Carmen Jones (1954)

Carmen Jones

Boy, if the army was made up of nothin’ but soldiers like you, war wouldn’t do nobody no good.  During WWII parachute factory worker Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge) is romanced by a stalwart GI named Joe (Harry Belafonte) who is about to go to flying school. Conflict arises when a boxing champ captures Carmen’s heart after she has seduced Joe and caused him to go AWOL. Carmen remains a flamboyant flirt and Joe is pursued by the Military Police and the romantic duo have a final terrible fight … Bizet’s stunning and tragic, earthy opera gets an update and a racial twist in this striking, zesty adaptation by Oscar Hammerstein II. The performers are dubbed but that doesn’t detract from the incredibly raunchy Dandridge (vocals by Marilyn Horne) who was being manipulated by director Otto Preminger at the time:  she simply steams up the screen with Belafonte hopelessly in her grip – until she is in his. Pearl Bailey is also dazzling in the role of Frankie. But this is all about Dandridge and she is astonishing. Daring and wonderful.

Advertisements

There Is Another Sun (1951)

LG There is Another Sun.jpg

Aka Wall of Death. Lillian, a stranded chorus-girl (Susan Shaw) meets reckless motorcycle stunt rider ‘Racer’ (Maxwell Reed) and promising young boxer Maguire (Laurence Harvey) and joins up with them at a travelling funfair. Maguire looks to Racer as a kind of daredevil mentor and as Lillian comes between them they put aside their rivalry to steal from their boss …  Lewis Gilbert directed from a screenplay by Guy Morgan and it admirably sustains an atmosphere of seediness and danger that we have come to expect from carny films like Nightmare Alley. Harvey and Reed don’t offer their best performances but they are indicative of nascent British film acting at the time and such a physical contrast – Harvey with his pulchritudinous blond brow and Reed with a kind of saturnine viciousness – that their relationship is the story’s anchor psychologically and performance-wise. Shaw makes nice as the decent girl and Harvey’s offscreen love interest Hermione Baddeley does a good turn as a fortune teller. You don’t need her to tell you that with that Wall of Death things won’t end well.

The House (2017)

 

The House 2017.png

One of us has to be the adult here. Scott Johansen (Will Ferrell) and his wife Kate (Amy Poehler) must figure out a way to earn some money after their daughter’s (Ryan Simpkins) scholarship falls through unaware that the local councillor (Nick Kroll) has squandered it on his unwilling office mistress. When all else fails, the desperate couple join forces with their neighbor Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) to start an underground casino in his home. He’s miserable since his wife Raina (Michaela Watkins) issued divorce proceedings due to his gambling and porn addiction. As the cash rolls in and the good times fly, Scott and Kate soon learn that they may have bitten off more than they can chew and the casino attracts the attention of the locals who are concerned nobody turns up at the Town Hall meetings any more …  This starts out as (potentially) a social satire and swiftly mutates into an execrable waste of time in such inconsequentially lazy plotting, production and performance you will wonder that anyone even remembered to record it. Its sole merit is the opportunity to see some truly horrible things done to Jeremy Renner. Someone however decided to release it. A disgraceful defecation upon the public. Un film de Andrew Jay Cohen, may he die in agony.

I, Tonya (2017)

I Tonya.png

There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants! In 1991, talented figure skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) becomes the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. We first see her as a three year old in 1970s Portland Oregon where her monstrous multiply-married mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) insists that she be mentored by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) at the local rink.  In 1994, her world comes crashing down when her violent ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) conspires with her moronic and delusional bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to injure Harding’s friend  and fellow Olympic hopeful and biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in a poorly conceived attack that forces the young woman to withdraw from the national championship. Harding’s life and legacy instantly become tarnished as she’s forever associated with one of the most infamous scandals in sports history…  When producer and star Robbie read Steven Rogers’s pitch black comedy she didn’t realise it was based on a true story (sort of). Her determination to bring this radical post-modern interpretation of one of the most notorious sporting crimes in the last quarter of a century to the big screen is testament to both her good taste and her chutzpah – this after all is her first starring role and she produced the film. She gives a powerhouse performance in a difficult role, delineating Harding’s evolution from white trash teen to triple axel-crushing rink monster routinely routed by snobby judges who want someone more ‘family’-friendly as their poster child and create the conditions for unconscious revenge against the powers that be. You were as graceless as a bull dyke. It was embarrassing! Janney’s performance has won all the awards (never forget she was everyone’s fave woman in the world in The West Wing) however she plays this crushing creature for a couple too many laughs.  It’s Robbie who has the tough job here – convincing us in this self-reflexive narrative that she really did deserve plaudits and not the horrifying level of domestic abuse which she came to expect after being reared by a veritable dragon in human form. Having each of the characters variously interviewed and breaking the fourth wall occasionally to ask why their contribution isn’t being featured at different points in the story reminds you that there are competing testimonies here.  The end credits, complete with real-life cringe-inducing footage of the ghastly individuals (this is really a documentary!) interspersed with Harding’s uplifting, magical performances makes you wonder how the poor girl ever survived the rank and file awfulness of her dreary Pacific north-west background. The interview with Hard Copy journalist Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) and the juxtaposition with the breaking news of OJ Simpson as the drama concludes in 1994 reinforces the underlying story of newsmaking in the 90s and how these two stories changed TV journalism forever. Brilliantly constructed and performed and well executed by Craig Gillespie. 6.0! Go Tonya!

