True Confessions (1981)

Looks like a leprechaun, thinks like an Arab. Los Angeles 1948. Detective Sergeant Tom Spellacy (Robert Duvall) probes into the savage murder of a young woman named Lois Fazenda found dumped in an empty lot. At the same time, he investigates a priest found dead in a whorehouse. Spellacy’s brother Monsignor Des (Robert De Niro), a Catholic priest, is meanwhile attempting to expand his church through businessman Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning), a shady contractor whose favours he seeks at the behest of Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack). While the two police cases and the real estate deal seem a world apart, Spellacy discovers an insidious connection involving money and power and the path always seems to lead back to the Church … We need more young pastors. Men who’ll do what they’re told. Adapted by John Gregory Dunne from his own novel with a draft by his wife Joan Didion, this utilises the Thirties Hollywood dyad of policeman/priest to prise apart the moral and actual violence that characterised Los Angeles in the years immediately following World War 2. That they’re brothers adds to the frisson of recognition that we’re back in the world of Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien and James Cagney. And the brothers are low-key individuals, with both Roberts turning in finely crafted, understated performances, irony writ large in who’s the more corrupt. This is studded with good performances, with Burgess Meredith very effective in the role of the priest who’s sacked for his incorruptibility. If the plot isn’t particularly well managed (with a lot of explanatory strands dropped from the source novel), it’s atmospheric and beautifully shot by the great Owen Roizman – the blood looks like blood, whether fresh, dried or caked on corpses and it ain’t pretty. Taking inspiration from the notorious real-life Black Dahlia murder it’s another gaze at the flipside of fame with the young victim a wannabe actress turned prostitute encountering the brutal sleaze that’s a world away from onscreen cinematic glory (supposedly). Scored by the great Georges Delerue who riffs on Carrickfergus to emphasise the Irish aspect of Catholicism, this is always a work of referentiality: the wedding scene at the Amsterdam estate nods to The Godfather; the mortuary scenes remind us of Chinatown, that other neo-noir; but it’s neither as deep nor as wide, it ploughs its own particular furrow about religion, depravity, loneliness and death. Directed by Ulu Grosbard whose wife Brenda Samuels plays the touching figure of Rose Gregorio. You’re my confessor in here but you wheel and deal out there, is that it?

The End of the Affair (1955)

The End of the Affair 1955

Trust is a variable quality. London during World War 2. Novelist Maurice Bendrix (Van Johnson) meets Sarah Miles (Deborah Kerr) the wife of civil servant Henry Miles (Peter Cushing) at their sherry party. He is asking Henry for information to help with his next book. Maurice is intrigued by Sarah after he sees her kissing another man. They become lovers that night at his hotel. After his rooms are bombed when they are together there, she ends their relationship and he suffers from the delayed shock from the bombing and from her ending the affair. After their break-up and the end of the war, Bendrix encounters Henry, who invites him for a drink at his home, especially since Sarah is out.  Henry confides that he suspects Sarah is unfaithful and has looked into engaging a private investigator, but then decides against it. Sarah returns home before Bendrix leaves and is curt with him. Bendrix follows through with hiring a private detective agency on his own account. They come across information which suggests that Sarah is being unfaithful, which Bendrix shares with Henry in revenge. Bendrix then obtains Sarah’s diary via the private investigator Albert Parkis (John Mills) which reveals that Sarah is not having an affair and that she promised God to give Bendrix up if he was spared death in the bombing. Then they meet again … I’ve learned that you must pray like you make love – with everything you have. A deeply felt narrative revolving around love, sex and religious belief sounds like a melodramatic quagmire but Lenore Coffee’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1951 semi-autobiographical novel is a rich textured work with impressive performances by the entire cast. Kerr and Johnson might be perceived to be something of a mismatch but that’s the point of the story:  he is fated to forever misunderstand her and as he tries to navigate his way through her complex emotions and her deals with God, he responds with just one emotion – jealousy. His unruly misunderstanding in a world of good manners and looking the other way means he flails hopelessly while we are then persuaded of her beliefs via her diary, the contents of which dominate the film’s second half, leading him to regret his desire for revenge. Love doesn’t end just because we don’t see each other. The ensemble is well presented and their individual big moments are sketches of superb characterisation, Mills’ pride in his snooping a particular highlight. It’s extraordinarily well done, very touching and filled with moments of truth which never fail to hit home in a story that is cunningly managed and beautifully tempered with empathy. Kerr is simply great. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. The ‘not done’ things are done every day. I’ve done most of them myself

