Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Black Narcissus, Thieves Like Us, The Bad News Bears (1976)

Black Narcissus, by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947

Who likes erotic nun movies? Ew, not that kind of erotic nun movie! The kind that's fit for public screening. No nudity or sex, just tension that you can cut with a knife. Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus is about as good as an erotic nun movie can get. Deborah Kerr stars as Sister Clodagh, assigned to lead a group of nuns in the Himalayas, sent there to educate, care for, and convert the locals. Clodagh soon must try to keep it together when she meets and is attracted to Dean, a local Englishman who helps them out, and the exotic, sensual environment begins getting the best of her and her fellow nuns.

The duo of Powell and Pressburger are a team I am only just now discovering. I had seen a couple of Powell's solo films already (Thief of Bagdad and Peeping Tom), but Black Narcissus is the first product of this famous collaboration that I have watched. Wow, it's quite a film. The lush color cinematography is beautiful. I loved the movie's slow shift in tone into a psychological thriller as the temptation gets to be too much for one of Clodagh's nuns, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). Most movies about nuns have only one hot nun. Black Narcissus has two, so you know there's going to be trouble.

All joking aside, Black Narcissus is an incredible film. It actually reminds me a little bit of Picnic at Hanging Rock, with that unsettling feeling that your very surroundings are overpowering you. I wonder if Peter Weir was thinking of this movie at all when he made Hanging Rock. I can't wait to see more of Powell and Pressburger's work, especially if it is anywhere near as rich and powerful as this.

Thieves Like Us, by Robert Altman, 1974

Nobody made them like Altman did in the 1970's, did they? Thieves Like Us is about a trio of Mississippi bank robbers in the 1930's. Kieth Carradine stars as Bowie, the youngest of the three, and the movie focuses on Bowie's doomed romance with Keechie (Shelley Duvall), the girl he holes up with.

Thieves Like us is filled with all the stylistic flourishes you would expect from Altman. The overlapping, naturalistic dialogue, the searching cameras, the little visual and aural puns and hints sprinkled into the background. I must say, though, I didn't think this was Altman's best work of the era. It's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but I didn't think it was quite as subversive as McCabe & Mrs. Miller or as nutso as The Long Goodbye. Still, it's a 70's Robert Altman film, and that makes it automatically worth watching, especially if you're already an Altman fan.

The Bad News Bears, by Michael Ritchie, 1976

This is one of those movies I fudged my rules a little bit with. I usually only review movies I'd never seen before, but I make an occasional exception for movies I haven't seen since I was a kid and don't remember very well. I do remember liking it when I was young, though.

The Bad News Bears holds up wonderfully. The story of Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), a washed up drunk pool cleaner who used to play for the minor leagues, who agrees to coach the most ragtag team of Little Leaguers ever. After placing a couple ringers on the team, including his estranged daughter (Tatum O'Neal, fresh off of her Paper Moon win) they begin to turn around, and Buttermaker gets caught up in the thrill of winning, before realizing that winning isn't the only thing that matters.

I love how in the 70's, even kids movies were edgy. This movie has kids smoking, drinking, swearing, saying racial slurs, etc., and it has Matthau drinking and driving and generally mistreating a bunch of kids. Yet, it's still hilarious, full of heart, and has a good positive message at the end. I also liked the simplicity and straightforwardness of the story. It's incredibly hard to tell a story this clearly and without any added distractions. Just now looking it up, I see that the screenplay is by Bill Lancaster, writer of John Carpenter's similarly uncluttered (and most excellent) The Thing.

The Bad News Bears stands the test of time, and resonates as well. I couldn't help but have flashbacks to how horrible I was at team sports as a kid, how much I wanted to be included, and how it ultimately led to me not caring about sports at all. I think I turned out somewhat OK in the end, but it would have been nice to have caught the fly ball like that Lupus kid did just once.

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