The L-Shaped Room (1962)

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Everybody tells me how to get rid of it. Nobody tells me how to have it. 27-year old French woman Jane Fosset (Leslie Caron) moves into a seedy Ladbroke Grove boarding house and gets to know the other residents who are a motley crew of waifs and strays.  Toby (Tom Bell) is a lovelorn wannabe author;  Johnny (Brock Peters) is a black jazz musician  who hears everything in her living quarters through a paper-thin dividing wall; Mavis (Cicely Courtneidge) is an old unemployed actress who has hidden her Lesbian tendencies;  Sonia (Patricia Phoenix) is an ageing prostitute who runs her business from her basement room. When Jane starts a relationship with Toby, Johnny tells him she’s pregnant – she’s been in two minds about whether to keep the result of her sexual initiation with an actor from whom she’s split and she realises she loves Toby as she didn’t love the father of this baby and his departure prompts a crisis … As a child I was always in mourning. The novels of Lynne Reid Banks were something of a talisman for me and I would imagine for many other adolescent girls – and this adaptation of her key work does it justice, rooted in the kitchen sink realist style of the era. Bryan Forbes adapts and directs with some startling compositions (courtesy of Douglas Slocombe). Caron is wonderfully touching as the French woman (originally English) impregnated by her first ever lover; and while Bell wasn’t entirely my image of the Jewish writer created by Banks, he is nonetheless impressive. You believe their tentative friendship that blossoms into something else while their dealings with third parties hover at their shoulders. The whole ensemble embody their roles with real feeling. How fascinating to see the legendary Phoenix (Coronation Street‘s Elsie Tanner) while her long-time legendary love Tony Booth has a bit part (‘Youth in the street’). Nanette Newman aka Mrs Forbes plays the new girl in the L-shaped room at the end. There’s a credible jazz score by John Barry as well as some nicely chosen Brahms to enliven a sensitively told story, so very nicely played and staged in a ghastly London run by slum landlords, a few years before certain of its ‘burbs began to swing and before either legal abortion or the Pill were available. If you haven’t read the author, then for goodness’ sake do. She’s great – a proper Angry Young Woman capable of utterly unsentimental sentences about profoundly moving experiences. Don’t fall in love with me. You don’t know me

 

 

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Widows (2018)

Widows

The best thing we have going for us is being who we are… no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.  When Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew of criminals are engulfed in flames during a botched job in Chicago, Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself owing hustler-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a couple of million dollars. Armed only with a notebook in which Harry detailed his past and future plans, Veronica teams up with the gang’s other widows – Linda (Michelle Rodriquez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and single mom Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to mount a robbery her husband was planning that could clear their debt and give them a new start. Meanwhile, an increasingly brutal election battle featuring Irish-American career politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his father Tom (Robert Duvall) emphasises the social problems of Chicago, raising the stakes for this ramshackle group’s first foray into crime…  I’m the only thing standing between you and a bullet in the head. Steve McQueen won the Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave, a relentlessly gruesome account of black American history, an astonishing achievement for a British visual artist never mind a black director. His genre impetus has hardly been on anyone’s radar but he was a fan of Lynda La Plante’s feisty women from the 1983 British TV series (set in London) and brings a lot of artistry to this slick feminist outing concerning itself as much with issues of poverty, domestic abuse and childcare as the unlikeliness of a heist led by women trying to pay back their criminal husbands’ debts following the conflagration that killed the men in a botched heist.  The backdrop which exists in the narrative courtesy of Farrell’s role is given huge expressivity through Sean Bobbitt’s widescreen camerawork, the issues of money and race and class and the sewer of Chicago politicking right there for all to see but of course that deflects from the main story even as it serves to amplify a theme of difficult intergenerational relationships.  This detailed texture is an expansive approach in an established genre which usually has a narrow focus but if ultimately it doesn’t fully engage in the manner which you’d wish, it’s probably due to the underwhelming adaptation by McQueen and Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn which doesn’t give the principals a lot to work with – a shame in the case of Davis, who works at it and has some great scenes with Neeson. Debicki comes off best because she has a character who goes through real development and lots of emotions as the narrative progresses – from abuse by mother and husband, through sugar baby, to independence. Good, but should have been a lot better, especially with that twist 75 minutes in. Criminals and cops are the same. They never bring their shit home

Le Bonheur (1965)

