Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963)

Sparrers Cant Sing.jpg

Aka Sparrers Can’t Sing. Don’t argue. If I hadn’t have liked you, I wouldn’t have bashed your head in, would I? Cockney merchant sailor Charlie (James Booth) comes home after two years at sea to find his house in London’s Bethnal Green razed and his wife Maggie (Barbara Windsor) missing. She’s now living with bus driver Bert (George Sewell) who has his own wife and Maggie has a new baby – but who’s the daddy?!  Charlie’s friends won’t tell him where Maggie is because he’s famed for his terrible temper. But he finally finds her and, after a fierce row with Bert, they are reconciled… Hey, bus driver! I can go away for *ten* years and get my own wife back! Interesting on so many levels, this, even if its experimental styling doesn’t wear so well with elements of raucous pantomime occasionally diverting the narrative thread. Developed from Stephen (On The Buses) Lewis’s play at director Joan Littlewood’s famed Theatre Workshop at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1960, with improvised contributions from the performers, many of whom are featured here, this has sentimental value as a vehicle for Barbara Windsor (who was discovered by Littlewood), better known from the Carry On series and TV’s Eastenders. She earns her stripes in a heartwarming even startling performance.  It’s notable also as a southern variation on the British New Wave or kitchen sink realist style and for its use of language in conveying a sense of community in that part of London, with plenty of Yiddish and Cockney slang. The city gleams courtesy of Desmond Dickinson’s cinematography and the original score by Stanley Black coupled with original songs (including the title by Lionel Bart, sung by Windsor) marks it out from the pack. It also has a cracking cast of familiar faces including Roy Kinnear, Yootha Joyce, Brian Murphy, Harry H. Corbett, Murray Melvin, Victor Spinetti  and Arthur Mullard to name a few. Although the Krays were rumoured to appear in it, and they seem to make a cameo appearance, allegedly they don’t, but the parties celebrating the premiere were held at two of their clubs. Adapted by Littlewood and Lewis, this was Littlewood’s only feature aside from an earlier TVM based on a play by Aristophanes so this is really the only filmed record of her groundbreaking achievements. Shot around Limehouse, Stepney, Shadwell, Millwall, the Isle of Dogs, West Ham, Greenwich, Whitechapel and Blackheath, this gives an authentic picture of the city as the slums were being cleared and its face was quite literally changing. Some interiors were shot at Merton Park Studios. It wasn’t always your fault

Advertisements

The Man Who Wanted to Fly (2018)

The Man Who Wanted to Fly.jpg

Nothing lasts. Elderly Irish bachelor Bobby Coote has always wanted to fly, He lives with unmarried brother Ernie in rural County Cavan, Ireland where each pursues different interests. Ernie likes CB radio, movies, cultivating a garden and feeding the birds. Bobby likes making and repairing clocks and violins and he finally has the money to buy a microlight which he stores in his friend Sean’s custom-made hangar and they clear a landing strip in Sean’s field which his wife looks upon askance … I wouldn’t want that fella flying over me.  The Coote brothers are enormously engaging, very different characters who think about things but see the funny side too. They live in what one might term genteel squalor but have great TV equipment and nippy little cars. Bobby’s music habit brings him out a little more with evenings at Gartlans’ thatched pub in Kingscourt while Bobby prefers to stay home watching spaghetti westerns. Bobby celebrates Christmas with friends;  Ernie cooks a turkey leg for one and eats it alone.  Ernie has postcards from all over the world from his radio contacts but doesn’t think he’d like travelling;  Bobby worked in England on the motorways for a couple of years but didn’t much fancy the life over there. Their youngest brother fell into a canal in England the previous year. Neither of them has had relationships that might have started a marriage and family. TV interviews with the brothers from forty years earlier show a pair of good looking dapper young men;  Ernie comments on the changes time has wrought. A home movie shows a friend he used to go fishing with who is dead;  Bobby shows family photos of those departed. The midpoint sequence when Bobby gets a call from the microlight centre in Newtownards informing him that he’s been sold a pup requiring an expensive overhaul is understated and moving.  But he doesn’t give up. This story of seemingly unfulfilled lives and loneliness should be sorrowful but instead it’s a triumph of small-scale ambition that eventually soars in glorious skies. The ending makes you cheer. Beautifully made with some stunning overhead photography by Dave Perry. Produced by Cormac Hargaden and Trish Canning and directed by  Frank Shouldice. You’ve got me pulled!

