Nuns (3): Nasty Habits

Dame Muriel Spark (1918-96 )repeatedly wrote about small casts of character in relatively closed-off social worlds, such as boarding schools (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Finishing School), a boarding house (Girls of Slender Means) ,an old-age home (Memento Mori), shipwrecked on an desert island (Robinson), and the convent in The Abbess of Crewe. That wickedly funny and short 1974 novel was her version of the fall of Richard Nixon in the Watergate cover-up.

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Although the abbesses in the movie are very English (Edith Evans, Glenda Jackson), the abbey has been transplanted to Philadelphia. The old abbess (Evans) dies before naming Sister Alexandra (Jackson) her successor. Sister Alexandra has some of Nixon’s paranoia and the same need he felt to know what his rivals were up to.nasty.jpg

The young free-love nun (who is openly having a sexual relationship with a Jesuit novice), Sister Felicity (Susan Penahaligon) bears no resemblance to Senator George McGovern. Although Sister Alexandra is contemptuous of Sister Felicity and her unconventional attitudes, it seems that she had as little need to sponsor “a third-rate burglary” as Nixon did. Sister Alexandra also has already had her office and much of the rest of the convent bugged. This is known by her henchwomen, the chain-smoking Sister Walburga (Geraldine Page) and Sister Mildred (Anne Jackson) whereas if I recall correctly, the men on whom they are modeled, presidential advisors Bob Haldemann and John Ehrlichman did not knows of the Oval office taping. And certainly John Dean did not, though his stand-in, Sister Winifred (an extra-gawky and toothy Sandy Dennis), does. And in one of the funniest adaptation of Nixon’s teams, Melina Mercouri jets around the world and issues gnomic advice in the manner of Henry Kissinger.

Sister Alexandra lacks Nixon’s self-pity. Glenda Jackson is more confident and regal. Still, she repeats many of his lines as she scapegoats Sister Winifred and eventually sacrifices Sisters Walburga and Mildred, as Nixon eventually sacrificed Haldemann and Ehrlichman. The attention of the press on an obscure convent is not altogether plausible. Sister Alexandra is answerable to Rome. The Monsignor traveling to Philadelphia to investigate (a stand-in for the folksy Senator Sam Ervin?) is played by Eli Wallach. And Anne Mears plays Gerald Ford.

The cast also includes Rip Torn and Jerry Stiller as Jesuit co-conspirators. The production values do not match the quality of the cast (or those of “Brideshead Revisited” which Michael Lindsay-Hogg went on to direct shortly after directing “Nasty Habits”).

Corruption among the pious has not ceased, as the recent failed coverups of DOnald Trump payoffs and the revelations about coverups of serial pedophilia of Catholic priests (and Muslim imams) attests, along with another White House bent on widespread surveillance and proceeding in secrecy reprises Nixon’s.

The pace slackens with two ludicrous money drops in public lavatories. And Susan Penahaligon is so overmatched by Glenda Jackson that it seems silly to enter into such serious strategizing to foil her. I realize that it was similarly insane to do what Nixon did, but he had used dirty tricks every step of the way up, while what Sister Alexandra’s concerns and tactics seem not just unnecessary but out of character (though she is careful to distance herself so that she can simulate plausible deniability of responsibility). Nevertheless, watching Jackson before she retired from acting to run for Parliament is the main pleasure afforded by “Nasty Habits.”

The DVD transfer is not very good and there are no DVD bonus features, but it does give viewers the opportunity to enjoy seeing actresses no longer around to perform (Jackson retired from acting (though recentyly returned to stages as King Lear); Dennis, Evans, Mercouri, Page have been dead for years).

©2006, Stephen O. Murray

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Nuns (2)

I’ve read none of the 60+ books published by Rumer Godden (1907-1998), though I remember that my mother owned one of her novels (A Breath of Air). Before the word was coined, I saw her as a purveyor of chick lit, albeit chick lit that drew some major film directors—Jean Renoir to The River, Michael Powell to “Black Narcissus,” both of which concern young Englishwomen in the India in which Godden grew up. Although I admired the color photography of both of those movies, I found the stories overly hysterical. Along with the screen adaptations of The Battle of Villa Fiorita and The Greengage Summer (released here as “Loss of Innocence”) that I have not seen, they are “chick flicks.”

Godden’s name was not what drew me to watch “In This House of Brede.” Rather, it was the 1975 BBC movie’s star, the estimable Diana Rigg, who has had far too few good big-screen roles. It was Rigg who piqued my interest. (I was a devoted fan of the original “Avengers” as an adolescent; I was also a big fan of the movie “Becket” in those days, and remembered Pamela Brown from it.)

Mrs. Peel would seem an unlikely nun (as do Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Melina Mercouri, Glenda Jackson, Gladys Cooper, and others who have triumphed playing roles as nuns). In “In This House of Brede” she seeks the veil after a successful career in business. Like Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story,” she is a lot smarter than those around her in the convent and extirpating her pride and self-confidence and the awe some of her intellectual inferiors feel for her (and the backlash of her intellectual inferiors who are her elders in the convent…) are problems for her.

