Category Archives: Drama

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

It’s been years since I first saw the 1952 film, My Cousin Rachel, and a rereading on the book written by Daphne du Maurier sent me on a hunt for a copy. Du Maurier is probably best remembered for Rebecca, and while I think the film adaptation of du Maurier’s novel Rebecca is excellent and much glossier, it seems strange that the film should hold such a premier position in film history (there’s even a Criterion version) while its poor relation My Cousin Rachel– has almost disappeared from view. Rebecca starred Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and George Sanders and was directed by Hitchcock. The film won Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the 1941 Academy awards. My Cousin Rachel, directed by Henry Koster, racked up a number of Academy Award nominations in 1953 but no wins. One of the Oscar nominations went to Richard Burton for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but he lost to Anthony Quinn for his role in Viva Zapata (Burton won a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year). My Cousin Rachel was Richard Burton’s first American film, and the film’s salacious trailer calls him a “newcomer.” Burton is young here and doesn’t yet have the screen presence to dominate–but then again perhaps it’s because the character he plays, Philip Ashley, is a very confused young man whose judgement is clouded by sexual desire.

My Cousin Rachel is set on Daphne du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall coast, and most of the action takes place there with just a short sidetrip to Florence. The story opens (as does the book) with Ambrose Ashley (John Sutton) taking his small orphaned cousin and ward, Philip to see the corpse of a hanged man swinging in the wind. Ambrose admonishes Philip that the dead man’s fate is the result of out-of-control passion–a dire and prophetic warning as it turns out.

Fast forward to Ambrose now a middle-aged man and Philip (Richard Burton) in his twenties. Ambrose’s health necessitates a winter abroad, and the two men part–somewhat reluctantly. Ambrose’s winter abroad extends into the spring and the summer along with the news that he’s made the acquaintance of a distant cousin–a widow named Rachel Sangalleti. This is shortly followed by the astonishing news that Ashley, a confirmed bachelor, has married the widow. Some months later, Philip begins to receive strange incoherent letters from his cousin which indicate not only that he is seriously ill but also that he suspects Rachel of poisoning him. 

Alarmed, Philip rushes off to Florence, but he’s too late. Ambrose is dead, and with a new will unsigned, all of Ambrose’s property falls to Philip….

Then some time later, Rachel arrives in Cornwall at Philip’s estate ostensibly for a short visit. When she first arrives, Philip is primed to accuse her of murder, but he’s immediately stunned by her sweet pliant nature and he’s soon won over by Rachel’s persistent, gentle charm.

The premise of both the film and the book is whether or not Rachel killed Ambrose. There are certainly clues that argue both points–although I think that ultimately the book was far more ambiguous. This is due, no doubt, to du Maurier’s skill as a writer, but perhaps the visual aspects of the film and some of the facial expressions caught by the camera add a dimension that is, of course, absent from the book. Gothic film frequently explores the vulnerability of women and the predatory nature of men, and this film cleverly plays with that idea, so as the drama unfolds, we see both Rachel and Philip as predator and victim depending on our view of the events.  Olivia de Havilland is perfect as Rachel–at times she appears youthful and innocent, but at other times a flicker of an expression passes across her features, and we wonder–as Philip does–just what she is capable of. Meanwhile neighbour and now guardian Nicholas Kendall (Ronald Squire ) and his daughter Louise (Audrey Dalton) are reluctant onlookers and have no doubt that Rachel’s conduct is questionable at best.

There’s no small amount of sexual manipulation afoot, but all those involved have some degree of self-interest, so when Kendall tries to warn Philip about Rachel, is he perhaps unhappy to see his daughter, Louise (Audrey Dalton) cast aside for Rachel? 