Sgt. Bilko (1996)

Sgt_bilko_poster

Can’t is a four-letter word in this platoon! Sergeant Bilko (Steve Martin) is in charge of the motor pool at his Kansas base but more importantly he oversees his base’s gambling operations and occasionally runs a little con game, all under the oblivious nose of his commanding officer, Colonel Hall (Dan Aykroyd). After Bilko’s old nemesis, Major Thorn (Phil Hartman), shows up, intent on ruining his career and stealing his girlfriend, Rita (Glenne Headly), Bilko must take extra care to cover his tracks while concocting the perfect scheme to take down his foe… I have been avoiding this since it came out (a long time ago) because I grew up watching the Phil Silvers show on re-runs practically every night. I even gifted myself a box set of the series a short while back.  However I’m glad to report that far from the grimfest I half-expected it’s a very likeable physical comedy with some great setpieces perfectly cued to showcase Martin’s adeptness at farce. The material and scenarios are somewhat updated to accommodate modern mores – which provide some fun during a dorm check – and Hartman gets a wonderful opportunity to exact revenge for a laugh out loud prank which we see in flashback:  the best boxing match ever on film with both participants taking a dive! And then Bilko gets his turn when all the chips are down and the guys line up to help him out. It’ll never erase the great TV show but there are compensations – Headly as the woman forever scorned (until she bests him) and the chance to see a soft side of Aykroyd who allows all the chicanery to take place without ever expressing a cruel word. And Austin Pendleton shows Bilko how to play poker! There’s even Chris Rock and Phil Silvers’ daughter Cathy who come to audit the base and cannot catch Bilko for love or money. It’s like watching a magician!  she declares. Very funny indeed. Andy Breckman adapted Nat Hiken’s show and it’s directed by Jonathan Lynn.

Any Which Way You Can (1980)

Any Which Way You Can theatrical.jpg

You’re fast and you like pain. You eat it like candy. I’ve seen a few cases like that in my time. The more they get hurt, the more dangerous they become. But you got to be durable, too. Real durable. Most ain’t.  Trucker turned underground bare-knuckle prize fighter Philo Beddoe (Clint Eastwood) is about to retire but he is asked by the Mafia to fight East Coast champion Jack Wilson (cult baddie William Smith), who has been crippling opponents in his victories. To get Philo to agree to fight, the Mafia kidnaps his old love, Lynn Halsey-Taylor (Sondra Locke). When Jack finds out, he agrees to help Philo rescue Lynn. Afterward, Philo and Jack decide to fight anyway to settle who is the better brawler… This mix of fighters and singers and mobsters and mothers and monkeys (Clyde the orangutan is back) proves that for Warner Brothers in the Eighties, Eastwood was the moneymaker who could do anything he wanted howsoever he chose. With Ruth Gordon as his mom, Geoffrey Lewis as his brother and a bunch of bikers back from their previous road trip, this either hits your funny bone or it doesn’t. The terrific country songs don’t hurt and Glen Campbell even performs some of them in the best bar ever. Written by Stanford Sherman developing the characters from Every Which Way But Loose by Jeffrey Joe Kronsberg and directed by Buddy Van Horn who used to choreograph Clint’s stunts. And that’s not a euphemism.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

 

Millers Crossing.jpg

There’s nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is the hardman and advisor to Irish American gangster Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who’s at war with Italian Mafia boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) at the height of Prohibition. When crooked bookie Bernie (John Turturro) the brother of Leo’s mistress and Tom’s lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) is threatened by Caspar, the dark-hearted and brainy Reagan is found out by Leo and appears to switch sides in an escalating rivalry over liquor distribution that has a huge body count… It’s hard to pick out a single sequence of brilliance in this positively baroque outing but today I’m choosing the attempt on Leo’s life to the sounds of Frank Patterson warbling Danny Boy: what a stunning declaration of visual bravura (kudos to DoP Barry Sonnenfeld). Brutal, witty, dazzling, beautiful, postmodern and classic, this is a masterpiece. The dialogue is straight out of old gangster movies (and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key) and coming out of Byrne’s accented mouth sounds hilarious:  you gasp at some of the lines, they’re so stunningly written. The narrative is constructed on well known gangster tropes and turns them inside out in a film that acts as a commentary on the genre – Tom’s asides with the Irish policemen are an excruciating Greek chorus! – as well as exulting in its excesses, its ghastly violence, its humour, its morality, its sheer decadence. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen and directed by the former, this is one of the modern greats that engages the brain, the heart and the mind with Reagan’s psychology supplying Byrne with a career-defining role. Astounding.

