An Education (2009)

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If people die the moment that they graduate, then surely it’s the things we do beforehand that count.  In early Sixties London, Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) is a teen with a bright future; she’s smart and pretty and her parents (Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina) want a good life for her so encourage her aspirations of attending Oxford University.  But when David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming but much older suitor, motors into her life in a shiny maroon Bristol, Jenny gets a taste of adult life that she won’t soon forget and it puts everything she’s been working for in jeopardy… Nick Hornby adapted the memoir of Lynn Barber, that acerbic Times columnist, who revealed the shocker of her youth:  her underage romance with a colleague of Peter Rachman, the slum landlord.  David tells Jenny the ‘stats’ he and his mate Danny (Dominic Cooper) haunt are the little old ladies who move out of their flats and sell them for half nothing once the guys move coloureds in next door. She’s just wise enough not to be wholly shocked. She loves everything French and sings Juliet Greco songs and colludes with David in deceiving her parents so that she can lose her virginity to him in Paris.  The beauty of the screenplay is its deadpan humour: she marvels after that episode that all those love songs and poems are written about something that doesn’t last that long. It’s this oblique commentary that saves it from becoming sordid. Her friendship with Helen (Rosamund Pike), Danny’s  gloriously dim but kind and beautiful girlfriend, provides some of the wonderfully observed high points but Jenny conveniently ignores all the signs that something is wrong with this perfect picture. The concerned English teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) who acts as the conscience of the piece turns out to be a mentor of sorts in a stirring coming of age story that is a far from sentimental education. Emma Thompson as the anti-semitic headmistress is a piece of work – she expels Jenny when she learns she’s engaged to a Jew. It’s beautifully handled and performed and London looks just as it should, courtesy of John de Borman’s cinematography. Directed by Lone Scherfig.

Darkest Hour (2017)

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Here’s to not buggering it up.  May 1940. After the Chamberlain debacle Britain must find a new Prime Minister. Within days of becoming the country’s leader, an aged Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) must face one of his most turbulent and defining trials: exploring a negotiated peace treaty with Nazi Germany which Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) demands; or standing firm to fight for the ideals, liberty and freedom of a nation. As the unstoppable Nazi forces roll across Western Europe, troops at Dunkirk are surrounded and the threat of invasion is imminent, with an unprepared public, a sceptical King, and his own party plotting against him, all the while dealing with a new typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) who is shocked to tears by the old man’s abruptness at their first meeting – in his bedroom. Supported by steadfast wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Sir Anthony Eden (Samuel West) in Parliament, Churchill must withstand his darkest hour, rally a nation and change the course of world history just as Hitler is jackbooting across the Continent … The right words won’t come. I can’t think of another portrait of Englishness which engages so directly with speech in all its iterations – impeded, strangulated, idiomatic, and ultimately, political. In a supremely ironic scene Churchill deals at one of their weekly meetings with the King (Ben Mendelsohn) – a man with a famous problem speaking – who admits to being wary of him. Everyone has been since Gallipoli, admits Churchill. He discusses his background. His mother was a glamorous woman who loved too widely. His father? Like God – busy elsewhere.  Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is gripping, fleet and witty, understated and wry, bloated and commanding, subtle and aggressive.  It’s also about how people move:  Churchill strides purposefully;  Londoners use the bus and the Tube;  the troops have to be evacuated and the Panzers diverted. Joe Wright’s directing may at times be compensating for the linguistic origins of this film or even trying to disguise its orientation with diverting camerawork and trickery but it doesn’t detract from its mesmerising subject. It may not always be factual but it’s true. And Oldman is superb. He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

The Constant Gardener (2005)