Camera shots make great use of shadow to enhance the drama and unexpressed fear of the characters, and some of the action set against the back drop of the wild Cornish coast emphasizes the depths of hidden, explosive and destructive passion. One of ideas implicit in the film is that Rachel’s somewhat unconventional behaviour (she continually invites Philip into her boudoir) is due to her ‘Italian ways,’ and indeed her open and easy affectionate manner with Philip sets his head spinning. Underneath this sexual tension, however, is the idea that Philip’s repression, once unleashed, will lead to destruction. Anyway, I know where I stand on the subject of Rachel’s innocence or guilt, and for those interested in the book or Gothic drama, the film really is a marvellous little gem and well-worth catching.

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Filed under Drama, Period Piece

Disgrace (2008)

I was attracted to the film Disgrace (2008) for two reasons: it’s based on the novel by J.M. Coetzee (which I read a few years ago) and also because it features John Malkovich. Regular readers of my blogs know that I am intrigued by the book-film connection. Films based on books don’t have to be strictly faithful to the original material, as far as I’m concerned, and sometimes directors/screenwriters offer a slightly different interpretation as they distill down 300 + pages into a 90 minute film. Now that I’ve said that, I can also add that, yes, most film versions of book are disappointing. Disgrace, however, does not fall into that category.

Disgrace focuses on middle-aged professor David Lurie (John Malkovich) who teaches courses on the Romantic poets. Married and divorced twice, he lives alone in Cape Town and teaches at the university. He’d like his weekly standing appointment  with a black prostitute to expand into something else, but she shoots that idea down. Then he spies a young student named Melanie (Antoinette Engels) who’s enrolled in one of his classes, and they strike up a relationship of sorts. After a few awkward, clumsy sexual encounters, Lurie finds himself in front of a university committee investigating his behaviour with Melanie. Arrogant and unrepentant, Lurie is fired. He retreats to his daughter, Lucy’s remote farm where he plans on writing about Byron. But the peaceful haven he expected is an entirely different and hostile world. With a growing sense of unease, Lurie finds himself volunteering in the local veterinary clinic where Bev Shaw (Fiona Press) euthanizes a steady stream of homeless pets while trying to treat a range of animals with few resources.

Lucy (Jessica Haines) maintains the farm and sells her produce at a local market without the help of her lesbian lover (who returned for unknown reasons to Cape Town). Now a middle-aged black man named Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), who just won a land grant and whose farm is adjacent, assists Lucy with the heavier, larger projects. Lucy’s easy-going relationship with Petrus makes Lurie uneasy. All the other whites live in compounds and are armed and ready. Lucy, on the other hand, is a sitting duck….

Something horrible happens, as we expected it to, but it’s how the characters react that makes this film so vital. This is a deeply complex film that throws its characters into moral quagmires–in Lurie’s case the initial quagmire is of his own making, but as the film develops, the quagmire is due to the social disaster which surrounds all the characters, and there are no easy answers. While it can’t be ignored that Disgrace is a parable for race relations in S. Africa, its structure doesn’t feel false for one moment. The characters are very real people, and for the second half of the film, I found myself becoming very annoyed with Lucy (and shouting “what the hell are you thinking?” at the television) thanks to her choices.  I don’t remember being that angry with Lucy in the book (which has freer range for its complex ideas), so perhaps it’s time for a re-read.

Disgrace examines the use of power in relationships–this is seen through Lurie’s patently false ‘relationship’ with Melanie. He refuses to see that this was never a relationship between equals and that while initially Melanie was at the wrong end of the power dynamic, she subverted the power relationship only when she found her position untenable. Lurie, for his part, acts like the arrogant white man of privilege–although he’d probably deny that he operates in life with that inherent sense of privilege if you suggested it to him. There’s the sense that he selected both the prostitute and Melanie (women of colour) because their positions allowed him to keep control–or so he thought. Then there’s what happens to Lucy. How does that fit in the spectrum of male-female-black-white power subversion?  As the film progresses, Lurie comes to understand that there’s a shift in S. African society, and that he must find a place within the new order even as he straddles two worlds–his home in Cape Town complete with a home office lined with books on the Romantics, and the raw Eastern Cape farmland pulsating with the proximity of violence and death.

