Vita and Virginia (2019)

Vita and Virginia

I’m exhausted with this sapphic pageant. Lauded author Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) meets fellow author best-selling Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) in London in the 1920s when their paths cross unexpectedly since they usually move in very different social circles. Vita is a married bisexual adventuress who envies fragile Virginia’s literary abilities which have earned her a reputation as an eccentric. Vita’s public escapades with women have earned the wrath of her mother (Isabella Rossellini) who regularly threatens her with losing custody of her young sons, especially after her latest foray to France which she did while dressed as a man. Despite both of the writers being married, they embark on an affair that disturbs Virginia but later inspires one of her novels, Orlando, about a hero who turns into a heroine who turns out to be a fiction …. A fearless adventuress who trades on passion, pain and fantasy. Those famously fashionable writerly Bright Young Things Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West get a New Romantic makeover with a few disquisitions about the state of things gender thrown in for good measure and an electronic score (from Isobel Waller-Bridge to enhance the feel of a retro prism being applied. Thus are modern values impressed upon a story that commences with Vita and her gay diplomat husband Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) discussing the idea of the marriage contract on the radio. Eileen Atkins adapts her play with director Chanya Button and despite the talents involved and the ghastly Bloomsbury characters it’s a fairly stillborn affair. The big ironic trope operating across the narrative is Vita’s capacity for experience while Virginia is the only writer of the two capable of actual feeling and expressivity:  she is the more literary gifted and the one who can translate their experience (or her view of it) into something like a great book. The other irony is perhaps that the script is never elevated to the quality of Woolf’s writing. There are some horrifically camp men, terrible scenes with Virginia losing her sanity for brief periods of time (cunningly evoked by visual effects) and some nice letter-reading when Vita goes abroad and tells Virginia about the travels she has been unable to persuade her to take with her. Basically Vita is an incorrigible, conscience-free flirt and Virginia is an incredible intellect, barely of this earth, all shadow to Vita’s colours.  I have fallen in love with your vision of me, Vita tells the woman who has immortalised her as Orlando. We can see she’s not like that at all. It’s not just the men who can’t deal with women’s grey matter. With notable costume design by Lorna Marie Mugan, perhaps the most truly shocking thing about this is that Sky Cinema screened it as a 12s despite the graphic sexual content. Mary Whitehouse, where are you when you’re needed?! It’s all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words

Ladies of the Chorus (1948)

Ladies of the Chorus colour reissue

Her mother is a one-man security council. Single mother Mae Martin (Adele Jergens) and her daughter Peggy (Marilyn Monroe) are Broadway showgirls performing in the same show. But when the lead performer Bubbles La Rue (Marjorie Hoshelle, uncredited) in the burlesque walks out, Peggy finds herself catapulted to overnight fame as the star attraction of the revue. May tries to advise her about people who might try to take advantage of her, including her new socialite boyfriend, Randy Carroll (Rand Brooks) because of a similar experience that befell her back in the day. Peggy falls for him anyway, and he quickly proposes marriage. But he has difficulty telling his own mother (Nana Bryant) about his fiancée’s background and Mae decides against revealing the truth about their showbiz life when the future in-laws finally meet … When are you going to let me feel grown up? Written by Joseph Carole and Harry Sauber, this B movie was Monroe’s first big role and also her ticket out of Columbia Pictures – to looking for another studio contract. While she acquits herself reasonably well in this conventional story of the star is born variety, there is no true sign of the real-life star she would become four years later once she had taken more acting classes and perfected other facets of her screen persona:  that performance is yet to be matched to the specific look she would refine to her own inimitable affect and there are a couple of shots of her in repose that are downright unflattering. Nonetheless she gets to demonstrate her singing and dancing chops as the burlesque queen facing a dilemma. Jergens seems crazy young to be her mother (she was nine years Monroe’s senior) but her situation is explained in a flashback and she takes off her wig several times revealing supposedly grey hair beneath, to dramatic effect. Bryant gets to play the equal opportunities mother-in-law who spins a nice ending out of the setup. There’s a frankly odd number involving dolls and an utterly weird entrance by an interior decorator with a small soundalike ‘son’. Directed by Phil Karlson.  You’re never too old to do what you did

School for Scoundrels (1960)

