Frail Women (1932)

 

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You made one big mistake. You never killed your conscience. This British equivalent of a Pre-Code Hollywood melodrama tells the tough story of  Lilian Hamilton (Mary Newcomb) who gave birth to an illegitimate daughter following a brief liaison during WW1 and had her adopted:  now that daughter Mary (Margaret Vines) is part of a wealthy family and ready to get married but her origins remain clouded and marriage might not occur now. Lilian is shacked up with a bookmaker (Edmund Gwenn) and is finally introduced to her adult daughter. The various inter-relationships that occur when everyone’s paths cross to try and render Mary legitimate  and ready for a society marriage are traced until the inevitably tragic outcome occurs. Fascinating, literate and well performed by an impressive cast.  Written by Michael Barringer and directed by that workhorse, Maurice Elvey.

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The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

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Batman (Will Arnett) is having an existential crisis and it’s not just because he’s realised he’s made of Lego. He has no family, the other superheroes don’t want anything to do with him, Gotham’s fed up of him and he still doesn’t quite understand that Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) his butler is his surrogate dad. He accidentally adopts Robin (Michael Cera). Calling Sigmund Freud! When his battle with the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) could end their good-vs-evil universe he learns to team up with everyone to stick it out and fight forever more. Long, with some good jokes and a few exciting moments but with some vocal inconsistencies from the assembled talent, what’s perhaps most baffling is that this little baby cost 80 million dollars. Now that’s funny. Directed by Chris McKay from a screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern and John Whittington. You know where you can buy all the products placed …

Enchantment (1948)

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If houses could talk, what stories they could tell! Producer Samuel Goldwyn had high hopes for this intensely romantic intergenerational family drama adapted from the great Rumer Godden’s novel, Take Three Tenses.  A young American ambulance driver Grizel Dane (Evelyn Keyes) turns up uninvited at the home of her great uncle General Rollo Dane (David Niven) during WW2. Gradually he reveals to her his own story of lost love, with his father’s ward Lark (Teresa Wright) who moved in with their family following her parents’ tragic death and he regales her with a story of his older sister’s terrible jealousy of the little girl, persuading Lark into a marriage with an Italian count and getting Rollo to a high military commission by serving in Afghanistan. Rollo swore never to return to his home until his sister died. In contemporary life, Grizel falls for pilot officer Pax Masterson (Farley Granger) – who happens to be Lark’s own nephew. The intertwined stories make for quite the compelling romantic tragedy but it never hits the peaks you think it could, perhaps the complex serial flashbacks put paid to the tension and sustained drama. Goldwyn was so angry with the immensely moving Teresa Wright for her reluctance to promote the film that he terminated her contract and pretty much her career. Niven was criticised for the silver wig he wears as he plays the aged Rollo (which he does very well) but in fact Goldwyn had forced him to dye his hair which remained various shades of purple for the next two years, making his children scream and his dog bite him. His career with Goldwyn also suffered but his adventurous take on tackling older characters would pay off a decade later in Separate Tables, winning him an Academy Award.  This was the last feature shot by the great Gregg Toland who died a few weeks after the shoot, from a coronary thrombosis at the age of just 44.

Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976) (TVM)

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This is the VHS cover of a TVM sequel that scares the bejesus out of me – and with good reason. I’ve never been good with diabolism and the actor Stephen McHattie (who I loved since he played James Dean in the 1976 TVM) seems like he really could be the son of John Cassavetes from the Polanski masterpiece. And this was made the same year, so I guess it was kind of a moment for him, as they say.  Little Andrew as his mom Patty Duke Astin calls him is needed for a ritual but she smuggles him out of NYC and then a madam (Tina Louise) does a deal with the coven to take him herself and Patty gets taken away screaming on a driverless bus… Suddenly Andrew’s all grown up and in constant trouble with Sheriff Broderick Crawford and startled by memories of his parents and Uncle Roman and Aunt Minnie are not too thrilled with his behaviour either:  Ray Milland and particularly Ruth Gordon chew the scenery wonderfully as the devilish old pair who chide him over his lack of responsibility to his pop. Their bickering is the best thing about this. His human pop Guy Woodhouse (George Maharis) has carved out a Hollywood career which now looks like it might slide into oblivion thanks to his ingrate son. Andrew’s new female friend, Ellen (Donna Mills) gets him out of a psych ward – well, isn’t that where you end up if you claim you’re the Son of Satan – and strikes a deal with the Castevets … The devil is in the detail, isn’t he.  Sigh. This is not a worthy follow up to a classic. It was adapted from Ira Levin’s characters by Anthony Wilson who worked on Planet of the Apes and The Night That Panicked America (with Nicholas Meyer) He died two years after this was made. Another point of interest for buffs: this was directed by editor Sam O. Steen, who edited Rosemary’s Baby and he is reunited here with cinematographer John A. Alonzo from their teaming on Chinatown, another great Polanski film. Ah, cinema. Not your average TVM then – at least in terms of the talent!

