Times Square (1980)

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We are having our own renaissance. We don’t need anti-depressants, we need your understanding. Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson) is a Brooklyn runaway and street musician constantly hassled by the New York City cops and when she fakes a fit they dispatch her to a psych ward for some scans because there doesn’t seem to be anything really wrong with her. Pam Pearl (Trini Alvarado) is a dreamy kid who wants to escape her overbearing politico father (Peter Coffield) the wonder boy at the mayor’s office and  she writes to a late night DJ Johnny Laguardia (Tim Curry) as Zombie Girl. She winds up in the same hospital room as Nicky and they form an uneasy friendship. Nicky is convinced that Pam’s poems could help her with her music and they run away, taking refuge in an abandoned warehouse on the Hudson and working at a strip club (with their clothes on). Nicky writes music and their story as The Sleez Sisters is covered by Johnny as they grow an army of teen girl fans … A new iconoclast has come to save us – it’s The Sleez Sisters! A Thelma and Louise for teens, this is the soundtrack of my young life – starting with Roxy Music’s Same Old Scene and featuring everything from Gary Numan’s Down in the Park to Patti Smith’s Pissing in the Street, it’s a hugely sympathetic, fascinating time capsule of the Times Square Renaissance when it was apparently safe to be a girl on the street and Hard Times, Oklahoma Crude and The Onion Field were playing in the local fleapit. There is a fairytale fantasy quality to the setting and this mismatched pair’s adventure as they tear through the city and recognise each other’s characters as they truly are – I’m brave, you’re pretty, declares Nicky. She is so on it, it’s not true. And she says what everyone feels when they’re young:  I don’t expect to live past twenty-one that’s why I’ve gotta jam it all in now. Her Jaggeresque affect is emphasised on several levels – her appearance, her cockiness, and the line, This is for Brian Jones and all the dinosaurs that disappeared as well as the blond guitarist who backs her onstage. Johnson gives a towering performance as the husky-voiced freak destined to be a frontwoman in a band; and Alvarado is immensely appealing as the rich girl who needs to break free; while Curry is definitely the sideshow, offering pithy comments as he narrates their runaway journey with all the astonishment and empathy he can muster as someone keen to up his 4AM listenership as well as feeling some adult concern for a troubled starstruck kid who’s probably off her meds. When the girls have got what they need from each other their response to the schism is radically different and it’s moving.  They are both artists seeking an outlet for their expressivity but feel the limits of their age – 16 and 13 respectively. When they break free, you feel nothing will ever stop them – they are so brave in comparison with the adults who surround them. There is a father-daughter issue in the film and that scene of Aristotelian recognition when David sees Pam in the Cleo Club could have been horrible but it works okay.  Irony is writ large in the humorous use of I Wanna Be Sedated banging from the boombox Nicky totes around the hospital prior to the girls’ escape. There are lots of incidental pleasures in this prototypical essay on the culture wars – Elizabeth Pena in the opening scene; trying to spot author Billy Mernit as one of the band The Blondells (he’s written a great book on Hollywood romcoms); figuring out that the birthdate for Alvarado’s character is the actress’s own (it’s on the bus advert). And let’s not overstate the impact of the best soundtrack of any film of the Eighties, produced by David Johansen, who duets with Johnson. The Manic Street Preachers covered her song, Damn Dog. What a talent Johnson was but the producer Robert Stigwood who apparently promised much for her did not turn up the goods and she has completely disappeared off our radar. Written by the film critic, songwriter and King of Marvin Gardens scribe Jacob Brackman from a story by the director who has done so much to popularise disc jockeys in cinema, Mr Allan Moyle: may he take a bow for being so good to his female fan club by making this because running away and living a punk rock life never seemed like a great idea until this came out with its energy and spit and fury.  What is he telling us? That the amazing music you listen to is never quite as important as the music you hear within. All together now, Spic nigger faggot bum – Your daughter is one!

