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 [you’ll find some of these shots on the covers of film noir studies] is jaw-dropping:  the use of light in the final sequence is historic.  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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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!

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.

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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The truth does not make it easier to understand, you know. I mean, you think that you find out the truth about me, and then you’ll understand me. And then you would forgive me for all those… for all my lies. Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young writer, moves to Brooklyn (or The Sodom of the North as his father calls it) in the hot summer of 1947 to begin work on his first novel. As he becomes friendly with his upstairs neighbour Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her biologist lover Nathan (Kevin Kline), a Jew, he learns that Sophie is a Holocaust survivor. Flashbacks reveal her harrowing story, from pre-war prosperity to Auschwitz. In the present, Sophie and Nathan’s relationship increasingly unravels as Stingo grows closer to Sophie and Nathan’s fragile mental state becomes ever more apparent just as Sophie’s past haunts her … Alan J. Pakula abandoned his customary 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller style to adapt William Styron’s novel – and yet one wonders if the Nazi takeover and atrocities aren’t the perfect subject for such an approach? As it is this too-faithful work exercises a Gothic hold despite the dayglo colours of Nestor Alemendros’ cinematography.  Death is in the narrative cracks. MacNicol is strange enough to withstand the attention as the rather naif narrator, Kline epitomises the term kinetic in a tremendously physical interpretation of the disturbed Nathan as he literally envelops Streep, whose luminous moony pallor dominates every scene. The structure – revealing the tragic titular decision – is painstaking but it somehow works against the dramatic tension in a film that is too long and paradoxically fears taking a risk. It’s Streep who makes this work in a jaw-dropping performance which created her legend.

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.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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I’ve studied you all these years – a little girl in a cage waiting for someone to let her out. In 1928 young Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) inadvertently causes the death of her cruel, authoritarian and extremely wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha lies to the police and Walter (Kirk Douglas), who saw the crime, corroborates the girl’s story. Eventually, they grow up and wed out of convenience; the meek and alcoholic Walter is genuinely in love, and Martha thinks that her secret is safe since she has married the one witness to her aunt’s death. As District Attorney he saw her lie on the stand and put an innocent man to death for the crime. However now Martha is trying to get Walter elected Governor and her childhood pal Sam (Van Heflin) shows up.  Martha knows her dark past may not stay a secret for long and Sam’s romance with Toni (Lizabeth Scott) – an ex-con just out of jail – threatens to come between them …  The film noir as hothouse melodrama, this has Stanwyck at her most manipulative since Double Indemnity but the surrounding performances are impressive as satellites to her cunning. Adapted by Robert Rossen (and an uncredited Robert Riskin)  from playwright John Patrick’s short story Love Lies Bleeding, this plays fast and loose with love and death, desire and obsession, betrayal and murder, marriage and entrapment. The pickup between Heflin and Scott is really something and the dialogue is really striking – just look at the way the Bible crops up at crucial plot points. Stanwyck’s string of extra-marital affairs reveals a longing for sex not often portrayed in Hollywood films of the era. Douglas makes an impressive debut as the weak husband just as capable of lying. The twisting DNA spiral of guilt and secrecy plays out brilliantly as these conflicted personalities bump up against one another in a deadly game. And what a twist(ed) ending! Listen to how the rain hits the windows of that fabulous house during some of the toughest conversations – talk about atmospheric! The cinematography by Victor Miler and score by Miklós Rósza are quite splendid. Directed by Lewis Milestone.

