The Cobweb (1955, Directed by Vincente Minnelli) English 6

Starring Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Gloria Grahame, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish, Susan Strasberg, John Kerr, Fay Wray

Image result for the cobweb

The doctors have just as much problems as the patients it seems in this lurid melodrama set in a psychiatric institution. Dr. McIver (Widmark) truly cares about his patients, but competing egos, an affair with a member of his staff, Meg (Bacall), and a growing distance from his wife, Karen (Grahame), threaten to unravel him. Well acted by all, the trumped up emotions and amplified colors become a style, and it’s a style director, Minnelli does successfully. Not as much happening subtextually in this one as in some of the better examples of ’50s melodramas, but still an entertaining potboiler.

Phantom Thread (2017, Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson) English 10

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Camilla Rutherford, Brian Gleeson

Image result for phantom thread

Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a world famous designer. Like many great artist, he sacrifices all else in favor of his craft. He needs everything to be just so, and the opening reveals, how this forces the women from his life. Then one day, he meets Alma (Krieps), and while Alma too marvels at Woodcock’s work,  where other women were pushed away, she gradually begins to push back. Paul Thomas Anderson, who hit the ground running with Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, has, over the years, has grown more enigmatic and opaque with his work. I’m sure there will be several essays deciphering what exactly is going on between Woodcock and Alma (and the indomitable sister, Cyril, looming over the picture, played expertly by Lesley Manville). I saw, in the end, a strong male figure who ultimately wants to be mothered, with the ghost of his departed mother casting a shadow over his life and work. It becomes nearly masochistic by the end. What’s clear and indisputable, however, is the skill involved, both in front of behind the camera. The film, for large segments, becomes akin to one of Ingmar Bergman’s chamber plays, with three dominant characters stuck in a confined space, allowing their quirks to plays out. I also was reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, wherein Professor Henry Higgins takes a woman named Eliza Doolittle off the street, and attempts to mold her in the image of his liking. Only in Phantom Thread, Alma, unlike Eliza, does the final molding.

The Narrow Margin (1952, Directed by Richard Fleischer) English 8

Starring Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, Queenie Leonard, Paul Maxey

Image result for the narrow margin

Hard-boiled Detective Seargeant Walter Brown (McGraw) has to escort a mobster’s widow (Windsor) from Chicago to Los Angeles by train where she’s set to speak before a grand jury. Powerful underworld figures are willing to do anything to make sure that doesn’t happen. Brown, whose partner was already murdered protecting the big-mouthed dame, has his work cut out for him, standing alone against a team of crooks and murderers. They even try bribing him. Meanwhile he meets a married woman, Ann (White), on the train, and quickly grows attached to her. Fast, tightly plotted tale with strong performances and a surprising finale. Very suspenseful. Prime B-movie.

Joe Versus the Volcano (1990, Directed by John Patrick Shanley) English 8

Starring Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Dan Hedaya, Abe Vigoda, Ossie Davis, Nathan Lane, Amanda Plummer

Image result for joe versus the volcano

“Dear God, whose name I do not know – thank you for my life. I forgot how BIG… thank you. Thank you for my life.” So says Joe (Hanks), once just a worker ant, pondering the big questions with a bad case of hypochondria. After being diagnosed with a “brain cloud,” and given six months to live, Joe is offered by a kooky millionaire, Graynamore (Bridges), an opportunity to jump in a volcano for the good of an island tribe; essentially sacrificing himself for their well-being. He accepts, and goes off on an adventure led by Graynamore’s daughter, Patricia (Ryan, in one of three roles). Wonderful, wonderful movie as far as I’m concerned. Beautifully strange, mixing the profound with the bizarre, but always witty. Hanks and Ryan are great together, and give the film a rooting interest beyond all of the offbeat antics, and the dialogue is peerless.

 

Heathers (1988, Directed by Michael Lehmann) English 6

Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker

Image result for heathers 1988

“Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?” So says Heather 1/ Head Heather/ Heather Chandler. There are three of them, plus a Veronica (played by Ryder) making up the most popular clique at Westerburg High School, but lately Veronica’s been disillusioned by her friends. In fact, she doesn’t even like them. Then she meets the weird new boy in school, J.D (Slater), and falls for him. He gets her to help him teach the abusers at school a lesson. Together, they kill Heather Chandler. This is a pitch-black satire. I appreciate the edge, the wicked dialogue, and free-wheeling script. However, I didn’t buy Slater in his menacing role, and I feel the third act loses steam because of it. Ultimately more quotable than enjoyable.

