St Agatha (2018)

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Your name is … Agatha! In October 1957 pregnant con woman Mary (Sabrina Kern) leaves her boyfriend Jimmy (Justin Miles) when a scam goes wrong and takes refuge at an isolated Georgia convent but soon finds out that things are not quite as they seem and has to escape before Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennessy) and her cohorts harm her and her baby … Get your hands off me you bitches! This hopped-up interpretation of what Catholic nuns do to single mothers starts with a claustrophobe’s nightmare – being locked in a coffin: so as someone who baled on my last MRI scan, I was duly entrapped in a story which is a very twisted take on Christian origins. Shot beautifully by Joseph White with gauzy filters lending the convent’s surrounding forest an air of supernature and the entire production an atmosphere which sustains the suspense with the backstory dropped in to illustrate Mary’s family issues. These bewitching scary nuns sure know how to welcome strangers – Mother Superior declares that she too was an unwed mother (the Senator dumped her!) and the scratching sounds in the attics and the bizarre bird-feed vomit in the coffin treatment just confirm Mary’s suspicions that all is not quite right. With its dense flock wallpaper and red lights in the basement this place resembles a brothel. Soon Mary aka Agatha recognises a fellow con in Mother Superior. When Jimmy shows up to try to get Mary back she finds the nuns have guns and they won’t stop short of murder to save the babies to sell them to donors! The books must be balanced and the story takes off. There is quite literally a twist ending when you can take succour from the uses to which you can put a freshly cut umbilical cord:  a logical conclusion to the mediaeval torture that is childbirth. All hail virgin martyrs! Written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Michaels, Sara Sometti Michaels and Clint Sears.  Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. You’ve seen what I’m capable of. What kind of mother would I be?

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Battle of the Bulge (1965)

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I did not lose a war to die in the back seat of a car. At the end of 1944 American Lt. Col. Dan Kiley (Henry Fonda), a military intelligence whiz and former police officer, discovers that the Nazis are planning to attack Allied forces near Belgium. Certain that the exhausted enemy can’t muster much force, General Joe Grey (Robert Ryan) isn’t convinced by Kiley’s findings, and his men pay the price when the German tanks begin their offensive in the Ardennes. In the heat of this key World War II battle, Kiley must come up with a plan when it becomes clear that the Nazis are trying to steal fuel from the Allies, there are Germans disguised as American MPs diverting traffic from the new Western Front and an ambitious German Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw) who intends keeping the war going as long as possible no matter how many are sacrificed as he leads the Panzer spearhead of the German counterattack … Having been an inspector of police does not disqualify me from thinking. Written by (formerly blacklisted) Bernard Gordon, producer Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (with contributions by John Melson), this is proper WW2 entertainment about a huge episode that involved a million men and which I once had the temerity to describe to someone as an instance of poor project management on the part of Hitler and his cronies. I love me a good war movie, better still if there are tanks (my dream vehicle, particularly the camo models in Desert Storm. So sue me!) so this is perfect Easter (or Passover!) holiday fare. Criticised for not being 100% accurate and its Spanish locations being a poor imitation of the Ardennes setting, this has a lot going for it, not least the staging and the tremendous cast. There is detail by the yard – and the weather reports are crucial. The way that the strategy and tactics are exposed is a triumph of film storytelling. Shaw is sizzling as one of the nastiest Nazis outside the Bulgarian Waffen SS and it’s a star-making role. Fonda’s doggedness is wonderfully sympathetic, especially when you have the feeling (because you’ve seen him in other movies) that he’s probably right about everything and his bozo superiors find out, soon enough. It’s the perceptive structuring of the narrative from both perspectives that makes this tick along quickly. While not setting out to be a satire (hardly, although WW2 vet Sperling was no fan of warfare) the dialogue is sparkling with zingers – aphoristic and otherwise, particularly punctuating Shaw’s scenes – and there’s one out-and-out comic scene (played straight) when Savalas returns to his business to check how things are doing. Pier Angeli pleads for some promise of marriage because this is what she understands by the term ‘business partnership’ and wants a sign. But he’s rushing back to the front so he just tells her to keep feeding the chickens (they’re looking scrawny). This amusing character sidebar is one part of a dedicated soldier and Savalas plays it to the hilt. There’s a mass execution which won’t surprise you – but someone gets away and the payoff is very satisfying indeed. There are some good map room scenes; a really funny one-word message from US Command to German Command; and a breathtaking POV section with Fonda gliding down in silence over the attack position of the German tanks on the other side of the river:  just listen to the score. Such inventive work by Benjamin Frankel. The final sequence of tank battle is suitably fiery and an injured and vengeful Savalas joins forces with James MacArthur at the fuel depot where they get to blow up more than just the gas supply. Beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard in 70mm and a fine job of direction by Ken Annakin with not a moment to spare in its 163 minutes. Never mind what Ike said – this is simply sensational. When I have a brigade of tanks – that is reality!

