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.

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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.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

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Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder.  In the early 1920s, two determined young English runners train for the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Christian born to Scottish missionaries in China, sees running as part of his worship of God’s glory and refuses to train or compete on the Sabbath. Cambridge student Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) overcomes anti-Semitism and class bias, but neglects his beloved sweetheart Sybil (Alice Krige) in his single-minded quest and then there is the opportunity to prove themselves at Olympics where they will encounter the world’s fastest runners, a pair of Americans … Lauded at the time of release, and prompting screenwriter Colin Welland’s famous but empty threat, The British are coming! this now plays like a very staid exercise frozen in aspic despite the lively intellectual drive – reconciling notions of religion, duty, patriotism, obsession, love – and the wonderful cast. This mostly true story has its moments but they are heavily signposted. The title sequence on the beach of the athletes training in slow motion to Vangelis’ outstanding electronic score is justly famous and it’s repeated at the conclusion. In between are conflicts played out both on the track and off it and there’s a Greek chorus of sorts by John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson (of all people!) whereby a streak of prejudice and elitism in the echelons of academia is revealed. The issue of race – both kinds – is repeated in Abrahams’ choice of coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) who is half Arab and brings the taint of professionalism into play. Produced by David Puttnam, executive produced by Dodi Fayed and directed (in his feature debut) by adman Hugh Hudson who does his best to dress up a low budget epic. The tragic coda to the film if not the story is that two of its stars, Charleson, and Brad Davis (who plays Jackson Scholz), died of AIDS within 18 months of each other a decade later.

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.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Two Lane Blacktop

Color me gone! A mechanic (Dennis Wilson) and a driver (James Taylor) live only to race and maintain their grey 1955 Chevy. Heading east from California with no particular agenda, they give a girl (Laurie Bird) a ride, and en route she incites jealousy between the men by sleeping with them both. Meanwhile, the trio encounters an overbearing 1970 Pontiac GTO driver (Warren Oates) who makes up stories about his life and agrees to race them to New York, each side putting at stake their most prized possession: their car… Stunningly shot (by Gregory Sandor though credited to union member Jack Deerson), almost dialogue-free, this seminal road movie (when that term really meant something) is a showcase of cinematic poetry in motion exhibiting the performing talents of two of the most important music stars of the era. Taciturnity is their mojo as they engage in this eastern, a reversal of the traditional drift of men across the continent, living in the moment.  Oates is remarkable as the man living his own personal fantasy. It helps if you’re a car freak but it’s not necessary. This is a study of a society without a point. Turn on. Tune in. Drop out. Directed by Monte Hellman from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer (who plays a hot rod driver), Will Corry and uncredited contributions from Floyd Mutrux. Absolutely iconic.

Hell is a City (1960)

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Do you know how long it is since you made love to me?  World-weary police inspector Harry Martineau (Stanley Baker) waits in Manchester for an escaped killer Don Starling (John Crawford) to return for his loot and when there’s a violent jailbreak followed by a street robbery which winds up with the murder of a young woman and her body is found dumped on the moors he thinks his man is on the loose…. This police procedural has a lot going for it, not least the location shooting in Manchester, Stanley Baker’s performance (did he ever give a bad one) and the obsession that drives him. Then there are the women – a louche bunch who don’t mind him at all but he’s got a nagging bored wife Judith (Maxine Audley) who’s basically frigid and wonders why he can’t call her every morning despite being up to his oxters in murder. As Martineau works through his contacts to find the gang and locate Starling he encounters the febrile women in Starling’s life –  randy barmaid Lucky Lusk (Vanda Godsell), unfaithful Chloe Hawkins (Billie Whitelaw) who’s married to Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasence) who’s been robbed, and deaf and dumb Silver Steele (Sarah Branch) the granddaughter of antiques dealer Doug Savage (Joseph Tomelty) who may know more than he’s saying … This is an astonishingly powerful genre work, gaining traction from the toughness, the sadism and the brittle knowing dialogue which goes a long way to explaining the relations between thuggish men and dissatisfied women.  Martineau will say or do anything to stop the carnage. There’s a harrowing mano a mano fight to the near death on the rooftops of this drab city. Adapted from Maurice Procter’s novel by director Val Guest, who is responsible for so many great cult films of the era. There’s a great team here – Hammer producer Michael Carreras, composer Stanley Black and cinematographer Arthur Grant. You’ll shiver when the girl is left on the moors. Manchester. So much to answer for.

