Spellbound (1945)

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If there’s anything I hate, it’s a smug woman. Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives at Green Manors, a Vermont mental hospital, to replace the outgoing hospital director, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll).  Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), a psychoanalyst, discovers he is an impostor. The man confesses that the real Dr. Edwardes is dead and he believes he might have killed him, but cannot recall anything. Dr. Peterson, however is convinced he is innocent and joins him on a quest to unravel his amnesia through psychoanalysis…That Freud stuff’s a bunch of hooey/Oh, you are a fine one to talk! You have a guilt complex and amnesia and you don’t know if you are coming or going from somewhere, but Freud is hooey! *This* you know! Hmph! Wiseguy.  Adapted by Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht (with uncredited contributions from David O. Selznick’s psychiatrist May Romm!) from the 1927 novel The House of Dr Edwardes by Hilary Saint George Saunders and John Palmer, this is the Hitchcock film that brought Salvador Dali to Hollywood and those dream sequences (only 2 of the original 20 minutes remain) are a fascinating component of a film that also boasts notable theremin work in the score by Miklós Rózsa. Peck and Bergman are quite wonderful in a story that has a solidly suspenseful plot with many surprises. It’s a mad film that isn’t so much directed as orchestrated and the melodramatic flourishes are perfectly pitched. A brilliant synthesis of talents and ideas that were all aswirl as Freudianism gripped America, awash with dream symbolism and nutty psychoanalysis, it is also fascinating to see Michael (Mikhail) Chekhov, the acting coach who famously trained talents as diverse as Marilyn Monroe and Jack Nicholson, in the role of Dr Alex Brulov, Constance’s mentor. Hitchcock regular Carroll is good as the inscrutable head of the hospital, while Rhonda Fleming has a nice supporting role as a patient.  Good night and sweet dreams… which we’ll analyze at breakfast

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Junior Bonner (1972)

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Rodeo time, I gotta get it on down the road/What road? I mean, I’m workin’ on my first million, and you’re still workin’ on eight seconds. Middle-aged rodeo rider Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen) returns to his Arizona hometown where he reunites with his family, which includes his charming, troublemaker of a father, Ace (Robert Preston), and his ambitious real estate-developer brother Curly (Joe Don Baker). Mom Elvira (Ida Lupino) is estranged from her husband. So while Ace dreams of finding his fortune in Australia, Junior is determined to conquer a tough bull named Sunshine by riding it for eight seconds. Can Junior claim victory over Sunshine and stay in the rodeo business?… Junior, you’re my brother, and I guess I love you. Well, we’re family. I don’t care what you do. You can sell one lot or a hundred lots. I’m just tryin’ to keep us together. Directed by Sam Peckinpah from a script by Jeb Rosebrook, this is a wonderful, warm, sympathetic portrait of a man having issues with ageing, returning home to a scrappy if welcoming family in a changing West and finally figuring out who he is. This is another Peckinpah film about the coming of modernity to the frontier and when we see The Wild Bunch embroidered on a suited-and-booted rider’s saddle blanket it’s just one thread of symbolic commentary in the bountiful narrative. There’s a great use of split-screen for the Prescott rodeo and the performances are memorable in an affecting, compelling film, probably Peckinpah’s most gentle outing with an undertow of violence beneath the gentility and quest for honour. McQueen is brilliant as the cowboy staking his claim. There’s one of him, and one of me

