The Big Sick (2017)

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What’s my stance on 9/11? Oh um, anti. It was a tragedy, I mean we lost 19 of our best guys. In present day Chicago, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a Pakistani comic who meets an American graduate student in psychology named Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his stand-up shows. They have sex on the first date and as their relationship blossoms, he soon becomes worried about what his traditional Moslem parents will think of her. His mother brings prospective brides (for an expected arranged marriage) to their weekly family dinner, something Kumail doesn’t admit until Emily finds a tin box filled with the women’s photos called The Ex-Files, in homage to his favourite TV show. Then she admits she was married as an undergraduate. They break up. When Emily suddenly comes down with an illness that means she must be placed in an induced coma, which Kumail has to approve, he finds himself developing a bond with her deeply concerned mother (Holly Hunter) and father (Ray Romano) who travel from South Carolina to keep a bedside vigil and know all about him, but his parents know nothing about her. And he’s got to get a spot in the Montreal Comedy Festival …. A culture clash romcom that feels plugged into a political charger, taking place in reverse:  have sexual relations, get to know each other, split up, meet the parents. While Emily lies in a coma the difficult intercultural exchanges take place:  a kind of discourse over Sleeping Beauty (although she has a complex about her looks stemming from high school bullying) that presumably has some deeper significance about white women.  A romantic comedy in which one of the protagonists is mainly unconscious is daring if not foolhardy except that this is all about him, you see, the Pakistani navigating his ethnicity in America. The culture wars that take place end up being defused in a comedy club and are stimulating because they then wind up being resolved through common humanity involving putting down ignorant white frat boys wearing baseball caps making jokes about Islamic terrorists.  A plea for understanding? Probably, but mainly for Kumail. Quelle surprise. This autobiographical work was written by Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, directed by Michael Showalter.

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Phantom Thread (2017)

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Are you the enemy? It’s 1954.  In post-war London, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a fey, fastidious, fussy aesthete, and his unmarried sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are at the centre of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutantes and dames with the distinct style of The House of Woodcock. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young, strong-willed woman, a foreign waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover: she is literally his house model. Once controlled and planned, he finds his immaculately tailored life disrupted by love and Alma becomes jealous particularly when Reynolds agrees to create the trousseau for a Belgian princess and removes the message ‘not cursed’ from the lining. Then she poisons him on the eve of the wedding to try to create a catastrophe instead of a work of art…. That’s the theory. Everything about this is beautiful, detailed, pointed. What we don’t understand in the cheap seats is how a man like Reynolds Woodcock falls for a plain frumpy dull bovine German (or is she Danish? Dutch?) who to the untrained eye has absolutely nothing interesting about her except an unsophisticated desire for control and an uncontrolled appetite for jealousy. She’s a toddler, as one of his clients tells him. Yes, forty years younger than him and unformed, unlike his designs. This is a character study of three fusspots who don’t like each other and it’s pretty silly, like most couture. Paul Thomas Anderson makes fascinating, idiosyncratic films that mostly have a message be it about culture or circumstance. There are themes running through this like thread through a gown – jealousy, food, sex, creativity:  but they don’t go anywhere and the threadbare plot quickly unravels. Woodcock is clearly modelled on a couple of London couturiers and Cyril is out of Mrs Danvers but ultimately is soft centred. Alma? Don’t ask me. A German seeking revenge for the war?!  I care less. This is hard to fathom, often makes little sense and the conclusion is plain stupid no matter how it’s dressed up.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

Red River (1948)

