The Big Combo (1955)

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First is first. Second is nobody.  Police lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde)  comes under pressure from a gang headed by a vicious mobster Brown (Conte) but his superiors don’t want him to follow the case due to lack of evidence. He is helped by the gangster’s supposedly dead wife Alicia (Helen Walker) who is mentally ill and jealous at her husband’s affair with another woman, the suicidal Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), with whom Diamond becomes obsessed and who supplies him with information to help him close the net on his foe.  In the meantime a gangster presumed still alive turns out to have been murdered and Brown’s cohorts are planning upheaval … An astonishing gangster film, a fetid fever dream of sadism, sexual obsession and suicidal tendencies (moreso than an exploitation flick about the mob). Philip Yordan’s screenplay is as tough as they come and Conte’s incarnation of the vicious Brown is a performance for the ages. But it is a film of striking performances and Wallace (Wilde’s real-life wife) had herself tried to commit suicide a couple of times so this co-production between their company and Yordan and producer Sidney Harmon’s must have hit a number of home truths. The women here are a diverse and fascinating bunch:  Helene Stanton as dancer Rita has a brief appearance but she looks so different from other actresses of the era you won’t forget her. Brown’s handicapped mentor Brian Donlevy’s point of view of experiencing being shot (minus sound) is mesmerising and the cinematography by John Alton is jaw-dropping:  the use of light in the final sequence is historic [you’ll find some of these shots on the covers of film noir studies].  David Raksin’s music sets the scene with his innovative jazz-influenced bursts underscoring the key movements – but the music in the torture scene is from Shorty Rogers and His Giants (with the deafening drum solo by Shelly Manne). Directed with his usual unforgiving pace by Joseph H. Lewis. Extraordinary.

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9 to 5 (1980)

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Okay, I’m gonna leave, but let me tell you one thing before I go: don’t you ever refer to me as ‘your girl’ again.  Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda) is forced into the workplace after her divorce from husband Dick (Lawrence Pressman). She is introduced around Consolidated Companies by supervisor and widowed mom Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin) who is routinely put down by boss Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman) who steals her ideas for updating office practice. His married secretary Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton) is presumed by everyone to be his mistress – because that’s what he tells them.  The three women spend a night together having drug-induced fantasies of killing him. Doralee panics the following day when she suspects she really has poisoned the tyrant but it’s all a misunderstanding and they then swear revenge on the sexist liar by kidnapping him and running the company themselves… This has a really great premise:  three women take on a male chauvinist sex-harassing idea-stealing embezzling pig and…  forty minutes in it descends into a drug-fuelled fantasy and absurdist farce and everything falls apart. With one of the most charismatic casts you’ll ever encounter and singing star Parton making a fantastic screen debut you’ll wonder how this was so poorly conceived.  It was all Fonda’s idea and Patricia Resnick did the first draft before production and it evolved from a labour drama into a straightforward comedy. We are literally taken away from the scene of the action – the office – and back to Hart’s house where he swings from the ceiling in an apparatus that looks like it’s from an S&M store. Writer-director Colin (Foul Play) Higgins (who rewrote it) wrecks his own movie as he loses the plot but it’s still good-natured and did bonzo box office and even led to a TV series, due in no small part to the amazing title song which Parton composed during filming as she tapped her acrylic nails along to the rhythm of the typewriters.  Higgins said the cast were a joy and he went on to do The Best Little Whore House in Texas with Dolly. All’s well that ends well!

Dinner for Schmucks (2010)