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Hepburn played a much younger entrant to an order that sent out medical missionaries to the Belgian Congo. Rigg plays a widow who is fluent in Japanese in a Benedictine order in England that receives postulants from Japan (some years after she has become Dame Phillipa (it’s not as if she knew that her new vocation was going to involve her familiarity with Japanese culture and language). Before becoming Dame Phillipa, an Oxford graduate, she also knew Latin, so that beginning Latin classes are more than easy for her.

The Abbess of Brede who had encouraged her to explore a contemplative religious vocation dies almost as soon as Phillipa becomes a postulant. The successor, Dame Catherine (Gwen Bradford), is sympathetic to Phillipa’s difficulties and conflict with the self-righteous and resentment-filled Dame Agnes (Pamela Brown), who is the teacher of Latin and later is determined to learn Japanese with no help from Dame Phillipa. (It is very fortunate for Dame Phillipa that Dame Agnes was not elected abbess!)

A cheerful younger postulant from the neighborhood of the convent, Joanna (Judy Bowker), is eager to be Dame Phillipa’s protege. The girl reminds Dame Phillipa of her own child who was killed in an automobile accident and her maternal concern is seen by the petty Dame Agnes as sensuality, and a suspect bond that must be broken.

Dame Phillipa mortifies herself by working in the infirmary (though the convent badly needs her business acumen to sort out its financial affairs, that would build pride and foster even more resentment).

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The film is well-acted and the convent (really St. Mary’s Abbey Grammar School in Mill Hill within London) is well-photographed. The stifling of talent for mortifying the self is not a program for which I have sympathy, but if that’s what Dame Phillipa wants, she manages it without destroying anyone else. Patience not being one of my virtues, I was somewhat impatient with Dame Phillipa learning patience which is just as unnatural to her as it is to me.

The music is dated and sometimes overly intrusive. The liturgy and details of convent routines have been lauded by those with personal familiarity with them. But if it weren’t for Dianna Rigg being the central focus, I probably would not screened the DVD or finished it if I came upon it.

“In This House of Brede” was directed by George Schaeffer, a frequent “Hallmark Hall of Fame” director and lensed by Chris Challis (The Tales of Hoffman, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, The Deep).

“In This House of Brede” is not as good as “The Nun’s Story” and is definitely no where nearly as funny as “Nasty Habits” but I found it considerably more plausible than “Black Narcissus” (if less colorful than the studio Himalayas in that (movie also based on a Rumer Godde novel) or the Africanlocations in “The Nun’s Story”) .

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“The nun,” (2013), based on Diderot’s 1760 “La religeuse,” “a film by Guilllaume Nicou,” is in color and has full-frontal nudity of hits vocationless, involuntary nun, played by Pauline Etienne who is tortured by one mother superior (Louise Bougon) and then coddled by a lesbian one played by Isabelle Huppert, who fails to seduce her (even after getting into the young nun’s bed). The movie adds a happy ending (escape from the convent) and a more spirited Suzane. Yves Cape provided beautiful cinematography, but the direction was very slack.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Happy and fraught holidaze movies

In writing, I always wish people “Happy Holidaze,” not out of sensitivity to non-Christians but out of sarcasm about the frantic (and often drunken) efforts to be merry and to cater to the multiple neuroses (holiday ones and other ones) of family and friends. The date 25 December seems more a continuation of the rebirth of the sun after the winter solstice than a date with any credible historical tie to Jesus, and any religious meaning of Christmas was long ago swamped by commercial machinations to sell “the right” presents and be bummed out if not receiving “the right” ones. Although I suspect that even Charles Dickens might say “Bah, humbug” about the Christmas industries of today, I enjoy an English tradition of eating goose and plum pudding on 25 December. I avoid the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy by buying Christmas presents during the summer (which makes me want to put Preston Sturges’s minor (64-minute) movie “Christmas in July” (1940) starring Dick Powell inflating and deflating on my list of movies…).

Another compelling reason for my title is to include “Home for the Holidays” (1995, directed by Jodie Foster, her second directorial outing) on my list. I was puzzled that it had not appeared on any of the lists here that I’ve seen (proliferating in number). In the decade since it was released, I managed to forget that it was set on the Thanksgiving weekend instead of at Christmas. Another warrant for the plural “holidays” is that the word needs to be plural since the season of celebrations (an family gatherings) includes Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, Boxing Day (in Canada and the UK), along with the historically spurious tradition of Kwanza and the promotion of Chanukah as a Christmas for Jews, as well as gift-gifting celebration of el dia de las tres reyes (the day of the three kings, 6 January).

Moreover, the focus of many “Christmas movies” is on the run-up to Christmas (e.g., “Miracle on 34th Street,” which features the Thanksgiving Macy’s Day Parade, and “Love Actually”) or on Christmas Eve (e.g., “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “The Shop around the Corner,” “Joyeux Nöel,” and more than half of A Christmas Carol).

