Daddy’s Home 2 (2017)

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You know, I’m just getting the feeling maybe you guys would like some privacy. Father Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) and stepfather Brad (Will Ferrell) join forces to make Christmas perfect for the children. Their newfound tolerant partnership soon gets put to the test when Dusty’s old-school, macho dad Kurt (Mel Gibson) and Brad’s gentle father Don (John Lithgow) arrive to turn the holiday upside down. After a sudden change in plans, the four men decide to take the kids to a luxury resort for a fun-filled getaway that turns into a hilariously chaotic adventure with Kurt’s competitiveness creating domestic chaos and Don concealing a terrible secret that unravels everyone’s idea of him … His total lack of masculinity, I mean his weak chin and soft underbelly bothers you not a bit? Written by director Sean Anders and John Morris from characters by Brian Burns, this sequel is an advert for toxic masculinity, shoplifting and avoiding the in-laws. Kurt’s enthusiasm for hunting inadvertently turns little Megan into a demon shot while Brad’s wife’s (Linda Cardellini) paranoia about Dusty’s wife’s (Alessandra Ambrosio) books is leavened by learning about her penchant for shoplifting. A funny sequence is a film-within-a-film starring Liam Neeson, sending himself up rather neatly (albeit he’s done it on every chat show he’s been on since the first Taken movie). This sequel has two wonderful actors (Gibson and Lithgow) and a modern day fool (Ferrell) and they do rather well with pretty thin gruel. I blame the parents.

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They Were Sisters (1945)

They Were Sisters

 

 

 

She’s the kind that likes a man that wipes the floor with her. In 1919 three middle-class sisters meet the men they marry and the marriages develop into very different types of relationships. Twenty years later Lucy Moore (Phyllis Calvert) is happily married to her loving husband, the gentle William (Peter Murray-Hill) who has compassion and bases their marriage on understanding. She showers love and affection on her nieces and nephew, since she is unable to bear children of her own. Vera Sargeant (Anne Crawford), is also married to a very loving but fatally dull husband, Brian (Barry Livesey).  She never loved him and indulges her unhappiness with countless affairs and pays little heed to their young daughter. In 1939 both women become worried about their other sister, Charlotte Lee (Dulcie Gray), who cowers in fear of her manipulative and emotionally abusive husband, the sneering scowling Geoffrey (James Mason).  He is a monster and sadist who has picked at Charlotte, belittling her and turning her into a submissive drudge, bullying her to the point of alcoholism. He adores his older daughter Margaret (Pamela Mason) who works for him in his home office where he sells insurance but merely tolerates their younger son and daughter, at best. When Lucy attempts to get help for her, but fails because Geoffrey becomes aware of the failed appointment with a doctor when Vera puts her lover first instead of helping divert him from home, Gray commits the ultimate act of self-harm … Everything I’m used to has given me up. Quite an extraordinary entry in the Gainsborough ‘genre’ – stories of cruelty, the battle of the sexes and violently fantastical romances this is instead a contemporary story of domestic abuse and one lacking the allure of a Regency narrative with a seductive saturnine brute. Mason is just a commonplace bully keen to reduce his wife to nothing – which is what she becomes and her children and sisters are ultimately helpless to break the relationship with Geoffrey. Adapted by Katharine Strueby from Dorothy Whipple’s novel, the screenplay is by Roland Pertwee, who plays the coroner’s court judge. The ties that bind family are explored and the psychology of the bully brilliantly exposed in a drama that does not flinch from showing precisely how women are destroyed by men and lose their sense of self in incompatible unions:  this is a cautionary tale like few produced in British cinema. Weirdly, Charlotte and Geoffrey’s elder daughter is played by Mason’s wife Pamela (Kellino), the daughter of the film’s producer, Maurice Ostrer:  their physical likeness is uncanny. Mason was none too happy about being boxed in these kinds of roles and when he’s reduced to even being cruel to the young son about the dog he’s bought to bribe him and his sister you understand his point: this is a women’s picture, told for the benefit of those caught in terrible relationships. When Vera finally elects to leave her loveless domain and move abroad with the one man she has ever loved, it is at the expense of losing her daughter, who doesn’t even miss her. That the kind and childless Lucy winds up looking after both sister’s children is a dramatic irony that clearly struck people in the aftermath of World War 2.  Gray is wonderful as the woman who simply cannot take it any more while Calvert and Murray-Hill make for an utterly believable couple. This magnificently soapy modern Gothic story of gaslighting was number 4 at the box office on its release. Directed by Arthur Crabtree and produced by Michael Balcon. There are a million families like us