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Cherry was right. You’re soft, you should have let ’em kill me, ’cause I’m gonna kill you. I’ll catch up with ya. I don’t know when, but I’ll catch up. Every time you turn around, expect to see me, ’cause one time you’ll turn around and I’ll be there. I’m gonna kill ya, Matt.Headstrong Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) starts a thriving Texas cattle ranch with the help of his faithful trail hand, Groot (Walter Brennan), and his protégé, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), an orphan Dunson took under his wing when Matt was a boy when he was the only survivor of an Indian attack on a wagon train. In need of money following the Civil War and 14 years after starting the ranch, Dunson and Matt lead a cattle drive to Missouri, where they will get a better price for his 10,000 head than locally, but the crotchety older man and his willful young partner begin to butt heads on the exhausting journey… Famous as a collision of egos and acting styles (Wayne vs. Clift, who was making his first pilgrimage from the New York stage), Paul Fix (who plays Teeler Yacey), Borden Chase and Charles Schnee adapted the screenplay from Chase’s Saturday Evening Post story Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, a fictional account of the first cattle drive west. It was shot in 1946 but director Howard Hawks was unhappy with the edit and handed it to Christian Nyby who spent a year on it. He declared of Wayne, I didn’t know the son of a bitch could act! And it is an extraordinary Freudian story in its contrast portraits of masculinity, a brilliant exposition of father-son conflict and of the kind of family romance most people don’t understand in the mythical context of the conquest of the land of the Americas. Quite profound and a great action movie too. Co-directed by Arthur Rosson.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015)

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She would rather live with a producer than her children. The great Swedish actress is recalled through her diaries and letters (voiced by Alicia Vikander), photographs and any amount of home movies which she shot compulsively.  She believed she was only truly alive when she was being photographed and described her home life away from the studio in Hollywood as ‘being locked in a suitcase suffocating.’ Following the early death of her mother this was a little girl cosseted by her father who documented her on camera and even Alfred Hitchcock (‘he brought out the best in me’) declared she took film more seriously than real life. Her father died young too and this leaves something of a Freudian association trailing throughout the film with her evident need to be constantly photographed and speaking other people’s lines.  Following drama school and early success in Swedish cinema she was discovered by Hollywood and arrived there to work with David O. Selznick whose colleague Kay Brown became her agent and lifelong friend. She abandoned her little girl and doctor husband for various lovers including Robert Capa (who wouldn’t sacrifice his short-lived career for her) and then Roberto Rossellini whom she pursued until he hired her for a film and she had his illegitimate child. She couldn’t adjust to his filmmaking style – she was no improviser and writing dialogue was contrary to her training. Her husband divorced her and got custody of Pia, while, after having more children by Rossellini,  the director abandoned Bergman for another woman (in India) who had yet another of his illegitimate children and Bergman then took off for Paris with a lover of her own. She saw her children in Italy once a month, more often when daughter Isabella (who became an actress) developed scoliosis. Daughter Pia discusses her mother’s obsession with Joan of Arc from an early age as being evidence that she wanted to make her name. There are many newsreel excerpts and interviews about her chaotic intercontinental life, pursued by paparazzi and condemned by various authorities until director Anatole Litvak declared in the mid-50s that she was the only actress he could consider for the role of Anastasia and an Academy Award for her performance smoothed her way back into the Hollywood fold. Despite her shortcomings and basically abandoning her young, her adult children (presumably with the benefit of relatively old age) describe her in contemporary interviews  as being totally charming with eldest daughter Pia even declaring, I craved having more of her. Stig Björkman’s film is a stunning evocation of a unique, peripatetic life which despite the rather unsettling morality of its fame-seeking subject simply exudes joy and contains many insights into the acting mind. Written by the director with Stina Gardell and Dominika Daubenbuchel with a great score by Michael Nyman, topped with a song by Eva Dahlgren in the closing credits.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

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Now it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn toward you, but – well, there haven’t been any quiet moments. Harried paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) has to make a good impression on society matron Mrs. Random (May Robson), who is considering donating one million dollars to his museum. On the day before his wedding to Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), Huxley meets Mrs. Random’s high-spirited young niece, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), a madcap adventuress who immediately falls for the straitlaced scientist when she steals his car and crashes it on a golf course. The ever-growing chaos – including a missing dinosaur bone and a pet leopard – threatens to swallow him whole… Wildly inventive, hilarious and classic screwball comedy from director Howard Hawks, written by Hagar Wilde and Dudley Nichols and performed by a group of actors indelibly engraved on our collective brains for their roles here.  Hepburn learned from Grant’s uptight persona to play it straight and if it were any slower this would be a film noir because she is one of the fatalest femmes you could ever dread to meet in a text bursting with double entendres. With Charles Ruggles, Barry Fitzgerald and Fritz Feld (as a psychiatrist!) bringing up the rear, Asta the dog from The Thin Man series and The Awful Truth (uncredited! the injustice of it!) and Grant going ‘gay all of a sudden’ what we have here is gaspingly funny cinematic perfection.

