Monte Walsh (1970)

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I wish I knew something besides cowboyin’. It’s the end of the great wild west era and ageing cowboys Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) arrive in the town of Harmony, where they reconnect with their old friend Shorty Austin (Mitch Ryan). The former wanderers do their best to settle down: Chet gets married and finds work, while Monte pursues saloon girl Martine (Jeanne Moreau) to a nearby township. But when the doldrums of sedentary life set in, they begin falling apart and find themselves embroiled in robbery, murder and vandalism and Monte’s failure to tame a bronco triggers a crisis… A beautiful directing debut for renowned cinematographer William A. Fraker. Its elegiac quality is underlined by the wonderfully empathetic score by John Barry, probably one of his most haunting themes. The romance between Marvin and Moreau is delightful while the shift in tone at the conclusion in this story of transition to modernity is captured sorrowfully by the photography of David M. Walsh. Adapted by Lukas Heller and David Zelag Goodman from Jack (Shane) Schaefer’s novel, this is western as metaphor. Quite marvellous.

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

The Tin Drum (1979)

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There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eat to much fish. There was once a credulous people… who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really… the gas man! There was once a toy merchant. His name was Sigismund Markus… and he sold tin drums lacquered red and white. There was once a drummer. His name was Oskar. There was once a toy merchant… whose name was Markus… and he took all the toys in the world away with him. Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is a very unusual boy born in Danzig in 1924, after the city has been separated from Germany following WW1. Refusing to leave the womb until promised a tin drum by his mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), Oskar is reluctant to enter a world he sees as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and vows on his third birthday to never grow up as he watches his mother take her cousin Jan for a lover and she becomes pregnant – but by who? Miraculously Oskar gets his wish when he throws himself down a staircase.  His talent for breaking glass when he screams garners him attention. As the Nazis rise to power in Danzig, Oskar wills himself to remain a child, beating his tin drum incessantly and screaming in protest at the chaos surrounding him as his mother dies, his father takes a new wife who has a baby Oskar is convinced he has fathered and Hitler takes over while Oskar decides to join a travelling circus and entertain the Nazi troops in Paris … Günter Grass’ stunning 1959 novel was adapted by Volker Schlöndorff (and Jean-Claude Carriére and Frank Seitz Jr.) and he became the first German director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this transgressive, arresting and surreal impression of Nazism and the breakup of Europe. It’s mesmerising, brilliantly conceived and performed – Bennent is one of a kind – and once seen can never be forgotten. It is the blackest of comedies about the darkness in Germany and the way in which Polish people handled the transition to Nazism. The coda in real life – that Grass was found to have been in the Waffen-SS as a teenager after a lifetime of denial –  somehow just gives this greater heft. Amazing.

Personal Shopper (2016)

 

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So we made this oath… Whoever died first would send the other a sign. A young American in Paris Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) works as a personal shopper for a celebrity, Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). She seems to have the ability to communicate with spirits, like her recently deceased twin brother Lewis. They share a congenital heart defect. She hangs around Paris near the villa where he lived hoping to receive a sign from him from the other side – he was a spiritualist. She indulges her interest in art by pursuing knowledge about a previously unknown Swedish female abstract artist.  She proclaims her distaste for her job to her boyfriend with whom she communicates via Skype in Muscat but is clearly tempted by its benefits. Soon, she starts to receive ambiguous text messages from an unknown source… Stewart always seemed to me to be pretty one-dimensional in her American films with a limited capacity to convey joy. But the issues of her expressivity are perfectly exploited by French auteur Olivier Assayas in their second collaboration even as he maintains a distance within a genre-touching exercise where emotion and excess are mostly avoided (imagine if Argento had made this!).  There is a great mood of sadness and mystery when it gets going (and it takes a while) and if Stewart isn’t this generation’s Jean Seberg she is evolving into a determinedly individualistic performer.  The enigmatic narrative has a fragility that occasionally bursts with the threat of violence real and imagined. Oddly compelling and stylish and proof that there is great potential for this American in Paris.

A Quiet Place (2018)

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Who are we if we can’t protect them? We have to protect them.  Over three months in 2020, most of the Earth’s human population has been wiped out by sightless creatures with hypersensitive hearing and a seemingly impenetrable armored shell that attack anything that makes noise. The Abbott family — engineer husband Lee (John Krasinski), wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), congenitally deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simonds), and sons Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward) — silently scavenge for supplies in a deserted town. Though skilled in sign language the family must nonetheless be vigilant in case they make accidental noise. Four-year-old Beau is drawn to a battery-operated space shuttle toy, but his father takes it away. Regan returns the toy to Beau, who unbeknownst to her takes the batteries their father removed. Beau activates the shuttle when the family is walking home through the woods, near a bridge. Its noise makes him an instant target for a nearby creature, and he is swiftly killed. A year later Evelyn is pregnant, Regan is plagued with guilt and convinced her father doesn’t love her (despite working on a cochlear implant for her) and he takes Marcus out on survival training just as the creatures are circling the farm and weeks before Evelyn is due to give birth … A canny blend of horror, sci fi and maternal melodrama, the fact that this has a somewhat unclear endpoint doesn’t necessarily ruin its affect. Third-time director and star John Krasinski contributed to the rewriting of the screenplay by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (which had just one line of dialogue) and it’s a testament to the construction that the hook gets a great payoff but still sacrifices a major character. The thrills mount as the tension grinds on, the family treading barefoot everywhere as the slightest noise could bring these aliens swooping down on them.  The elements – air, water, fire – are put to deft use in this clever narrative which tests the audience and not just because a lot of the diegetic atmosphere consists of … silence.  Mercifully short (at 90 minutes) this has all the best elements of 70s horror and a cliffhanger of an ending which means you just know there will be a sequel.