 

 

They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969)

They Shoot Horses Dont They

Don’t forget your poor old mother. Yowza yowza yowza! In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932 wannabe film director Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) encounters manipulative MC Rocky (Gig Young) when he wanders into a dance marathon on the Santa Monica Pier.  Rocky enlists contestants offering a $1,500 cash prize. Among them are a failed actress Gloria (Jane Fonda) whom he induces Robert to partner; a middle-aged sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons); delusional blonde Alice (Susannah York); impoverished farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). Days turn into weeks as the competition drags on and people either drop out or die. Rocky will do anything for publicity and initiates a series of gruelling derbies and nerves fray as exhaustion sets in … That soap’s a little hard. James Poe and Robert E. Thompson’s adaptation of the 1935 Horace McCoy novel plugs straight into its melodramatic core – a musical drama about economic despair. And the air of desperation hanging over these lost souls is like a fug, admirably sustained by director Sydney Pollack. Fonda is superb in a complex performance as the brittle cynic whose psychology is gradually broken while all around her succumb to the physical pressure. Her fear drives the story. How extraordinary to think that Charlie Chaplin had acquired the rights to the property eighteen years earlier, intending to cast his son Sydney opposite Marilyn Monroe in the roles played by Sarrazin and Fonda. It fell apart when Chaplin was refused re-entry to the US on foot of his political sympathies. When Fonda was approached by Pollack he asked her what she thought of the material and the character and she writes about it as a turning point in her career:  This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant. It also marked the beginning of Sarrazin’s years as a leading man – somehow he fell out of fashion in the late Seventies. He would die in 2011. There are some wonderful contrivances like the flash forwards that certain critics found irritating but it all works to build a mythic aspect. This is a stunning, disturbing indictment of social artifice and possesses a haunting quality, with its title becoming a catchphrase (and inspiring a hit song) and Gig Young’s fraudulent host inducing a kind of existential dread of showbiz ‘characters’. Maybe the whole world is like Central Casting – they got it all rigged before you ever show up

 

Fame is the Spur (1947)

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Did God ordain it, this contrast between sweat and ease, between want and luxury, or is it the product of man’s will, of greed of selfishness?  In the late nineteenth century in the English North Country, young Hamer Radshaw (Michael Redgrave) commits to help the poverty stricken workers in his area.  He takes as his Excalibur a sword passed down to him by his grandfather from the Battle of Peterloo, where it had been used against workers. As an idealistic champion of the oppressed, he rises to power as a Labour MP but is seduced by the trappings of power and finds himself the type of politician he originally despised, his liberal leanings compromised as he becomes more and more conservative to his wife Ann’s (Rosamund John) disgust … Nigel Balchin adapted Howard Spring’s 1940 novel and it’s superbly directed by Roy Boulting (and produced by his brother John), a vivid depiction of a politician who rises from poverty through sponsorship to become one of Britain’s leaders up to and after World War One. It’s widely assumed to be a take on Ramsay Macdonald and Redgrave inhabits him wonderfully, but he is matched all the way by Rosamund John, who goes to prison for her suffragist beliefs.  Her hunger strike triggers her early death, leaving her corrupted husband to bemoan his choices and the deviation from his original spur to action. A bristling, busy story that must have had huge resonance for post-WW2 British audiences:  the violence used by the police against protesters still has the power to shock. There are wonderful stylistic flourishes and transitions that make this a lesson in visual storytelling. Quite the surprise package, leaving an indelible impression. Even among a very impressive cast that includes Carla Lehmann (in her final screen performance), Bernard Miles and Hugh Burden, Redgrave is simply rivetting as the principled man who rises from obscure origins to lead his country and loses everything decent and liberal about himself on the way to the top where it is very lonely indeed. Power corrupts…

Curtain Up (1952)