Psycho II (1983)

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Remember Norman: only your Mother truly loves you.  22 years after he’s been incarcerated in a psychiatric institution Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is back in Fairvale California, only to find his hotel run down under the management of Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz). Despite a new friendship with a waitress, Mary (Meg Tilly) and a job bussing tables at a diner, Norman begins to hear voices once again. Mary moves into Norman’s house as his roommate but no matter how hard he tries, Norman cannot keep Mother from returning and coaxing him to unleash the homicidal maniac within but then it transpires that Mary’s mother is in town – and she’s Marion Crane’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) …Written by Tom Holland, this won’t erase your memories of Hitchcock’s seminal thriller and it stands alone, not adapted from Robert Bloch’s own sequel. It has the courage of its predecessor’s convictions and plays with Hitchcock’s tropes (and his cast) with just the right emphasis. Perkins is the same nervy antagonist and Tilly is an excellent foil. Director Richard Franklin has fun with re-staging some famous scenes and manages to make quite the suspenseful thriller – right until the end! Talk about a twist(ed) conclusion!

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.

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.

Lady Bird (2017)

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Just because something looks ugly doesn’t mean that it’s morally wrong. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. She longs to go to an eastern college in “a city with culture”. Her family is struggling financially, and her mother, a psychiatric nurse working double shifts (Laurie Metcalf) tells her she’s  ungrateful for what she has. She and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) join their school theatre programme for a production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, where Lady Bird meets a boy called Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges). They develop a romantic relationship, and, to her mother’s disappointment, Lady Bird joins Danny’s family for Thanksgiving. Their relationship ends when Lady Bird discovers Danny kissing a boy in a bathroom stall. At the behest of her mother, Lady Bird takes a job at a coffee shop, where she meets a young musician, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). He and Lady Bird begin a romantic relationship, and she and Julie drift apart. After the beautiful Jenna (Odeya Rush), one of the popular girls at the school, is reprimanded by Sister Sarah (Lois Smith) for wearing a short skirt, Lady Bird suggests the two bond by vandalizing the Sister’s car. Lady Bird gives Danny’s grandmother’s home as her address to appear wealthy. She drops out of the theatre programme. At the coffee shop, she consoles Danny after he expresses his struggle to come out. After Kyle tells her he is a virgin, she loses her virginity to him, but he later denies saying this. Jenna discovers that Lady Bird lied about her address. Lady Bird discovers that her father (Tracy Letts) has lost his job and has been battling depression for most of his life. Lady Bird begins applying to east-coast colleges with her father’s support despite her mother’s insistence that the family cannot afford it. She is elated to discover that she has been placed on the wait list for a New York college. She sets out for her high school prom with Kyle, Jenna, and Jenna’s boyfriend, but the four decide to go to a party instead. Lady Bird asks them to drop her off at Julie’s apartment, where the two tearfully rekindle their friendship and go to the prom together. After graduation, Mom finds Lady Bird applied to an out of state school and they stop talking. Lady Bird celebrates her coming of age by buying cigarettes and a lottery ticket and a copy of Playgirl, passes her driver’s test first time and redecorates. She gets into college in NYC and Mom refuses to see her off at the airport, has a change of heart and drives back, but Lady Bird has already left.  In New York, Lady Bird finds thoughtful letters written by her mother and salvaged by her father, and begins using her birth name again. She is hospitalized after drinking heavily at a party. After leaving the hospital, she observes a Sunday church service, then calls home and leaves an apologetic message for her mother… Very novelistic and composed of many vignettes, this leaves a rather odd feeling in its wake: a sense of dissociation, perhaps. It’s a more modest success than its critical reception would suggest with the exceptional characterisation of Metcalf and Letts emphasising the continuities in relationships that are at the screenplay’s heart. It’s about a self-centred teenager (is there any other kind) finding herself in a nexus of people who are themselves struggling and lying and just making it through the day. Ronan is playing an avatar for debutant writer-director Greta Gerwig and it’s a Valentine to her hometown but it also functions as a tribute to misguided, confused, artistically oriented kids who want something else other than their uncultured boring origins but they don’t know quite what. Ronan’s performance doesn’t feel quite as centred as it needs to be. It has its moments but they’re mostly quiet ones with the mother-daughter frenemy status the quivering fulcrum around which everything orbits. Somehow this is less than the sum of its parts and it had a curiously deflating effect on the audience with whom I watched it. Hmmm…