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Any one of you would throw me under the bus for a bigger bonus, but Barry would throw himself under a car to protect a mouse… that was already dead. Tim (Paul Rudd) a rising executive, works for cut-throat boss Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) who hosts a monthly event in which the guest who brings the biggest idiot gets a career boost. Though he declines the invitation at first, he’s ambitious and he changes his mind when he meets IRS employee Barry (Steve Carell), a man who builds dioramas using stuffed mice. He must be the biggest moron of all time! The scheme backfires when Barry’s blundering good intentions send Tim’s life into a downward spiral, inviting an old one-night stand Darla (Lucy Punch) over not realising she’s Tim’s stalker.   It all  threatens a major business deal and possibly scuttles Tim’s romantic relationship with Julie (Stephanie Szostak).  Then it’s dinner time … Directed by Jay Roach who knows his way around comedy, this remake of the French film Le Dîner des cons treads a fine line between mockery and viciousness pretty deftly. Partly this is down to the writing (screenplay by Michael Handelman and David Guion from Francis Veber’s original) and party it’s down to the sweetness and nobility that Carell brings to his particular spin on stupidity and the niceness Rudd brings to his potentially nasty piece of work. In other words, either of these guys could be a schmuck. The original is excruciating:  this is somewhat milder, a black comedy with a heart, sporting a cast of lesser and greater American (and some Brit) comic actors. Wait for the dinner!

The Dark Tower (2017)

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Darkness is your weapon, guns are mine.  Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last Gunslinger, is locked in an eternal battle with evil sorcerer Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), aka the Man in Black. The Gunslinger must prevent the Man in Black from toppling the Dark Tower, the key that holds the universe together. With the fate of worlds at stake, two men collide in the ultimate battle between good and evil. with the Man in Black using the powers of clairvoyant children to target the Tower with their minds. This takes place in Mid-World, a parallel universe to present day New York where teenaged Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is being sent to therapists because of his inability to deal with his father’s death, his new stepfather and these mythical characters from his dreams that he draws … I’m not invested in the later works of Stephen King the way I am in the classic era of his 70s and 80s output so the poor reception for this adaptation of his bestselling saga didn’t bother me. As a viewer, no matter the origins, it does bother me however. A mythical exercise, it boasts King’s usually passionate and symbolic argument this time set in a wasteland but the short running time (91 minutes) gives you a clue that they knew this was a dog with whole sub-plots reduced to shards of suggestion. Reducing an eight-volume 3,000 word story of graphic violence nodding to Tolkien, the Arthur legends and spaghetti westerns to this length for a young audience may be one explanation. Apparently Akiva Goldsman took the central section as the principal material but that doesn’t excuse the shonky CGI and silly fights.  Elba does his serious spittle-enhanced enunciating act waving guns around while McConaughey skirts the edges of camp as the evil sorcerer/disco dancer whose very words can cause instant death. An oddity that had real promise but if you ever saw The Neverending Story you’ll have seen this, pretty much and if you recall The Shining you’ll know that calling Jake’s talent The Shine really reminds us of something far better in the meta-universe.  Directed by Nikolaj Arcel with a screenplay by him, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinker and Anders Thomas Jensen.

Mermaids (1990)

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Weird things happen. It’s 1963. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte Flax (Winona Ryder) is tired of her wacky mom (Cher) moving their family any time she feels it is necessary. When they move to a small Massachusetts town Mrs. Flax begins dating kindly shopkeeper Lou (Bob Hoskins) whose wife has run away. Charlotte and her 9-year-old swimming enthusiast sister, Kate (Christina Ricci), hope that they can finally settle down. But when Charlotte’s attraction to an older man Joe (Michael Schoeffling) the convent’s caretaker gets in the way, the family must learn to accept each other for who they truly are just as the President is assassinated and the nation mourns…  June Roberts’ adaptation of Patty Dann’s book is adept and appropriate, giving Winona Ryder one of her best roles and she plays it beautifully. Funny, warm and engaging, this works on so many levels but it doesn’t dodge the effect of maternal neglect – which is also a case of overpowering personality:  Charlotte’s fantasy fugue to New Haven is a sharp reminder that mother-daughter relationships are a minefield and when the daughter starts imitating the mother’s promiscuous behaviour (in between attempts to live like a Catholic saint) Mom doesn’t like it and there’s collateral damage. The girls are not products of marriages – just a teen romance and a one-night stand with an Olympic athlete (maybe) and when things get tough, Mom always gets going.  It’s Charlotte who wants to settle down. There’s a wonderful running joke about Mom’s inability to prepare any food other than hors d’oeuvres or sandwiches served with star-shaped cookie cutters. With great dialogue, lovely scene-setting and on the button performances (Cher giving one of her best), there’s nothing in this well-judged comedy drama you can’t like even though it unexpectedly swerves directions, more than once.  The characters are still sympathetic despite being curiously narcissistic:  that’s good writing. Cher tops it off with The Shoop Shoop Song! Directed by Richard Benjamin.

