Category Archives: American

I, Tonya (2017)

I was skeptical about watching Craig Gillespie’s film I, Tonya mainly because I’m not overly fond of the mockmentary style, but after watching this marvelous, darkly comic  film, I realise that it couldn’t have been made any other way. In case readers don’t remember the scandal, Jeff Gillooly, the ex-husband, of Olympian and US Champion Ice skater Tonya Harding was convicted of organizing an attack on another Olympian Nancy Kerrigan. After the 1994 Olympics concluded, Tonya Harding pled guilty to hindering the prosecution and was subsequently banned for life from the US Figure Skating Association.

The film begins with the statement that it’s based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly” as well as some archival footage. We see Tonya’s bleak childhood in Portland, Oregon, her acid-tongued mother, and the departure of her father. We also see Tonya’s waitress mother LaVona (Allison Janney) taking Tonya to the ice rink to meet coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). Diane doesn’t accept pupils as young as Tonya, who according to her mother is a ‘soft 4,’ but LaVona doesn’t take no for an answer and tells her child to get out there and skate.

By the time Tonya (Margot Robbie) is in her teens, she’s already a phenomenal talent, and it’s at the ice rink that she meets Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and his plump friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Basically, it’s all downhill from there–with conflicting statements about Jeff and Tonya’s relationship and marriage which ended in divorce in 1993.

This is where the story gets weird and versions deviate when it comes to just who knew what. Anyone who watches this highly entertaining film will have their own opinion.

I’ve read criticisms of the brilliantly created and well-acted film with such statements that we are supposed to feel sorry for Tonya Harding, and of course, we all ask ourselves how much Tonya Harding knew. Underneath that big question, for this viewer, the film is about being poor and disadvantaged in America, but it’s also about talent and what we do with it. This is a particularly fraught situation when you are talking about athletic talent in a sport in which you peak in your early 20s.

I loved the scenes with Tonya skating to rock music. Personally, I think it was a shame she stopped that and conformed to the classical routines. This is from the film:

And here’s the real Tonya Harding skating with pure joy to 99 Luftballoons:

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Love Has Many Faces (1965)

There are no secrets in this sandpile.”

Love Has Many Faces (1965), directed by Alexander Singer, is a tawdry look at Acapulco  “beach bums,” a polite euphemism for gigolos, and their wealthy prey–lonely, middle-aged American divorcees. The film shows the culture clash between the native Mexicans and the jaded Americans in the first scene when a gang of happy Mexican children, running along the beach stumble upon a body washed ashore. The body is of a young American named Billy whose last known relationship was with wealthy, aging playgirl Kit (Lana Turner). She’s since married and moved on to former gigolo Pete  (Cliff Robertson) who helped her pick up the pieces in hospital after yet another drunken car wreck. Billy, left only with an ID bracelet from Kit inscribed “Love is thin ice,” is possibly the victim of foul play. Hot on the case is local cop, Lt. Andrade (Enrique Lucero), the moral centre of the film, who doesn’t bother to hide his contempt for the hedonistic lifestyle of the male American gigolos who crowd the Acapulco beaches looking for fresh meat.

posterKit happens to be the biggest catch around, but she’s stopped playing the field since Pete moved in, and the couple spend their time on the beach in a cabana, lounging on her yacht, or in her gorgeous beach home. This leaves envious Hank Walker, a hunky, tanned and well-oiled Hugh O’Brien, strutting around in skimpy trunks, waiting like a dog for a dropped bone for the day Kit tires of Pete, or Pete tires of Kit. Either scenario is fine with Hank, and he makes sure that both Kit and Pete know that he’s ready for the job.

But in the meantime, a gigolo has to make a living… enter Margo (Ruth Roman) and Irene (Virginia Grey), two lonely women who arrive in Acapulco right in time to catch the attention of Hank and his protégé of sorts, Chuck (Ron Husman). There are no illusions as to the relationship between these young men and their middle-aged prey, and Hank notes as he moves in for the kill:

“A new shipment. A little over ripe, but choice. Lesson number 1, that’s the best.”

It’s through his relationships with Margo and his training lessons with Chuck that we see just what a lowlife Hank really is.

