Only the Valiant (1951)

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Aka Fort Invincible. Plugged up the pass just like a cork in a bottle.  Following the Civil War in New Mexico when a vital fort guarding a mountain pass is threatened by gathering Apaches, dour West Point Captain Richard Lance (Gregory Peck) picks the most disposable bunch of malcontents and psychos to hold out until reinforcements arrive, whereupon various personal animosities bring them closer to killing him than the enemy as the Apaches cut off the water supply and they turn on each other … It’d be just as easy if the whole patrol committed suicide in there.  This tough frontier story is mainly of interest nowadays perhaps for the presence of Barbara Payton, a cult figure whose short sharp shock of a career was assisted by being involved with this film’s producer William Cagney before she went sex-mad and off the rails. Her role is mostly confined to the opening segments when her putative husband Holloway (Gig Young) rides out to his death, and she wrongly blames Lance. However it’s a really interesting piece of work that’s quite brutal in both theme and execution. Adapted by Edmund H. North and Harry Brown from a novel by Charles Marquis Warren (he would go on to become a director and created Rawhide for TV), the sense of a Fordian world (Fort Apache) is enhanced by the presence of Ward Bond, playing a seriously drunken Irish soldier always cadging people’s canteens. The reason for your presence on this patrol won’t be carried on any record book, Peck declares as he assembles his equivalent of The Dirty Dozen. There’s an amazing fistfight between two warring soldiers in front of their Indian assailants who whoop and jeer as if it’s a cockfight;  there is an explosive start to the final sequence; and the Gatling gun is introduced as a revolutionary way to cut down on soldier numbers when the cavalry finally come calling. More than a cult item after all, and while the mostly studio-bound production is sometimes hampered by odd interactions between the principals, there is striking photography and the ratcheting levels of tension are expertly maintained from the get-go. Even if Peck didn’t like this, he’s outstanding as the commander who eventually gets the respect of his extraordinarily treacherous motley crew. Watching these guys get picked off is quite the thrill. Directed by Gordon Douglas. You who know all things know nothing

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All Is True (2018)

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I’ve just bought a pension. I can’t die for at least 10 years or I’ll be ruined. It’s 1613, and Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground and he decides he will never write again. Devastated, he returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death 17 years earlier of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis) he struggles to mend the broken relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters, Hamnet’s twin sister, spirited spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappy Susanna (Lydia Wilson) who is married to a noxiously stern Puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). He is forced to examine his failings as an absent husband and father when 28-year old Judith finally gets involved with a suitor alleged to have impregnated another woman and Susanna is accused of adultery … A garden ain’t a play. Screenwriter Ben Elton has been wowing on the small screen with his very clever parody of Shakespeare in Upstart Crow but this is only occasionally in the same pantomimic vein albeit its nod/wink title (the original title for The Life of Henry VIII) toys with the idea that this is anything other than a confection of falsehoods and assumptions.  And it is a bit of a joke to start with – an old conqueror finally comes home and gets in the way of his wife and has the temerity to mess up the garden she has so carefully cultivated for the last 20 years. And then there are all those long country evenings when all you have is a candle for company. Irony is writ large here. At its heart a melancholy meditation on age, family and what you leave behind, Shakespeare is confronted with the long-hidden truth of his young son’s death, a boy whom he believed to have been greatly talented but who had actually been presenting the work of his twin, who was left unable to read and write, being but a girl. The discovery is poignant indeed. There’s a sonnet-off  (# 29) when Will is confronted with another truth – that the now elderly object of his affection Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) is not interested in him but appreciates his art. How wonderfully odd that two of the great contemporary exponents of the Bard are quoting him at each other. Anne’s feelings are nothing – when the poems were published (illegally, without Will’s consent), he never thought about her reputation or what people might say. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The bedrock of his entire life it seems has been other people and what they say – what was said of his father, what was said of him, and now, what is said about his daughters, both caught up in scandals of their own. He is a man for whom all truth is literally relative. Retirement is not easy and revelations about what happened at home when he was enjoying fame and adulation come as a shock to someone for whom all the world’s a stage and now his daughters are ruining the name he literally wrote out of disgrace to redeem his father’s blackguarding. Branagh is very good, prosthetics and all, capable of being hurt and amusing and rueful. The motifs are striking in a beautifully shot production – two fires dominate the visuals: the opening conflagration at the Globe caused by a misfiring cannon in a production co-written with John Fletcher; and the smaller one in the grate when Judith attempts to destroy what Hamnet transcribed – because Will needs to believe it was his dead son who wrote the poetry and she is guilty at being a gifted woman because he has such a low opinion of her. And Will loves the word on the page – when he sees his son’s name written in the funeral record in the local church his face comes to life. Anne chides him that when Hamnet died he was busy writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dench is wise and moving in the role of the much older wife protecting him from terrible knowledge. However the slow pace and ruminative setting, autumnal and somewhat bucolic, hide the sad drama within. It’s stunningly shot by Zac Nicholson, not just allowing us to see the wide open spaces juxtaposed with interestingly shot and lit interiors – so many dimpled with pure candlelight as the sole source – but telling us that there is always a bigger story and hinting where to look. There are funny scenes with the ridiculously ingratiating local MP Sir Thomas Lucey (Alex Macqueen) and some wild put-downs. There’s even a jibe about authorship and how it was that a man who owns up to having lived such a little life could have ended up knowing everything. Lest we forget, Elton is the best Elizabethan historian we have, when you think about Blackadder. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is very lovely. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Nothing is ever true

