20th Century Women (2016)

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Wondering if you’re happy is a shortcut to being depressed. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.  Architect Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling 1905 fixer-upper boarding house at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion.  William (Billy Crudup) the contractor renting a room doesn’t seem like an appropriate father figure so Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the house and neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning) a savvy and provocative teenage neighbour who often spends the night sleeping there – to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like what’s happening to him and finds it difficult to reconcile the female-centric education with the man she wants him to be … Mike Mills’ autobiographical film has something of an arm’s length feel which you can surmise from the title. In creating this portrait of his mother he is keen to contextualise her in terms of her time and the opportunities open to her. Jamie often excuses the attitudes of this quasi-androgynous high-achieving divorcee with the line, Don’t worry about Mom, she’s from the Depression. Framing his semi-biographical comic drama in the terms of feminist and punk politics sometimes seems like a microscope powered by sociology is being applied in a film essay style instead of a dramatic eye when you want these lives to intersect more. However the drama is triggered by the opening scene when the family car spontaneously combusts in a parking lot.  It’s a good catalyst for the series of events to follow as Jamie’s adolescence progresses and Dorothea says in a moment of truth to Abbie, You get to see him out in the world and I never will. It’s a startling admission and something in these lines fuels a powerful drama that’s concealed between the smarts and upfront sex talk. Look at Bening’s face when her son tells her he thinks it’s good for him to be informed about clitoral stimulation. She’s the one who wanted him to learn how to be a man after all – she just didn’t know how it would make her feel when he goes out of his way to learn how to be a good man. There’s a lot to like here in an ironic mode and in a sense it’s crystallised by the cultural references – culminating in the clips from Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech when he says the country is at a turning point:  they serve to illuminate the theme of the personal as political.  We are all living in the fallout from what was going on in northern Cali in the late 70s and Mills captures this in an uncanny fashion, fixing on a time that has birthed where we are now (albeit now it’s monetised). The production design is just right – the mix of the early 70s vogue for Art Nouveau with the well-placed mushroom lamp, the battle between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans which has a visual result on the doors of Dorothea’s Bug. There are a lot of good aesthetic and narrative choices here coupled with some very sympathetic performances amid a raft of generational and gendered experiences, Abbie and Julie’s mother issues being succinctly handled in parallel stories within medical and therapeutic settings. There is of course a nostalgic air but it’s cut through with intellectual argument bathed in California sun. Sensitive, seductive, suprising and satisfying.

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Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) (TVM)

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Get off of me! You are going to forget once and for all about that filthy thing of yours! You’ll forget that you even have one of those things! Do you understand me, boy? Released from a mental institution once again, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) calls in to tell his life story to a radio host (CCH Pounder). Norman recalls his days as a young boy living with his schizophrenic mother (Olivia Hussey), and the jealous rage that inspired her murder. In the present, Norman lives with his pregnant wife psychiatrist Connie (Donna Mitchell), fearing that his child will inherit his split personality disorder, and Mother will return to kill again… Both a prequel and a sequel, this made for TV entry in the series has the original writer Joseph Stefano (never mind Alma Hitchcock’s contribution!) and a whole heap of interest to anyone who either visited the Universal FLA lot where it was shot (I have the shower curtain!) or was addicted to Bates Motel (to which it bears no relation, but you know what I mean).  Apparently Perkins wanted to have his Pretty Poison director Noel Black direct it from a screenplay by III scripter Charles Edward Poague but that film’s commercial failure meant a change in talent and Mick Garris was brought in to direct. Stefano didn’t like the violence in the preceding two films and ignored the backstory about Mrs Bates in II and the aunt in III.  Now, Norman Bates is married. Whatchootalkinabout?! Yup, they go there. Literally the unthinkable. And having a child. With a psychiatrist. Gulp … Pushing Freudian and schizoid buttons galore, Henry Thomas plays the young Norman in out of order flashbacks that clarify the events triggering the break in his personality with a path straight up to the first film.  Ironically this is probably the weakest of the sequels despite Stefano’s desire to have a psychologically accurate portrait of a cross-dressing mother-loving voyeuristic serial killer. But you just have to watch. Don’t you?! A  must for completionists.

 

 

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.

Psycho 3 (1986)

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She can’t help it. She can’t help the things she does. She’s just an old lady. A nun commits suicide at a convent. Her disturbed colleague Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid) runs away and hitches a ride through the desert with Duane Duke (Jeff Fahey) but after he makes a move on her during a rainstorm she runs off.  When she arrives at a small town diner she asks where she might stay.  Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is once again operating his infamous motel. Assisted by the shifty Duke, an excessively tan Norman keeps up the semblance of being sane and ordinary, but he still holds on to some macabre habits. Eventually, Norman becomes interested in Maureen when she turns up at the motel and reminds him of Marion Crane. As Norman and Maureen begin a relationship, can he keep his demons in check? And now there’s a reporter Tracy Venable (Roberta Maxwell) on the prowl keen for a scoop on the legendary mother killer with a revelation about the identity of Emma Spool (from Psycho II) … This was Anthony Perkins’ directing debut, revisiting very familiar territory with plenty of Hitchcock’s signature tropes albeit none of his style and an excess of grisly if blackly comic violence.  The rarefied Scarwid is a good choice for the Marion lookalike and the film is filled with ideas of Hitchcock’s trumpeted Catholicism as well as opening with an homage to Vertigo and incorporating a scene out of Psycho. It’s quite amusing to have Norman portrayed as the Mother of God saving the troubled nun who’s as with it as her romantic interest but this is as subtle as a sledgehammer and won’t make you forget the original any time soon. There’s even something of a happy ending – relatively speaking. Written by Charles Edward Pogue, this is not connected with Robert Bloch’s third novel in the series, Psycho House.