Into this sandy Peyton Place, arrives one of Billy’s former girlfriends, Carol (Stephanie Powers). Initially, she has no idea that she’s stepped into a male flesh market, but she soon sniffs that everyone’s for sale. But since she still has some integrity, Pete feels an attraction and a desire to protect her from the ugly truth about Billy’s death. Opportunist Hank, however, sees Carol as a way to bag the big catch, by prying Kit away from Pete.

hunky hankWhile Pete and Kit are mired in self-loathing by the things they’ve done in the past, in complete contrast Hank clearly has no scruples or conscience whatsoever; he’s as oily as his suntan lotion, and that makes him a joy to watch as he smooches worldly divorcee Margo, a woman who’s onto Hank’s game but still hopes that he’s not as sleazy as she thinks he is. But Hank knows himself well and doesn’t bother to hide his unscrupulousness: from his shabby shack walls covered with polaroids of former conquests, his strategic posing in skimpy trunks on the beach, to his statement: “It’s too bad I’m not illegal. Just immoral.” Hugh O’Brien as Hank steals the film, and if Lt. Andrada is the film’s moral centre, the  hunky Hank is the polar opposite. Even Chuck, the gigolo-in-training is disgusted by Hank and he asks:

“Is there anything you wouldn’t do for a buck?”

Smirking, Hank replies: “There must be something but I’ve yet to find it.”

Love Has Many Faces is surprisingly suggestive at times. At one point, for example, a woman asks Hank to help her with her swimming stroke. He tells her “go ahead and get wet. If I’m not there in 5 minutes, you start without me.”

Lana Turner’s clothes are designed by Edith Head, and you’ll notice a similarity to some of them, the cut in particular. Lana Turner, who was married 8 times to 7 different husbands, looks wonderful here, and she throws her heart into the role of the neurotic aging playgirl who’s afraid to show any weakness. This is a glossy soapy, drama, and while this viewer hoped, in vain, for everyone to go a little wilder on the beaches of Acapulco, nonetheless this is an interesting film for fans of Lana, and the well-acted support performances from Ruth Roman and Hugh O’Brien make this film and its tacky tale of a world in which (almost) everything is for sale well-worth watching.

Here’s a clip

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Cinema Verite (2011)

Add Cinema Verite to the list of worth-catching HBO films. This interesting, well-acted and thought-provoking film is based on the story behind the very first reality TV show, and after watching the film, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard the story of the Loud family–the subjects of a 1973 PBS documentary miniseries called An American Family. Attractive Santa Barbara based Pat (Diane Lane) and Bill Loud (Tim Robbins) along with their 5 children seem like perfect raw material to producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini)–the man who had the creative idea to film an American family as entertainment–not a particularly easy sell according to Cinema Verite. Gilbert is directed towards the Louds by a mutual acquaintance, and when he pitches his idea of filming the Louds in their upscale Santa Barbara ranch style home, at first Pat is resistant but then folds and agrees to participate. The cameras move in and the action begins.

On one level, the Louds appear to be the perfect American family with a stay-at-home attractive mother, a hard-working Nixonite dad and 5 talented children, but under the surface everything isn’t as Disney as it first appears. Cinema Verite depicts Gilbert as being fully aware of the potential for cliff-hanging drama within the fractured family structure.

This 2011 film which runs to 86 minutes cannot, of course, do justice to all the drama contain in the 12 episodes that aired in 1973, so while some issues and events are given centre-stage, other aspects of the Loud family drama are given short shrift. Nonetheless, this is a very entertaining film which asks some relevant questions: is there such a thing as reality TV when participants are aware that cameras are recording their every word? Does the presence of cameras inevitably cause people to commit acts they wouldn’t otherwise? Do people get caught up in their own roles and, in essence, subconsciously write a script for the roles they are playing? Does a camera turned on the family dynamic cause more introspection? Finally, of course, there’s the question of whether or not the series subjects are exploited, and that’s covered in the film’s final scenes.

The Loud family saga explodes through Bill’s exposed infidelities with numerous women including one brainless wanna-be actress, and then there’s the oldest son, Lance (Thomas Dekker) who takes up residence at New York’s Chelsea Hotel, and becomes best friends with Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn before he decides to go and find himself in Paris. The film doesn’t emphasis the radical cultural impact that Lance’s homosexuality must have caused through the episodes weekly beamed into American living rooms. Lance Loud was the first openly gay person to appear on American television, and he basically comes ‘out’ during the course of the series. One scene depicts some of the nastiness he faced as a result of the programme.

Diane Lane as Pat Loud is as superb as ever, and she’s also a very sympathetic character–a woman who’s managed to submerge her suspicions about her husband’s infidelities until the cameras arrive. Cinema Verite argues that the Louds participation in the series caused the family to implode. Perhaps a meltdown would have occurred without the camera crew on hand, but there’s a very strong argument that at the very least the Loud family’s participation in the series hastened the family crisis.

From directors Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini

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Deception (1946)

“They say never confess a secret to a woman.”