Awakenings (1990)

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I’m not very good with people.  It’s 1969.  Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) is a research neurologist who finds himself working with people for the first time at a public hospital in the Bronx, NYC. He is confronted with older catatonic patients who he discovers lost their capacity for communication following the encephalitis lethargica epidemic of 1917-1928. Once he realises there is more to them than just reflex actions he sets up righting decades of ignorance and experiments with doses of L-Dopa intended for Parkinsonian symptoms, starting with Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) whose immediate response is remarkable and triggers Sayer’s campaign to have it given to the others. He is supported by Nurse Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner) and he helps Leonard’s mother (Ruth Nelson) come to terms with her son’s maturity – she thinks he is still the little boy she once knew. Leonard wants to socialise and develops a relationship with Paula (Penelope Ann Miller) the daughter of another patient but when it comes time to argue for more personal freedom Leonard starts to manifest facial tics and the dosages have to be revised as the realisation that his patient’s awakening may be temporary dawns on Sayer …  The late Oliver Sacks’ books were a thing in the Eighties – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was a very cool set of case studies and the stories in Awakenings gave Harold Pinter the inspiration for A Kind of Alaska.  This raises issues about what being alive really means and who knows best and what’s in the patient’s interest. It however strays into Rain Man territory and one is given pause for thought by De Niro’s early (and later) gurning catatonic impersonation when Tropic Thunder‘s warnings about ‘going full retard’ come to mind. This falls into the slush trap one too many times yet paradoxically it’s meticulously constructed as the real awakening is that of Sayer – to pain, feeling, response, caring.  Written by Steven Zaillian and directed by Penny Marshall who has a way with the performers but the treacly score doesn’t help. It’s nice to see John Heard and the wonderful Julie Kavner in significant supporting roles. There is probably a big ironic meta-cinematic text here considering drug buddies Williams and De Niro were the last people to see John Belushi alive and they communicate with each other here via a Ouija Board but I’m sure I don’t know what that is. The drugs don’t work? Perhaps. Read Sacks’ books instead, they’re amazing.

Se7en (1995)

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Just because he’s got a library card doesn’t make him Yoda.  Police Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has a week left on the job when he is set the task of tackling a final case with the aid of newly transferred David Mills (Brad Pitt), they discover a number of elaborate and grizzly murders. They soon realize they are dealing with a serial killer calling himself John Doe who is targeting people he thinks represent one of the seven deadly sins. Somerset befriends Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is pregnant and afraid to raise her child in the crime-riddled city. By using an illegal FBI trick of tracking certain public library book titles they find a likely suspect and enter an apartment building where they’re attacked by a gunman who just might be their target but there are two more sins to go …  Andrew Kevin Walker’s dense and sharply written script is given an astonishingly immersive workout by director David Fincher and it’s one of the key films of the Nineties. Into those rain-slicked NYC streets run two great movie policemen, the grizzled Freeman and the ambitious impatient young Pitt who take such a long time to get into each other’s working rhythm. And when they do, they’re chasing the man who’s really chasing them.  This is a brutal, violent work which raises torture to a kind of poetic, along the lines of John Doe’s literary inspirations, Dante and Thomas Aquinas. As he works through the various sins the sheer horror of the scenes still shocks. This wouldn’t be the last of Walker’s dark screenplays but in some ways he has never written anything as truly horrifying as the last scene shot in the bright outdoors in stark contrast to the claustrophobic interiors that characterise the sadism at the center of the narrative. There’s a subliminal cut which will make you think you’ve seen something you haven’t. Oh my gosh this is absolutely compelling. Even if his brain weren’t mush which it is he chewed off his tongue long ago.

