The Shack (2017)

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

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Black Narcissus (1946)

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I told you it was no place to put a nunnery! There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated … A group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), are sent to a mountain in the Himalayas. The climate in the region is hostile and the nuns are housed in an odd old palace, home to the Sisters of St Faith and previously home to the concubines of the General in the area. They work to establish a school and a hospital, but slowly their focus shifts. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) falls for a government worker, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), and begins to question her vow of celibacy. As Sister Ruth obsesses over Mr. Dean, Sister Clodagh becomes immersed in her own memories of love back in Ireland while their conflicts are put into relief by the forbidden desire between The Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who is of entirely unsuitable caste.  Sister Ruth’s psychological problems devolve into violent madness … Rumer Godden’s story gets the high-velocity melodrama treatment in this extraordinary interpretation of her story about religion in a colonial outpost. Alfred Junge created the illusion of the exotic in Pinewood (and a Surrey garden) with Jack Cardiff’s magical cinematography enhancing the impression of lushness.  The Renaissance light and shadows highlight the growing atmosphere of hysteria. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted an astonishingly sensual portrait of women in hothouse seclusion, lured to their various fates by a man in their midst as they wrestle with issues of conscience, race, sex and vocation. It has not lost its power to bewitch and Byron’s performance is unforgettable.

The Great Outdoors (1988)

 

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Dad, isn’t it illegal to drive with a bear on the hood of your car? Chicagoan Chet Ripley (John Candy), along with his wife, Connie (Stephanie Faracy), and their two kids, Buck (Chris Young) and Ben (Ian Giatti) take off to the mountains on vacation, installing themselves in a huge cabin in the woods with fond memories of the honeymoon they spent long ago. But a serene weekend of fishing in Wisconsin gets crashed by Connie’s obnoxious brother-in-law, Roman Craig (Dan Aykroyd), his wife, Kate (Annette Bening, making her debut), and the couple’s two ginger daughters. As the excursion wears on, the Ripleys find themselves at odds with the stuffy Craigs and eventually the real reason for their invasion comes to light but not before they’re haunted by really big bears and some streetwise raccoons tell us what they really think … Written by John Hughes, this is not one of the great man’s better films and while there are pratfalls and slapstick episodes aplenty and much is carried by the wonderful Candy’s warm persona, this takes a slight story and goes a long way – for a little too long. However there are compensations – there’s a wonderful structural payoff to Candy’s shaggy dog story (about bears) in the concluding scenes (and a few in between);  the ghastly ginger children get theirs, sort of;  there’s a cute teenage romance;  and there are some gleefully tasteless scenes – one with a dead man in a wheelchair which has to be seen. How I miss Mr Candy, whose every scene plays beautifully.  Directed by Howard Deutch. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

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I can’t say anything defamatory and I can’t say fuck piss or cunt. After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, divorcee Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) hires three billboards leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) the town’s chief of police. When his second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist immature mama’s boy with a penchant for violence – gets involved, the battle is only exacerbated. Willoughby’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis is known around town so the locals don’t take kindly to Mildred’s action. Dixon’s intervention with Red (Caleb Landry Jones) who hired out the advertising is incredibly violent – he throws him out a first floor window – and it’s witnessed by Willoughby’s replacement (Clark Peters) and gets him fired. When Mildred petrol bombs the sheriff’s office she doesn’t realise Dixon is in it and he sustains terrible burns but resolves to become a better person and resume the investigation into the horrific murder of Mildred’s teenage daughter … Martin McDonagh’s tragicomedy touches several nerves – guilt, race, revenge, justice. The beauty of its construction lies in its allowing so many characters to really breathe and develop just a tad longer than you expect. Those little touches and finessing of actions make this more sentimental than the dark text might suggest. That includes difficult exchanges between Mildred and her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and the wonderful relationship between Willoughby and his wife Anne (the great Abbie Cornish) which really expand the premise and lift the lid on family life. Yet the sudden violence such as that between Mildred and her ex Charlie (John Hawkes) still contrives to shock. There are two big character journeys here however and as played by McDormand and Rockwell the form demands that they ultimately come to a sort of detente – and it’s the nature of it that is confounding yet satisfying even if it takes a little too long and concludes uncertainly, just adding to the moral quagmire.  A resonant piece of work.