Deception, a 1946 film from director Irving Rapper, frequently appears on film noir lists, but the story seems rooted in soap-opera drama more than anything else. The plot involves a love triangle between pianist Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis), cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), and eccentric composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains).

The film begins in New York with Christine arriving late to a concert. Judging by Christine’s emotional reaction to the cello playing of star musician Karel Novak, this is no ordinary concert, and that proves to be correct when after the concert Christine goes back stage to meet Novak. He’s surrounded by fans, but after they melt away he sets eyes on Christine. This is clearly a reunion, and it’s revealed that Novak and Christine were lovers during the war in Europe. Separated by circumstances, they lost contact, and it’s a miracle that they’re reunited.

Christine takes Novak home, and he imagines that she’s had it tough living on her own piecing together a living as a struggling musician. Christine’s home is at the top of huge skyscraper accessible, for the most part, by a lift. The film shows Novak and Christine exiting the lift and then there’s a dark set of stairs up to Christine’s apartment. Novak clearly imagines Christine lives in a garret (so did I), but Christine’s splendid, spacious apartment is decorated with antiques and one whole wall gives a marvellous view of the skyline of New York. Novak is obviously suspicious about where the money came from for such luxuries, and his suspicions are confirmed as he prowls around her apartment and spies fur coats in the cupboard and fine paintings on the wall.

The lovers who’ve been separated for years are at each other’s throats within minutes, but Christine manages to dissuade Novak of his suspicions with stories of taking wealthy, talentless pupils for piano lessons. Obviously Novak has no idea about rents in New York otherwise he’d sniff that the story is ridiculous, but he swallows it hook, line and sinker.

Christine and Novak plan a wedding with a reception to be held in her apartment. The champagne flows generously but the party is broken up by the arrival of grumpy, imperious composer Hollenius whose rudeness sends the guests out the door. The composer’s speeches to Christine indicate the possessiveness of a jilted lover, and once again Christine mollifies Novak’s suspicions with stories that Hollenius is an eccentric, wealthy friend and nothing more.

As the plot thickens, the ties between the three main characters tighten. Hollenius appears to befriend the newlyweds, and he indicates that he wants to take Novak under his wing and nurture his career. Christine suspects Hollenius’s motives, but there’s not much she can do without telling Novak the truth about her relationship with Hollenius.

Claude Rains as Hollenius seems to have the best role and the best lines here. He’s a petty, jealous tyrant capable of pitching the most outrageous scenes both publicly and privately. In one scene, he takes Novak and Christine out to dinner and plays the temperamental epicurean to the hilt. In another scene, Christine storms Hollenius’s bedroom ready to do battle for her man, but she’s met with sarcasm and derision:

“To be faced with a virago at this time of the morning, Christine, my constitution simply will not stand for it.”

Shots focus on interiors. Christine’s modern apartment is in contrast to the interior of Hollenius’s house which resembles, rather appropriately, the inside of a lavish medieval European palace and reflects the temperament of its owner. One marvellous shot shows the reflection, in shadow, of an ornate staircase on the wall.

Deception is not Bette Davis’s best film, but it’s well worth catching for the scenes that include Hollenius. Claude Rains seems to have great fun with this role as he moves from imperious demands to almost bitchy feigned indifference. The film’s best scene takes place between Christine and Hollenius in his palatial bedroom, and he makes some excellent points about Christine’s erratic behaviour.

Deception (a Warner Bros. studio film), was the first Bette Davis film to follow the only film she made with her own production company Stolen Life (1946). According to biographer, Barbara Leaming, Davis, whose behaviour was “even more arbitrary and destructive than usual,” on the set of Deception, announced her pregnancy during the filming. She was married to third husband William Grant Sherry at the time and the marriage was to end in divorce a few years later in 1950.

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A Life of Her Own (1950)

“Listen you small-time chiseler, I don’t want any small favours or any big favours from you. Or anything else you use to buy with. I’m not in the business you think I am, and I’m never going to be, but if I were I’d be out of your price range. If I were it would take me 10 years to get around to you.” (Lily to Lee)


A Life of Her Own is a classic drama starring Lana Turner as small-town Kansas girl, Lily James who seeks fulfillment through a modelling career only to find that success–without love–is a hollow triumph.

It takes Lily 6 months to save for the fare from Kansas to New York, and this is evidence of her determination to succeed at the career she longs for. She arrives in the chaotic offices of the Thomas Caraway agency and manages to attract the attention of the owner (Tom Ewell). While he agrees to take Lily on as a model, he has reservations about her potential. After many years in the business, he considers himself a good judge of character, and a kind streak appears in his treatment of has-been, boozed up model, Mary (Ann Dvorak).