Author Coetzee is a vegetarian and an animal activist, and both of these elements are apparent in this excellent film. Directed by Steve Jacobs.

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Filed under Drama, South Africa

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.

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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.

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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.

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Basil (1998)

Basil (1998)  is obviously a labour of love for writer/director Radha Bharadwaj. Based on a Wilkie Collins novel, the story contains all the dramatic elements often found in this Victorian author’s works–an inheritance, a dirty family secret, illegitimacy, and deception in love. It’s a good idea to keep in mind that Collins was known as a writer of ‘sensation novels’ during his lifetime.  The Lady in White and The Moonstone, which are his best-remembered novels have been adapted to the screen several times, and so I couldn’t resist watching a version of Basil.

The first scene of Basil depicts the ruins of Windermere–the family home in Cornwall. We know from the neglect of the house–both inside and out, that something bad has happened. Then it’s a zip back to Basil (Jackson Leach) as a tiny tot in a carriage rattling along to Cornwall with his father Frederick (Derek Jacoby), mother Agnes (Joanna John), and elder brother Ralph (Crispin Bonham-Carter). With the father sitting on one side of the carriage looking annoyed and bored to tears, sweet-faced, gentle Agnes and her two sons sit opposite. Frederick is distant and tuned out for the most part, but he rouses from his reverie just in time to hear little Basil telling one of his stories about a ‘masked man.’ Frederick tells his son off–imagination is, apparently, to this strict Victorian father, yet another deadly sin. And now that Frederick is roused enough to pay attention to his family, he delivers a lecture that one day Windermere will belong to Ralph, and that if little Basil is very good, he’ll will be “allowed to visit.”

This early scene, so very well constructed, sets the scene for the family dynamic that unfolds. Frederick is a cold and harsh father while Agnes overcompensates, and that sets the boys in the middle, wanting to please their father but afraid to communicate with him.

The film follows the fate of Ralph and Basil and their respective tragic love affairs into adulthood.  Jared Leto plays the adult Basil, and he’s a lonely young man who’s destined to learn some hard lessons. Christian Slater appears as John Mannion, a young man who befriends Basil. Claire Forlani is the beautiful Julia Sherwin (Margaret in the book), the daughter of a London merchant who captivates Basil when he first meets her. The scenes leading up to and including Basil’s meeting with Julia were quite beautiful.

The first half of the film was very strong and quite promising, but then as the story unfolds, it seemed to unravel–perhaps this was due to the time slot dictated by the standard film format. The second half concentrates on the events that take place and there’s a lot. This revenge-driven story is replete with suicides, death by abortion, death by childbirth, tuberculosis, a  mysterious hideously mutilated man, secret love affairs, secret marriages, disinheritance, and a couple of wastrel sons etc. To fit all this in the last half of a film that runs under 2 hours, well it’s enough to get your head spinning. As it stands, the second half of the film dashes along from confessions to revelations to tragic events–one event closely followed on the tail of another. This effectively emphasises the histrionics and deprives the story of necessary character development. Consequently, when characters come to their senses or face the results of their actions, the subsequent confessions and resolutions ring hollow.  

The director’s cut of the film never made it to the screen or to DVD, and that’s unfortunate and frustrating.

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Paid in Full (1950)

“You can build a career on being beautiful but not a marriage.”

If I watch a tearjerker, then I want a film that gives enough unabashed, glorious lurid melodrama that we can wallow in it. Douglas Sirk was the master at this sort of thing. Take Written on the Wind for example–an alcoholic playboy marries the woman who’s secretly loved by his best friend, and the best friend is the quarry of the playboy’s nympho sister. See what I mean? Tacky, tawdry, lurid and proud of it.

paid in fullGet out your hankies for the 1950 melodrama Paid in Full which stars the marvellous Lizabeth Scott. Paid in Full is, strangely enough, based on the true story of two sisters: Jane Langley (Lizabeth Scott) and her younger sister, Nancy (Diana Lynn). The original story appeared in the May 1946 edition of The Reader’s Digest and was written by the doctor who attended both women. When the film begins, Jane is a career girl who works closely with Bill Prentice (Bob Cummins), and Nancy is a floor model, modelling expensive gowns she can’t afford. Nancy is despised by her co-workers who nickname her “the Duchess” for her airs and graces and the fact that she thinks she’s better than everyone else.