School for Scoundrels

Aka School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating! Lifemanship is the science of being one up on your opponents at all times. Kind but gormless twit Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) is cheated, bullied and abused by everyone he encounters – from car salesmen the Winsome Welshmen, Dunstan (Dennis Price) and Dudley Dorchester (Peter Jones ), to a restaurant head waiter (John le Mesurier) and upper-class cad Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas). Even his own employees are hoodwinking him. When the charming April Smith (Janette Scott) is stolen away from him by Delauney, Henry takes drastic action and enrols in the College of Lifemanship, run by Mr Potter (Alastair Sim) where he can learn to beat others in life through classes in Partymanship, Woomanship and general One-upmanship. Well equipped now in the means to manipulate others and get ahead, he embarks on a course of his own – revengeWe like our motor cars to go to good homes – like dogs. A sublime cast rises to the occasion for an adaptation of Stephen Potter’s books by Irish screenwriter Patricia Moyes and producer Hal E. Chester, with Carmichael going through an enlightening character arc as the hapless victim of everyone else’s ploys – until he comes up with one of his own. Sim is the usual delight while T-T is as awesomely smarmy as you’d expect. To say that Price and Jones are an utter joy as the dastardly used car salesmen is to do them a disservice. With a supremely witty score by John Addison, this is the final film directed by the great Robert Hamer who was succumbing to the alcoholism that would kill him a few years later, so some scenes were filmed by Cyril Frankel and Chester. He who is not one up is one down

The Pumpkin Eater (1964)

The Pumpkin Eater

You should see the way men look at me. They still look at me. Jo (Anne Bancroft) leaves her second husband Giles (Richard Johnson) with whom she has five children in the countryside where they live in a rundown ramshackle barn and marries his screenwriter friend, Jake Armitage (Peter Finch). She moves with six of her eight children to his big house in Hampstead while her eldest are at boarding school. She soon finds that Jake doesn’t want more children and is playing around, including with Philpott (Maggie Smith), a young woman lodging with them. When he impregnates Jo, she doesn’t tell him but reveals it to her mother at her father’s (Cedric Hardwicke) funeral.  Her mother (Rosalind Atkinson) subsequently tells Jake and he asks Jo to have an abortion. Afterwards she is approached by his colleague Bob Conway (James Mason) who informs her that his wife is now pregnant by Jake …… Perhaps sex is something you feel you must sanctify by incessant reproduction. Harold Pinter’s scrupulous adaptation of Penelope Mortimer’s landmark semi-autobiographical novel is scalpel-sharp, lethally aimed at men who are never satisfied with women – when they have children, when they have none. And the men take no responsibility for the situation, either way.  Everything is the woman’s fault. The picture of fathers is damning but fascinating, as Hardwicke and Alan Webb’s (as the elder Armitage) scenes demonstrate. This battle of the sexes drama seems relentlessly classist yet is a universal story with a terrible message for the female of the species, forever destined to be deemed slatternly mother or hopeless whore. Bancroft is harrowing and superb as the vulnerable protagonist, but so too is Finch as the self-justifying philanderer. And what startling scenes there are – Jo being confronted by a total stranger (Yootha Joyce) in the hairdresser’s after her photo is featured in a magazine; her meltdown, in Harrods, of all places!;  her mother revealing in her bereavement to an unwitting and horrified Jake that Jo is pregnant yet again;  the meeting with Conway at the zoo when he reveals that while she was having her abortion and being sterilised Jake had impregnated his wife in yet another of his endless infidelities. The sleight of hand never stops; the loneliness and emotional violence of a fecund marriage is stripped bare; while living with someone is dramatised as a gaslighting paranoia-inducing nightmare of betrayals, lies and extreme humiliation in a society where femininity is medicalised, motherhood a branch of psychiatry, civility a very thin veneer over insecurity and terminal delusion. Eric Porter as the psychiatrist to whom Jo pours out her supposed problems has a great scene, culminating in Bancroft advising him to steer clear of Tenerife for his water-skiiing holiday. It’s absurd and ridiculous and brilliantly Pinteresque. Still a deeply disturbing narrative of men and women in what is indubitably a man’s world, equality a fairytale ending never to be. Directed by Jack Clayton. All she wants is to sit in a corner and give birth

 

A Place in the Sun (1951) Titles Sequence

A Place in the Sun poster

One of the most rousingly romantic scores by Franz Waxman introduces this superb exercise in melodrama directed by George Stevens. Mike Nichols said he learned everything he needed to know about directing by watching this over and over again. Mandy Merck wrote a brilliant book about its origins, including the anti-capitalist source novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser; a failed attempt by Sergei Eisenstein to film it; an adaptation by Josef von Sternberg; and the eventual acclaimed production written by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, starring a sixteen-year old Elizabeth Taylor whose stunning beauty is matched by the legendary Montgomery Clift in scenes that literally take the breath away. If you want to remember what true star power is, watch this film. My review of the Merck book can be found here:  https://offscreen.com/view/hollywoods_american_tragedies

 

Turn the Key Softly (1953)