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Aka Happiness. Happiness is perhaps submission to the natural order. In suburban Paris, young joiner François (Jean-Claude Drouot) lives a very contented life with his dressmaker wife Thérèse (Claire Drouot) and their two small children. Despite his apparent satisfaction, François takes a mistress named Emilie (Marie-France Boyer) who works at the post office and he doesn’t feel the least bit of remorse for his philandering. He tells his wife and is astonished that she’s upset. While he is able to justify loving both women, the infidelity results in tragic real-life consequences I have enough joy for both of you. There is so much joy in this film with the flowers and food and babies and general air of happiness, intimate displays of sex (the central couple were married in real life) and sensuality abounding in this working class family. The juxtaposition of the romantic with the daily grind amid the bucolic – even idyllic – setting (ravishingly shot by Jean Rabier and Claude Beausoleil) and the crummy reality of a marriage betrayed, the ease with which one wife can be replaced with another, these are the stuff of life, the nasty realities with which Agnès Varda engaged and discoursed upon so supply and clearly. A cunning exploration of the callousness of men, designed to appear observational and non-judgmental in a blaze of beautiful colours and Mozart. A wolf in sheep’s clothing with an ending that made me gasp the first time I saw it. I am happy and free and you’re not my first man

Fighting With My Family (2019)

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Paige, I myself have come from a wrestling family too. I know exactly what it means to you. But don’t worry about being the next me. Be the first you.  Born into a tight-knit wrestling family, Paige Knight (Florence Pugh) and her brother Zak ‘Zodiak’ (Jack Lowden) are ecstatic when they get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try out for the WWE which would take them out of their low-achieving background with loving former thief father (Nick Frost) and ex-addict mum (Lena Headey) and an elder half-brother currently in prison. But when only Paige earns a spot in the competitive training programme led by Hutch (Vince Vaughn), she must leave her loved ones behind and face this new cutthroat world alone in Florida at the NXT training camp. Paige’s journey pushes her to dig deep and ultimately prove to the world that what makes her different is the very thing that can make her a star but back in smalltown England Zak spirals into a depression, confined to drab domesticity with a pregnant girlfriend and left to train local kids …  Dick me dead and bury me pregnant. As everyone knows, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson saw a documentary on British TV about a family of wrestlers from Norwich and thought it would be a good idea for a film so he produced this (and appears briefly) with actor/writer (The Office) Stephen Merchant on directing duties. There are no real insights into this faux sport – only an early argument over what fake versus fixed might mean. There is a certain rackety warmth and the central roles are underwritten yet any power the film might possess derives from the performances by Lowden and particularly Pugh, whose star continues to steadily rise. Pugh obviously has the meatier role as the character who gets the transformational arc, trying to be American and finally reverting to Gothic type (she’s inspired by a Charmed character);  Lowden has to man up to the consequences of extra-marital sex with his rather better class of girlfriend while his sister takes his dream away. It is their considerable charisma and the occasional humour that lifts this story above the fairly squalid origins – and the grim freakshows known as Reality TV whose ’emotional journey’ it apes. Quite why clips from the source documentary were shown during the end credits is anyone’s guess – rather undoing the whole point of the film.  You want some advice? Here’s The Rock’s advice: Shut your mouth! What you want? What you want? How about what The Rock wants? The Rock wants you to go out there, take no prisoners, have no regrets, have no fear! Lay it all out on the line! 

The Bible (1966)

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In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. The first 22 books of the Old Testament are dramatised in 5 main sequences:  Creation, narrated by God (John Huston);  Adam (Michael Parks) and Eve (Ulla Bergryd) meet and procreate;  Cain (Richard Harris) slays his brother Abel (Franco Nero);  Noah (Huston again) creates his ark for the animals and there’s a spectacular flood;  and Abraham’s (George C. Scott) story is recounted – his long life with the beautiful but barren Sarah (Ava Gardner), the conceiving of his only son Isaac, with Sarah’s maid, and his calling by God to make a sacrifice. There are two shorter sections, one recounting the building of the Tower of Babel;  and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah… Am I my brother’s keeper?  An awesome epic of tension-free tedium that is quite literally beyond belief with some (few) honourable exceptions:  director Huston himself, who also narrates this Italian-American co-production and makes for an amiable animal lover;  the lustrous Gardner;  O’Toole in his brief appearance as the Three Angels; and the final sequence in which Abraham comes closerthanthis to putting his only son Isaac on the BBQ instead of the more conventional sacrificial ram. Nero was the film’s still photographer until Huston spotted him and started his screen career. Adam and Eve’s nude frolics were choreographed by Katharine Dunham. Huston’s girlfriend Zoe Sallis features as Hagar. Notable for a score by Toshiro Mayuzumi with uncredited work by Ennio Morricone, this will have you reaching for your own traveller’s friend – it’s light work after this. The screenplay, on the other hand, is credited to Christopher Fry although Orson Welles and Mario Soldati also contributed something or other. There is nothing that He may not ask of thee?

