The Big Chill (1983)

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I haven’t met that many happy people in my life. How do they act? Following the funeral of Alex, who committed suicide, a group of his former college friends gather for a reunion at the South Carolina holiday home of their mutual friend Harold Cooper (Kevin Kline) and his doctor wife Sarah (Glenn Close) where they remember some of their best times but are forced to re-evaluate their lives. Sam (Tom Berenger) is a successful actor headlining a TV show; Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a real estate attorney who wants to become a mother but has no romance in her life; Nick (William Hurt) a Nam vet and former radio host; Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is a journalist writing for People magazine; Karen (JoBeth Williams) is married to Richard (Don Galloway) and he takes their boys home while she stays on and tries to resolve her feelings for Sam. Chloe (Meg Tilly) was Alex’s last lover and it appears she moves from man to man in quick succession … Nobody said it was going to be fun. At least nobody said it to me. Lawrence Kasdan’s loose remake of John Sayles’ cult low budget film Return of the Secaucus 7 is a very satisfying look at the perils of friendship into adulthood and early middle aage following years of distance, estrangement and misperceptions. A sensational cast brings to life a very disparate but charismatic bunch who may never have really known each other at all. Over the course of a few days when they eat, drink, smoke dope, watch TV, dance, jog, argue about politics and work and have sex, they learn what everyone is really like in a kind of post-Vietnam/baby boomer version of La Ronde. It’s never tacky, the friends and their issues are navigated with care and no little tension and it’s beautifully played by an extraordinarily gifted cast mourning a man whose death by suicide casts questions on everyone’s life choices making each character wonder whether they have actually grown up at all. Alex’s corpse was famously played by Kevin Costner, whose scenes were cut however the titles sequence gives us glimpses of him as he is alternately dressed for his coffin and drives his Porsche along the road. A striking piece of work. Written by Barbara Benedek and director Lawrence Kasdan. You know this day most of all we should remember we’re friends

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything. New Jersey in the 1930s. Unhappily married Depression-era waitress Cecilia (Mia Farrow) earns the money while her inattentive husband, Monk (Danny Aiello), blows their measly income on getting drunk and gambling. To deal with her loneliness, Cecilia escapes to the cinema and becomes transfixed with the RKO movie The Purple Rose of Cairo and especially its lead character, archaeologist Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels). When Tom notices this is her fifth time to see it he literally steps out of the black and white screen and into her life in full colour.  Both of their realities are thrown into chaos as he is confused by his actor’s identity of Gil Shepherd and the character he plays onscreen where he is indulged by Manhattan high society. Cecilia has to choose between Tom and Gil. Then the film’s producers discover that other Tom Baxters are attempting to leave the screen in other movie theatres ... You make love without fading out? Perfectly capturing the fantasy life of a moviegoer at the height of Thirties Hollywood, Allen blends Depression-era realism with the escape valve of Deco cinema against the backdrop of marital discord and domestic violence. The real ones want their lives fiction and the fictional ones want their lives real. The performances are pitch-perfect and the tone admirably sustained, Farrow enormously touching in capturing the bittersweet situation of a woman caught between what she has and what she wants:  When you kissed me, I felt like my heart faded out. I closed my eyes, and I was in some private place. In a role originally played by Michael Keaton until he and Allen agreed it wasn’t working ten days into production, Daniels has an existential crisis at the centre of his performance:  I don’t get hurt or bleed, hair doesn’t muss; it’s one of the advantages of being imaginary. The conceit is brilliant and it’s intelligently played out in one of Allen’s best screenplays with the film within the film wonderfully imagined and Gil’s belief that he created the character of Tom is an arrow across the parapet for screenwriters. I don’t wanna talk any more about what’s real and what’s illusion. Life’s too short to spend time thinking about life. Let’s just live it! Shot in shades of wistfulness and regret by Gordon Willis, this remains a classic interrogation of cinema’s power. I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what’s life all about anyway?

