Play It As It Lays (1972)

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I’ll tell you what I do. I try to live in the now. Burned-out B-movie actress Maria (Tuesday Weld), depressed and frustrated with her loveless marriage to an ambitious film director, Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) who would rather work on his career than on his relationship with her, numbs herself with drugs and sex with strangers. Only her friendship with a sensitive gay movie producer, B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), offers a semblance of solace. But even that relationship proves to be fleeting amidst the empty decadence of Hollywood as they both start to crack up ... How do you get to the desert? You drive there. Husband and wife screenwriting team Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted Didion’s sensational novel of alienation and its transposition to the screen by director Frank Perry captures its existential sense of crisis. Weld is perfect as the model turned actress whose flashbacks are a faux-documentary and some biker movies she has made with her husband (and Roarke starred in some himself, of course). Her narrative is determined by movie business ghouls and Sidney Katz’s editing plays into her disjointed sense that she is losing control in a chilling world where her retarded daughter is locked away and she undergoes an illegal abortion.  Weld is teamed up again with Perkins after Pretty Poison and they work beautifully together – you really believe in their tender friendship. An overlooked gem which reminds us what a fine performer Weld is and also the fact that Charles Bukowski wrote about her in the poem the best way to get famous is to run away.  A cult classic. The fact is, when an actress walks off a picture people get the idea she doesn’t want to work

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IT Chapter Two (2019)

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I can smell the stink of fear on you.  Defeated by members of the Losers’ Club, the evil clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) returns 27 years later to terrorise the town of Derry, Maine, once again and children start disappearing. Now adults, the childhood friends have long since gone their separate ways and are scattered over the US. Town librarian Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) calls the others home for one final stand. Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a successful mystery novelist in Los Angeles married to successful actress Audra Phillips (Jess Weixler). Like the others he is haunted by what happened but mostly because he has forgotten or blocked things from his mind – he sought revenge for the loss of his little brother Georgie. His on-set issues with the director (Peter Bogdanovich) of and adaptation of one of his novels arise from the ending which nobody likes, not even his wife, who’s been lying to him for years. Bespectacled and foul-mouthed Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) has become a successful stand-up comic in Los Angeles.  The overweight little boy Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) is now a handsome successful architect living in Nebraska. Hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) is a risk assessor in NYC and his marriage to Myra seems to mirror his relationship with his mother. Georgia accountant Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) cannot bear the idea of a return to the town because he is simply too afraid. The group’s only girl Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is a successful fashion designer whose violent marriage replicates the bullying she endured as a child. Damaged by scars from the past, the united Losers must conquer their deepest fears to destroy the shape-shifting Pennywise – now more powerful than ever… You know what they say about Derry. No one who dies here ever really dies. The second half of Stephen King’s IT has a lot to overcome 2 years after the first instalment and 29 years after it was brought to the TV screen in a mini series. Burdened by over-expectation, hype, and a (mis)cast lacking chemistry, this sequel to the beloved and hugely successful first film aspires to the condition of Guillermo Del Toro movies for some percentage of its incredibly extended running time and wastes a lot of it delving into the past in several rather unnecessary flashback sequences in which some transitions work brilliantly, others not so much. However the mosaic of personal history and occasional flashes of insight accompanied by some black humour restore the narrative equilibrium somewhat even if we all know this is not really about some clown-spider hybrid living in the sewer beneath a small town in Maine. Bill’s arc with his writing is a metaphor for the need to find an ending to a lifetime of latent fear for all the protagonists (it hasn’t stopped him being a bestseller). Grappling with the psychological impact of trauma, child abuse and guilt, this movie is all about burying their root cause:  way to avoid therapy, dude. Surely Pennywise is the ultimate recidivist in a movie where home is a word not just to strike fear but actually has to be carved into someone’s chest rather than being uttered aloud. This is a group of adults who notably have not reproduced.  In the attempt to join up all their experiences coherently there is a ragged logic but it tests the viewer’s patience getting there and after a protracted standoff with Pennywise there is a partly satisfying conclusion where the past has to be physically revisited and replayed, even if the film never reaches the emotional depths or charm one would expect, perhaps because the reality of Pennywise is not more artfully probed:  those character threads are left fraying at the edges. A delight lies in seeing author King playing the pawnbroker selling Bill his old bike and refusing Bill’s offer to sign his novel  – because he doesn’t like Bill’s endings. It could be King’s comment on half the films he’s seen adapted from his own books, especially relevant in a movie that quotes The ShiningAdapted by Gary Dauberman and directed by Andy Muschietti.  You haven’t changed anything yet. You haven’t changed their futures. You-you haven’t saved any of them