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The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

Otley (1968)

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If they are the cowboys we’re supposed to be the Indians. Gerald Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) is a petty crook and wannabe antique dealer mistaken for a British secret agent when he sleeps on a couch belonging to his friend Eric Lambert (Edward Hardwicke) who’s really a suspected influence pedlar and document smuggler and who is found murdered while Otley wakes up two days on the runway at Gatwick. Otley trails double agents and double martinis at a posh cocktail party before discovering the villains have the cooperation of top government officials. He’s pegged to pose as a possible defector to oust the criminal mastermind who plans to sell stolen documents vital to national security to any enemy agent with the most money. British secret agent Imogen (Romy Schneider) first has Otley beaten up by her thugs before combining forces to go after the real villains …  I was last year’s winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Award for Lethargy. Directed by Dick Clement and co-written with his regular collaborator Ian La Frenais, this adaptation of a novel by Northern Irish author Martin Waddell is funny and characterful, laced with real wit and a bright British cast including James Bolam (from Clement and La Frenais’ The Likely Lads), Alan Badel as MI5 overlord Hadrian, James Villiers as the resurrecting spy Hendrickson, Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mum and you can see the shared mannerisms), Geoffrey Bayldon as a police superintendent, Freddie Jones as an epicene gallerist, the dulcet tones of radio DJs Pete Murray and Jimmy Young, and Leonard Rossiter – as a hitman! Great mileage is got out of the mistaken identity scenario, everyone changing sides constantly, with Courtenay wonderfully charismatic as the feckless cheeky chappie protagonist street trader in way over his head between teams of rival spies who believe everyone has a price, while Schneider has fun as the perky intelligence agent. With fantastic location shooting (by Austin Dempster), the action scenes are atypical of the spy genre although the golf course sequence will remind you of a certain Bond movie, a titles sequence in Portobello Road market shows uncooperative shoppers staring into the camera as it tracks back from Courtenay strolling among the stalls and shops, there’s a rumble among the houseboats at Cheyne Walk, a sequence at the Playboy Club and a disastrous driving test that turns into a nutty car chase. This comic approach to the wrong man spy thriller is uniquely entertaining. Damian Harris, Robin Askwith and Kenneth Cranham play kids and the music and theme song are by Stanley Myers. I’m Gerard Arthur Otley and I’ve had enough

Lucky (2017)

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The one thing worse than awkward silence is small talk. Every day in the desert town of Piru, California, 90-year old Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) does 21 reps of his 5 yoga exercises, drinks some milk, shouts Cunts! at the botanic garden that barred him for smoking and enters a diner owned by Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley) where he has a large milky coffee and does the crossword. Then he buys some smokes in Bibi’s (Bertila Damas) shop on his way back home, where he settles down to his TV quiz shows before heading to Elaine’s (Beth Grant), the local bar, where he chews the fat with a group of friends:  Howard (David Lynch) gets depressed about President Roosevelt, who, it transpires, is his tortoise,who outlasted Howard’s two wives and who’s disappeared; Paulie (James Darren) misses his late wife and Lucky reckons he is fortunate never to have married. Lucky falls over when he’s home alone (he’s always home alone) and winds up in hospital where the doctor Christian Kneedley (Ed Begley Jr) tells him he’s a medical wonder. The diner waitress Loretta (Yvonne Huff) calls to his house and they watch Liberace on TV and smoke grass and Lucky insinuates that he is homosexual and asks Loretta not to talk about it. At Elaine’s Howard is treated ingratiatingly by a lawyer Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston) he hired for end of life bequests who Lucky thinks is gaming his friend. Back at the diner he chats with Fred (Tom Skerritt) a tourist and fellow WW2 veteran and they share stories about the Philippines. At the birthday party of Bibi’s son, Lucky sings in Spanish and that evening finds his friends once again … All I can think is it’s a combination of genetic good luck and you’re one tough son of a bitch. Harry Dean Stanton was always old, or so it seemed. The first time we see Lucky outside it’s a conscious re-staging of that famous low angle medium close up from Paris, Texas. But now he’s thirty-five years older and it’s a different hat and he’s not on the move any longer, save for those few exercises on the floor of his house, and the furthest he walks is shuffling down the street of his small town for his unvarying daily routine. He’s an atheist looking at death and trying to figure out what matters. Every scene is detailed and deals with an aspect of philosophy, a preparedness for the next phase, set in motion by the definition of realism which Lucky finds in a dictionary when doing the crossword. It’s funny and humane and brought to life by effervescent performances from a range of actors you never dreamed of putting together, but here they are. Written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, this feels very elegiac but never depressing, more of a coming to terms with the inevitable, featuring some comic interludes which never intrude on the tone of the deep felt emotionality. Lynch has an extraordinary monologue about his tortoise that ends with the line: There are some thing in this universe that are bigger than all of us and that tortoise is one of them.  It’s a wonderfully humble moment and it crystallises the film’s central idea as well as reminding us what a lucky charm Stanton was for Lynch’s career. Those sunlit desert scenes are beautifully shot by Tim Suhrstedt while the songs are mostly by Elvis Kuehn but you’ll get a lump in your throat when you hear Johnny Cash singing Will Oldham’s I See a Darkness. Directed by veteran actor John Carroll Lynch, it ends on a shot of Lucky walking into the desert, sort of like President Roosevelt (the tortoise). A perfect conclusion to an incomparable career, this was the cherishable Stanton’s final film and he’s the leading man at last. I always thought that what we all agreed was what we were looking at

