The Pumpkin Eater (1964)

The Pumpkin Eater

You should see the way men look at me. They still look at me. Jo (Anne Bancroft) leaves her second husband Giles (Richard Johnson) with whom she has five children in the countryside where they live in a rundown ramshackle barn and marries his screenwriter friend, Jake Armitage (Peter Finch). She moves with six of her eight children to his big house in Hampstead while her eldest are at boarding school. She soon finds that Jake doesn’t want more children and is playing around, including with Philpott (Maggie Smith), a young woman lodging with them. When he impregnates Jo, she doesn’t tell him but reveals it to her mother at her father’s (Cedric Hardwicke) funeral.  Her mother (Rosalind Atkinson) subsequently tells Jake and he asks Jo to have an abortion. Afterwards she is approached by his colleague Bob Conway (James Mason) who informs her that his wife is now pregnant by Jake …… Perhaps sex is something you feel you must sanctify by incessant reproduction. Harold Pinter’s scrupulous adaptation of Penelope Mortimer’s landmark semi-autobiographical novel is scalpel-sharp, lethally aimed at men who are never satisfied with women – when they have children, when they have none. And the men take no responsibility for the situation, either way.  Everything is the woman’s fault. The picture of fathers is damning but fascinating, as Hardwicke and Alan Webb’s (as the elder Armitage) scenes demonstrate. This battle of the sexes drama seems relentlessly classist yet is a universal story with a terrible message for the female of the species, forever destined to be deemed slatternly mother or hopeless whore. Bancroft is harrowing and superb as the vulnerable protagonist, but so too is Finch as the self-justifying philanderer. And what startling scenes there are – Jo being confronted by a total stranger (Yootha Joyce) in the hairdresser’s after her photo is featured in a magazine; her meltdown, in Harrods, of all places!;  her mother revealing in her bereavement to an unwitting and horrified Jake that Jo is pregnant yet again;  the meeting with Conway at the zoo when he reveals that while she was having her abortion and being sterilised Jake had impregnated his wife in yet another of his endless infidelities. The sleight of hand never stops; the loneliness and emotional violence of a fecund marriage is stripped bare; while living with someone is dramatised as a gaslighting paranoia-inducing nightmare of betrayals, lies and extreme humiliation in a society where femininity is medicalised, motherhood a branch of psychiatry, civility a very thin veneer over insecurity and terminal delusion. Eric Porter as the psychiatrist to whom Jo pours out her supposed problems has a great scene, culminating in Bancroft advising him to steer clear of Tenerife for his water-skiiing holiday. It’s absurd and ridiculous and brilliantly Pinteresque. Still a deeply disturbing narrative of men and women in what is indubitably a man’s world, equality a fairytale ending never to be. Directed by Jack Clayton. All she wants is to sit in a corner and give birth

 

Simon and Laura (1955)

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I have acted with octogenarians, dipsomaniacs, dope-fiends, amnesiacs, and veteran cars. When television producers select warring married actors Simon Foster (Peter Finch) and his wife Laura (Kay Kendall), to be the subjects of a live television series documenting a completely happy marriage, they appear to be the perfect choice by chirpy producer David Prentice (Ian Carmichael) but they’re only chosen because the Oliviers aren’t available. On camera, the couple is caring and supportive of each other in the daily one-hour long show. In reality their relationship is rocky but because the show is a hit, Simon and Laura try to keep up the facade until cracks start to surface and romantic complications with the production staff threaten to upset the publicity machine and finally they go off-script on live TV … Do you know what happens when you allow yourself to be regularly exhibited in that glass rectangle? As a response to the incoming threat of TV which was more than existential but factual with the introduction of a new independent channel in addition to BBC, this adaptation of Alan Melville’s stage play by Peter Blackmore elides the situation into a marital farce in which the battling opposites learn to live with one another. The running joke about scripted reality shows is surprisingly pertinent today. See that the script stresses the solidarity of the home. Even what once was called a public intellectual, in the shape of journalist and commentator Gilbert Harding, makes an appearance, describing the dangers inherent in appearing on television:  the  reflexive ironies proliferate.  I find the rapier thrust of Madam’s conversation highly stimulating! The inimitably elegant Kendall is perfectly cast and gets a few barbs that recall her real-life (as it were) career as well as having some opportunities for slapstick antics; while Muriel Pavlow is terrific as the show’s scriptwriter Janet Honeyman, in an engaging cast filled with familiar faces like Richard Wattis, Thora Hird and Alan Wheatley. Finch is good in his first leading role in a British film as the put-upon middle-aged hubby who thinks it’s all rather beneath him but he’s almost upstaged by the obnoxious know it all kid (Clive Parritt) playing his TV son. Television? You call that a wonderful job? Three weeks’ rehearsal, not enough money to cover your bus fares out to Lime Grove, technical breakdown in your one big scene, and no repeat performance? No, thank you. (The line about the Oliviers must have been a little odd for him to hear after his affair with Vivien Leigh). A terrific satirical premise that blends Taming of the Shrew with the growing pains of TV, played at a rate of knots. Great fun. Directed by Muriel Box with beautiful production design by Carmen Dillon and costumes by Julie Harris. We’ll mirror the lives of an ordinary, happily married husband and wife!