Europa (1991)

Europa theatrical

Aka Zentropa. I thought the war was over. Just after World War II Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American of German descent takes a job on the Zentropa train line in US-occupied Germany to help the country rebuild. He becomes a sleeping-car conductor under the tutelage of his drunken uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård). He falls under the spell of the mysterious Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa) daughter of Zentropa railway magnate Max (Jørgen Reenberg) whose friendship with US Colonel Harris (Eddie Constantine) has raised hackles. Her gay brother Lawrence (Udo Kier) is the family embarrassment because like Leopold he didn’t serve his country. Leopold inadvertently becomes embroiled with a pro-Nazi fascist organisation known as the Werewolves who are conspiring to overthrow the state. Simultaneously being used by the US Army, Leopold finds neutrality an impossible position … I understand unemployment in Germany a lot better now. It costs too much to work here. Danish auteur Lars von Trier made this great train thriller long before he became a trying controversialist down the Dogma 95 rabbit hole. It plugs into that febrile post-war atmosphere which we already know from films of the late 40s like Berlin Express as well as sensational character-driven pre-war comedy thrillers like The Lady Vanishes. It’s the final part of the director’s first trilogy (following The Element of Crime and The Epidemic) and it gained a lot of kudos upon release, particularly for its visual style, principally shot in black and white with rear projections in colour (photographed by Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski and Jean-Paul Meurisse) lending an eerie aspect to what is already an innovative production, shifting tone as surely as it shifts pigments. The hypnotic (literally) narration by Max von Sydow lulls you into submission like the mesmerising shuffle of the carriages along the tracks; while the charm of the leading man on his journey which is physical, emotional and political, all at once, carries you through a sensitive yet experimental scenario.The miraculous editing achievement is by Hervé Schneid. It feels like a new kind of film is being born, reformulating the grammar of the language with its surrealist nods and noir references. A cult item from the casting of Kier and Constantine alone, with Sukowa’s role harking back to her Fassbinder films, this is a classic of modern European cinema. Written by von Trier (who appears as a Jew) & Niels Vørsel with a shooting script by von Trier & Tómas Gislason. You have carried out your orders. Now relax

 

 

Sister Act (1992)

Sister Act

That is a conspicuous person designed to stick out. A naughty young Catholic school girl grows up to become Las Vegas lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg) who witnesses her no-good married mobster boyfriend Vince LaRocca (Harvey Keitel) murder his limo driver, she’s next on the hit list. Police detective Eddie Souther (     ) puts her in witness protection – in a San Francisco convent headed up by Reverend Mother (Maggie Smith) and it’s dislike at first sight. Now Deloris is presented as Sister Mary Clarence and she befriends the cloistered sisters especially outgoing Sister Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy) and shy Sister Mary Robert  (Wendy Makkena) and takes over the choir giving them a gospel and rock ‘n’ roll makeover. But their social activities in the run-down neighbourhood attract TV attention and a corrupt cop in Vegas gives Vince a lead on Deloris’ whereabouts just as the Pope announces his visit  … I can’t be torn away from My God. Written by Joseph Howard aka Paul Rudnick, who blessed us throughout the Nineties with his scabrous witterings in the pages of Premiere (RIP) as Libby Gelman-Waxner, however it was written with Bette Midler in mind and she turned it down. When Goldberg took the part it had rewrites by Carrie Fisher, Robert Harling and Nancy Meyers – hence Rudnick’s request to be credited under a pseudonym. The result is a fairly fast-moving, feel-good, funny and uplifting story with genuinely sharp lines, many delivered by veteran Mary Wickes as Sister Mary Lazarus. Goldberg as as good as she always is and her charisma shines through the wimpole in this fish out of water story, if you ask me. Music by Marc Shaiman and there are more Sixties hits than you can shake a stick at, leading to a sequel and to its adaptation success on Broadway. Directed by Emile Ardolino.  I have two words for you Vince – Bless You!