120 BPM (2017)

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Les membres du groupe de sensibilisation ACT UP Paris demandent au gouvernement et aux sociétés pharmaceutiques de prendre des mesures pour lutter contre l’épidémie de sida au début des années 90. Nathan (Arnaud Valois), nouveau venu dans le groupe, voit son monde bouleversé par Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), militant radical et cofondateur de ACT UP, qui jette ses dernières forces dans la lutte alors qu’il fait face à Le diagnostic de ‘poz’ ayant été infecté par son professeur de maths marié quand il était au lycée lors de sa première rencontre sexuelle … À première vue, ce n’est pas une prémisse attrayante pour un film. Mais ce qui suit est un travail passionnant, impliquant un travail mêlant intimité et conscience sexuelle et action politique, interprété avec un réalisme de type naturalisme et documentaire qui dépeint avec vérité les problèmes de la participation d’activistes et la question de Big Pharma, contrastant tragédies personnelles et action Dans la rue, la poussière disco se mue en images du virus du SIDA dans le sang, réalisme magique rencontrant une honnêteté sans faille. Les réunions du groupe sont entrecoupées de marches, de visites non sollicitées à Melton Pharm, dont les produits sont toxiques et causent la mort, et de danses dans les clubs. Sean et Nathan partagent leurs histoires alors qu’ils s’impliquent dans l’amour et que leurs amis meurent. Le déclin de Nathan est dépeint avec sympathie et la présence sur son corps suscite une révérence et une humanité qui ont rarement été capturées au cinéma: littéralement, il s’agit du corps politique. Passionnant, enthousiasmant, émouvant, c’est une œuvre profonde du cinéma politique et de la réalisation de films de bravoure. Brillamment réalisé par Robin Campillo qui l’a co-écrit avec Philippe Mangeot. La photo aérienne de Paris la nuit divisée par une rivière qui coule du sang (teintée en rouge pour la Journée internationale du sida) n’est pas oubliée. Essentiel.

 

Fame (1980)

Fame 1980

I mean, if I don’t have a personality of my own, so what? I’m an actress! I can put on as many personalities as I want! Accepted in the Drama department of New York’s High School for the Performing Arts are sensitive Montgomery MacNeil (Paul McCrane) who thinks he’s gay, Doris Finsecker (Maureen Teefy), a shy Jewish girl, and brash Ralph Garci (Barry Miller) who succeeds after failed auditions for Music and Dance. In the Music department, Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri) is an aspiring keyboardist whose electronic equipment horrifies Mr. Shorofsky (Albert Hague), a conservative music teacher. Lisa Monroe (Laura Dean) is accepted in the Dance department, despite having no interest in the subject. Brazen Coco Hernandez (Irene Cara) is accepted in all three departments because of her all-around talent. Leroy Johnson (Gene Anthony Ray) goes to the school, performing as part of a dance routine for an auditioning friend, but the dance teachers are more impressed by his talents than hers. We follow the progress of the students through four years of high school until it’s time for graduation …  I’s young, I’s single, and I loves to mingle! Time to ‘fess up:  like all kids of the Eighties my Thursday nights were Top of the Pops followed by Fame, the TV show inspired by this Alan Parker film. And two of the highlights of my life were – therefore – seeing the back of Lee Curreri at NBC when he was recording a kids’ show; and some years later, Debbie Allen (Lydia the taskmaster dance teacher) leading the parade at New Orleans Mardi Gras, cher! That’s the fame of Fame, which had us delirious on all platforms before the term came into use. Its diverse cast pleases millennial taste although the un-PC jokes (about being gay, Jewish, black, female) would probably tee off some. It’s an equal opportunities offender! Personable, characterful, there’s one for everybody in the audience which is why everyone could relate. It’s bold and dramatic and fun and the Hot Lunch sequence makes you squeal with sheer enjoyment while the songs are just great.  Some of the plot lines strain to reach a conclusion and it’s not exactly tied up with a big red bow at the end, but you know, it’s kinda wonderful in an enervating way and no way can you not sing with delight and dance yourself dizzy watching it again! The film within a film is The Rocky Horror Picture Show and for those of us who used to go see it as a weekly performing event it’s a fabulous aide memoire. Shot at a time when Annie and Grease were on Broadway, this is a liberating, joyful viewing experience and the cast are wildly talented and charismatic in a NYC before it was cleaned up.  It’s simply teeming with infectious energy, danger, ambition and inchoate teenage rage. Written by Christopher Gore.  Music is the hardest profession of them all

Crazy Heart (2009)