Christiane F. (1981)

Christiane F.jpg

Aka Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo. You’ll never forget her … In mid-1970s Berlin, an aimless teenager (Natja Brunkhorst) who lives with her single mother and sister in a social housing project falls in with a drug dealer Detlef (Thomas Haustein) after meeting at a nightclub where her hero David Bowie is performing. Soon her addiction leads her to hanging out with other junkies at Bahnhof Zoo subway station and then to a life on the streets… I only did it because I wanted to know how you feel. Adapted from tape recordings with the real-life junkie whose story it tells, this has cult written all over it. From the Berlin setting, the drugs, Bowie and the excruciating portrait of a beautiful child lost to sex and heroin and, well, rock ‘n’ roll, it’s tough stuff. Working from a screenplay by Herman Weigel and director Uli Edel adapting Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck’s non-fiction book, Edel directs with verve and a realistic grit. This is not an attractive experience despite the superficial elements of cool – its low budget, graphic sex scenes and shooting style place it in the exploitation realm while the classic score by Bowie (Station to Station, Boys Keep Swinging and unofficial theme song Heroes are the most famous tracks) and the great Jürgen Knieper give it a real kick. The cast are mostly non-professionals and the beautiful Brunkhorst is the only one who proceeded to an acting career. However watching dead-eyed kids having underage sex, shooting up and overdosing ain’t pretty and this squalid depiction of Berlin in the 70s is miserable – no wonder it cleaned up. A film that truly shocked upon release, it’s dedicated to Atze, Axel and Babsi, all portrayed here and all dead from heroin ODs.  A grim Euro-classic with a cameo performance by Bowie actually recorded in NYC.  I can’t get hooked if I just use a little, only once in a while. I can control my using

American Animals (2018)

American Animals.png

You’re taught your entire life that what you do matters and that you’re special. In 2003 Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) are four friends who live an ordinary existence in Kentucky. Spencer is a budding artist and following his visit to the Special Collections room at Transylvania University in Lexington, he informs Lipka of the contents. Lipka comes up with the idea to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the school’s library:  it involves tying up the librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) and making off with the Audubon book, Birds of America, the most valuable one there. They lose their nerve at the first attempt which they prepare for by dressing up as old men. They plot a different approach for the second attempt. As one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history starts to unfold, the men question whether their attempts to inject excitement and purpose into their lives are simply misguided attempts at achieving the American dream and Spencer gave an auction house in NYC his real-life cell phone number with his dumb message on it … How can I tell you if I’m in or I’m out without telling me the first thing about what I might be in or out of.  Writer/director Bart Layton takes a true crime and spins it into something stylish but problematic, a treatise on all-American stupidity. Interviews with the real-life perpetrators, rather humbled after the fact, are interspersed with the narrative drama, which gives it a melancholy quality but the consequent issues in pacing don’t always lead to a pleasing viewing experience. It’s not set up correctly, working against any possibility of suspense. The second attempt at the heist is permitted to progress unimpeded by anything other than the protagonists’ staggering ineptitude. The outcome is inevitable and famous. The film does however blend fact and fiction and the interviews form a kind of Greek chorus, baiting us with the various points of view, Rashomon-like, and at one point even inserts Spencer into the action, albeit briefly. And it does boast Udo Kier in the cast. One day you’ll die

 

Mad To Be Normal (2017)

Mad to be Normal.jpg

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

Fragment of Fear (1970)

