White Boy Rick (2018)

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When I first saw you I knew you were going to be bigger than me. Rick Wershe (Matthew McConaughey) is a single father who dreams of opening a video store and is struggling to raise teenagers Rick Jr. (newcomer Richie Merritt) and Dawn (Bel Powley) during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in 1980s Detroit. Wershe makes gun parts and sells guns illegally to make ends meet but soon attracts attention from the FBI and tips them off with information now and then. Federal agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane) convince Rick Jr. to become an undercover drug informant in exchange for keeping his father out of prison. When young Rick gets in too deep, he finds himself seduced by the lure of easy money and aligns himself with local black drug dealer Johnny Curry (Jonathan Majors) becoming a dealer himself with his father taking decisive action to remedy the situation… At least you never lost your looks – cos you never had ’em!  Remember the Eighties, when your local tabloid was reporting that kids taking crack for the first time just threw themselves off buildings, presumably to counter the highs they were experiencing?! Maybe they thought they could fly. Ah, sweet mysteries of life. Based on Wershe Jr’s memoir, this is adapted by Andy Weiss, Noah Miller and Logan Miller and it’s a lively if dispiriting take on family and true crime, with striking scenes and juxtapositions, well directed by Yann Demange, who made the best film about the Northern Ireland Troubles to date, ’71. This has all the accoutrements of the times, looking and feeling right but the scuzzy criminality and tone-perfect characterisation with vivid performances (notably by Powley, Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as the grandparents and McConaughey’s star turn, especially towards the end) don’t mean you want to be in the company of these people another minute or enter this perfectly grim urban milieu even if McConaughey and Cochrane are back together 25 years after Dazed and Confused. Gritty realism is all very well but sometimes too much is enough. They haul in our ass we do black time so you don’t be reckless around here

Holmes & Watson (2018)

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He and I co-detectives? Not I. Not here. Not even in my rapturous moments of private fantasy! Renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) join forces to investigate a mysterious murder threat upon Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) at Buckingham Palace. It seems like an open-and-shut case as all signs point to Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), the criminal mastermind and longtime nemesis of the crime-solving duo. Both men are diverted by American women – Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her companion Millicent (Lauren Lapkus) whom she insists is her electric shock treatment subject, a woman reared by feral cats. When new twists and clues begin to emerge, the sleuth and his assistant must use their legendary wits and ingenious methods to catch the killer who may have been hiding in plain sight very close to home I have the oddest feeling. Like knowing, but the opposite. Blending the steampunk approach of the Robert Downey films and the flash-forward visual detection of Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV Sherlock, this also has anachronistic shtick (Titanic in the life of Queen Vic, anyone?) and a cheeky reference to one of the more arcane Holmes incarnations in the casting of Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – TV’s House, geddit?! (That’s a scene that doesn’t work, sadly). Some of the best sequences and laughs are with Hall and Lapkus, between the misogyny and the bits about nineteenth century medical treatments, with some genuinely amusing romantic farce and bromantic jokes.  This is beautifully shot by Oliver Wood, exquisitely designed by James Hambidge and costumed by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Naturally it’s only a matter of time until someone says No shit Sherlock and it’s from the mouths of Dickensian runts straight out of Oliver!  There’s a funny passing song that occasions a joke about musicals when the film finally lets rip à la The Muppets giving it more promise than it delivers and there are some highly contemporary visual and political references. So there’s wit and invention aplenty but it’s not quite clever enough all the time. Rather like Holmes. Minus the innuendo and lewdness this could have been a marvellous comic outing for children, agreeably silly with some easy but amusing targets but you know, these guys, they just can’t help themselves, with Ferrell doing too much of what he likes as the ultimate defective detective and Reilly as his hapless foil, a Johnson in more ways than one (until the roles get switched, which happens constantly and is confusing). The ladies are fantastic and Fiennes brings that immaculate class as is his wont and manages to be the only one who doesn’t actually twirl that comedy moustache; while Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald and Steve Coogan (as a one-armed tattooist) get their moments of infamy. Written and directed by Etan Coen. No, not that Coen, obvs. Terrible and clueless but not totally awful. Go figure.  A sniff of morning cocaine always helps the brain

Rocco and his Brothers (1960)

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Tomorrow? Tomorrow? There is no tomorrow.  Widowed Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou), an impoverished Italian mother, moves north to Milan with her close-knit family of five sons to find opportunity in the big city where oldest son Vincenzo (Spiros Focas) is getting engaged to the lovely Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale). But the two mothers dislike each other and the marriage is off.  A heated rivalry begins when two of Rosaria’s boys, soft-spoken Rocco (Alain Delon) and brutal Simone (Renato Salvatori), fall for Nadia (Annie Girardot), a beautiful prostitute with whom each has an affair. As each pursues Nadia, tension between them threatens to tear the family apart … Always at the movies! He lives on bread and movies. In a stunningly stylish and tragic epic portrait of Italian society after the boom, Luchino Visconti brings his preoccupations together – visually operatic, violent romanticism, literary and post-war realism, with brilliantly conceived characters finding their destiny against a backdrop of poverty and desperation. Time flies when every day’s the same. Wouldn’t seem so, but it’s true.  Written by Visconti with Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli and Massimo Franciosa, from a story by Visconti, d’Amico and Vasco Pratolini, inspired by Giovanni Testori’s novel Il ponte della Ghisolfa, this is an intense, overwhelming masterpiece, beautifully performed. See it and believe in cinema. What was beautiful and right has become wrong