Turn the Key Softly

I’m saying goodbye to regulations. Well-spoken burglar Monica Marsden (Yvonne Mitchell), pretty prostitute Stella Jarvis (Joan Collins) and elderly shoplifter Granny Quilliam (Kathleen Harrison) are released from Holloway Women’s Prison on the same day and venture out in London, meeting up for an early dinner in the West End as they negotiate their first day of freedom. Monica returns to her flat where she promises her friend Joan (Dorothy Alison) not to meet up again with David (Terence Morgan), a ne’er do well for whose crime she took the fall. She secures a job in an office with a start on Monday, despite her prison record. But when she returns to the flat David is waiting for her and wines and dines her, with the promise of a night at the theatre. Stella meets up with her busdriver fiancé Bob (Glyn Houston) and promises to get a room to stay in at Canonbury but spends his money on earrings. meeting up with her former working girl friends. Granny returns to her rundown Shepherds Bush room to her beloved special friend Johnny – who turns out to be a dog – and after cooking him food visits her daughter in the suburbs to the delight of her grand daughter but they weren’t expecting her and she has to return to town where she goes for a posh dinner at Monica’s expense, champagne included. Stella takes off with a man who took a fancy to Monica on the Tube earlier, and Monica leaves in a taxi with David for an evening that she hadn’t counted on … Sooner or later they’re sure to find out. This post-war British crime drama is a fantastically atmospheric show and tell about London society and its war-damaged physicality – between rainy Leicester Square where The Snows of Kilimanjaro is playing (and La Collins would co-star with Gregory Peck within just a few short years) and the council flats sitting cheek-by-jowl with semi-derelict terraces, you can practically sniff the desperation, the spivvery and the desire for something better in the documentary-style location shooting by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Mitchell is the real star here and has the better part of the narrative which turns upon her desire for her dastardly lover who manages to deceive her once again following an afternoon in the sack;  but Harrison has a marvellous role (you just know it won’t end well) and plays it beautifully; while Collins is well cast as the good time girl who has found a decent man and she makes the most of some smartly written moments. When she makes her decision about which way to go in life there’s a decidedly odd shot at Piccadilly Circus with her former prostitute colleague featuring close on camera. It’s a terrific film for women, this exploration of an array of femininity of differing ages and types re-entering the world on its tricky terms. What starts as a kind of melodrama with a social message about stigma turns into a suspenser, high on the rooftops of a city theatre, with a rather tragic ending. Very satisfying indeed. Adapted by Maurice Cowan from John Brophy’s novel, this is written and directed by documentary veteran Jack Lee, the elder brother of novelist Laurie.

 

My Brother Jonathan (1948)

My Brother Jonathan

There’s something I should have told you a long time ago. GP Jonathan Dakers (Michael Denison) welcomes home his son Tony (Pete Murray) from WW2 and when Tony reveals he’s seen too much and is quitting medicine, Jonathan tells him the story of his real background … Early 1900s. Jonathan is the older son of shady businessman Eugene (James Robertson Justice) and brother of Harold (Ronald Howard) and falls in love at a young age with Edie (Beatrice Campbell) daughter of landed gentry but she only ever had eyes for Harold. Jonathan trains as a doctor. When the mysterious Eugene dies his real job is revealed – corset salesman. His wife (Mary Clare) is none the wiser and believes he had social significance. However he’s spent their inheritance and Jonathan undertakes to save the family home and put Harold through his final year at Cambridge, sacrificing his own potential career as a surgeon. He works in the West Midlands in the general practice of Dr John Hammond (Finlay Currie) whose daughter Rachel (Dulcie Gray) is the practice nurse and she falls in love with Jonathan but he still has eyes for Edie.  The practice clientele are working class and he has to deal with the consequences of the regular accidents at the local foundry leading him to write a critical report which is conveniently lost. He is constantly criticised and when he saves a local child from diphteria in the hospital he has to face down the owner’s son-in-law and his medical rival Dr Craig (Stephen Murray) on charges of misconduct. Edie returns from Paris and intends wedding Harold, to Jonathan’s chagrin, but WW1 is declared and Harold is killed in action, leaving Edie pregnant and in a serious dilemma because she knows her parents will disown her … It must be nice to know what you want out of life. Adapted from Francis Brett Young’s novel by Adrian Alington and Leslie Landau, this was hugely popular at the British box office and unites real-life husband and wife Denison and Gray in one of their best films. It has all the ingredients of a melodrama but is supremely well-managed, beautifully shot and gracefully performed. The social message isn’t hammered home, it carefully underlines all the choices that the idealistic protagonist makes and is skillfully drawn as this picture of changing society emerges in intertwining plots of medicine and relationships. Directed by Harold French. They only have one idea in this country and that’s disgusting

An Inspector Calls (1954)

