The Tin Drum (1979)

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There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eat to much fish. There was once a credulous people… who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really… the gas man! There was once a toy merchant. His name was Sigismund Markus… and he sold tin drums lacquered red and white. There was once a drummer. His name was Oskar. There was once a toy merchant… whose name was Markus… and he took all the toys in the world away with him. Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is a very unusual boy born in Danzig in 1924, after the city has been separated from Germany following WW1. Refusing to leave the womb until promised a tin drum by his mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), Oskar is reluctant to enter a world he sees as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and vows on his third birthday to never grow up as he watches his mother take her cousin Jan for a lover and she becomes pregnant – but by who? Miraculously Oskar gets his wish when he throws himself down a staircase.  His talent for breaking glass when he screams garners him attention. As the Nazis rise to power in Danzig, Oskar wills himself to remain a child, beating his tin drum incessantly and screaming in protest at the chaos surrounding him as his mother dies, his father takes a new wife who has a baby Oskar is convinced he has fathered and Hitler takes over while Oskar decides to join a travelling circus and entertain the Nazi troops in Paris … Günter Grass’ stunning 1959 novel was adapted by Volker Schlöndorff (and Jean-Claude Carriére and Frank Seitz Jr.) and he became the first German director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this transgressive, arresting and surreal impression of Nazism and the breakup of Europe. It’s mesmerising, brilliantly conceived and performed – Bennent is one of a kind – and once seen can never be forgotten. It is the blackest of comedies about the darkness in Germany and the way in which Polish people handled the transition to Nazism. The coda in real life – that Grass was found to have been in the Waffen-SS as a teenager after a lifetime of denial –  somehow just gives this greater heft. Amazing.

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Personal Shopper (2016)

 

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So we made this oath… Whoever died first would send the other a sign. A young American in Paris Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) works as a personal shopper for a celebrity, Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). She seems to have the ability to communicate with spirits, like her recently deceased twin brother Lewis. They share a congenital heart defect. She hangs around Paris near the villa where he lived hoping to receive a sign from him from the other side – he was a spiritualist. She indulges her interest in art by pursuing knowledge about a previously unknown Swedish female abstract artist.  She proclaims her distaste for her job to her boyfriend with whom she communicates via Skype in Muscat but is clearly tempted by its benefits. Soon, she starts to receive ambiguous text messages from an unknown source… Stewart always seemed to me to be pretty one-dimensional in her American films with a limited capacity to convey joy. But the issues of her expressivity are perfectly exploited by French auteur Olivier Assayas in their second collaboration even as he maintains a distance within a genre-touching exercise where emotion and excess are mostly avoided (imagine if Argento had made this!).  There is a great mood of sadness and mystery when it gets going (and it takes a while) and if Stewart isn’t this generation’s Jean Seberg she is evolving into a determinedly individualistic performer.  The enigmatic narrative has a fragility that occasionally bursts with the threat of violence real and imagined. Oddly compelling and stylish and proof that there is great potential for this American in Paris.

Saddle the Wind (1958)

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I know all about the brother and the sickness inside him. He didn’t get that from Steve, he was born with it.  Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor) is a former gunfighter and soldier who left his violent ways behind him after the Civil War. Since then, he has settled down as a rancher and lives peacefully in a small Western town where he collaborates with Dennis Deneen (Donald Crisp) to maintain order after the man gives him land. His easygoing life is turned upside down when his unstable younger brother Tony (John Cassavetes), shows up with his bride-to-be, Joan (Julie London) and a filed-down sixgun. While Steve has given up his gun-toting ways, Tony has not, and his violent tendencies lead to trouble for the entire town when Steve’s old rival Larry Venables (Charles McGraw) shows up to settle a grudge and a new landowner Clay (Royal Dano) plans to fence off some land … Directed by Robert Parrish from a Rod Serling screenplay (his first, from a story by Tommy Thompson), this was one of two westerns Taylor shot that year (the other is The Law and Jake Wade). This is an arresting picture of family values under threat with a sense of the mature western psychology playing out beneath an ostensibly typical plot. Cassavetes looks nuts as usual doing his no-good Fifties rebel thang and Taylor is a wonderful counterpart:  they are total acting opposites and Cassavetes caused major problems on set with his Acting and mumbling.  Ordinary people try to get on with living and conformism is rife – on and offscreen, apparently. Serling would later claim he gave better dialogue to the horses but there are some good scenes. London sings the title song (by Livingston and Evans), with a score by Elmer Bernstein.