I really don’t have anything original to say about the inevitable inclusions:

A very young Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn as a Macy’s Santa with a real beard are engaging in Miracle on 34th Street (1947, directed by George Seaton). Do I ever need to see it again? No.

Ditto for Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). I enjoy Beulah Bondi (in everything in which I’ve seen her) and Henry Travers (usually), and grew up watching “The Donna Reed Show” (albeit for Paul Peterson more than for her). I’m a Gloria Grahame and James Stewart fan and an admirer of the work of cinematographer Joseph Biroc (here and elsewhere). If the movie was less ubiquitous, I might be able to manage some enthusiasm for it… (But, in passing, let me recommend “Movie Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” with Annette Benning’s Gloria Grahame passing in it and no Christmas angle).

There has to be a version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I think that “Scrooge (1951, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst) with Alastair Sim in the title role is probably the best one. The 1937 high-gloss MGM version (that had been designed for Lionel Barrymore, who read the book on the radio every year) is mercifully short (70 minutes) and the one I’ve most recently seen. Directed by Edwin L. Marin with Terry Kilburn as Scrooge, it seems to me to transform Scrooge too quickly. Also the Cratchit home is far-removed from “Dickensian” poverty, even in its genteel form. George C. Scott was typecast in a more recent and not bad “Scrooge.”

The 1983 sitcom TV movie of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his BB gun, Jean Shephard’s own adaptation of his “A Christmas Story” doesn’t much move me, though many other people adore it.

And for an earlier generation (Baby Boomers) the live tv broadcast (captured on kinoscope) of Menotti’s inspiring back-to-Bethlehem “Amahl and the Night Visitors” remains inscribed in some brain cells.

Some other upbeat golden oldies

As in “Wonderful Life,” there is an angel (Cary Grant) involved in sorting out the marriage of a(n Anglican) bishop (played by David Niven) trying to build a cathedral and his wife (Loretta Young) in The Bishop’s Wife (1947, directed by Henry Koster). It, too has been overplayed.

Once was enough for another Loretta Young Christmas movie, Come to the Stable, also directed bye Henry Koster two years earlier (1945). In it, Young and Celeste Holm play French nuns (with another building project, a children’s hospital in New England). Elsa Lanchester is (as usual) a treat, and Dooley Wilson sort of adumbrates Sidney Poitier helping innocent nuns in “Lilies of the Field,” but Loretta Young sets my teeth on edge, as does being set in a town named “Bethlehem” (Connecticut).

I don’t remember The Bells of St. Mary (1945, directed by Leo McCarey) very well, though I remember that that Ingrid Bergman was still very beautiful hidden in a habit and that Bing Crosby had his usual charm (reprising the easy-going Father O’Malley part that somehow won him an Oscar in “Going My Way”), as they try to save the slum school at which they teach by different fund-raising approaches. Lots of cute urchins along with the cute, chaste couple.

I prefer Barbara Stanwyck in another classic Connecticut Christmas movie (romantic comedy), creatively titled Christmas in Connecticut (1945, directed by Peter Godfrey). Stanwyck plays a sort of Martha Stewart of the pre-television WWII era who can write convincing advice about domestic matters, but can’t cook and is not at all the rural persona of her columns. Her editor (a sly Sidney Greenstreet) thinks that it would be good publicity for her to make Christmas dinner for a war hero (Dennis Morgan) on leave. Complications are many (centering on a borrowed baby and borrowed chef) and the ending predictable, but it’s a genial screwball comedy.

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Stanwyck’s other Christmas movie also involves her character passing as something she is not and has a predictable happy ending. Although her costar in Remember the Night (1940, directed by Mitchell Leisen from a script by Preston Sturges) was Fred MacMurray, there is little to hint at their incendiary later pairing in “Double Indemnity.” I guess she is a sort of femme fatale in “Remember,” though a petty crook rather than a seductress murderer/murder-recruiter. She’s been arrested (a third offense) for shoplifting and is being prosecuted by Fred MacMurray, who feels sorry for her having to spend Christmas in jail and (only in movies!) takes her home to Mama (Beulah Bondi again) and a family quite unlike her own. She melts everyone’s heart, though her prosecutor’s was none too frozen before the sojourn.

Stanwyck’s Christmas movies involve quite a bit of duplicity, but she is redeemed in both of them. I’m more into movies about dysfunctional families than ones portraying lovey-dovey families (prototypically the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol), though this does not preclude transformation of bitter (etc.) losers.

Dysfunctional people have to navigate family holidays, too

One of my favorite Christmas movies is Three Godfathers, directed by John Ford with John Wayne and Pedro Armendériz. I had not realized that the story of three robbers who find a dying woman and undertake to save her newborn son had been filmed before, and by William Wyler at that. The 1929 Hell’s Heroes has the basic plot in a mere 68 minutes, and appears to have been shot on location, which was very difficult with the new very unwieldy sound cameras then. The head bank robber who finds a woman about to give birth by a dynamited empty spring was played by the always gruff Charles Bickford. (There were also 1916 and 1936 versions, IMDB tells me.) The Ford version is the best with Monument Valley filmed in gorgeous color, but the Wyler one bears checking out. It’s shorter and a bit less sentimental.

