thing is not possible to find. How can you possibly begin to compare Citizen Kane with The Godfather, or Jaws? It’s absurd!

So why is it, every time I see It’s A Wonderful Life I am absolutely convinced that it is The Greatest Film Ever Made?

Maybe it’s because it is truly a film everyone can love and no-one has to think of it as a guilty pleasure. The modern equivalent seems to be The Shawshank Redemption, but even that has a violence enough to shock your granny. It’s A Wonderful Life should be cloyingly sentimental, but it was always Capra’s skill to offset his films with enough irony and honesty so it was easier to sell and identify with. Indeed, in this case everyone talks about Clarence the befuddled angel, rescuing George from a suicide attempt which does sound twee, but actually, that is the last act. The story is about how he gets to that point, so if you have it in your head that it is a fairy-story for fairies, well it’s not. It’s a good hearted drama. The frequent scenes with Lionel Barrymore are testament to that, especially where Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy makes his terrible error. I always thought how brilliant it is that mistake should be left unresolved too and the plot doesn’t contrive some neat resolution, but continues to subscribe to the idea that when pushed into a corner, people will ultimately just deal with it and do the right thing.

It is the perfect Capra film and I do think it is his best work. He and the cast, working from as sharp and witty screenplay as they come, play their roles with such deft subtlety, that the pacing is utterly perfect. There isn’t a note out of place. As an example, I always think of the scene where George returns home on Christmas Eve, at the end of his tether and hiding his shame by lashing out at his family. It is a sublime scene of pacing, acting and… ‘mise en scene’. It isn’t often I use that term, but this is a most apt moment to which it should be applied. Perhaps the kids will jar with their pleas to “Daddy”, but if you think that then you’re a cold hearted git…

James Stewart was never better than here as George Bailey. Possibly Vertigo or another Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but again, in a film so easily dismissed, there are layers to George you may not expect to find. Mitchell and Barrymore are both excellent too, but even the bit-parts like Ward Bond have their moments and all make a mark. Donna Reed may be the most inspired casting though. She is wonderful. Who wouldn’t consider spending their whole lives in the same place if she was there too? And finally there is Clarence of course, played by Henry Travers. A relatively small part, but ubiquitous to the story.

I watched this on the recently released Blu-Ray, which includes a colourised version. A dreadful idea, but very well done all the same. I wouldn’t watch it, but if it finds the film a new generation then maybe I shouldn’t sneer at its existence. Still, new viewers should be ashamed for needing such persuasion in the first place.

In any form, it isn’t the greatest film, of course. Such a notion is absurd. But it is at least in the top one.

State Of Play


 ★★★★☆ 

Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is the rising star of his political party – until his research assistant/mistress is murdered, and buried secrets come tumbling out. Investigative journalist, Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe) has the dubious fortune of both an old friendship with Collins and a ruthless editor, Cameron (Helen Mirren), who assigns him to the story. As Cal and his partner Della (Rachel McAdams) step into a cover-up that threatens to shake the nation’s power structures, they discover one truth – when billions of dollars are at stake, no-one’s integrity, love or life is ever safe.

Director Kevin MacDonald follows his well-written, but flawed Last King of Scotland with the well-written, but flawed State Of Play. There’s a detail and intimacy in his direction that gives it an air of authenticity, but despite the witty dialogue and excellent plot, it seems to lose credibility in the final act, which is a real shame.

Still, this is a welcome thriller in more ways than one and provides anti-programming of substance to all the popcorn rubbish. There is the thorny issue of it being a remake of a superb British mini-series, but actually it relocates to Washington very well. It draws comparisons with All The Presidents Men too, with which it pales, but there hasn’t been anything like this for quite some time, apart from Grisham adaptations which have become almost self-parodies.

Maybe I’m biased, but I’ve always enjoyed pot-boilers like this. They always follow a similar track; a seemingly innocuous if vulgar crime soon leads to the political high ranks and much intrigue follows, with very little action but for the obligatory black ops assassin. Really the plots rely on who is doing the plotting and this cast are excellent.

Russell Crowe inhabits all his roles so well and this is a pretty straight-forward one for him (scruffy journalist) so he is the films reliable anchor and is barely off-screen. Rachel McAdams does well in an under-written, but long overdue dramatic part. It’s surprising how well she fits in, given that her character is so utterly pointless, except for a cliché of a sub-plot about bringing Crowes caveman of a journalist up-to-date (she does the on-line gossip column for the paper). It works because ironically, she keeps getting ignored in the story, so that’s mirrored by the plot! I was glad to see Ben Affleck climbing another rung on the comeback ladder. He gets far more flak than he deserves and has several scenes with Crowe in which he more than holds his own so I found him convincing and affecting as the senator getting embroiled in the scandal. Robin Wright-Penn as Affleck’s scorned wife is also very good, though I wasn’t convinced of the relationship between the two. Perhaps that was the point, given his infidelity and her past with Crowe’s character.

If Crowe is the films anchor, then Helen Mirren is its mothership. She never leaves the office and it’s like the film returns to her every time in needs a kick up the arse, which she duly delivers time and time again. She is quietly magnificent.

It’s well worth getting lost in. It avoids the black and white world of Grisham for the most part and you may feel by the end it sells-out, but MacDonald’s solid direction and equally solid cast make for an engrossing story.

