Mask (1985)

Mask

I look weird but I’m real normal. Azusa, California. It’s 1978. Roy ‘Rocky’ Dennis (Eric Stoltz) is an intelligent, outgoing and humorous teenager who suffers from a disfiguring facial deformity called “lionitis” and has now outlived his life expectancy:  he’s always being told he’s got 6 to 8 months. He’s happy go lucky and indulges his passion for baseball card collecting. His single mother Florence ‘Rusty’ Dennis (Cher) struggles to fight for his acceptance in the mainstream public school system, where he proves himself to be a highly accomplished student at junior high and wins friends by tutoring them. Though Rocky endures ridicule and awkwardness for his appearance, and the classmate he’s sweet on has a boyfriend, he dreams of travelling to Europe with his best friend Ben (Lawrence Monoson). He finds love and respect from his mother’s biker gang family the Turks and particularly likes Gar (Sam Elliott) who eventually reconciles with Rusty and moves in, frequently acting as peacemaker between mother and son. He even experiences his first love when he is persuaded to volunteer at a summer camp for blind kids where he meets Diana (Laura Dern) but then her parents try to keep them separated and Ben lets him down when he says he’s got to move to Chicago ... I want to go to every place I ever read about. Absurdly moving, this wonderfully sympathetic evocation of real-life Rocky Dennis and his mom benefits immensely from being simply told, allowing the characters and the performances to do the heavy lifting. Stoltz has such a tough role but carries it with dignity and aplomb; while Cher is a revelation as the mom whose tough love and wild lifestyle add up to a complex emotional picture. Beautifully written by Anna Hamilton Phelan and sensitively directed by Peter Bogdanovich, this is a life-affirming story of real courage and love. When something bad happens to you you’ve gotta remember the good things that happened to you

 

Turn the Key Softly (1953)

Turn the Key Softly

I’m saying goodbye to regulations. Well-spoken burglar Monica Marsden (Yvonne Mitchell), pretty prostitute Stella Jarvis (Joan Collins) and elderly shoplifter Granny Quilliam (Kathleen Harrison) are released from Holloway Women’s Prison on the same day and venture out in London, meeting up for an early dinner in the West End as they negotiate their first day of freedom. Monica returns to her flat where she promises her friend Joan (Dorothy Alison) not to meet up again with David (Terence Morgan), a ne’er do well for whose crime she took the fall. She secures a job in an office with a start on Monday, despite her prison record. But when she returns to the flat David is waiting for her and wines and dines her, with the promise of a night at the theatre. Stella meets up with her busdriver fiancé Bob (Glyn Houston) and promises to get a room to stay in at Canonbury but spends his money on earrings. meeting up with her former working girl friends. Granny returns to her rundown Shepherds Bush room to her beloved special friend Johnny – who turns out to be a dog – and after cooking him food visits her daughter in the suburbs to the delight of her grand daughter but they weren’t expecting her and she has to return to town where she goes for a posh dinner at Monica’s expense, champagne included. Stella takes off with a man who took a fancy to Monica on the Tube earlier, and Monica leaves in a taxi with David for an evening that she hadn’t counted on … Sooner or later they’re sure to find out. This post-war British crime drama is a fantastically atmospheric show and tell about London society and its war-damaged physicality – between rainy Leicester Square where The Snows of Kilimanjaro is playing (and La Collins would co-star with Gregory Peck within just a few short years) and the council flats sitting cheek-by-jowl with semi-derelict terraces, you can practically sniff the desperation, the spivvery and the desire for something better in the documentary-style location shooting by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Mitchell is the real star here and has the better part of the narrative which turns upon her desire for her dastardly lover who manages to deceive her once again following an afternoon in the sack;  but Harrison has a marvellous role (you just know it won’t end well) and plays it beautifully; while Collins is well cast as the good time girl who has found a decent man and she makes the most of some smartly written moments. When she makes her decision about which way to go in life there’s a decidedly odd shot at Piccadilly Circus with her former prostitute colleague featuring close on camera. It’s a terrific film for women, this exploration of an array of femininity of differing ages and types re-entering the world on its tricky terms. What starts as a kind of melodrama with a social message about stigma turns into a suspenser, high on the rooftops of a city theatre, with a rather tragic ending. Very satisfying indeed. Adapted by Maurice Cowan from John Brophy’s novel, this is written and directed by documentary veteran Jack Lee, the elder brother of novelist Laurie.