While Jane is obviously in love with Bill, he’s in love with spoiled nasty Nancy. The two sisters are contrasts in personalities. Jane is saintly, sweet, loyal and self-sacrificing and Nancy is selfish, materialistic, bitchy and immature. Since Jane raised Nancy after the death of their parents, Jane is more of a mother figure to Nancy than a sister, and unfortunately, when it comes to Nancy, Jane overcompensates for the lack of parents. The result is total indulgence. The two sisters have an unwritten creed: What Nancy wants, Jane gets for her.

Bill is so oblivious to Jane’s feelings for him that he discusses his relationship with Nancy, and even shows her the ring he plans to present to Nancy. Meanwhile, Nancy, who finds Bill dull and boring, has her eyes on a relationship with a millionaire. After being dumped by her wealthy beau, Nancy turns to Bill’s proposal with relief. While Jane (who according to Nancy has read too many “marriage manuals’) waxes on ecstatically about the glories and sacrifices of marriage, it’s clear that to Nancy marriage is a relationship in which she can be spoiled, ‘made happy by her husband’, and when she can finally buy all those dresses she’s modelled for other people. Already things don’t look good for the Prentice marriage.

Jane stays in the wings as bitchy Nancy uses and abuses Bill, but he takes whatever she dishes out, until she demands a divorce. The best scene in the film occurs with Nancy sitting in front of her dressing table while Bill finally tells her what an abominable excuse for a woman she is.

But these are the melodramatic moments of Paid in Full. There are also the tearjerker points with the theme of motherhood as a redemptive state.

Lizabeth Scott glows in the role of Jane. When she looks at Bill, her entire face illuminates with love, but he’s such an idiot, he doesn’t recognise her feelings. Actually I think he does sense Jane’s adoration, but he chooses to ignore Jane’s feelings because part of him wants to be a doormat. Bill wants a woman he can put on a pedestal and worship–or at least he thinks he does. Several excellent scenes show just how Nancy plays Bill, and these scenes show their relationship at its best and at its bitter worst.

Bitchy nasty Nancy is played well, and I particularly loved the scenes of her modelling job and then her former employer’s revenge.

The film’s biggest problem is the insertion of male authority figures: Dr Winston (Stanley Ridges), a lawyer friend of Bill’s and a psychiatrist who appears towards the end of the film. While the two male doctors deliver sanctimonious lectures to the females in the film, the lawyer friend of Bill’s tells Bill that Nancy is seeking a divorce. What happened to confidentiality? These male authority figures dampen the melodrama and move the film away from its tawdry lurid depths. I prefer more drama and less lectures. Plus then there’s poor Bill–a man who’s used as a sperm donor by these two women while they play ping-pong with his heart. If Bill were in his right mind, he’s wish he’d never set eyes on these sisters in the first place.

For fans of Lizabeth Scott, Paid in Full is a must-see. While Scott’s best role (for me) is Too Late For Tears, she does an excellent job as Jane and the role as it is written. Personally, I would have loved to see the film with both sisters as evil, scheming bitches.

From director William Dieterle

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Sidewalks of New York (2001)

“We’ll put that romantic crap to bed for once and for all.”

It’s impossible to watch Sidewalks of New York without realizing that the film is either a homage to, or derivative of, Woody Allen. But that doesn’t make Sidewalks of New York a bad film, and if you’re a Woody Allen fan, you may find yourself enjoying the film more than you thought.

sidewalks of new yorkSimilar to Woody Allen’s brilliantly funny Husbands and Wives, Sidewalks of New York also examines male-female relationships, infidelity, and marriage through a handful of characters. And as in Husbands and Wives, during Sidewalks of New York, from actor/writer/ director Edward Burns, scenes also segue to interviews in which the characters are asked key questions regrading their personal relationships and their attitudes towards sex, love and relationships.