Mommie Dearest (1981)

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Joan Crawford said in the early 1970s that the only young modern actress who had what it took to be a star was Faye Dunaway. Maybe she planted an idea …. This quasi-delirious festival of camp Hollywood eating itself boasts a stunning – and perhaps fatal – performance by Faye Dunaway. Her impersonation of Crawford as a bat shit crazy obsessive compulsive derives from ingrate adopted daughter Christina’s infamous memoir, which she waited to publish until after the star’s death although there were signs she had been writing it beforehand. Being the cuckoo in the nest (one of four, in fact) of a narcissistic exhibitionist and likely bipolar cannot be easy (it’s not!) but doing it in the public eye must have been a certain kind of hell.  For Christina as played by the bizarre little Mara Hobel (who won a Razzie!) there is a kind of fascination in watching the mad mother take revenge, over and over again against the child’s perceived slights. The big scenes are the ones everyone knows – the beating because of wire hangers in the kids’ closet;  the midnight rose-cutting after she’s fired by MGM; wanting the child to eat rare meat; the brutal attack on a teenage Christina which was witnessed by a trade journo (who confirmed it.) However the narrative is damaged by a performance that takes it a little de trop, as Celeste Holm might aver, and Dunaway merely said of it that a director other than Frank Perry might have reined her in at times (even if the likeness is uncanny).  Her boyfriend, then husband, photographer Terry O’Neill was one of the producers. There was no reining in those shoulderpads though and the adaptation by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry and producer Frank Yablans loses steam every so often, especially in the second half when mother and adopted daughter were more or less reconciled (Diana Scarwid plays the adolescent and adult Christina) and she just appears like a Mean Girl to alkie Mommie. It’s not quite mad enough to be trash nor lurid enough to be exploitation. But there is great chutzpah in the opening montage when we watch Crawford prepare herself without once seeing her face – right up until the point where she’s ready for her grand entrance. And it is literally unbelievable but true that this sixty year old drag queen replaced her twentysomething daughter on a daytime soap when the girl was hospitalised with an ovarian tumour. That’s showbiz! And boy would I love to have her closet and get her round to scrub my floors!

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

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The wilderness is the location chosen by the titular character to recover from what we would call PTSD nowadays as Robert Redford has had a bad war in Mexico and needs time away from everything. He lives in the Rocky Mountains, keeping himself in food by trapping and enduring a horrendous winter, resorting to fishing by hand from mountain streams. He finds a rifle in a dead man’s hands, meets Bear Claw (Will Geer) who mentors him, and has repeated encounters with Paints-His Shirt-Red (Joaquin Martinez) from the Crow tribe. He takes in a boy he names Caleb (Josh Albee) whose mother has gone mad, then rescues Gue (Stefan Gierasch) who’s buried up to his neck in sand by the Blackfeet, then he marries into the Flatheads to save his own. He’s pressured to lead US troops to a wagon train of settlers through burial ground and is seen:  he returns to find his squaw and Caleb murdered and he takes revenge… The biography of Liver-Eating Johnson  and a book called Mountain Man were adapted by John Milius in a project originally intended for Sam Peckinpah with Lee Marvin replaced by Clint Eastwood. Eastwood and Peckinpah did not get along, so it was acquired for Redford, who persuaded Sydney Pollack to come on board to direct – they had worked together well on This Property Is Condemned. Pollack was a meddler with writers;  Edward Anhalt and David Rayfiel did rewrites but Milius was brought back, repeatedly, to do the dialogue, for which he had such an uncanny ear. If you want to know how Milius got his reputation, watch this. The budget was so constrained that Pollack mortgaged his home to get through production, an arduous seven-month shoot in Utah, Redford’s adopted home. Weather conditions meant more than one take was rarely possible. The changing seasons are beautifully captured by Duke Callaghan, in this splendidly judged, humane, funny, touching piece of work. Redford turns in a very well honed performance and the ensemble are brilliant. Quite the best wilderness film you’ll see, probably, with a marvellous soundtrack composed by actors Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein.