An Inspector Calls

We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. In 1912 Inspector Poole (Alastair Sim) arrives at the wealthy Birling household as he investigates the apparent suicide that afternooon of Eva Smith (Jane Wenham), a young working-class woman. He arrives in the middle of a dinner party and slowly reveals how each family member, including stern patriarch Arthur Birling (Arthur Young) and his uptight wife, Sybil (Olga Lindo), daughter Sheila (Eileen Moore), future son-in-law Brian Worth (Gerald Croft) and finally his own son Eric (Bryan Forbes), could all have had a hand in Eva’s death…  We all started like that, so confident and pleased with ourselves, and then he started asking us questions.  J.B. Priestley’s 1945 blend of closed-room suspenser and drama of conscience is a fascinating theatrical exercise adapted by Desmond Davis retaining Priestley’s rather blustering retro-fitted comment about complacency ahead of a war that couldn’t possibly happen in those halcyon pre-WW1 days. With the casting of Sim (famously Inspector Cockrill) you know this isn’t going to play out conventionally but each family member plus Worth has their flashback to their supposed involvement and the implications grow of a politically loaded social threat:  the father set in motion the girl’s downfall because he didn’t want to pay more than subsistence wages and feared her collectivist instincts so fired her.  It’s a canny work, toying with all kinds of prejudices and fears, ultimately summoning the supernatural to extinguish the guilty parties who are all, in their way, corrupt. Directed by Guy Hamilton. You and I aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner here

 

Parasite (2019)

Parasite

Aka Gisaengchung. They are nice because they are rich. Student Min (Seo-joon Park) is going abroad and while he is away, he asks his impoverished friend Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) to tutor Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), the young girl whom he loves by take over the private tuition in English he has been doing at the Parks’ family home. Ki-woo has done the university entrance exam four times but for whatever reason – likely poverty – he has not started a course of studies.  Some bluffing is required, with documents forged by his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park) who is also something of a talented actress. Both skills will prove useful in what becomes an ambitious Kim family project in deception and subterfuge to get out of their sewage-flooded semi-basement hovel: sister Ki-jung takes over as the troubled younger son’s art teacher and his father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) replace the family chauffeur and the housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), a woman inherited from the original owner, but they cannot reveal their family connection. What nobody but Moon-gwang knows is that the architect designed a secret bunker beneath the basement. When the Parks go on a camping holiday Ki-woo and his family take up temporary residence … We don’t need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next. Even if the country gets destroyed or sold out, nobody cares. Got it? South Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho hit the awards season jackpot with this black tragicomedy about class war and resentment. It’s set up as a kind of home invasion comedy but curdles into a dramatic commentary about class difference and the gulf of understanding between the haves and have-nots, culminating in mindless murder. It’s overlong and overdone and the dénouement is clearly planted in the seething danger underscoring  Ki-taek’s face, cheeks pinpricked with anger at the boss’ comments about his subway odour, but it’s redeemed by some unexpected moments, biting lines and something of a twisted ending. Not then the work of art much-touted by many critics, rather a triumph of marketing, a social farce bearing a touch of the Downton Abbeys coupled with an overriding problem – it is simply not possible to empathise with a single character. Don’t believe the hype. Co-written with Han Jin-won.  Rich people are naive. No resentments. No creases on them

American Woman (2018)

American Woman

We’re supposed to just sit here and wait. In a small blue-collar town in Rust Belt Pennsylvania, a 32-year-old single woman Debra Callahan’s (Sienna Miller) teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes missing. Left to raise her infant grandson Jesse (Aidan McGraw/Aidan Fiske) alone, she desperately seeks the answers behind her daughter’s disappearance while her sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) and mother Peggy (Amy Madigan) lend their support but Police Detective Sergeant Morris (E. Roger Mitchell) has no leads. After years of re-training at college and abandoning her habit of sleeping with married men, indulging a horrific coercive relationship and living from hand to mouth waiting tables, she has a job in administration and a prospective younger husband Chris (Aaron Paul) whom she marries after a couple of months but eventually life comes crashing down again …You think you’re special. More than anything else, this tale of working class people concerns the pain and difficulty of single motherhood (like mother, like daughter, both teen moms) which creates a cycle of poverty, low paid work and promiscuity. The story of generational mistakes is a somewhat run of the mill and depressing exercise, not caring to particularise the different phases of femininity save in its biological underpinnings which is after all a zero-sum game:  no matter what you do, you’re wrong and you’re trapped. Melodrama is substituted for mystery and Bridget’s disappearance is all but forgotten while life is dramatised as a series of betrayals. It finally obtains a power and focus in the closing sequences when Debra achieves a meeting with her daughter’s (inevitable) killer in prison: we just see the reflection of his face on hers, before they have an unheard conversation that leads Debra to Bridget’s final resting place, buried with his other victims. She is just a number in the earth now. Ironically, Debra now looks younger than she did eleven years earlier because is no longer the trashy tramp she essayed to survive:  with an answer to what happened she has a kind of equilibrium, at last. Very well performed by a great cast – how good is it see Amy Madigan even in a small role. Miller is superb, encompassing her character’s stop-start odyssey of rage in the smallest of gestures. Written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Jake Scott. This is it Mom. The moment you’ve been waiting for for forty years