 

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters

You’re flushing your career down the toilet for a cowhand. Corporate defence lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is approached by his grandmother’s farmer neighbour Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) to investigate the deaths of hundreds of his cattle in Parkersburg, West Virginia, probably due to a poisoning incident by manufacturer DuPont. The company’s lawyer Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) promises to help Robert but stalls so Robert files suit to get discovery and with nothing useful in an Environmental Protection Agency report he finds information about an unregulated chemical called PFOA which turns out to be Teflon – and it’s on and in everything including the water supply, poisoning with a substance the body cannot tolerate or absorb and causing six cancers and facial deformities. It transpires that DuPont carried out tests and did not make the findings public. The case drives Robert’s behaviour to cause his former lawyer wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) to worry for him and he eventually collapses from ill-health as the years wind on, with Wilbur and his wife Sandra (Denise Dal Vera) getting cancer from the infected water they’ve been consuming. They refuse DuPont’s offer of settlement – they want justice. Robert finds that Medical Monitoring is permitted in West Virginia and undertakes a class action lawsuit with the biggest sample of epidemiological data in history but after seven years there are still no results, his marriage is in difficulty and he’s taking yet another paycut  … Better living through chemistry. Adapted by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael  Carnahan from three articles in The New York Times and The Intercept, this is a grimy looking drama about corporate malfeasance that’s paced as slowly and deliberately as Bilott’s lawsuits, with some touches of conventional genre paranoia in one thriller sequence (in a car park, surprise surprise).  It unfurls chronologically, a decade-and-a-half-long story of terrible, destructive deceit – a toxic pollution arrangement covertly blessed by Government agencies, yet another searing indictment of structural inequality and the impunity with which big companies abuse power and kill people, no questions asked. It’s a David and Goliath procedural tale that has global ramifications and despite its desperately dull appearance and some flawed and oddly impersonal directing choices there are some great moments especially for Tim Robbins as Ruffalo’s boss; and Bill Camp, who exudes his usual authenticity beneath some truly eccentric eyebrows. Hathaway’s stay-at-home wife gradually gets a better arc than at first appears; while Ruffalo is shuffling and in pain, dressed in too-big clothes in a whistleblowing role that clearly is a labour of love, a wannabe Hulk gravitationally pulled to earth, feeling the hurt of all his sick, suffering and dying clients as he does his due diligence with dignity and perseverance. Stick with it. Like the Teflon on your frying pan that’s killing you every day. Directed by Todd Haynes. The system is rigged

The Wrong Box (1966)

The Wrong Box

He who Fate sees fit to favour. The Finsbury brothers, Masterman (John Mills) and Joseph (Ralph Richardson), are the last two surviving members of a sixty-two year old tontine [a pool of money/investment scheme] that will pay a huge sum to whomever lives longest. Hoping to bankroll his perpetually bewildered grandson Michael (Michael Caine), Masterman asks Joseph to visit with the intention of killing him. However Joseph’s two scheming nephews John (Dudley Moore) and Morris (Peter Cook) also want the money. and mean to keep Joseph alive long enough to stake their claim. When they think Joseph has died en route to seeing his brother, they attempt to cover it up but they reckon without the complicating factor of Masterman’s apparent death, the intervention of Michael when he realises that Masterman has killed Joseph and the arrival of the Salvation Army led by Mrs Hackett (Irene Handl) who assume Masterman has attempted suicide in the Thames and return him to his home. Then there are questions about the whereabouts of the notorious Bournemouth Strangler …  One should always broaden one’s horizons. Adapted from the 1889 novel by Robert Louis Stevenson co-written with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, the screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove is a frequently hysterical and witty black comedy filled with incredible lines and boasting great performances – Peter Sellers has a marvellous couple of scenes as an aiurophile doctor, concluding with him blotting his signature using the bottom of a cute kitten called Mervyn. I specialise in rare marine diseases of the spleen. Mills and Richardson play the brothers to the hilt – an eccentric and a drag – Shut up, you pedantic boring old poop! It’s dotted with hilarious incidents including a chase involving horse-drawn hearses but the butler Peacock (Wilfrid Lawson, brilliant) has the best bits and Nanette Newman’s (Julia) romance with handsome Caine is choreographed to a gorgeous romantic theme composed by John Barry. Extremely funny with a superlative titles sequence – just watch what happens when Queen Victoria (Avis Bunnage) knights someone. Look out for Nicholas Parsons and Valentine Dyall among the first victims in a cast that represents most of the best comic performers of the era including Tony Hancock who turns up as a detective and that’s Juliet Mills as the cross-dressing Lesbian on a train. Directed by Bryan Forbes (in the third of his four films with Caine) and shot at Pinewood and in Bath with some very funny camera setups from cinematographer Gerry Turpin. Lawson sadly died aged 66 five months after this was released. He’s just extraordinary here and steals every scene he’s in. There are in certain parts of this city men – unscrupulous men! – who will perform unsavoury tasks