A Time to Kill

 ★★★☆☆ 

John Grisham’s best seller A Time to Kill hits the screen with incendiary force, directed by Joel Schumacher (The Client). Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey and Kevin Spacey play the principals in a murder trial that brings a small Mississippi town’s racial tensions to the fiashpoint. Amid activist marches, Klan terror, media clamor and brutal riots, an unseasoned but idealistic attorney mounts a stirring courtroom battle for justice. The superb ensemble also includes Brenda Fricker, Oliver Platt, Charles S. Dutton, Ashley Judd, Patrick McGoohan, Chris Cooper and both Donald and Kiefer Sutherland.

This gets your right-wing juices flowing! I love courtroom thrillers and thought this one of the best Grisham adaptations. Well, it could be, but the more I see it, the clearer it is that the story is shamefully manipulative and unambitious. Everything is painted so very broad and some scenes are almost farcical and childish. There is nothing original in the plot and in fact, some of it, like McConaughey and Judd’s marriage heading for the rocks, is very lazily handled. I don’t think there is even a structure to speak of. You expect certain things to happen, in a certain order, and they do. Just a shame there’s no subtlety.

I expect if they were to film it again today, it would be more powerful, with a well-played irony. Maybe something like Crash or Changeling. One thing you can be sure of, no way would it be so entertaining! These sort of films always pull great casts and this is one of, if not the best. Some like Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock are at their best, despite being fed sub-par characters, others already so good, they wrap their tonsils around the killer lines with ease (Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Brenda Fricker, Patrick McGoohan). There wasn’t a weak point in the cast, except maybe whatever-happened-to-Ashley Judd, but whatever-happened-to-Oliver Platt makes it balance just by turning up. This is back in the days when Samuel L. Jackson would keep his shouty quotable lines to minimum (Lakeview Terrace is a recent return to form). “Yes, they deserve to die and I hope they burn in hell!” is a classic to rival Jack Nicholson barking “You can’t handle the truth!” at little Tommy Cruise.

That line sums up exactly how director Joel Schumacher wants you the viewer to feel and you probably will despite yourself because it is such a great cast and the plot is so exaggerated. We don’t just get racists, we get a specially formed brand new charter of the Klan, no less! You’ll boil at the injustice! Punch the air when McConaughey sneakily punches the would be bomber! And cheer when it turns out the dog survived! Well of course he was going to survive, but that’s what I mean. You can’t help yourself. And what’s wrong with a bit of eye-for-an-eye vigilantism anyway?

It’s absolute bollocks, but bollocks of the highest quality and a monument to the outrageous style Schumacher had before he disappeared up his own arse and found Batman and Robin. He finally produced the excellent Tigerland, but this is more memorable for all the very wrong and grimy reasons.

Lakeview Terrace

 ★★★★☆ 

A young couple (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) have just moved into their California dream home when they become the target of their next-door neighbour, who disapproves of their interracial relationship. A stern, single father, this tightly wound LAPD officer (Samuel L. Jackson) has appointed himself the watchdog of the neighbourhood. His nightly foot patrols and overly watchful eyes bring comfort to some, but he becomes increasingly harassing to the newly-weds.

Samuel L. Jackson shares the lead with at least Patrick Wilson, but his powerful performance anchors the film. When I say this is his best role for years, don’t be concerned if you think this will be full-on Pulp Fiction Jules. Instead he shows how brilliant he truly is by commanding the screen without taking it over. All three are complicated roles and this isn’t the sort of story they can get through with show-boating and shouting.

On paper it seems a new play on the theme used in Pacific Heights (Modine v. Keaton!) or Unlawful Entry (Russell v. Liotta!), but the characters and situations are more exploitive in both of those and descend into predictable action beats. Not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s just that Lakeview Terrace is first and foremost a drama that you may be able to identify with more readily, and it seems reluctant to cut loose until the very last moment.

Up until then, director Neil La Bute creates a simmering tension, possibly undermined by your own assumptions. If you go into it expecting Jackson to be an obvious villain, you do his performance a disservice, because throughout he deserves some sympathy. None of the three characters are perfect and it’s their flaws that drive the story. Jackson’s Turner is a manipulative racist, but he is also a single dad and staring forced retirement in the face. Meanwhile Wilson as Chris is paranoid that everyone is like Turner, judging his interracial relationship. His wife Lisa, played by Washington, doesn’t always give Chris enough respect for that position and she also makes a particularly poor judgement that threatens their marriage.

Still, they are a close couple and Wilson and the lovely Kerry Washington have good chemistry, so you want them to work it out and that means dealing with Turner. It’s a clever plot development that escalates the situation without turning him into a cartoon villain, even for the ending which is otherwise predictable. I also like the backdrop with California wild-fires that are getting closer throughout the film because that increases the immediacy of a plot that could have become tediously contrived, especially the ending. Like Gone Baby Gone, it is a satisfying conclusion, but not one that suggests a happy ever after. Life isn’t like that and to suggest otherwise is insulting.

Occasionally the black versus white sensibilities border on heavy handed, but actually I still found it easier to empathise with than Crash and it bears more similarity with Gran Torino in some ways. It’s a well written, cracking little thriller, that doesn’t spoon-feed the viewer. Highly recommended. La Bute may have done himself a disservice by making the ill-advised remake of The Wicker Man, because here he shows a far more interesting grasp of difficult material.