Return of the Gunfighter (1967) (TVM)

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The odds were 6 to 1 against him! Ben Wyatt (Robert Taylor) is an ageing gunfighter who has grown weary of his lifestyle and is looking for a quiet time after being released from a five-year prison sentence. But when an old friend, Luis Domingo (Rodolfo Hoyos Jr.), asks for help defending his land, Ben can’t say no. Unfortunately, he arrives too late, finding Luis and his entire family except daughter Anisa (Ana Martín) murdered. Ben is determined to get revenge against the killers, and in pursuing them reluctantly enlists  a younger wounded gunfighter, Lee Sutton (Chad Everett). Anisa is recognised in Lordsburg  by the killers – even while wearing men’s clothes – and Ben needs to step up to save her from the men who destroyed her family but they turn out to be Sutton’s brothers … With a screenplay by Burt Kennedy and Robert Buckner this has pretty impeccable credentials. There’s a clarity (even simplicity) about the gunslingers versus hombres setup that is reflected in the glossy cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks on location in Arizona. However Taylor’s star was on the wane and it serves as a footnote to his long career, released on ABC TV with cinema distribution only outside the US. It’s interesting as an introduction to Butch Cassidy (John Crawford) and the Sundance Kid (John Davis Chandler) but there are no real surprises although it’s nice to observe the byplay between Taylor and Everett as the older man confronts his mortality.  It took me a while to even recognise him:  this is the ageing process in living colour but he would die of lung cancer within two years of filming. This was his final western and third last film and he gives a fascinating performance.  He hosted the TV anthology series Death Valley Days from 1966-69.  Directed by James Neilson.

Track of the Cat (1954)

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Got to keep drunk to forget I’m married to a clothes pin.  It’s the 1890s. In a snowbound homestead in Arizona, the Bridges family lives in contentious squalor. Brothers Curt (Robert Mitchum) and Harold (Tab Hunter) fight over the attentions of their beautiful neighbor, Gwen (Diana Lynn), while the boys’ boozing father (Philip Tonge) suffers under the abuse of their religiously minded mother (Beulah Bondi) who keeps spinster daughter Grace (Teresa Wright) under wraps. The family dysfunction only intensifies when a panther kills Curt’s timid brother, Arthur (William Hopper), and Curt sets out to slay the animal… There are traces of film noir leaving their track across this western, with its heightened stylised drama, vicious male-female antagonism and intense visuals, all complemented by contrasting performing styles. A.I. Bezzerides adapted Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel.  It’s directed by William Wellman, whose pet project this was, wanting to make a black and white film in colour and choosing some extremely interesting setups in collaboration with cinematographer William Clothier. It’s good to see Wright and Mitchum years after Pursued. Because it was produced by John Wayne’s company and didn’t do especially well it was taken out of distribution and remained unseen for many years due to his son’s refusal to have it put on DVD. Since his death his widow has made sure some previously lost films are now available. This is one of them.

Maudie (2016)

