East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden

The way he looks at you. Sorta like an animal. In 1917 Salinas Cal (James Dean) and Aaron (Richard Davalos) Trask are the sons of decent farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) who is chairman of the local wartime draft board. Both compete for his attention but Cal has discovered that the mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) they were told was long dead is in fact the madam of a whorehouse in Monterey, 15 miles away. He borrows money from her to profit from a rise in the bean farming market intending to repay his father for his failed experiment in freezing food for long-haul shipping.  But his father prefers Aaron’s announcement of his engagement to Abra (Julie Harris) whom Cal starts to desire just as Aaron feels pressure to enlist and Cal decides to surprise him … I’ve been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn’t even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don’t want it anymore… I can’t use it anymore. I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off. Was there ever a more important or sinuous entrance in the history of cinema than James Dean’s arrival here? The way he moves, coiled like a caged animal set to pounce, slinking along like a cat, then hunched and feral, infiltrating our consciousness and catalysing our puzzlement and desire? I first saw this aged 12 and that’s the perfect age to watch it for the first time, this story of bad parenting, bullying, abandonment, sibling rivalry, envy and first love, all choreographed to the backdrop of the outbreak of WW1 in a masterful adaptation (by Paul Osborn) of the last section of John Steinbeck’s great 1952 novel. Everything about it is right:  the shooting style laying out the gorgeous landscape of Salinas, alternately warm and sunny, chill and foggy; the wide screen that’s barely able to contain the raw emotionality; the marvellous, occasionally strident score by Leonard Rosenman with its soaring, sonorous swoops. And there’s the cast. Jo Van Fleet gives a great performance (in her screen debut) as the wild whoremongering mother  – just look at her strut when we first see her (this is a film of brilliant entrances), providing the angular example of difference to this half-grown boy of hers; Massey is upstanding, a self-righteous, arrogant man, given to sermonising, incapable of leading by empathy; Harris is generous to a fault, allowing Dean to be everything, all at once, boy, man, lover. He burns up the screen with playfulness, confusion and rage. His scenes with Davalos, the Abel to his Cain, bespeak a softness and eroticism rarely equalled and play into the latterday perceptions of his orientation – or perhaps director Elia Kazan just understood how he needed to be in the part, getting into your head by whatever means necessary. Kazan recalled the audience reaction to Dean at the first screening and said that kids were screaming and yelling and practically falling over the balcony to get closer to him, they went wild. That’s how he makes you feel, James Dean. You want to get closer to him. You want to be him. This is really where that sensation began:  of feelings being teased, opened up, acknowledged. Once seen, never forgotten. You’re a likeable kid

Night Passage (1957)

Night Passage

I’m beholden to you mister. Can’t we just leave it that way? Former railroad worker Grant McLaine (James Stewart) is making a living playing the accordion when he’s hired by boss Ben Kimball (Jay C. Flippen) to help transport the railroad’s payroll despite having left his former employ in disgrace. The train carrying the payroll has been robbed multiple times in the past by Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea) and his gang and the workers haven’t been paid in months. Kimball hopes that McLaine can successfully guard the money from the robbers. But matters are complicated for McLaine when he finds out that one of the robbers is his brother, who is now going by the name of the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy) a notorious name in the territory and the brothers have a score to settle … Colorado may be big on miles but it’s kinda short on people. One of the most beautifully shot films of its era (courtesy of William H. Daniels), this was supposed to be directed by Anthony Mann in a furthering of his collaboration with James Stewart. However he withdrew due to his unhappiness with Borden Chase’s adaptation of the source novel by Norman A. Fox and was replaced by James Neilson. It lacks the psychological complexity of those previous auteurist pairings but Murphy is perfect casting as the under-motivated baby-faced younger brother to Stewart’s conscientious sibling, jaded and saddened by loss of love. Duryea has some fantastic scenes, Elam is his usually villainous self and there’s little Brandon De Wilde exuding star power carrying the mysterious shoe box. Elaine Stewart and Dianne Foster have finely drawn roles as the women who come between the brothers. You haven’t heard anything in movies until you’ve witnessed Stewart playing the accordion and trilling, You can’t get far without a railroad in a wonderful score by Dimitri Tiomkin.  If you was boss we wouldn’t do it!