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)

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I didn’t invent the cosmos I just explain it. In the early 1900s in upstate New York wacky inventor Andrew Hobbs (Woody Allen) and his wife Adrian (Mary Steenburgen) invite the priapic internist Maxwell Jordan (Tony Roberts) and his latest lover free-thinking nurse Dulcy Ford(Julie Hagerty) together with Adrian’s cousin, the dry philosophy professor Leopold Sturges (José Ferrer) and his fiancée Ariel Weymouth (Mia Farrow) for a weekend house party. However Andrew was in love with Ariel a long time ago and Maxwell falls for her while it transpires Maxwell and Adrian may know each other a little better than Andrew realises … If marriage is the death of hope then the night before marriage there’s still hope. A bucolic excursion involving three mismatched couples who find sexual joy in each other’s partners, all to the music of Mendelssohn and loosely adapted from Bergman’s 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night while Gordon Willis delights in the landscape and the endless possibilities of the play of sunlight. A frisky, frothy confection that without any big revelations or confrontations (beyond the use of a skilfully aimed arrow) risks being seen purely as a parody yet in its humorous dealing with matters sexual and intellectual manages to arrive at a few truisms about human behaviour and frailty as well as the idea that there might be some form of existence beyond rational explanation. Or it’s just a nutty sex comedy with a few references to Shakespeare and hints of enchantment via a whirring magic lantern. Steenburgen and Hagerty are both ideally cast while Farrow replaced Diane Keaton and would remain Allen’s muse for another dozen films. Nothing is real but experience

 

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

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What about my one-legged tap dancer? Take him for a weekend. My one-legged – alright, my one armed juggler? My one-armed juggler!  A bunch of ageing NYC vaudevillians reminisce about Danny Rose (Woody Allen) the variety agent for hopeless cases who never gave up on his protegés no matter how futile the cause. They recall one story in particular concerning his client clunky lounge singer Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte) and his demanding mistress, mafia wife Tina Vitale (Mia Farrow) when Danny is mistaken for her lover by gangsters with a score to settle … I’m currently working with a parrot that sings “I Gotta Be Me”. And I got some very nice balloon-folders, you know. It’s interesting. Allen at his best in this combination of homage, pastiche and nostalgia in a beautiful monochrome comedy which is hilarious yet heartfelt from start to finish. Farrow gives her greatest performance as the nasal New Yorker in crimplene trousers and insectoid shades permaglued under her teetering hairdo who’s teed off with her lover’s vacillating; Allen is wonderful as the hapless hustling patsy loyal to the last; and it all plays tonally as though honed from precious metal. A jewel in Allen’s body of work and a great Eighties film, filled with memorable scenes, lines, humour, affection, friendship and humanity. You might call it a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. I know I do. You know what my philosophy of life is? That it’s important to have some laughs, no question about it, but you gotta suffer a little too because otherwise you miss the whole point to life. And that’s how I feel

Shock (1946)

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It’s hard for a doctor to make promises. We can only do our best. Psychiatrist Dr Cross (Vincent Price) is treating catatonic Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw) after she has witnessed a man hit a woman with a candlestick causing her death. When she comes to realise that it was in fact Cross murdering his wife he commits her to a sanatorium where his nurse lover Elaine Jordan (Lynn Bari) persuades him to give Janet  an overdose of insulin but Cross finds getting away with murder a second time a difficult prospect … I’m neither a miracle man nor a prophet, Lieutenant. If medicine were an exact science, not an art, I might be able to tell you. This controversial post-war thriller is notable for being Price’s first starring role and for attracting criticism of its portrayal of psychiatry, a profession thought to be both unimpeachable and necessary for the treatment of returning WW2 vets. This is highlighted by the return of Janet’s husband Paul (Frank Latimore), in his soldier’s uniform, embodying a sociocultural crisis. The sense of jeopardy is well sustained, Bari is a superb femme fatale (she wasn’t known as The Woo Woo Girl for nothing) and the murderous Price’s own ethical crisis is nicely handled. Written by Eugene Ling and Albert DeMond (from his story) with additional dialogue by Martin Berkeley. There’s a highly effective score by David Buttolph and it’s well photographed by Joseph MacDonald and Glen MacWilliams, beautifully designed by Boris Leven and Lyle Wheeler,  with editing by Harmon Jones. Directed by Alfred L. Werker. Doctor, the important thing is – what can you do for her?  * In Celebration of the Centenary of Lynn Bari’s birth 18th December 2019 *

