Flashdance (1983)

It’s her social security number, asshole – she works for you! Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) is an eighteen year old juggling two odd jobs in Pittsburgh – welding by day at a steel mill, dancing by night in a working men’s club. But she aspires to become a successful ballet dancer. Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri) is her boss and he becomes her lover and he supports and encourages her to fulfill her dream; so does her mentor Hanna Long (Lilia Skala) a retired ballerina who once danced in the Ziegfeld Follies. Her best friends are Jeanie (Sunny Johnson) a waitress and an aspiring ice skater and Jeanie’s boyfriend Richie (Kyle T. Heffner) who works as a short order cook but dreams of making it as a stand up comic and going to Hollywood. Alex is afraid to push herself when she sees that fellow competitors for Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory have years of training and it takes her friends’ botched efforts and a nudge in the right direction to make her take that big step towards her future … Dreaming is wonderful but it won’t put you closer to what you want. This was a cultural phenomenon back in the day and it’s the music video dream brought to life via the extraordinary backlit cinematography (by Donald Peterman) favoured by auteur Adrian Lyne, a simple plot borrowed from the backstage musicals of Busby Berkeley and the most thumping soundtrack ever dreamed up for the screen. And it is a dream, this story of a beautiful teen who fears failure but keeps on truckin’ and despite the huge warehouse loft apartment, the amazing figure and the somewhat grave demeanour, she’s oddly relatable precisely because she lacks confidence and gets around on a racing bike. Beals is a wonderfully charismatic performer who looks good in or partly out of clothes. Her casual attitude to what she wears is disarming, particularly when she takes off her tux in front of Nouri’s ex Katie (Belinda Bauer) and we see underneath is a fake shirt and it’s backless and barely there. Somehow everything she does feels empowering and sexy. There was some controversy stirred up over the fact that the dancer who (clearly!) performs the electrifying routines for Beals, Marine Jahan, was mysteriously uncredited and she called out the producers herself but it didn’t stop this going gonzo at the box office.  Super Bowl XXI made up for it when she was the featured dancer in the half-time performance. (Sharon Shapiro did the body flips but no word on any further acknowledgement). The soundtrack is by Giorgio Moroder with the songs led by Irene Cara’s What a Feeling, doing for this what her theme for Fame did for that other sassy youthful production with a dark side and legwarmers. This is what feminism looked like in 1983 and it’s hot stuff, if you ask me.  The first collaboration between producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, this fabulous fairytale was written by Tom Hedley and Joe Eszterhas from Hedley’s story and directed by Lyne, a man who clearly loves women. Don’t you understand? When you give up your dream you die

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

There is no whole thing. You have to make it work. Divorced thirtysomething recruitment agent Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson) begins a romantic relationship with glamorous sculptor Bob Elkin (Murray Head), aware that he’s also intimately involved with lonely middle-aged Jewish doctor Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch).  Bob takes off from the weekend babysitting for Alex’s friends the Hodsons (Vivian Pickles and Frank Windsor) in order to spend time with Daniel. The younger man represents a break with the pasts of both Bob’s older lovers, and neither is willing to let go of the love and vitality he brings to their mundane lives although he’s planning to leave for New York … I know you’re not getting enough of me but you’re getting all there is. Film critic Penelope Gilliatt’s screenplay, suggested by material she plumbed in her novel One by One, is a deep delve into the compromises and deceptions people make in order to have a little happiness. The North London setting with its population of slightly boho middle class types conceals the fact that the story is told rather cleverly, through the shared answering service, tales that Daniel is told by his patients, the insights of the precocious children Alex is minding and her mother’s truisms about marriage. The autumnal scenes carving out a season of political unrest hint at the melancholy truth that these are people who live in fear of rejection, hesitant about commitment, afraid to make a permanent display of emotion in a film which wears its protagonists’ pathology on its shirt sleeve, a patina of loss.  It’s amusing to see both Alex and Daniel cruise past Bob’s flat late at night, fearful there might be yet another person claiming his affection. Alongside the brilliant performances of the leads, with Finch a standout, there’s legendary silent actress Bessie Love as an answering service operator; Tony Britton in search of a job and winding up with a one night stand; and a very young Daniel Day-Lewis as a car vandal. How apposite for Jon Finch to be hustling his namesake, narrowly avoiding a late night arrest in Piccadilly Circus. Directed by John Schlesinger, whose best film this is, about a world he fully inhabits. He also contributed to the screenplay for this landmark in gay representation, along with David Sherwin and Ken Levison, who are thanked for their assistance in the credits. Some people believe something is better than nothing, but I’m beginning to believe that nothing can be better than something

Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019)

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

Aka Portrait de la jenue fille en feu. Will you be able to paint her? Painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is instructing a class of art students in Paris. They ask her about the origins of a painting and she reminisces: France, 1770. Marianne is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) a young woman who has just left the convent and is at home on a remote island off the coast of Brittany. She is a reluctant bride to be and her mother the countess (Valeria Golino) wants Marianne to paint her portrait in secret for an arranged marriage to a nobleman suitor in Milan whose visual approval is required. The last male artist failed in his mission and Marianne must study Héloïse without her knowing. Marianne accompanies her on her daily walk under the pretence of being her companion but observes her carefully and paints her secretly. Is that how you see me? When she reveals her identity and Héloïse dislikes the portrait Marianne destroys it, to the rage of the countess who goes away for a while as long as Marianne agrees to do another portrait, this time with her subject’s full co-operation. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s. The women fall in love and Héloïse reads Orpheus and Eurydice by firelight to Marianne and Héloïse’s servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) whose pregnancy the women help to end. As Marianne finishes the portrait and the countess is returning they must accept what happens next … Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth. French writer/director Céline Sciamma’s historical romance is stately, elegant and well framed:  this is a picture of female solidarity and love, grounded in the most obvious of ideas – the female gaze in a patriarchal world – in a film about looking and perception. We are going to paint. This is about turning around and acknowledging and engaging with what you see – and making a choice. The performers look and watch and are passive aggressive as society dictates they must be with their taboo affair, illuminating each other’s lives in secret. How people see each other has rarely been so truthfully portrayed. A profound, at times magical, meditation on what it means to be a woman, this is beautifully and carefully staged, with nothing excessive or ornamental and driven by stunning performances. The digital cinematography by Claire Mathon is so exquisite there are candlelit scenes you will want to reach out and touch and hang on your wall. This show and tell is far from still life. If you look at me, who do I look at?

Midsommar (2019)

Midsommar

Welcome home. When her sister kills their parents in a murder-suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, psychology student Dani (Florence Pugh) tries to repair her relationship with cultural anthropology student Christian (Jack Reynor) who’s been trying to break up with her and is taking off to Sweden with classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren. He has invited Christian and their colleagues Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) for a traditional pagan festival held just once every 90 years. Dani decides to guilt trip Christian into asking her along. When they get there they are disoriented by the permanent daylight, drugged, separated from one another and gradually start to disappear, leaving just Dani to be made May Queen and Christian to perform a very special service… All of our oracles are deliberate products of inbreeding. Writer/director Ari (Hereditary) Aster was offered the opportunity to do a Swedish slasher film but chose to make this instead, a variation on The Wicker Man but with a gang of stupid students instead of one innocent policeman, succumbing to the lure of ancient rituals which are just a cover for sex, incest and murder. As in all horror movies, when people go missing nobody thinks of going for help or contacting the police. They hang around until they are murdered and disembowelled, their body parts reassembled with flowers stuck in their eye sockets. Pugh holds it together in yet another unflattering wardrobe (will someone please dress her properly in one of her films?!); while Reynor is the dumb selfish schmuck ignoring all rational ideas in favour of writing up a thesis. Undoubtedly stylish, this is pretentious and absurdly overlong at 140 minutes and an exploitation film in all but name if the nudists crowing over a copulating couple of ginger mingers are anything to go by. If this doesn’t put you off group activities, religion or Scandinavians, nothing will. I can see you possibly doing that

The Sleeping Tiger (1954)