We’re No Angels” (1955. directed by veteran Michal Curtiz) also involves a trio of bad guy (escapees from Devil’s Island) overcome by Christmas spirit: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray helping out the family of Joan Bennett and Leo G. Carroll, while being pursued by the ever curish Basil Rathbone. I enjoyed it, though no one would mistake it for a great film.

Christmas aspects are not what I remember about  “The Lion in Winter” (1968), but for a warring family gathering — with the succession to the English throne as the prize —, it’s right up there! With memorable performances by Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Katharine Hepburn as his very estranged (usually imprisoned) wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (and a young Anthony Hopkins as the future Richard the Lion-hearted). I don’t remember anything about “Die Hard,” though I only rated it 5/10 stars on iMDB.

101 Reykjavik (2000, directed by Baltasar Kormekur) features an Icelandic slacker who lives with his mother. Her Spanish flamenco teacher Lola (Victoria Abril) moves in with them for Christmas. While his mother is away on New Year’s Eve, he seduces and (it turns out) impregnates his mother’s lover. And everyone lives happily ever after, raising their new product?

Although it was made for tv (HBO), I saw The Christmas Wife (1988, directed by David Hugh Jones) in a theater (the Kabuki). In it Jason Robards plays a recent widower whose son has chosen to make the first Christmas without his beloved wife also the first one without the company of the descendant two generations at the family cabin. Instead of going to join them, John hires a companion for the day, a nervous Julie Harris (or is that redundant?). The movie is decidedly not heartwarming, but Robards and Harris are formidable.

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I really like the theme music for piano from Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning The Apartment (and used to play it on the piano). Fred MacMurray is closer to his “Double Indemnity” than to his “Remember the Night” character in it, and Shirley MacLaine pours on the charm to a prototypically manic and confused Jack Lemmon. I find “The Apartment” considerably nastier than Wilder’s commercial flop Kiss Me, Stupid, which was condemned for immorality that isn’t there.

For drunken and catastrophic Christmas celebrations, the one in Schlöndorff’s Coup de Grâce has to be a serious contender. It is an object lesson in what can go wrong.

Things go pretty badly wrong with a junkie mother in Holiday Heart though Ving Rhames as a drag queen (!) makes things somewhat better.

A lot goes wrong for the newlyweds in George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s genial comedy about impotence and insufferably condescending in-laws, Period of Adjustment, with Jim Hutton and Jane Fonda both more than a little overwrought (showing male and female hysteria).

I’ve already noted that I learned that a reason Home for the Holidays is not on other people’s list of “best Christmas movies,” is that it is set at Thanksgiving. It begins with Holly Hunter having a really bad day, of which losing her job is only a part. She is already dazed before getting joining her relatives. Her parents are an overbearing Anne Bancroft and a complaining, passive-aggressive (or perhaps just out-of-it?) Charles Durning. Robert Downey, Jr. steals the movie as Hunter’s high-energy (manic?) gay brother, who has brought  Dylan McDermott, a seeming new lover home. Geraldine Chaplin is on hand as a wacky aunt, and Steve Guttenberg as a conventional foil (brother-in-law). Plus Clair Danes (Hunter’s daughter) and David Straithern (wandering in directly from parts as a derelict in John Sayles movies

Geraldine Page played Sook, the somewhat simple-minded, holiday-fruitcake-obssessed elderly cousin of Truman Capote in The Thanksgiving Visitor (1967) and A Christmas Memory (1969). Capote narrated both elegies for his frail childhood friend, Frank Perry directed both (and two other Capote stories that were combined to form “Trilogy”). The late, great Conrad Hall shot the latter. Page won an Emmy for the former, one of the oustanding works from ABC’s “Stage 67” that should be released on DVD (the best of all is the version of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Noon Wine” starring Olivia de Haviland and Jason Robards, Jr. and directed by Sam Peckinpah.) Those who have not seen Page might enjoy the longer 1997 tv movie “A Christmas Memory” with Patty Duke and Piper Laurie. The sweet relationship is dysfunctional for the ten-year-old boy, devoted as he and Sook are to each other.

or just act out around Christmas:
as in Christopher Plummer’s bank-robber in “The Silent Partner” (from a screenplay by Curtis Hanson of “LA Confidential fame”) shot in Toronto, and the comic squatters in the squishier (more sentimental) “, but still entertainingIt Happened on Fifth Avenue.” And the puppet-master rich guys who orcchestrate the “Trading Places” of  Dan Ackryod and Eddie Murphy in John Landis’s 1985 comedy. Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 “The Shop around the Corner” ends on Christmas Eve, with Christmas sales at the department store where James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan work important to the plot. Plus there are Thanksgiving dinner in the heist movie “The Lookout” (2007), starring Joseph Gordon-Levit and Jeff Daniels. Other run-up to Christmas movies include the 2003 anima “Tokyo Godfathers,”“Christmas without Snow” starring John Houseman and Michael Larned, “Fracture” (also from 2007, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling), Tery Zwigoff’s quirky “Art School Confidential” (2006, starring Mad Minghella and John Malkovich), the bland “The Object of My Affection,” (1998, starring Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) Woody Allen’s acclaimed “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986, with Michael Caine, Diane Wiest, and Mia Farrow), and the farcical “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986, starring Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss).

Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” (1990) is set in December, with highly decorated Manhattan backdrops and a band of yuppies (plus one, Tom Townsend, played by Edward Clements). It’s not really a Christmas movie, but I like it, OK? And Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco” and “Barcelona” even more. Both deserve to be better known IMO.

A movie that fully justifies the “daze[d]” part of “holidaze” is the 1971 “Wake in Fright,” directed by Ted Kotcheff, in which a teacher (Gary Bond) at a remote Australian outback one-room schoolhouse does not make it back to Sydney and is plied with beer (and, eventually, whisky) by the many swaggering drunkards of Bundanyabba (the mining town of Broken Hill, NSW). It is a “horror movie” in which hell is other people.

And a more conventional thriller/horror movie with a very tense Thanksgiving dinner is “Deadfall” in which Eric Bana holds a family headed by Sissy Spaceck and Kris Kristofferson hostage while demanding dinner be served as normal.

Other contenders:

I haven’t seen “Absurd Person Singular” or “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” or “Jul i skomakergata.” I also don’t remember the perennial (once upon a time) “The Spirit of Christmas” at all clearly, nor “White Christmas” (the movie, that is; the song is indelibly inscribed in my brain, alas), nor “Holiday Inn” (don’t even remember the title song that Bing Crosby crooned from/in it) very well. I saw “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” multiple times (add it to the overplayed pile). I don’t remember the Christmas angles of “L.A. Confidential” (even though I rewatched it recently), “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” “Night of the Hunter,” or “The Boys of St. Vincent.” What I do remember of these movies does not involve a lot of cheer, Christmas or any other kind. And I was bored by the flow of profanity and attempts to shock the audience in “Badder Santa,” which is a conventional upbeat Christmas redemption movie under a coat of vomit.

I think that John Huston’s reach at literature often exceeded his grasp, but his final movie, a luminous 1987 adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” starring Huston’s daughter Anjelica is very satisfying and more than a little triste, though not a “Christmas movie,” for all its snow-falling.

The first episode of one of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue) (and one the best) centers on what turns out to have been a fatal Christmas present, but I decided that doesn’t make it a “Christmas movie.” The third, “Christmas Eve” is boring and pointless — qualifying as “Christmas” but not among “best.”

The Gift of the Magi” is probably the weakest of the omnibus “O. Henry’s Full House,” though based on Mr. Porter’s most famous story.

I do remember “Home Alone,” which has some inspired moments of comic mayhem.

Battleground was ruined for me by the Christmas Day ecumenical sermon (so also fails the “best” test). Maybe Sam Fuller’s (1951) “The Steel Helmet” can qualify as a poignant Buddhist Christmas movie? Most of it takes place in a Buddhist temple. No noticeable “Christmas spirit” in it, however.

Although there is a family (couple) plot within “Joyeux Nöel” (2005, directed by Christian Carion) the movie about an impromptu ceasefire in the trenches in 1914 is more about Christmas (über alles) than about World War I with all the soldiers (except for one German Jewish officer) — Scottish, German, and French — apparently being Roman Catholic (and the German Jewish officer is moved by the mass and the music sung by the couple.

. I think that “Love Actually” (2003) is hit and miss with more hits (especially Emma Thomson, Hugh Grant, Andrew Lincoln, Thomas Sangster, Laura Linney and Rodrigo Santoro; Joni Mitchell’s older “Both Sides Now” and the Beach Boys “God Only Knows”) than misses (Heike Makatsch, Martin Freeman and Joanna Page. It includes Chiristmas trees and other decorations, gift-shopping, gift disappointment, and a Christmas pageant, but skips from a tumultuous Christmas Eve to a month later, skipping Chistmas Day.

What I call the Chicagorican (a Puerto Rican family back home in Humboldt Park) Christmas movie, Nothing Like the Holidays (2008), also has too many characters and a scattergun plastering of stories (most of them not comic even with John Leguizamo and Debra Messing in the cast). I think it has some striking moments in addition to being the established in the US Latino Christmas movie.

I think that “Un conte de Noël” (A Christmas Tale, 2008) is too long, and that its opening is too cute, though it delivers a rather astringent gathering with the banished son (Mathieu Amalric) allowed to return and act out some more to the considerable irritation of the sister (Anne Consigny) who had him banished. Even less compelling a French Yuletide dysfunctional characters is “La Bûche” (1999), despite its showcasing the great Emmanuelle Béart.