Run for Cover (1955)

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Do you think putting a gun in his hand will cure what is in his heart? After being mistaken for train robbers and shot and injured by a wrongheaded posse an ex-convict drifter Matt Dow (James Cagney) and his flawed young partner whom he’s just met Davey Bishop (John Derek) are made sheriff and deputy of a Western town. Bishop is deeply resentful of the people who’ve crippled him while Matt befriends and then romances the daughter Helga (Viveca Lindfors) of the recent Swedish emigrant Swenson (Jean Hersholt) who takes in the pair while Davey is getting medical treatment. Then the crime rate surges with the re-appearance of an outlaw who Matt knows from his time in prison where he did six years in a case of mistaken identity …  Winston Miller’s screenplay is from the story by Harriet Frank Jr and Irving Ravetch. It lacks the baroque weirdness of Nicholas Ray’s previous western, Johnny Guitar and the soaring emotionality of his forthcoming Rebel Without a Cause, but it is notable that in a script featuring a mentoring relationship of the father-son type that the focus is on the older  man’s experiences with Derek becoming a substitute for Cagney’s son whose death ten years earlier is not explained. Derek plays a prototype of the aspiring juvenile delinquent character that would be front and centre of Rebel but here he’s the antagonist whose bitterness is supposedly because of being crippled courtesy of the town’s lynch mob but whom Cagney finally realises is rotten no matter what the cause. Not a classic but interesting to look at for Ray’s compositions in an evolving cinematic signature and for the contrasting performances. There are some nice lines too, such as when Matt asks Swenson for his daughter’s hand in marriage:  Ever since you leave she go round like lost heifer. Derek’s role is a pointer to many of the tropes in the JD cycle to come with Cagney very far from giving him soft soap treatment:  Why don’t you stop going round feeling sorry for yourself! Other people have it far worse!

 

The Furies (1950)

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I have no stomach for the way you live. It’s the 1870s. Widower T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) rules his sprawling New Mexico ranch with an iron fist, a born-again Napoleon who pays with his own currency, TC’s. But his authority doesn’t extend to his strong-willed daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), who both hates and loves her father with equal ferocity. He abandoned her mother for an inter-racial affair and she died at The Furies, her bedroom a mausoleum left precisely as she left it with Vance fiercely guarding it. Tensions rise when Vance falls for bad boy saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), whom T.C. buys off. But the family conflict turns violent when T.C. decides to marry Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) and evict Vance’s childhood friend Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) from his land… Charles Schnee adapted Niven Busch’s novel and Anthony Mann does quite an exquisite job of staging the action, with his customary mountainous settings providing an objective correlative for a literally furious woman to take revenge. The interiors are no less impressive with the Gothic trappings enhancing the Freudian subtext with both Oedipus and Electra active in the arena of gender identification. There is a mythical quality to this classic narrative and the visuals reinforce a sense of homoerotic voyeurism in a film which constantly veers toward the psychosexual. Stanwyck is magnificent in one of the key roles of her career and the first of her seven western parts in the 1950s which laid the groundwork for her Big Valley matriarch a decade later. There is a domestic scene of horrifying violence that is for the record books. Rivalry was rarely so vicious. Notable for being Walter Huston’s final film performance.  It was shot by Victor Milner with uncredited work done by Lee Garmes and Franz Waxman provides the aggressively tragic score. I write about Stanwyck’s Fifties Westerns  in Steers, Queers and Pioneers, which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/stanwyck-part-1/.