St Agatha (2018)

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Your name is … Agatha! In October 1957 pregnant con woman Mary (Sabrina Kern) leaves her boyfriend Jimmy (Justin Miles) when a scam goes wrong and takes refuge at an isolated Georgia convent but soon finds out that things are not quite as they seem and has to escape before Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennessy) and her cohorts harm her and her baby … Get your hands off me you bitches! This hopped-up interpretation of what Catholic nuns do to single mothers starts with a claustrophobe’s nightmare – being locked in a coffin: so as someone who baled on my last MRI scan, I was duly entrapped in a story which is a very twisted take on Christian origins. Shot beautifully by Joseph White with gauzy filters lending the convent’s surrounding forest an air of supernature and the entire production an atmosphere which sustains the suspense with the backstory dropped in to illustrate Mary’s family issues. These bewitching scary nuns sure know how to welcome strangers – Mother Superior declares that she too was an unwed mother (the Senator dumped her!) and the scratching sounds in the attics and the bizarre bird-feed vomit in the coffin treatment just confirm Mary’s suspicions that all is not quite right. With its dense flock wallpaper and red lights in the basement this place resembles a brothel. Soon Mary aka Agatha recognises a fellow con in Mother Superior. When Jimmy shows up to try to get Mary back she finds the nuns have guns and they won’t stop short of murder to save the babies to sell them to donors! The books must be balanced and the story takes off. There is quite literally a twist ending when you can take succour from the uses to which you can put a freshly cut umbilical cord:  a logical conclusion to the mediaeval torture that is childbirth. All hail virgin martyrs! Written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Michaels, Sara Sometti Michaels and Clint Sears.  Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. You’ve seen what I’m capable of. What kind of mother would I be?

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Georgy Girl (1966)

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Twenty-two and never been kissed. Pathetic, isn’t it. Wannabe singer Georgina (Lynn Redgrave) is a carefree and childlike frumpy 22-year-old who finds more joy in her relationships with children than with the adults in her life. Her parents’ wealthy employer James Leamington (James Mason), proposes that she become his mistress but Georgy avoids giving him an answer, as the idea of romance confuses her.  She feels a little jealous of her fecklessly trampy roommate the beautiful violinist Meredith (Charlotte Rampling) who keeps getting pregnant by boyfriend Jos (Alan Bates) and aborting the results. Jos finds himself attracted to Georgy but Meredith wants marriage in order to have his child. When Georgy finds herself the caretaker of Meredith’s unwanted baby girl, she seeks to find a way to shoulder the new responsibility while fending off a more permanent attachment ... She’s like some enormous lorry driver. Adapted by the late Margaret Forster from her own novel with Peter Nichols, this is one of the best British films of the Sixties, a piquant black comedy featuring an outstanding performance from Redgrave whose expressions ranging from pantomime horror to wounded calf are worthy of Gish. Mason too is at his very best in one of his (regular) comebacks in his portrait of a lascivious man who simply will have what he wants, society be damned. Bates is terrific as the chauffeur who can’t help himself with Meredith, whose astringent portrayal by Rampling is like a shot of arsenic in the mix, the amoral Swinging Sixties girl incarnate. Frank, funny and terribly familiar, this is just fantastic. Redgrave’s real-life mother Rachel Kempson plays Mason’s wife. And there’s that song! Directed by Silvio Narizzano.  The trouble with you is that you could say you’re a good girl

Little Big Man (1970)

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I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers. My name is Jack Crabb. And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, uh, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. When a curious oral historian (William Hickey) turns up to hear the life story of 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), he can scarcely believe his ears. Crabb tells of having been rescued and raised by the Cheyenne, of working as a snake-oil salesman, as a gunslinger, and as a mule skinner under General Custer (Richard Mulligan). He learned the way of the Indian and the Creation story at the foot of Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who ponders the difference between Custer and Human Beings.  He also claims to be the only white survivor of the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn but is he telling the truth or is he the biggest liar ever?… Am I still in this world? Calder Willingham’s adaptation of Thomas Berger’s novel is a superb, caustic, funny, shocking and humane saga of the West as you have never seen it before. Told in a circular structure through this self-proclaimed adopted son of Cheyenne, it debunks myths, casting an acerbic eye over the rationale of the genocides carried out by so-called American heroes and how they have previously been dramatised. Inevitably the awful violence calls up parallels with the Vietnam War. Hoffman is quite brilliant as the ridiculously old guy who claims to have been there and done that with Faye Dunaway lending terrific support.  This grand, flavourful shaggy dog epic is beautifully crafted by director Arthur Penn making it an insidiously charming, educational entertainment that is virtually a masterpiece of Seventies cinema. I was afraid it would turn out this way