And “The Ref” with burglar Dennis Leary mediating the bickering couple of Kevin Spacey and Judy David on Christmas Eve, directed by Ted Demme? Haven’t seen it. Nor have I seen Robert Downey Jr. and Andrew McCarthy in “Less Than Zero” (1987), “The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t,” “Mr.Magoo’s Christmas Carol” or “Muppet Christmas Carol.”

And Thanksgiving bonus features: Planes, Trains, and Airplanes a comedy carried by John Candy (who was already carrying plenty of weight…), “The House of Yes,” Ang Lee’s even edgier “Ice Storm,” and Arthur Penn’s “Alice’s Restaurant” with Arlo Griffith expanding upon his lengthy song.

©2018, Stephen O.  Murray

“The human heart would never pass the drunk test.”

Skillfully adapted by Isobel Lennart (1915-71, she wrote the play “Funny Girl” and the screenplays for “Anchors Away,” “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” “The Sundowners,” etc.) from Tennessee William’s Christmas comedy about adults with adult problems (consummating marriages, stagnating in boring jobs bossed around by jerks, managing neuroses and real estate…), the 1962 movie “Period of Adjustment” is remembered, if it is remembered at all, as a breakthrough role for Jane Fonda. It was also the first movie directed by George Roy Hill, who had directed it on stage and went on to direct “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” and “Slap-Shot” (all with Paul Newman).

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The first half hour of the movie shows events that are told in the stage-play: nurse Isabel (Jane Fonda) dancing attendance on George Whittaker (Jim Hutton) at a VA hospital, her chagrin that they are setting off from the wedding in a big, black 1939 hearse with 140,000 miles on it, and land in a bar with no other female customers, then in a dingy motel on their wedding night; and her outrage that George quit his job without telling her. The story of a quick romance and rocky start of George and Isabel’s marriage is intercut with Dorothea (Lois Nettleton) urging her husband Ralph (Anthony Franciosa) to apologize to her father (Ralph McGiver), who is his boss in a Memphis-area dairy company. Drunk the night before, Ralph had told his father-in-law what he really thought of him. Hung-over, Ralph is more than usually irritated by his son whom Ralph is alarmed will grow up to be a sissy.

Instead of apologizing, Ralph quits his job and Dorothea, who was visiting her mother (a smarmy Mabel Albertson), decides to stay in her parents’ house. With his own marriage and life in complete chaos, Ralph is happy to receive a visit from his Korean War Air Force buddy George and welcomes Isabel. Ralph is less disconcerted than Isabel that George drives off after depositing all of Isabel’s luggage except what she wanted, a zippered blue bag. Isabel sputters out her dismay about the marriage that has failed in every respect to match her dreams. Having been abandoned by a spouse toward whom he is ambivalent (having married her for the prospects of inheriting the family business), Ralph is soothing. (Isabel is not ready to be soothed. When Ralph tells her: “They don’t make them any better,” she retorts: “If they don’t make them any better than George Haverstick, they ought to stop making them!”)

When George eventually returns (with a bottle of champagne to share with Isabel, who does not drink…), Ralph tries to talk some sense into George, while George spins fantasies about returning to west Texas and raising stately longhorns. (Property and commercial concerns are almost as recurrent in Tennessee Williams works as couples clawing at each other: indeed, clawing for anticipated inheritances is a Williams leitmotif.)

Besides Dorothea’s parents’ eagerness to retrieve their daughter and everything they gave the couple, there is a group of male carolers agreeing to stop for a drink at each household until they are very rowdy, and a police station in which Jack Albertson calmly listens to charges of “planned embezzlement” (i.e., Ralph selling off some of the couple’s possessions). He sends everyone, including the inebriated carolers, home. Ralph drives the hearse and has it out with Dorothea in the front seat. There is an intercom turned on, so that George and Isabel hear the painful revelations. A certain solidarity against Dorothea’s parents merges with cringing at what they hear, and in the end, all four are trying to be more considerate of their partners (and of the other couple). They have learned some things about themselves and their partners, and—it being a romantic comedy, and a Christmas Eve one at that—the movie ends with optimism that the thin-skinned human beings will build on their hard-won insights and live less unhappily ever after.

Although Fonda seems to me to overplay, the part calls for silliness and a hysterical breakdown (when calling home to Daddy). Her accent is consistent; whether it is Texan, I will leave to others to assess. It seems more Southeastern to me, as does Franciosa’s. Franciosa is very good in a nuanced portrait of a man who loathes himself for selling himself to a man he detests and for failures as a husband and father. (Franciosa was near the end of a half-decade string of good screen roles that began with one in Isabel Lennert’s screenplay for the charming romantic comedy directed by Robert Wise “This Could Be the Night”).

 

Jim Hutton was good at screwball comedy and at the spluttering vulnerability often called for in screwball comedy leads and the cover of brutality for insecurity often called from in Tennessee Williams plays. John McGiver naturally looked puffed-up and was a master of pomposity. Lois Nettleton was affecting in the difficult role (of a kind Geraldine Page played in other Williams plays and films) of a woman whose mousiness and lack of pulchritude disappointed her parents and who is painfully aware of that she was “saved from spinsterdom” without much love.