Spirits of the Dead (1968)

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Aka Tre passi nel delirio/Histoires extraordinaires. Three stories of hauntings adapted from Edgar Allan Poe. Part 1:“Metzengerstein” directed by Roger Vadim. Are you sure it was a dream? Sometimes you need me to tell you what you did was realAt 22, Countess Frederique (Jane Fonda) inherits the Metzengerstein estate and lives a life of promiscuity and debauchery. While in the forest, her leg is caught in a trap and she is freed by her cousin and neighbor Baron Wilhelm (Peter Fonda), whom she has never met because of a long-standing family feud. She becomes enamored with Wilhelm, but he rejects her for her wicked ways. His rejection infuriates Frederique and she sets his stables on fire. Wilhelm is killed attempting to save his prized horses. One black horse somehow escapes and makes its way to the Metzengerstein castle. The horse is very wild and Frederique takes it upon herself to tame it. She notices at one point that a damaged tapestry depicts a horse eerily similar to the one that she has just taken in. Becoming obsessed with it, she orders its repair. During a thunderstorm Frederique is carried off by the spooked horse into a fire caused by lightning that has struck.  Written by Vadim and Pascale Cousin and shot in Roscoff. Part II:  “William Wilson” directed by Louis Malle. It is said, gentlemen, that the heart is the seat of the emotions, the passions. Indeed. But experience shows that it is the seat of our cares.  In the early 19th century when Northern Italy is under Austrian rule, an army officer named William Wilson (Alain Delon) rushes to confess to a priest (in a church of the “Città alta” of Bergamo that he has committed murder. Wilson then relates the story of his cruel ways throughout his life. After playing cards all night against the courtesan Giuseppina (Brigitte Bardot), his double, also named William Wilson, convinces people that Wilson has cheated. In a rage, the protagonist Wilson stabs the other to death with a dagger. After making his confession, Wilson commits suicide by jumping from the tower of “Palazzo della Ragione”, but when seen his corpse is transfixed by the same dagger. Written by Malle, Clement Biddle Wood and Daniel Boulanger. Part III: Toby Dammit” directed by Federico Fellini.  This film will be in color. Harsh colors, rough costumes to reconcile the holy landscape with the prairie. Sort of Piero della Francesca and Fred Zinneman. An interesting formula. You’ll adapt to it very well. Just let your heart speak. The modern day. Former Shakespearean actor Toby Dammit (Terence Stamp) is losing his acting career to alcoholism. He agrees to work on a film, to be shot in Rome, for which he will be given a brand new Ferrari as a bonus incentive. Dammit begins to have unexpected visions of macabre girl with a white ball. While at a film award ceremony, he gets drunk and appears to be slowly losing his mind. A stunning woman (Antonia Pietrosi) comforts him, saying she will always be at his side if he chooses. Dammit is forced to make a speech, then leaves and takes delivery of his promised Ferrari. He races around the city, where he sees what appear to be fake people in the streets. Lost outside of Rome, Dammit eventually crashes into a work zone and comes to a stop before the site of a collapsed bridge. Across the ravine, he sees a vision of the little girl with a ball (whom he has earlier identified, in a TV interview, as his idea of the Devil). He gets into his car and speeds toward the void.The Ferrari disappears, and we then see a view of roadway with a thick wire across it, dripping with blood, suggesting Dammit has been decapitated. The girl from his vision picks up his severed head and the sun rises. Written by Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi and adapted from ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’… Who but Vadim could cast Jane Fonda’s own brother as her object of desire? And she’s terrific as the jaded sexpot. Delon is marvellous as Poe’s ego and id, haunting himself; with Bardot turning up as a peculiarly familiar iteration of what we know and love. And then there’s the wonderful Terence Stamp as Toby, the scurrilous speed freak. This portmanteau of European auteurs having a go at Poe is the dog’s. Watch it over and over again to pick up on all the connections and beauty within. Uneven, fiendishly sexy, ravishingly brutal, moralistic and really rather fabulous. Makes you wish it was fifty years ago all over again. Oh, no. I’m English, not Catholic. For me the devil is friendly and joyful. He’s a little girl.