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This is one we can save.  Assigned to a new post, reserved British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) relocates to Kenya with his new wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an activist for social justice. She is engaged on a hunt for the people behind a Big Pharma test of a dangerous AIDS drug being conducted on expendable local TB sufferers.  Her own child is born dead in an African hospital and a young girl in a neighbouring bed dies after taking the drug. When Tessa is found murdered out in the wilderness, circumstances point to her friend, Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), who has been agitating for the truth with her, but it is soon clear that he’s not the killer. Grief-stricken and angry, Justin sets out to uncover who is responsible for Tessa’s murder and in the process, he unearths some disturbing revelations – including that some of his cohorts in Government might be behind it. He also really discovers the woman he married … John le Carré is a remarkable novelist:  for five decades he has been writing books that point the finger through the prism of genre and in the Noughties he decided to take aim at the self-appointed God-like pharmaceutical companies that dominate so much of contemporary existence – and survival – and the countries whose internecine deals allow them to kill their own at will. Jeffrey Caine does a great job at filleting the story so it’s clear who the bad guys are – there are degrees of grotesquery here and it’s certainly not kind on African savagery either. A horrifying tale of corruption that, knowing its author, is all too true. Terrifically performed by the leads with good support from Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Huston. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. No drug company does something for nothing.

Incredibles 2 (2018)

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I am using technology to make people lose faith in technology. Helen Parr/Elastigirl (voice of Holly Hunter) is in the spotlight after being hired to re-popularise superheroes for the company DevTech run by Winston Deavor (voice of Bob Odenkirk) with techo savvy provided by his genius sister Evelyn (voice of Catherine Keener).  That leaves Bob (voice of Craig T. Nelson) at home with teenage Violet (voice of Sarah Vowell) who can turn invisible and little brother Dash (voice of Huck Milner) who can move like lightning to navigate the day-to-day heroics of normal life as a house husband. It’s a tough transition for everyone, made tougher by the fact that the family is still unaware of baby Jack-Jack’s (Eli Fucile) emerging superpowers which an unfortunate raccoon discovers first. When an anonymous villain hatches a brilliant and dangerous plot enslaving the planet to the will of the Screenslaver, the family and Lucius/Frozone (voice of Samuel L. Jackson) must find a way to work together again which is easier said than done with Mom being deviated from the original plan to fight crime by the villain whose authoritarian desires are worse than anyone can imagine … They may be retro-future styled (Dementia 13 is playing at the cinema) but the Incredible family are dealing with some twenty-first century issues particularly the use of entertainment devices to divert attention away from what’s really important. They’ve been away for a long time but their return to the summer blockbuster season is welcome even if like most animations it’s probably twenty minutes too long.  It arrives in an arena vastly overpopulated by superhero movies albeit it steers its own way through different issues than those driving the Marvel universe or the dark-hearted DC line. There are some highly amusing sequences especially with Jack-Jack who has such great abilities even designer Edna Mode (voice of writer/director Brad Bird) doesn’t mind doing some babysitting. The warning about technology comes in a package that is itself the product of huge cinematic developments on small screens since the first Pixar film came out 14 years ago – how ironic! The action scenes are a blast. Very entertaining and a lot funnier than the average animated sequel. I hate superheroes and I renounce them!

 

Psyche 59 (1964)

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It’s the welfare state. Once they nationalised sex people began to lose interest.  Allison Crawford (Patricia Neal) lost her sight in an accident at her home when she was about to give birth. Married to businessman Eric (Curt Jurgens) she is disturbed when he declares her ravishing younger sister Robin (Samantha Eggar) is not welcome at their house that summer following her divorce in America. However it’s too late, she is arriving imminently. At lunch with Robin, Allison tells her that doctors insist her blindness is psychologically induced but she has no memory of the events leading up to the incident, so her condition persists as ‘hysterical blindness’. Robin pursues a relationship with Eric’s employee Paul (Ian Bannen) but a long-buried memory of Eric’s adultery emerges for Allison as the sisters go to their grandmother’s (Beatrix Lehmann) house in the country with Allison’s young daughters, one of whom she has never seen. When Eric and Paul join them there are terrible tensions and Robin acts out and causes an accident that prompts the return of Allison’s vision – a fact that she keeps to herself… Adapted by Julian Halevy (aka blacklisted writer Julian Zimet) from the novel Psyche 63 by Françoise des Ligneris this is a little-seen melodrama that is worth checking out. The violence of the emotions is what is so striking, reflected in some shot compositions in a film that is a psychological drama but operates like a suspense thriller.  The mystery of Allison’s blindness is front and centre and her grandmother’s obsession with horoscopes guides some of the action. How Allison’s senses – particularly auditory – are heightened is compounded by the significance of objects and her perception of people’s conduct. The way her unconscious knowledge of the affair conducted under her nose is unravelled is fascinating:  she is never fully paranoid but the little teasers of other people’s behaviour fit in with what she knows in her heart to be true. Eggar and Neal are very good as the chalk and cheese sisters – Eggar in particular is a revelation as the screwed-up good time girl determined to taunt Jurgens – and the penultimate scene with Jurgens is quite jaw-dropping. Directed with real verve and distinction by Alexander Singer, who is responsible for the wonderful cult entries A Cold Wind in August and Glass Houses, but worked primarily in TV. There’s some terrific photography by Walter Lassally.