Mapplethorpe (2018)

Mapplethorpe

The shy pornographer. After he bails on the Pratt Institute, horrifying his conservative family, Robert Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) leaves for New York City where he lives on the wild side and teams up with another wannabe artist, Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón).  They set up home together at the Chelsea Hotel where they discover their artistic abilities and dream together. However Mapplethorpe is gay and Smith disappears to enjoy a hetero marriage when she is supplanted by curator and collector Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) who takes Mapplethorpe as one of his lovers.  He becomes his benefactor and backer and shows him some nineteenth century photographs that open up Mapplethorpe to the possibilities of the medium, having two exhibitions simultaneously, one high-art, one erotic, showing both sides of his artistry. A symbiotic relationship is born, albeit Mapplethorpe continues to party and sleep around as his success grows. He falls for black model Milton Moore (McKinlay Belcher III) but when Milton finds his diaries he believes he’s being used fetishistically and abandons him. Mapplethorpe’s lifestyle verges on the reckless, between sex and drugs, but he is now famous and celebrated.  His younger brother Edward (Brandon Sklenar) whom he barely knows is training in the technical side of the medium and joins him as his assistant.  When Edward displays his own talent, Mapplethorpe doesn’t want the competition and tells him to stop using the family name. Wagstaff has AIDS but Mapplethorpe refuses to be tested. When he is dying, Patti visits. He gets Edward to take one more photograph of him… I’m an artist. I would have been a painter, but the camera was invented. Luckily for me. Unsurprisingly considering the subject matter and the fact that this was made in co-operation with the Mapplethorpe Foundation, this contains an array of graphic and pornographic images, all by Mapplethorpe himself.  That’s only disconcerting when Matt Smith is in the same scene as Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits. The value here is not intrinsic in the dramatic exposition but in the ideas it espouses and the path it traces as Mapplethorpe finds his medium – from drawing and making jewellery to figuring out that his narcissism offered a view on masculinity previously unexplored (or exposed in public). You’re the Jekyll and Hyde of photography. He’s not an easy character to portray or to like because his essence lies in provocation and attention-seeking and Smith’s performance is not terribly convincing in a role that is better written than it is acted. Nor does the script deal with the essential lesson that this is a man who knew he wouldn’t live long and was prepared to die for his art. Beauty and the Devil are sort of the same thing to me. The relationship with Patti Smith doesn’t quite ring true either.  The film is about how photography evolved as Mapplethorpe’s own high-contrast signature developed – as he repeatedly says, Look at the blacks. It’s the revolution in image-making to replace the affect and emotion of painting that holds the eye. The context in which the drama is produced is a major factor in the narrative and the celebrities of the day become his models but NYC has cleaned up a lot since the filthy Seventies and if the Chelsea Hotel looks grimy enough for anyone and the spectre of AIDS haunts every frame a cleaned-up look still expresses a dispiriting social scene. The chronological approach that dogs biographical film drama doesn’t add a lot here but the punctuation – setting up famous photographs and then showing the real thing – is a useful technique of juxtaposition that adds to the tension of creation:  these pictures still manage to shock, captivate and provoke. Mapplethorpe died thirty-one years ago this week. Directed by Ondi Timoner (on Kodak film) from a screenplay co-written with Mikko Alanne, based on a screenplay by Bruce Goodrich. They call it playing chicken with the avant garde

Nor the Moon by Night (1958)