Little Pink House (2017)

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This land is everything I have.  In New London, Connecticut at the end of the 1990s twice-divorced paramedic Susette Kelo (Catherine Keener) renovates a little waterfront cottage overlooking the River Thames with the help of new boyfriend, antiques dealer Tim Leblanc (Callum Keith Rennie).  She finds out it’s designated for demolition in a deal the city has done with the Pfizer Corporation who want to turn the beautiful location into expensive real estate suitable for their needs. She reluctantly becomes the spokeswoman for the working class neighbourhood and endures horrendous intimidation led by Walthrop College academic Charlotte Wells (Jeanne Tripplehorn) forcing a legal battle with assistance from a free legal institution that goes all the way to the Supreme Court as her friends’ homes are bulldozed to make way for a factory manufacturing Viagra… We are only here to make this city you live in a better place.  This is an eye-opening true account of a battle about eminent domain – the compulsory acquisition of private property for development by third parties whether or not the home owners approve. That sounds dull as ditchwater but thanks to a legal decision it affects everybody. It’s truly awful to hear firefighters beating off the flames in the next door house muttering in earshot, That’s one way to get rid of her. You can only feel the wonderful Catherine Keener’s terrible fear. This biographical drama is low key but good on the law – slow moving, unfair and you have to be very quick off the mark in a society that is essentially corrupt to its core with a constant eye on the bottom line, the verbal version of that being, it’s for their own good! Rennie is terrific as the unfortunate boyfriend who endures horrific injuries in a car crash leaving him mentally and physically disabled. As if enough hadn’t gone wrong already. There is nice support from Tripplehorn as the almost caricatured double dealer who wears makeup to bed, compounding the moral chasm between her and the unshowy Keener;  and Giacomo Baessato as lawyer Scott  Bullock. The Supreme Court decision of 2005 (supported by one Donald Trump) to permit the enforced possession of people’s homes for the profit of private companies is in the same domain as the swamp occupied by that bastion of civil liberties Mark Zuckerberg – it may not be ethical but it’s sure as hell legal. Preserve us all from such fine minds. The fight continues. Written and directed by Courtney Moorehead Balaker, adapting the 2009 book by Jeff Benedict, this conveys complex information in a very accessible style.  There’s a lovely set of songs by Robin Rapsys. If you even try to take my home away from me the whole world is going to hear about it

 

 

Liz & Dick (2012) (TVM)

