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.

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20th Century Women (2016)

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Wondering if you’re happy is a shortcut to being depressed. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.  Architect Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling 1905 fixer-upper boarding house at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion.  William (Billy Crudup) the contractor renting a room doesn’t seem like an appropriate father figure so Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the house and neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning) a savvy and provocative teenage neighbour who often spends the night sleeping there – to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like what’s happening to him and finds it difficult to reconcile the female-centric education with the man she wants him to be … Mike Mills’ autobiographical film has something of an arm’s length feel which you can surmise from the title. In creating this portrait of his mother he is keen to contextualise her in terms of her time and the opportunities open to her. Jamie often excuses the attitudes of this quasi-androgynous high-achieving divorcee with the line, Don’t worry about Mom, she’s from the Depression. Framing his semi-biographical comic drama in the terms of feminist and punk politics sometimes seems like a microscope powered by sociology is being applied in a film essay style instead of a dramatic eye when you want these lives to intersect more. However the drama is triggered by the opening scene when the family car spontaneously combusts in a parking lot.  It’s a good catalyst for the series of events to follow as Jamie’s adolescence progresses and Dorothea says in a moment of truth to Abbie, You get to see him out in the world and I never will. It’s a startling admission and something in these lines fuels a powerful drama that’s concealed between the smarts and upfront sex talk. Look at Bening’s face when her son tells her he thinks it’s good for him to be informed about clitoral stimulation. She’s the one who wanted him to learn how to be a man after all – she just didn’t know how it would make her feel when he goes out of his way to learn how to be a good man. There’s a lot to like here in an ironic mode and in a sense it’s crystallised by the cultural references – culminating in the clips from Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech when he says the country is at a turning point:  they serve to illuminate the theme of the personal as political.  We are all living in the fallout from what was going on in northern Cali in the late 70s and Mills captures this in an uncanny fashion, fixing on a time that has birthed where we are now (albeit now it’s monetised). The production design is just right – the mix of the early 70s vogue for Art Nouveau with the well-placed mushroom lamp, the battle between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans which has a visual result on the doors of Dorothea’s Bug. There are a lot of good aesthetic and narrative choices here coupled with some very sympathetic performances amid a raft of generational and gendered experiences, Abbie and Julie’s mother issues being succinctly handled in parallel stories within medical and therapeutic settings. There is of course a nostalgic air but it’s cut through with intellectual argument bathed in California sun. Sensitive, seductive, suprising and satisfying.

The House (2017)

 

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One of us has to be the adult here. Scott Johansen (Will Ferrell) and his wife Kate (Amy Poehler) must figure out a way to earn some money after their daughter’s (Ryan Simpkins) scholarship falls through unaware that the local councillor (Nick Kroll) has squandered it on his unwilling office mistress. When all else fails, the desperate couple join forces with their neighbor Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) to start an underground casino in his home. He’s miserable since his wife Raina (Michaela Watkins) issued divorce proceedings due to his gambling and porn addiction. As the cash rolls in and the good times fly, Scott and Kate soon learn that they may have bitten off more than they can chew and the casino attracts the attention of the locals who are concerned nobody turns up at the Town Hall meetings any more …  This starts out as (potentially) a social satire and swiftly mutates into an execrable waste of time in such inconsequentially lazy plotting, production and performance you will wonder that anyone even remembered to record it. Its sole merit is the opportunity to see some truly horrible things done to Jeremy Renner. Someone however decided to release it. A disgraceful defecation upon the public. Un film de Andrew Jay Cohen, may he die in agony.

Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) (TVM)

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Get off of me! You are going to forget once and for all about that filthy thing of yours! You’ll forget that you even have one of those things! Do you understand me, boy? Released from a mental institution once again, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) calls in to tell his life story to a radio host (CCH Pounder). Norman recalls his days as a young boy living with his schizophrenic mother (Olivia Hussey), and the jealous rage that inspired her murder. In the present, Norman lives with his pregnant wife psychiatrist Connie (Donna Mitchell), fearing that his child will inherit his split personality disorder, and Mother will return to kill again… Both a prequel and a sequel, this made for TV entry in the series has the original writer Joseph Stefano (never mind Alma Hitchcock’s contribution!) and a whole heap of interest to anyone who either visited the Universal FLA lot where it was shot (I have the shower curtain!) or was addicted to Bates Motel (to which it bears no relation, but you know what I mean).  Apparently Perkins wanted to have his Pretty Poison director Noel Black direct it from a screenplay by III scripter Charles Edward Poague but that film’s commercial failure meant a change in talent and Mick Garris was brought in to direct. Stefano didn’t like the violence in the preceding two films and ignored the backstory about Mrs Bates in II and the aunt in III.  Now, Norman Bates is married. Whatchootalkinabout?! Yup, they go there. Literally the unthinkable. And having a child. With a psychiatrist. Gulp … Pushing Freudian and schizoid buttons galore, Henry Thomas plays the young Norman in out of order flashbacks that clarify the events triggering the break in his personality with a path straight up to the first film.  Ironically this is probably the weakest of the sequels despite Stefano’s desire to have a psychologically accurate portrait of a cross-dressing mother-loving voyeuristic serial killer. But you just have to watch. Don’t you?! A  must for completionists.