6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain (2017)

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Following a drug-related fall from grace and a car crash, former professional hockey player Eric LeMarque (Josh Hartnett) finds himself stranded on a mountain in the High Sierras during a fierce snowstorm and misses his crucial court date which his worried mother (Mira Sorvino) is hounding him to attend. Coming to terms with his personal demons, he soon rediscovers the power of faith while fighting for survival, suffering excruciating injuries and frostbite and it takes six days for anyone to even notice he’s gone from the cabin in the mountain, snowboard in hand … LeMarque’s book (co-written with Davin Seay) is adapted by Madison Turner in what is no doubt a well-intentioned cautionary tale about drugs and not getting caught on the side of a mountain during a storm. However the structure and the constant badly shot flashbacks don’t assist the dark night of the soul that LeMarque endures while he fights for his life. Mainly because we just don’t see him in action on the rink, just beating people up. It’s nice to see Sorvino back even in the absolutely thankless role of his mother which for the most part she (necessarily) phones in. Zzzzz….. Was that a bear? Nope. Too bad. Just say no, kids! Directed by Scott Waugh.

Ready Player One (2018)

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People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.  In 2045, with the world on the brink of chaos and collapse the people have found salvation in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, he leaves a video in which he promises that his immense fortune will go to the first person to find a digital Easter egg he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, sparking a contest that grips the entire world. When an unlikely young hero named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to join the contest as his avatar Parzival, he is hurled into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery and danger. He finds romance and a fellow rebel in Art3mis aka Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and they enter a business war led by tyrannical Nolan Sorrentino (Ben Mendelson) who used to make Halliday’s coffee and is now prepared to do anything to protect the company … Adapted by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline from Cline’s cult novel, this blend of fanboy nostalgia with VR and gaming works on a lot of levels – and I say that as a non-gamer. There are a lot of things to like once you get accustomed to the fact that the vast majority of the narrative takes place in the virtual ie animated world yet it is embedded in an Eighties vista with some awesome art production and references that will give you a real thrill:  Zemeckis and Kubrick are just two of the cinematic gods that director Steven Spielberg pays homage in a junkyard future that will remind any Three Investigators reader of Jupiter Jones, only this time the kid’s got a screen.  This being a PC-VR production it’s multi-ethnic, multi-referential and cleverer-than-thou yet somehow there’s a warmth at its kinetically-jolting artificial centre that holds it together, beyond any movie or song or toy you might happen to have foist upon you. There are some of the director’s clear favourites in the cast – the inexplicable preference for Rylance and Simon Pegg (sheesh…) but, that apart, and delicious as some of this is – it looks like it really was made 30 years ago – you do have to wonder (and I say this as a mega fan), Will the real Steven Spielberg please stand up?! This is the real Easter Egg hunt.

Message in a Bottle (1999)

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Choose between yesterday and tomorrow.  During her morning jog on the beach, journalist Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn) discovers a bottle protruding from the sand. Inside it, she finds a heartbreaking, anonymous love letter. After her paper publishes the letter, Osborne tracks down the letter’s reclusive author, world-weary widower Garret Blake (Kevin Costner), in the Carolinas. But, as Osborne finds herself falling hopelessly in love with Blake, she becomes wracked with guilt over the real impetus for her visit. As she deals with her own marital mishaps and life back in Chicago with her young son Jason (Jesse James) she can’t bring herself to be truthful with Garret, all the while exploiting his personal tragedy for her newspaper… Adapted by Gerald Di Pego from the Nicholas Sparks novel, it took me a while to see this:  it was released February 1999 and I was travelling from N’Orleans to New Jersey and it seemed to me to be always playing a township or three too far to travel that snowy Spring. It was worth waiting for. It’s a gloriously romantic confection, with conflict, high stakes and a guilty secret or two at its core – there are real lessons to be learned here from the grown-ups with mirroring marital and parenting dilemmas. Penn is terrific as the journo who is basically a stalker and Costner is perfect as the romantic foil whose life is much more complex than she suspects. And guess who plays his father? Paul Newman, that’s who. There are nice bits in the office with Robbie Coltrane revelling in the role of editor and Illeana Douglas as her best friend at work while John Savage is impressive as Costner’s brother in law. This works because it’s tough on the characters even through a rose-tinted lens and the ending, well, it’s not easy but it’s immensely satisfying. It was the first Sparks novel to be adapted to the screen. Love letters?  Message in a bottle? A tragic sacrifice? Death? I hear ya. Just gorgeous cinematography by Caleb Deschanel and music by Gabriel Yared. Sniff. Directed by Luis Mandoki.