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He treated me like a queen and I loved his voice. God how I loved his voice.  Anyone who knows anything about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton knows one thing above all else – they were never called Liz and Dick. Nobody would have dared. That aside, this is a gloriously kitschy exercise in flashback framed by an interview with them (that never happened in reality and culled from the many letters and notes Burton wrote to Taylor) in which they discuss their fatal attraction on the set of Cleopatra in 1962 , their subsequent adulterous relationship despite having children in their respective marriages, living together and making The VIPs and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  (Taylor insisted), tricky divorces, their wedding, their peripatetic lifestyle and decision to live on a boat because of the living expenses of two families travelling from set to set and regular house moves in the middle of a never-ending international paparazzi hunt.  It’s all here, with the immensely welcome if odd presence of the great Theresa Russell as Taylor’s mother Sara. Surely some mistake. Punctuated by fabulous jewellery, newspaper headlines, make-ups and bust-ups, heavy drinking, Taylor’s weight gain, Burton’s jealousy of her Academy Awards, the need to make films to solve financial problems and finally Burton’s alleged affair with Nathalie Delon which drove Taylor to a supposed assignation with Aristotle Onassis – at the centre of the chaos and tantrums is a couple whose sexual attraction to one another is overwhelming and quite incomprehensible to other people (a truism for most couples – the only thing these icons ever shared with mere mortals). What we have outside of the relationship is the nature of celebrity as it simply didn’t exist prior to this scandalous duo whose newsworthy antics even attracted the ire of the Vatican (‘erotic vagrancy’). Hello Lumpy! Lohan was roundly criticised for her portrayal and it’s true she doesn’t actually sound, look or move like Taylor but boy does she revel in the lines, like, Elizabeth wants to play. Strangely, she convinces more as the older Taylor with the frightwig and makeup. Bowler is adequate as Burton (even without the disproportionately large head) and underplays him quite well, but what is essential is what surrounds them – glamour, beauty, incredible locations. They literally had a dream of a life. What is clear in this evocation of the Battling Burtons is their need for constant reassurance and the one-upmanship resulting from their shared drive to always do better to keep on an even keel. I will love you even if you get as fat as a hippo. Burton’s descent into full-blown alcoholism upon the death of his brother Ifor (David Hunt) following a desperate fall in their home in Switzerland is the pivot to the real conclusion of the famous relationship, a second short-lived marriage following one of Taylor’s serious illnesses notwithstanding. There are a lot of books about them but if you want to see something as crazy, turbulent and tragic as they seem to have been, watch this. It’s wonderfully made, completely daft and utterly compelling. Written by Christopher Monger and directed by Lloyd Kramer. I want more

 

The Hired Hand (1971)

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You mean you ain’t gonna go to the coast? It’s the 1880s. After seven years wandering in the Southwest during which young travelling companion Griffen (Robert Pratt) is murdered for the hell of it in a small town run by corrupt sheriff McVey (Severn Darden), drifting cowboy Harry Collings (Peter Fonda) abandons his dream of going to California and seeing the Pacific and brings along his friend Arch Harris (Warren Oates) when he returns to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and ranch … I wasn’t ready, that’s all. With its dreamy opening, unconventional mid-section and leisurely approach, debut director Peter Fonda was given free rein (following Easy Rider) with this Alan Sharp screenplay, Vilmos Zsigmond supplying beautifully naturalistic imagery edited into something of an occasionally hallucinatory montage by Frank Mazzola. The performances are a wonder. We are more accustomed to seeing Oates directed by Sam Peckinpah and here he is sympathetic and wise, a diametric opposite to the innocence embodied by the tragic Griffen. Then he unwittingly forms part of a new triangle with his friend’s wife. The marvellous Bloom meanwhile hints at a depth of narrative that doesn’t always reveal itself on the simple surface. She’s a frontier woman who didn’t replace a dog that’s run off – but she has herself had relations with other men during her husband’s walkabout, crudely describing the experiences as “like two dogs.” She’s one tough cookie and Bloom herself (Medium Cool, High Plains Drifter, National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Last Temptation of Christ) was a hell of an actress: she died in January of this year. The idea of a marriage being revisited is tested not just in the situation but in the visuals, as this younger husband has finally become the man his older wife needed, quietly reinventing their relationship. He’s what you went looking for. It’s not just about romance, it’s also about friendship and loyalty, travelling, hanging out, being – no doubt virtues of hippiedom mostly lost to us in the chatter of contemporary life, albeit this trip can be cut short by sudden violence, a constant trope in the most American of genres. The songs by Bruce Langhorne assist the mystical, even spiritual feel, enhanced by the cutting out of 20 minutes of more explanatory story, restored and then removed again for the 2001 re-release by its still centre, Fonda himself, who understands that the film operates like meditation.  But the beginning, and the conclusion, the alpha and the omega, as it were, are disturbing, the spectre of uneasy death all-pervasive. It’s been building up a long while

The Left-Handed Gun (1958)