Sidewalks of New York begins with Tommy (Edward Burns) engaged in an argument with his girlfriend. After being thrown out, he moves in temporarily with middle-aged Lothario, Uncle Carpo (Dennis Farina) and then tries to find a new apartment. He uses real estate agent Annie (Heather Graham) who’s married to cheating dentist Griffin (Stanley Tucci). Griffin’s self-confessed “European attitude to marriage” has him in an affair with scrappy waitress Ashley (Brittany Murphy). Ashley is doggedly pursued by doorman/future rockstar Ben (David Krumholtz). Ben was married to teacher, Maria (Rosario Dawson).

The interconnected relationships between these careening characters are explored with humour, but honestly Dennis Farina as Uncle Carpo steals the film, with Stanley Tucci coming in as a close second. The all-too brief scenes with Farina are hilarious. Carpo’s advice to the love-lorn Tommy: “Nothing heals a broken heart like a brand new piece of boodie”  is enough to screw up a man for the rest of his life, for while Carpo thinks he knows all about women, his approach to women might have worked in the 50s but it’s too out-of-style to work in the 21st century:

“I’m an animal. I’m twice as vital as any married man 1/2 my age. I’ve had sex with with over 500 women, and I’ve left them all baying at the moon.”

The weakest part of the film is Maria’s relationship (such as it is) with Tommy. She is the sketchiest drawn character of the lot. Heather Graham just doesn’t cut it as Griffin’s wife, and since she is a main character, this is unfortunate. Here as Annie, she delivers her lines to Griffin with a little smile that sometimes just seems out of place, but she seems much more at ease in her scenes with Burns.

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Irina Palm (2007)

“Can you wank me off?”

Years ago, I took a philosophy class in which the instructor delighted in creating moral dilemmas for the students to mull over. “Is it alright to steal?” he’d ask, and after the students gave a resounding “NO!” he’d come back with the question, “what if you are starving? What if your children are starving?” This generated some lively debates, but more than that, it made us all think. Some students, however, could not handle the gray areas of morality, and would become downright annoyed with the moral scenarios presented in class–as if the instructor was cheating somehow.

Anyway, these memories came to mind when I watched the entertaining film, Irina Palm directed by Sam Garbarski and starring Marianne Faithfull. The film’s premise is simple: Maggie (Marianne Faithfull) is a 50-year-old widow who lives in a small village. Maggie doesn’t come across as a particularly happy person. Rather she seems to just exist, but then again, she doesn’t have much to be happy about. Her small grandson, Ollie (Corey Burke) is hospitalized and dying from a terminal disease. She’s had to sell her home to Jane (Jenny Agutter)–a snotty bitch who loves to patronize Maggie while parading her behaviour as ‘friendship.’

A small glimmer of hope appears in the form of an offer of pro-bono experimental treatment in Australia. The problem is MONEY. Somehow, Ollie’s parents Tom and Sarah (Kevin Bishop & Siobhan Hewlett) have to come up with enough money for the airfare and hotels during their stay. Maggie has already sold her house to help; there’s nothing left to sell.

Despondent and desperate, Maggie heads to London. Wandering into Soho, she sees a sign offering employment for a ‘hostess.’ Maggie steps into the tawdry “Sex World” where she promptly discovers from the club’s taciturn owner, Miki (Miki Manojlovic) just what a ‘euphemism’ is when he explains what a hostess actually does. At this point, Maggie seems wildly out-of-place inside the club. She’s dumpy, middle-aged and wrapped up in a coat–contrast this to the lithe, naked, and bejeweled bodies of the pole dancers, and well…you come to the conclusion that Maggie’s out-of-her-depth.