It’s fate that Lily meets Mary in Callaway’s office. Lily is right on the verge of beginning her career and aging Mary, after 13 years on the modeling circuit, is washed up. Mary takes Lily under her wing, and Lily’s first, significant night in New York is spent with Mary, her date advertising executive Lee (Barry Sullivan), and Lily’s date,  lawyer Jim (Louis Calhern). Lily is a new fresh face in town, and Lee makes it clear that he’d rather be with Lily than with Mary. It’s a horrible evening with bitterly jealous Mary getting drunker by the minute. As it turns out, it’s a night that Lily never forgets, and Lee plays a small yet significant Faustian role in Lily’s life when he reappears much later.

Lily takes a harsh lesson from Mary and so begins her climb to success. Her famous, perfect face is on the cover of every magazine, but in spite of the fact she is a 50s ‘super model,’ her personal life is negligible, and her feet remain firmly on the ground. Lily continues to live at that bastion of female propriety, The Betsy Ross Hotel–a hotel which restricts male visitors to the mezzanine with a forced 10 pm departure. Always lurking in the shadows is the memory of Mary and how easy it can be to slide from fame and fortune into obscurity. Lily’s world is shaken to the core when she’s introduced to Steve Harleigh (Ray Milland), a wealthy copper mine owner. They fall in love, but Steve is a married man….

A Life of Her Own is essentially a soap drama, and beautiful Lana Turner is the best element in the film. It’s easy to imagine her single-minded devotion to her career, and it’s also equally easy to understand how she’ s side-swiped by love. Ray Milland doesn’t quite cut it as the lover–he seems tired or perhaps defeated as the man torn between love and duty. This is the classic cornelian dilemma (choix cornélian*) in which a character must choose between two courses of action with either choice resulting in a negative result on someone involved.

 As with any soap, some of the elements are corny or hyped up to add to the drama. In this film, Steve’s wife, Nora (Margaret Phillips) is angling for sainthood, and of course this just makes the affair between Lily and Steve that much more atrocious. Lily initially shows a great deal of fire and backbone when she deals with the slimy Lee, but unfortunately the script reins in Lily and instead doles out passivity and victimhood. I rather liked A Life of Her Own in spite of its flaws. I liked the film’s structure, its emphasis on character, and the way the plot followed Lily through her rise to fame while showing the hollow triumph of her success. Lana Turner does a terrific job with the role she’s handed, and I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Lee. We can practically see Lana’s skin crawl with disdain for this low-life, opportunistic character.

Wendell Corey was initially cast in the role of Steve, but in her autobiography, Lana Turner mentions that she asked that he be replaced. She’d never thought him suitable for the part anyway, but then after overhearing a remark he made, she refused to play opposite him. Corey was replaced with Milland. A Life of Her Own is from director George Cukor

* Special thanks to for explaining the choix cornélian–a term derived from the plays of Pierre Corneille.


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Invitation (1952)

“Remember I said the first round goes to you or your father’s money.”


One type of film that really seemed to thrive in the 1950s was the soap-opera styled plot laced with drama, tragedy and a good old family fortune thrown into the mix. Invitation isn’t as splendid as a Sirk drama, but its soap elements made this fun to watch–even though the story is ultimately restrained and the characters never fully unleashed. Invitation can also be categorised as a medical drama film.

The film begins with Ellen (a svelte Dorothy McGuire) at home with hubbie, budding young architect Dan Pierce (Van Johnson). There’s a delivery in a large package which Ellen tries to hide from Dan. Inside the box is yet another fur coat–the third this season from Ellen’s devoted stinking rich daddy Simon Bowker (Louis Calhern). This interesting and significant early scene raises some questions: why is Ellen’s father showering her with fur coats and why does she feel that she needs to hide this from Dan?

After Dan leaves for work, Ellen drives out to daddy’s estate where she finds him out on the golf course with a doctor friend. By this point it’s clear that Ellen is not well at all, and there’s reference made to a heart condition. Suddenly everything slots into place: her husband’s tender concern, her father’s lavish presents, and her slight breathlessness. Yes, Ellen has an incurable heart condition.

On the way back home, Ellen stops to visit an old friend, Maud (Ruth Roman). Big mistake. Ellen appears to be on a peace-making mission, but a tightly wound Maud isn’t about to pretend that everything is ok. This bitter scene reveals that Maud is now Ellen’s ex-friend–the rift occurred when Ellen married Maud’s man. Maud was in love with Dan and claims she still is. On a roll, Maud makes some bizarre statements implying that Ellen stole Dan from her and that Ellen’s father bought Dan as a husband for Ellen.