La Strada (1954)

La Strada

What a funny face! Are you a woman, really? Or an artichoke? Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is a simple-minded young woman whose mother accepts 10,000 lire from brutish itinerant strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) to take her on the road after her older sister Rosa has died doing the same job. He bullies her and she takes up with high-wire performer Il Matto/Fool (Richard Basehart) who is with a travelling circus which she then joins with Zampanò when he finds her. The men’s rivalry culminates in a death … Here we have a piece of chain that is a quarter of an inch thick. It is made of crude iron, stronger than steel. With the simple expansion of my pectoral muscles, or chest, that is, I’ll break the hook.Written by Fellini and Tulio Pinelli with Ennio Flaiano, this is the first of the maestro’s world hits and one of the classics of cinema. It is a tragedy told with immense humanity and vivid melancholy and is a tribute to the performing brilliance of Masina, Fellini’s wife and the inspiration for the central character, a waif of Chaplinesque attractiveness. Much of the film was shot around dawn, imbuing this picaresque of poverty with its unique tone of fatality. This marks a break with the director’s neorealist cinematic roots,  yet it is an unvarnished picture of post-war Italy, a stark contrast with the American Technicolor tourist romcoms being produced on location. However it embraces the vitality and symbolism of the circus and brings a distinctive worldview to global attention. Quinn seems unbearably tough while Basehart does well as a kind of trickster in this allegorical play on the fairytale.  Nino Rota provides the evocative score and the song which is repeated to such urgent effect. A devastating portrait of the destruction of innocence with the overwhelming power of melodrama. Once you lose your eyes, you are finished. If there’s any delicate person in the audience, I would advise him to look away ’cause there could be blood

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

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What do you see besides a big dumb guy? A Roman Catholic nun (Deborah Kerr) and a hard-bitten US Marine (Robert Mitchum) are stranded together on a Japanese-occupied island in the South Pacific during World War II. Under constant threat of discovery by a ruthless enemy, strafed by Japanese bombers, they hide in a cave and forage for food together. Their forced companionship and the struggle for survival forge a powerful emotional bond between them and then the Japanese arrive ... Perhaps God doesn’t intend me to take my final vows. Charles Shaw’s novel was adapted by director John Huston and veteran screenwriter John Lee Mahin, who declared this the favourite of all of his films. And what a smooth run it is, taking two established actors and playing with their personae in the way that Huston is reiterating the setup from The African Queen except here Bogie is the hollowed-out macho Mitchum, a much leaner proposition, and Hepburn is replaced by Kerr, replaying her Irish Catholic nun from Black Narcissus and giving her a comic twist (her casting maybe a nod to that beach scene in From Here to Eternity). Their flintiness is worn down by alcohol and great writing with just enough danger to make it a potent admixture. The cinematography by the great Oswald Morris is splendid and Georges Auric’s score is as jaunty as a sea shanty. Kerr and Mitchum have great chemistry and would be paired again in The Grass is GreenerOnly God knows what’ll happen to us

Little Boy Lost (1953)

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Before you love the living you’ve got to bury the dead.  During World War II an American war correspondent Bill Wainwright (Bing Crosby) is stationed in Paris. He meets and falls in love with a French singer, Lisa Garret (Nicole Maurey). They marry and have a son, Johnny. When Bill is assigned to cover Dunkirk he can’t return to Paris and discovers Lisa is still there, singing nightly on Radio France. His anti-Nazi reporting means he can’t enter Occupied France. Then the radio station is shut down and he can’t locate her or his son.  He learns the Nazis have murdered her for her Resistance work. After the war and with the assistance of his friend Pierre Verdier (Claude Dauphin) he finds out that his small son went missing during a bombing raid. He is possibly living in an orphanage run by nuns, led by the Mother Superior (Gabrielle Dorziat).  He finds a sad and confused boy, Jean (Christian Fourcade), who does bear a superficial resemblance to Lisa, and Wainwright believes he might be his son. The Mother Superior insists that the boy is his, but Wainwright is sceptical and sets out to test him, eventually convinced that the boy has been coached in order to ease an adoption …Only the trustworthy have friends in the Resistance. And the trustworthy are the Resistance. Producer/director George Seaton could be termed as an auteur and his post-war work, from Miracle on 34th Street to The Big Lift blends realism and social comment with a little sentiment and broad political statements, an admixture that perfectly fits the feeling of the time. This exercise in post-war drama with a musical element doesn’t quite work – it’s a somewhat artificial interpretation of Marghanita Lanski’s book and she was rather shocked that having sold the rights to British actor John Mills it wound up being somewhat bowdlerized as a Paramount production starring Bing Crosby with a lot of singing interludes. Crosby is good, but not great, at playing the man reluctant to confront the reality of his wife’s demise and quick to decide that of all the orphans in the convent it’s the cute blond one that must be his, not the scrawny dark fellow with the chicken legs. There are truths here for all parents, mostly issued in the mother superior’s exchanges with this conflicted man, ready to report on everyone but himself. A mixed bag but not without interest particularly for anyone interested in seeing the terrible state of Paris after the war, a rather different impression than you might have from An American in Paris or its confreres. Paternity cannot be decided by a sudden rapid pulse or a lump in the throat