Table 19 (2017)

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I can smell the toilets from here, that’s how well we know the bride and groom. Ex-maid of honor Eloise (Anna Kendrick) has been relieved of her duties at her best friend and prospective sister-in-law’s wedding after being unceremoniously dumped by the best man Teddy (Wyatt Russsell) via text. She decides to hold her head up high and attend her friend’s wedding anyway. She finds herself seated at the ‘random’ table in the back of the ballroom with a disparate group of strangers, most of whom should have known to just send regrets (but not before sending something nice off the registry). Jerry and Bina Kepp (Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow) are Facebook friends with the groom’s father and own a chain of diners; high-schooler Renzo Eckberg (Tony Revolori) whose parents are acquaintances of the groom and who came to the wedding in the hopes of meeting a girl; Jo Flanagan (June Squibb) Francie’s childhood nanny; and Walter Thimble (Stephen Merchant) the bride’s cousin who is currently on parole after serving time for (being tricked into) stealing $125,000 from his uncle’s company – by his uncle. The table debates whether table 19 is a “good table” to which Eloise responds that before getting dumped she planned half the wedding and knows for a fact that table 19 is for “guests that should have known not to show up.” She kisses a gorgeous guy called Huck (not his real name, obvs) (Thomas Cocquerel – maybe not his real name either?!) who turns out to be a wedding crasher – from another wedding. And the groom! As everyone’s secrets are revealed, Eloise learns a thing or two from the denizens of Table 19. Friendships – and even a little romance – can happen under the most unlikely circumstances… This started life as a Duplass Brothers film but the studio hired Jeffrey Blitz to rewrite and direct it and it doesn’t bode well and it doesn’t start well. But somehow  – and despite some of the cast who shall remain nameless – it gets a little better as it goes along. Maybe it’s because we’ve all regretted the inconvenience and outrageous expense of attending Other People’s Terrible Weddings and even fantasised about creating the kind of chaos that happens here – or maybe it’s just the writing which deepens the superficial schadenfreude of the protagonists as they figure they really weren’t supposed to be there. And it’s set on an island so everyone has to wait for the ferry to leave – maybe a little ‘reality’ TV reference, eh? Not entirely terrible after all.

Possessed (1947)

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Beautiful woman. Intelligent. Frustrated. Frustrated like all the other women we see.  A woman (Joan Crawford) is found wandering around LA. She appears to be catatonic and when injected with a miracle drug by a psychiatrist is jolted into telling her story, relayed in a series of melodramatic flashbacks. She is Louise Howell, who previously worked as something of a psychiatric nurse to an invalided woman in the home of Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). She was in love with a neighbour across the lake, an engineer called David Sutton (Van Heflin) who dumps her because of her obsession with him and the idea of marrying him. When Mrs Graham drowns there is an inquest and the outcome is undetermined – did she commit suicide or did someone kill her? Louise is persuaded to remain at the DC home to look after the Graham children, a little boy called Wynn and Carol (Geraldine Brooks) who is at college. When Graham asks Louise to marry him she reluctantly agrees after a bruising encounter with David, who is doing some work for him. Then David falls for Carol and Louise starts hallucinating about doing harm to her … A fascinating portrait of a guilt-ridden woman who is steadily becoming unhinged which stands out in that group of late Forties psychological noirs in a drama that owes a lot structurally at least to Mildred Pierce.  Crawford is superb in a role which demands a lot of overwrought acting paired with more subtle intimations of the female experience and she’s matched very step of the way by Brooks as the stepdaughter who gets in the way. The story by Rita Weiman was adapted by Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall, and directed by Curtis Bernhardt who knew a thing or three about how to do a woman’s picture since he had just made the wonderful A Stolen Life with Bette Davis (and reportedly kept calling Crawford ‘Bette’). The sound effects add a marvellous frisson to proceedings and the glinting night light on the lake is something you won’t quickly forget. And Franz Waxman’s reworking of Schumann makes this so atmospheric. Quite the movie!