After Ellen’s nasty visit to Maud, domestic bliss at the Pierce home is a thing of the past.The film includes flashbacks that explore Ellen, Dan and Maud’s relationships before the wedding, and then there’s a wedding scene and a bit of honeymoon before we’re back in the present. The scenes that show Ellen as a lovelorn young woman are particularly good, and the script plays with the psychological aspects of Ellen’s ability to gloss over her role in Dan’s broken romance with Maud.

Invitation is an enjoyable soap-styled film (and the meaning of the title becomes clear as the story unwinds), but in spite of the fact some pretty ugly stuff takes place, everyone lands on the positive side of humanity (with one bitter exception). Dorothy McGuire does an excellent job as Ellen; she’s spoiled and overprotected–not a bad person by any means, but she is used to a life of privilege and she’s a veritable princess wrapped in a cocoon by her devoted father.  She’s a woman who has a wonderful, perfect life, and she appears to have everything … except her health.

While the ill-health issue is ostensibly the issue of Ellen’s heart, under the film’s surface the behaviour of the characters is also incredibly unhealthy. There’s Maud and Ellen–at one point supposedly best friends but now at war over a man. Maud spits some very nasty words at Ellen, but Ellen still plays the victim. And then there’s Ellen’s father … just what the hell was he thinking? That brings us to Ellen’s husband Dan…. Van Johnson’s murky motivations aren’t explored a great deal, and after placing some tawdry information in front of the viewer, the script pulls away and lands on the safe, warm and fuzzy side of character analysis. This move negates the possibility of a great tacky soap drama, so instead we get an optimistic film that reinforces the basic decency of human nature. Now whether or not you buy that is another thing entirely….

Invitation made it to DVD thanks to the WB Archive Collection. The film is from director Gottfried Reinhardt.


Filed under American, Drama

H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941)

“They say you can get over anything in time. I don’t believe you can, but given enough time, you can put it where it belongs.”

H.M. Pulham,  Esq., based on the novel by John P. Marquand, is a gentle study in class conditioning & its impact on adult values and the relationships we choose. H.M. Pulham,  Esq. is, as his name hints, an inoffensive and stuffy upper class businessman. When the film begins, he’s middle-aged, married and he runs the family firm. The film begins with a very typical day at the Pulham household. These opening scenes define the life of H.M. Pulham (Robert Young)–a life of order, routine & predictability conducted with precision timing. Pulham’s morning routine depicts him expecting everything in the household in its place as usual. As he prepares to go to work, he puts his arms out, fully expecting the maid to be there ready to assist him with his coat (and she is), and he places covers on his shoes which are then removed in the office. These cinematic touches emphasise the predictability, fussiness and details of Pulham’s orderly life.

The trouble starts in two directions. Pulham receives a note from his old love, Marvin Myles who says she’s in town and would love to meet him. The second event comes in the form of a meeting to discuss an upcoming Harvard reunion. Pulham is required to write a class history and a short bio of himself, and as he labour over just how to sum up his life in just a few sentences, he re-evaluates some of the decisions he’s made. Over the course of a night he agonises over his life, and he begins to question just how much choice he ever really had about the decisions he made.

A large part of the film takes aim at conformity. Pulham is the only son of an upper class Bostonian family. He attends St. Swithin’s school (as did his father) where he is subjected to hazing. Individuality is discouraged and the boys are taught to think in very specific ways. As a young man, Pulham attends Harvard where once again he conforms into the slot assigned to a man of his social position. The film’s male ‘rebel’ is  Bill King (Van Heflin)–a man who pokes fun of Harvard football and its sacred traditions. While Pulham marvels at Bill’s alien attitudes to the institutions Pulham’s been taught are sacred, he doesn’t rebel but neither does he reject Bill’s friendship.

A short stint in WWI (almost caricatured through a few ridiculous scenes of pomposity and then triumph through Paris), Pulham is sent back to America, but instead of returning to the bosom of his Boston family, he takes a job in an advertising firm in New York where he shares an office with his old friend, Bill King and the ravishing Marvin Myles (Hedy Lamarr)….

As Pulham reminisces about his past, he mulls over the guilt he felt about trying to establish his individuality and own youthful career in New York. In flashback, we see Pulham’s father, John (Charles Coburn) arguing that Pulham should forget this advertising nonsense and return back home where he belongs. Pulham’s mother (Fay Holden) isn’t above playing the invalid card, and even in Pulham’s early childhood both parents manipulate their son into relationships with ‘suitable’ girls. In adulthood, he’s expected to take over the family business and marry a girl who’s from their social circle. Pulham’s career is New York is viewed by his family as a rejection of their shared values.