Fragment of Fear.jpg

She said no – “over my dead body”. Hence, her dead body. Tim Brett (David Hemmings) is a former drug addict who has written a book about his experience. He has been clean for about a year. He had recently become acquainted with his aunt Lucy (Flora Robson), a philanthropist who expresses interest in helping some of Tim’s former acquaintances. She is found murdered in Pompeii. Tim starts a relationship with Juliet Bristow (Gayle Hunnicutt), the woman who found his aunt’s body, and they are soon engaged. When the police investigation stalls,  Tim begins to ask questions of some of his aunt’s acquaintances who are all in a seaside care home. He then begins to receive warnings from unknown persons to stop his inquiries. He meets an elderly woman on the train. She hands him a note of supposed comfort, asking him to read it at home. The note turns out to be a warning about leaving matters to the police, apparently typed on his own typewriter. There’s also an ominous laugh recorded on Tim’s own tape recorder, indicating that someone was in his flat. Tim is then visited by a police sergeant, Sgt. Matthews (Derek Newark), who informs him that the woman on the train had lodged a complaint against Tim. After the woman is also killed, Tim finds out that there is no sergeant by that name working at the police station. He is then assaulted on the streets at night by two men who leave him lying on the ground with a hypodermic needle. Tim throws the needle down a gutter. He makes contact with a secret government agency which tells him that they are after the people who are threatening him, but all is – again – not what it seems to be and Tim and Juliet’s wedding fast approaches… Paul Dehn’s adaptation of John Bingham’s novel is interesting on a number of levels:  the performances of Hemmings and Hunnicutt, who were married at the time;  and the allusions to the government agency because Bingham was acknowledged as the model for George Smiley. Then there’s Yootha Joyce, forever trapped as Mildred in TV’s George and Mildred, here she’s truly sinister as the nasty proprietress of the old folk’s home where all manner of viciousness is evident. Hemmings is fine as the apparently delusional addict. He was a charismatic actor and such a beautiful icon of the mid-Sixties and the counter culture it’s hard to recall his fading from the scene to production and TV directing with anything other than regret:  this, after all, is the little boy singer who inspired Benjamin Britten to write Miles in The Turn of the Screw and the young man who brought Antonioni to decadent Swinging London for Blow-Up.  This outing is far more conventional genre material, but fascinating nonetheless for the central couple’s interactions and ideas about paranoid conspiracies, soon to be a ‘thing’ in cinema. There’s a terrific supporting cast including Mona Washbourne, Arthur Lowe, Daniel Massey, Adolfo Celi, Roland Culver and Wilfrid Hyde-White. Directed by Richard  C. Sarafian (who had worked with Hunnicutt on the previous year’s Eye of the Cat) who keeps the psychological issues on the boil, this has an astonishing jazz score by Johnny Harris which would be used to advertise Levis in the 90s in a memorable Kung Fu scenario by Jonathan Glazer. Shot by Oswald Morris.

Gone to Earth (1950)

Gone to Earth.jpg

Aka The Wild Heart. He put a spell on me, he did. Hazel Woodus (Jennifer Jones) is an innocent child of nature in the Shropshire countryside on the Welsh borders in 1897. She loves and understands all the wild animals more than the people around her. Whenever she has problems, she turns to the book of spells and charms left to her by her late gypsy mother.  Local fox-hunting squire Jack Reddin (David Farrar) sees Hazel and wants her, but she has already promised herself to the Baptist minister, Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack). She brings up a fox cub (Foxy) and is mother to him, insisting that he be part of her bridal party in the church. A struggle for her body and soul ensues and she turns to superstition to deal with her problems… Adapted from Mary Webb’s 1917 bodice-ripper, this is one of Powell and Pressburger’s odder films.  Given producer David O. Selznick’s involvement it’s no surprise that it stars his famously sibilant-averse wife Jones, who never seemed to age. She’s like a feral Scarlett O’Hara, feisty and strong-willed but ignorant in all essentials. Farrar makes a return to the P&P troupe, while Sybil Thorndike is excellent support playing mother to Cusack’s parson, a fine role for the Irish character actor. Hugh Griffith (as the wicked squire’s faithful man servant), Esmond Knight and George Cole get some good moments in the ensemble.  This is a stunning, full-blooded work in lush Technicolor with startling cinematography by the great Christopher Challis, relishing the opportunity to capture the strangeness and beauty of a very lovely part of the world which some readers might recall was the setting for some of Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series of books for adolescents. Narrated by Joseph Cotten.