Slaughterhouse Rulez (2018)

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That hole is a gateway. And it leads, straight down, to hell. Now, who wants to buy some drugs? Yorkshire boy Don Wallace (Finn Cole) is sent to a strange public school by his concerned mother Kay (Isabella Laughland) where he has to share a room with the rather eccentric and bullied snuff-sniffing Willoughby (Asa Butterfield). He finds his predecessor hanged himself. He falls for ‘goddess’ Clemsie (Hermione Corfield) but is warned off and gets homesick in this weird institution run by The Bat (Michael Sheen) with a horrible house called Andromeda where students undergo strange rituals. Useless master Meredith (Simon Pegg) spends all of his downtime Skyping former love Audrey (Margot Robbie) who has clearly found a new romantic interest in South Sudan. When a company called Terrafrack run by Bat’s mate Lambert (Alex Macqueen) unearths a huge sinkhole emitting a terrible methane cloud it appears it has disturbed some strange subterranean creatures in the woods. And there’s an eco protest group nearby where Woody (Nick Frost) has a stash of drugs he wants to sell but there’s more to him than anyone suspects … We’re going to let them run our fucking country? From a screenplay by debut director Crispian Mills and Henry Fitzherbert, this is the latest Simon Pegg/Nick Frost collaboration, following their Cornetto Trilogy but they are minor characters, sidelined by attractive teens.  This is a story with the evils of fracking at its heart that traffics in charm rather than terror in episodic fashion. No more than Don’s mother, it has aspirations above its station in its references and a swipe at class difference, with a photo of Malcolm McDowell in the great If… on Willoughby’s wall. But it’s a schlock horror not a shock horror with lowbrow laughs, social commentary, some gore and a backstory that harks at myth. This may not be great but it is efficient genre cinema with oodles of good humour (and bad nature) and we might expect good things from the scion of Hayley Mills and Roy Boulting, never mind that he was also the frontman of Kula Shaker. The ecstasy of death

All Is True (2018)

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I’ve just bought a pension. I can’t die for at least 10 years or I’ll be ruined. It’s 1613, and Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground and he decides he will never write again. Devastated, he returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death 17 years earlier of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis) he struggles to mend the broken relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters, Hamnet’s twin sister, spirited spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappy Susanna (Lydia Wilson) who is married to a noxiously stern Puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). He is forced to examine his failings as an absent husband and father when 28-year old Judith finally gets involved with a suitor alleged to have impregnated another woman and Susanna is accused of adultery … A garden ain’t a play. Screenwriter Ben Elton has been wowing on the small screen with his very clever parody of Shakespeare in Upstart Crow but this is only occasionally in the same pantomimic vein albeit its nod/wink title (the original title for The Life of Henry VIII) toys with the idea that this is anything other than a confection of falsehoods and assumptions.  And it is a bit of a joke to start with – an old conqueror finally comes home and gets in the way of his wife and has the temerity to mess up the garden she has so carefully cultivated for the last 20 years. And then there are all those long country evenings when all you have is a candle for company. Irony is writ large here. At its heart a melancholy meditation on age, family and what you leave behind, Shakespeare is confronted with the long-hidden truth of his young son’s death, a boy whom he believed to have been greatly talented but who had actually been presenting the work of his twin, who was left unable to read and write, being but a girl. The discovery is poignant indeed. There’s a sonnet-off  (# 29) when Will is confronted with another truth – that the now elderly object of his affection Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) is not interested in him but appreciates his art. How wonderfully odd that two of the great contemporary exponents of the Bard are quoting him at each other. Anne’s feelings are nothing – when the poems were published (illegally, without Will’s consent), he never thought about her reputation or what people might say. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The bedrock of his entire life it seems has been other people and what they say – what was said of his father, what was said of him, and now, what is said about his daughters, both caught up in scandals of their own. He is a man for whom all truth is literally relative. Retirement is not easy and revelations about what happened at home when he was enjoying fame and adulation come as a shock to someone for whom all the world’s a stage and now his daughters are ruining the name he literally wrote out of disgrace to redeem his father’s blackguarding. Branagh is very good, prosthetics and all, capable of being hurt and amusing and rueful. The motifs are striking in a beautifully shot production – two fires dominate the visuals: the opening conflagration at the Globe caused by a misfiring cannon in a production co-written with John Fletcher; and the smaller one in the grate when Judith attempts to destroy what Hamnet transcribed – because Will needs to believe it was his dead son who wrote the poetry and she is guilty at being a gifted woman because he has such a low opinion of her. And Will loves the word on the page – when he sees his son’s name written in the funeral record in the local church his face comes to life. Anne chides him that when Hamnet died he was busy writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dench is wise and moving in the role of the much older wife protecting him from terrible knowledge. However the slow pace and ruminative setting, autumnal and somewhat bucolic, hide the sad drama within. It’s stunningly shot by Zac Nicholson, not just allowing us to see the wide open spaces juxtaposed with interestingly shot and lit interiors – so many dimpled with pure candlelight as the sole source – but telling us that there is always a bigger story and hinting where to look. There are funny scenes with the ridiculously ingratiating local MP Sir Thomas Lucey (Alex Macqueen) and some wild put-downs. There’s even a jibe about authorship and how it was that a man who owns up to having lived such a little life could have ended up knowing everything. Lest we forget, Elton is the best Elizabethan historian we have, when you think about Blackadder. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is very lovely. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Nothing is ever true