There’s an underlying criticism of America’s old families–a dying breed according to Bill. He advises Pulham to break free while he can. The Pulham family’s corroding snobbery has its damaging impact, and this is mostly seen in the Pulham family’s treatment of Marvin Myles. But while Pulham may be able to navigate both the advertising world of New York, and the staid Victorianism of the Pulham family mansion, Marvin has her own values and future to think about. Marvin is an ambitious career woman, but she’s in danger of being judged as ‘fast’ and ‘immoral’ for simply requesting a drink.

The jolt from the past forces Pulham to re-evaluate his life, and there’s a definite ‘Road Not Taken’ moment. Directed by King Vidor, this excellent 40s film possesses a sort of quaintness and  innocence in its depiction of a man who tests class boundaries and values without really understanding quite what he’s doing. It’s interesting to note that the topic of relationships between classes emerges frequently in the fiction of W. Somerset Maugham. In Of Human Bondage, for example, tragedy ensues when the classes mix. There’s no trauma in H. M. Pulham, Esq. but its lack of trauma and rather gentle approach underscores a different sort of anguish: the life that never was. H.M Pulham, Esq. asks whether or not its main character would have been any happier if he’d made other choices.


Filed under American, Drama

Greenberg (2010)

“Wish it wasn’t too late to get my medical degree.”

Greenberg from director Noah Baumbach (who also wrote the screenplay) is an intense, focused character study of a man who never ‘gets it.’ Most of us probably know a Greenberg. We probably even avoid him, but here we have the distance of the camera, and it’s very easy to enjoy this film even though there are moments when we’d like to shake some sense into the film’s main character.

Greenberg (Ben Stiller in a non-comic role) is a single man in his 40s who flies from New York to LA to housesit for his affluent, married brother. The brother is taking his wife and family to Vietnam for six weeks, and in the meantime, Greenberg is left with the family dog. In the six-week period, he’s supposed to watch the house and build a dog house. There’s the unspoken sense that Greenberg is being done a favour in this request (although he thinks it’s the other way around); it’s a holiday of sorts–a change of pace in the land of endless sunshine. He has full run of the sprawling house and use of the huge pool. He’s told that if he needs anything, he can call on reliable Florence (Greta Gerwig) who’s the family assistant/nanny/general dogsbody.

There’s not much information about Greenberg’s past except for the detail that he played in a band in high school to “meet chicks.” The band was offered a record deal, but Greenberg refused to sign. There went the band and there went Greenberg. What has he been doing for the last twenty years?  These days he’s a carpenter and he’s also suffered a nervous breakdown. Again no details of just how long he spent in the mental hospital or even when this took place. How far is he on the road to recovery? This is an unspoken question which simmers underneath the surface as the film progresses.

Greenberg is clearly a man with problems, and one of the first things he does when he arrives in LA is to write a letter of complaint (one of many as it turns out) to the airline about the buttons on the seats. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that with Greenberg’s niggling antagonism to the minutiae of life, he’s also a bit of a germaphobe. The key thing about his behaviour is that he’s one of those people who readily find fault with everyone else, and he isn’t shy about delivering lectures either. It’s all about what the world is doing to Greenberg and never the other way around.

Once in town, Greenberg tries to reconnect with his old friends–some of them are willing to at least talk to him. Ivan (Rhys Ifans) for example very kindly and patiently tolerates the one-sided relationship he endures with Greenberg. Ivan has problems of his own, but he’s expected to drive Greenberg around town and listen to constant diatribes against the world, Starbucks, or Greenberg’s pet hate of the moment. Greenberg never stops to consider how he treats people or why his relationships fail.

Greenberg is obsessive, self-absorbed and immature. He sees the world as a flawed place full of people who annoy him or want something for him. Greenberg strikes up a disastrous relationship with train wreck Florence while nursing secret longings for former girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh). In two contrasting scenes Greenberg tells both women that he’s basically choosing to do nothing with his life. Beth says “that’s brave at our age” while Florence thinks it’s “cool.” This contrast in reactions says a great deal about where Greenberg’s peer group is in terms of priorities. His old friends are now married, have children, and in some cases are going through divorces. No wonder Greenberg, who’s the last person to ever find fault with himself, feels so comfortable hanging out with teenagers. He doesn’t realise that he’s a joke to the youthful crowd.

In another marvellous scene, Greenberg meets Beth and wants to dredge up the faded details of their relationship. Beth, who’s obviously longing to be somewhere else, can’t even remember the stuff Greenberg still nurses. Has he exaggerated the importance of the relationship over time or was this the single most important relationship he’s even had? In the meantime, he plays fast and loose with Florence–a character whose personal life is a mess. While Greenberg chews everything over and finds fault with others, Florence drifts along giving to others and reserving little for herself.