But Miki sees something in Maggie. Does he think she’s dependable? Does he recognize that perhaps maturity brings a certain patience? Who knows. The film doesn’t clarify the point, so it’s left for the viewer to speculate why Miki hires Maggie on the spot. Her job: she’s the club’s wanker, and that’s what she does to earn money. It would spoil the film to tell you what happens in the club–let’s just say that Maggie has already crossed one boundary she thought she’d never face, but in her new career, she does discover her moral limits.

I told a few people about Irina Palm. One person shrieked, “well that’s one thing I know I’ll NEVER do,” while someone else thought the film had an interesting premise. I think the film is fascinating, and its very point seems to be that here’s this middle-aged woman chosing to do something she thought she’d never do. Maggie thinks that life has nothing else to offer, but adversity changes all that. The plot certainly generated some lively discussions around my house.

The film has some great touches of humour. However, that said, let’s not forget that the sex industry includes a great deal of depersonalization. The film sugarcoats this aspect of things, making SEX WORLD a far nicer, less threatening place for Maggie. While I enjoyed Irina Palm , somehow I can’t help but imagine the film rewritten with no grandchild for Maggie to save. I suspect this would have been a much more interesting, and challenging film if Maggie had been a character who wanked for a living–but without an ‘excuse.’

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Days and Clouds (2007)

 “We kept living as though nothing had happened.”

The excellent Italian drama Days and Clouds (aka Giorni e Nuvole) charts the disintegration of the marriage of an affluent middle-aged couple as their fortunes change for the worse. When the film begins, the very attractive Elsa (Margherita Buy) has just completed a long-held ambition to graduate from art school, and her husband, Michele (Antonio Albanese) gives her a pricey pair of antique earrings and throws a surprise party. But all this appearance of wealth is a façade. The party is over quite literally when Michele reluctantly reveals that he’s now unemployed and has been for months. A former company director, he’s been squeezed out by his partners as part of a restructuring move. Elsa is flabbergasted to learn that there is hardly any money left to pay the bills, and that their lifestyle must change radically. Blindsided by the news, she tries to gauge just how bad things are.

days-and-cloudsThe film follows exactly how this couple copes with the many changes they must face, and there are moments when they are both in denial about the severity of their financial crisis. Elsa has no idea how much their monthly expenses are, and so she must rapidly learn some of the very basic facts about their finances before even beginning to make plans. Michele, on the other hand, has a very difficult time accepting that he can’t pick up the check for all of his friends at the expensive restaurants they habituate. Shame soon leads both Elsa and Michele to cut themselves off from their friends as they sink from their affluent lifestyle to a working class environment without fancy vacations, pricey wines or valuable antiques.

Director Silvio Soldini explored the dynamics of a marriage in trouble in his film Bread and Tulips, but in that film, the wife exploits an opportunity to run away. Not so in Days and Clouds where Elsa tries sticking to her marriage even as her formerly good relationship with Michele disintegrates as the money pressures mount.

As the couple loses their material possessions, Elsa markets her job skills and puts her art restoration interests on hold, working two jobs. Meanwhile, Michele discovers that no one wants to employ a middle-aged executive. This all raises questions: was their marriage “happy” because it was coated with affluence, or is their relationship stressed solely to financial pressures? To exacerbate the situation, it’s also quite clear that once Michele is stripped of his ability to earn a living, on many levels, his wife vastly outclasses him.

The film raises some intriguing issues, but while these issues appear for our scrutiny, they are not dissected and analyzed. For example, as the money pressures mount, we begin to wonder if Michele was really ‘protecting’ Elsa by keeping her in the dark about their financial situation, or if this was just one part of his continuum of denial. Through the course of the film, it becomes apparent that perhaps Michele contributed to his own downfall–certainly his ex-business partners think so.

Days and Clouds includes some simply marvelous touches, the acting is superb, and this is one of the best (and most painful) depictions I’ve seen of the decline of an upper middle class family. This is yet another wonderful film from Film Movement, and Days and Clouds is August’s selection for their DVD of the month club. For more information about Film Movement or to join the club, go to www.filmmovement.com

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