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

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Aka Phantom Ladies Over Paris. Usually, it started like this. When stage magician Céline (Juliet Berto) goes traipsing across a Parisian park, she unwittingly drops first a scarf, then other objects which librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) cannot help but pick up. So begins a fanciful and obsessive relationship between the two, which soon sees Céline sharing Julie’s apartment and each of them playfully switching identities in their daily lives. As they increasingly indulge their fantasies, they find themselves trying to rescue a young girl Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar) from a supposedly haunted house that Julie worked in and Céline lived next to as a child.  Now it appears to be filled with ghosts (Barbet Schroeder, Marie-France Pisier, Bulle Ogier) …So, my future is in the present.  One of the greatest films ever made, Jacques Rivette’s fragmented narrative of two feisty young women started with two stories by Henry James (The Other House;  The Romance of Certain Old Clothes), giving him a bit of a head start, then he liberally sprinkled some Alice in Wonderland into the mix, created a drama of identity, a rescue fantasy, a story about storytelling, a movie about the cinema, sometimes speeding up and sometimes slowing down, a fiction about fictional creation (because ‘to go boating’ means to take a trip), and came up with a fantasy that adult life could always be as good as your childhood dreams. This is a woman’s film in the very best sense that we can imagine and is of course the source of Desperately Seeking Susan. Devised by Rivette and the stars with input from Ogier and Pisier,and Eduardo de Gregorio, this is a remarkable film of disarming charm, once seen never forgotten, especially with its 194 minute running time. A female buddy film like no other. It doesn’t hurt to fall off the moon!

All Is True (2018)