 

On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront.jpg

Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up! Hoboken dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) had been an up-and-coming prize-fighting boxer until powerful local mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) persuaded him to throw a fight. His older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right hand man and lawyer. When longshoreman Joey Doyle is murdered before he can testify about Friendly’s control of the Hoboken waterfront, Terry teams up with the dead man’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and the streetwise priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) to do something about the violent gangsters controlling the dock. Terry finally figures out it was Charley getting him to throw a fight at Madison Square Garden that put him in this jam. He decides to go against his advice and testify … Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts. This classic film can never be separated from its origins:  Arthur Miller wanted to write about the infiltration of the dockers’ unions by the Mafia and his project The Hook was brought to Columbia with Elia Kazan as director but Harry Cohn insisted the criminals be called communists instead. Sam Spiegel took it on and Frank Sinatra was tapped to play Terry inintially. Miller gave up on it completely when Kazan testified and named names at the HUAC (if he hadn’t his career was dead, he named people whose names were already known); and fellow friendly witness Budd Schulberg’s screenplay could be partly attributed to a series of articles based on a true story about a longshoreman who tried to do something about union corruption. It didn’t work. (A series of lawsuits arose with the studio because Schulberg had talked to a number of individuals about racketeering and they recognised their story onscreen).  The original ending was rejected because of the censors:  crime could not win. So there is a brutal fight.  Brando’s was not the only influential acting in this film, which is a hymn to mid-century Method style, a kind of heightened reality with actors finding ‘business,’ like the accidentally dropped glove that Brando picked up and stroked, an unplanned incident that adds to the film’s text. And that legendary taxi scene between Brando and Steiger? Brando was a soft guy. He hated the cold. He wanted to be back in his hotel all the time when they were on the docks. This particular scene was shot in the studio and he wouldn’t do the decent thing and do the reverses for Rod Steiger after Steiger had acted his ass off for Brando’s shots. Steiger had to emote to a stage hand reading the script. Brando won the Academy Award and the film got Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actress (for Saint), Art Direction, Editing and Cinematography (for Boris Kaufman.) Leonard Bernstein should have won for Best Score because he makes the big dialogue scenes work. Turns out you can justify anything.  I’m standing over here now. I was rattin’ on myself all those years. I didn’t even know it.

Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa.jpg

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a failed love affair in Denmark the aristocrat Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) sets out for the white highlands of Kenya where she marries her lover’s brother Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer).  She is intent on dairy farming, Bror instead spends their money on a coffee plantation. After discovering Bror is unfaithful when she contracts syphilis, Karen develops feelings for British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) but he prefers a simple lifestyle compared to her upper class affectations. She separates from Bror and sets about remaking her home to his taste. The two continue their relationship until a series of events force Karen to choose between her love life and her personal growth as an individual … Like a lot of people, I imagine, I first heard of Isak Dinesen (or Karen Blixen) courtesy of The Catcher in the Rye. If it was good enough for Holden Caulfield, I figured, I’ve got to check it out. And that was my introduction to a great writer whose life is immortalised here in the form of La Streep while the less than glamorous Finch Hatton is personified by Redford. History is rewritten right there! But their chemistry is so right. Streep is wonderful as the woman who finally finds herself, Redford is great as a hunter who simultaneously deplores environmental destruction – these are fantastic star performances.  So the school, the farm, that’s what I am now Director Sydney Pollack later regretted that he didn’t shoot this in widescreen and you can see why. This is a film of big emotions in a breathtaking landscape that dwarfs the concerns of the little people, aristos or not. There are fabulous, memorable scenes:  when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair; when they play Mozart on the gramophone to monkeys and Denys remarks that it’s their first exposure to humans; when he takes her flying; when she begs for land for the Kikuyu. And when she leaves.  If you like me at all, don’t ask me to do this Altering the focus of Dinesen’s writing somewhat to the personalities rather than the issues that actually drove Dinesen and the contradictions within Finch Hatton, it’s a glorious, epic and tragic romance sensitively performed, with a meticulous score by John Barry. Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay was adapted from three sources:  Dinesen’s Out of Africa;  Judith Thurman’s biography Isak Dinesen:  The Life of a Story Teller;  and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski. He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast

 

Straw Dogs (1971)

Straw Dogs poster.jpg

If you can’t catch ’em … shoot ’em.  David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mild-mannered American mathematician married to Amy (Susan George), an Englishwoman. They have relocated to the small town in rural Cornwall where Amy was raised, to a house filled with her father’s belongings. David is writing a book because he has a research grant to do a project on astrophysics.  He is ostracized by the brutish men of the village who are renovating the garage beside the cottage, including Amy’s old boyfriend Charlie (Del Henney). Eventually the taunts and lewdness escalate, their cat is strangled and hanged and two of the locals rape Amy while they distract David by taking him out hunting and leave him alone for the day on the moor. When the village idiot Henry Niles (an uncredited David Warner) winds up at their house after accidentally killing the local slut Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett) following a church social, the locals come a looking and lay siege to his house and the passive aggressive David finally takes revenge …  David Zelag Goodman loosely adapted the 1969 Gordon M. Williams novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm with director Sam Peckinpah and its sustained atmosphere of unbearable tension and brutality shocks to this day. The campaign of harassment is inscribed in the titles sequence in which we open on a gravestone and children torturing a dog:  we are quickly introduced to the casual viciousness of the village, the acceptance of violence – mentally retarded Henry is bitch slapped by his brother John (Peter Arne) for playing ball with schoolchildren;  Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) breaks a glass into the publican’s hand when time is called despite the presence of the local magistrate (T.P. McKenna);  Hedden’s trampy daughter Janice (Thomsett) and son Bobby (Len Jones) watch David and Amy in bed together. The goons played by Ken Hutchison and Donald Webster are uncomplicated thugs who nonetheless question David about his familiarity with guns (the anti-Vietnam war poster and the animal trap indicate where the film is going textually). He makes it obvious that he is anti-violence. The gang rape is anything but simple:  Amy tries to pacify the first assailant because like most rape victims, she knows him and that’s what makes this so convincing, never mind that it’s brilliantly shot and constructed.  She has gone around the place without a bra – even David tells her to start dressing appropriately and stop complaining that the locals are making horrible remarks. The marital strains are echoed when the vicar (Colin Welland) gives his wife a condescending look because she doesn’t know who Montesquieu is;  Amy doesn’t understand binary numbers. The drama is then structured about the outsider intellectual amid backward yokels, of whom his wife still appears to be one;  the awful Hedden’s concern for his daughter reminds us that Amy’s father dominates her domestic surroundings and she resents David’s retreat to his study. This is where I live. This is me.  I will not allow violence against this house. This was much misunderstood upon release but it’s a genre mashup whose antecedents – the western, the horror film (isn’t this a Hammeresque village with a Frankenstein’s monster?), the home invasion movie – are delineated clearly. The crosscutting (Nic Roeg’s collaborator Tony Lawson is one of three editors, including future director Roger Spottiswoode) also clarifies the complex and ironic psychology. You simply cannot say, as many did at the time of this film’s initial release, that this celebrates violence:  the technique just does not permit it.  David’s shit-eating grin at the film’s conclusion is perhaps what bothers people but as someone who has suffered outrageous violence at the hands of my thick neighbours I can relate to his turnaround and wish I were in a position to emulate it. When I asked the local plumber what was behind it he told me an apocryphal tale which ended in the deathless words, Y’see, nobody wants someone with too much education in their neighbourhood. So when anyone asks me what it’s like to live in the countryside, I tell them, Watch Straw Dogs. As far as I’m concerned, it might be a documentary.