 

Saddle the Wind (1958)

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I know all about the brother and the sickness inside him. He didn’t get that from Steve, he was born with it.  Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor) is a former gunfighter and soldier who left his violent ways behind him after the Civil War. Since then, he has settled down as a rancher and lives peacefully in a small Western town where he collaborates with Dennis Deneen (Donald Crisp) to maintain order after the man gives him land. His easygoing life is turned upside down when his unstable younger brother Tony (John Cassavetes), shows up with his bride-to-be, Joan (Julie London) and a filed-down sixgun. While Steve has given up his gun-toting ways, Tony has not, and his violent tendencies lead to trouble for the entire town when Steve’s old rival Larry Venables (Charles McGraw) shows up to settle a grudge and a new landowner Clay (Royal Dano) plans to fence off some land … Directed by Robert Parrish from a Rod Serling screenplay (his first, from a story by Tommy Thompson), this was one of two westerns Taylor shot that year (the other is The Law and Jake Wade). This is an arresting picture of family values under threat with a sense of the mature western psychology playing out beneath an ostensibly typical plot. Cassavetes looks nuts as usual doing his no-good Fifties rebel thang and Taylor is a wonderful counterpart:  they are total acting opposites and Cassavetes caused major problems on set with his Acting and mumbling.  Ordinary people try to get on with living and conformism is rife – on and offscreen, apparently. Serling would later claim he gave better dialogue to the horses but there are some good scenes. London sings the title song (by Livingston and Evans), with a score by Elmer Bernstein.

One Day (2011)

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Either you are on coke or you got dysentery, either way ITS BORING! On St Swithin’s Day, 15th July, 1988 which is the day of their college graduation two people from opposite sides of the tracks begin a lifelong friendship after spending a day and night together. Emma (Anne Hathaway), an idealist from a working-class family, wants to make the world a better place. Dexter (Jim Sturgess), a playboy, thinks the world is his oyster. While he makes his way through TV as a presenter she waits tables and hopes to become a writer. He marries Sylvie (Romola Garai) the daughter of a wealthy London family while she settles down with nice ordinary Ian (Rafe Spall.) Neither of their relationships lasts. For the next 20 years, the two friends reunite on the 15th of each July, sharing dreams, tears and laughter – until they finally realise what they’ve been searching for, each other… David Nicholls’ bestseller is a superficial delight – a Gen X summation of rites of passage on the road to maturity and opportunities taken and lost and the value of having a best friend. Like a lot of screenwriters he’s got ideas but he’s not a great novelist which is why there are so many holes in this film.  Don’t blame Hathaway, she’s actually good in the role of Emma.  I point the performing fingers at Sturgess, a nothing kind of actor who brings precisely that to the role. Director Lone Scherfig commits to the kind of emotionality that is in between the cracks of the book’s tricksy structure, going backwards and fowards in time (but she ain’t no Resnais folks) and there are some good moments which have the unfortunate ring of truth for those of us who remember this time in our lives. A chance wasted perhaps but only if you haven’t read any good novels in the last twenty-five years. Don’t give up on this baby.

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.

Maudie (2016)

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Show me how you see the world. The story of Maud Lewis née Dowley, a folk artist from Nova Scotia. She (Sally Hawkins) is an arthritic woman living with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) in the 1930s. Maud is shocked to learn that her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) has sold their family home, which their parents had left to him. In the meantime, she is berated by Ida about going out to a local dance. At a store, Maud sees the inarticulate and rough fish peddler Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) place an advertisement for a cleaning lady. Maud answers the call and takes the position for room and board. Everett’s house is very small, and the two share a bed, causing scandal in the town, with gossip that Maud is offering sexual services. While attempting to clean the shack, Maud paints a shelf. She then begins painting flowers and birds on the walls to make it look better. She meets one of Everett’s customers, Sandra (Kari Matchett) from New York City, who is intrigued by Maud’s paintings and buys cards Maud has decorated. She later commissions Maud to make a larger painting for five dollars. Maud persuades Everett to marry her, while her paintings receive more exposure in print coverage and sales begin at the house. US VP Richard Nixon contacts the Lewises to obtain one. After the couple appears on TV news, Everett becomes disturbed that local viewers see him as cold and cruel. Ida, increasingly ill, also saw the coverage, and Maud wishes to see her before Ida dies. Ida tells Maud that she is the only Dowley who ever found happiness, and confesses Maud’s baby girl did not die deformed. Charles had sold her to an old couple.  Everett becomes convinced the relationship has brought nothing but emotional anguish to both of them. The two separate… It starts rather unpromisingly, this story of a strange, somewhat retarded woman whose existence has proven difficult for her aunt – the reference to ‘what happened last time’ after Maudie sneaks out to a dance hall and drinks is an illegitimate baby a late revelation which triggers the emotive last third, in which her difficult and occasionally violent husband seems to finally reconcile himself with his lot and brings Maudie to see her adopted daughter, now married and living in a pretty whiteboard house. The final scene in the hospital is diffident, as is much of the film, which cries out for a more in-depth treatment of this problem life and naive art. Stick with it even if Hawkins drives you potty. Shot in Newfoundland, for some reason. Written by Sherry Wright and directed by Aisling Walsh.

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.