Hereditary (2018, Directed by Ari Aster) English 8

Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro

Image result for hereditary

Guilt. Resentment. Strife. Cursed bloodlines. A dysfunctional family. Tragedy. Alas, a nightmare. Hereditary takes its time before becoming a horror flick, and until that point, until its diabolical bloom, I was at a loss as to what the film really was and where it was going. Is it a ghost story? A haunted house movie? The only thing I could firmly grasp was the tangible dread the filmmakers and actors build up so well. A feeling that something horrific was coming, and when it does, Hereditary achieves the status of great modern horror film.

If you’re like me, you’ve noticed the overwhelming praise given to the film by critics across Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. If you’re like me, you’ll go into Hereditary skeptical since critics rarely know what their talking about when it comes to the Horror genre. The majority of critics don’t like the genre, which is fine, but then what is their review of a horror film worth? To me, this explains why films like The Quiet Place and It Comes at Night do very well critically (fine films but without any actual bite), and legitimately scary genre pieces like Sinister get middling reviews. Thankfully, Hereditary delivers. Not just as a well made film (a remarkable debut from writer/director Ari Aster), but as a superb, bloodcurdling horror story.

Opening at the funeral of the family matriarch, Ellen, her daughter, Annie Graham (Collette) gives a rather stiff eulogy revealing a strained relationship with her mother, and setting up the rest of the film which, as evidenced by its title, has much to do with family legacy and “visiting the sins of the father on the children,” or, in this case, the sins of the mother. Annie, a successful miniaturist artist has a patient husband, Steve (Byrne) and two children: a distant son, Peter (Wolff) and a daughter, Charlie (Shapiro). After a shocking incident, and I don’t want to say too much, since I went in blind and was blown away by this particular scene, the Graham family is forced to live past a tragedy that lays a pall over their lives. Annie reluctantly seeks comfort in group meetings, but quickly gives up on the venture before meeting Joan (Dowd), an older woman grieving over a lost son. Joan turns Annie on to seances, and, naturally, this opens the door for evil and the ensuing horror show. It’s at this stage of the film, actually pretty late in the proceedings, that Hereditary becomes less surprising. The last act is an effective but conventional piece of storytelling. What still separates Hereditary from the rest of its kind, even in the end, is director, Aster’s entirely assured pacing which never settles for cheap scares but takes each moment to its peak horror and then wades on to the next set piece. He gives his actors long takes to work with, and they reward him with likely the best performances of the year. The story belongs to Toni Collette’s Annie, and Collette getting a rare starring role, is outstanding. She’s made a career out of playing mothers across a number of genres, but that hasn’t kept her from proving to be an incredible chameleon-like actor at times. Consider, this is the Australian actress who played the caring, American mother in The Sixth Sense, the kooky British mother in About a Boy, and the frayed matriarch of the hilariously dysfunctional family in Little Miss Sunshine. Consider too, her ultra creepy performance in the underrated Night Listener starring Robin Williams. I’m simply a fan. Relatively new to me is Alex Wolff who plays the troubled son. I’ve seen recently in the Jumanji reboot, but nothing to prepare me for the depth he gives to this role. He’s largely the character we’re most often asked to identify with, and it’s through his eyes, we see much of the tragedy and the horror. The ending works for me, but at the same time, is derivative of past classics like Rosemary’s Baby and the recent triumph, The Witch.

Finally, I’m still unsure as to what really went on in this film. I have more questions than answers. In fact, I think I’ll write a separate piece involving my lingering questions.  I recognize themes of persistent discord. Generations of parents and children at odds. I see the toll of tragedy on a family. How much of the blame seems to fall back on the mother. But what’s clearest of all is the talent of the young filmmaker, the impressive cast (I hadn’t mentioned Ann Dowd yet whose sensational in a performance likely inspired by Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby), and the haunting account of evil that last beyond the closing credits.

-Walter Howard-

The Mirror (1975, Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky) Russian 4

Starring Margarita Terekhova, Oleg Yankovsky, Fillip Yankovsky, Innokenty, Smoktunovsky

Image result for the mirror tarkovsky

Fragmented narrative chronicling several key moments in the life of a poet, Alexei, based on the writer/director Andrei Tarkovsky himself. Alternating between adolescence and adulthood, color and black and white photography, this film is considered one of the great feats of modern cinema. I consider it an enigma that I’m not interested in probing. There are instances of great beauty in the film, but there are longer instances of uninvolving, static scenery, a meandering, monotonous rhythm, acting and action without context, and a surplus of meaningless poetry. The Mirror is a perfect litmus test film for film buffs. Many of those who laud Tarkovsky’s vanity project as a masterpiece will deride many of the Hollywood action flicks that I enjoy. That’s fine, but I’ll stand firmly on my belief that this is a bad film.