Green for Danger (1946)

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‘In view of my failure—correction, comparative failure—I feel that I have no alternative but to offer you, sir, my resignation, in the sincere hope that you will not accept it.’  Full stop. During a German bombing raid on rural southeast England during World War II, a hospital undergoes heavy shelling. Postman Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott) dies on the operating table when a bomb explodes in the operating room. But when Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) dies after revealing that this is not the first patient of anaesthetist Barney Barnes (Trevor Howard) to die under suspicious circumstances, Scotland Yard’s  Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) is brought in to investigate… Knotty, fast-moving, hilarious and satirical, this is one of the very best British films, a murder mystery (a variant on the country house genre) that thrives on dismantling the very conventions of cinema at that time – if you can tell one of the female characters from the other (Sally Gray, Rosamund John, Campbell… ) you’re a better man than I, which is kinda the point of this! From the team of Launder and Gilliat, with Claude Gurney and Gilliat adapting Christianna Brand’s wartime novel this moves like the clappers and you won’t realise whodunnit until it’s too late – just like the droll Cockrill!  It was the first film to be shot at Pinewood in the aftermath of WW2 and the production design and sense of fear and enclosure works perfectly. The plot is ingenious and even while everyone’s being offed in highly unsentimental fashion you’ll struggle to figure it out despite the structure. Sim is wonderful but he’s matched all the way by Leo Genn as the Harley Street surgeon. And all the while the German doodlebugs (V1 bombs) keep everyone in a state of terror.  Brilliant.

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

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Who knows what men are really capable of?  We all wear pantomime masks.  It’s 1880 and Victorian London is gripped with fear as a serial killer is on the loose leaving cryptic messages written in the blood of his victims who appear to have no connection with each other. As the body count mounts the mystery becomes increasingly outlandish and blame falls on the mythical creature of Jewish lore – the golem. With few leads and increasing public pressure, Scotland Yard assigns the case to Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), a seasoned detective whose homosexual inclinations prevent his promotion and who suspects that he’s being set up to fail. Faced with a long list of suspects, Kildare must rely on help from a witness to stop the murders and bring the maniac to justice… Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful Victorian novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem gets a suitably OTT workout here but Jane Goldman’s adaptation misses a trick or three and doesn’t entirely sustain the plot (you’ll guess the killer very quickly). There’s a lot to like, particularly in the interplay between Nighy and Daniel Mays as Constable George Flood which is put to the forefront of this interpretation but the rivalry with Inspector Roberts (Peter Sullivan) is badly underwritten. A game cast including Douglas Booth as the legendary Leno, Eddie Marsan as Uncle, Sam Reid as failed playwright John Cree, Olivia Cooke as his wife and surprisingly literate former music hall performer Lizzie and even Paul Ritter bringing up the rear as a librarian, do a lot in a good-looking production. It’s not often Karl Marx and George Gissing are suspected of serial murders! And Nighy deepens his usual bonhomie with barely concealed emotion. However the misguided construction means that this never really comes over the way you’d expect given the powerful origins of the tale and ultimately it fails to reconcile the male and female stories in this multifaceted portrait of sex and violence.  Directed by Juan Carlos Medina.

The Shack (2017)

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If anything matters then everything matters. After suffering the loss of his younger daughter Missy (Amélie Eve) to a kidnapper following the carelessness of his older daughter Kate (Megan Charpentier) while on a camping trip Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) spirals into a deep depression that causes him to question his innermost beliefs and threatens his  relationship with his remaining family including his wife Nan (Radha Mitchell) and son Josh (Gage Munroe). Facing a crisis of faith, he receives a mysterious letter urging him to an abandoned shack in the Oregon wilderness. Despite his doubts, Mack journeys to the shack which he recognises as the location where his daughter’s bloodied dress was found and as he prepares to wreak his revenge he encounters an enigmatic trio of strangers led by a woman named Papa (Octavia Spencer), her son Jesus (Aviv Alush)  and a woman called Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara). Through this meeting, which reveals his problems and past through visions and journeys, Mack finds important truths that will transform his understanding of his tragedy and change his life forever… Being a Sunday it seems appropriate to visit that little genre of Christian movies – oh, give me some old time religion already.  William P. Young’s underground bestseller was taken up by Octavia Spencer as a production project and joins a group of films that have flourished in the last few years tackling thorny issues under the rubric of acceptance and forgiveness and all that jazz. Mack’s background as the witness to his father’s abuse of his mother will hit a lot of targets about the origins of emasculation but Worthington’s somewhat strangulated performance doesn’t really assist the character’s trajectory from Doubting Thomas to True Believer. It may not be your bag and this has a whiff of TV movie about it but the cast is attractive and in a world where Spencer is God I’ll take my chances.  You’ll believe you can walk on water. Adapted by John Fusco and Andrew Lanham & Destin Cretton and directed by Stuart Hazeldine. Paradise is shot by Declan Quinn. Amen to that.