Jem and the Holograms (2015)

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Apparently this poptastic creation is an adaptation of an Eighties animation (can’t say I remember it) and was a labour of love for its writer/director Jon M. Chu but for an audience over the age of 12 it’s mostly a chore. The original premise was about the owner of Starlight Music who has a double life as a pop star by virtue of a hologram but technology has moved on. Starring TV’s Nashville songstress Aubrey Peeples as the orphaned girl Jerrica Benton whose spectacular singing voice brings her stardom via the internet (that vehicle for epic narcissism).  She is still in mourning for her father, who appears to her in a pre-recorded hologram and gives her strength, materialising from a little robot that bears a striking resemblance to Star Wars‘ BB-8. Peeples was probably cast not merely for the power of her pipes but for the very K-Stewness of her appearance: she even has one side of her head shaven to resemble her at one point (in one of the several wigs she’s made wear.) She and her sister Kimber have two foster sisters out of juvie and Molly Ringwald is her aunt Bailey (when her face is in repose she’s barely recognisable:  that’s how long it’s been since we’ve seen her). They all live in one happy multi-ethnic home  which is going to be repossessed in 30 days so that’s how long they have to become stars and make money. The skinny ruthless manager Erica Raymond who sees them online is played very well by Juliette Lewis as (presumably) a figure she might be familiar with in her own offscreen rock career and she does it very well as a sort of wicked stepmother to the Cinders girl who feels cornered when confronted with a solo contract and is rechristened Jem. Erica has a handsome son who fancies ‘Jem’, that enigmatic character who is, ultimately, what her audience decides she is …. A product of that well-known pop auteur, Scooter Braun, presumably on an off-day from managing someone he found online. I don’t remember a single song but I believe that’s probably not the point.

The Baby (1973)

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Sick and twisted! That’s how I like my exploitation horror and that’s what this is, a film that goes full retard long before Lars Von Trier decided to cross the crass line. Baby (David Manzy) is the grown man in a playpen cared for by his indolent mom (Ruth Roman) and scary big-haired sisters (Marianna Hill and Susanne Zenor) and their idyll is interrupted by a nosy social worker (Anjanette Comer) with ideas of her own about what she might do to him… A surprisingly taut comment about society, family and perversion, written by Abe Polsky and directed by Ted Post with a great score composed by Gerald Fried. I’ve written about it at Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/whole-lotta-motherlove. Great fun!

The BFG (2016)

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Orphan Sophie is taken from her bed by the BFG (Mark Rylance) whose language is a mangled and funny take on the Queen’s English. She goes back to his cave where he is the runt of a gaggle of giants who like to eat human beans and she’s in danger when Fleshlumpeater sniffs her out. They must make their way to the Queen to stop other children disappearing … Roald Dahl’s work is much loved and the combo of Melissa Mathison with Steven Spielberg (many years after their classic work, ET) seemed like a surefire winner. Everything’s personal but I don’t like the way this has been made: the dark style (in every sense), the look of the villainous giant (way too lifelike but in the wrong way), and the scale seemed to vary from scene to scene; when the giants are outside BFG’s cave they’re one size, inside they’re another. It adds to the other problems. It’s not particularly funny and a lot of the lingo is gone. The magic is diluted into the dreamblowing effects instead of the relationship with Sophie and it’s at its considerable best at Buckingham Palace when the Queen (Penelope Wilton giving it welly), her corgis, the heads of the Army and her staff experience whizzpopping – and she is quite amused. There are odd performances here – the child (Ruby Barnhill) isn’t the most attractive or talented we’ve ever seen, Rafe Spall as a member of the Queen’s household is sporting a very weird accent, Rylance is alright and thankfully unlike Bridge of Spies where his vocal performance ruined the film, he manages to stay in tune with the character.The Fleshlumpeater is misjudged and comes off like a big giant paedophile. Frankly a misfiring disappointment from such stellar talent.