Peyton Place (1957)

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Quality is a very good thing in a roll of cloth but it’s very dull on a big date. Mike Rossi (Lee Phillips) arrives in the small New England town of Peyton Place to interview for high school principal, usurping the favourite teacher (Mildred Dunnock). He drives past a shack where Selena Cross (Hope Lange) lives with her mother (Betty Field), little brother and drunken stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Selena’s best friend is the graduating class’s star student and wannabe writer Allison Mackenzie (Diane Varsi) whose widowed mother Constance (Lana Turner) has a clothing store and immediately attracts Mike’s interest. Allison has a crush on Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) heir to the local fabric mill but he only has eyes for trashy Betty (Terry Moore). Allison confides in Norman (Russ Tamblyn) whose watchful mother has altogether too much to do with her shy son. All of the characters attempt to assert their individuality and grow up but malicious rumours, a rape and a suicide followed by a murder are just around the corner as Lucas forces himself on his stepdaughter and Constance reveals to Allison the truth about her obscure origins; then the newspaper carries a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor … Even decades after Grace Metalious’ novel was published it bore the whiff of scandal and my eleven-year old self carried it as though it were dangerous contraband – which of course it was, for about a minute. Part of its attraction was the back cover photograph of the authoress, a gorgeous young thing with a Fifties Tammy ponytail wearing a plaid shirt, cut offs and penny loafers – it was years before I would learn that this was a model (paid tribute by a shot of Allison in the film) and that Metalious was in reality a bloated alcoholic who died not long afterwards:  not such a role model after all!  The bestselling exposition of a horribly inward looking and vicious group of people in an outwardly lovely small town in Maine gets a meticulous adaptation by John Michael Hayes who was working carefully around the censor yet still managed to craft a moving even shocking melodrama from some explosive storylines arranged through the seasons. Lange comes off best in a film which has some daring off-casting – including Turner as the frigid so-called widow, cannily using her star carnality against the character. (In reality she would encounter her own extraordinary scandal with teenage daughter Cheryl within a year of this film’s release). Lloyd Nolan playing the local doctor has a field day in the showstopping courtroom revelation telling some vicious home truths amid some frankly disbelieving onlookers including the unrepentant gossips. Tamblyn gets one of the roles of his career as Norman, the son who is loved just a little too much by his mom… I hadn’t seen this in a long time but much to my surprise was immediately humming along again with the wonderfully lyrical score by Franz Waxman. In many ways this evocative drama sums up the morality of the Fifties even while being set on the eve of WW2 and the early Forties. A very pleasant, beautifully made and surprising reminder of a book whose opening line I’ve never forgotten:  Indian Summer is like a woman … Ah! The film is sixty years old this year. Directed by Mark Robson.

A Month by the Lake (1995)