 

Widows (2018)

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The best thing we have going for us is being who we are… no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.  When Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew of criminals are engulfed in flames during a botched job in Chicago, Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself owing hustler-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a couple of million dollars. Armed only with a notebook in which Harry detailed his past and future plans, Veronica teams up with the gang’s other widows – Linda (Michelle Rodriquez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and single mom Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to mount a robbery her husband was planning that could clear their debt and give them a new start. Meanwhile, an increasingly brutal election battle featuring Irish-American career politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his father Tom (Robert Duvall) emphasises the social problems of Chicago, raising the stakes for this ramshackle group’s first foray into crime…  I’m the only thing standing between you and a bullet in the head. Steve McQueen won the Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave, a relentlessly gruesome account of black American history, an astonishing achievement for a British visual artist never mind a black director. His genre impetus has hardly been on anyone’s radar but he was a fan of Lynda La Plante’s feisty women from the 1983 British TV series (set in London) and brings a lot of artistry to this slick feminist outing concerning itself as much with issues of poverty, domestic abuse and childcare as the unlikeliness of a heist led by women trying to pay back their criminal husbands’ debts following the conflagration that killed the men in a botched heist.  The backdrop which exists in the narrative courtesy of Farrell’s role is given huge expressivity through Sean Bobbitt’s widescreen camerawork, the issues of money and race and class and the sewer of Chicago politicking right there for all to see but of course that deflects from the main story even as it serves to amplify a theme of difficult intergenerational relationships.  This detailed texture is an expansive approach in an established genre which usually has a narrow focus but if ultimately it doesn’t fully engage in the manner which you’d wish, it’s probably due to the underwhelming adaptation by McQueen and Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn which doesn’t give the principals a lot to work with – a shame in the case of Davis, who works at it and has some great scenes with Neeson. Debicki comes off best because she has a character who goes through real development and lots of emotions as the narrative progresses – from abuse by mother and husband, through sugar baby, to independence. Good, but should have been a lot better, especially with that twist 75 minutes in. Criminals and cops are the same. They never bring their shit home

One Fine Day (1996)

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Let’s do this right. Let me freshen up so I’ll feel a little more like a woman and less like a dead mommy.  Melanie Parker (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a divorced mom and architect who needs to give a very important presentation. Jack Taylor (George Clooney) is a divorced father and newspaper columnist looking to land a big scoop for his story about the mob. Both are single parents whose children, Sammy (Alex D. Linz) and Maggie (Mae Whitman), respectively, miss the bus for a field trip. They wind up left with their kids on  a hectic day. They decide to put aside their bickering and juggle baby-sitting duties, but the children don’t make it easy as they dislike each other and disappear while their parents’ identical mobile phones complicate the situation … This somewhat tiresome romcom spin on screwballs past is saved by two wonderful performances – Pfeiffer in particular makes this fun instead of the rather formulaic single-parent family downer comedy it is at is heart. The kids are good characters but the situations from Terrel Seltzer and Ellen Simon’s screenplay are pat and predictable although NYC gets a great showcase. Pfeiffer produced this so it was a conscious beefing up of her brand.  Clooney is quite impressive as the love interest but it was before he refined his look and skill and he doesn’t make the kind of impact you’d expect although they pair have undoubted chemistry. There are some bright spitballing exchanges: Men like you have made me the woman I am/All the women I know like you have made me think all women are like you. They’re delivered with relish and enliven a less than classic romcom. Directed by Michael Hoffman.