The Victors (1963)

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The whole world is full of love. A group of American soldiers manages to survive over the course of World War II, from the Battle of Britain, moving up through Sicily and France and Germany to the fall of the Third Reich and a station in occupied Berlin in the war’s aftermath. Along the way, a number of unfortunate incidents occur:  white soldiers violently abuse fellow black soldiers, a deserter is executed on New Year’s Eve and a sergeant takes advantage of a shell-shocked French woman. War is hell for the winners and the losers in this episodic meditation on the horrors that exist on and off the field of battle… Have a good time tonight? Find someone to rape? Irony is writ large in this film – starting with the title. These guys victors? God help us all. What they do to a little dog following Peter Fonda as he leaves camp doesn’t bear a second viewing. They are racist, vicious, narcissistic thugs. But hey, they’re ours! That’s really the point of this anti-war anti-blockbuster from auteur Carl Foreman, the formerly blacklisted screenwriter who gave us the joyous Guns of Navarone. So we see Vince Edwards make nice with young Italian mother Rosanna Schiaffino, Eli Wallach generously gives widowed Jeanne Moreau a break from the bombs in exchange for food, George Hamilton falls for the duplicitous musician Romy Schneider and George Peppard has an unpleasant encounter with Melina Mercouri. There is a bitter conclusion in the post-war experience as drunken Russian soldier Albert Finney in a very showy role exercises the ultimate droit de seigneur of the fatal variety. Interspersed with newsreels and taking us through the entire WW2 as a series of personal vignettes, we are oddly removed from any kind of empathy because these really are not nice guys. We get it:  nobody’s a winner. The snow field execution while Sinatra croons Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is duly horrifying. Adapted by Foreman from the novel The Human Kind by Alexander Baron who himself served in Sicily, Normandy and Belgium through D-Day.  Directed by Carl Foreman and shot by the great Christopher Challis.  I don’t think I can ever be frightened again

 

Mad To Be Normal (2017)

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I’ve seen what families do to each other. During the 1960s, renegade Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing (David Tennant) courts controversy within his profession for his approach to the field, and for the unique community he creates for his patients to inhabit at Kingsley Hall, the ‘anti-asylum’ Laing established in the east of London where group therapy replaces mind-deadening medicine. He carries out experiments using LSD to repair the trauma endured by Sydney Kotok (Michael Gambon) and believes in the self-healing practice of metanoia, which arouses the ire of his colleagues, while in his private life he engages in a relationship with American student Angie Wood (Elisabeth Moss)…  You can’t even tell me how it works. A psychedelic psychodrama about psychiatry? I’m in! Sort of. The charismatic Scot was a controversial and cult-ish figure at the best of times, latterly better known for his drunken TV appearances than the significance of his work in the community. The issues that always proliferate in biographical drama are important here – his romance with a student is a fiction and his daughter’s death from leukaemia is brought forward by ten years, contracting a lot of drama into a five year period, perhaps questionable decisions amplified by the importance of someone who wanted to demystify psychological illness as well as be kind to patients. What this lacks in budget (those cheap Sixties tropes!) is compensated for in big performances not least by Tennant, declaiming in his natural accent. Gambon and Moss are their usual reliable selves, with some nice character colours, while it’s good to see Byrne as shambling old Anglo-Irish gent Jim, on the other side of the psychiatrist’s couch for a change after his years playing a TV shrink. Whatever the shortcomings on the directing front, this is a fascinating portrait of a counterculture hero and a sympathetic insight into people who desperately need to be allowed to live independently, without all the noise. Written by first-time director (and Laing biographer) Robert Mullan and Tracy Moreton. She felt her true self was murdered