The Tenant (1976)

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Aka Le locataire. If you cut off my head, what would I say… Me and my head, or me and my body? What right has my head to call itself me? Shy bureaucrat Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is a Polish-born French citizen who moves into an apartment whose previous female tenant an Egyptologist called Simone Choule threw herself out a window and is dying in hospital, never to return. As his neighbours view him suspiciously, he becomes obsessed with the idea of the beautiful young woman and believes that her friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani) is planning to kill him … These days, relationships with neighbors can be… quite complicated. You know, little things that get blown up out of all proportion? You know what I mean? We know how claustrophobic apartments can be from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. This apartment is in Paris and it is the centre of the neighbours’ gossip and pass-remarkery, those objects of fear for someone who doesn’t wish to be found out, Gérard Brach and Polanski’s adaptation of Roland Topor’s novel Le Locataire Chimérique, turning a suggestive thriller into a paranoid fantasy with a sort of macabre chalky undertaste. Trelkovsky’s introduction to the apartment and view of the lavatory opposite is brilliant and the meet-cute with Stella over the gaping Munchian maw of a moaning mummified Simone is unforgettable. It may not be as beautiful as his other apartment movies but Polanski’s intent is quite clear with the regular reminders of toilet functions and the running gag about cigarettes.The casting is superb: Melvyn Douglas is great as Monsieur Zy, Lila Kedrova as Madame Gaderian with her crippled daughter are spooky while Shelley Winters excels as the concierge. On the one hand, it’s a dance of death bristling with atmosphere and Polanski is its fulcrum, revealing Trevolsky’s gender slippage as surely as he sheds his masculine outerwear while simultaneously descending into the brutal, funny depths of psychological disintegration.  On the other, it’s a perfect film about how lonely it can be a foreigner in the big city and how easy it is to lose oneself while others are watching you. For total trivia fans, the continuity here is done by Sylvette Baudrot who did that job for that other master of apartment movies Alfred Hitchcock on To Catch a Thief.  It’s a wonderful, scary funny Kafkaesque nightmare portrait of Paris and the ending is awesome:  talk about an identity crisis. I am not Simone Choule! 

Oh … Rosalinda!! (1955)

