You, Me & Him (2017)

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A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and all that. Forty year old lawyer Olivia (Lucy Punch) is in a relationship with younger lazy pot-smoking artist Alex (Faye Marsay) and she desperately wants to have a baby so has fertility treatment and undergoes artificial insemination without consulting Alex, who really doesn’t want children. Then Alex gets mad drunk at party held by their freshly divorced womanising next door neighbour John (David Tennant) and has sex with him.  When Olivia does a pregnancy test Alex finds she is pregnant too. John wants to play a role in the baby’s life and their lives become incredibly complicated … You have just put my entire life into a salad spinner of fuck! This is a pot pourri of British acting talent. Actress Daisy Aitkens makes her directing debut with her own screenplay, produced by Georgia Moffett (Mrs Tennant) who appears briefly in a horrifying birthing class conducted by Sally Phillips, while another Doctor Who, Moffett’s father Peter Davison, plays a small role as a teacher trainer and her mother Sandra Dickinson appears as part of a jury. Familiar faces pop up everywhere – Sarah Parish is Alex’s friend, Simon Bird is Olivia’s brother while David Warner and Gemma Jones are her parents.  There are some truly squirmy moments as Olivia’s experience of pregnancy evinces all the worst problems – in public. Comedy lurches into tragedy 70 minutes into the running time and there is no signposting. The return to comic drama is slow but not completely unhappy, with a few scenes necessary to recalibrate the shrunken family relationship. Punch is fantastic – she’s such a fine comedienne and she gets more to play here, even if she and Marsay appear to be from very different even incompatible worlds while Tennant raises the stakes of every exchange, trying to figure out how to be the hipster daddy in a couple that has no place for him. Pain is being fisted by a 300lb rich white guy because you haven’t enough money to pay the rent

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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.

St Agatha (2018)

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Your name is … Agatha! In October 1957 pregnant con woman Mary (Sabrina Kern) leaves her boyfriend Jimmy (Justin Miles) when a scam goes wrong and takes refuge at an isolated Georgia convent but soon finds out that things are not quite as they seem and has to escape before Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennessy) and her cohorts harm her and her baby … Get your hands off me you bitches! This hopped-up interpretation of what Catholic nuns do to single mothers starts with a claustrophobe’s nightmare – being locked in a coffin: so as someone who baled on my last MRI scan, I was duly entrapped in a story which is a very twisted take on Christian origins. Shot beautifully by Joseph White with gauzy filters lending the convent’s surrounding forest an air of supernature and the entire production an atmosphere which sustains the suspense with the backstory dropped in to illustrate Mary’s family issues. These bewitching scary nuns sure know how to welcome strangers – Mother Superior declares that she too was an unwed mother (the Senator dumped her!) and the scratching sounds in the attics and the bizarre bird-feed vomit in the coffin treatment just confirm Mary’s suspicions that all is not quite right. With its dense flock wallpaper and red lights in the basement this place resembles a brothel. Soon Mary aka Agatha recognises a fellow con in Mother Superior. When Jimmy shows up to try to get Mary back she finds the nuns have guns and they won’t stop short of murder to save the babies to sell them to donors! The books must be balanced and the story takes off. There is quite literally a twist ending when you can take succour from the uses to which you can put a freshly cut umbilical cord:  a logical conclusion to the mediaeval torture that is childbirth. All hail virgin martyrs! Written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Michaels, Sara Sometti Michaels and Clint Sears.  Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. You’ve seen what I’m capable of. What kind of mother would I be?

Little Big Man (1970)

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I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers. My name is Jack Crabb. And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, uh, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. When a curious oral historian (William Hickey) turns up to hear the life story of 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), he can scarcely believe his ears. Crabb tells of having been rescued and raised by the Cheyenne, of working as a snake-oil salesman, as a gunslinger, and as a mule skinner under General Custer (Richard Mulligan). He learned the way of the Indian and the Creation story at the foot of Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who ponders the difference between Custer and Human Beings.  He also claims to be the only white survivor of the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn but is he telling the truth or is he the biggest liar ever?… Am I still in this world? Calder Willingham’s adaptation of Thomas Berger’s novel is a superb, caustic, funny, shocking and humane saga of the West as you have never seen it before. Told in a circular structure through this self-proclaimed adopted son of Cheyenne, it debunks myths, casting an acerbic eye over the rationale of the genocides carried out by so-called American heroes and how they have previously been dramatised. Inevitably the awful violence calls up parallels with the Vietnam War. Hoffman is quite brilliant as the ridiculously old guy who claims to have been there and done that with Faye Dunaway lending terrific support.  This grand, flavourful shaggy dog epic is beautifully crafted by director Arthur Penn making it an insidiously charming, educational entertainment that is virtually a masterpiece of Seventies cinema. I was afraid it would turn out this way

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

Welcome Stranger (1947)

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The doctor’s as good as Frank Sinatra! Old Dr. Joseph McRory (Barry Fitzgerald) of Fallbridge, Maine, hires a replacement for his two-month vacation sight unseen. When they finally meet, he and young Californian singing doctor Jim Pearson (Bing Crosby) don’t hit it off, but Pearson is delighted to stay, once he meets teacher Trudy Mason (Joan Caulfield) who volunteers at McRory’s clinic. Only McRory’s housekeeper Mrs Gilley (Elizabeth Patterson) is sympathetic and gives him helpful advice. However the other locals take their cue from McRory and cold-shoulder Pearson, especially Trudy’s stuffy fiancé. But then, guess who needs an emergency appendectomy and the doctors are forced to put aside their differences…  This re-teaming of Crosby with Fitzgerald after Going My Way was huge in 1947 and was heavily promoted by Paramount – this time instead of playing bickering priests, they’re bickering doctors. (They would be reunited again in Top o’ the Morning). The songs of Jimmy Van Heusen are liberally sprinkled throughout the story. Other than trilling, Crosby gives quite a lazy performance in an underwritten role, Fitzgerald has some quaint sayings while Caulfield is lovely, as usual. It’s nice to see Pa Kettle himself (Percy Kilbride) in the smalltown lineup. Written by  N. Richard Nash and Arthur Sheekman from a story by Frank Butler. Director Elliot Nugent makes an appearance as a medic in a scene directed by Billy Wilder.