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You woke me up. Former country-music legend 57-year old Otis ‘Bad’ Blake (Jeff Bridges) is so broke he’s reduced to playing dives and bowling alleys in various desert venues in the Southwest. He’s always retching from a combination of long-term heavy drinking, cancer and emphysema. In town for his latest gig, Blake meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a sympathetic reporter and the niece of a talented pianist whom he’s hired as part of his pick-up band, who has come to do a story on him. He unexpectedly warms to her and a romance begins, with Bad taking to her four-year old son Buddy and regaining a kind of balance that even the need to support and write songs for his protegé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) can’t undo.  Then he finds himself at a crossroads that may threaten his last shot at happiness when he opts to have a drink one day when he’s looking after Buddy I’ve been drunk most of my life. I missed a hell of a lot. Adapted from Thomas Cobb’s eponymous book by writer, producer and director Scott Cooper, this is a tale of a mellow fellow on the outs. Played beautifully by Bridges, he’s the kinda guy that probably inspired Bradley Cooper to top himself in the latest iteration of A Star is Born:  oozing talent but permanently dying for want of a drink, ageing without mercy.  He’s got an opportunity to contact the son he hasn’t seen in 24 years and he blows it horribly. It’s a compelling portrait and Bridges is matched by not only Gyllenhaal who has some moving scenes with him, but such a ridiculous cast of co-stars – Robert Duvall (who also produces) hires him to play at his bar while the great Tom Bowers is the proprietor of a liquor store. A warm drama about a likable if flawed protagonist who’s got one last shot – and a whole lot more lined up in the bar. Bridges is an avatar for real-life country hero Merle Haggard and with original songs written by T. Bone Burnett this is a treat for music fans. That’s the way it is with good ones, you’re sure you’ve heard them before

John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010)

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Nobody ever gets out. In North Bend Psychiatric Hospital in rural Oregon, 1966 a patient called Tammy dies in strange and violent circumstances. Kristen (Amber Heard) is committed there after she burns down a house. She is suffering from amnaesia.  It seems an angry spirit of a former patient is haunting the girls (Mamie Gummer, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Danielle Panabaker) who are being treated on her ward and they are disappearing one by one. Dr Gerald Springer (Jared Harris) pays Kristen no heed and in fact subjects her to terrible medical treatment when she warns of the girl called Alice Hudson who was a former inmate and whose ghost stalks the corridors. What did the others do to her to make her swear revenge? And why is she included? Kristen makes desperate escape attempts after the staff ignore her fear of losing her life to the spirit… You stay locked up long enough and you start to believe that you’re nuts. You’ll recognise some visual references to other films here – and what else would you expect from the maestro John Carpenter? This is a small-scale exercise in tropes from the medical horror sub-genre with an attractive cast playing it for real, even if there’s something of a tribute to Nurse Ratched by Susanna Burney in this Sixties-set Snake Pit. It may turn on the most rudimentary issues and beliefs of psychiatry and ideas about how a personality might take steps to insulate against past traumas but it’s probably true to the era. In the midst of the Mean Girls scenario are some observations about how people deal with being institutionalised in physically violent and threatening environments. However it’s fast and fun and efficiently dramatised by the great Carpenter. Written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen. Sleep tight, sugar!

First Man (2018)

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You’re down here and you look up and you don’t think about it too much. But, space exploration changes your perception. Following the death of his daughter, pilot and engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) applies to train as an astronaut and participate in the Project Gemini space program, NASA’s project to put a man on the moon by the end of the Sixties. From 1961 through the Apollo 11 landing of July 1969,  details of the different phases of the mission and their effects are dramatised involving his co-pilots and his family … I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it, allows us to see things. That maybe we should have seen a long time ago. But, just haven’t been able to until now. Josh Singer adapted James R. Hansen’s biographical book about the man who took a step into the future and history, all at once. It reunites the LA LA Land dream team, Gosling and auteur Damien Chazelle, and the theme is announced in an early line of dialogue about gaining a different perspective on things. What’s wonderful about this – in the true sense, exhibiting wonder – is that it bridges the chasm between inner (human) and outer space:  this is a story of scale and it offers man-size thrills. Armstrong is no less an enigma here than elsewhere but the link between his tiny daughter’s death from a brain tumour and what he needs to do to come to terms with it is the unique narrative trope that humanises him and gives the filmmakers those private moments that enable us to have a sympathetic insight:  when he’s working out his engineering problems, he’s also writing up medical notes on little Karen’s progress;  after her funeral he pulls the curtains on his study and sits down to cry, alone, at the same desk where he charted her reaction to treatment. This is a portrait of a very private man whose profound sense of loss actually untethers him. The payoff and the personal clarification – and perhaps fulfillment, or even annihilation – because Armstrong’s characterisation is a masterclass in avoidance and obfuscation – is finally achieved when he goes on that moonwalk and leaves something of Karen on the surface of the mysterious object that he watches each night, from earth. In between there are missions and experiments and deaths, terrible deaths. Crashing into buildings in fog. Burning alive. As Armstrong points out, better to fail down here so that we don’t fail up there. And it all takes place against a febrile political background and rivalry with the Soviet Union. What’s radical about this is how lo-fi the technology is – and if you’ve been to Cape Canaveral you’ll know how everything seems to be made from balsa wood and tin foil, something that Janet points out to Armstrong’s platitudinising boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler):  You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!  Indeed, one on-board problem is solved with a Swiss Army knife. Foy offers heat where Gosling gives us cool; together their expressivity makes a whole person and dramatises the emotion inherent in such a dangerous pursuit. She has a new baby to care for;  when he is in crisis he is visited by memories of his daughter, his hands running through her hair. The other astronauts are a variable bunch and it’s Ed White (Jason Clarke) to whom Armstrong finally mentions his dead daughter, years after they’ve first met;  and it’s the fairly noxious Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) whom he advises to be more diplomatic who winds up accompanying him on the greatest journey of them all. This is brilliantly told, from the point of view of the only man who could have explained, but didn’t. The pictures from the space craft are small, the size he would have seen. Expressions are minimal. The risk is exceptional. The awe in the final section is everything. These men truly walked with death. But there could only ever be one man to do it first and it’s a staggering personal expression of earthbound grief, finally freed. This is a film of feeling. Watch. And wonder.