The Sentinel (1977)

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I find that New Yorkers have no sense for anything but sex and money. Troubled New York City model Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) decides to make some changes in her life. She breaks up with her boyfriend Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) and after being advised by realtor Miss Logan (Ava Gardner) of an apartment in Brooklyn Heights moves into a brownstone with a great view of the city where the only other tenant is a withdrawn blind priest Father Halliran (John Carradine). Then she meets another neighbour Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) who invites her to his delightfully devilish cat’s birthday party and encounters there a lot of other neighbours not supposed to be in residence. After experiencing several strange occurrences she informs the slippery Michael who works with NYC police detectives Gatz (Eli Wallach) and Rizzo (Christopher Walken) to uncover the origins of these people.  Alison begins to realise why the holy man is there – the building has an evil presence that must be kept in check at all costs and it’s somebody else’s turn to keep the devils out ... It’s all right. Listen, listen. I know everything now. The Latin you saw in that book was an ancient warning from the angel Gabriel to the angel Uriel. Personally I always thought my old apartment was the gateway to Hell but that’s another story. All I can say is I wasn’t expecting Gerde’s (Sylvia Miles) galpal Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo) to masturbate fully clothed in front of her houseguest while awaiting afternoon tea. Not exactly good etiquette. Some Lesbians do ‘ave ’em, eh?! There’s a birthday party for a cat (hip hip hooray!), crazed Catholics,  demons, induced suicides – just your usual sociocultural cross-section in a city apartment block, all helpfully revealed by creepy Perry (William Hickey) who says, I just open doors. This is filled with those lovely women that seemed to be everywhere at a certain point in the late Seventies/early Eighties – Raffin, Raines, Miles and the stunning Gardner and it effectively rips off all the Satanic horrors to date, from Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist under the guise of property porn. And there’s Arthur Kennedy as Monsignor Franchino, an unholy priest and Jerry Orbach as a horrible director. And look out for Jeff Goldblum while even Richard Dreyfuss shows up on the sidewalk. SighNutty, derivative, terrible and horrible, a travesty, an insult to the God-fearing, a twist ending you could see coming – I couldn’t take my eyes off it. And no matter what, I am never asking Ava Gardner to be my realtor. Peak Seventies cult. Fabulous. Adapted from his novel by Jeffrey Konvitz with director Michael Winner. All killers, all dead. She went to a party with eight dead murderers

Au revoir, les enfants (1987)

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I’m the only one in this school that thinks about death. It’s incredible! In 1943, Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is a student at a French boarding school run by Catholic priests. When three new students arrive, including clever Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), Julien believes they are no different from the other boys. What he doesn’t realise is that they are actually Jews who are being sheltered from capture by the Nazis. Julien doesn’t care for Jean at first but the boys develop a tight bond with grudging admiration of each other – while the head of the school, Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), works to protect the boys from the Holocaust.I understand the anger of those who have nothing when the rich feast so arrogantly. Louis Malle’s autobiographical tale of his time at  school in Fontainebleau is an artful depiction of the country’s great shame – the level of collaboration with the occupying Nazis, some of whom are rather sympathetically portrayed. This is a beautifully composed, sensitively handled and measured portrait of childhood with its petty rivalries and quarrels, preceding an act of revenge, accidental betrayal and a chilling climax in an atmosphere of casual spitefulness, denunciations and anti-semitism. One of the very best films of its era, this is a perfect companion to Malle’s earlier masterpiece, Lacombe, Lucien. Those who should guide us betray us instead

Hand in Hand (1960)

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Aka The Star and the Cross. She seems like a nice girl. You’d never know she was Jewish. Nine-year old Michael O’Malley (Philip Needs) attends with his local priest Father Timothy (John Gregson) and tells him he’s killed his best friend … He is an Irish Catholic boy who has formed a close friendship with school pal Rachel Mathias (Loretta Parry), a younger Jewish girl. At first, the two are ignorant of their religious differences until schoolmates raise the issue to Michael and their respective parents keep their own issues with the friendship to themselves. The kids become blood brothers and Michael attends synagogue and Rachel goes to Mass and they realise they have a lot in common. They both want to go to London to meet the Queen and Michael dreams of going big game hunting in Africa and when they have an adventure rafting on a river after crashing into a overhanging branch downstream, Michael thinks Rachel is dead … He’s a Jewish mouse. He’s mine. This kindly sermon on post-war anti-semitism in Britain is nicely handled by director Philip Leacock from a screenplay by Diana Morgan and Sidney Harmo (based on a story by Leopold Atlas), working with a talented young cast. Leacock had done the race drama Take a Giant Step so had a proven interest in social issues and he also previously worked with kids on The Little Kidnappers and The Spanish Gardener and he gets engaging performances here. The problematic scene when Michael is teased that Jews killed Christ and is then told by the boy that his father doesn’t like Catholics either defuses audience tension. Perhaps it’s played too innocent, but it’s about kids and it has a certain charm. God is love

 

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?