3 Generations (2017)

Three Generations

I’m a boy with tits. I can appropriate whatever I want. Hoping to get support from his single artist mother Maggie (Naomi Watts) and Lesbian jazz club proprietor grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon) (and her live-in girlfriend Frances, played by Linda Emond), 16-year old Ray born Ramona (Elle Fanning) prepares to transition from female to male. When Maggie dithers over signing her permission due to Ray’s age, she then finds out that Ray’s father Craig’s (Tate Donovan) signature is also required but he hasn’t been in the picture for a very long time. An encounter between the teen’s parents turns into a confrontation with Ray finally taking matters into her own hands …  Just because you’re the parent doesn’t mean you get to decide when we talk about this.  In an era characterised by intense identity politics perhaps there is none so troubling a topic as the idea that children can choose their own gender despite their given genitalia. This lays out the argument inside this unusual family setup – cool Lesbian grandmother plus her girlfriend, an unmarried mother, an androgynous daughter living as a boy. Then it takes a melodramatic skew that leads one to the unexpected conclusion that this situation is the result of precisely this boho unconventionality – who’s the daddy? A narrative turn that seems to upend the entire raison d’être avoiding the very premise it proposes to address. However it’s well played – very well, particularly by Sarandon who gets the lion’s share of biting dialogue; and Fanning in a very difficult and paradoxically limited role – by a seasoned cast grappling with a very millennial issue. Ultimately a film that suggests that in a world of parents who cannot make up their minds, tell the truth or act responsibly, it falls upon the unfortunate confused kids to make adult decisions, promising a reckoning in the years to come following this contemporary experiment in biology. Written by Nikole Beckwith with director Gaby Dellal. I get to stop feeling like someone else

Instant Family (2018)

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Is it a problem, the whole white saviour thing? Building contractor Pete Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) and his interior designer wife Ellie (Rose Byrne) have a perfect life, flipping houses and making money. However their child-free status is starting to get to Ellie and she persuades Mark to think about fostering. They train under the supervision of social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) and get overwhelmed when they encounter wisecracking 15-year old Lizzie (Isabela Moner) but she has a little brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz) and the couple don’t want to break up the family, whose crack addict mom is in jail.  The honeymoon period is followed by serious tantrums and disruption … If I chatted to a random kid in the park I could get arrested.  A film constructed on such a hideously sentimental premise you might not look beyond the awesome shabby chic interiors and hear some very shrewd and witty observations about race, parenting and family.  But what the hell were they thinking to deploy the great Joan Cusack as the weirdo in the last scene? Cringe! Must be the flu meds. Ahem. Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders. I never get tired of watching white people fight

Little Women (2019)