The Greengage Summer (1961)

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Aka The Loss of Innocence. Tinker tailor soldier sailor rich man poor man beggar man thief.  Left alone because of their mother’s sudden hospitalisation at the start of a family holiday in France, four British children have to fend for themselves. They stay at an elegant hotel booked by their mother in advance, where, despite the reticence of owner Madame Zisi (Danielle Darrieux), they are befriended by her English lover, the mysterious Eliot (Kenneth More).  Sixteen-year old Joss (Susannah York), the eldest of the children, runs afoul of Madame Zisi, who thinks Eliot is spending too much time with her and causes a scene. Thirteen-year old Hester (Jane Asher) is shocked when Eliot reacts violently as she attempts to take his photo while he takes them sightseeing.  He is forced to abandon early their trip to the caves at Champagne when France’s best policeman M. Renard (Raymond Jérome) shows up. As Joss deals with her burgeoning attraction to Eliot, handyman Paul (David Saire) becomes attracted to her. When Zisi lashes out at young Joss, whom she believes Eliot loves, Paul takes advantage of the situation and gets Joss drunk and the aftermath unleashes her own jealousy …  If this is how grown ups feel they’re worse pigs than I thought Sensitively adapted by Howard Koch from Rumer Godden’s novel, this is a lovely portrait of adolescence, with the gorgeous young York very convincing and blossoming as an actress right before our eyes in a nicely mounted production whose sole flaw is rather fatal – the miscasting of More, nobody’s idea of a romantic enigma, still less a jewel thief of some renown. This is such an interesting story typical of Godden’s work – of the different worlds occupied by children and adults, of jealousy, of misunderstandings:  when Paul tries to explain to Hester that hotel manager Madame Corbet (Claude Nollier) is also jealous of Eliot’s relationship with Zisi he realises she does not understand Lesbianism;  Joss deeply resents Eliot calling her a child and it is that which triggers the disastrous conclusion;  the final shots, which imply that even now, after her sudden transition into womanhood, Joss doesn’t fully comprehend what she has done.  Everyone seemed to agree that the role of Eliot should really have been played by Dirk Bogarde, but it wasn’t and More wanted it desperately and he’s all wrong. His scenes with York are uncomfortable. Still, there are other pleasures to be had in this atmospheric depiction of a heavy summer, not least seeing Bessie Love, the great silent star, in a small role as an American tourist. Directed by Lewis Gilbert.

A Little Something for Your Birthday (2017)