The Harder They Fall (1956)

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What do you care what a bunch of bloodthirsty, screaming people think of you? Did you ever get a look at their faces? They pay a few lousy bucks hoping to see a man get killed. To hell with them! Think of yourself. Get your money and get out of this rotten business.  After seventeen years reporter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself out of work when his newspaper folds. He’s so skint he agrees to work for the shady boxing promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to help hype his new boxer, the massive Argentinian heavyweight Toro Moreno (Mike Lane). Toro looks the part but he has no actual boxing talent and all his fights are fixed. When he gets a shot at the title against the brutal and sadistic Buddy Brannen (Max Baer), Willis is faced with the tough decision of whether or not to tell Toro that his entire career is a sham as they move eastwards across the country and one fighter is killed in the ring and Brannen wants to fix Toro good … What gives, Eddie? I looked up Toro in the book. There’s no record of him in South America. Famous as Bogart’s final film before his death from cancer, this is a characterful work about ethics from Philip Yordan’s sparky screenplay which he adapted from Budd Schulberg’s novel. Bogart has an admirable arc as he evolves from a cynical sportswriter to the press agent coming to terms with the horrible corruption at the core of his sport:  will he write an exposé and take it down? The pairing of Steiger with Schulberg’s material again two years after On the Waterfront has its own attractions as well as offering an opportunity to see his Method acting stylings clash with Bogart’s classical theatrics. Jan Sterling does well as Bogart’s wife, functioning overtly as his conscience while Harold J. Stone is terrific as Bogart’s colleague, a broadcaster who can’t stand how he’s promoting Toro. Burnett Guffey’s glistening monochrome cinematography gives us some of the best fight scenes we’ll ever see in this tragic epic about life bristling within the ropes. Tough as you like, this was inspired by real-life boxer Primo Canera. Directed by Mark Robson.  Don’t fight it, Eddie! What are you trying to do, hold onto your self-respect? Did your self-respect help you hold your job? Did your self-respect give you a new column?  

Becoming Jane (2007)

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I have no money, no property, I am entirely dependent upon that bizarre old lunatic, my uncle. I cannot yet offer marriage, but you must know what I feel. Jane, I’m yours. God, I’m yours. I’m yours, heart and soul. Much good that is. It’s 1795 and twenty-year old Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) is a young aspiring writer who wants to marry for love. Her financially strapped parents (James Cromwell, Julie Walters) expect her to marry Mr Wisley (Laurence Fox), the nephew of wealthy Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith).  She knows that such a marriage will destroy her creativity and self-worth. Instead, she becomes involved with Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), a charming and roguish but penniless apprentice lawyer from Ireland who gives her the knowledge of the heart she needs for her future career as a novelist… No sensible woman would demonstrate passion, if the purpose were to attract a husband. An imaginatively reconstructed story about how Jane Austen got her romantic mojo from a thin sliver of fact:  this is all that is required to steep us in more Austen mania. Thomas Langlois Lefroy described his friendship with Austen as ‘boyish’ rather than passionate, but no matter, any excuse to enter into the world of Georgian and Regency romance. The leads perform with gusto and charm – sparks fly between Hathaway and McAvoy.  The entire setting is beguiling, no matter how little connected with history while we construe – as we are intended to do – the beginnings of Pride and Prejudice from the interplay.  Affection is desirable but money is absolutely indispensable. As movies about writers go, why not?! Written by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams using tropes from Austen’s own comedies of manners and society, and directed by Julian Jarrold. How can you, of all people, dispose of yourself without affection?

The Hireling (1973)