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If the main character’s a girl she has to be married at the end. Or dead. In 1860s New England after the Civil War, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) lives in New York and makes her living as a writer and teacher, sending money home, while her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris under the aegis of her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Amy has a chance encounter with Theodore Laurence aka Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a childhood crush from the upper class family next door who proposed to Jo but was ultimately rejected. Their oldest sibling, Meg (Emma Watson) is married to impoverished tutor John Brooke (James Norton) ,while shy sister Beth (Emma Scanlen) develops a devastating illness that brings the family back together under the leadership of their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) who is sad about her husband (Bob Odenkirk) being away in the War as a volunteer for the Union Army. As Jo recalls their experiences coming of age, she has to learn the hard way from a newspaper editor Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) and a fellow schoolteacher Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) that her writing needs a lot of work if it’s to authentically represent her talentI will always be disappointed at being a girl. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved American classic jumps around pivotal episodes and reorders them from present to past and back again, back and forth, to create a coherent, rising and falling set of emotions. Each sister has a distinct personality and aspirations;  each is valid, according to their wants and needs and desires; and each is bestowed a dignity. Ronan shines as Jo but all four are carefully delineated and Pugh as selfish Amy has the greatest emotional arc but she should sue the costumier for failing to tailor her clothes to her stocky figure. Watson isn’t quite right for Meg and her lack of technique is plain. Somehow though it’s always poor Beth who doesn’t get what she deserves:  charity does not begin at home in her case. Some things never change. Despite the liberties taken structurally the story feels rather padded and at 135 minutes it could do with at least 20 minutes being cut because the screenplay keeps retreading the same territory and spoonfeeds the audience in issues of equality and womanhood with whole dialogue exchanges that sound as though they’ve come from a contemporary novel. Even Marmee confesses to being angry all the time. The issue of copyright introduces an aspect of authorship in the last section which has a few different endings. Being a creative writer is one thing;  being an editor is quite different. Each serves a purpose and that is to serve the story well. A film that ultimately has as little faith in its audience as publisher Mr Dashwood has in his readership, this is undoubtedly of its time and it can stand the tinkering that has introduced Alcott’s own story into the mix with the ultimate fairytale ending for any writer – holding her first book in her hands.  Produced by Amy Pascal, who also worked on the 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong. Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for

 

 

Radio Days (1987)

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Who is Pearl Harbour? Narrator Joe (Woody Allen) tells the story of two burglars in his childhood neighbourhood of Rockaway Beach, NY, who get caught when they answer the phone to participate in a live radio competition back in the medium’s golden age. The songs trigger childhood memories and we are taken back to his life as a child as Young Joe (Seth Green) immediately prior to and during World War 2 where his mother (Julie Kavner) served breakfast listening to Breakfast With Irene and Roger and his father Martin (Michael Tucker) keeps his occupation a secret from the family until Joe finds out he’s a taxi driver when he hails a cab.  Joe’s favourite show is The Masked Avenger so he has a healthy fantasy life but when he spots a Nazi submarine on the shoreline he fails to alert anyone because he thinks they won’t believe him. Unmarried Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) lives with them and is constantly going out with losers. Joe has heard stories about radio stars and we learn about Sally White (Mia Farrow) a hatcheck girl with acting dreams and a bad accent who sleeps with big names including Roger to get ahead but always gets left behind until she gets her big break when she witnesses a murder … He’s a ventriloquist on the radio! How can you tell he’s not moving his lips? As any fule kno, Rockaway Beach is one of the most inspiring spots in New York. Winning, winsome and witty, this series of vignettes is stitched together with what can only be described as love with nods to famous radio stories including Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, here interrupting a fogbound assignation. One of the funniest tales involves a sportscaster prone to melodrama regaling his audience with the story of a blind one-legged baseball star. Farrow and Wiest get two of the best character arcs, the former’s Singin’ in the Rain-ish storyline turning her from squeaky-voiced trampy wannabe actress to Louella Parsons-type gossip columnist via a run-in with a sympathetic mob hitman Rocco (Danny Aiello) from the old ‘hood; while the latter is terminally disappointed in love including a necessarily brief romance with a white-suited Tom Wolfe lookalike bemoaning the loss of his fiancée who turns out to have been a man called Leonard. Music and songs churn and curdle the endless embarrassment and kind hearted acts as friends, family and neighbours get on with their daily lives when war breaks out. Memories of Annie Hall abound in the voyeuristic kids whose new teacher Miss Gordon (Sydney Blake) turns out to be the exhibitionist they’ve been watching surreptitiously when they were out spotting German aircraft. Brimful of nostalgia and told with fond humour, this concludes on a bittersweet note as these little lives filled with crazy incidents and relatable attitudes acknowledge that they exist vicariously through what is the soundtrack of their lives, driven by the music of all the era’s greats with everyone from Artie Shaw to Duke Ellington and Xavier Cugat featured in the world of this kaleidoscopic narrative, like a lovingly reproduced living postcard. A beautiful, intensely funny and deeply affectionate work of art. I wonder if future generations will ever even hear about us