The Unforgiven (1960)

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Death for death and blood for blood. The Zachary family live quietly on a border cattle ranch in post-Civil War Texas. A sabre-wielding stranger called Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) appears and disturbs their bucolic existence by spreading a malicious rumor that their adopted daughter, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn), is a Kiowa Indian. Soon, the Zachary brothers Ben (Burt Lancaster), Cash (Audie Murphy) and Andy (Doug McClure) and their mother Matilda (Lillian Gish) must defend themselves from both racist whites and vengeful Kiowa as they prepare a cattle drive to Kansas while Rachel’s relationship with Charlie (Albert Salmi) the son of  neighbour Zeb Rawlins (Charles Bickford) triggers a murderous intervention and ruins the family’s partnership … Nothing could kill me except lightning out of the sky and then it would have to hit me twice. A positively strange and tantalising cast in one of John Huston’s more unusual outings, this adaptation by Ben Maddow of Alan Le May’s novel is an ‘issue’ movie and that issue is racial prejudice, specifically that of Native Americans.  What an odd but interesting role for Hepburn and she paid for it with a broken back while horse riding (she was assisted in her recovery by the real-life character she had played in The Nun’s Story!) and the clash of acting styles is really something:  Lancaster (who produced with his company) is the man of the family who thinks nothing can surprise him but it’s Gish who provides the spectacle as the matriarch and moral centre, anchoring a narrative oriented towards death in both a poetic and real sense. Bickford is her equal as the patriarch in mourning. Wiseman’s odd and fearsome character is an augury, with his Sword of God and Biblical portents.  The question of Rachel’s origins provides the engine for a story about stories and lies and what families do to survive. The final siege with Cash absenting himself from his ‘red-hide nigger’ sister as the Kiowa surround the Zachary family is brilliantly executed. Will Audie ride in to save the day? Will Audrey be loyal to her Kiowa brethren? So many of these performances hinge on what we know of the actors from their previous roles.  Maddow had written The Asphalt Jungle for Huston ten years previously and spent much of the interim on the HUAC blacklist fronted mostly by Philip Yordan (whom he castigated).  He and Huston would co-write an episode of Jungle‘s TV series the following year. A splendid almost visionary film about different ways of death that’s paradoxically full of life. The year of falling stars a baby strapped to a crib

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

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I guess I wouldn’t believe the story if someone else were telling it, but I’m telling it and it’s true, every word of it.  David Kellman, Eddy Galland and Bobby Shafran were individually adopted by families from differing social and economic classes who had each adopted a baby girl from the same agency two years previously. They came across each other accidentally when Robert was mistaken for Eddy at college;  they eventually discovered a third identical brother. Their celebrity was such that they appeared on talk shows and even got a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan and opened a restaurant together. We were falling in love with each other. Finally the truth came out:  they had been born (as part of quadruplets – the fourth died at birth, but this isn’t in the film) to a single mother as a result of a prom date gone wrong (supposedly – the birth date doesn’t tally) and were placed as part of a ‘nature versus nurture’ science experiment – the Neubauer Twin Experiment, conducted by a psychiatrist who has since died and whose findings are restricted until 2065; such findings as have been made public have been heavily redacted. A previous film made on the subject was pulled due to unknown forces – maybe the same people prevented this from being Oscar-nominated?  It’s a beautifully made if scarcely credible true story, a modern tragedy stemming from the frankly nutty unethical psychobabble world of the Fifties and Sixties,  including a combination of dramatic recreation, interviews and archive film, and featuring two of the men and Lawrence Wright, the journalist who wrote one account of the story for The New Yorker. The first half is light and amusing, a veritable romcom meet-cute, but things take a very dark turn when the reality of their lives is examined. They finally met their birth mother in her favourite local bar and were not impressed. They were reluctant to discuss her at all. Stunning and desperately sad. Directed by Tim Wardle. I don’t know if this will turn out to be good or terrible

In Darkness (2018)