The Sleeping Tiger

He’s wrong. People are born the way they are. When brash young thug Frank Clemmons (Dirk Bogarde) attempts to rob psychiatrist Clive Esmond (Alexander Knox), the doctor surprisingly gains the upper hand. Instead of sending Frank to prison, Clive offers to have the criminal stay at his home, where he’ll attempt to reform the delinquent via in-depth analysis.  Esmond’s assistant Carol (Maxine Audley) is very wary of the guy. Settling into the doctor’s house, Clive meets Esmond’s wife, Glenda (Alexis Smith), who arrives back early from a holiday and initially dislikes her coarse guest who warns the housemaid Sally (Patricia McCarron) not to leave, instilling fear in the young woman. When Glenda begins to fall for Frank, intense conflict ensues and he returns to his old ways before introducing her to a different kind of life but the police Inspector (Hugh Griffith) returns to the property every time Clemmons is identified at the scene of a crime and Esmond proves too willing to provide an alibi…  He’s got courage. Under that bravado of his there’s something rather appealing. This erotically charged tale of crime, psychoanalysis and adulterous sex is the British debut of blacklisted director Joseph Losey who was forced to ‘borrow’ the name of Victor Hanbury for exhibition purposes. It’s twisted into a coil of jeopardy and perversion as Bogarde seems to bring out the worst in others – to his own chagrin as he realises halfway through when Smith’s psychopathology becomes clear during a chase with the police. There’s a look in his eyes, cast toward the passenger window, that expresses everything: what kind of married couple did he disturb?!  I wish I were a man, declares Smith through gritted teeth. Her past is another country too. The title isn’t just her lover’s own sorry backstory as a boy abandoned to a wicked stepmother, it also refers to what’s going on in Smith’s head as she responds to the interloper in their midst who seems to be gaming her husband – but the revelations of each character’s weakness is set against a crime thriller drama, with a Gothic staircase providing the scene for many confrontations and Bogarde’s bedroom and the horse riding enjoyed by the troubled pair giving this an electric and lurid charge. His and Smith’s feline barbs can only end in one way. The final images are superbly literal in a story where the doctor might actually know what he’s talking about. That’s young Billie Whitelaw in the office Bogarde holds up. Adapted from Maurice Moiseiwitsch’s novel by ‘Derek Frye’ a pseudonym that was created as cover for blacklisted screenwriters Harold Buchman and Carl Foreman. Made at Nettlefold Studios. Maybe you shouldn’t tamper with people

A Man About the House (1947)

A Man About the House 1947

It may be an advantage to have a man about the house. The unmarried British Isit sisters Agnes (Margaret Johnston) and Ellen (Dulcie Gray) unexpectedly inherit their uncle’s Italian villa and have to deal with his sinister major-domo Salvatore (Kieron Moore) who manages the villa and vineyard. Agnes is overwhelmed by him and they marry, so he ends up owning the estate that once belonged to his family, believing Agnes to be the sole inheritor. Ellen’s suspicions are aroused when Agnes’s health begins to deteriorate and she consults Agnes’s former fiancé, visiting English doctor Benjamin Dench (Guy Middleton) …  Spinsters aren’t safe with such a man. A fun Gothic melodrama with an early opportunity to see Gina Lollobrigida in English-language cinema the year she came third in the Miss Italia pageant. Moore had played Salvatore in the theatre production of Francis Brett Young’s 1942 novel (which is adapted here by J.B. Williams) and he relishes his badness here – his speechifying about the differences between dried up Italian women and young unmarried Englishwomen has to be heard to be believed. Watching the sisters’ emotional unfurling as the vines are harvested is well done, their suppressed instincts vividly described against the emotional Italians nicely gauged in montages and changes of hair and costume.  It’s supremely ironic that it’s the stiff upper lipped older sister played by (the frankly weird) Johnston who succumbs to the determinedly sexual lure of the sleazy butler with murder in mind. Directed by Leslie Arliss. It is our duty as Englishwomen to set an example and not succumb to their lax foreign ways

 

 

The End of the Affair (1955)