I think that Lennart and Hill did an excellent job of taking the play out from its one set, of showing some of what the stage George and Isabel tell, of getting Dorothea onscreen more and much earlier than she gets onstage, providing additional motivation for Dorothea’s father’s resentment (specifically, that he played the part of sh_t-eating son-in-law to get the business himself), keeping the best lines, and pruning dull patches from the play. Paul Vogel’s black-and-white cinematography is crisp with some deep-focus echoiong Gregg Toland’s (in “Little Foxes,” another play set in the South about greed and marital ambivalences).

Not much was censored (or self-censored): the suggestion of a homosexual neighbor, the words “horny” and “excited” (in the priapic sense). There is still a coded discussion of potency and impotency, and though the Production Code stipulated that married couples had to have twin beds, at the end each couple is together in one bed (not in the same room).

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(The meaning of the line I’ve taken for my review’s title, as explained by Ralph, applies widely in William’s work: “If you took the human heart out of the human body and put a pair of legs on it and told it to walk a straight line, it couldn’t do it. It never could pass the drunk test.”)

 

©2003, Stephen O. Murray

An offbeat Christmas movie

Directed by Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle, The Five Heartbeats), the 2000 tv (Showtime) movie based on Cheryl L. West’s play “Holiday Heart” features the always imposing Ving Rhames (Don King: Only in America, Bringing out the Dead) as a drag queen named Holiday Heart. The climax of the movie involves a Christmas present, but I can’t get into that without being guilty of plot spoiling.

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Instead, let’s start with the title character. The tall and muscular Rhames does not make a pretty female impersonator — contrast Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo, and Patrick Swayze in “To Wong Foo With Love, Julie Newmar.” There are strapping drag queens who can punch like Rhames, but I find it very hard to believe that he could make it as a female impersonator performer in a bar.

He does not live in drag, and also plays the organ in a black church in male attire. It is not advisable to dis’ hulking drag queens and Holiday does not take dissin’ in or out of drag.

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Flashbacks tell us that the Love of His Life was a closeted white cop who was killed. The “brother” police officers were not pleased by the lachrymose widow who showed up.

Holiday has the resiliency of drag queens “of a certain age,” and a big heart. It is opened wide by the precocious daughter, Niki (Jessika Quynn Reynolds) of an abused junkie, Wanda (Alfre Woodard). Holiday takes them both in after punching out the boyfriend who was beating on Wanda.

Wanda aspires to be a poet, though I didn’t see any evidence that she has any poetic talent. (But since when has that been an obstacle to wanting to be seen as a poet?) She cannot stay off heroin. For a time she lands a homophobic drug dealer , Silas (played by the very handsome and unarguably charismatic Mykelti Williamson, who played Bubba in “Forrest Gump”) who does not use the product. Of course, she steals some from him. Soon she is turning tricks and even is willing to go along with pimping her eleven-year-old daughter for drugs. (Niki runs away.)

Holiday cares deeply for Niki and is very hurt when Wanda accedes to Silas’s homophobia and bans Niki from visiting Holiday. When Wanda leaves, Silas returns to Niki, correctly calculating that Holiday loves Niki more than he despises Silas.

I find the swiftness of Silas’s transformation as difficult to credit as Holiday making money as a female impersonator. I want it to be possible or true, and the coparenting relationship between a black gay man and a black straight man is not one I have seen before.

And the Christmas present. Niki is used to Wanda selling or pawning Niki’s presents, including a bicycle. This Christmas is going to be different…

The production values are network-tv movie, but what matters are the performances. Taking a break from being noble, Woolard is heartbreakingly unable to be the good mother she wants to be. Jesika Reynolds is captivating as a wise-beyond-her-years mother of her undependable mother. Rhames is a tower of strength, accepting himself but well aware of the cruel world into which Wanda keeps falling. Williamson is (to repeat myself) charismatic. There’s also a very funny black male performer at the club where Holiday works who goes off to a farm with a white farmer. (I don’t recall his name, unfortunately.)

There is some measure of redemption in the movie, but Holiday is not an angel and cannot perform the angelic miracle of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the all-time champion Christmas redemption weepie. That movie flows more smoothly, too, than “Holiday Heart” does.

©2008, Stephen O. Murray

 

An obscure, likable Christmas movie

Growing up in Minnesota, going to school in Michigan and Ontario (among other places), I slogged through enough snow to last me at least a lifetime and miss it not at all. There is no real indication that the recent divorcéee, Zoe Jensen, played by Michael Learned (just finished with years of mothering on “The Waltons”) missed it in the 1980 tv movie “Christmas Without Snow,” either. She arrived in San Francisco, seemingly at the beginning of November, from Ohio, looking for a teaching job and settling for temporary office work (I’ve been there, done that early in my San Francisco life). And she joins a church choir that has just acquired the services of a retired choir master, Ephraim Adams, played by John Houseman (The Paper Chase). This motley crew is going to perform (the Christmas part) of “The Messiah.”