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You’re not like the books! You don’t wear silver studs! You don’t stand up to glory! You’re not him! Volatile young drifter and gunfighter William Bonney (Paul Newman) works for kindly Lincoln County rancher John Tunstall aka ‘The Englishman’ (Colin Keith-Johnston) and they develop an unbreakable bond. When Tunstall is murdered by a corrupt sheriff and his cronies because he was about to supply beef to the local military company, a distraught Billy swears revenge and goes on a rampage through the New Mexico Territory, endangering the General Amnesty established by Governor Lew Wallace. Billy finally guns down all the men who killed Tunstall – but in the process he endangers the life of his old friend Pat Garrett (John Dehner), who is about to be married and doesn’t take kindly to the Kid’s erratic behaviour and vows to hunt him down as newly appointed sheriff ... One shot – one ten cent bullet, and that’s it! Gore Vidal’s 1955 Philco Playhouse TV feature gets the big screen treatment by screenwriter Leslie Stevens with Arthur Penn making his directing debut and Newman inheriting a(nother) role that James Dean was expected to play (and which Newman had played in the TV episode). Occupying that space between the psychological western and authentic approach to biography it’s a revisionist exercise that’s not 100% successful but remains a fascinating picture of Fifties acting styles as well as being a rather beautiful historical narrative. You been called. Newman plays Billy as a juvenile delinquent, a typically doomed misunderstood teen of the era who loses it when his substitute father is killed but it’s the underwritten edges he can’t quite fill out, ironically making his character all the more credible because this is all about perceptions of the heroic.  There’s nice support from Lita Milan as Celsa, Dehner as the conflicted Garrett, James Best as Tom Follard and especially Hurd Hatfield as Moultrie the travelling companion who transforms Billy’s life into a series of dime store novels that Billy can’t read and who ultimately betrays him. Got myself all killed. A dramatically arresting and visually striking, much imitated taste of things to come from all concerned, not least of which would be Penn’s own Bonnie and ClydeI don’t run. I don’t hide. I go where I want. I DO what I want!

Georgy Girl (1966)

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Twenty-two and never been kissed. Pathetic, isn’t it. Wannabe singer Georgina (Lynn Redgrave) is a carefree and childlike frumpy 22-year-old who finds more joy in her relationships with children than with the adults in her life. Her parents’ wealthy employer James Leamington (James Mason), proposes that she become his mistress but Georgy avoids giving him an answer, as the idea of romance confuses her.  She feels a little jealous of her fecklessly trampy roommate the beautiful violinist Meredith (Charlotte Rampling) who keeps getting pregnant by boyfriend Jos (Alan Bates) and aborting the results. Jos finds himself attracted to Georgy but Meredith wants marriage in order to have his child. When Georgy finds herself the caretaker of Meredith’s unwanted baby girl, she seeks to find a way to shoulder the new responsibility while fending off a more permanent attachment ... She’s like some enormous lorry driver. Adapted by the late Margaret Forster from her own novel with Peter Nichols, this is one of the best British films of the Sixties, a piquant black comedy featuring an outstanding performance from Redgrave whose expressions ranging from pantomime horror to wounded calf are worthy of Gish. Mason too is at his very best in one of his (regular) comebacks in his portrait of a lascivious man who simply will have what he wants, society be damned. Bates is terrific as the chauffeur who can’t help himself with Meredith, whose astringent portrayal by Rampling is like a shot of arsenic in the mix, the amoral Swinging Sixties girl incarnate. Frank, funny and terribly familiar, this is just fantastic. Redgrave’s real-life mother Rachel Kempson plays Mason’s wife. And there’s that song! Directed by Silvio Narizzano.  The trouble with you is that you could say you’re a good girl

The Children Act (2017)

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Life is more precious than dignity. London High Court judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) must decide if she should order a life-saving blood transfusion for a teen with leukaemia Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead) despite his parents’ (Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh) refusal to accept medical treatment because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Fiona’s home life adds extra pressure to the decision-making – she is deep in the middle of a marital crisis because her academic husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) declares his wish to pursue an affair with a colleague. She decides she must do something unconventional during the court case and pays a visit to Adam in hospital … Don’t you remember how we were? Don’t you miss that? This issue film is adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel and boasts a stunning performance from Thompson as the woman daily challenged by ethical matters which have life-enhancing (or -ending) consequences. Richard Eyre directs with customary rigour and nuance in beautifully photographed settings in the Law courts and the English countryside but it feels somewhat like flogging a dead horse, as it were, failing to offer a robust counter-argument to the rationale of assisting a person in peril, making Thompson’s Herculean efforts seem somewhat … in vein?! Perhaps it’s a topic better suited to the likes of Jodi Picoult but the interesting plot turn which suggests a much deeper seam of emotion is not exploited as deeply as one would hope. This court is a court of law not of morals

Kinsey (2004)