Nor the Moon By Night film

Aka Elephant Gun. This is not England. After the mother she’s nursed for years dies, Englishwoman Alice Lang (Belinda Lee) goes to Kenya to marry her pen pal gamekeeper Andrew Miller (Patrick McGoohan). However he has to deal with a poaching incident on the game reserve and redirect a herd of elephants out of harm’s way. He sends his younger brother and colleague Rusty (Michael Craig) to meet Alice and they spend two days together falling in love and getting into life-threatening scenarios with elephants. Meanwhile Andrew uncovers a web of murderous corruption led by Anton Boryslawski (Eric Pohlman) whose teenage daughter Thea (Anna Gaylor) is in love with him and he finds himself at the wrong side of some lions …  You have always been a hermit. Joy Packer’s popular novel had been serialised in a magazine and the adaptation by Guy Elmes makes for a fabulously pulpy melodrama with magnificent cinematography by Harry Waxman (who replaced original DoP Peter Hennessey after crewing issues) and one particularly torrid scene between Craig and the beautiful and tragic Lee, who tried to commit suicide during filming. Shot in South Africa (Kruger National Park) and Kenya, with interiors work done back at Pinewood, it offers a snapshot of the end of Empire, a colonial-eye view that’s mostly depoliticised. Directed by Ken Annakin who reportedly claimed of the troubled production, One day there was only me and a snake available to work. Craig had an affair with Lee’s stand in, McGoohan nearly got killed in a car crash but it all worked out in the end. In this country you can’t be sure of anything

Les enfants terribles (1950)

Les enfants terribles

Aka The Strange Ones. Beauty enjoys immense privileges, even from those unaware of it. Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and her brother Paul (Edouard Dermithe) live isolated from much of the world after Paul is injured in a snowball fight at school. As a coping mechanism, the two conjure up a hermetically sealed dream of their own making filled with fetish objects and strange obsessions. Their relationship, however, isn’t exactly wholesome and when their ailing mother (Karin Lannby) dies the wider world intrudes and they are taken on holiday to the seaside to try to readjust. Back home their friend Gérard (Jacques Bernard) moves in and jealousy and a malevolent undercurrent intrude on their fantasy life:  he secretly likes her but she proves difficult to know.  Elisabeth starts modelling for Gerard’s uncle’s (Roger Gaillard) company and invites the strange girl from work Agathe (Renée Cosima) to stay with them – and Paul is immediately attracted to her:  she resembles all the images of the people – male and female – he hero-worships, as well as his nemesis, Dargelos. Elisabeth marries Michael (Melvyn Martin) a rich Jewish American man but he is killed immediately after their wedding and she inherits a large apartment. There, Paul tries to replicate the bedroom he shared with Elisabeth and reveals his love of Agathe to the shock of his sister  … Elisabeth never thanked anyone. She was used to miracles, also they came as no surprise. She expected them, and they never failed to happen. Jean Cocteau’s poetic 1929 novel translates to the screen as a mesmerising study in adolescence, obsession and solitude, testing the limits of imagination, impossible wish-fulfillment and the consequences. Director Jean-Pierre Melville directs Stéphane to the height of controlled hysteria and betrayal with the insinuations of many sexual inclinations subtly inflected in the text. The dream sequences are perfectly announced in the use of Vivaldi – such a startling and memorable combination in a narrative told by Cocteau himself. She married him for his death

Interiors (1978)

Interiors

I can’t seem to shake the real implication of dying. It’s terrifying. The intimacy of it embarrasses me. Interior designer Eve (Geraldine Page) and her husband, narcissistic corporate attorney Arthur (E.G. Marshall) split after decades of marriage and it comes as a shock to their three adult daughters when Eve attempts suicide:  tightly wound poet Renata (Diane Keaton), struggling Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) and actress Flyn (Kristin Griffith). Arthur’s new romance with vivacious artist Pearl (Maureen Stapleton) whom he wants to marry, introduces new tensions to the daughters’ own relationships – Joey’s with Mike (Sam Waterston), Renata’s with writer Frederick  (Richard Jordan) and there is a rift over Renata’s position as the family favourite. Arthur’s wedding at Eve’s old summer home brings everything to a head… She’s a vulgarian! Woody Allen’s first serious drama as writer/director is a mixed bag of influences, most obviously Chekhov, O’Neill and Bergman (and the scene slashed with the Cries and Whispers scarlet flourish is one of anguish). It’s a rumination on marriage, romantic behaviour, parenting and late-life desperation. There are moments of performance that are truly brilliant – the penultimate scene between Hurt and Page is astonishing. Stapleton is literally the story’s lifesaver. The end is shattering. You’ll live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to 