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister… and you murder your queen!  Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Catholic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne with the aim of also taking the English throne which is her birthright, guided by her adviser Bothwell (Martin Compston). However, Scotland and England fall under the rule of her cousin, the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Each young Queen beholds her ‘sister’ in fear and fascination. Mary has to deal with the ambitions of her bastard half-brother James Murray (James McArdle) and succumbs to the charms of the bisexual Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) in order to become a mother but his father (Brendan Coyle) has designs on power. Her reign attracts the hatred of Protestant reformer John Knox (David Tennant) who stirs up the natives against their tolerant Catholic ruler and calls her a whore. Elizabeth’s adviser Henry Cecil (Guy Pearce) carries out her bid to assist in driving a civil war designed to remove Mary from the throne… Do not play into their hands. Our hatred is precisely what they hope for. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you. Adapted from John Guy’s biography by Beau Willimon, it may seem hasty to declare that despite its raft of historical inaccuracies this still has a lot to recommend it, even if its PC multiverse of many races and choose-your-own-perversion plays into the right-on millennial world rather than the well documented dour backdrop of sixteenth-century Scotland (things are ever thus there…). Willimon is of course responsible for Netflix’s House of Cards and knows his way around politics and other games of thrones so the focus on the women struggling against the counsel of conniving men drives the drama forward while the plotting literally gallops apace. With Tennant doing Knox as the Comical Ali of fundamentalist Protestantism the odds of us supporting the bastard English Queen are low to zero, despite the crosscutting suggesting links both emotional and physical between these young rivals. The Virgin Queen is in fact more in touch with the reality of both of their situations, surrounded by controlling men, as the fabricated meeting between them (a liberty also taken in the 1971 version) clarifies: she recognises that Mary’s beauty, bravery and motherhood are both her greatest assets and her deepest flaws and have led to her downfall. She herself is more man than woman, she declares – her reign has made her thus. Ronan plays Mary as a variation on Joan of Arc – a sharp military mind with a conscience as transparent as her pallor and bright blue eyes (albeit Willimon writes her as a feckless Marie Antoinette a lot of the time), while Robbie’s Queen is the one beset with the miseries of the pox and a devious court craven by her power. They are both tremendous but this is really Ronan’s show, as the title suggests. Pearce, Lowden and Compston are particularly good in their treacherous sideshows. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see two of the best young actresses in the world leading a film of such affecting performances.  The final contrasting shots of Mary’s meeting with destiny and Elizabeth’s costumes and cosmetics literally solidifying into a stony inhuman edifice linger in the mind.  Directed by Josie Rourke. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you

The Light Between Oceans (2016)

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You only have to forgive once. Shellshocked WW1 vet Tom (Michael Fassbender) gets a job as lighthouse keeper off the coast of Australia. On the mainland, he encounters the lively Isabel (Alicia Vikander) who proposes to him. She’s desperate to have a baby but suffers two brutal miscarriages which affect her state of mind. Her prayers for motherhood are finally answered when an infant girl washes up on shore in a rowboat with a dead man inside. Tom thinks they should notify the authorities but ultimately gives in to Isabel’s wish to keep the girl. Fate strikes when Tom sees Gwen (Rachel Weisz) on the mainland at her husband and baby’s grave when they bring the little girl Lucy to be baptised. Three years later they meet again and Tom makes a decision that will upend the family they have made with another woman’s child and Isabel takes revenge …Adapted by Derek Cianfrance from the novel by M.L. Stedman, this looks very pretty indeed. It is however a dangerously nutty maternal melodrama that proves what we have always known – women with children suffer from a very specific derangement and women who lose them are crazed, as the parallel actions of the very different mothers prove – because when Gwen decides Tom isn’t guilty of her husband’s murder she will hand back Lucy (or Grace, as she was originally christened) to the woman whom Lucy truly loves – as long as Tom goes to the gallows for a non-existent crime. Isabel was intent on punishing him for losing the child she persuaded him to steal. Has she gone too far? Do you think?! So we are pulled to the brink of madness and then – and then … Like a toddler pulling on your little finger, you’ll be tugged into this bizarre story that is performed with alarming conviction by all concerned. Thank goodness Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown are at hand to push things back, just a tad. Everyone looks like they’re straight from the pages of a Boden catalogue. Know that you have always been beloved

Life Itself (2018)

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Life itself being the ultimate unreliable narrator.  College sweethearts Will (Oscar) and Abby (Olivia Wilde)f all in love, get married and prepare to bring their first child into the world. As their story unfolds in New York, fate links their daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke), Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and his girlfriend Isabel (Laia Costa) who marry and have Rodrigo (Alex Monner), wealthy Spanish landowner Vincent (Antonio Banderas) when all these lives criss-cross ... I may not be equipped to be loved this much. Basically most people in the story get hit by a bus in a narrative that writer/director Dan Fogelman attempts to link through sugar-spun uncleverness into a statement about random acts and gee shucks unwisdom together with Bob Dylan songs and a Pulp Fiction homage.  In the end what can be said about this contribution to the cinematic art? It’s made in colour? It has sound? Everybody dies? Yes, eventually. Life being a series of unfortunate events, a tale full of misery told by idiots. But this sanctimonious saccharine is quite ghastly. This is not the right story