Curtain Up

One should never do a play written by a woman, they always hold you up. In an English provincial town a second-rate repertory company assembles at the Theatre Royal  to rehearse the following week’s play, a melodrama titled Tarnished Gold. Harry (Robert Morley) the hot-tempered Producer, is highly critical of the play, which has been foisted on him and is unenthusiastic about its prospects. The cast includes Jerry (Michael Medwin) a young and sometimes keen actor, Maud (Olive Sloan) a widowed actress who was once famous on the West End stage, Sandra (Kay Kendall) who is waiting for (and receives) a call from a London producer who calls her instead of her philandering and semi-alcoholic husband (Liam Gaffney), and Avis (Joan Rice) a timid young girl who is quickly realising that acting is not for her. The cast is equally unenthusiastic about the play. Little progress is made. ‘Jacko’ (Lloyd Lamble) the director, is at his wits end and threatens to resign, his regular habit when things go wrong. Things can’t get any worse but then the author of the play, Jeremy St Claire turns up and she turns out to be  a woman – Catherine Beckwith (Margaret Rutherford).  She insists on ‘sitting at the feet’ of the Director. She and Harry are quickly at each other’s throats. Harry tears up most of Act 1 and tells her to do what Edgar Wallace did – disappear into a phone kiosk for a couple of hours and come back with forty new pages. He storms angrily off stage, falling into the pit and injuring himself, literally losing the run of things as his fantastical ramblings take hold. Despite the forebodings of the cast, Miss Beckwith insists on taking over the rehearsal according to her own ideas. She recasts the play as a period piece and introduces new stage techniques. How will it work out? … I think I see the beginning of a plot on page twenty-seven. And we are on page one. Oh joy! Three of my favourite British actors in one film! Morley, Rutherford and Kendall, who don’t have a huge amount to work with in this adaptation of Philip King’s play On Monday Next by Jack Davies and Michael Pertwee (brother of the greatest Doctor Who!) but who do have some sly repartee and physical comedy to play.  Morley/Harry refers to a production of Rebecca – in reality he and Rutherford were in the original London stage production, with Rutherford playing Mrs Danvers. Imagine that! Their clash here is very amusing. Stringer Davis, Rutherford’s offscreen husband, turns up as Avis’ dad just in time to see Jerry kiss his daughter. Kendall has some mini-drama over her husband’s infidelity but it’s her career that’s in the ascendant while he thinks real acting is for cinema – which makes this even more of a mockery of popular theatre. It’s pretty thin stuff, only of interest for the sparky players. The impact is elevated with a Malcolm Arnold score and it’s directed by Ralph Smart.

Magnolia (1999)

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What am I doing? I’m quietly judging you.  In the San Fernando Valley, a dying father, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), his guilty young wife Linda (Julianne Moore), his male nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his famous estranged son the sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), Jim, a police officer (John C. Reilly) in love, Stanley Spector (Neil Flynn) a boy genius on TV’s What Do Kids Know? who’s bullied by his thug father (Michael Bowen), an ex-boy genius Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) whose parents robbed his winnings in 1968, the dying game show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) and his estranged cokehead daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), each becomes part of a dazzling multiplicity of plots, but one story, over the course of one day when it’s raining cats and dogs… Respect the cock! Paul Thomas Anderson was inspired to create this mosaic of intersecting lives by the songs of Aimee Mann and they dominate the audio to the point (occasionally) of overwhelming the dialogue. It commences with a documentary prologue of chance and coincidence, a kind of Ripley’s about life and gosh-darns that hints at an epic concluding event (and boy does it deliver). At its core this is an analysis of the father-son relationship and the trade-offs that are made throughout life until finally … you just gotta let it go. There is a raft of immense performances in a story which has an epic quality but thrives on the specificity of character in a plot revolving around child abuse in various iterations. We may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us.  The double helix structure finds natural convergence at the point where the protagonists each sings a line from one of Mann’s songs, It’s Not Going to Stop (Until You Wise Up):  this astonishing directing flourish starts with Claudia which is logical because here is a narrative about being generous to damaged people and as we find out, she’s the most damaged of all. Hence her gargantuan cocaine consumption. It’s about what fathers do to their children and sometimes their spouses too. And how mothers can raise children back up, even from their own terrible depths. In the aftermath of Burt Reynolds’ death it’s appropriate to consider that the role for Robards was conceived for Reynolds:  his troubled relationship with Anderson and his dislike of the content of Boogie Nights (for which he received the Golden Globe) led him to decline the part. Which is ironic because he had joked that he would wind up playing Tom Cruise’s father one day (and Cruise is absolutely tremendous here as the fraudulent motivational leader, a lying Tony Robbins for sexist brutes). Anderson saw in Reynolds a kind of darkness and humanity to add to his array of multiply-talented actors – most of the people here were the repertory from Boogie Nights and it’s such a conscious re-assembling of types it still surprises. It’s a shame because when one looks at the totality of Reynolds’ career it’s clear that his loyalty to friends led him to make oddly destructive choices:  while Redford had Pollack and De Niro had Scorsese, Reynolds had … Hal Needham, the stuntman living in his pool house for 11 years. If he had spent those few necessary days on this set and well away from Thomas Jane, who knows what way his career might have swerved in the Noughties?! Goodness knows what made him turn down Taxi Driver, a film that has sway here. Perhaps Anderson is paying tribute to Reynolds by giving Claudia the debilitating condition that he got on City Heat when a stunt went wrong – the excruciating jaw injury TMJ that crippled him for over a decade. This may have started as a series of overlapping urban legends, an operatic disquisition on the damage that men do; it concludes with some tweaked endings and a Biblical purging of shame. How apt that it should be Claudia to break the fourth wall. With a smile. But it did happen