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister… and you murder your queen!  Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Catholic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne with the aim of also taking the English throne which is her birthright, guided by her adviser Bothwell (Martin Compston). However, Scotland and England fall under the rule of her cousin, the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Each young Queen beholds her ‘sister’ in fear and fascination. Mary has to deal with the ambitions of her bastard half-brother James Murray (James McArdle) and succumbs to the charms of the bisexual Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) in order to become a mother but his father (Brendan Coyle) has designs on power. Her reign attracts the hatred of Protestant reformer John Knox (David Tennant) who stirs up the natives against their tolerant Catholic ruler and calls her a whore. Elizabeth’s adviser Henry Cecil (Guy Pearce) carries out her bid to assist in driving a civil war designed to remove Mary from the throne… Do not play into their hands. Our hatred is precisely what they hope for. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you. Adapted from John Guy’s biography by Beau Willimon, it may seem hasty to declare that despite its raft of historical inaccuracies this still has a lot to recommend it, even if its PC multiverse of many races and choose-your-own-perversion plays into the right-on millennial world rather than the well documented dour backdrop of sixteenth-century Scotland (things are ever thus there…). Willimon is of course responsible for Netflix’s House of Cards and knows his way around politics and other games of thrones so the focus on the women struggling against the counsel of conniving men drives the drama forward while the plotting literally gallops apace. With Tennant doing Knox as the Comical Ali of fundamentalist Protestantism the odds of us supporting the bastard English Queen are low to zero, despite the crosscutting suggesting links both emotional and physical between these young rivals. The Virgin Queen is in fact more in touch with the reality of both of their situations, surrounded by controlling men, as the fabricated meeting between them (a liberty also taken in the 1971 version) clarifies: she recognises that Mary’s beauty, bravery and motherhood are both her greatest assets and her deepest flaws and have led to her downfall. She herself is more man than woman, she declares – her reign has made her thus. Ronan plays Mary as a variation on Joan of Arc – a sharp military mind with a conscience as transparent as her pallor and bright blue eyes (albeit Willimon writes her as a feckless Marie Antoinette a lot of the time), while Robbie’s Queen is the one beset with the miseries of the pox and a devious court craven by her power. They are both tremendous but this is really Ronan’s show, as the title suggests. Pearce, Lowden and Compston are particularly good in their treacherous sideshows. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see two of the best young actresses in the world leading a film of such affecting performances.  The final contrasting shots of Mary’s meeting with destiny and Elizabeth’s costumes and cosmetics literally solidifying into a stony inhuman edifice linger in the mind.  Directed by Josie Rourke. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

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What do you see besides a big dumb guy? A Roman Catholic nun (Deborah Kerr) and a hard-bitten US Marine (Robert Mitchum) are stranded together on a Japanese-occupied island in the South Pacific during World War II. Under constant threat of discovery by a ruthless enemy, strafed by Japanese bombers, they hide in a cave and forage for food together. Their forced companionship and the struggle for survival forge a powerful emotional bond between them and then the Japanese arrive ... Perhaps God doesn’t intend me to take my final vows. Charles Shaw’s novel was adapted by director John Huston and veteran screenwriter John Lee Mahin, who declared this the favourite of all of his films. And what a smooth run it is, taking two established actors and playing with their personae in the way that Huston is reiterating the setup from The African Queen except here Bogie is the hollowed-out macho Mitchum, a much leaner proposition, and Hepburn is replaced by Kerr, replaying her Irish Catholic nun from Black Narcissus and giving her a comic twist (her casting maybe a nod to that beach scene in From Here to Eternity). Their flintiness is worn down by alcohol and great writing with just enough danger to make it a potent admixture. The cinematography by the great Oswald Morris is splendid and Georges Auric’s score is as jaunty as a sea shanty. Kerr and Mitchum have great chemistry and would be paired again in The Grass is GreenerOnly God knows what’ll happen to us