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Once the music is started we can’t talk.  You see the place will be crowded with foreigners. In 1955 Occupied Vienna, black-market dealer Dr. Falke aka The Bat/Die Fledermaus (Anton Walbrook) moves freely through the French, British, American and Russian sectors, dealing in champagne and caviar among the highest echelons of the allied powers. After a costume party, French Colonel Gabriel Eisenstein (Michael Redgrave) plays a practical joke on a drunken Falke, depositing him, asleep and dressed as a bat, in the lap of a patriotic Russian statue, to be discovered the following morning by irate Russian soldiers. Falke is nearly arrested until his friend party-giver General Orlofsky (Anthony Quayle) of the USSR intervenes. A vengeful Falke plans an elaborate practical joke on his friend, involving Orlofsky,  British Army major (Dennis Price), Eisenstein’s beautiful wife Rosalinda (Ludmilla Tchérina), her maid (Anneliese Rothenberger) and a masked ball where no one is what they seem. Complicating matters is American Captain Alfred Westerman (Mel Ferrer), an old flame of Rosalinda’s who is determined to take advantage of her husband’s absence and become her lover once again … Just watch how I get out of my own troubles. One of Powell and Pressburger’s odder productions which elicited little more than critical ire upon release (it was exhibited on a double bill with The Big Combo), it can now be seen as a deliriously eccentric and audacious comic account of the post-war occupied city of Vienna, through the updated lens of Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Strauss’ 1874 operetta, with new lyrics in English by Dennis Arundell. Densely coloured, beautifully designed by Hein Heckroth and performed with gusto by some of the best actors of the era representing the different occupying powers in their nationality and personification while a husband and wife renew their acquaintance in this romantic catch-chase quartet. Quayle is excellent but Walbrook is supreme as the kind of characterful ringmaster he had already essayed in Ophüls’ La Ronde, keen that the occupying powers swiftly depart.  With every component of this indulgent avant garde take on a genre type more or less moribund since the Thirties concluding in a gorgeous masked ball, it’s a beautiful resolutely studio-bound theatrical spectacle. Considered part of a loose trilogy from Powell and Pressburger along with The Red Shoes/Tales of Hoffman even if Redgrave winds up dancing more than prima ballerina Tchérina, at  one point introduced to her own husband as Olga Volga, a star from behind the Iron Curtain. Redgrave, Rothenberger and Quayle sing while all other cast members’ singing voices are dubbed. Look quickly for Arthur Mullard as a Russian guard and future director John Schlesinger in a Jeep. Come a bit closer. Is there anything I can do for you – or you – or you?

Joker (2019)

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Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?  Former psych hospital inmate, children’s party clown and wannabe standup Arthur ‘Happy’ Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his sick mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of appearing on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) cheesy nightly TV show which they watch together. Gotham City is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished with billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in the running for Mayor. Penny was a former employee in the Wayne household and repeatedly writes him letters asking for money. Arthur suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and depends on social services for medication and weekly meetings with a social worker. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun for self-defence. Arthur invites his neighbour, cynical single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz), to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating. When he witnesses three Wall Street guys harassing a woman on the subway train he opens fire and kills them and the city is suddenly awash in a movement of men in clown masks that threatens violent disorder in copycat clown costumes  … I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it’s a comedy. A perverse DC origins story written by director Todd Phillips with Scott Silver, this owes much to its setting – 1981, a city on its haunches, with human filth and institutional grime, and cinematic influences: Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and of course Taxi Driver (Paul Schrader’s real-life inspiration was Arthur Bremer) which is interesting in the light of the maestro’s recent (highly derogatory) comments on superhero movies. And there’s Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin himself, De Niro, as the Jerry Lewis-type prism for Arthur’s fantasies of celebrity. And it’s modelled on classic psychodrama, up to a point. It hedges its bets by flailing determinedly in all directions ticking the usual boxes – sociological, pathological, neurological, daddy issues, a mad mother, illegitimacy, until its second hour descends into predictable ultraviolence (after that first exhibition at 30 minutes) albeit with this raft of reasons the wind at his back, you can’t blame Arthur, which is of course the whole point of this graphic novel brought to life. He’s a product of everything around him as well as the noises in his head so there’s no mystery left unturned. That neurological condition that makes him laugh long and loud and inappropriately turns into an unwelcome noise in the audience’s collective head too because we can see as he cannot that his talent lies not in comedy but in killing. Gotham City is no longer a pretend New York because the first three victims of Arthur’s vigilanteism are Wall Street employees of his all-powerful putative father, which is how the Wayne story is woven into this tapestry of excuses as if someone had written an elaborate series of backstories and decided to use every single one of them:  Oedipus writ large in a realist portrait of Bernhard Goetz-era NYC. There is literally nothing left to chance or ponder about this ugly individual and as we all know, bastards always blame other people and seek revenge for their no-name status. In this amorality tale he murders his mother to attempt to get close to his alleged father. And we all know what happens to Thomas Wayne because the Batman universe is ours.  It’s difficult to fault Phoenix’s bravura performance but much hinges on his harelip and innate ugliness which he just accentuates into unpleasant anorectic thinness to manufacture an urban monster. This Joker isn’t funny any more. How bizarre that the wonderful River Phoenix died 26 years ago today and it’s his brother Leaf who’s making the headlines. I feel like I know you – I’ve been watching you forever