How Awful About Allan (1970) (TVM)

How Awful About Allan

It’s not your ordinary family reunion. Years after being blamed for the fire that killed their father Raymond (Kent Smith) and suffering from psychosomatic blindness, Allan Colleigh (Anthony Perkins) is released from a mental hospital to stay with his disfigured sister Katherine (Julie Harris) and begins to hear voices when mysterious boarder Harold who has throat problems moves in. Meanwhile his ex-fiancée Olive (Joan Hackett) resumes contact and reports that Katherine’s ex-boyfriend Eric (Trent Dolan) is in town, something Katherine denies.  Allan believes Eric and Harold are one and the same …  The home and the property are both valuable and they’re half mine. We’re in true cult territory here with a collaboration between novelist Henry Farrell (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? etc) and director Curtis Harrington with Farrell adapting his 1963 novel which was complimented by none other than Dorothy B. Hughes in The Washington Post. Both men can be considered auteurs in their own right while Perkins of course gave one of the greatest performances in cinema under the direction of Hitchcock but arguably never escaped the shade of Psycho and in truth is replaying some of its more emotive notes here. The cinematography has not aged well but the individual elements and Perkins’ presence compensate in this rather sub-par suburban Gothic with his tape recording of his suspicions the inner voice that drives the narrative. Perkins and Hackett would be reunited three years laster for The Last of Sheila, an intricate shipboard parlour game mystery which he co-wrote with Stephen Sondheim. An ABC Movie of the Week from Aaron Spelling Productions.  We’ll have our afflictions in common, won’t we

Little Women (2019)

Little Women.jpg

If the main character’s a girl she has to be married at the end. Or dead. In 1860s New England after the Civil War, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) lives in New York and makes her living as a writer and teacher, sending money home, while her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris under the aegis of her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Amy has a chance encounter with Theodore Laurence aka Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a childhood crush from the upper class family next door who proposed to Jo but was ultimately rejected. Their oldest sibling, Meg (Emma Watson) is married to impoverished tutor John Brooke (James Norton) ,while shy sister Beth (Emma Scanlen) develops a devastating illness that brings the family back together under the leadership of their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) who is sad about her husband (Bob Odenkirk) being away in the War as a volunteer for the Union Army. As Jo recalls their experiences coming of age, she has to learn the hard way from a newspaper editor Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) and a fellow schoolteacher Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) that her writing needs a lot of work if it’s to authentically represent her talentI will always be disappointed at being a girl. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved American classic jumps around pivotal episodes and reorders them from present to past and back again, back and forth, to create a coherent, rising and falling set of emotions. Each sister has a distinct personality and aspirations;  each is valid, according to their wants and needs and desires; and each is bestowed a dignity. Ronan shines as Jo but all four are carefully delineated and Pugh as selfish Amy has the greatest emotional arc but she should sue the costumier for failing to tailor her clothes to her stocky figure. Watson isn’t quite right for Meg and her lack of technique is plain. Somehow though it’s always poor Beth who doesn’t get what she deserves:  charity does not begin at home in her case. Some things never change. Despite the liberties taken structurally the story feels rather padded and at 135 minutes it could do with at least 20 minutes being cut because the screenplay keeps retreading the same territory and spoonfeeds the audience in issues of equality and womanhood with whole dialogue exchanges that sound as though they’ve come from a contemporary novel. Even Marmee confesses to being angry all the time. The issue of copyright introduces an aspect of authorship in the last section which has a few different endings. Being a creative writer is one thing;  being an editor is quite different. Each serves a purpose and that is to serve the story well. A film that ultimately has as little faith in its audience as publisher Mr Dashwood has in his readership, this is undoubtedly of its time and it can stand the tinkering that has introduced Alcott’s own story into the mix with the ultimate fairytale ending for any writer – holding her first book in her hands.  Produced by Amy Pascal, who also worked on the 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong. Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for

 

 