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Show me how you see the world. The story of Maud Lewis née Dowley, a folk artist from Nova Scotia. She (Sally Hawkins) is an arthritic woman living with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) in the 1930s. Maud is shocked to learn that her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) has sold their family home, which their parents had left to him. In the meantime, she is berated by Ida about going out to a local dance. At a store, Maud sees the inarticulate and rough fish peddler Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) place an advertisement for a cleaning lady. Maud answers the call and takes the position for room and board. Everett’s house is very small, and the two share a bed, causing scandal in the town, with gossip that Maud is offering sexual services. While attempting to clean the shack, Maud paints a shelf. She then begins painting flowers and birds on the walls to make it look better. She meets one of Everett’s customers, Sandra (Kari Matchett) from New York City, who is intrigued by Maud’s paintings and buys cards Maud has decorated. She later commissions Maud to make a larger painting for five dollars. Maud persuades Everett to marry her, while her paintings receive more exposure in print coverage and sales begin at the house. US VP Richard Nixon contacts the Lewises to obtain one. After the couple appears on TV news, Everett becomes disturbed that local viewers see him as cold and cruel. Ida, increasingly ill, also saw the coverage, and Maud wishes to see her before Ida dies. Ida tells Maud that she is the only Dowley who ever found happiness, and confesses Maud’s baby girl did not die deformed. Charles had sold her to an old couple.  Everett becomes convinced the relationship has brought nothing but emotional anguish to both of them. The two separate… It starts rather unpromisingly, this story of a strange, somewhat retarded woman whose existence has proven difficult for her aunt – the reference to ‘what happened last time’ after Maudie sneaks out to a dance hall and drinks is an illegitimate baby a late revelation which triggers the emotive last third, in which her difficult and occasionally violent husband seems to finally reconcile himself with his lot and brings Maudie to see her adopted daughter, now married and living in a pretty whiteboard house. The final scene in the hospital is diffident, as is much of the film, which cries out for a more in-depth treatment of this problem life and naive art. Stick with it even if Hawkins drives you potty. Shot in Newfoundland, for some reason. Written by Sherry Wright and directed by Aisling Walsh.

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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The truth does not make it easier to understand, you know. I mean, you think that you find out the truth about me, and then you’ll understand me. And then you would forgive me for all those… for all my lies. Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young writer, moves to Brooklyn (or The Sodom of the North as his father calls it) in the hot summer of 1947 to begin work on his first novel. As he becomes friendly with his upstairs neighbour Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her biologist lover Nathan (Kevin Kline), a Jew, he learns that Sophie is a Holocaust survivor. Flashbacks reveal her harrowing story, from pre-war prosperity to Auschwitz. In the present, Sophie and Nathan’s relationship increasingly unravels as Stingo grows closer to Sophie and Nathan’s fragile mental state becomes ever more apparent just as Sophie’s past haunts her … Alan J. Pakula abandoned his customary 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller style to adapt William Styron’s novel – and yet one wonders if the Nazi takeover and atrocities aren’t the perfect subject for such an approach? As it is this too-faithful work exercises a Gothic hold despite the dayglo colours of Nestor Alemendros’ cinematography.  Death is in the narrative cracks. MacNicol is strange enough to withstand the attention as the rather naif narrator, Kline epitomises the term kinetic in a tremendously physical interpretation of the disturbed Nathan as he literally envelops Streep, whose luminous moony pallor dominates every scene. The structure – revealing the tragic titular decision – is painstaking but it somehow works against the dramatic tension in a film that is too long and paradoxically fears taking a risk. It’s Streep who makes this work in a jaw-dropping performance which created her legend.

Captain Fantastic (2016)