The End of the Affair 1955

Trust is a variable quality. London during World War 2. Novelist Maurice Bendrix (Van Johnson) meets Sarah Miles (Deborah Kerr) the wife of civil servant Henry Miles (Peter Cushing) at their sherry party. He is asking Henry for information to help with his next book. Maurice is intrigued by Sarah after he sees her kissing another man. They become lovers that night at his hotel. After his rooms are bombed when they are together there, she ends their relationship and he suffers from the delayed shock from the bombing and from her ending the affair. After their break-up and the end of the war, Bendrix encounters Henry, who invites him for a drink at his home, especially since Sarah is out.  Henry confides that he suspects Sarah is unfaithful and has looked into engaging a private investigator, but then decides against it. Sarah returns home before Bendrix leaves and is curt with him. Bendrix follows through with hiring a private detective agency on his own account. They come across information which suggests that Sarah is being unfaithful, which Bendrix shares with Henry in revenge. Bendrix then obtains Sarah’s diary via the private investigator Albert Parkis (John Mills) which reveals that Sarah is not having an affair and that she promised God to give Bendrix up if he was spared death in the bombing. Then they meet again … I’ve learned that you must pray like you make love – with everything you have. A deeply felt narrative revolving around love, sex and religious belief sounds like a melodramatic quagmire but Lenore Coffee’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1951 semi-autobiographical novel is a rich textured work with impressive performances by the entire cast. Kerr and Johnson might be perceived to be something of a mismatch but that’s the point of the story:  he is fated to forever misunderstand her and as he tries to navigate his way through her complex emotions and her deals with God, he responds with just one emotion – jealousy. His unruly misunderstanding in a world of good manners and looking the other way means he flails hopelessly while we are then persuaded of her beliefs via her diary, the contents of which dominate the film’s second half, leading him to regret his desire for revenge. Love doesn’t end just because we don’t see each other. The ensemble is well presented and their individual big moments are sketches of superb characterisation, Mills’ pride in his snooping a particular highlight. It’s extraordinarily well done, very touching and filled with moments of truth which never fail to hit home in a story that is cunningly managed and beautifully tempered with empathy. Kerr is simply great. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. The ‘not done’ things are done every day. I’ve done most of them myself

The Upturned Glass (1946)

The Upturned Glass

The man who is prepared to pursue his own ethical convictions even to the point of murder. Prosperous British neurosurgeon Michael Joyce (James Mason) falls in love with the married mother Emma Wright (Rosamund John) of a girl Ann (Ann Stephens) he saves in an operation. They carry on an affair which she abruptly terminates. When Emma falls to her death from the bedroom window of her holiday home Michael notices at the inquest that her shrewish sister-in-law Kate Wright (Pamela Kellino) is guiding Ann’s answers and comes to realise she is implicated in the death of the woman he loved. He swears revenge and initiates a relationship with Kate who he discovers is deeply greedy but he feels compelled to talk about the case at one of his regular medical school lectures … A doctor dispenses death and healing with blind impartiality. Mason gets to unleash both sadistic and masochistic elements of performance in this wonderfully complex and brilliantly told melodrama of love and vanity, obsession, passion and revenge, a project he and his wife Kellino dreamed up for themselves (having started out as a chronicle of the Brontë family under the same title!). Kellino’s co-writer Jno P. Monaghan, an American serviceman, has a small role as an American soldier who encounters Mason stuck on the road in a car with Kellino’s body inside. It’s a glossily made noir with a truly inspired storytelling style – the framing story becomes something else:  a subtle and unwitting confession by a reliable narrator! Talk about fatalistic! – and it’s glossily shot. A disarming film with a really amazing philosophy unspooling behind the narrative, with Dr Farrell  (Brefni O’Rorke) there to provide the killer psychological blow after a redeeming surgery takes place. Kellino is a revelation – a nasty piece of work who elicits sympathy; while Stephens is the image of Irish actress Jessie Buckley which is a little disturbing in a 75-year old film because she too was a singer and made a classic recording of Teddy Bear’s Picnic. She would make another film with this director, Lawrence Huntington, The Franchise Affair. She died shockingly young, aged 35 in 1966. Produced by Mason with Betty Box and Sydney Box. Man doesn’t have any generous feelings – he only thinks he has. Selfishness, habit and hard cash – those are his real motives