Greenberg is a little gem of a film. No fireworks. No big explosions but a well-crafted character study of a man who wants to reach out but just doesn’t know how.


Filed under American, Drama

The Shack Out on 101 (1955)

“Whatever you two guys can get, they don’t let out at night.”

The Shack on 101 may very well be one of the strangest entries in the film noir Atomic Noir/Red-Scare sub-genre, and while it’s certainly more than a little odd, it’s also lots of fun and really entertaining. You know this film is going to be different in its opening scene of a bikini-clad girl stretched out on the beach while the waves wash over her feet and legs. Is she asleep? Sunbathing or dead? Then we see a male figure in the distance. He spots the girl and dashes towards her….

The man is Slob (Lee Marvin), the short order chef at the local greasy spoon–the shack in the title, and the girl is Kotty (Terry Moore) the shack’s live-in waitress. We get just a brief glimpse of the shack in the distance. It’s perched on a cliff facing the ocean and is accessible by stairs, and it is quite literally a shack–it looks like a condemned trailer, but it’s the pride and joy of its owner, war veteran, George played with delightful gusto by Keenan Wynn 

Most of the film’s action takes place inside the crappy shack, and the film’s interior scenes look like exactly what they are–a stage set with seaside decor. This translates to seashells and a huge marlin perched on the wall. The stage set masquerading as the inside of a hillside diner is most evident when one of the characters, Professor Bastion, opens a door and then goes down the stairs to the diner’s main room. Here the long-angled shots show the width of the stage set, and we could be watching a play. It all looks very cheaply done and yet somehow this film works.

The film’s drama centres on the shack and the relationships between its inhabitants and its customers. The shack’s owner, lonely bachelor George is in love with Kotty, but she only has eyes for customer Professor Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy). Bastion, who works at the nearby nuclear facility, professes an interest in collecting shells which he buys from Slob. Bastion’s relationship with Slob leads him to meet, date, and fall in love with Kotty. Kotty, while she admires and brags about Bastion’s intelligence and education, nurses an inferiority complex. So she’s boning up to take the civil service exam and along the way she hopes to impress the prof. One night, after a hot and heavy session on the beach, Kotty peevishly expresses the fact that Bastion spends more time with Slob than with her,  and she concludes that the Prof is ashamed to be seen out in public with her. 

Back at the shack, Slob, who refers to Kotty as “The Tomato,” makes constant passes at Kotty with George continually leaping to her defence. The film establishes a claustrophobic atmosphere between its characters–there’s George in love with Kotty who’s in love with the Professor who buys shells off of Slob. Slob manages to sound like a complaining wife when he whines to George about “the tomato” with a what-does-she-have-that-I-don’t argument. Kotty who is after all picking up a paycheck every week, never seems to lift a finger. So there’s Slob in the kitchen ruining the food as a act of revenge against customers he dislikes, Kotty too busy running after the Professor to actually do the job she’s paid for, and George too lovelorn to ask his only waitress to work.

Meanwhile there are a handful of locals who drop in occasionally and bitch about the food. The plot thickens quickly. Why are nuclear scientists disappearing? Why is the Professor obsessed with clam shells, and why does Kotty hang out her underwear on the line for the world to see?

This highly entertaining film has some gaping holes in its plot, but that simply doesn’t matter. Instead just sit back and enjoy some terrific dialogue combined with some of the most bizarre scenes of male bonding ever seen on the big screen. In one scene Slob (a man with an “8-cylinder body and a 2-cylinder mind“) and George lift weights together while pondering over the women who’ll be impressed by their muscles. Then they hold a sexy legs contest. Then there’s a very peculiar scuba scene that takes place inside the shack. In another scene Kotty and the Professor play a sexy politics question-and-answer game and as they cover the various branches of government, she gushingly confesses “I wish there were more branches.”

Since this is an Atomic Noir/Red Scare film,  there have to be good guys and bad guys and all the stereotypes that go along with these categories. But Shack Out on 101 is definite cult material loaded with snappy dialogue to complement the bizarre behaviour of most of its characters. The film is directed by Edward Dein and co-written with his wife Mildred. It’s easy to imagine these two sitting down and dreaming up the scenes and then connecting them together with the plot outline. Of course, I have no idea that this is how it happened, but the scenes are so intense and rich, the sense I get is that the scenes dominate over the film as a whole.

Anyway, this really is a great little film.


“At one time, I was so skinny, I was embarrassed to undress in front of myself.”