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I’m writing down everything you say – in my mind. Disillusioned anti-capitalist intellectual Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his absent wife Leslie (she’s in a psychiatric facility) and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society,  their kids are being educated them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie commits suicide, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time to attend her funeral in New Mexico where her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) fear for what is happening to their grandchildren and Ben is forced to confront the fact that the survivalist politics he has imbued in his offspring may not prepare them for real life… This starts with the killing of an animal in a ritual you might find in the less enlightened tribes. (Why did killing a deer become a thing a year ago?) Ben is teaching his eldest son Bodevan (George McKay) to be a man. But this is a twenty-first century tribe who are doing their own atavistic thing – just not in the name of Jesus (and there’s a funny scene in which they alienate a policeman by pretending to do just that) but that of Noam Chomsky. “I’ve never even heard of him!” protests their worried grandfather. Hearing the words “Stick it to the man!” coming out of a five year old is pretty funny in this alt-socialist community but the younger son in the family Rellian (Nicholas Rellian) believes Ben is crazy and has caused Leslie’s death and wants out.  Ironically and as Ben explains at an excruciating dinner with the brother in law (Steve Zahn) it was having children that caused her post-partum psychosis from which this brilliant lawyer never recovered. This stressor between father and younger son drives much of the conflict – that and Leslie’s Buddhist beliefs which are written in her Will and direct the family to have her cremated even though her parents inter her in a cemetery which the kids call a golf course. And Bodevan conceals the fact that he and Mom have been plotting his escape to one of the half dozen Ivy League colleges to which he’s been accepted. The irony that Ben is protecting his highly politicised kids from reality by having them celebrate Chomsky’s birthday when they don’t even know what a pair of Nikes are and have never heard of Star Trek is smart writing. Everything comes asunder when there are accidents as a result of the dangers to which he exposes them. This is a funny and moving portrait of life off the grid, with Mortensen giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as the man constantly at odds with the quotidian whilst simultaneously being a pretty great dad. McKay is terrific as the elder son who’s utterly unprepared for a romantic encounter in a trailer park. It really is tough to find your bliss. As delightful as it is unexpected, this is a lovely character study. Written and directed by Matt Ross.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

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My head’s been shrunk! Oh the horror! The horror! Anthropologist Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) believes that the men of his family have been cursed for generations by the native South American tribe he studies. Shortly after his brother, Kenneth (Paul Cavanagh), discovers one of the tribe’s shrunken heads in his house, he’s found murdered and his head goes missing. In pursuit of the tribesman Zutai (Paul Wexler) and a rival scientist (Henry Daniell) who has become a part of the tribe, Drake attempts to end the curse once and for all…  With career best performances by Franz and Daniell, this is a tremendously atmospheric exercise in genre which belies its impoverished production values. Charles Gemora created award-winning shrunken heads in addition to his duties as make-up artist in this parable concerning race relations and the impact of white men on the New World. Written by Orville H. Hampton and directed by the underrated and enigmatic yet prolific B director Edward L. Cahn, this rivals his early collaborations with screenwriter Tom Reed and may well be the best film ever made.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess. Like you said, Captain, maybe we do that, we all earn the right to go home.  Following the Normandy landings of June 1944 Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) takes his men of the 2nd Ranger battalion behind enemy lines to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) a paratrooper whose three brothers have been killed in combat. Surrounded by the brutal realities of war, while searching for Ryan each man embarks upon a personal journey and discovers their own strength to triumph over an uncertain future with honor, decency and courage… Robert Rodat’s men on a mission script has the classic features of the WW2 combat movie – a selection of guys or types from all walks of life with their own business and point of view and declamatory lines. But the first thirty minutes constitute probably the best fighting scene ever put on film:  a literally visceral evocation of the beach landings with things you’ll wonder any man could have survived.  There are images that are seared on the brain. It’s a wholly immersive set up and utterly shocking, as real as you’ll ever want a war to be.  Then the film cannily shifts in tone, content and performance from sequence to sequence ranging from the subtle to the spectacular both in terms of visuals and narrative as the story hook about the military’s single survivor policy kicks in and has its ripple effect on this battalion of soldiers reluctantly tramping across France who seem like a proper cross-section of society:  Tom Sizemore, Ed Burns, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel.  Spielberg said he wanted the kind of faces he saw in WW2 newsreels … and they work out their individual and collective issues under sniper fire and figure out what matters and try to keep going. The film has been lauded for its accuracy but some don’t like the dramatic coda.  That doesn’t matter. Hanks is brilliant as the heart and soul of the outfit. When he is on the verge of hysteria at the enveloping chaos and confusion we are on the edge of our seats, with him. The horrors of war are never hidden from the audience.  We get different perspectives – religious, personal, intellectual, about the rights and wrongs of bloody and vengeful action. It’s been a day of historical and war movies for me but I started out with Spielberg’s latest (Ready Player One) and I’ve concluded with this, one of the best WW2 films of them all, a stunning and perfectly judged achievement on every level because he is a director who can tell more in one frame than some directors can in entire scenes. Astonishing. MM#1700