The Verdict (1982)

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Sometimes people can surprise you.  Sometimes people have a great capacity to hear the truth.  Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a lawyer. Or he was. He’s a washed up alcoholic ambulance chaser who’s reduced to scouring the obits for clientele. When former partner Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) puts a straightforward medical negligence case his way, he’s inclined to take the settlement from the Archdiocese of Boston whose hospital doctors anaesthetised a pregnant woman into a coma four years earlier. Her sister and brother-in-law have been devastated. Then he makes the mistake of visiting her and his humanity is reawakened … David Mamet adapted the novel by Barry Reed and it’s as much a character study as a legal thriller but it’s all that too. However it has a rare quality – elegance and even eloquence, all the while hitting the generic markers. Polanski says films are made up of moments and we have a raft of them here. The moment when Galvin’s Polaroid of his client is developing in front of her comatose vegetative body is haunting:  it’s when he rediscovers his own dignity while bearing witness to her lack of it entirely. When the biased judge (Milo O’Shea) tries to dissuade him from taking the case, clearly on the side of Ed Concannon (James Mason), the attorney for the Catholic Church of whom Mickey declares, He’s a good man?  He’s the Prince of fucking Darkness! And we know this of course because we’ve all seen Salem’s Lot. When Concannon removes his coat from the judge’s armoire we have the proof that the judiciary is corrupt. It’s subtle but keen social signalling, he’s a bagman for the boys down town, as Frank realises. Frank is tempted by a wonderfully hooded divorced woman Laura (Charlotte Rampling) who just happens to turn up in his favourite Boston watering hole. We sense she’s no good but she’s an alcoholic too and her codependency draws us in. And seventy minutes into this well-structured exposition she triggers Frank’s turnaround: I can’t invest in failure any more. Frank is loaded up on bad witnesses but one is missing and it’s his last minute journey that turns into a dark night of the soul as well as a time of enlightenment.  Mamet’s then wife Lindsay Crouse is brilliant as a nurse scorned.  Frank’s exhausted closing to the jury is riveting. We become tired of hearing more lies. We become dead. But director Sidney Lumet uses silence as brilliantly as dialogue. Look at the way he shoots the NYC street scene between Mickey and Frank when Mickey has something terrible to tell him. Masterful. Frank’s hungover mornings on the couch, his afternoons on arcade games, his evenings alone with the bottle, are as significant to this narrative as his defeatist courtroom attitude.  This is one of Newman’s greatest performances – he allows that absurdly handsome face to look tired, the rightful appearance for an old soak – but it’s also a great portrait of the Catholic Church as a corrupt corporation and a reminder to never give up on those who do not have a voice. A wonderful film about adults coping in a mire of payoffs and professional malpractice and personal failure.