Maudie (2016)

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Show me how you see the world. The story of Maud Lewis née Dowley, a folk artist from Nova Scotia. She (Sally Hawkins) is an arthritic woman living with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) in the 1930s. Maud is shocked to learn that her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) has sold their family home, which their parents had left to him. In the meantime, she is berated by Ida about going out to a local dance. At a store, Maud sees the inarticulate and rough fish peddler Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) place an advertisement for a cleaning lady. Maud answers the call and takes the position for room and board. Everett’s house is very small, and the two share a bed, causing scandal in the town, with gossip that Maud is offering sexual services. While attempting to clean the shack, Maud paints a shelf. She then begins painting flowers and birds on the walls to make it look better. She meets one of Everett’s customers, Sandra (Kari Matchett) from New York City, who is intrigued by Maud’s paintings and buys cards Maud has decorated. She later commissions Maud to make a larger painting for five dollars. Maud persuades Everett to marry her, while her paintings receive more exposure in print coverage and sales begin at the house. US VP Richard Nixon contacts the Lewises to obtain one. After the couple appears on TV news, Everett becomes disturbed that local viewers see him as cold and cruel. Ida, increasingly ill, also saw the coverage, and Maud wishes to see her before Ida dies. Ida tells Maud that she is the only Dowley who ever found happiness, and confesses Maud’s baby girl did not die deformed. Charles had sold her to an old couple.  Everett becomes convinced the relationship has brought nothing but emotional anguish to both of them. The two separate… It starts rather unpromisingly, this story of a strange, somewhat retarded woman whose existence has proven difficult for her aunt – the reference to ‘what happened last time’ after Maudie sneaks out to a dance hall and drinks is an illegitimate baby a late revelation which triggers the emotive last third, in which her difficult and occasionally violent husband seems to finally reconcile himself with his lot and brings Maudie to see her adopted daughter, now married and living in a pretty whiteboard house. The final scene in the hospital is diffident, as is much of the film, which cries out for a more in-depth treatment of this problem life and naive art. Stick with it even if Hawkins drives you potty. Shot in Newfoundland, for some reason. Written by Sherry Wright and directed by Aisling Walsh.

Captain Fantastic (2016)

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I’m writing down everything you say – in my mind. Disillusioned anti-capitalist intellectual Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his absent wife Leslie (she’s in a psychiatric facility) and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society,  their kids are being educated them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie commits suicide, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time to attend her funeral in New Mexico where her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) fear for what is happening to their grandchildren and Ben is forced to confront the fact that the survivalist politics he has imbued in his offspring may not prepare them for real life… This starts with the killing of an animal in a ritual you might find in the less enlightened tribes. (Why did killing a deer become a thing a year ago?) Ben is teaching his eldest son Bodevan (George McKay) to be a man. But this is a twenty-first century tribe who are doing their own atavistic thing – just not in the name of Jesus (and there’s a funny scene in which they alienate a policeman by pretending to do just that) but that of Noam Chomsky. “I’ve never even heard of him!” protests their worried grandfather. Hearing the words “Stick it to the man!” coming out of a five year old is pretty funny in this alt-socialist community but the younger son in the family Rellian (Nicholas Rellian) believes Ben is crazy and has caused Leslie’s death and wants out.  Ironically and as Ben explains at an excruciating dinner with the brother in law (Steve Zahn) it was having children that caused her post-partum psychosis from which this brilliant lawyer never recovered. This stressor between father and younger son drives much of the conflict – that and Leslie’s Buddhist beliefs which are written in her Will and direct the family to have her cremated even though her parents inter her in a cemetery which the kids call a golf course. And Bodevan conceals the fact that he and Mom have been plotting his escape to one of the half dozen Ivy League colleges to which he’s been accepted. The irony that Ben is protecting his highly politicised kids from reality by having them celebrate Chomsky’s birthday when they don’t even know what a pair of Nikes are and have never heard of Star Trek is smart writing. Everything comes asunder when there are accidents as a result of the dangers to which he exposes them. This is a funny and moving portrait of life off the grid, with Mortensen giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as the man constantly at odds with the quotidian whilst simultaneously being a pretty great dad. McKay is terrific as the elder son who’s utterly unprepared for a romantic encounter in a trailer park. It really is tough to find your bliss. As delightful as it is unexpected, this is a lovely character study. Written and directed by Matt Ross.

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.