Mary Magdalene (2018)

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Are they willing to give up everything to follow God? A young girl (Rooney Mara) from the village of Magdala in Judaea resists the traditional roles of women in society, and takes the opportunity to rebel by following the newly famous Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and his disciples which causes division among the men. Meanwhile, Jesus is arousing the ire of the Roman Empire in the form of Herod … It’s easy to be cynical about a film which takes a realistic approach to a two thousand-year old story about an unkempt guy with issues running around all over the shop saving people who didn’t ask for it and performing unbelievable miracles. But at a time of year when the message of peace and goodwill is what it’s all about and when Christians and Jews are being driven from their homelands by the steady vise-like grip of Islamic terror which is simultaneously spreading through white countries beset by irresponsible secularisation and uncontrolled immigration, this is a characterful and necessary representation of the old story. Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett’s feminist interpretation of a much-maligned woman might be too paradoxically reverent for some, but it’s a compelling study and director Garth Davis paces it so that the crescendo of intimidation until the Resurrection feels natural. Jesus is troubled, Mary is serene. She’s kind of a miracle all on her own, as the opening scene demonstrates, in a tale of a woman trying to break free from those men who would exorcise her demonic wish to be an individual and an apostle.  Johann Johannsson’s final score (with Hildur Guonadottir) is marvellous. You have not weakened us but you weakened Him

Mom and Dad (2017)

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It’s not my fault you don’t have a life. A mass hysteria of unknown origins causes parents to turn violently on their own children. Carly (Anne Winters) is a selfish teen and her young brother Joshua (Zachary Arthur) is obsessed with superheroes. They are the children of permanently disappointed Brent (Nicolas Cage) and Kendall (Selma Blair) whose dreams of a good life are hanging on a thread of yoga and a pool table. At school a TV signal seems to rewire the teachers’ brains and the students are in danger. Meanwhile Kendall attends the birthing room at the local hospital where her sister is having a baby but she tries to kill it when the machines go down. Kendall races home where Brent is losing it and the children are taking refuge in the basement  … It’s like they’re waiting for a buffet. A funny take on parenting during a mass midlife crisis in the ‘burbs, this nods to Poltergeist in the TV white noise that seems to trigger violence in all the moms and dads.  There’s also a reference to Night of the Living Dead as Carly’s cool boyfriend Damon (Robert T. Cunningham) happens to be the African-American who rocks up on time to help when things get seriously violent. Curiously the action sequences are not particularly well tooled but things get more amusing when grandpa (Lance Henriksen) arrives to let his son know how much he cares for him. Blair is great as the cool mom who protects her sister’s newborn one moment and tries to gas her own kids the next. Cage (naturally) relishes the role of the man bemoaning his cottage cheese ass, reminiscing over a teenage car crash when his topless girlfriend gave him a lap dance. Doesn’t quite hit all the notes needed for cult classic status but the titles are fabulous in a Seventies-trash homage sorta fashion with Dusty Springfield’s Yesterday When I Was Young giving us absolutely no idea of what’s about to unfold:  an ode to power saws. Written and directed by Brian (Crank) Taylor. I used to think my parents’ divorce was the worst tragedy of my life but ironically that just doubled my chances of survival!

Gone With the Wind (1939)

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What a woman.  The life of petulant southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), from her idyllic youth on a sprawling plantation, through her survival through the tragic history of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and her tangled love affairs with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who marries his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland); and roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who wants her for himself and makes money as a blockade runner while Ashley goes to warLand’s the only thing that matters, the only thing that lasts. The drama of David O.Selznick’s search for Scarlett is well known, so too the issues with the directors (George Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming, who was replaced for a spell by Sam Wood) but it’s the antebellum grandeur and the personalities of this epic historical romance set against the Civil War that continue to enthrall.  The beauty of plantation life is contrasted with the vivid scenes of Atlanta in flames;  the picture perfect homes and life embroidering and dancing and romancing are juxtaposed with the screams of the dying soldiers. Scarlett’s deceitful delusions about Ashley are dissipated by the reality of his cowardice. And there are the unexpected mini-dramas too:  that Scarlett becomes a can-do woman and saves Tara as her family cry bullying; when Rhett drunkenly asserts his droit de seigneur over Scarlett, she wakes up the next day as pleased with herself as the cat that got the cream. This image still has the capacity to shock (if not entirely surprise). That the screenplay and the performances effortlessly manage the extremes of humanity is a tribute to the talent behind the scenes and in front of camera. Gable is magnificent, but so too is de Havilland as Melanie, the kindest woman ever, who has the breadth of compassion to handle everything put her way and unexpectedly expresses delight when Scarlett kills a Yankee soldier. However it is Leigh’s film:  she is simply perfect as the selfish coquette who becomes brave when everyone around her is falling to pieces and she lives a wholly ironic life as a result. They say great characters make great books and I read it when I was fourteen, a great age to appreciate the feeling that Margaret Mitchell gives to these fully developed people living through the worst of times and trying in their own particular way to survive it. Expertly adapted by Sidney Howard. Wonderful. Tomorrow is another day