City That Never Sleeps (1953)

City That Never Sleeps

I could make a big man out of you. Disillusioned Chicago cop Johnny Kelly (Gig Young) wants to quit the force and make a new life with strip tclub performer Sally ‘Angel Face’ Connors (Mala Powers), leaving wife Kathy (Paula Raymond) who tells her father-in-law, Sgt. John Kelly Senior (Otto Hulett) she suspects Johnny might be planning on leaving the Chicago PD and believes he can’t stand being outearned by her. Johnny meets big wheel corrupt DA Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold) who blackmails him into transporting former magician now thief Hayes Stewart (William Talman) after a setup later that night across state lines into Indiana because Johnny’s little brother Stubby (Ron Hagerthy) a former bellboy is now involved in his rackets. What Biddel doesn’t know is that his wife Lydia  (Marie Windsor) and Stewart are having an affair and he is being set up instead with Stubby being used as his accomplice in that night’s theft. When John Sr takes Johnny’s call he ends up getting caught in the crossfire …. What he needs is a lesson in ethics. An awesome cult item full of bruised poetry, astonishing camera setups by John (Psycho) Russell, surprising plot twists and pleasurable performances. There are self-conscious references to The Blue Angel; a voiceover out of Dragnet from Chill Wills, Young’s insightful partner for the evening; and Young’s own ‘sour’ character tipping into masochism and creating a bristling set of disarming consequences for all concerned. The screenplay by Steve Fisher has the tropes of a police procedural but it reaches into the gutter and exposes the viscera of desire in the most amazing ways with a Mechanical Man (Wally Cassell) bearing witness to murder from a nightclub window and a chase to the death along the Chicago El. What a film! Directed by John Auer. Restored by Martin Scorsese and shown by that invaluable channel, Talking Pictures. You are sick inside Johnny. Something inside you is all fouled up

Wings of Desire (1987)

Wings of Desire UK

Aka  Der Himmel Über Berlin / The Heaven Over Berlin / The Sky Over Berlin. Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun just a dream? Isn’t what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world? Two angels, kindred spirits Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), glide through the streets of Berlin, observing the bustling population, providing invisible rays of hope to the distressed but never interacting with them. They are only visible to children and other people who like them. When Damiel falls in love with wistful lonely trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin) whose circus has closed due to financial problems, he tires of his surveillance job and longs to experience life in the physical world. With words of wisdom from actor Peter Falk (playing himself) performing in a WW2 thriller whose cast and crew the angels are observing – he believes it might be possible for him to take human form and enter history ... We are now the times. Not only the whole town – the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are now more than us two. We incarnate something. We’re representing the people now. And the whole place is full of those who are dreaming the same dream. We are deciding everyone’s game. I am ready. Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your handThis beautiful benign allegory of the divided city of Berlin is of course clear to anyone familiar with the practices of the Stasi, who deployed one half of the East German population to spy on the other half:  when the Wall came down and the files were opened families and friendships were torn asunder. However a few years before that occurred, director Wim Wenders plugs into the nightmare of watching and being watched and makes it into a surreal dream in this romantic fantasy. I can’t see you but I know you’re here. It’s verging on noir with its portrait of a place riven by war and totalitarian rule, its acknowledging of the Holocaust and the overview of the Wall snaking through a post-war world. You can’t get lost. You always end up at the Wall.  A poetic film that’s so much of its time yet its yearning humanity is palpable, its message one of eternal hope. Shot in stunning monochrome by Henri Alekan, brought out of retirement and for whom the circus is named. I’m taking the plunge. Written by Peter Handke, for all the fallen angels on the outside looking in. Co-written by Wenders with additions by Richard Reitinger, loosely inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems. An exquisite city symphony that insists on the disrupting of image making, bearing witness, choosing life. With Curt Bois as Homer and Crime and the City Solution and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform.  Must I give up now? If I do give up, then mankind will lose its storyteller. And if mankind once loses its storyteller, then it will lose its childhood