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

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Aka Hollywood’s Brightest Bombshell.  The story of Hedwig Kiesler aka Hedy Lamarr, the daughter of assimilated Austrian Jews who started acting as a teenager; achieved infamy for the Czech film Ecstasy in which she appeared naked and simulated an orgasm; married a Jewish arms dealer who traded with the Nazis; and eventually fled Europe as World War 2 approached. Her dealings with Louis B. Mayer at MGM and the dissatisfaction she experienced at the studio with her roles are offset by the revelation that she kept an inventing kit supplied by friend Howard Hughes (to whom she suggested aircraft design modifications) in her dressing room and at home.  She wanted to help the war effort any way she could. Eventually she would team up with composer George Antheil to invent a frequency-hopping system to make Allied comms elude detection by the Nazis:  the US Navy had already given her idea for radio-controlled torpedoes short shrift. She was told to go out and be a good obedient little woman and sell war bonds instead. It was decades later that she realised the military had taken the idea for wireless communications and ran with it, birthing bluetooth, GPS et al, without giving her credit or a cent. By the time she found out it was outside the statue of limitations;  Antheil had died in 1959. She produced two films with Jack Chertok which was verboten for actors in Hollywood in the immediate post-war period;  both made a small profit. Her marriages to older men repeatedly broke down, she adopted children and gave birth to children, and moved from city to city; her stardom disappeared by the late 1950s and she was hooked on the drugs the studio had been supplying to keep her going for those long six-day weeks. She wound up in court in 1966 for shoplifting $80 of goods – she had $14,000 in her purse at the time. Or rather, she didn’t go to court because her son was injured in a car crash – she sent her body double instead! She then put her name to a memoir she didn’t write and went on the chat show circuit. She was upset by the ‘almost use’ of her name in Blazing Saddles and sued.  She attempted a comeback but it coincided with another shoplifting incident. She was still staggeringly beautiful yet she became a recluse, having more and more facelifts to fix the preceding mistakes boosting her bust and distorting her looks … Alexandra Dean’s film about arguably the most beautiful star in Hollywood is a mixed bag – not in a bad way, but because Hedy Lamarr’s life was complex and interesting with her scientific bent obscured by her beauty and her devotion to her father mirrored in her regular marriages to much older men who abused her. The ease with which she dispatched one adopted son (only admitted  latterly to her daughter who didn’t recognise a boy in a photograph) first to military school and then to a different home is shocking:  they didn’t speak for another forty years but today he doesn’t blame her (albeit he sued to control her estate – he lost). He had hit her across her face and that was that. At that point Lamarr was hooked on the speed the studio had been giving her and it showed in her appearance. Her later years were mired in one cosmetic surgery after another – to repair the previous damage:  but even in this she was on the frontier of change as she instructed surgeons where to make incisions (behind the ear, the knee, wherever there were naturally occurring folds of skin). Her first adopted son transpired to be her actual biological offspring by her third husband, John Loder, whom she married after divorcing then-husband, screenwriter Gene Markey. The first third of the film deals with her background and her years as an actress in Hollywood;  the middle section deals with her inventions. The final third is primarily about the multiple marriages and decline, looking at the way her celebrity was prized by cheap magazines and Andy Warhol and how she was so cruelly mocked by Lucille Ball. The coda to her invention of wireless technology stolen by the US military and now valued at in excess of $35 billion is her son’s appearance at an event in 1999 broken up by her phonecall to him as he accepts an award on her behalf. She declared she had no regrets;  she died shortly thereafter. This, then, was no dumb actress:  a product of a terrible time for women during which she paradoxically found personal liberty by becoming involved in the arts and cinema, she stifled her own true voice as an engineer and inventor and wound up becoming the helpmeet to one incompatible husband after another. She had no idea what she was doing during the shoot for Ecstasy – she recalled being asked to move her arms together over her face. That’s how the director achieved her famous orgasm on film. She was filmed naked on long lenses hidden behind trees. Her son James bemoans the fact that no man was ever worthy of her. Fans of her films will be disappointed at the lack of attention given to her performing style and her impact on cinema outside of her physical allure – we see photo after photo of Hollywood actresses who changed their style after she arrived with such a breathtaking bang in Algiers, a Mitteleuropäische sophisticate from the most elegant city in the world afloat in a sea of shopgirls and waitresses, refusing to sign autographs and happiest on her own. She played historic women with verve and sexual threat – Empress Sissi on the Viennese stage, Helen of Troy, Empress Josephine, Genevieve of Brabant:  it never translated into her place in cinema. Forever a fish out of water, Lamarr was never happy in any of the roles assigned to her, denying her Jewish origins, her true talents and criminally treated by the powers that be who took advantage of her inventions to feather their own research nests. Her ashes are buried in the Vienna Woods:  she finally came home to her beloved Austria, decades after the jackboots had been stopped from stomping all over. In 2014 she was admitted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her creation of broad-spectrum technology. This is a salutary tale, told in a beguiling mixture of photos, newsreel, film clips and interviews, from a solid base of audio recordings with the redoubtable Lamarr herself. It is practically a refutation of the glamour of celebrity and the idea that we can ever truly know the stars of the silver screen. Hedy Lamarr changed the course of the twentieth century and we are only now beginning to catch up with her staggering achievements. This laudable film is just the latest addition to a burgeoning industry of books and shows and movies about a woman who was completely misunderstood in her own time. You could say she was lost in translation.