Legally Blonde (2001)

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Years before the feel-good musical! Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is the beyond blonde Californian sorority queen who just wants to settle down with her boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) after graduation from college and on the night she thinks he’s going to propose he dumps her  – for a brunette swot Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair) who’s going to Harvard Law with him.  Elle decides to follow him and crams for the Law School Admission Test – and winds up at Harvard too, pretty in pink with her beloved chihuahua in tow. She’s laughed out of class and takes refuge at a hair salon owned by Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) and gets real, hits the books and winds up being romanced by her tutor Luke Wilson and getting on the team to defend a wealthy widow who’s accused of murdering her much older husband. Very funny outing with the redoubtable Witherspoon giving a barnstorming performance in a smart satire with a big princess heart at its centre.  The concluding courtroom scene is a doozy. With a slew of nice supporting cast including Ali Larter, Oz Perkins, Victor Garber and Raquel Welch, this is nicely shot by Anthony B. Richmond, and directed by Robert Luketic from a screenplay by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, adapting Amanda Brown’s novel (the first in a series).

Steel Magnolias (1989)

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Robert Harling wrote a one-set play about the death of his sister but when he adapted it for the screen under the direction of Herbert Ross it was opened out, as they say, and from the beauty parlour to the hearth and the hospital we get involved in the lives of a cross-generational community of women. Shelby (Julia Roberts) is the diabetic daughter of M’Lynn (Sally Field) who’s been warned not to have children. Her collapse at the beauty shop run by Truvy (Dolly Parton) and assisted by new addition Annelle (Daryl Hannah) triggers the revelation to family frenemies Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine) and Clairee (Olympia Dukakis) and we catch up a couple of years after Shelby’s marriage when M’Lynn is donating her kidney to Shelby to avert kidney failure following childbirth … This sounds mawkish but it’s fast, sharp-witted and filled with so many funny lines it’s breathtaking. Parton, MacLaine and Dukakis get the lion’s share with the latter pair serving as (wicked) fairy godmothers but it turns on Sally Field’s fabulous performance as a mother going from despair to grief and back again in the most life-affirming way possible. Roberts is very good in what could be a thankless and difficult role, Field is paired here opposite Tom Skerrit and they would be reunited years later for the wonderful TV show Brothers and Sisters (please bring it back) and MacLaine was working once again with Ross  (The Turning Point – now that’s something I really want to see again too!) but really Field is the whole show. Dialogue to die for (and they do…)

Sisters (2015)

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Unresolved Sisterly Tension is a pretty good motif for any movie … then comes the thorny issue of plot. ‘How can one person have two colonoscopy stories?’ asks Tina Fey of sister Amy Poehler (I have three, but that’s for another kind of blog.) That’s what happens when you have a house party to commemorate the end of your life in the house where you grew up … twenty-five years later and you’re in your forties and you’ve lost your job (Tina), you’re divorced (Amy) and the folks (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) are finally downsizing to somewhere smaller in the Orlando area. So it’s time to clear out their rooms. Unfair! The ladies go back and read their vastly differing old diaries, get on ‘social’ media and call up their fellow loser buds to PARTY! Waster Tina agrees to be Sober Party Mom so busybody divorcee Amy can have the kind of night she couldn’t allow herself to have as the good sister and get laid by the handyman James selling his dead folks’ house next door. The moms and dads show up, the saddos show up, the Koreans show up, the drug dealers show up but it takes the Lesbians to play big choons for everyone to let loose and there’s foam and paint and chimney-climbing and sex … while James is impaled on a ballerina music box (see, that colonoscopy idea never goes far from writer Paula Pell’s references). The plot twist happens when drunken Tina (she succumbs) finds Amy’s phone and realises her daughter has been hiding in Amy’s house for months and the climax is catalysed …  There’s some astonishingly lazy writing here by Pell (who wrote for SNL) and some scenes just seem like improv central – yet we love these ladies don’t we?! Hell yeah!