Hush (1998)

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Do you see what she’s doing? She wants to be me! Handsome rich guy Jackson (Johnathon Schaech) and Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) are in love and he introduces her to Mom Martha (Jessica Lange) down home in the Deep South. About to have their first child, an attempted robbery and rape prompt them to leave NYC and they move in with Jackson’s mother in order to take care of the family estate which is a horse breeding ranch with a great yield. But all is not well in this household. Martha is jealous of her son’s affection for Helen, and, despite her smile, she’s starting to act strangely. As Helen tries to create a happy home life, Martha attempts to divide the family so that Jackson will become hers alone… Long before she played Joan Crawford in the first hagsploitation horror What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? pace Feud: Bette and Joan, Jessica Lange was sharpening her claws on Gwyneth Paltrow. Jackson is pretty dumb as sons of controlling mothers go, but Martha lays it on the line for Helen every day even trying to prevent her from seeing her late husband’s mother (Nina Foch) who’s in a wheelchair in an old folk’s home and full of interesting tidbits about her son’s death. When Helen’s departure from NYC is prompted by a burglar who intends raping her but she screams I’m pregnant and he scarpers you just know who’s behind it. Luckily Helen notices a blackened fingernail which leads her to the culprit – after she’s found a very spooky nursery in the stables. And her beloved locket with her late parents’ photo. This wears its influences on its expansive sleeve (Rosemary’s Baby et al) but it never really goes full tilt crazy even during the horrendous childbirth so the finale doesn’t have the delirium of Grand Guignol cacklins you want to see.  Mommie Dearest indeed. Written by Jane Rusconi  and director Jonathan Darby.

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.

The Great Gatsby (1974)

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You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can. Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) is a young man from the Midwest living modestly among the decadent mansions of 1920s Long Island. He becomes involved in the life of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford), a rich man who throws the most lavish parties on the island. But behind Gatsby’s outgoing demeanor is a lonely man who wants nothing more than to be with his old love, Nick’s second cousin-once removed, the beautiful Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow). She is married to the adulterous and bullheaded millionaire Tom (Bruce Dern), creating a love triangle that will end in tragedy when a misunderstanding leads Tom’s lover Myrtle (Karen Black) to her death in a road accident and her cuckolded husband seeking revenge … We hear all about Gatsby long before we meet him, even if Nick imagines he sees him on the end of the dock early on, with that green light winking on and off. It’s the perfect way to introduce a character who is a self-made myth. Everyone has a different idea about the protagonist of a novel which itself is a masterpiece of sleight of hand storytelling:  it tells us on page one just how. There are a lot of things to admire about this film which is as hollow with the sound of money as Daisy’s voice:  the design, the tone, the casting, which is nigh-on perfect, but the writing leaves the performances with very little to do. Redford, that enigmatic, elusive, evasive Seventies superstar is the ultimately unknowable, uncommitted actor trying to revivify his past love, even as Daisy cries out to this now-multi-millionaire Don’t you know rich girls don’t marry poor boys? Waterston does his best as the writer/narrator who knows far less than he lets on. Dern probably comes off best as the unfiltered louse Fitzgerald wrote but overall Francis Ford Coppola’s script while faithful cannot replicate symbolic effect and the entire novella represents in the most eloquent language ever written class gone wrong in the ultimate American tragedy. Directed by Jack Clayton.

 

Cleopatra (1963)

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Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus. The Seventh Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) manipulates and falls in love with both Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) in her ill-fated attempt to save the Egyptian empire from a takeover by the Roman Empire. This love triangle is one of the most famous ever to be captured on film, with betrayal by trusted Octavian (Roddy McDowall), the murder of Caesar, the escape of Cleopatra who has borne Caesar’s son and the final, terrible defeat at Actium in Greece … What gets lost in the palaver about this truly epic historical saga which ruined Twentieth Century Fox for a while is just how good it is:  how it measures the scale of the action to the depth of performance. Elizabeth Taylor is imperious, vulnerable, scathing, dictatorial, brilliant and moving: What can I do? Where can I go in a world suddenly without you? You believe her. And she is matched by the acerbic Harrison, the slyly snide McDowall (we’re a long way from Lassie!), loyal Rufio (Martin Landau) and what about the very sad end of Burton whose line to Octavian makes you gulp with emotion:  Is there nobody who would grant Antony an honourable way to die? Oh! Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by C.M. Franzero and the histories by Plutarch, Appian and Suetonius the much-laboured upon screenplay is by Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, and director Joseph Mankiewicz who certainly suffered for everybody’s art as the man to take over the botched first attempt aborted in London and relaunched at Cinecitta in Rome. As legendary as this is for its effect on Hollywood, what shouldn’t be forgotten is what a brilliant spectacle it is. It’s quite breathtaking.