Knives Out (2019)

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I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects.  When crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies just after his 85th birthday, inquisitive Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives at his estate to investigate despite the presence of police officers (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan). He sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind the writer’s untimely demise as each of the family members and the immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who cared for Harlan is questioned in turn. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a successful businesswoman with a an unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson) and a layabout son Ransom (Chris Evans). Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing company his father founded for his writing output, but they’ve been fighting. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is an advocate of self-help and has been helping herself to the old man’s money. His ancient mother (K Callan) never seems to die. Harlan’s devoted nurse Marta then becomes Harlan’s most trusted confidante but who hired him in the first place? … This is a twisted web, and we are not finished untangling it, not yet. The closed-room murder mystery is a staple of crime fiction and it’s not necessarily where you’d expect writer/director Rian Johnson to turn after a Star Wars episode (The Last Jedi) although it harks back to his debut, Brick, a take on Chandler/Hammett with teenagers. The touchstones are pretty clear:  Agatha Christie; the game (and film) of Clue(do); Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark; and some of the grasping familial mendacity we recognise from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If truth be told, it’s not very mysterious and barely suspenseful with two big twists a regular filmgoer or mystery reader will see through easily which means that they of course are not the point. It’s the dismantling of those hoary old tropes that provides the narrative motor. Much of the entertainment value derives from game comic playing by an established cast with a soupçon of political commentary provided by the nurse’s immigrant status which leads to a good line featuring Broadway hit Hamilton and everyone gets her native country wrong, one of the running jokes. Another is her need to vomit when telling a lie. The other one is stretching out the syllables in Benoit’s name so it sounds like Ben wa although personally I find Craig more prophylactic than sex toy and his ‘tec is Poirot X Columbo with an affected drawl. It looks quite sober and already feels like Sunday evening TV. For the undemanding viewer. CSI KFC!

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

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Aka Die Ehe der Maria Braun. I don’t know a thing about business. But I do know what German women want. You might even say I’m an expert on it. Near the end of World War II, Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch), who is immediately sent off to battle at the Russian front before the marriage can be consummated. When the war concludes, Maria believes that Hermann is dead. The new widow tries to make a go of life on her own and she starts working at an Allied bar, where she meets black American GI Bill (George Byrd). They start a relationship that is interrupted when Hermann returns unexpectedlyyy. During a scuffle between the men, in the heat of the moment Maria accidentally kills Bill. Hermann takes the blame and goes to jail, while Maria begins a hard new life and builds an empire of her own … He kept me warm on those cold nights after the war. Practically a German take on Mildred Pierce with the miraculous Schygulla giving Joan Crawford a run for her money (Fassbinder had intended the role for Romy Schneider) in the post-war noir-ish businesswoman stakes, this is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fiercely sardonic take on marriage and money set in a new kind of Germany with a nod to Brecht. Life for women involves transactional sex which is justified as the ultimate practicality: I don’t care what people think. I do care what you think. And you’re not having an affair with me. I’m having an affair with you. The entire text bleeds fascism – how politics is funneled through culture to create a political landscape, whether we like it or not, infecting everyone who inhabits it.  This is the first of Fassbinder’s three Wirtschaftswunder films and is a key work of the New German Cinema with an ending that literally detonates before your eyes. Eva describes herself as the Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle and this dissects desire in all its forms. The screenplay is by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Mörthesheimer who also wrote the dialogue with director Fassbinder, based on his outline (and he plays a small role in the drama).  It’s a perfect blend of subject matter, realisation and performance, graced with stunning cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. Reality lags behind my consciousness