 

 

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.

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.

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)

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They said I was a valued customer now they send me hate mail! Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) loves to shop. The trouble is, she shops so much that she is drowning in debt. She dreams of working at the city’s top fashion magazine Alette run by the accented dragon lady   (Kirstin Scott Thomas) but, so far, has not been able to get her foot in the door. Then she lands a job as an advice columnist for a financial magazine owned by the same company and run by the very attractive Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy). Her pseudonymous column (The Girl in the Green Scarf) becomes an overnight success, but her secret threatens to ruin her love life and career as the man she describes to her boss as her stalker is actually a debt collector and her best friend and roommate Suze (Krysten Ritter) suspects she is not really attending meetings of Shopaholics Anonymous … Sophie Kinsella’s first two Shopaholic novels get a NYC makeover here and if the plot runs out of steam towards the conclusion you can’t say they don’t give it the old college try. Fisher is fantastically effervescent as the very winning protagonist – when she convinces herself of the joys of shopping at her addicts’ group and runs out to – yup, shop! – you practically cheer. It’s a frothy look at addiction if that’s possible with some very persuasive scenes to those of us who might have succumbed to that jacket in, uh, every colour.  Screenplay by Tracey Jackson, Tim Firth and Kayla Alpert and directed with exuberance by P. J. Hogan who knows how to make a rockin’ girls’ movie. Will the real Rebecca Bloomwood please stand up?! Bright, breezy and a lot of fun.

The Big Money (1958)

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Willie Frith (Ian Carmichael) is the underachieving bad seed of a family of thieves Father (James Hayter), Mother (Kathleen Harrison) and sister Doreen (Jill Ireland), unworthy of his position as number one son.  One day, he steals a briefcase from a dodgy clergyman (Robert Helpmann), which is full of pound notes. But – the notes all have the same serial number, making them hard to spend. Seduced by the big money, he starts passing the counterfeits, one bill at a time. Much of his need for money is to impress Gloria (Belinda Lee), the pretty barmaid at his local pub. She dreams of the millionaire who will come and give her the good life. Unfortunately, he cannot pass the fake money fast enough to keep up with her wants. When she helps herself to some of the counterfeit money, it gets the attention of the police and the mobsters. It all ends in a free-for-all, between the police, Arabs, and mobsters, in disguise. Finally, she has to decide whether she loves him or his money… Bright and breezy and gorgeously shot (by Jack Cardiff and Jack E. Cox) including a sequence at Royal Ascot, this is a fun Britcom with Carmichael typically endearing as the bumbling bungler, Helpmann terrific as the enterprising vicar and a great showcase for the stunning and tragic Lee, who took over a role intended for Diana Dors. Written by John Baines with additional scenes by Patrick Campbell and directed by John Paddy Carstairs.

6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain (2017)

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Following a drug-related fall from grace and a car crash, former professional hockey player Eric LeMarque (Josh Hartnett) finds himself stranded on a mountain in the High Sierras during a fierce snowstorm and misses his crucial court date which his worried mother (Mira Sorvino) is hounding him to attend. Coming to terms with his personal demons, he soon rediscovers the power of faith while fighting for survival, suffering excruciating injuries and frostbite and it takes six days for anyone to even notice he’s gone from the cabin in the mountain, snowboard in hand … LeMarque’s book (co-written with Davin Seay) is adapted by Madison Turner in what is no doubt a well-intentioned cautionary tale about drugs and not getting caught on the side of a mountain during a storm. However the structure and the constant badly shot flashbacks don’t assist the dark night of the soul that LeMarque endures while he fights for his life. Mainly because we just don’t see him in action on the rink, just beating people up. It’s nice to see Sorvino back even in the absolutely thankless role of his mother which for the most part she (necessarily) phones in. Zzzzz….. Was that a bear? Nope. Too bad. Just say no, kids! Directed by Scott Waugh.