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

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Don’t anyone suppose that because I’m a woman, I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you’re awake, I shall be afield before you’re up, and I shall have breakfasted before you’re afield. In short, I shall astonish you all. In the late nineteenth century in England’s West Country beautiful young Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) inherits a picturesque farm from her uncle and decides to run it herself. Three very different suitors – Francis Troy (Terence Stamp), an intense soldier who has impregnated a maid; William Boldwood (Peter Finch), a prosperous middle-aged farmer; and Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), a neighbouring sheep farmer of modest means – all contend for her hand in marriage and her different attitudes to each of them cause conflict and tragedy … At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be. And whenever you look up, there I shall be. Adapted by Frederic Raphael from Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, this is one of the most gloriously beautiful films of its era, starring some of the most attractive British performers, all shot in almost decadently luminous imagery by the great Nicolas Roeg, a few years from making his directing debut. However none of that would matter if it weren’t for the management of the material which clarifies the novel’s question – how is it possible for a woman to maintain her independence and property while claiming a romantic relationship for herself? The painful issues of patriarchy and community combine when Bathsheba turns down Gabriel’s offer of marriage and she inadvertently triggers a chain of horribly dramatic events in this bucolic setting. It’s director John Schlesinger’s third film with Christie and she’s at the peak of her beauty and charisma playing this passionate girl. You can understand why everybody loves her. A woman like you does more damage than she can conceivably imagine

The Drowning Pool (1975)

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Swimming’s a good way to relax but I know a better way. LA based private detective Lew Harper is hired by old flame Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward), who is being blackmailed about an extra-marital affair she says never happened. He travels down to Louisiana to investigate, but things take a turn for the worse when her mother-in-law (Coral Browne) is killed and her nymphet daughter Schuyler (Melanie Griffith) appears to be involved with the family’s disreputable ex-chauffeur Reavis (Andrew Robinson) who Iris believes is responsible for the blackmailing … I ran a check on you, Mr. Harper. You are not stupid. Adapted by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Walter Hill and Lorenzo Semple Jr. from Ross Macdonald’s titular 1950 novel, this rather laidback followup to Newman’s previous outing as Lew Harper a decade earlier relocates him from his familiar California setting and the New Orleans and Lafayette backdrops provide an easy atmosphere for this most likable of PIs. Beyond the visual attractions of the bayous and plantation home shot by Gordon Willis, there’s the spectacle of real life husband and wife Newman and the marvellous Woodward sharing screen time, Griffith as the jailbait daughter with the squeaky voice, Murray Hamilton as crazed oil magnate J.J. Kilbourne, Anthony Franciosa as Police Chief Broussard and Richard Jaeckel gets some very good moments as a corrupt police officer. You’ll recognise Robinson as the shooter from Dirty Harry. Less deftly plotted than Harper, it’s rounded out with a score by Michael Small arranged around the liberal use of the modern classic, Killing Me Softly, an exceedingly apt choice considering the denouement. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Harper, you’re not such a tough guy