“That’s what I like about free enterprise. I’ve got the enterprise and everybody’s free to give me the business.”

“It’s a good thing I ain’t wired. You’d be shoving me around like a vacuum cleaner.”

“I’m not Mr America, but my mother loves me.”

“I’m not one of those dopes who buys his wife a mink coat and sits and waits for her to warm up.”

“Since when was you so choosy, I’m a man, ain’t I?”

“I was so ashamed, I shut the door and got sick.”

“Well if you dance with the gods, they lead you to paradise.”

“Last night, I added a new word to my vocabulary…TRAITOR.”

“We’re helping the enemy.”

“Too bad I wasn’t born a tomato.”

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Filed under American, Film Noir

Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955)

“This is a shower room. It’s to clean you up on the outside even if it doesn’t get to the dirt on the inside.”

Yes, juvenile delinquents are back at it, and this time the film is set in the crime-ridden Antelope Valley. It’s traditional family values vs juvenile delinquency in Teen-Age Crime Wave, a definite addition to the Trash Cinema section, and of course, family values win the day in this corn-fest of a film.

A teenage siren named Terry Marsh (Molly McCart) hangs out in a bar until she catches the attention of a middle-aged chubby patron. He thinks he’s hit the jackpot as he steers the obviously underage girl out of the door, but it’s a set up. A few feet from the door, he’s mugged by Terry’s two male accomplices who are waiting in a car outside. The robbery goes wrong, and while Mike Denton (Tommy Cook) and Al (Jimmy Ogg) escape, Terry and another girl, Jane Koberly (Sue England) are arrested. While Terry has a previous record, Jane maintains her innocence, claiming that she knew nothing of the planned robbery and that she was simply out on a blind date.

In the slammer, tensions between Terry and Jane lead to a minor girl fight which is broken up by the warden. Then comes the court case and the sentencing. Nice, middle-class Mr and Mrs Koberly (Guy Kingsford and Helen Brown) are the kind of people who worry about what the neighbours think, and they reel from the shock that they’ve raised a juvenile delinquent. There are a few introspective ‘where did we go wrong’ moments, but Jane is sent to a juvenile facility along with the very-hardened Terry.

On the way to the lock-up (the girls are transported in a police car with a female matron for company), Mike conducts a bold crime by running the police car off the road. He shoots the policeman and grabs the two girls. Jane’s pleas to be allowed to stay with the matron fall on deaf ears, and so the trio of teens-gone-bad are on the run….

Taking refuge in a remote house in the Antelope Valley, Mike and Terry seize an elderly couple hostage at gunpoint and get their cooperation by threatening to blow out the old lady’s brains. With Jane boo-hooing and asking to go home, it’s not too long before it’s Mike and Terry vs the elderly Mr and Mrs Grant and Jane.

To top off the situation, it’s the night before Thanksgiving, and the Grants’ son “college boy” and bona-fide war hero, Ben Grant (Frank Griffen) is heading home for the holidays. This adds another person to the hostage pot, but it also adds another dynamic to the drama. Terry fancies Ben and tries to pull a little femme fatale number, and then Mike, who’s becoming more and more psycho every minute, becomes violently jealous….

There are a few poignant undercurrents here: Mike and Terry eye Ben and Jane–a couple on the other side of the divide, and there are shreds of ‘if only’ here–especially on the part of Terry. A crack opens into Terry’s past and this reveals a few moments of regret. But she reverts to her old, hardened personality–a self she’s much more comfortable with and she decides she wants to seduce Ben, but as Jane points out that she doesn’t stand a chance with Ben as Terry is  “dirt.” Terry’s response:

“I’ll show you how dirt operates on a respectable guy.” 

But the only tactics Terry has up her sleeve are those rather well-worn and transparent tricks she played in the bar with the chump earlier, and Ben, of course, is repulsed by Terry. Her rejection adds to that large chip on her shoulder. Terry’s attempts to seduce Ben show her desire to reveal the ugly side of people that lurks inside the seemingly-respectable shell. Seducing Ben would ‘prove’ a number of things: that she’s desirable to the sort of man she can no longer have, and also it would prove her pet theory that everyone is rotten–a college boy who’s a war hero would prove both points.

A lot of the film’s fun comes from the performances of the two desperate delinquents. Mike crows when he sees the headlines, and he goes berserk at the round-the-clock monotone bible reading from Mr Grant. Mr. Grant must think that Mike will get religion by osmosis. Mike even tries to spice things up with a little sex fest and then accuses Mr Grant of being a peeper. Unfortunately the film is hemmed in by its time and by its predictably heavy moral message, but it is a diversion all the same.

From director Fred F Sears.

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Filed under American