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It’s alright, I’ve got friends with eyes. In London blind pianist Sofia (Natalie Dormer) overhears a struggle in the apartment above hers that leads to the death of her neighbour Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski). It is the start of a journey that pulls Sofia out of her depth and brings her into contact with Veronique’s father, Zoran Radic (Jan Bijvoet), a Serbian businessman accused of being a war criminal in the Bosnian crisis twenty years ago. Sofia is drawn into a dangerous world of corruption, investigating police, hitmen, the criminal underworld and the Russian mafia—a world with links to Sofia’s past and a path of revenge she has kept hidden until now… She really is a mystery box. Dormer co-wrote this with director (and boyfriend) Anthony Byrne, and she does what all actors should do – gives herself a great part, even if the action doesn’t really capitalise on the dynamic plot tension although the direction moves you through the surprises with ease.  A blind pianist with a secret, her origins are camouflaged with twist upon twist, until the real reason behind her accommodation is revealed. Even in the final scene, you will be asking yourself what really happened – and does she have some remnants of the sight she was born with? The real flaw here is the portentous political issue at its heart. With Neil Maskell cast as a good cop, Ed Skrein as a bad guy who might be good and Joely Richardson as his very bad sister, the casting makes hay of the convoluted premise and the opening titles with their point-of-view position will confuse your expectations:  Dormer’s similarity to Anna Massey isn’t the only reminder of Peeping TomBlood is blood. You can’t turn your back on that

Father Figures (2017)

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I can feel your brother inside you. Oddball twin brothers, uptight proctologist Peter (Ed Helms) and laidback face of BBQ sauce Kyle (Owen Wilson) attend their mother Helen’s (Glen Close) wedding. While watching his go-to TV Law and Order SVU, Peter becomes obsessed with the idea that his biological father whose photo he’s kept resembles an actor on the show. Helen admits the photo’s a fake and she slept around ‘cos it was the 70s and says their father didn’t die after all – he was footballer Terry Bradshaw, now resident in Florida with a car dealership. The men take off on a road trip that sees them travelling the East Coast for answers … I stare at assholes all day long because of a fictional man’s colon cancer. Best thought of (if at all) as a kind of lewd fairytale (every father figure gives an inadvertent helping hand to the brothers resolving their fractious relationship, the fairy godfather is a lisping African-American hitchhiker); or a male Mamma Mia! in reverse with a kind of Wizard of Oz ending. I’m not sure that that much construction went into this but there are some funny moments (including a very lateral idea about Irish Twins…) despite – and this is a grievous insult – putting the marvellous Harry Shearer into the thankless role of Close’s new husband and a pissing competition with a kid. I mean, come on. Directed by cinematographer Lawrence Sher, making his debut with a screenplay by Justin Malen. I understand how Luke Skywalker felt now.

The Boy With Green Hair (1948)

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I’m here to remind you that war is bad for children. I want you to tell the world. Peter Fry (Dean Stockwell), a boy with a shaved head, is found by the police who ask a psychologist Dr Brand (Robert Ryan) to try to get him to talk. He regales the man with his life story … He is adopted by retired actor Gramp (Pat O’Brien) after he’s been passed like a parcel from one relative to another.  He finally feels safe with his new caretaker, but when he is taunted at school for being an orphan, he gets demoralised as his teacher Miss Brand (Barbara Hale) and Gramp now have to reveal the truth:  his parents were killed doing war relief work. The next day he wakes up with green hair. Embarrassed and further ridiculed, Peter seeks solace in a nearby forest where he finds other orphans in the woods and realises he is not alone. They encourage him to spread news of the injustices of war… This post-war pacifist propaganda allegory caused its writers, producer and director a whole lot of trouble:  writers Ben Barzman and Alfred Lewis Levitt, producer Adrian Scott and debut director Joseph Losey were blacklisted following the HUAC hearings, with Losey taking permanent refuge in England. It’s a curious film, though Stockwell, who was such a beautiful child, is certainly worth viewing for his paradoxically mature performance in his sixteenth film.  This is also notable for its extraordinary theme song, Nature Boy, by eden ahbez aka George Alexander Aberle, which was made famous by Nat King Cole and ahbez was apparently found living under the first L of the Hollywood sign. An oddity of a film that had such strange consequences for all concerned with RKO’s owner Howard Hughes demanding the removal of more material outwardly requesting tolerance.

They Were Sisters (1945)

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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

 

 

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.