Shazam! (2019)

Shazam.jpg

Gentlemen, why use guns when we can handle this like real men? All 14-year-old Billy Batson’s (Asher Angel)has to do is shout out one word to transform into the adult superhero Shazam (Zachary Levi). Still a kid at heart, Shazam revels in the new version of himself by doing what any other teen would do – have fun while testing out his newfound powers even as he searches for his birth mother while living in a new foster home where he is befriended by Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). But he’ll need to master those powers quickly before the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) can get his hands on Shazam’s magical abilities because Sivana was rejected by Wizar Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) long before Billy entered superhero terrain... Heroes fly. And who doesn’t want people to think they’re a hero, right? But invisibility, no way. That’s pervy. Spying around on people who don’t even know you’re there. Sneaking around everywhere. It’s a total villain power, right? Signs that all is not altogether lost in the DC Universe following some Batman-related disappointment, with a family-oriented fantasy outing that has to wait until the conclusion to give our hero a name because in the klutzy nomenclature of caped crusaders he was originally called Captain Marvel. Oh yes. And yet that’s okay because this is all about finding your identity and this rites of passage origins tale is finally all about a superhero’s journey – to his mother and to himself. Relatively lo-fi it might be in comparison with some of the heavy hitters of its type but it has a kind of Saturday morning TV quality to it – likeable, easy on the eye, relatable (!) fun even if it seems in some scenes that Strong is in a different film. There’s a nice Rocky homage in a story basically straight from the Big playbook whose message is that your true family is not necessarily the one you’re born into. Written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke based on characters created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck. Directed by David F. Sandberg.  You have been transformed to your full potential, Billy Batson. With your heart, unlock your greatest power MM#2550

Metal Heart (2018)

Metal Heart.jpg

Just because you’re miserable doesn’t make you interesting. The summer they finish school fraternal twins and rivals Goth muso Emma (Jordanne Jones) and social media maven Chantal (Leah McNamara) are left to themselves when their parents (Dylan Moran and Yasmine Akram) go on a six-week trip to the jungle. Chantal immediately starts having loud sex sessions in her bedroom with her dumb supertanned boyfriend Alan (Aaron Heffernan) while Emma wants to start a band called Yeast Infections with her best friend Gary (Sean Doyle) who’s secretly in love with her but bullied by his overachiever dad Steve (Jason O’Mara). When a mysterious man called Dan (Moe Dunford) shows up to look after the sick old woman next door it transpires he’s her son and the former member of a cult band.  Both girls fall for him, setting a financial disaster in motion after Chantal gets injured in a minor car prang and suddenly Emma is the popular one … A pie chart is not written in stone! Written by that lauded chronicler of suburban Dublin angst, Paul (Skippy Dies) Murray, this takes the American high school/coming of age template and gives it an Irish re-fit (graduation means picking up your results and getting langered), with zingers aplenty, some great side-eye and caustic lessons in relationships. It’s lightly satirical about South Dublin, beautifully captured by cinematographer Eoin McLoughlin – we’re far from the brutal grey skies that typically blight Irish films and into the leafy cosy middle class neighbourhoods where colours pop amid the tasteful midcentury furnishings (kudos to Neill Treacy for the production design). Similarly, the blackly comic elements are balanced with rites of passage/romcom tropes, giving each sister just the right amount of sympathy and mockery in this well-evoked portrait of those last weeks of experience on the cusp of college and adulthood, dramatising how even in a world where you can monetise your makeup tips on social media or conjure Spiders & Cream treats at the ice cream parlour in the local mall, you still crave the approval of the nearest inappropriate adult who’s really after your stash of cash. Warm, witty and attractively performed in a tale which underneath all the comic fuzz and deceptive charm is a sinister story of a twentysomething man grooming kids for underage sex while robbing them blind, this never hits the wrong notes which makes it a kind of miracle of filmmaking. Think:  Home Alone meets Clueless. Directed by actor Hugh O’Conor, who has a gift for making the most of moments in his first feature. I was never going to be her but I would always be her sister

Metal Heart still.jpg