 

Steel Country (2018)

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Aka A Dark Place. With a dead kid there’s almost always abuse first. In smalltown rural Pennsylvania garbage truck driver Donny Devlin (Andrew Scott) becomes obsessed with the death of local boy Tyler Ziegler when the police don’t want to investigate how he is found in a river and he is buried without an autopsy. Donny takes it upon himself to investigate, irritating his initially sympathetic co-worker Donna (Bronagh Waugh), getting an admission of suspicion of abuse from Mrs Ziegler (Kate Forbes), confronting a local police officer Max Himmler (Griff Furst), tackling the sheriff (Michael Rose), the paediatrician Dr Pomorowski (Andrew Masset) whose office has taken a lot of calls from Tyler’s mom and finally suspecting the boy’s father Jerry (Jason Davies). His own disordered personality almost puts him in the frame, until he digs up Tyler’s corpse and brings it to a coroner to prove his suspicions … Nothing ever happens around here. Brendan Higgins’ screenplay is equal parts character study and mystery. The noises in Donny’s head and his frankly unusual disposition are never truly explained, the grounds for his obsession left untapped other than a presumed autistic problem hence a rather narrow field of enquiry. The circumstances of how he conceived his beloved 11-year old daughter Wendy (Christa Beth Campbell) with Linda (Denise Gough) are rather seedy;  his living situation with his disabled mother (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) kindly depicted. Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography peers into the American darklands but other than corruption, the kind of easy institutional conspiracy that seems ten-a-penny in child abuse cases and the interesting positing of a paediatrician as a paedophile (one is reminded of a case in the UK when subliterate vigilantes targetted a doctor’s office, presumably believing that child abusers advertise their predilections on their doors), it doesn’t really ring the narrative cause-effect that is required. However it is tonally interesting and Scott delivers a committed if distracting performance in this ironically titled story where industry has long departed leaving predators free to exploit their working class targets. The ending is jaw-dropping – just not necessarily in a good way. Directed by Simon Fellows. What are you trying to do? You trying to give your shitty life some meaning?

There Was a Little Boy (1993) (TVM)

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Hey! She doesn’t want me! Fifteen years after their baby boy was stolen from their apartment, English teacher Julie (Cybill Shepherd) is expecting her second child with wealthy husband Gregg (John Heard). He has never given up on finding Robbie, she accepts his guilt despite it happening on her watch while she was taking a bath. She is teaching in a downtown high school and finds herself forced to deal with a difficult transfer student Jesse (Scott Bairstow) who appears functionally illiterate but is actually gifted and they form an uneasy connection. His own mother Esperanza (Elaine Kagan) is on welfare and ill with a lung condition and they get by with his thieving from the store. When Julie tries to sell off  Robbie’s baby cot, Gregg objects and finds in the base a necklace with a religious medal attached which doesn’t belong to either of them and which they trace to a local Catholic priest who is now gaga and cannot positively identify the owner. However Jesse’s own actions lead Julie in the right direction to find her long-lost son …  I am your worst nightmare:  a politically incorrect teacher who dares to flunk your ass. Adapted by Wesley Bishop from the novel by Claire R. Jacobs, this operates somewhere between Teacher in the Hood and Maternal Melo, The action scenes are well handled, the irony of Jesse’s identity well flagged (it’s not really the point), the trade-off in guilt between husband and wife completely believable, the acting good, and it’s directed by the admirable Mimi Leder who of course proceeded to make those terrific actioners Deep Impact and The Peacemaker before the wheels came off her cinema career for a long time after Pay It Forward. She returned to the fray late last year with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex. Hurray for that. And if that doesn’t suffice, how about all those early 90s chintzy couches. I lost a son and a husband. I won’t let that happen again