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Was it very bad? In the years after WW1, Steven Ledbetter (Robert Shaw) is the chauffeur of widowed British socialite Lady Helen Franklin (Sarah Miles) at Bath in Somerset. As Ledbetter helps Lady Franklin to overcome her fragile state when she is released from a psychiatric facility, he falls in love with her, but their differences in social standing seem to prevent any chance of a romance. He is involved with Doreen (Christine Hargreaves), a waitress although he tells Lady Franklin he is married, believing it will stir her interest. Meanwhile, a war veteran and rising Liberal politician who knew her late husband,  Captain Hugh Cantrip (Peter Egan) becomes involved with Lady Franklin, while maintaining a relationship with Connie (Caroline Mortimer), a presumed war widow.  It leads to tension in her household:  this cad and user was Ledbetter’s commanding officer in the Great War … You need people now. A normal life. L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between had received a lauded screen adaptation a couple of years earlier so the author’s work seemed ripe for cinema and this repeated that film’s success at Cannes, winning the Grand Prix (now the Palme d’Or). Wolf Mankowitz’s interpretation of this take on class difference, post-war trauma and deception doesn’t have the other film’s power – but that work had an extraordinary pull from a child’s point of view of tragedy (plus it was adapted by Harold Pinter). However, as a primarily psychological exploration of romance, this film’s prime attraction is the scale of performance.  Miles and Shaw are superb:  he has no idea that his class can prevent her marrying him.  He has helped her recovery but she simply has no further use for him and it’s his devastation that propels the drama toward a suicidal conclusion. The critics didn’t like Miles but she’s fascinating in the role as she goes through bereavement caused by depression and then a kind of dissemblance, disdain and dismissal.  The showdown in the car is shocking – they are almost exchanging psyches. This is a work which is far less sentimental than the reviewers would have you believe, moving slowly and oddly, filled with beautiful landscapes dappled with low light and autumnal shades. It’s very well directed by Alan Bridges who seems to be rather forgotten now. Hartley lived long enough to enjoy the success of The Go-Between but he died in 1972, before this was released. It’s an intriguing film, worth repeat viewings. It almost seems … un-English. I don’t have anything to go back to now because everything is here with you

On the Waterfront (1954)

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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.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

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Maybe Chicago’s got a heart but I ain’t found one.  Young Italian-American Rocky Barbella (Paul Newman) endures abuse from his father (Harold J. Stone) and despite his mother (Eileen Heckart) and her constant efforts to intervene he messes with small-time crime with his streetwise friend Romolo (Sal Mineo).  His consequent run-ins with the law lead him in and out of detention centers and prisons. When it seems he has it together, Rocky is drafted into the wartime Army but can’t stick the regime and goes AWOL. He takes up boxing to earn quick money with coach Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane), but when he discovers he has a natural talent in the ring, he builds the confidence to pursue his love interest, Norma (Pier Angeli), and fulfill his potential as a middleweight fighter. Pressured to take a bribe, his reputation takes a major hit.  He doesn’t know how to redeem himself except by fighting …  Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Rocky Graziano’s autobiography is full of clichés – but they’re good ones because they’re true. Filled with big, dramatic performances and great action which is what you want from a gutsy story of an abused child through his spells in juvie and prison and the Army, this is a wonderful portrait of NYC and its denizens and the final bout is heart-stopping. The right hooks aren’t confined to Rocky, Lehman’s dialogue is ripe with zingers:  The trouble with reading the phonebook is you always know how it’s going to come out.  Gleaming monochrome cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and a song by Perry Como add to a magnificent movie bio experience but one is forced to ask what Paul Newman’s career would have looked like if its intended lead James Dean hadn’t died before this went into production:  his Rebel co-star Mineo (who looks altogether lustrous) bolsters the teen crim story and the beautiful Angeli was engaged to Dean for a while (as well as doing The Silver Chalice with Newman). His ghost is everywhere. Look for Steve McQueen, Robert Loggia and Dean Jones down the cast list.  Directed by Robert Wise.

Carmen Jones (1954)

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Boy, if the army was made up of nothin’ but soldiers like you, war wouldn’t do nobody no good.  During WWII parachute factory worker Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge) is romanced by a stalwart GI named Joe (Harry Belafonte) who is about to go to flying school. Conflict arises when a boxing champ captures Carmen’s heart after she has seduced Joe and caused him to go AWOL. Carmen remains a flamboyant flirt and Joe is pursued by the Military Police and the romantic duo have a final terrible fight … Bizet’s stunning and tragic, earthy opera gets an update and a racial twist in this striking, zesty adaptation by Oscar Hammerstein II. The performers are dubbed but that doesn’t detract from the incredibly raunchy Dandridge (vocals by Marilyn Horne) who was being manipulated by director Otto Preminger at the time:  she simply steams up the screen with Belafonte hopelessly in her grip – until she is in his. Pearl Bailey is also dazzling in the role of Frankie. But this is all about Dandridge and she is astonishing. Daring and wonderful.

There Is Another Sun (1951)

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Aka Wall of Death. Lillian, a stranded chorus-girl (Susan Shaw) meets reckless motorcycle stunt rider ‘Racer’ (Maxwell Reed) and promising young boxer Maguire (Laurence Harvey) and joins up with them at a travelling funfair. Maguire looks to Racer as a kind of daredevil mentor and as Lillian comes between them they put aside their rivalry to steal from their boss …  Lewis Gilbert directed from a screenplay by Guy Morgan and it admirably sustains an atmosphere of seediness and danger that we have come to expect from carny films like Nightmare Alley. Harvey and Reed don’t offer their best performances but they are indicative of nascent British film acting at the time and such a physical contrast – Harvey with his pulchritudinous blond brow and Reed with a kind of saturnine viciousness – that their relationship is the story’s anchor psychologically and performance-wise. Shaw makes nice as the decent girl and Harvey’s offscreen love interest Hermione Baddeley does a good turn as a fortune teller. You don’t need her to tell you that with that Wall of Death things won’t end well.