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I’ve just bought a pension. I can’t die for at least 10 years or I’ll be ruined. It’s 1613, and Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground and he decides he will never write again. Devastated, he returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death 17 years earlier of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis) he struggles to mend the broken relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters, Hamnet’s twin sister, spirited spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappy Susanna (Lydia Wilson) who is married to a noxiously stern Puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). He is forced to examine his failings as an absent husband and father when 28-year old Judith finally gets involved with a suitor alleged to have impregnated another woman and Susanna is accused of adultery … A garden ain’t a play. Screenwriter Ben Elton has been wowing on the small screen with his very clever parody of Shakespeare in Upstart Crow but this is only occasionally in the same pantomimic vein albeit its nod/wink title (the original title for The Life of Henry VIII) toys with the idea that this is anything other than a confection of falsehoods and assumptions.  And it is a bit of a joke to start with – an old conqueror finally comes home and gets in the way of his wife and has the temerity to mess up the garden she has so carefully cultivated for the last 20 years. And then there are all those long country evenings when all you have is a candle for company. Irony is writ large here. At its heart a melancholy meditation on age, family and what you leave behind, Shakespeare is confronted with the long-hidden truth of his young son’s death, a boy whom he believed to have been greatly talented but who had actually been presenting the work of his twin, who was left unable to read and write, being but a girl. The discovery is poignant indeed. There’s a sonnet-off  (# 29) when Will is confronted with another truth – that the now elderly object of his affection Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) is not interested in him but appreciates his art. How wonderfully odd that two of the great contemporary exponents of the Bard are quoting him at each other. Anne’s feelings are nothing – when the poems were published (illegally, without Will’s consent), he never thought about her reputation or what people might say. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The bedrock of his entire life it seems has been other people and what they say – what was said of his father, what was said of him, and now, what is said about his daughters, both caught up in scandals of their own. He is a man for whom all truth is literally relative. Retirement is not easy and revelations about what happened at home when he was enjoying fame and adulation come as a shock to someone for whom all the world’s a stage and now his daughters are ruining the name he literally wrote out of disgrace to redeem his father’s blackguarding. Branagh is very good, prosthetics and all, capable of being hurt and amusing and rueful. The motifs are striking in a beautifully shot production – two fires dominate the visuals: the opening conflagration at the Globe caused by a misfiring cannon in a production co-written with John Fletcher; and the smaller one in the grate when Judith attempts to destroy what Hamnet transcribed – because Will needs to believe it was his dead son who wrote the poetry and she is guilty at being a gifted woman because he has such a low opinion of her. And Will loves the word on the page – when he sees his son’s name written in the funeral record in the local church his face comes to life. Anne chides him that when Hamnet died he was busy writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dench is wise and moving in the role of the much older wife protecting him from terrible knowledge. However the slow pace and ruminative setting, autumnal and somewhat bucolic, hide the sad drama within. It’s stunningly shot by Zac Nicholson, not just allowing us to see the wide open spaces juxtaposed with interestingly shot and lit interiors – so many dimpled with pure candlelight as the sole source – but telling us that there is always a bigger story and hinting where to look. There are funny scenes with the ridiculously ingratiating local MP Sir Thomas Lucey (Alex Macqueen) and some wild put-downs. There’s even a jibe about authorship and how it was that a man who owns up to having lived such a little life could have ended up knowing everything. Lest we forget, Elton is the best Elizabethan historian we have, when you think about Blackadder. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is very lovely. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Nothing is ever true

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Fear in the Night (1972)

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Aka Dynasty of Fear/Honeymoon of Fear. Your pretty little brand new wife.  The fragile wife Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson) of teacher Robert (Ralph Bates) is attacked in the bathroom of her boarding house by a man with a mechanical arm but nobody believes her and she is briefly institutionalised prior to his taking a job at a small prep school outside London run by Michael Carmichael (Peter Cushing) a mysterious figure whose wife Molly (Joan Collins) Peggy instantly dislikes. Soon Peggy identifies Carmichael’s arm from the earlier attack and left alone by Robert one evening takes out the shotgun to exact revenge when Michael is visiting her but for some reason he can’t be killed. When Robert returns a plot is revealed in a school that isn’t open at all  … I spilled something. The contours of this resemble another school thriller, the French classic  Les Diaboliques, which director (and writer/producer) Jimmy Sangster had already transposed into a Hammer film for Seth Holt in A Taste of Fear a decade earlier. The marital triangle contrived here with co-screenwriter Michael Syson is more straightforwardly adapted in this version, with the relentless pressure on Peggy like a time bomb waiting to go off in the audience as well in what is also an alternate take on Gaslight. The very ordinariness of the physical situation somehow makes it horribly plausible and Geeson’s torment is clarified in her impressively detailed performance. It’s a fantastic role for her but Collins doesn’t get enough to do (even as a trigger happy sculptress!) and never shares time with Cushing, her screen husband. There’s an excellent use of flashbacks and a wonderful plot twist. And there’s a shot of Cushing – when he’s shot! – that I’ll never forget. Never mind his arm, what about those spectacles … I’ll find Michael. And if he’s still alive I’ll kill him!