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

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Talk about something cool, like food or clothes or Joan Didion!  Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) goes nuts at her friend’s wedding to which she hasn’t been invited and pepper sprays her.  Thing is, the bride isn’t her friend, she’s someone Ingrid follows on Instagram.  It lands her in a mental hospital. She idolises social media star and Instagram ‘influencer’ Taylor Sloane  (Elizabeth Olsen) to the point that she reckons all those ‘likes’ constitute an invitation to her to ingratiate herself with the LA-based narcissist and moves there with money her late mom has bequeathed and promptly kidnaps the woman’s dog so she can claim the reward and ‘friend’ her in real life. Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is a technophobic artist whose work Taylor gushes over but he seems nice underneath all the boho-chic So-Cal lifestyle. Ingrid makes his only sale. Ingrid’s neighbour Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a wannabe screenwriter obsessed with Batman whom she seduces in order to smooth her way socially with Taylor’s gang. Everything seems to go swimmingly until Taylor’s druggie brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) turns up and figures out Ingrid’s game.  He blackmails her and she has to come up with a superhero-inspired solution to his threat to reveal her stalking to his sister  …  Co-written by David Branson Smith with director Matt Spicer, which makes me ponder once again why it is that sometimes men are better than women at exploiting the vagaries of female friendship (read:  rivalry) even if it winds up in a rather violent and cataclysmic denouement – with a twist. Well Ingrid is mentally ill, after all and Nicky knows she has Single White Femaled Taylor. This is smart and funny and topical and gets under your skin about what it is to be popular and the nature of contemporary life while retaining a caustic perspective. Performed with gusto by the principals and produced by the unstoppable Plaza who totally gets why reality is being subverted and image is everything. (Maybe that’s why she has 1.6 million followers on Instagram.) This is what happens when your followers actually follow you. Message:  don’t live on your phone, there’s more to life than avocado and, as we are all branding our lives now, society is experiencing an existential crisis. Sheesh …

She Played With Fire (1957)

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Aka Fortune is a Woman.  I don’t suppose she’ll stay a widow very long.  Insurance detective Oliver Branwell (Jack Hawkins) uncovers a shifty art dealer’s ingenious scheme but is unable to do anything about it because the crook Tracey Moreton (Dennis Price) has married the investigator’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Arlene Dahl) and he fears that she may be involved. The detective’s dilemma continues until the dealer gets careless one day and Branwell wonders if Sarah has anything to do with a series of arson attacks when he starts being blackmailed …  With a screenplay by director Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder and Val Valentine, working from a novel by Winston (Poldark) Graham, a splendid cast (including Greta Gynt, Bernard Miles, Ian Hunter and Christopher Lee!) and a great setting, you know you’re in for a good if complex noirish melodrama. Why let a little fraud get in the way of romance? Would you believe the preternaturally beautiful Arlene Dahl capable of murder? She’d been quite naughty in the previous year’s colour noir Slightly Scarlet, so you never know. Watch and wait … with a terrific score by William Alwyn.

The Man Who Never Was (1956)

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If we can get Gerry to move one weapon – a battery or even a gun – it’s going to save a lot of lives.  In 1943 the Allies are preparing to invade Sicily during World War II and British naval intelligence agent Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) hatches a cunning plan to fool Germany into believing the Allies’ true target is Greece. Concocting a fictitious British officer ‘Major William Martin’, with an unwitting patriot put on ice in a London mortuary, Montagu gathers false top-secret documents and personal letters to plant upon a corpse that will wash ashore in Spain at Huelva where the local German spy will presumably investigate his authenticity and the neutral Spanish Government share the documents with the Abwehr. But the investigations of a German undercover agent Irishman Patrick O’Reilly (Stephen Boyd) in London could potentially expose the fraud and scupper the landing in Sicily … Sensitive to a fault, this depiction of the true-life British WW2 scam known as Operation Mincemeat is wonderfully written by Nigel Balchin (adapted from Montagu’s book), persuasively performed by a terrific cast and crisply directed by Ronald Neame. This particular plan was to prove a turning point in the war and it was (Ripley’s here) based on the Trout memo of 1939 written by Rear Admiral John Godfrey and his right-hand man a certain Lt. Commander Ian Fleming.  The scenes with the father of the unknowing volunteer and the disposal of his body in the Mediterannean are treated with dignity.  Gloria Grahame’s performance as the lovelorn flatmate of secretary Pam (Josephine Griffin) is striking and the scene when O’Reilly calls on the women to verify the minutiae of the non-existent Martin’s life is unbelievably tense. It didn’t quite happen that way because the British had controlled the German spy network through the Double-Cross System, a fact that was not made public at the time this was made. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant story efficiently told,  also documented in columnist Ben MacIntyre’s book Operation Mincemeat which I heartily recommend. Watch for Joan Hickson (TV’s Miss Marple) as O’Reilly’s landlady and Cyril Cusack as the taxi driver/spy. Montagu himself appears uncredited as an Air Vice Marshal and a certain Winston Churchill appears in voice only!