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My father taught me it’s better to observe than to be observed.  It’s 1937. Miss Bentley (Vanessa Redgrave) is making her annual pilgrimage to Lake Como, the destination she frequented with her late father. She’s an unmarried woman of a certain age, the sporty delight of gorgeous young Italian men and a jolly hockey sticks type who fraternises with the ladies of the establishment (mainly Alida Valli). Then she spots a newcomer, Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox) with whose ears she becomes obsessed and whom she attempts to attract while beating him at tennis and making him miss the steamer back to the hotel. When a young Italian family employ a new American nanny Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman) straight out of finishing school he mistakes the girl’s earnest gesture upon his early leavetaking – and returns. The complications that arise are gently dramatised and the unfolding romances culminate in a broadcast that reminds us that this is the last such summer for several years… This is a charming and subtle comedy of flirtation, manners and misunderstandings. H.E. Bates’ novella gets a thorough treatment from Trevor Bentham and is really well acted by Redgrave who channels her inner Joyce Grenfell, fusing boyishness with withheld emotion:  she has a particularly funny scene when handsome young gun Vittorio (Allesandro Gassman, son of actor/director Vittorio) attempts to seduce her. She conquers him with the camera she carries everywhere. Produced by Fox’s younger brother Robert (previously married to Redgrave’s daughter, Natasha Richardson) this almost-family affair was filmed around Varenna, Bellagio and Lierna and it looks utterly splendid. A lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon – or indeed a month. Directed by John Irvin.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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Raymond Shaw is the nicest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever met. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is nothing of the sort. He’s a nasty friendless well-connected Sergeant returning from the Korean War whose domineering widowed mother (Angela Lansbury) is now married to McCarthyite Senator Iselin (James Gregory) and she really is the power behind the throne:  he’s so dim he has to look at a bottle of ketchup to remember the number of Communists he says are in the State Dept. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is plagued by dreams of brainwashing and he’s not the only one. He investigates the possibility that there’s a sleeper agent in his platoon:  but what’s the plan? And when he discovers it’s Shaw, what is he programmed to do? And who could be his US control? This astonishing blend of Cold War paranoia, satire, political thriller and film noir is as urgent as it’s ever been. Brilliantly constructed visually – look at the cutting from dream to reality to TV coverage – by John Frankenheimer, in George Axelrod’s adaptation of the Richard Condon novel, this is even better tenth time around. This hugely controversial film was released during the Bay of Pigs crisis. The title has entered the lexicon and it became the go-to explanation for the major assassinations – both Kennedys and even John Lennon. This was Sinatra’s second film about a potential Presidential murder (he starred in Suddenly eight years earlier) and he stopped its distribution following the JFK assassination – but not due to personal sensitivities, moreso that his profit participation wasn’t being honoured by United Artists. His involvement was such that even a nightclub is named Jilly’s. Lansbury is simply masterful as the monster mother but the book’s incest theme is played down. What you will be left wondering in the aftermath of the film’s shocking impact is just why did Janet Leigh refer to the Chinese?! Amazing.

American Honey (2016)

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I feel like fucking America! Whether you like this will depend on a) your tolerance for drug-addled amoral teenagers whose greatest ambition is to get knocked up and live in a trailer and if b) you don’t mind losing 157 minutes of your precious life to an almost pointless unendurable movie. Strange newcomer Sasha Lane is Star, a black girl from a dysfunctional and abusive background who falls for the spiel of magazine crew guy Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and joins this rag-tag band of scuzzy losers as they run around house to house in middle America, selling subscriptions and led by she-wolf leader Krystal (Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter). Star has sex with Jake after he steals a car owned by some well-heeled cowboys who rescue her from his abuse on the roadside – and this is after she sees him rubbing down Krystal’s shapely rear in a stars and stripes bikini. This being a movie, people act a lot like life – incoherently and inconsistently. When he takes the money she makes and drops her, she still wants him. She makes more money from giving an oil rig worker a handjob:  and he’s vile enough to criticise her. She still wants him. Krystal tells Star that she was handpicked by Jake and he fucks all the new girls – it’s his job. At the end, when there’s another apparently symbolic sequence with an animal – the only sign that there might be in this three-hour slog any indication of narrative rigour – you pray for her suicide:  or your own. What seems like artlessness is actually faux realist laziness. Were there NO editors available?? And for a movie that styles itself as a musical with all the group singalongs there’s extremely dodgy sound mixing.  I’m not arguing that the meth-taking underclass needs culling but they do exist and I’m hopeful that they don’t all listen to (c)rap. See Spring Breakers for a far more controlled (and much shorter) exposition of American youth. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who was inspired by a New York Times article.