The Hired Hand (1971)

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You mean you ain’t gonna go to the coast? It’s the 1880s. After seven years wandering in the Southwest during which young travelling companion Griffen (Robert Pratt) is murdered for the hell of it in a small town run by corrupt sheriff McVey (Severn Darden), drifting cowboy Harry Collings (Peter Fonda) abandons his dream of going to California and seeing the Pacific and brings along his friend Arch Harris (Warren Oates) when he returns to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and ranch … I wasn’t ready, that’s all. With its dreamy opening, unconventional mid-section and leisurely approach, debut director Peter Fonda was given free rein (following Easy Rider) with this Alan Sharp screenplay, Vilmos Zsigmond supplying beautifully naturalistic imagery edited into something of an occasionally hallucinatory montage by Frank Mazzola. The performances are a wonder. We are more accustomed to seeing Oates directed by Sam Peckinpah and here he is sympathetic and wise, a diametric opposite to the innocence embodied by the tragic Griffen. Then he unwittingly forms part of a new triangle with his friend’s wife. The marvellous Bloom meanwhile hints at a depth of narrative that doesn’t always reveal itself on the simple surface. She’s a frontier woman who didn’t replace a dog that’s run off – but she has herself had relations with other men during her husband’s walkabout, crudely describing the experiences as “like two dogs.” She’s one tough cookie and Bloom herself (Medium Cool, High Plains Drifter, National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Last Temptation of Christ) was a hell of an actress: she died in January of this year. The idea of a marriage being revisited is tested not just in the situation but in the visuals, as this younger husband has finally become the man his older wife needed, quietly reinventing their relationship. He’s what you went looking for. It’s not just about romance, it’s also about friendship and loyalty, travelling, hanging out, being – no doubt virtues of hippiedom mostly lost to us in the chatter of contemporary life, albeit this trip can be cut short by sudden violence, a constant trope in the most American of genres. The songs by Bruce Langhorne assist the mystical, even spiritual feel, enhanced by the cutting out of 20 minutes of more explanatory story, restored and then removed again for the 2001 re-release by its still centre, Fonda himself, who understands that the film operates like meditation.  But the beginning, and the conclusion, the alpha and the omega, as it were, are disturbing, the spectre of uneasy death all-pervasive. It’s been building up a long while

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)

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The meek shall NOT inherit the earth. They can’t be trusted with it.  British archaeologist Professor Julian Fuchs (Andrew Keir) and his team bring the preserved mummy of Egyptian royal Queen Tera (with a severed hand) back from their latest expedition. Fuchs’ rival Corbeck (James Villiers) persuades the archaeologist’s daughter Margaret (Valerie Leon) to get the expedition members to hand over missing relics but each time one is handed over the person holding it dies because Margaret is possessed by Tera’s evil spirit since her father gave her a bejewelled ring from the tomb.  Her nightmares about the expedition seem have now come to life … The late great Chris Wicking adapted (more, or less) Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of the Seven Stars but was banned from the set by producer Howard Brandy and continued working with director Seth Holt in the evenings. Peter Cushing was supposed to play Fuchs but dropped out when his wife became seriously ill. Five weeks into shooting Holt died in the arms of a cast member. He was replaced by Hammer boss Michael Carreras who found that Holt’s work didn’t cut together. This extraordinary backstory (the mummy’s real revenge?!) to one of the best of that studio’s late films is incidental to what is a canny interpretation of Stoker making this modern story seem entirely plausible because of the realistic and sometimes ironic approach. Bond girl Leon is fantastic in the dual role of Margaret and the tragic Queen who turned to evil – both are sexy, of course and Keir does very well as her father. The atmosphere of dread is well sustained while there is some genuinely gruesome action. More than a curio and not quite the mother of all mummy movies but pretty close.