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Picasso didn’t have two decades of credit card debt to pay. Designer Senna Berges (Sharon Stone) is desperate to find her soulmate.  As she attempts to pursue her passion for fashion, she changes jobs and has occasional relationships and hookups with younger men. Everything seems to be unsettled for the supposedly ditzy Senna until her 46th birthday party where she meets Adam (Tony Goldwyn):  has the free spirit found her match?… Isn’t it the unnecessary things in life that make the human experience so fascinating? We meet Senna in bed with a guy she picked up the night before and as she’s kicking him out the door he’s inviting her to see his band play at the Whisky on Saturday. Good! Writer/director Susan Walter’s screenplay was on the Hollywood Blacklist a decade back – screenplays that were liked by development executives but not produced (yet). This finally occasioned a debut for Walter and how happy for the viewer she’s cast some great women in her film – Ellen Burstyn and the underrated Famke Janssen, with Caitlin FitzGerald who some of us know fondly from Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated. Ah, romcoms. In which women who have a great existence still need that Special One to trim their corners and calm them down and make them Find Meaning tethered to a kitchen sink and a pram, as though one man could ever satisfy a woman. How on this good earth could one man ever be enough for the great Sharon Stone?! And why?! Remember what Katharine Hepburn said about marriage:  Why exchange the admiration of many for the criticism of one? So we have the meet sorta cute, the romance (years later), the parting, the re-evaluation, the pukerama of piece to camera interviews (Harry, Sally-ish) with women ruing their mistakes, and the finale with someone closer in age to our heroine than those attentive one-night stands. We meet Senna every year, on her birthday, in a nice structural touch, for seven years, and the relationship hits different beats as she matures and her expectations and work situations alter. Whatever: despite the midlife crisis craziness it still explores a kind of desperation that links Senna’s lack of business acumen with relationship non-savvy. Why is it wrong to have multiple relationships with guys twenty years younger? This certainly doesn’t tell us! Maybe that’s a good thing:  we can find out for ourselves, thank you. Burstyn has some stingers in a salty mother-daughter relationship:  Darla never told me you were dating a foetus; Janssen is the monster upon whom Senna exercises a nice bit of payback;  while Fitzgerald is the romantic competition. It’s pleasant entertainment with a hint of revenge, success and, what a woman wants, a woman eventually gets. Men don’t fall in love with women who don’t take themselves seriously.  Really?

 

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

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Every weapon is a tool if you hold it the right way. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system. Denzel Washington stars as a driven, idealistic defence attorney whose life is upended when his mentor, civil rights icon William Jackson, dies after being in a permanent vegetative state following a heart attack.  Roman has been the backroom boy, a kind of savant talent unaccustomed to the rough and tumble of the courtroom where he immediately gets cited for contempt. He desperately needs money having no recourse to compensation for job loss.  He is recruited to join a firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students – the ambitious George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – and begins a friendship with Maya (Carmen Ejogo) a young champion of equal rights at a community centre but his old-fashioned views drive him out of an activists’ meeting. He is assigned to a case to defend a young black man who apparently assisted a man in the murder of a store worker. Roman receives privileged information about the shooter. What he does with that information turns his life upside down, triggering a turbulent series of events that put the activism that has defined his career to the test... What a freak. Admittedly while being a fan of the hugely talented Dan Gilroy this was a project I was half-dreading. The prospect of the great Denzel in a Black Panther  ‘fro, doing a quasi-autistic act put me right off:  it seemed like an actual throwback, the good guy against The Man. Indeed, his former employer is a hero to the civil rights movement which places this neatly in a time warp. However, from the Gil Scott-Heron soundtrack, literally permitting us entry into Roman’s brain, iPod permanently clamped to his head, this (eventually) sidesteps neatly around expectations in an LA-style shuffle.  It shifts at the midpoint sequence, when Roman takes his newly acquired money and treats himself first to maple turkey donuts (OMG) at the beach and buys some decent suits and Italian shoes to fit into the sleek new workplace. And then he gets a case that turns everything around and that buzzing in his ears isn’t interference, it’s the sound of justifiable paranoia due to inexplicable ethical failure. This is a different kind of LA-based alienation (and conscience) than that explored by Gilroy in Nightcrawler but when it ultimately gains traction (and it takes its sweet time) it’s hard not to like. The bigger plot point is one that is barely dealt with:  his lifelong class action project to defeat the plea bargaining scam that sees disproportionate numbers of black men in prison. Good construction, subtly pitting Roman Vs. George in the final third (and then against himself, in a neat legal argument) makes this a compelling protagonist-antagonist drama with a rather pleasing twist to a story that questions how far idealism can last in a world driven by the need to survive and the guilt that sometimes follows the money, no matter how badly it’s needed. How Roman changes George is the whole point in a strange character study that has echoes of the terrific Michael Tolkin screenplay for Changing Lanes;  how George’s bad guy persona infiltrates Roman’s value system is a sinister aspect defeated by the film’s conclusion which has it both ways.  I am the defendant and the plaintiff simultaneously. I know you get it!