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That endeavor is quite ambitious for their limited talents, but especially in a Christmas movie, there can be no doubt that they WILL succeed. The suspense is about what additional obstacles will loom on the way. These include racism both directed to blacks and Asians within the choir.

Shot in San Francisco in the era when I moved here, with not only John Houseman and Beah Richards, but James Cromwell (whom I consider quasi-local on the basis of “Tales of the City” and seeing him at ACT in “The Invention of Love”) and featuring many excerpts from “The Messiah” (choruses of which I sang in both church choir and school choir as an adolescent, the baritone solos of which I sing along with on the Solti recording), I shoulda liked the movie more. Alas, there was little character development, the chorus rehearsals were painful to hear, the crisis of faith and the romance were yawn-inducing.

I like the orotund articulation of John Houseman and he got to show a lighter side (singing a ditty/gigue!) here. As the organist, composer Ed Bogas made an impression. As the soprano soloist Adams chooses, Daisietta Kim made a vocal impression. Primarily, it is the star, Ms. Learned, who did not make much of an impression, either in SF or on the phone back to Ohio with her son and her mother. This is writer-director John Korty’s fault as much as hers.

The movie is not going to displace any of those on my best Christmas movie list, but is a harmless addition to the Christmas movie genre and to the body of movies set in my hometown (San Francisco).

 

©2010, Stephen O. Murray

Good Christian Men (and one woman and one Jew) Rejoice!

or Stop the War, I Want to Get Off…

“Joyeux Noël” (Merry Christmas, 2005) is an especially apt “Christmas in July” movie, ’cause it looks like it might have been shot in July. Certainly not in December! The snow is not wet and breath is not visible. Moreover, no one seems to be cold—well, except for the corpses. And the ground is not frozen and is amenable to shovels. And the grave-digging does not have any effect on the snow around them.

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Also, how credible is it for all the Scotsmen and German to be Roman Catholic? (The statistic from the 2001 census was 16% of the Scottish population was Catholic; I doubt that the 1911 one was higher than a quarter).

Since I seem to be frontloading my review with what I had difficulty with, I don’t think that it was a good idea to start the movie with three vignettes in empty classrooms in Scotland, Germany, and France with a schoolboy in each orating invective about the enemy. The extent of hatred and wild propaganda is historically attested, but emphasizing the pervasive hostility drilled into the young makes the fraternization across the trenches on Christmas Eve (and Day) 1914 harder to credit.

Literally unimaginable to the commanders of each of the armies comfortably in the rear, Christmas Eve ceasefires occurred and most everything, including what seems to most preposterous detail in the movie, is based on attested events that happened in 1914-16. The bonus feature interview with writer/director Christian Carion is entirely taken up with these “Did ____ really happen?” to which the answer is “Oui.”

Carion relates that the incidents of Christmas Eve fraternization invariably began with Germans singing “Stille nächt” (Silent Night) and always including co-operation of burying the dead frozen in No Man’s Land.

In the movie, set is Alsace, it is an opera tenor Nikolaus Sprink, (Benno Furmann lip-synching Rolando Villazón none too well ) who sings the archetypal German carol. From across the way, a priest turned medic who also plays bagpipe, Palmer (Gary Lewis), takes up the melody and is joined by three other bagpipers. He then takes the initiative with “Adestes Fidelis” (O Come All Ye Faithful). Soon the champagne is flowing. Sprink’s wife, a Danish soprano (Gary Lewis) sings after the Latin mass.

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The only explicitly identified non-Catholic is the front-line German commander (Daniel Bruhl, who reminds me of Omar Sharif ca. “Dr. Zhivago”; the Catalán actor played the Polish violinist in “Ladies in Lavender” looking less robust, and the scrambling dutiful East Berlin son in “Goodbye Lenin”), Lt. Horstmayer, is Jewish. The Scottish lieutenant (Dany Boob) precedes the French one, Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Caret), to the conference that establishes the cease-fire. He is the one with the most backstory, not least that his father is a general.

I expected to resist the message of peace and good will in the midst of war and hatred and the slow start and not especially miserable trench life bolstered my resistance, but the peculiarity of what happened and the development of the combatant officers melted my resistance away. The war continued for another 47 months, but hostilities were suspended briefly by those on the lines: a Christmas miracle of sorts. The movie shows the soldiers who have been in the trenches realize that those a hundred meters or so across the way have more in common with them than civilians or the generals safely in the rear do.

BTW, Carion says that in including a speech that was given by an English bishop (played in the movie by Ian Richardson) he toned it down and relates what he cut from the “God is on our side” sermon.

There is some symmetry in invective-spewing by those who had never been in the trenches at the start and finish of the movie, but I still think the opening triptych is unnecessary and slows the movie down. The bishop’s sermon at the end to fresh troops fits better, because the experience of a priest subordinate to him is central to the movie.

©2009, Stephen O. Murray