A Kid for Two Farthings (1955)

A Kid for Two Farthings large theatrical

A warm, atmospheric portrait of the Jewish community in Petticoat Lane, Wolf Mankowitz adapted his own novel to be directed by that supremely empathetic man, Carol Reed, whose own pictures of childhood would reach a kind of apogee with Oliver! Jonathan Ashmore is little Joe, whose mother Celia Johnson is left alone while her husband works in South Africa and their tailor landlord David Kossoff’s stories entertain but also soothe Joe when one after another his pets die. Joe believes in unicorns so when he finds a one-horned kid goat he thinks fairytales come true and his story is intertwined with that of the startlingly sweet Diana Dors, in love with her boxer boyfriend Joe Robinson, who like most of his ilk, is mixed up with lowlifes who want him involved in match-fixing. Joe now thinks if things happen there’s a 50/50 chance it’s because he’s wished for them on his unicorn:  he’s got a point …This piquant comedy drama has excited some critics about its portrait of Anglo-Jewry but let’s face it nowadays that goat would be a kebab. A wonderful, vibrant film with a great cast including Sydney Tafler, Sid James, Brenda de Banzie, Lou Jacobi, Joseph Tomelty and Irene Handl, this makes you feel like you’re right in the middle of everything. It features young Ashmore’s only film performance – he grew up to be Bernard Katz Professor of Biophysics at University College London:  what a shlemiel!!

True Deception (2016)

true-deception-movie-poster

Aka The Adderall Diaries. Written and directed by Pamela Romanowsky this James Franco-starrer (he also produced) is an adaptation of a misery memoir by ‘orphaned’ writer Stephen Elliott whose inconveniently live father shows up to wreck his reputation and publishing deals. At the same time he becomes obsessed with a murder case involving millionaire Hans Reisner (Christian Slater) who’s accused of killing his wife;  and sexually involved with a journalist (Amber Heard) who’s had a bad childhood herself. Much of the story is compressed into conflicting montages and competing flashbacks squeezed into a relatively short running time of 83 minutes so it’s hard to reconcile the somewhat wasted star power with the narrative. The mirroring idea of the villainous murdering father on trial is a rather obvious metaphor, real or not, and the writer’s block being solved by a true crime is verbally compared with Capote and Mailer. But the writing process remains mysterious and the scenes with Slater are fairly perfunctory. Cynthia Nixon shows up as one of the few drug-free actors in this narcissist’s psychodrama. One wonders why Franco was drawn to playing this role following True Story (2015). However the main interest here and maybe for him is seeing two very pretty people in an S&M relationship with some scenes rather reminiscent of Madonna’s great embarrassment, Body of Evidence. Memories are made of this. Sigh.

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

It Always Rains on Sunday poster.jpg

British cinema is always in crisis yet has boasted its share of indisputably great filmmakers and Robert Hamer was one of them, even if nobody particularly noticed at the time. He had contributed The Haunted Mirror sequence to portmanteau horror Dead of Night a couple of years earlier and was adept at any number of genres. This Ealing production was not in the comedy idiom so beloved of moviegoers but rather belongs in the realm of poetic realism that started in France in the Thirties; we might instead call it film noir. Adapted from the novel by Arthur La Bern, by Angus MacPhail, Henry Cornelius and the director, the mainly Yiddish world of Bethnal Green carries on as  one of its inhabitants, married Rosie Sandigate  (Googie Withers), hides her ex-lover Tommy Swann (John McCallum) who’s escaped from Dartmoor and taken refuge in the familiy’s air raid shelter. She then conceals him in the bedroom she shares with her staid older husband (Edward Chapman). It’s Sunday morning and Tommy wants to have it away with her while she tries to carry on the masquerade of housework, laundry, preparing lunch and getting her feckless adult stepdaughters out of the way. Meanwhile the police (Jack Warner, who else?) and a newspaper reporter are on Tommy’s trail and it concludes in achingly existential fashion … Enormously evocative portrayal of a certain era adorned with an intensely felt performance of stridency and eroticism by the fabulous Withers (dontcha LOVE that name) who had met and married McCallum after they appeared in The Loves of Joanna Godden. It’s shot with gleaming precision by Douglas Slocombe while Georges Auric contributes an endearingly melodramatic incidental score for an atmospheric outing in which the radio plays such an elemental role in punctuating the drama. The ensemble has such familiar faces as Alfie Bass, Sydney Tafler, Hermione Baddeley, Jimmy Hanley and Sid James (as the leader of a dance band). Hamer would go on to make one of my favourite British films, Kind Hearts and Coronets but this is a marvellous reminder of the post-war era, the meaning of ‘a couple of anvils’ and how to feel when that dangerous wideboy resurfaces in your humdrum life.