Decision at Sundown (1957)

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You’d better leave town if you want to stay in one piece. After three years of searching and hell-bent on revenge, flinty gunslinger Bart Allison (Randolph Scott) rides into a sleepy Western town with sidekick Sam (Noah Beery) and only one goal in mind: to kill local roughneck Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), who kidnapped his wife years ago. Both men have blood on their hands over the woman’s eventual suicide. Allison and Kimbrough, wracked with guilt but boiling over with bloodlust, are set to face off for one final confrontation. Tensions mount as sunset approaches, and the townspeople must choose sides before sundown just as Kimbrough prepares to wed local girl Lucy (Karen Steele) and sheriff Swede (Andrew Duggan) assists in surrounding the men in a stables… Doc, when you have been tending bars as long as I have, you wouldn’t expect so much out of the human race. With a screenplay by Charles Lang, director Budd Boetticher reunites with Scott for their second collaboration and the usually taciturn star plays a man unravelling at the seams rather with a residual question over his psychological well-being not to mention his partial responsibility for his wife’s death, tearing at the reason for his quest and turning the tables on the town itself as the lines blur between notions of the hero and the villain. There are ugly digs at women and their predilections with Kimbrough’s mistress Ruby (Valerie French) the third point of this bad women triangle but this is compensated for by the precision of the action sequences, cut closely and distinctively, echoing the irony that underscores this unusual revenge western, offering no light relief to the brutal sense of justice at its core. What we remember is the detail of Randolph Scott’s face, etched with pointless obsession. I’ll tell you one thing, none of us will ever forget the day that Bart Allison spent in Sundown

A Woman in Berlin (2008)

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Aka  Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin/The Downfall of Berlin. Find a single wolf to keep away the pack.  In April 1945 the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrives in Berlin defeating the last German defence. Its soldiers rape women of any age as they occupy the city. After being gang raped by a number of Soviet soldiers, the film’s anonymous woman, German journalist Anonyma (Nina Hoss), petitions the battalion’s commanding officer, for an alliance and protection to control the terms of her rape. From now on I will decide who gets me After initially rejecting her, married Ukrainian Lieutenant Andrei Rybkin (Eugeny Sidikhin) is seduced by the beautiful battered German woman. She manifests a cool, practical approach to her life, part of an informal community that develops among survivors in her apartment building. The officer subsequently protects, feeds and parties with her and her neighbours. Other women also take particular officers or soldiers for protection against being raped by soldiers at large which works until their husbands return. Rybkin comes under suspicion and is reassigned, who knows where …  My name doesn’t matter. The book by Anonymous (Marta Hillers) wasn’t published until 1959 and even then the account of the mass rapes (2 million plus) by the Russians was hard to bear so this adaptation has a twofold problem:  not turning it into an exploitation fest; and not being so melodramatic as to remove the nature of the horror and the pragmatic decision that women took to try to survive.  On that front at least it’s a success, a clear-eyed depiction of how life was. Watching rape used as a weapon in the rubble-strewn ruins of Berlin in revenge for what the Germans did in Russia is an unedifying experience. We step over the corpses of women to get a jar of jam. Hoss is superb as the worldly woman who has travelled and lived abroad yet also been a committed Nazi who is forced to use the only means she has to keep alive – a complex portrait of ambiguity proving she’s one of the best actors around. There are moments of humorous irony – her neighbour the widow has it away for a bit of salami, as she wryly observes. Hillers died in 2001 after which the book was republished and she was identified. She didn’t live to see this, which is a great pity. It’s a tough and grim story, brilliantly constructed and performed. Adapted by Catharina Schuchmann and director Max Färberböck. War and dying used to be men’s business. That’s all over