 

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The Greengage Summer (1961)

The Greengage Summer

Aka The Loss of Innocence. Tinker tailor soldier sailor rich man poor man beggar man thief.  Left alone because of their mother’s sudden hospitalisation at the start of a family holiday in France, four British children have to fend for themselves. They stay at an elegant hotel booked by their mother in advance, where, despite the reticence of owner Madame Zisi (Danielle Darrieux), they are befriended by her English lover, the mysterious Eliot (Kenneth More).  Sixteen-year old Joss (Susannah York), the eldest of the children, runs afoul of Madame Zisi, who thinks Eliot is spending too much time with her and causes a scene. Thirteen-year old Hester (Jane Asher) is shocked when Eliot reacts violently as she attempts to take his photo while he takes them sightseeing.  He is forced to abandon early their trip to the caves at Champagne when France’s best policeman M. Renard (Raymond Jérome) shows up. As Joss deals with her burgeoning attraction to Eliot, handyman Paul (David Saire) becomes attracted to her. When Zisi lashes out at young Joss, whom she believes Eliot loves, Paul takes advantage of the situation and gets Joss drunk and the aftermath unleashes her own jealousy …  If this is how grown ups feel they’re worse pigs than I thought Sensitively adapted by Howard Koch from Rumer Godden’s novel, this is a lovely portrait of adolescence, with the gorgeous young York very convincing and blossoming as an actress right before our eyes in a nicely mounted production whose sole flaw is rather fatal – the miscasting of More, nobody’s idea of a romantic enigma, still less a jewel thief of some renown. This is such an interesting story typical of Godden’s work – of the different worlds occupied by children and adults, of jealousy, of misunderstandings:  when Paul tries to explain to Hester that hotel manager Madame Corbet (Claude Nollier) is also jealous of Eliot’s relationship with Zisi he realises she does not understand Lesbianism;  Joss deeply resents Eliot calling her a child and it is that which triggers the disastrous conclusion;  the final shots, which imply that even now, after her sudden transition into womanhood, Joss doesn’t fully comprehend what she has done.  Everyone seemed to agree that the role of Eliot should really have been played by Dirk Bogarde, but it wasn’t and More wanted it desperately and he’s all wrong. His scenes with York are uncomfortable. Still, there are other pleasures to be had in this atmospheric depiction of a heavy summer, not least seeing Bessie Love, the great silent star, in a small role as an American tourist. Directed by Lewis Gilbert.

The Killing of Sister George (1968)

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I’m writing something very obscene about the British Broadcasting Corporation.  June (Beryl Reid) is an actress who portrays the popular Sister George, a district nurse in a popular BBC soap opera. The actress spends her time drinking and engaging in Lesbian sex with her much younger live-in lover, factory worker Alice also called Childie (Susannah York) due to her penchant for baby doll dresses and her devotion to her collection of dolls. A television executive, Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) decides she likes Alice and wants to write Sister George off the show after she’s molested two nuns in the back of a taxi, two Irish Catholic novitiates just off the boat. June watches as her behavior and insecurity and bullying drive Alice away and into the arms of Mercy.  George discovers the only job she is likely to be offered is that of a cow’s voice on a kids’ show … I can hardly put through to the Controller your allegation that you may have been bitten by two nuns. Robert Aldrich and screenwriter Lukas Heller broke new ground with this, made directly after The Dirty Dozen. Aldrich’s regular collaborator, Heller added a sex scene between Childie and Mrs Croft to Frank Marcus’ 1964 play which was responsible for the film’s X rating under the newly instituted censorship system in the US. There were also censorship problems in the UK (the BBFC website states that this has by far the largest file of any film submitted with the sex scene “by far the most explicit scene of lesbian physical love that has ever been submitted [for classification].” ). This was also the first film to show the inside of a Lesbian nightclub.   It fits into the rather cynical ‘hag’ template the pair pioneered with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  and Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte. Beryl Reid’s butch persona (well known from The Belles of St Trinian’s) adds a new twist to the format, with her tweedy randy predator meeting her match in Mrs Croft. Reid had played the role on stage and had its energy and complexity down to a T. This is a confrontational film about ageing, femininity, relationships and career and how they can all converge into a crisis at the whim of an executive’s pen. Fascinating on so many levels, with the central story’s blackly comic claustrophobia expressed through excellent design, this is great entertainment. What’s one looking for then, love and affection?

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.

Psycho 3 (1986)

Psycho 3

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.

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.