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Are my answers typical? Professor Alfred ‘Prok’ Kinsey (Liam Neeson) is interviewed about his sexual history by one of his graduate students Clyde Martin (Sarsgaard) and reflects on how he became the author of famous studies of modern Americans’ sexual behaviour. He grew up in a repressed household headed by Alfred Seguine Kinsey (John Lithgow) and disobeyed him to study biology and became a lecturer, marrying his student Mac (Laura Linney). After completing his study of gall wasp behaviour and addressing the sexual issues within his own marriage his advice is sought by students and he begins teaching a sex ed course that raises questions he cannot answer.  He devises a questionnaire to find out what passes for normal activity among his students but soon realises that 100 completed documents are not remotely sufficient.  He commences a countrywide research project in which he taxonomises sexual behaviour inside and outside average marriages and subgroups like homosexuals at a time when all these things are illegal in several states … The forces of chastity are massing again. Writer/director Bill Condon’s biography of the famed sex researcher whose reports rocked midcentury America is careful, detailed and filled with good performances (appropriately). Both Linney and Neeson contribute complete characters and their respective realisation that Clyde wants to seduce Prok are extremely touching and when you consider it’s established in a phonecall it’s all the more affecting. Their marriage is a profile of the parameters of this study – until things become more extreme and the grad students carrying out the research offer their own services to be recorded. The issue of agreed infidelity and extra-marital sex is just one of the common behavioural tics dealt with here and deftly personalised. There are of course some limits to even these sexologists’ tolerance – and Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell) storms out when a particularly noxious individual (William Sadler) decides to regale him and Kinsey about his incest, bestiality and more, including incidents with pre-adolescent children. There are some abusive perversions that are just too tough to take. Word about the nature of the team’s methodologies gets out and their funding is cut by the Rockefeller Foundation, an issue that is particularly effective as a narrative device because it reminds us of the real-world difficulties in securing funding and the consequences that not funding this particular study might have had – its far-reaching insights into human behaviour in a highly censorious era was groundbreaking.  Oliver Platt is particularly good as the genial Herman Wells, President of the University at Bloomington whose support of the controversial work is so important. The confrontational nature of the film doesn’t descend to pornography chiefly because the humanity of the protagonists – and that of the study’s participants – is carefully graphed against the social norms. The topper to Alfred Senior’s difficult relationship with his son is very sad and crystallises the reasons behind his bullying, a habit Prock has inherited and replays with his own son Bruce (Luke MacFarlane) over mealtimes. At this point we don’t need any lectures on nature versus nurture or gene theory. The coda is a wonderful exchange between Kinsey and his latest interview subject played by Lynn Redgrave. It’s a marvellous conclusion to a remarkable film that deals with biology, family and the life force. A very satisfying experience. Where love is concerned we’re all in the dark

The Arrangement (1969)

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What happened to you, Eddie? Must kill you to think what you might have been. Eddie Anderson born Evangelos Arness (Kirk Douglas) is a Greek-American advertising executive who drives off the LA freeway in the morning traffic and into a tunnel and ducks his head as he goes straight under a truck. He is suicidally unhappy in his work, his marriage to Florence (Deborah Kerr) and his affair with a liberated woman ad exec Gwen (Faye Dunaway) who seems to be involved with someone else. His colleagues led by Arthur (Hume Cronyn) try to figure out how to lure him back to work using a psychiatrist (Harold Gould)  to help him work through his issues while his ageing father Sam (Richard Boone) manipulates him from a distance. However a spell in a mental hospital looms when he shows up with a gunshot wound and refuses to say how it happened … I want you to sell that house. And sell that place in the desert. Sell the cars, the paintings, that Bulgarian statue in the garden. Sell the books, the records, deep freezer, everything! Look, I’m the head of the house, that’s an order: sell it!  An adman in late Sixties Los Angeles letting it all hang out and going off the rails as he comes to terms with his double life and his obscure origins. Sounds familiar? Yes, it reeks of the themes and especially the concluding season of Mad Men, that astonishing TV portrait of midcentury masculinity. It will take some brain power without benefit of prior knowledge to work out that this muddled mor(t)ality tale is the work of Elia Kazan, that unparalleled interpreter of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge on both stage and screen.  Not only is he the director, he wrote the (supposedly quasi autobiographical) novel on which it is based so you can’t even blame someone else for confused writing. You may then prefer the electively mute Douglas post-car wreck to the one that actively engages with his alter ego – the sight of Kirk lounging atop an upright piano while his other self blithely tinkles the keys may just make you bust a gut. Michelle Pfeiffer he ain’t. Kerr has a thankless role but ironically comes out of this respectably – a concerned wife finally sick of the arrangement that lets her free loving husband do exactly as he pleases with his mistress. Dunaway smirks her way through the film with funny tinted spectacles so goodness only knows what’s going on there. Maybe she knew she was playing Barbara Loden, Kazan’s second wife, an actress whom she had understudied for the Marilyn Monroe role in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. Unlike Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road which expertly keeps the sense of mixed up timelines clear with a dramatic and emotional logic, this is a mishmash of cod psychology, family history and Freudian sex soup which does nobody’s reputation any favours but for all that … it’s fascinating, a good story, dreadfully told. The screwing I’m getting is not worth the screwing I’m getting