Experiment Perilous (1944)

Experiment Perilous

If any man had one moment of sanity, in that one moment, he would take himself out of this world. When psychiatrist Hunt Bailey (George Brent) encounters elderly Clarissa ‘Cissie’ Bedereaux (Olive Blakeney) during a violent storm on a cross-country train trip in 1903, his unusual relationship with the strange Bedereaux family begins with an introduction by his friend on arrival in New York. Suspicious of Cissie’s sudden death by heart attack at her brother’s house just hours after they parted and entranced by a painting he sees of Allida (Hedy Lamarr), the gorgeous but troubled wife of Nick Bedereaux (Paul Lukas), Hunt sets out to discover if Allida is really insane, as her husband claims – or if Nick is the disturbed one. He finds a he said-she said scenario but starts to believe Nick is gaslighting Allida when he overhears a suspicious conversation between Nick and their young son whom the man appears to have imprisoned at the top of a spiral staircase.  He now believes Nick is mad and Allida is in danger … Life is short and the art long. Decision difficult, experiment perilous.  Warren B. Duff’s screenplay (adapting a novel by Margaret Carpenter) is an efficient entry in the Gothic genre that took off during WW2. Director Jacques Tourneur handles it well enough but it doesn’t have the kind of tension that marks out the classics. Lukas is never as threatening as you would hope and Brent is as usual the classy caring handsome gent we all know and love but the action has no compelling line. It’s worth seeing for Lamarr, that stunning and poorly deployed actress who takes on a type of role made famous by Ingrid Bergman and applies her own particularly distanced interpretation, with the maternal focus lending it a poignancy.  That Lukas is the older husband who groomed a much younger wife for society has its echoes in Lamarr’s own biography. The strangers on a train inciting incident is well constructed and the social scene nicely established but the cod-psychiatry might irritate.